Friday, January 19, 2007

Word Nerdery

There was a 'Dictionary of Highly Unusual Words' lying around the office, so I snaffled it to have a look at over the weekend. Compiled by Irwin M. Berent and Rod L. Evans, it's quite a decent little collection of strange word arcana, with a healthy smattering of palindromes, anagrams, acronyms, and puns.

The puns are usually very bad; the entry for 'Lawsuit' reads 'A police officer's uniform'; while the entry for 'Falsehood' reads 'A phony gangster?'. There are curious facts about a number of words: the Dutch town called 'Leeuwarden', according to Berent and Evans, has 'since 1046 ... had 225 different spellings.' There is in fact a whole class of entries about place names. 'Lazbuddie', in Texas, was apparently created from the nicknames of two local rangers, 'D. L. "Laz" Green and A. "Buddie" Shirley." The city 'Florala' is so named, apparently, because it sits on the state line between Florida and Alabama. We also learn that the inhabitants of 'Lawrence, Massachusetts' call themselves Lawrencians, but the inhabitants of 'Lawrence, Kansas' call themselves Lawrentians. I'm glad we got that sorted out, but what would Lawrence of Arabia think?

Another class of words listed in the dictionary concern themselves with the order of vowels or consonants in a word. 'Adenochondrosarcoma' is apparently one of the longest words beginning and ending with 'a'; 'Abstentious' uses all five vowels, which appear once only, in alphabetical order. A personal favourite of mine so far is this entry:

Aceeeffghhiillmmnnoorrssstuv: What twisted logic did the German novelist Christoffel von Grimmelshausen use when he came up with this pseudonym? Actually, it isn't as twisted as it might appear. He simply rearranged all the letters of his name - in alphabetical order!

In a similar vein, we get words like 'Patronessship' and 'Duchessship', which are both distinguished by the three 'S's in a row; the Estonian word jaaaarne (meaning 'the edge of the ice'), which has four consecutive appearances of the same vowel; and the Yugoslavian forename 'Jernej', which 'begins and ends with a J - a rarity!'.

The anagrams are fun; perhaps the most complex example cited is that of the writer Edward Gorey, who produced 15 separate anagrams from his own name. (Read any books by Drew Dogyear, anyone? No? Then perhaps some Regera Dowdy?) The word 'enormity' scrambles to produce 'more tiny'; the word 'float' does so 'aloft'; a 'butterfly' will 'flutter by'; 'dynamite' contains the warning 'I may dent'; and an 'entrail' is apparently 'reliant'.
In a related class of words, the authors ask us to take out a few letters from an existing word, and sometimes to scramble the result. If you take out the 'g' and 'e' from 'fragile', then it is still 'frail'. The word 'butteriness' is apparently constructed on eight other words, the shortest of which is 'bu', and the longest which is 'butterines'. Whatever the hell they are. Oh, and Darlene will be pleased to know that her name rearranges into four other first names: Darleen, Leander, Leandre, and Learned.

Random word facts:
While it is perhaps distressing to hear that the phrase 'Ebro River' means 'River river', being told that the phrase 'Dnieper River' translates to 'River river river' would drive you tautologically insane.

The word 'Queue' is 'the only word in the English language that retains its pronounciation even after the last four letters are dropped'. (That's quite true, you know. I've tried it.)

'Cabbaged' is apparently what's called a 'piano word', composed entirely of letters from the musical scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G).

The ten most common words in American English, from a 1971 source, were 'It', 'Is', 'to', 'the', 'that', 'you', 'a', 'of', 'in', 'and'.

The word 'pat' is onomatopaeic, and means the same thing if read backwards as it does when it is read forwards, although the words are different.

My favourite entry has to be this, about a word that does not exist but is cited in a number of dictionaries:

Phantomnation: This word has appeared in a number of "legitimate" dictionaries. Webster's once defined it as "appearance, as of a phantom; illusion (obsolete and rare)." Rare! Obsolete! I'll say! In fact, this word is so rare and so obsolete that it may never have been used, except of course in some dictionaries. The first dictionary (or dictionary supplement) to include it was entitled Philology on the English Language, published in 1820 by Richard Paul Jodrell. It seems that Mr. Jodrell tended to combine words without using hyphens. So he misquoted the source of this supposed word, citing the following passage from the Odyssey: "These solemn vows and holy offerings paid/ To all the phantomnations of the dead" (x, 627). In actuality, there was no such solid word as "phantomnations." It was two words: "phantom nations." And you thought dictionaries included words that people used.

There are several words that this dictionary misses out on, though. A few that come to mind: 'Sesquipadalia', a long word which means (more or less) 'long words'; 'Jingo', from the expression 'By Jingo!', one of the few words in the English language that is said to have come from Basque; and 'Uffish', a made up word, to be sure, but a good one.

So there you go.

PALINDROMES PLUS! Before I go, here's just a selection of the palindromes from the dictionary:

Bison bison bison The formal name for the bison.
Ajaja Ajaja A scientific name for the roseate spoonbill, which reads the same no matter which way you read it: last word first, last letter first, or otherwise.
Cardinalis cardinalis cardinalis The scientific name for the bird, cardinal.

So how about it, reader. Got any weird word nerdery to share?


Charles Murton said...

Good stuff.

What is the only English word with three double letters in a row?


Viet Nam means 'south people'. So South Viet Nam meant south south people.


A man, a plan, a canal - panama!

Able was I ere I saw Elba. (supposedly said by Napoleon, but he would have said it in French.)

Entire novels have been published without a certain letter of the alphabet. The amount of flipping through dictionaries, for no rational purpose, that such a feat would require is staggering.


The horse racing authorities are the experts here. At the time that Summer Fair, the 1961 Caulfield Cup winner was racing, somebody tried to register a horse as Some Are Fair. It was rejected.

If the A.J.C. was not continually conscious of homophones it would cause chaos, especially in race broadcasting.

Anonymous said...

Nerdery?! NERDERY??!! This stuff is da bomb, man. MTV is now offering continuous live streaming of the LA gangsta rapper anagram-off, and AT THIS VERY MINUTE in Rio there are thousands of bronzed women in tiny gold shorts screaming for Latino-Irish palindrome artist, Julio O'Iluj.

Now that I've recouped some street cred for this iniquitously named "word nerdery": "abstentious" is joined by "abstemious" and "facetious" in having all five vowels arranged in alphabetical order; my favourite anagram is "listen" for "silent"; and I think homophones should be allowed to marry, if they want to.

TimT said...

This blog is in favour of homophonic marriage.

More random facts: The word 'typewriter' is apparently one of the longest words that can be typed by using only the top level of letters on the typewriter.

'Remacadamizing', a road-paving process, comes from five separate languages: 'Re' from Latin, 'Mac' from Celtic, 'Adam' from Hebrew, 'Iz' from Greek, and 'Ing' from English.

In the word 'reentered', each 'e' is pronounced differently.

A candidate for the longest word in Spanish is 'Superextraordinisimo', whcih is laying it on a bit thick, don't you think?

Razzamatazz has four z's in one word, Qawiqsaqq has four q's, and loxolophodonts (name for an extinct gigantic mammal) is one of the longest words using only 'o' for its vowel.

Apparently Dee Why in Sydney is so named because the harbour looks like a 'D' and a 'Y'. There is also a story that Montevideo came from an explorers shorthand notes, 'Monte VI de O', meaning sixth mountain from the west. VI is roman numerals, and O is a shortening of mountain.

Sometimes the authors seem to flub it: I quite like this name for a flower -


Apparently one of 'only three' words in the English language containing nine hyphens. But that distinction, apparently, is shared by this term:


Hmmm... there's also 'nephew-in-law', obviously. And presumably those 'Great-etc-nieces-in-law' would have 'Great-etc-aunts-in-law' and 'uncles-in-law'. I'm not sure they did their research on this one.

ThePolarizer said...

The word Wowser was originally used to describe those who drank and partied too much. An Australian journalist turned it around to describe those who do not like having fun.
To seal the change he come up with this...W.O.W.S.E.R...We Only Want Social Evil Reformed.

This was about One hundred years ago, it aptly describes modern day political correctness.

TimT said...

Here's a palindrome for you:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, hero's rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a cat, a mane, paper, a Toyota, rep, a pen, a mat, a can, a tag, a banana bag again, or: a camel, a crepe, pins, spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal, Panama!

Charles Murton said...

An Oxford classical languages scholar, on hearing about the new invention television, commented, "The thing can never work. It is half Latin and half Greek."

Anonymous said...

Hoorah! That splendid feat of palindromification, M. le Tim, will keep me in good cheer - and back again - for the next week, at least. I have nothing that even vaguely competes, but perhaps you could somehow work in "denim axes examined".

TimT said...

James Thurber's witty put-down of modern education in the classics was that it 'Put Descartes before the Horace.'

TimT said...

Got the palindrome from here. They're comments to this post.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I love books about words. What is the title of the one that you posted about?

BTW - Have you read 'Mother Tongue' by Bill Bryson. It is the perfect book for word nerds.

TimT said...

'A Dictionary of Highly Unusual Words' by Irwin M Berent and Rod L Evans (that's the names on the cover, I wonder if they really do have middle names or those letters are just for show?) It's a little slapdash (relies a little too much on odd jokes to substitute lack of research), but well worth it.


I must look out for that Bill Bryson book!

Anonymous said...

"O is a shortening of mountain."

O probably stands for West (the Occident), or 'Oeste' in Spanish. It would be rather superextraordinisimo if this happened to be the origin of Montevideo's name.

TimT said...

Ah yes, my mistake. O was a shortening of Oest (or Occident) as you suggest. That was the story, anyway. The writers suggested it was more likely that it came from the term 'I see the mountain'. In Spanish, obviously. I don't know of any English towns called Iseethemountain.

You are a learned fellow, Mr Tdix. Next you'll be translating the name into Ancient Sumerian via Ancient Lemurian.

Gauchegirl said...

I was always fond of words of the english language put to chiastic use. From the profound such as think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, or perhaps the equally profound the proof of good liquor is in the taste and the taste of good liquor is in the proof.

TimT said...

'Chiastic' sent me scurrying to the dictionary, thank you Gauchegirl! Anyone who knows words like that can't be that gauche!

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