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AWADmail Issue 490

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

From: Mark Gilston (markmmtt austin.rr.com)
Subject: verisimilitude
Def: 1. The quality of appearing to be true or real. 2. Something that has the appearance of being true or real.

Once again A.Word.A.Day is an old childhood friend because of my early love of the brilliant W.S. Gilbert. In the Mikado, Pooh-Bah defends his description of the decapitated Nanki-Poo's head bowing in deference to his pedigree with the line:

"Merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

No wonder the other children always teased me for my expansive vocabulary!

Mark Gilston, Cedar Park, Texas

From: Peter Langston (peterslangston comcast.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--verisimilitude

You wrote:

The word verisimilitude has alternating consonants and vowels. Can you find a longer word with this property?

Yes, here are a few:

Peter Langston, Seattle, Washington

From: Rob Ferguson (311754 gmail.com)
Subject: alternating vowels

How about Shakespeare's honorificabilitudinitatibus which when numerically converted to 287 proved that Shakespeare could not possibly have written Shakespeare!

Rob Ferguson

From: Michael Redepenning (mredepenningjr gmail.com)
Subject: verisimilitude

According to the Wikipedia article, which is unfortunately currently deleted but with your readers' help might be rescued from an untimely death, the longest word with alternating vowels and consonants is honorificabilitudinitatibus.

"The superlatively long word honorificabilitudinitatibus (27 letters), Shakespeare's longest word, alternates consonants and vowels, as do the slightly more prosaic medical terms hepatoperitonitis and mesobilirubinogen (both 17 letters). The longest such words that are reasonably well known may be overimaginative, parasitological and verisimilitudes (all 15 letters). As a country, United Arab Emirates (18 letters) is unsurpassed for length in its vowel/consonant alternation."

Michael Redepenning, Amberley, New Zealand

From: Peter Nau (beherenau gmail.com)
Subject: DIOXIDE error

"What is special about the word DIOXIDE? You don't have to be a chemist to know that it reads the same upside down."

Not true, and a chemist would know better, since symmetry is very important to chemists. Stand on your head, read DIOXIDE, and you'll see what I mean. The usual meaning for "upside down" is to rotate something by 180 degrees, which doesn't achieve what you have in mind. The word does read the same if you fold over the word in place, top to bottom -- or if you read its reflection in a mirror placed along the top or bottom edge of the word. Furthermore, if it's written on a piece of paper, it reads the same upside down, if you flip the paper over (top to bottom) and read it with a strong light shining through the paper.

Yes, this is a symmetry problem. Any word has the same property if its spelling exclusively comprises some of these upper case letters: BCDEHIOX. The letters are the same upon top/bottom reflection (as described above). The reason this happens, is that if you draw a horizontal line across the middle of the letters, the top and bottom of each letter are mirror images of each other. 'K' can be written so as to have this property, but it usually isn't.

A palindrome constructed from a subset of those letters, HIOX, should have all the properties described above -- and it should also read the same upside down! This is because the letters remain unchanged when flipped top to bottom or left to right! Can you cite any such palindrome? (If OHIOIHO were a state, it would qualify.)

Peter Nau, Belmont, California

From: Hope Bucher (hopebucher gmail.com)
Subject: verisimilitude

As both a scientist and an artist the word verisimilitude has particular meaning to me in both fields.

Historically, the Cabinets of Curiosity in Renaissance Europe often served scientific advancement when images of their contents were published. The objects belonging to natural history were sometimes faked and therefore "appearing to be true or real".

In Art, Renaissance painters, for example Petrus Christus in the Netherlands, used a technique which is an early example of trompe l'oeil (French for "deceive the eye"). In an unexpected detail at the bottom of the painting titled Portrait of a Carthusian, just above the signature -- a meticulously drawn fly. It has "the appearance of being real".

Hope Bucher, Naperville, Illinois

From: Piotr Wnek (ppoland poczta.onet.pl)
Subject: verisimilitude

The technique of "verisimilitude" was the object of my MA thesis on American Literature "Verisimilitude in The Great Gatsby by F.S. Fitzgerald", where I tried to evaluate how real Fitzgerald's vision of reality was. Some features of the plot, including the New York and Long Island descriptions, seem highly probable, while a number of descriptions are dreamlike. The bottom line of my thesis was that the story could have taken place in real life.

Piotr Wnek, Olsztyn, Poland

From: Megan Underwood (meganu samhealth.org)
Subject: syzygy
Def: 1. An alignment of three objects, for example, sun, moon, and earth during an eclipse. 2. A pair of related things.

This word transported me back to a 5th grade classroom spelling bee! Only one other student and I remained in the competition. We continued to correctly spell every word the teacher presented. As it neared time for the dismissal bell to ring, she tossed aside the prepared list of words, and declared it was time for a tie-breaker. Then she gave us the word syzygy. For 30+ years I have remembered the word and its spelling, but along the way had forgotten the meaning. Thank you for the reminder, as well as for the smile it brought! (By the way, the competition ended in a tie anyway, as neither one of us knew how to spell the word correctly.)

Megan Underwood, Albany, Oregon

From: Sara Scharf (st.scharf utoronto.ca)
Subject: syzygy

Syzygium is a genus of tropical plants that includes cloves and some tasty fruit, such as the rose apple. The name of the genus derives from the tubular (joined together) shape of the petals. I always thought it was a neat name.

Sara Scharf, Toronto, Canada

From: Tony Plucknett (tony.g.plucknett tmr.qld.gov.au)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--yob
Def: A rude, rowdy youth.

Also the source of the Australian slang yobbo -- also used to describe someone (usually male) who is out of step with society.

Tony Plucknett, Brisbane, Australia

From: Bill Russell (rustystudebaker suddenlink.net)
Subject: yob

Clever of you to use a quotation from Oprah on the day the word is yob since the name of her production company is Harpo.

Bill Russell, Charleston, West Virginia

From: Griselda Mussett (mussetts btinternet.com)
Subject: yob - backslang

I knew all about yobs and yobbos growing up in London in the 50s. They were lads who were up to no good. I also knew this was backslang, a semi-criminal language which the police (slops) could not understand, even though I was a young woman (nemmo). There is a list of other words like this here (WebCite). Backslang is closely related to other London street languages like cant and Polari.

Griselda Mussett, Faversham, UK

From: Carolanne Reynolds (gg wordsmith.org)
Subject: reversed coinages

Erewhon, the novel by Samuel Butler, is referred to as spelled backwards however it isn't quite because the W and H are reversed. A couple of names in the book are: Yram and Senoj Nosnibor.

Carolanne Reynolds, Wordsmith.org copy editor, West Vancouver, Canada

From: Nate Horwitz (nate honestweight.coop)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--yob

The word yob and its word-reverse origin reminds me of the craze to name children Nevaeh, which is heaven spelled backwards. It's a name that was rarely used until about a decade ago, but it has since become one of the most popular names for girls in the country, especially in certain religious denominations. Always seemed a little odd to me, as the reverse of heaven is presumably... y'know, not somewhere that religious folk would want to have anything to do with.

Nate Horwitz, Albany, New York

From: Nancy Gill (njgill cox.net)
Subject: spelled backwards

Knitters who make a mistake and un-knit what they have done back to the point of the error are said to be "tink"-ing their work -- knit spelled backwards.

Nancy Gill, Phoenix, Arizona

From: Jim Williams (jimwilliams1023 gmail.com)
Subject: Yob

Yob made me smile as my brother had just played the word against me in Scrabble, and it made me think of a well-known Adanac Street (Canada spelled backwards) in Vancouver, BC. The same word is a long-time moniker for one of the pro teams in the Western Lacrosse Association.

Jim Williams, Abbotsford, BC, Canada

From: ringger (Via Wordsmith Talk discussion forum)
Subject: yob

Look to none other than John Tukey, inventor of the fast Fourier transform, for coinages with backwards syllables: spectrum --> cepstrum, frequency --> quefrency, analysis --> alanysis, ...

All of these come from his landmark paper on the analysis / alanysis of seismic data using frequency analysis of frequency data (two levels of frequency analysis).

Tukey's coinage of the "bit", his invention of the FFT, his work on exploratory data analysis, and his Bell Labs career are legendary, but his coinages are certainly obscure. Practitioners and researchers working in the area of automatic speech recognition have adopted the "cepstrum" for audio signal analysis.

Eric Ringger, Issaquah, Washington

From: Jeff Lloyd (jeff dovetailcoaching.co.uk)
Subject: Boy to Yob and Backwards Names

It was interesting and poignant to see this crop up this week in the unusual words theme. I had to take a long drive with my father recently and don't get to speak to him as much as I'd like so it was great to spend the time reminiscing about all sorts of things, including his schooldays. One of the things that made me laugh was his sudden recollection of what he and his cohorts used to write on walls 50 years ago as a development of 'Kilroy Was Here' -- the ever-so-slightly-rude 'Ezra Park'. It's on the subject of backwards names so I'll leave a pause here...!

Jeff Lloyd, Maidenhead, UK

From: Zack Fisher (zackipooh gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--yob

The creation of words and names by reversing the spelling of (other) words brings to mind Horace Miner's classic article Body Ritual Among The Nacirema (also see video).

The article was published in The American Anthropologist in June 1956 and describes the quaint body rituals among the highly superstitious Nacirema people. The Nacirema believe that "...the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease." The article specifies various customs, including daily purification rituals, acquiring potions and charms from medicine men, and visiting the Latipso temple where "...ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover." The article uses professional and slightly condescending language, as befits an anthropological study of such a backward tribe. This is all very well until you realize that "Nacirema" is "American" spelled backwards and "Latipso" is "[H]ospital" in reverse. A "backwards" tribe indeed.

The article makes a fun and educational read.

Zack Fisher, Tel Aviv, Israel

From: Willy Wilson (w314y centurytel.net)
Subject: Word reversal

Words are often reversed to obtain brand names. I still remember the light that went on when our English teacher asked us to reverse the name of a well-known British candy company: TREBOR.

Willy Wilson, Columbia, Missouri

From: Tony Adams (pamandtony bigpond.com)
Subject: backwards words

In Hobart, Tasmania, Australia there is a rather high-class men's clothing store called Routleys. It is long established. Some time after it was opened another store for good quality women's clothing was opened called Yeltuor. Both are still doing well.

Tony Adams, Hobart, Australia

From: Ovidia Yu (ovidiayu starhub.net.sg)
Subject: Kine
Def: A plural of cow.

Kine is the only plural with no letters in common with its singular unless you count: 'I' and 'we' and 'me' and 'us'?

Ovidia Yu, Singapore

From: Bernadette Giguere (jcgiguere sympatico.ca)
Subject: Kine

What about the obsolete thou/ye?

Bernadette Giguere, Montreal, Canada

From: Karoline Borch-Nielsen (karoline.bn gmail.com)
Subject: A.Word.A.Day--kine

Kine is a rather normal girl's name in Norway. I have a few friends named Kine, and I don't think they know that their name is a plural of cow!

Karoline Borch-Nielsen, Oslo, Norway

From: Arthur Silverstein (arts jhmi.edu)
Subject: kine

In general cellular physiology, and especially in immunology, a kine (as in lymphokine or cytokine) is a molecule released by an activated cell to mediate the activation of neighboring cells. The derivation is from motion, as in kinetics and cinema; obviously unrelated to the lethargic bovine.

Arthur Silverstein, Falmouth, Massachusetts

From: Drew Eichner (aweichner gmail.com)
Subject: Kine

If you look at Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, there's a speech in which Falstaff says "then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved!" Henry IV, Part 1 is believed to have been released, at the latest, by 1597 (the first quarto came out in 1598).

Andrew Eichner, Austin, Texas

Thanks for catching this. Also, several readers pointed out the King James Bible (1611) uses the word kine. We've updated the entry for this word.
-Anu Garg

Email of the Week (Brought to you by One Up! -- Cerebral Soup for the Soul)

From: Rich DeLabio (delabiorich aol.com)
Subject: kine

A Hawaiian May Ask ...

I hate to appear as a critic
But something that's missing is clitic
I can see cow in kine
Does that make them da kine?
Is my pidgin too analytic?

Rich DeLabio, Sandy Valley, Nevada

From: Michael Tremberth (michaelt4two googlemail.com)
Subject: Unusual plurals in other languages

The Cornish for deer is kervis, and the plural is carrow; with the prefix Nan- (valley) these words have given rise to the surnames Nankervis and Nancarrow respectively (Conlan Nancarrow is a well known contemporary American composer). The Russian for child, rebyonok, uses the plural deti. French l'oeil multiplies to les yeux. By the way, isn't monocle the only possible singular of spectacles?

Michael Tremberth, Cornwall, UK

From: R. Bhaskar (rbhaskar aya.yale.edu)
Subject: spendthrift
Def: noun: A person who spends money wastefully. adjective: Wasteful with money.

Spendthrift is also a words that has five consonants in a row! Are there words with very long combinations of consonants?

R. Bhaskar, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I met, not long ago, a young man who aspired to become a novelist. Knowing that I was in the profession, he asked me to tell him how he should set to work to realize his ambition. I did my best to explain. 'The first thing,' I said, 'is to buy quite a lot of paper, a bottle of ink, and a pen. After that you merely have to write.' -Aldous Huxley, novelist (1894-1963)

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