Quirky Language-Themed Websites, or, Quirkie Laguage-Themed Websiteses

Since I’m fascinated by words and language, I thought I’d mention a few of the more unusual sites along those lines that I’ve found.

The first is the Unintelligencer, with its motto of “Copy. Paste. Retardify.” Those who run the site feel that pockets of intelligent discourse still persist on the internet without the painful misspellings and fractured grammar that often typify the web. Their goal is to eradicate those last outposts by offering a service, taken advantage of in the post title above, to type, paste, or supply an URL in the box provided and generate the more usual fare.

The site uses what they call Artificial Unintelligence which helps create characters for their roleplaying “game” called Forumwarz. I would recommend not bothering to follow up on that avenue…. The retardification was significant.

The power of the Unintelligencer is exemplified by this headline from Reuters: “Obama makez historic Whyt House visit”, and from the New York Times: “Pakistaniz0rz Mired ins Brutal Battle too Oust 7aliban.”

Eager to see that site receding in my rearview mirror, I hurried on to Jeff Kacirk’s site, Forgotten English. Kacirk is by day a mild-mannered chiropractor, and by night, and possibly other times, one who leaps tall buildings in pursuit of obscure, anachronistic and archaic words.

He’s written several books including Forgotten English, The Word Museum, and Altered English.

He’s found many gems. For instance, “leech-finger”: a doctor’s preferred digit in years past, which which he would stir potions and detect whether they were satisfactory.

A Colour Too Far

Or, the greyish yellow color “isabelline,” named after a princess who refused to change her underwear until her unlucky father won a certain battle. Apparently there was a siege involved which lasted for three years.

Then there’s “eggwife trot” from Shakespeare’s time, which describes “an easy jog, such a speed as farmers’ wives carry their eggs to the market.”

And, “illiack passion,” for “wind in the small guts.”

Kacirk is fascinated most by the social history of bygone times embodied in these old words and phrases, as well as by the earthy realities of everyday life in less sanitized times.

In my web explorations, I came across Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed.

CogswellSculptureFrank Gelett Burgess was an artist, art critic and humorist who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a B.S. in 1887. While a technical drawing instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, he was fired for toppling the statues of Henry Cogswell, a dentist so famous he donated statues of himself to various institutions.

(Cogswell was an interesting character, too. As a member of the Temperance movement, he believed that people could be saved from demon rum by access to fresh water. He donated, as one example, an elaborate fountain made from granite to Washington, DC, where it has long had the reputation as the city’s ugliest statue.)

Burgess wrote and illustrated several children’s books, as well as short stories and novels for adults. As an art critic he was the first to introduce Cubism and the work of Picasso, Matisse and Braque to the United States.

I like his description of Queen Anne architecture (related to what some might call Tudor style):

queen-anne-arch-eureka“It should have a conical corner tower; it should be built of at least three incongruous materials or, better, imitations thereof; it should have its window openings absolutely haphazard; it should represent parts of every known and unknown order of architecture; it should be so plastered with ornament as to conceal the theory of its construction. It should be a restless, uncertain, frightful collection of details giving the effect of a nightmare about to explode.”


Anyway, in the above mentioned Burgess dictionary, he invents odd little words for concepts he believes deserve them, and may occasionally incorporate a rhymed couplet as explanation. For instance, there is:

huzzlecoo : A conversation intimate, intensific but amical / Surcharged with personalities outrageously dynamical.

quoob: An undress-suited being in an access of humility / Apologizing vainly for apparent incivility.

He also has more straight forward definitions for his words. There’s alibosh, a glaringly obvious falsehood or exaggeration. Cowcat: An unimportant guest, an insignificant personality. Flooijab: An apparent compliment with a concealed sting. And of course, orobaldity: Modern mysticism, a short cut to success.

And finally: “The gorm is the woman who tries to get in ahead of the
line which forms at the ticket office.”

Unfortunately, none of these words, published in this dictionary in 1914, seem to have gained any traction (in our modern parlance).

In A Pickle

Moving on, Wikipedia has an entire discussion on whether certain words are inherently funny.

DuckUnder consideration are such bon mots as “duck” which happens in be considered a funny word in many languages for some reason, and “twenty-seven” (often used by Weird Al Yankovic). Several sources cite words with “k” in them as funny: Hoboken, pickle and Kalamazoo.

Monty Python determined that “vibraphone,” “larch,” and “Wankel rotary engine” had humour embedded in them.

And “paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin” just can’t help being funny.

A great site for exploring the unusual is Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words which has a section on Weird Words. These are real words this time, not made up.

There’s “atribilious” which means “gloomy or morose; bad-tempered or irritable.” I know people like that, and may have succumbed myself a time or two.

“Bodacious” (one of my favorite words) means “blatant, remarkable, audacious, impressive, or attractive.”

“Floccinaucinihilipilification” means “the action or habit of judging something to be worthless.” In the US in 1999 Senator Jesse Helms said, “I note your distress at my floccinaucinihilipilification of the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty].” It must have been a filibuster.

And of course, “ishkabibble” which means “Don’t worry!” or “Who cares?” It was a popular slang word in the early part of the 20th Century.

The site gives good descriptions and derivations of each word.

But why be restricted to oddities in English? Although English is the de facto world language, it does lack certain terms. For instance, kaelling is Danish for a woman who stands on her doorstep yelling obscenities at her kids. And pesamenteiro is Portuguese for someone who “joins groups of mourners at the home of a dead person, apparently to offer condolences but in reality is just there for the refreshments.”

“And this is… um… uh… “

And this has happened to me: to tartle is to hesitate when you are introducing someone whose name you can’t quite remember or just now forgot (Scottish).

Here are a few other sites where intriguing words and language are on display:

At The Phrontistery (otherwise known as the International House of Logorrhea), you will find a free online dictionary of the weird and wonderful.

At grow-a-brain you will find a blog site with a variety of posts about language. The latest is an interesting one on family slang…

fortranTo go off on a slightly different tangent, there is even a site which discusses weird programming languages. For instance, there is reMorse by Ryan Kusnery, which is designed not to resemble a programming language, but does resemble Morse code. Apparently programs have been written with it.

Malboge by Ben Olmstead has been described as the programming language from Hell. “It operates in trinary, instructions are automatically modified after being executed, and you have to encrypt your source files using a key included in the documentation. (Don’t worry, it’s only a substitution cypher. But still, this means that you can’t write Malbolge programs without first writing another program to aid you.)”

We humans do like to make things difficult for ourselves….



Notes on images, from the top:

The first photo is that of the infamous Temperance Fountain in Washington, DC, by Cogswell. From the Flickr site of M.V. Jantzen .

The second is an example of Queen Anne architecture from Eureka, California in a virtual field trip by Alan A. Lew.

The third is an example of baroque text about a duck from Veer , a company which provides aids for graphic designers and others.

The last is a bit of code in Fortran, which is now an antique computer language, but was once a standard years ago, especially at universities. It is still used in legacy programs.

Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, Internet, Writing

8 Comments on “Quirky Language-Themed Websites, or, Quirkie Laguage-Themed Websiteses”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Fun post.

    I read that wikipedia article about funny words. I agree with Dave Barry – weasel is way funny and so is anything to do with Richard Nixon. Put the two together and it kills!


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    I’ve always deeply felt that “aardvark” has what it takes to be an inherently funny word…


  3. Art Says:

    I have an actual, physical, copy of Burgess Unabridged and am pleased to see it being mentioned, but I will disagree with you on one point about it. One word from it did gain traction and seems to be in use close to its original meaning (though sometimes with the connotations cut back): Blurb.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Art,

    Thanks for stopping by… I envy you, having a real copy of that Burgess book. The digital version is definitely lacking.

    I went looking at it again, and there’s “blurb” like you say… How about that…


  5. I love language and am determined to keep up the use of some of the words that are headed for oblivion as the new generation texts them into abridged ellipses of their former selves.
    My mother lived in a Jewish immigrant district when she was young. She was only one of a very few English students in her school. As a result, she knew some of the expressions that the Jewish kids used. She claimed that “ishkabibble” was of Yiddish origin and the Bibble part of it meant Bible. As for the ishka part of the word, I couldn’t say. We used the expression in our family to signify “so who cares; it’s not important;it doesn’t matter”.

    One of the words you’ve mentioned above, atribilious, is one I’d like to adopt. I know several curmudgeons that I’d like to describe thereby.

    The world of computers has appropriated many English words for its purposes. Obvious ones are “mouse” and “icon” . “Lynx”, the web language amused me nicely with it’s play on words. The appropriation and skewing of etiomology is quite wonderful.

    Thanks again for a good read,

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    You have personal experience with “ishkabibble”! The whole matter of family slang, too, is quite interesting…

    Atribilious and similar words brings up that whole conceptual world of the four humours which were a mainstay of how people organized their thinking once upon a time. I’ve been meaning to read more about it, because of potential use in thinking about characterization in writing.


  7. eyegillian Says:

    This is a fascinating post… I think I’m going to have to read it over again a few more times!

    The colour “isabelline” is a new one to me, but it reminds me of the popularity of “puce”, the french word for “flea”, which was so popular during the reign of Louis XIV for obvious reasons….

    And I love Burgess’ description of Queen Anne architecture — fabulous!

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi eyegillian,

    Thanks for your comments…

    I’m going to look up “puce” now!


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