How many sheep?

My mother’s father was fond of wordplay and was an important influence on my love of language. I remember one of the riddles he told me, which is difficult to render in print: A man had twenty-si/kʃ/heep and ten died. How many did he have left? This is impossible to answer correctly. If I interpreted twenty-si/kʃ/heep as twenty-six sheep and answered sixteen, he would say, “No, I said ‘twenty sick sheep’, so he had ten left”. And vice versa.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when a lesson in the textbook included the linking of words in normal speech. One example was first of all, and one student said that it sounded like festival. In isolation, maybe, but not in a sentence like “Festival, I would like to welcome you all here today”.

The pronunciation issues are slightly different but similar enough that I told them the riddle and wrote the two interpretations on the board. Another student thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. In English, at least. I’m sure they have silly puns in that language.


What rhymes with axolotl?

Not a lotl, I would have thought.

A few days ago someone posted on Facebook The Axolotl Song (earworm warning), by a music/video/comedy group called Rathergood, which consists of Joel Veitch and unnamed others. They quickly rhyme axolotl with bottle and lotl, and also with mottled, which doesn’t quite rhyme.

There is a surprising number of English words ending with -tle. lists 104, but there are several derived forms; for example, bluebottle is listed alongside bottle. Eleven of these have a silent t in the cluster –stle, for example, castle. There are also a few with –ntle, for example, gentle, in which the n is part of the previous syllable, and one with –btle (subtle), in which the b is silent. The one which goes closest to rhyming with axolotl is apostle, but I can’t imagine anyone fitting both of those into the same song. Otherwise, there are bottle (and bluebottle), throttle, wattle and mottle among relatively common words and pottle (a former liquid measure equal to two quarts) (why not just say ‘two quarts’ or ‘half a gallon’?) and dottle (the plug of half-smoked tobacco in the bottom of a pipe after smoking) (does anyone really need a word for this?). Continue reading


1. Also called pipe organ. a musical instrument …
4. Biology. a grouping of tissues  …
5. penis.

Church musicians with a certain sense of humour, or people with a certain sense of humour who know church musicians, are prone to making jokes about organs. At one time it was possible to buy t-shirts or windcheaters with the words ‘Bach’s organ works’ on the front and ‘and so does mine’ on the back. (Note: JS Bach and his two successive wives produced 20 children between them.)

It is possible for writers from earlier times to make innocent innuendo. During his visits to England, Felix Mendelssohn met and became quite friendly with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. On one visit, Mendelssohn wrote (in a diary or letter):

Joking apart, Prince Albert asked me to go to him on Saturday at two o’clock so that I may try his organ.

ed Derek Watson, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations


Speaking of language users’ ability to create sentences which have never before been spoken or written in that language, not everyone can do it with style of John Clarke, the New Zealand-born, Australian-based writer, actor and satirist, who died on Sunday. As part of a regular segment on The Gillies Report, a satirical tv program broadcast in 1984-85), he created the fictional sport of farnarkeling.

Farnarkeling is a sport which began in Mesopotamia, which literally means ‘between the rivers’. This would put it somewhere in Victoria or New South Wales between the Murray and the Darling. The word Farnarkeling is Icelandic in structure, Urdu in metre and Celtic in the intimacy of its relationship between meaning and tone.

Farnarkeling is engaged in by two teams whose purpose is to arkle, and to prevent the other team from arkeling, using a flukem to propel a gonad through sets of posts situated at random around the periphery of a grommet. Arkeling is not permissible, however, from any position adjacent to the phlange (or leiderkrantz) or from within 15 yards of the wiffenwacker at the point where the shifting tube abuts the centre-line on either side of the 34 metre mark, measured from the valve at the back of the defending side’s transom-housing.

On the program he would deliver passages like this in the style of a sports commentator – rapid-fire, deadpan, without hesitation and seemingly in one breath.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s headline on Monday was ‘Gone to the great farnarkeling grommet in the sky’.

‘lurgy’ v ‘lhergy’

Some English speakers use the word ‘lurgy’ (hard ‘g’ – rhymes with ‘Fergie’) to refer to an unspecified illness, often used as a convenient excuse to get out of  doing  something unwanted. states ‘C20: origin unknown’ but Wiktionary attributes it to a Goon Show episode, written by Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes, titled Lurgi Strikes Britain. In that episode, lurgi (aka ‘the dreaded lurgi’ is a fictitious condition created by the villains in order to sell brass-band instruments, on the supposed ground that ‘nobody who played a brass-band instrument had ever been known to catch lurgi’. Wikitionary cites World Wide Words, which speculates that Milligan and Sykes derived it from ‘allergy’ (but that has a soft ‘g’), or from the Lurgi gasification process, developed by the company of that name in Germany in the 1930s to get gas from low-grade coal, or from a northern England dialect adjective meaning idle or lazy.

A few days ago, I was procrastinating by repeatedly clicking Wikipedia’s ‘random article’ button. I chanced across the article on Manx English, the  variety of English spoken on the Isle of Man. Among the ‘Modern Anglo-Manx lexicon’ is ‘Lhergy – a hill-slope, or high wasteland. Goin’ down the lhergy means going downhill in life. (from Gaelic Lhiargee or Lhiargagh meaning “slope”)’, citing  A Vocabulary of the Anglo-Manx Dialect (Oxford University Press, 1924). The pronunciation in Manx is apparently not identical to that in standard English (you’ll have to wade through the article on Manx pronunciation yourself) and there’s no knowing how it was/is pronounced in Manx English, but it’s close enough to be intriguing. On the other hand, fertile comic imaginations often create words from nothing. Milligan (whose father was Irish) died in 2002 and Sykes (born in Lancashire) in 2012, so unless they left anything in writing, we’ll never know.

‘I am your father …’

While I was preparing another post (which I might complete some time soon), its topic brought to mind the line in the movie Space Balls, when Dark Helmet (the parody version of Star Wars’ Darth Vader) says to  Lone Starr (ditto Luke Skywalker) ‘I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate’. The simplest interpretation is that your father’s brother’s nephew is you, and you may easily have met your cousin’s roommate. The next is that your father’s brother’s nephew is your cousin, and his cousin is you; you have certainly met your own roommate. Either way, you, your father, his brother, his nephew and his cousin are all in the same gene pool. But the nephew could be by marriage (your spouse’s sibling’s son) and/or the cousin could be through his other parent; either way the chain of relationships is not all that long. I can trace my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law’s cousin’s step-mother.
One thing, though – Dark Helmet probably wouldn’t say ‘I am the former roommate of the cousin of the nephew of the brother of your father’, and I probably wouldn’t say ‘The mother-in-law of the cousin of the brother-in-law of my brother-in-law’.

What has four wheels and flies?

As I left the house this morning a recycling truck went past, which was slightly strange because it’s not rubbish/recycling day, but anyway, the old riddle popped into my head:
Q – What has four wheels and flies?
A – A rubbish truck.

This riddle is based on the linguistic quirk that in English, some words can function as nouns and verbs and that plural nouns and present tense 3sg verbs both add ‘s’ to the base.

Most people, on hearing the riddle, process:
What (VP has four wheels) and (VP flies)? (An aeroplane?)

The punchline depends on the interpretation:
What has (NP four wheels) and (NP flies)?

I spent intermittent parts of the day trying to figure out why most people would process the first version, and failed.

Recently (? earlier this week/last week) a student asked me what the difference between rubbish and garbage is. In my usage, at least, rubbish is smaller than garbage – I could say to students ‘Take your rubbish with you’, but I probably wouldn’t say ‘Take your garbage with you’ (unless they’d been very messy, or had done a very, very bad job on the lesson worksheet).