The Devil’s Details: And & And & And

getimage.phpA friend of mine wrote the other day the following:

We all know that that so isn’t how it works.

It amused me, but also seemed to be (as far as I can tell) grammatically fine. It led to the response:

I’m glad that that that that amused you.

Even better.

I came across this article the other day on Mental Floss. It has some further examples of grammatical weirdness:

  • The horse raced past the barn fell.
  • The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.
  • The rat the cat the dog chased killed ate the malt.

And of course my favorite:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

In case you need help with that one, “buffalo” can mean the animal, the city, and the action “to buffalo” (i.e. to bully or intimidate).

But, I believe I have one to top all of that, and it’s true, too. Here is a sentence with the word “and” in it five times in a row:

There’s too much space between north and and and and and son.

Got it? No?

This relates to my grandfather’s business in North Yorkshire. When the eldest son came of age, he needed to change the business sign from North to North & Son. When the sign maker came back, the words had been crushed together:


Enraged, he returned to the sign maker the next morning with the words:

There’s too much [bloody] space between North and & and & and Son!

I never knew if they got it fixed.


Like this.

The Devil’s Details: I Can Tell Where You’re From

GERMANY88888Whenever reading in your native language (be it English, French or Bengali), you rarely take heed of the specific grammatical and syntactical idiosyncrasies of your mother tongue. However, once you start learning another language, it becomes immediately obvious that there is a plethora of linguistic subtleties that are extremely difficult to master.

What often happens (especially early on) is that you attempt to apply your native tongue’s sentence structure to this new language, often resulting in amusing results:

Kann ich ein Plätzchen haben, bitte?

Can I a cookie have, please?

Even more interesting, however, are the figures of speech and idioms that are simply unique to your language:

J’ai une pêche d’enfer.

I have a peach from hell.

Where this really gets interesting, however, is that when you read text written by a non-native, not only do you pick up on the phrases that just don’t quite translate, but given the syntax and specific choice of wording you can actually start to identify what their native language actually is. I was reading an article the other day written in English, with no reference at all to who wrote it or where they were from. However, as I continued to read, I became convinced that this was someone from Eastern Europe – possible the Czech Republic or Hungary.

Of course, I haven’t been able to substantiate this, but it’s funny how certain things show through, no matter how hard you try to homogenize yourself.

The Devil’s Details: What’s in a Spud?


A good friend of mine became a father for the second time recently, and when he shared the name, I pointed out that the initials spelled SPED. As interesting a word as this is, it couldn’t fail to remind me of the phonetically similar spud.

As a languages student and inventor of a (poorly-constructed) fantasy language, etymologies have recently become fascinating to me. For example, the word butt comes, through Middle English and Old French, from the Old High German word bōzan, which means to beat (bōzan > boter > buter > beten > butt > beat). It’s use as an abbreviation of ‘buttocks’ is of course something else entirely.

So where on earth did the word spud come from? Well, the interesting thing here is what exactly spud meant to me in the first place; growing up, it was always synonymous with potato. If you were a surgeon, however, a spud would be a small spade-shaped utensil for digging material from a body. If you were a gardener…

It turns out, interestingly, that a spud used to be (still is, in fact) the name of the spade-like tool used to dig roots – such as potatoes – from the earth. The word spud itself appears to come from the Middle English word spudde, which apparently was a kind of dagger or short knife. The origin seems lost from there, but I could imagine that, in the dawn of human communication, *SPUD* was the sound a dagger made when you jabbed it into someone’s back.