Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2002 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Richard Lederer

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The Bandwagon | Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Noteworthy music lovers of all ages! Now that you've paid the piper, I'm going to orchestrate an overture that will be music to your ears. As your keynote ringmaster, I hope to strike the right key and the right note in your love of the English language. I also strive to strike a responsive chord. I don't want to chime in on your enjoyment and harp on the fact that I'm feeling fit as a fiddle, without playing second fiddle to anyone. I don't want to blow my own horn, but I do know my brass from my oboe. We at the Word Circus would never play it by ear or give you a song and dance with a second-string performance. I'm not going to soft-pedal any praise for our lyrical, harmonious English language. Rather, I'm going to pull out all the stops and drum up support for our melodic, mellifluous words. And that's not just whistling Dixie.

So let's hop on the bandwagon and face the music!

Now the tent grows dark, and the crowd grows hush.
Then the spotlight shines, and the space grows lush
With the cymbals' clash and the tinkled heat,
The triangle's ting and the snare drum's beat,
As our hungry hearts and the empty air
Fill to the brim with a brassy blare.

Our jaws a-droop and our eyes a-light
And our cheeks ablaze at the gorgeous sight:
All golden and crimson and purple and blue --
A calliope dream that we never knew:
With the chest-deep pulse of the kettle drums,
Into the ring the bandwagon comes.

Then the wha-wha-wha of the slide trombone,
And the pitter-boink-boink of the xylophone,
And the umpa umpa umpa umps
Of tubas kissed by men with mumps,
And the twang and the wang and the whacka whacka whack
Of banjo wheels on a circus track.

Ah, the rattle and rhyme of the music's time
Brim our hungry hearts with a song sublime!

Ladies and gentlemen! As I crack my whip, the canvas castle fills with life. Onto the sawdust stage high steps our spectacular English language, the most tintinnabulating of the world's tongues.

Writer Michael Arlen once said, "English is the great Wurlitzer of language, the most perfect all-purpose instrument ever invented." With the world's most gargantuan vocabulary (more than three times as many words as German, in second place, more than four times as many as Russian, in third place, and more than six times as many as French, in fourth), English sings a different tune because it is the most magical, musical language in the world.

Let's start with letter-perfect words. Grammagrams are RT words that, when they are pronounced, consist entirely of letter sounds. Words such as emcee, deejay,and veejay that are actually formed from letter sounds are initialisms, not grammagrams. Listen now to the FX of the most popular two-syllable grammagrammatical attractions:

any (NE) decay (DK) essay (SA) ivy (IV)
beady (BD) easy (EZ) excel (XL) Kewpie (QP)
cagey (KG) empty (MT) excess (XS) seedy (CD)
cutey (QT) envy (NV) icy (IC) tepee (TP)

Next, a surprising array of three-syllable grammagrams:

devious (DVS) enemy (NME) escapee (SKP) opium (OPM)
effendi (FND) envious (NVS) odious (ODS) tedious (TDS)

Now four syllables:

anemone (NMNE) arcadian (RKDN) excellency (XLNC)
And the longest grammagrams are -- ta da! -- the pentasyllabic expediency (XPDNC) and obediency (OBDNC)!

Letter artists have come up with a number of variations beyond the grammagrammatical sounding out of individual words. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and other fantasies, played upon the sounds of letters in composing a letter to Annie Rodgers:

My dear Annie,
I send you

A picture, which I hope will
B one that you will like to
C. If your Mamma should
D sire one like it, I could
E sily get her one.

A classic dialogue is this string of letters that don't exactly match but that approximate words. The scene is a restaurant, and the characters are a breakfast diner and a server:

Diner (to server): F U N E X?
Server: Y S V F X.
Diner: F U N E M?
Server: Y S V F M.
Diner: O K L F M N X.

Now hear the music of some letter-perfect verse. Keep in mind that the same letter twice in a row sounds like a plural. For example, II means "eyes."

YURYY (Why you are wise)
Is EZ to C (Is easy to see.)
U should B called (You should be called)
"XLNC." ("Excellency.")

U XEd NE (You exceed any)
MT TT. (Empty tease.)
I NV how U (I envy how you)
XL with EE. (Excel with ease.)

Here's an almost century-old example of letter play, by H.C. Dodge, that appeared in the July 1903 Woman's Home Companion. ICQ out so that I can CU have fun translating the sound FX of this poem:

The farmer leads no EZ life.
The CD sows will rot;
And when at EV rests from strife,
His bones will AK lot.

In DD has to struggle hard
To EK living out;
If IC frosts do not retard
His crops, there'll BA drought.

The hired LP has to pay
Are awful AZ, too;
They CK rest when he's away,
Nor NE work will do.

Both NZ cannot make to meet,
And then for AD takes
Some boarders, who so RT eat,
And E no money makes.

Of little UC finds his life;
Sick in old AG lies;
The debts he OZ leaves his wife,
And then in PC dies.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


10/17/02: Is life a movie? We all speak their lines
10/03/02: Brave New Words
09/26/02: English is a Crazy Language!
09/12/02: How wise is proverbial wisdom?
09/05/02: A celebration of presidential prose
08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2002, Richard Lederer