Arnold Zwicky of Language Log posts a detailed exegesis of the words and phrases used in a recent Zippy cartoon: “Nov shmoz ka pop?” “Notary Sojac!” “Nize baby! Banana oil! Jeep!” “Potrzebie! Ferschlugginer! Axolotl!” I’m too young to remember The Squirrel Cage or Smokey Stover (though the phrase “Nov shmoz ka pop,” from the former, does ring a faint bell, so I must have seen it used somewhere by someone quoting it, perhaps in my days in science fiction fandom), but the Mad Magazine flashbacks were a nostalgic thrill. I remember how bamboozled I was when I discovered that potrzebie was an actual Polish word, pronounced po-CHEB-yeh rather than POT-er-zee-bee; I still, however, use the latter pronunciation, because I speak Mad but I don’t speak Polish.


  1. No one in this multiblog thread seems to have mentioned the Potrzebie system of measurement units, described by Wikipedia thus:

    In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures”, developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth, later a famed computer scientist. According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm. Volume was measured in ngogn (equal to 1000 cubic potrzebies), mass in blintz (equal to the mass of 1 ngogn of halavah, which is “a form of pie [with] a specific gravity of 3.1416 and a specific heat of .31416”), and time in seven named units (decimal powers of the average earth rotation, equal to 1 “clark”). The system also features such units as whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo and hah.

    I’m also interested in your use of bamboozle above. I (and both AHD4 and NID3) understand it to mean ‘deceive, hoodwink, mislead’, but you seem to use it to mean something like ‘startle’ or perhaps ‘baffle’. Checking, which is more up to date, I do find a second sense ‘confuse, frustrate’, but their citation-free example ‘a quarterback bamboozled by an unexpected defense’ strikes me as a better exemplar for the first sense, and I wonder if the supposed second sense actually exists. Wiktionary says there is an AAVE slang sense ‘defraud, trick, con’, which strikes me as indistinguishably close from the standard sense. But none of these senses seem to fit your sentence at all.

  2. Hmm… maybe “bamboozled” isn’t quite the right word. I love it so much I may use it as much for sound as meaning. But ‘confused’ works in my sentence, so I think I’ll leave it.

  3. See for an exhaustive background to the word’s usage in Mad.

  4. Is the complete Potrzebie System system online someplace? As opposed to just a summary? Or do I need to get the old issue or the appropriate anthology book from eBay?
    The entry appears to be the same as the Wikipedia entry.
    Axolotls aren’t just salamander-like, they are salamanders. And they’re neotenous, as the Wikipedia explains. We used to have a whole aquarium full of them.

  5. The article is a copy of the Wikipedia entry.
    BTW, the standard Polish pronunciation of potrzebie is closer to what Wikipedia gives, that is with a sequence of a stop and a fricative (or an affricate and a fricative) rather than an affricate.

  6. Stephen Mulraney says:

    And don’t forget the retroflex quality of that stop plus fricative!

  7. David Marjanović says:

    “BTW, the standard Polish pronunciation of potrzebie is closer to what Wikipedia gives, that is with a sequence of a stop and a fricative (or an affricate and a fricative) rather than an affricate.”
    How is that feasible — without releasing the /t/ and thus putting a schwa into the sequence?

  8. My Google-Fu is in better form this morning.
    Half the Potrzebie System is reproduced in Completely Mad. To be specific, in the lower-right corner of page 191 is a copy of page 36 from issue #33. This is all that is quoted on most sites that come up in search (or less if they just explain the Knuth connection).
    The whole is part of the compilation volume Like, Mad, originally from the 60s, but with relatively recent “Anniversary Edition” reprints.
    And here is a rec.humor posting from 1987 quoting from that. As you can see, pg. 36 more obsessively laid the foundation for the joke, which means that the joke density was higher on pg. 37.

  9. michael farris says:

    “How is that feasible”
    Good question, the difference between trz and cz is partly juncture and partly articulatory.
    For the juncture part, in English almost minimal pair
    catch it /kAtSit/ and cat shit /kAt Sit/
    gives some idea of the difference.
    Also, when I’ve asked native speakers the t in trz is dental and the sz further back (though not really retroflex for most speakers) and I think the t might be almost geminated.
    Cz is articulated further back alveolar or just post alveolar (not retroflex for most modern speakers AFAICT)
    Some speakers don’t clearly distinguish trz and cz but that’s considered a little sub-standard – okay in informal everday circumstances but in formal speech a person is expected to be able to differentiate them (and many speakers always do).
    The same pair also exists voiced with drz and dż (though sometimes some speakers pronounce dż like drz)

  10. Bravo and sincere thanks to Michael Farris for his response to the question, “How is that feasible?” I could taste it but needed someone to explain it.
    Since I already had learned some Polish by the first time I saw the word potrzebie in Mad, I never learned to speak it in Mad and am still not sure what it actually sounds like in that dialect. Still, I have always liked the taste of the word with its little spoon-shaped dip just behind the front curve of the tongue against the alveolar ridge.
    Thanks again for the explanation!

  11. “the former, does ring a faint bell, so I must have seen it used somewhere by someone quoting it, perhaps in my days in science fiction fandom”
    I certainly remember it being an intermittent catchphrase in SF fanzines, particularly the more humorous and fannish sort. I’m pretty sure I recall it appearing in cartoons by Steve Stiles or Dan Steffan or maybe both.

  12. Aha—thanks for the confirmation!

  13. “Nov shmoz ka pop” is from Gene Ahern’s 1930’s era newspaper comic THE SQUIRREL CAGE
    Don Markstein’s Toonopedia entry

  14. “Nov shmoz ka pop?” It’s a question. It’s being spoken by a hitchhiker. What do hitchhikers say?


    It’s not a substitution cipher. It’s just unrelated, but pronounceable, letters put together in the same pattern.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    This now cries out for a conlanger to create the rest of the language, a la Okrand.

    OSV but with considerable freedom of placement non-core elements; “nov” genitive of “na” 1st sg personal pronoun (genitive rather than dative because “route” is treated as *inalienably* possessed in Hičajqri except in cases of abduction); “šmo:z” perlative case of “šmoɣ” “route”; “qa” absolutive 2sg pronoun; “pʰop” imperfective interrogative form of the highly suppletive verb zbap “go by vehicle with a set purpose [not joyriding.]”

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    (I have omitted tone marks for simplicity.)

  17. Trond Engen says:

    (I have omitted tone marks for simplicity.)

    Oh, right. You almost confused me there.

    The sentence is still highly unusual. The use of šmoɣ “route” rather than the more informal a-qiĥ “way, direction” suggests a sense of public commitment, but to what? It’s borderline ungrammatical without an incorporated allative, so what empowered na to invoke that sense of commitment to an unknown and unknowable cause? The ambiguity is taken one step further by the set purpose implied in the verb, but the imperfective would suggest an ongoing effort. Pragmatically, I’m tempted to translate it as “Who are you to ever find my true pupose?”, though that misses the whole question of class. All in all the comic reads as a strangely clairvoyant prelude to the endless debate over the abolishment of titular poetry.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    It *is* unusual. It makes one wonder whether the Hitchhiker is perhaps a native speaker of one of the more distant Sqərəli languages, lacking the throroughgoing grammaticalisation of control so characteristic of core Hičajqri and its closest relatives. He is not represented as wearing traditional Hičajqri clothing, after all. There are evidently multiple layers of meaning in this apparently simple yet anthropologically sophisticated bande dessinée.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    I thought you might pick me up on my description of the relationship of pʰop and zbap as “suppletive”; while I would concede that historically the perfective form reflects the proto-Sqərəli inchoative prefix *dz-, from a synchronic standpoint it is surely best to take this as suppletion, especially when you take into account that all the optative forms are based on an entirely different root in any case. The vowel alternation – historically umlaut – is regular, of course, reflecting the Middle Hičajqri interrogative flexion -u (with H tone), still preserved as such in some contemporary rural dialects, and in the prerevolutionary orthography.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Day saved.

  21. I love you people.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    a native speaker of one of the more distant Sqərəli languages

    Of course! That makes this a social commentary. Highly disturbing yet typical of its time. The scholarly shirt, the beard, the travel, the vaguely Sqərəli features*, and, indeed, the lack of the “proper” obedient form of the 2pp. Of course, indenture had been abolished decades earlier, but the Nʰo:bʰodí were still not allowed to set up their own businesses, study the important literary sciences, or travel internationally.

    So much for ignoring the question of class. And think that I mentioned the debate on titular poetry without considering the influence of Anti-Nʰo:bʰodísm of much of the traditional poetic meritocracy.

    *) modern lingusitics rejects the Sqərəli substrate hypothesis, instead seeing it as shared retentions.

  23. And shared retentions, as we all well know, are worth absolutely nothing.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    I should here point out that the name “Skoobozia”, still found in most reference works, is an exonym of unclear origin, and is now strongly dispreferred by most Fu:z Sqərəli, who prefer the neologism “Skirilia” (itself unfortunately controversial, as minimising the considerable linguistic and cultural diversity of a region which was never a political unity before the twentieth century.) The traditional derivation of “Skoobozia” from the Hičajqri “skrəv bałz” “unsound mind” is almost certainly a mere folk etymology, however: the deverbal adjective skrəv is only ever found in genuine Hičajqri sources in the literal sense “made of pastry leftovers” and the expression as it stands is in any case ungrammatical, as lacking ezafe.

  25. Spa Fon! This is ridiculous.

  26. Surely you mean Squa Tront.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    Ironically, in a recent article in Hičajqr Sqajd Tuudə Ghələq-xi (“Hičajqri Journal of Ethnography and Linguistics”), Miiðə Wonəbi makes a strong case that Skirilia is derived from a lost Old Western Hičajqri *skərəl “residual”, a straightforward cognate of skrəv! The intended meaning, however, was probably “indigenous”.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think this is simply accidental homophony; the pastry-making sense is surely primary in skrəv, which is transparently derived from krəv “make pastry unintentionally, at random”, corresponding to the [+ control] verb krav “make pastry deliberately, with full attention.” The verbs are certainly ancient, unsurprisingly in view of the central role of pies in prehistoric Sqərəli culture, revealed clearly in their predominence as grave goods.

    The native grammatical tradition recognised the ə~a ablaut early, as is hardly surprising given its pervasive role in the verbal system; the native terms are respectively vəyq “pathetic, servile” and zdarq “manly, overbearing, pungent.”

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    Tonal evidence is against the identification, too: skrəv has the Middle Hičajqri “excited” tone, whereas sqərəl- had two “bored” tones. They were tonally distinct as late as the transcriptions made by Gerulaitis in the early part of the twentieth century. (These have not been used as extensively as might have been expected, given their importance for skirilology. It is unfortunate that Gerulaitis’ work has never been translated from his somewhat idiosyncratic Lithuanian.)

  30. [vfǝ̋ɘ̏ hːh ʏy], as they say.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:


    Of course. Nobody would dispute that.

  32. Thanks to this discussion, I’ve sent off for Wonəbi’s historical grammar of Hičajqri. I just hope it’s not too out of date; clearly, the field is a fast-moving one.

  33. David Eddyshaw says:

    Although much of the detail in Wonəbi’s classic 1984 work has been improved upon by subsequent scholarship (not least her own extensive fieldwork with several highly aberrant dialects of the Fu:z Highlands), it can still be confidently relied upon as a solid introduction; indeed all subsequent work is greatly indebted to her magisterial insights. (My nit-picking over the etymology of “Skirilia” should not in any way be taken as detracting from my admiration for this profound scholar – she herself is famously immune to odium academicum and a generous and perceptive critic of others’ work.)

    Wonəbi’s analysis of the Hičajqri verbal system has never been superseded, and has transformed the study of the modern language itself, for too long forced into inappropriate frameworks drawn from Welsh and Ingush.

    The Historical Grammar is also by far the best extant introduction to skirilology in general. The weakest parts of the older work in this respect relate to supposed wider linguistic relationships. No serious skirilologist (including Wonəbi herself) now accepts the Sqərəli-Dene hypothesis, still unfortunately presented as fact in Merritt Ruhlen’s works; indeed it is Wonəbi’s own mature work which has shown beyond doubt that the many superficial similarities which so impressed Greenberg (and Sapir in his day) cannot reflect a common origin.

    It is much to be hoped that Wonəbi’s political activities will allow her sufficient respite for the completion of the long-overdue revised and updated edition, eagerly anticipated as the crown of the linguistic career of this remarkable polymath and patriot.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    The Historical Grammar is also by far the best extant introduction to skirilology in general.

    …not least because its treatment of morphonological haplogy puts the LOL in skirilology.

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