Chirag Mehta has come up with a nifty word-search tool at Tip of My Tongue (“Find that word that you’ve been thinking about all day but just can’t seem to remember”). You can enter letters you think are or aren’t part of the missing word, as well as elements of the meaning, and you get a list of words with definitions (some of them hitherto unknown to me: “scrimshank British military language: avoid work,” “Bawson A badger”). I’m puzzled, though, by his insistence on spelling blog with an initial apostrophe (see his About page). Yes, it’s shortened from weblog; I’m guessing, though, that he doesn’t write ‘phone, ‘plane, or ‘flu’. (Via MetaFilter.)


  1. You can do something similar in the OED V2 on CD. In the search field, just put asterisks * (note the plural) wherever you aren’t sure about the letters. This is usually adequate for my purposes.
    The asterisk works in M-W Collegiate also. Petit Robert has a very fancy wildcard system:
    ? un charactère
    * plusieurs charactères
    & une voyelle
    # une consonne

  2. I have just put this to good use: I wanted a mnemonic of the form A=1, B=2 etc., with letters after J being ignored, for the code on my new credit card (which the bank set and doesn’t allow to be changed). I couldn’t think of anything plausible, but this page came up with a good one immediately.

  3. Lovely idea. Most of my communication seems to be in the form of “kinda like but not really”.

  4. In Germany, credit cards have an “extra” code with four digits (I’m not sure whether you’re talking about this, or about the pin-code itself – but it doesn’t make much difference for this post of mine, except that this “extra” code is printed on the back of the card, unlike the pin-code). If you encoded these as letters, and were looking for a word containing these four letters in the corresponding digit-order, you probably didn’t find a four-letter word. If you found a longer word, you would be very lucky to find one 1) with all the code-letters in the right order, and 2) without any other occurrences of these letters to distract you when decoding.
    So, in general, you would have to remember how to identify the code-letters in your codeword, and order them correctly. Wouldn’t it be easier just to memorize the four digits? Ah, perhaps you want to keep the code at hand (unsecurely, not in your head but written down), for quick ordering over the internet say, and to store the credit card elsewhere (securely)? The encryption is necessary because the storage location (piece of paper next to the computer) is not secure?
    I have a different procedure for my banking card pin-code, which also has four digits. I apply one of several algorithms to “digit codes”, and write them in a file. I put a one-letter identifier at the end of the encrypted result to identify which algorithm was used. The algorithms, and their identifiers, exist only in my head.

  5. clodhopper says

    Skiver, skive off, be the Tommy Atkins words for resting between leaves and not awol.

  6. Surely, just note down a phrase in which each word begins with a numeral-related letter in sequence. I’m sure almost any four letters (even with repeats) could be made into an innocuous motto whose existence would not arouse suspicion in would-be cr*dit-c*rd fraudsters. Alternatively, select any memorable ten-letter phrase – here’s an example: “dough saver”. Let each letter correspond to a numeral (d=0 o=1 u=2 &c.) and then write down your code – if your number is 6709, for example, WRITE DOWN “AVDR” anywhere you like. As long as you only memorize and do not write down “dough saver” nobody can have a clue to which letter represents which numeral. Except you. This allows you to select a phrase that includes letters beyond J, for greater secrecy.
    (Wow! cr*dit c*rd is a forbidden word here!)

  7. rootlesscosmo says

    Let C = 1, D = 2, etc. through the C major (diatonic) scale. A number of arbitrary length can then be encoded as a melody (using rests for zeros) which you can memorize, record as a small sound file, or even carry in your pocket on music paper without (much) fear of its being misused by a thief.

  8. 9 = D’.

  9. Great idea! But a melody generated in that fashion might be not so memorable.
    When my son was taking a standardized multiple-choice test, the kind where you inscribe your answers in little circles on a form, he used a similar method to hold a list of letters like ACECD in memory long enough to transfer a pageful of answers to the form.

  10. (Wow! cr*dit c*rd is a forbidden word here!)
    Sorry about that — every once in a while I get so irritated with a spam onslaught that I ban some common word or phrase, and it winds up being more annoying than it’s worth. I just unbanned it, so we can all discuss credit cards to our hearts’ content.

  11. You know, I don’t get any of those spam comments. They collect the suspect stuff for you at wordpress and put it there for you to review. It’s always correctly done.

  12. mollymooly says

    Wikipedia’s Card Security Code article only mentions 3-digit codes on the back of the card, and 4-digit codes on the front for American Express cards. Grumbly Stu might want to inform them about those wacky German cards.

  13. Oops, screwed up. Three digits is right.

  14. You know, I don’t get any of those spam comments. They collect the suspect stuff for you at wordpress and put it there for you to review. It’s always correctly done.
    That’s right, sneer at the common man. You lot with your posh WordPress blogs are all the same. And your goats don’t smell either.

  15. Common? It’s obviously more classy not having some company’s name plastered all over one’s blog, but I’m glad I don’t have to worry about the spam. Even Conrad allows a blogging company to present his work; it’s not just us lot.
    The goats smell lovely. Better than the Queen.

  16. John Emerson says

    Off-topic: The English word “thing” traces back to an Anglo-Saxon word “thing” which means something like “issue, topic, subject of dispute”, which survives in Swedish and has a verb form, “thingen”, “to discuss”. I just found out that Fr. “chose” and Sp. “cosa” derive from the Latin “causa”, which has a very similar meaning (as in “plead your cause”.
    Some one may already told me about “chose” here already, but if they did I forgot it and learned it all over again. Which was fun.
    Also, Laura Ingalls the Nazi agent was not the same person as Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House on the Prairie”. She was a pioneering aviator, though. Whew.

  17. speedwell says

    Retail outfits do, in fact, use the same ten-letter-phrase gambit, with refinements, to encode the non-markup price on the price ticket. When I worked at Victoria’s Secret in college, the code enabled us to figure out how far we could ad-hoc discount a, say, shopworn or damaged item.
    The rules are that you must use a string with no repeating letters, and if you repeat a digit more than once in a row, you replace the numbers after the first with X (X must not appear in the original string).
    IIRC, the word we actually used was MERCHANDIS (leaving off the E at the end as it was a repeat) for M = 1, E = 2, through S = 0. So the price tag on a garment might be, for example, 36.99, but the code might read “EMSX”.

  18. By ‘survives in Swedish’ I take it you mean ‘survives in Norwegian’.

  19. chocolatepie says

    I find it interesting that of the number codes listed by commenters, they all place ‘0’ at the end, almost as an afterthought. I wonder how the concept of zero changed linguistic organization after it was widely propagated.

  20. About thing/thingen and chose/cosa/cause:
    There’s also German “Sache” meaning both thing and legal cause (related to English “sake”).
    Not to mention “matter”, meaning both the stuff that things are made of and the subject at hand (what matters).

  21. rootlesscosmo says

    “Chose” is also a US legal term of art, not (as I recall) meaning the same as “cause” as in “cause of action.” Anybody out there got a Black’s Law Dictionary?

  22. Don’t forget the Icelandic Alþingi, maybe the oldest extant parliament in the world.

  23. SnowLeopard says

    Anybody out there got a Black’s Law Dictionary?

    From the 6th Edition:
    Chose /sho’wz/ Fr. A thing; an article of personal property. A chose is a chattel personal, and is either in action or in possession. See Chose in action; Chose in possession, infra.
    * * *
    Chose in action. A thing in action; a right of bringing an action or right to recover a debt or money. Right of proceeding in a court of law to procure payment of sum of money, or right to recover a personal chattel or sum of money by action…
    Chose in possession. A personal thing of which one has possession. A thing in possession, as distinguished from a thing in action. Taxes and customs, if paid, are a chose in possession; if unpaid, a chose in action. See also Chose in action, supra.

  24. How would such a word have got into English-speaking law? I didn’t think the Napoleonic code had had much influence on our law, but chose isn’t used elsewhere in English, so where else might it have come from?

  25. SnowLeopard says

    I get the impression that these terms long predate Napoleon. At any rate, they are sufficiently archaic that I’ve never run into them before. I find that much of Black’s Law Dictionary is like that.

  26. marie-lucie says

    legal “chose”:
    The word must indeed predate Napoleon, since it is unlikely that the British would have borrowed anything from the law code of their worst enemy. But the borrowing cannot be as old as Middle English, otherwise the initial ch would be pronounced as in Modern English. Therefore, it was adopted at a time somewhere in between.

  27. it is unlikely that the British would have borrowed anything from the law code of their worst enemy
    Although there’s probably something to that, don’t forget that most other European countries did adopt similar systematic sets of laws — and not only the countries that were invaded by Napoleon: according to Wikipedia, Romania adopted the Napoleonic Code with modifications, in 1864. I bet not many people here knew that. Maybe JE. Here’s something interesting:

    Despite being surrounded by Anglo-Saxon Common Law territories, Louisiana’s civil code has kept its Roman roots and some of its aspects feature influences by the Napoleonic Code, but is based more on Roman and Spanish civil traditions. As a result, the bar exam and legal standards of practice in Louisiana are significantly different from other states, and reciprocity for lawyers from other states is not available.

    Maybe chose came as a result of international trade with the Low Countries or France?

  28. John Emerson says

    A sort or Anglo-Norman-Latin garble survived indefinitely in English law. It had the effect of separating an artificial legal vocabulary from the ordinary-language vocabulary. The source is probably Norman, but long after 1066 and considerably after the aristocracy stopped speaking French in daily life.
    My source is either Maine’s “Ancient Law” or something quoted somewhere from Maitland.

  29. You and M. know everything. I suppose you’ve got nine thousand book too.

  30. I’m surprised no one has said much about Scandinavian things (law assemblies). The Manx thing is supposed to be still going.

  31. clodhopper says

    the OED has it back to the days of burnt buns:
    thing, n.1
    I. A meeting, or the matter or business considered by it, and derived senses.
    1. A meeting, an assembly; esp. a deliberative or judicial assembly, a court, a council. Cf. THING n.2 Obs.
    OE Maxims I 18 {Th}ing sceal gehegan frod wi{th} frodne; bi{th} hyra fer{edh} gelic. OE Crist III 926 {Th}onne he frean gesih{edh} ealra gesceafta ondweardne faran mid mægenwundrum mongum to {th}inge. OE Andreas 157 Swa hie symble ymb {th}ritig {th}ing gehedon nihtgerimes. OE Beowulf 426

  32. clodhopper says

    cause: OED:
    cause n
    [a. F. cause (= Pr., Sp., It. causa), ad. L. causa, caussa. The latter came down in living use as It., Sp., Pr. cosa, ONF. cose, F. chose matter, thing (a sense which causa has in the Salic Law, in Gregory of Tours, and the Capitularies). At a later period the med.L. causa, of philosophy and the law-courts, was taken into the living languages, in the form causa, cause; in Fr. from the 13th c.]
    I. General senses.
    1. That which produces an effect; that which gives rise to any action, phenomenon, or condition. Cause and effect are correlative terms.
    c1315 SHOREHAM 117
    2. A person or other agent who brings about or occasions something, with or without intention. (Often in bad sense: one who occasions, or is to blame for mischief, misfortune, etc.)
    c1374 CHAUCER
    3. A fact, condition of matters, or consideration, moving a person to action; ground of action; reason for action, motive.
    b. In a pregnant sense: Good, proper, or adequate ground of action; esp. in to have cause, have no cause, with cause, without cause; so to show cause, esp. in Eng. Law, to argue against the confirmation of a ‘rule nisi’ or other provisionally granted order or judgement.
    1375 BARBOUR Bruce IX. 25,
    II. In legal, and related senses.
    (In the Digest, ‘causa’ sometimes means ‘the facts of the case.’)
    7. Law. The matter about which a person goes to law; the case of one party in a suit. Hence to plead a cause. (Cf. 1883 in 3b.)
    1297 R. GLOUC. (Rolls) 9362 {Th}e ri{ygh}te of is cause. c1300 Beket 1043 To bringe this cause of holi churche tofore the Pope. c1400
    9. Contextually, and in translating L. causa or Gr. {alpha}{ilenis}{tau}{giacu}{alpha}, it sometimes has or approaches the sense ‘charge, accusation, blame’. Obs.

  33. I’m surprised no one has said much about Scandinavian things …

    Crown, Noetica, John and others discussed the Scandinavian/legal Thing-Ding in some detail here in an April post, starting about halfway down it.

  34. I believe “artichokes” and “dumbwaiter” are the traditional merchants’ codes. As such, though, they might not be as good as another phrase with ten unrepeated letters.

  35. Chose /sho’wz/ Fr. A thing; an article of personal property. A chose is a chattel personal
    Any link there with the Hindi/Persian ciiz (चीज़)?
    My Hi-En dictionary (Ed. S. Parikh) also gives ciiz-bast: belongings; articles; goods and chattels.

  36. David Marjanović says

    There’s also German “Sache” meaning both thing and legal cause (related to English “sake”).

    This is semantically so far gone that I had never noticed. Thanks a lot. 😮

  37. Alan Shaw says

    My Dad the druggist used ABSINTHEUM. A nearby drugstore used PHARMOCIST. I remember hearing that these were handed out at ph*rmacy college the way mantras were given to the Maharishi’s followers. Or maybe not.
    Another banned word! I’m not trying to sell you phƎnterm!ne or c1al1s!
    That reminds me, I’ve been planning to save spammers’ phony names and analyze them: there seems to be a “statistically improbable” number of Anglo/Hispanic combinations like Fulgencio Smith…

  38. Sigh. I have now removed “pharmacy” from the MT-Blacklist. I wish I wouldn’t give in to these hasty peevish impulses to ban such words, but I am but a humble hat and not a perfect being.

  39. Not knowing Chirag Mehta, I am not in a position to comment, but I can assure you that I consistently spell ‘phone, ‘plane, and ‘flu as ‘phone, ‘plane, and ‘flu (no final apostrophe in the latter : laziness, perhaps ?), and I invariably spell “blog” as “weblog”, since I find the four-letter contraction unbelievably ugly as well as being totally unnecessary (two letters saved, of a total of six ? Hardly worthwhile, IMHO).

  40. And then there’s French causer, “to chat, discuss”.

  41. David Marjanović says

    That reminds me, I’ve been planning to save spammers’ phony names and analyze them: there seems to be a “statistically improbable” number of Anglo/Hispanic combinations like Fulgencio Smith…

    It gets better. I once got spam from Blockhead J. Minolta.
    I once read that this is probably meant as a deliberate insult: “Yes, this is obviously fake, but 0.01 % of you suckers are still too stupid to notice, and that’s enough for me to make a profit! Deal with it, suckers!”

    and I invariably spell “blog” as “weblog”, since I find the four-letter contraction unbelievably ugly as well as being totally unnecessary

    Hardly any blog is a log anymore. New thing, new word.

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