Did you know that the English alphabet once had 27 characters? It used to be:

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z &

Raise your hand if you have just read the last characters as “X, Y, Z, ampersand!” 🙂 If you did, you’ve just once again propagated a mistake made centuries ago.

In the early 1800s, school children often ended their alphabet recitations with “ex, why, zed, and per se and.” Per se means by itself in Latin, so and per se and means and ‘and’ by itself. Over time, the words and per se and became clumped together and, like a bad (or really good) game of telephone, the words became ampersand.*

The history of the ampersand is quite interesting in and of itself (an interesting history per se?), but its story is merely here to introduce the concept of a mondegreen: the mishearing and misinterpretation of something due to some mistake in pronunciation or sound perception.

The term mondegreen came from Sylvia Wright, an early 20th-century American writer. At a young age, Wright had read a 17th-century ballet called The Bonny Earl O’Moray. In it, the pivotal lines are:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And laid him on the green.

Except, when read aloud, Wright had misheard the last line as:

And Lady Mondegreen.

This, of course, had produced an effect that the writer probably did not at all intend.

Wright admitted that she had perceived that someone had slain the bonny Earl AND Lady Mondegreen and that the two of them lay dying together. In truth, there was never a woman mentioned in the four lines – and, thus, was born the word mondegreen.**

As a side story: my discovery of this word, in turn, led me to look up a related word “game” called a holorime (or holorhyme).*** This is a type of verse where a rhyme maintains itself across an entire line or phrase. For example:

Poor old Dali loped with an amazin’ raging cyst, as
poor Roald Dahl eloped with Anna-May’s enraging sisters.

— Steven F. Smith

Not that anyone of us will go out and immediately start rhyming whole sentences; nevertheless, it’s still interesting to know that there’s actually a word that describes our ability to fantastically misunderstand something. It’s thanks to Wright, that, decades later, we now have a specific term to describe this pretty entertaining Volkswagen commercial:

new line
*The character ‘&’ itself was the result of combining the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’ (et is and in Latin).
**Portuguese actually also has a word describing this phenomenon: virundum.
***In French, one can produce these vers holorimes/olorimes as well. Par exemple:

Par les bois du djinn, où s’entasse de l’effroi,
Parle et bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid.
(By the woods of the djinn, where fear abounds,)
(Talk and drink gin, or a hundred cups of cold milk.)

– Alphonse Allais

Want to read more about other uncommon words? 🙂 See the Interesting Words page.

Wikipedia – Holorime
Wikipedia – Mondegreen
Wikipedia – Vers holorimes


I ran into this word yesterday, on my phone. When I read it, I thought its specificity was rather amusing. 🙂

A quincunx is a geometric pattern of five units arranged into the shape of a cross, with four of these being at right angles to one another and the fifth at the center. Essentially, it is the exact pattern of a five on any die one may find.

Its origin comes from Latin, where quincunx was the name of a coin whose value was five twelfths (5/12; in Latin: quinque + uncia) of the standard Roman bronze coin.

Funny enough, there’s no such word as quadcunx for a geometric pattern of four units.

Fortunately, there’s also no such word as sexcunx for a geometric pattern of six units – that would just leave a hole too large for puns to fill, I dare say. 😛

Want to read more about other uncommon words? 🙂 See the Interesting Words page.


duotrigintillion / sexdecilliard / triacontatrillion

Since I’m currently writing a program that deals with a lot of numbers, I’ve decided to write a post about some interesting numbers today. 🙂

Unbelievably enough, the words duotrigintillion, sexdecilliard, and triacontatrillion can actually all mean the exact same thing. They’re all words that mean this number: 1099 (that’s the same as a tenth of a googol)!

Why must we have a word for this specific number, when we could, much more simply, write 1099? I don’t know the answer to that, but I CAN tell you why there are three different words for the same value. 😛

In English, we name large numbers (n) with the suffix -illion. Billion and trillion use the Latin prefixes bi- (n = 2) and tri- (n = 3). Continuing this pattern, we build new words using the formula 103n+3.

In Europe, the same names are used, but for the pattern 106n.

The most common example of this difference is probably the number 109. In English, the word is billion, where as in European languages, it would be milliard (and billion would actually mean 1012).

This all rather put me in mind of another misunderstanding about numbers. George Bush was (allegedly) informed during the Iraq war that three Brazilian soldiers had been killed. “Oh my God!” he said “That’s terrible. Remind me again – just how many is a Brazilian?”

David Elliott, Sheffield, UK

Both of these systems actually stem from French. The “European” system was invented in the 15th century and the “American” system came approximately 200 years after that. In the 1600’s, the “American” system was prevalent in America as well as France, with Britain and Germany using the “European” system. Then, in 1948, France reverted back to the “European” system and America stayed where it was. Furthermore, in 1974, Britain decided to move to the “American” system. The result is now pure confusion for all parties involved.

It’s been suggested that instead of using the Latin-based systems, we use a Greek-based system instead, which is how the word triacontatrillion is derived. I don’t know about anyone else, but it seems like this would just makes things even worse. 😛

Want to read more about other uncommon words? 🙂 See the Interesting Words page.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Guardian