Something Smells Rotten in Denmark… Oh Wait, it’s Danish Pastry

(Cross-posted from Livejournal entry of Oct. 12th, 2010)

♬ The sense of sight
Is what guides us right
When we go out on walks.
The sense of smell’s
The way you tell
That you need to change your socks. ♬
-Animaniacs, “The Senses”

Smell and taste are funny things. As anyone familiar with my Banquet from Hell could tell you, one man’s sweet savour is another woman’s “Jayzus Bejayzus Keep It Away!”

A lot of it’s chemical. How this molecule fits into that olfactory receptor or that taste bud. And how it all works is beyond me, given that some living creatures have noses jillionty-three times more sensitive than ours.

But it’s not all chemical. A lot of it goes on in our minds.

A case in point. One day in several years ago I walked into our bedroom, which we were keeping closed as we try to maintain it cooler than the rest of the house; at that time my mother, go ndéanai Día trocaire uirthi, was living with us, and at 94 she liked a warmer environment. I said to myself, “It smells like cat’s piss in here.” Impossible – while we now have three cats, at the time we had none, and we had been in the home for a month and a half. I racked my brain trying to figure out what was smelling so bad – it was making me ill.

And then it struck me. We had two large basil plants in the windowsill, and they were getting the benefit of full Southern exposure. The room was filled with the odor of basil. And I love basil. And as soon as my mind had identified the odor, it no longer smelled like cat pee, or repulsive in any way. Same molecules. Same smell. Just a different frame of reference, and my room smelled like an herb garden.

Pesto waiting to happen

Would it be possible to re-frame one’s mindset so that evil humours are less offensive? Butyric acid is found in puke, but it’s also found in many cheeses. Nobody appreciates a technicolor yawn in public, but if you happen to be an honest to goodness turophile, the smell of a good, authentic European cheese shop is like unto ambrosia, and the smells are astonishingly familiar.

Mind you, some things are not worth the experiment. One of the last times I drove across the country in the spring, I passed through miles and miles of the most fragrant apple orchards in bloom that I have ever seen, followed by the most pungent – and literally lung-searing – stockyards I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. I don’t think I’d like to hang around and see if I could learn to appreciate that evil miasma.

Still, it was an interesting subject to think about. And now I’m craving a portion of gamalost.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The cat the rat the dog the cow… wait, what?

Over at Mental Floss, I found some of the oddest sentences that are perfectly grammatical and yet which don’t compile [1] properly.

One of the most famous is,

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

A visual explanation of this monstrosity is the most effective:


You can also visit Wikipedia for a detailed linguistic deconstruction; like Columbus’ egg (an appropriate simile for today) [2], it’s easy when you see what they’re doing.

However, only slightly less well known is this one: Never go in against a Sicilian sorry, I meant

“The rat the cat the dog worried killed ate the malt.”

This is an example of nested relative clauses. The structure is easy to follow when only few are used:

The rat ate the malt. The cat killed the rat. These become, “The rat (that) the cat killed ate the malt.”

Add in “The dog worried the cat” and you get “The rat (that) the cat (that) the dog worried killed ate the malt.” Since the subordinating conjunction “that” is optional in such clauses, the resulting sentence begins to become incomprehensible as the nestings are more and more difficult to follow.

The human mind is a wondrous machine, capable of prodigious feats of memory, calculation, and creativity, but it can only perceive so much at a single glance. In the case of determining how many items are within a field of vision, this skill is called subitizing, and the current human limit seems to be between five and seven.

Quick, how many dots?


Three. No challenge, right?  Now try this one. Quick, no counting!


The answer is “24,” but you didn’t know that without counting, unless you happen to be one of those few people, either autistic or supergenius, who has somehow bypassed the normal human ability.

But let me show you the same number like this:


And while you can’t subitize the dots, you can immediately calculate how many there are based on your encyclopedic knowledge of the universe and a bit of simple math.

In the same way, the human mind is able to understand and generate language, but there are limits to how much complexity can be comprehended, even if all grammatical rules are followed. Thus taking our example to its logical conclusion, “The House that Jack Built” becomes:

This is the malt the rat the cat the dog the cow3 the maiden4 the manthe priest6 the cock7 the farmer8 kept waked married kissed milked tossed worried killed ate, that lay in the house that Jack built.

It’s interesting from a scholarly standpoint, but nowhere near as fun to recite while bouncing your grandchild on your knee.

Remember, time flies like an arrow, and fruit flies like a banana.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] This is computational linguist slang for “I don’t get it.”

[2] I am 1/2 Italian by descent. As such, Columbus Day has long been a great celebration, especially in New York where I grew up. Sadly, in much the same way as we now know that brontosaurus is now an apatosaur, and that Pluto is no longer a planet but a Trans-Neptunian Object, we now know that Columbus is not the national hero he has been made out to be; October 14th would better be renamed “Genocide Day.” Yes, he played a significant rôle in the development of this nation, but the human toll that was left behind in his wake is staggering. A couple of things you might be interested in reading are at The Thunder Mountain MonumentThe Oatmeal, and Lies My Teacher Told Me.

[3] with the crumpled horn
[4] all forlorn
[5] all tattered and torn
[6] all shaven and shorn
[7] that crowed in the morn
[8] sowing his corn