Fright Font Friday

Night of the Living Dead title

In honor of Halloween, here are a trio of scary movie fonts.

Night of the Living Dead

Deanna, by Chris Hansen, is based on the title font. It’s available for free here.

Night of the Living dead font (Deanna) preview Night of the Living Dead poster

28 Days Later

28 Days Later, by Jens R. Zeihn, is based on the title font. It’s available for free here.

28 Days Later font preview

28 Days Later poster

The Shining

Shining NFI Demo, by an unknown designer, is based on the title font. It’s available for free here.

The Shining font preview

The Shining poster

Mayonnaise Hatred: A Brief History of Mayo and Disgust

Mayonnaise packet

By from

Mayo, the divisive condiment.

Near where I work there is a deli with a basket on the counter piled high with mayonnaise packets. They’re complimentary: If you buy a sandwich, you can take as many as you want. I know that decent folks nab just one or two, but I have a hard time sticking to that amount. I prefer four: two to lubricate the bun, and two reserve packets for use ad libitum on bites that demand an extra squirt of condiment. I find that if there’s mayo left in one of the reserves after the sandwich is gone, I can slurp it directly from the packet.

I slurp covertly, of course: I’m ashamed of my four-packet-a-day habit, which, if I’m being honest, typically involves a fifth packet. One day a friend espied me clutching a turkey and cheese, its half-eaten face white and glistening, as my free hand applied more sauce. “You are disgusting!” she said.

She was right: I have a mayo problem. But as my shame faded, I began to wonder: Was the problem really mine, or was it hers? Ketchup and mustard—our nation’s uncontested condiment king and queen—elicit no ire. But mayonnaise, an egg and oil spread whose 100th birthday under the label Hellmann’s arrived in September, is a source of endless controversy: BuzzFeed ran an article recently calling it “the devil’s condiment,” and Jimmy Fallon, Rachael Ray, and President Obama are all on record as mayo haters. What accounts for this condimental controversy? Why are we so divided over mayonnaise?

* * *

Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies.

“Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies,” goes one version of the old Milton Berle joke. The joke works on two levels: It may be that the Jew is dying out of horror at a clueless deli patron, since everyone knows corned beef goes with mustard and rye. Or it may be that the Jew is dying because she herself has chosen mayo and white, and therefore is no longer a Jew. In either reading, the mayo critique is clear—Keep your slime off my food!—a protest that critics of the sauce would make ever more emphatically as the 20th century wore on.

You wouldn’t guess from Berle’s joke that he himself took his corned beef with mayo on white, a preference he attributed to a nomadic showbiz youth fueled by pit stops at railroad lunch counters in the 1920s. But for many Jewish Americans who came of age in that era, the frequent combination of white mayonnaise, white bread, and white gentiles created a lunchroom culture clash in which they were on the losing end. “They would make fun of me because they would be eating their sandwiches on white bread,” recalled Fred Okrand, who grew up in Los Angeles. “And I remember feeling ashamed, somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren’t.”

In the postwar years, however, Borscht Belt comedians turned this insult on its head. Well-sensitized to the fault lines in the American condimental landscape, and inspired by the seemingly boundless zeal for mayo expressed by a nation of molded-salad-obsessed housewives, these comics made the mayo-munching majority a target for gentle ridicule. To Mel Brooks, a Midwesterner was someone who “drives a white Ford station wagon, eats white bread, vanilla milkshakes, and mayonnaise.” Jackie Mason observed that when gentiles first ate pastrami they used mayo, but after trying mustard “they become like Jews”: one look at someone wielding the white stuff and “they say, ‘Yech.’ ”

These jokesters formed the advance guard in a burgeoning late-20th-century anti-mayo movement. Woody Allen underscored mayo’s goyish qualities in both Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters; humorist Harry Shearer profiled a family of pasty Midwesterners who maintained personal mayonnaise bottles in his 1985 mockumentary The History of White People in America. The menu at Katz’s Deli, Manhattan’s famous smoked-meat joint, bowed to the anti-mayo comedic-industrial complex by warning pastrami seekers to “ask for Mayo at your own peril.” By the 21st century, the condiment’s link with square, fair-skinned peoples was such that in the 2002 comedy Undercover Brother, learning to like mayo was one of the eponymous protagonist’s key training tasks for passing as a “tight-butt white man.” (For more mayo mockery, don’t miss Meshugene Men.)

Of course, this ethnic-comedic anti-mayo campaign did not exactly make a lot of sense. Despite its milklike appearance, mayonnaise is kosher and in fact holds a time-honored place in Jewish cuisine; Katz’s Deli happily sells mayo-rich egg salad and Russian dressing. Jackie Mason, in an email, hypothesized that the complicated relationship between Jews and mayonnaise was probably a consequence of Jews feeling “guilty over betraying mustard.”

A more fundamental—and deadly serious—threat to the hegemony of mayonnaise would come from public health advocates—who, like the comedians, insisted the nation’s appetite for the sauce had simply gone too far. By the 1960s scientists were sounding the alarm that eating too many cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs was perilous for the heart. In 1970 the New York Times, responding to reader requests for advice on “foods that do not clog the arteries,” described a typical lunch for heart disease epidemiologist Jeremiah Stamler: “A sliced turkey sandwich, no butter, no mayonnaise, coffee with skimmed milk, and melon.” Health anxieties over mayo expanded further with reports linking raw egg consumption to salmonella poisoning.

Out of these ingredients congealed the organized anti-mayo movement. The flagship organization, the Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club, was launched in the late ’80s by Honolulu-based writer Charles Memminger, who declared his intention to combat the “evil empire of slime.” A few years later, in 1991, a dozen college students at Wesleyan University formed the Wesleyan Anti-Mayonnaise League (WAML). The League formed to protest the daily appearance of large tubs of mayo in the college’s cafeterias, which, according to WAML founder Jenny Gotwals, “would get SO GROSS sitting out all day.” (Gotwals included a pledge to “never bring tuna or mayonnaise into our home” in her wedding vows.) In 2006 marketer Craig Horwitz launched the web site “When you order a BLT, there’s no ‘M’ in it. … It should not be the default. That’s our political position,” he explained.

A graph of historical appearances of the phrases “hold the mayo” and “hold the mayonnaise” in the Google Books database offers a glimpse into the rise of the mayo opposition, and reinforces the impression that anti-mayonnaise ideology is mainly a late-20th-century phenomenon. (And one that is associated, at least temporally, with emerging concerns about the risks of dietary fat.)

mayo graph.

However, there is evidence that mayonnaise was dividing eaters long before people started fretting over cholesterol. “Much modern depravity … I attribute to the unholy cult of Mayonnaise,” intoned the British writer Frank Schloesser in 1905. “At its best it is simply a saucy disguise to an innocent salmon or martial lobster,” wrote Schloesser, adding that the sauce’s effect on food was reminiscent of “an old actor painted up to look young.”

What do these century-old barbs suggest? Is it possible, as mayonnaise haters contend, that there is some offensive element intrinsic to the sauce itself that gives rise to mayophobia?

* * *

In late September I attended a mayonnaise-themed picnic hosted by Hellmann’s to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company’s mucilaginous muck. The firm had constructed the longest picnic table in the history of the planet on Pier 84 in New York City to celebrate its special day, and in the ardent hope that a Guinness world record might accompany its richly anticipated mayo-infused super-moist chocolate birthday cake.

A cheerful twentysomething in a Hellmann’s T-shirt passed me a box lunch containing a mayo-infused burger, mayo-smothered pasta salad, mayo-lubed corn on the cob, and a mayo-moistened cupcake. I asked her if it was awesome to work at the Hellmann’s event, since I assumed she got to eat as much mayonnaise as she wanted. She was a bit off-message: She admitted she thought mayo was disgusting. “I think it’s just when I was little I didn’t like things that were white,” she said.

What does it mean to say that something is disgusting? It is a surprisingly juicy question, and one that has stimulated a gush of scholarship in recent years. Research into human disgust suggests that substances of animal origin, such as poop or mucus, are more commonly offensive than plant matter. Disgust theorists often explain this pattern by noting that rotten flesh can harbor deadlier microbes than moldering plants. (The grossout response presumably serves to protect us from noxious things.) Research conducted in the U.S. suggests that slimy, gooey, filmy, mushy, and squishy things may arouse disgust. In the 1990s Army researchers concluded that the most widely disliked food item was liver.

Mayonnaise contains an animal product, it is reminiscent of pus or semen, and it is remarkably slimy and jiggly. And anti-mayo campaigners do seem to agree that the condiment’s gloppiness is central to its repulsive powers. “I have consistency issues in general,” admitted Gotwals. Horwitz also denounced the condiment’s terrible viscidity, and called the emulsification process by which it achieves its peculiar density “black magic” and “Satanic-type stuff.”

But vanilla ice cream and pudding are also jizzlike slimes, and they arouse little animus; ketchup is cherished despite its likeness to blood. And scholars have long noted that revulsion can rarely be reduced to sensory factors alone. Charles Darwin commented on the social aspects of taste in his 1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: “In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.”

Darwin’s observations hinted at an idea upon which revulsion scholars generally agree: Disgust is largely a cultural phenomenon. Infants don’t seem to experience it. Tiny children will tolerate unholy decay odors, and experiments show many will happily eat imitation feces (made with stinky cheese) or quaff glasses of juice in which (sterilized) grasshoppers bob like ice cubes. From centipedes to boogers, the grossout response is a learned one. Its latent purpose is often to distinguish friend from foe, and pass judgment on the habits of others. (To wit: As one informant bluntly told me, “Let’s be honest: Mayonnaise is a fat man’s food.” Or consider this quote from HoldThatMayo’s Horwitz: “If you’re looking for the real fringe, it’s the people who like Miracle Whip.”)

If mayonnaise haters are not born but made, does this mean they could be reprogrammed to covet the sauce? Could mayonnaise even shed its image as a humble condiment—a stigmatized food type, since they can only be eaten in small quantities before taboo ensues—and be recast as a standalone snack? Anti-mayo activists will surely recoil at the suggestion. (In a 2012 Bon Appétit blog post, one mayo detractor begged, “STOP trying to force me to un-hate it … I don’t force my love of Jamiroquai on anyone else.”)

But Rachel Herz, a smell scientist and author of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, thinks it can be done. Food meanings can change dramatically, notes Herz, who believes that the consumption of insects as food will soon take off in the U.S. (“I think in another 10 years you might be having mayonnaise on your cricket sandwich,” she says.) If mayonnaise could recapture the trendiness and luxury status it once held—perhaps via a renaissance in hip restaurants or an association with glamorous people—the haters might well change their tune, Herz says. “People will be like lining up to get those little packets and squirt them into our mouths,” she said with a giggle.

Even for a confessed packet slurper like me, this was hard to swallow. But the recent opening of a successful artisanal mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights suggests that a minor mayo movement is indeed stirring. And at the Hellmann’s event, there were unmistakable hints that a mayo makeover may be underway. “A lot of people don’t know about sandwiches with just mayonnaise only,” said NBA All-Star and Hellmann’s promoter Paul Pierce, now with the Brooklyn Nets. No meat, I asked? “Straight-up mayonnaise only!” Pierce said. And then there was celebrity chef Mario Batali: “It’s more than a condiment, my friend. Condiment is where it was born, and that’s where it lives. But using it as a main ingredient in baking and cooking is where its future is.”

Talk about disgusting: My stomach did somersaults in the face of this shameless saucy salesmanship. This turned out to be the rare mayonnaise topic upon which an avowed advocate of the sauce—yours truly—and a mayo hater could firmly agree. “Just the thought of that is revolting,” said Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club founder Memminger, when I asked how he felt about the idea of mayo as a main course. “It’s a slimy, horrible alleged food.”

Elsewhere in Slate, David Merritt Johns explains the history of mayonnaise, Ari LeVaux tries to find out why Hellmann’s is so good, and Katherine Goldstein argues in favor of a surprising mayonnaise alternative.

Babybel Cheese Wax Is The Ultimate Artistic Medium

Babybel cheese
If you didn’t make stuff out of that alluring red wax during elementary school lunch, you must have been a monster.
It's so much more than a container for that non-aggressively tasty soft cheese.

With it, you can make…





Teddy bears.

Teddy bears.

The cast of Bambi.

The cast of Bambi.

A manicure.

A manicure.
Don’t pretend you never did this.

A super impressive horse.

A super impressive horse.
Can’t you just hear its hooves clopping gently against the earth?





Angry Birds.

Angry Birds.

A DIY candle.

A DIY candle.
Maybe don’t try this unless you don’t care about burning whatever structure you’re in to the ground?



A ninja.

A ninja.
I c u.










Nobody Knows What Built These Weird Little Web Structures

Web structure


Something in the Peruvian Amazon is making weird, intricate structures that resemble white picket fences surrounding an Isengard-like spire.

No one has any idea who the mysterious craftsbug (fungus? spider?) is, or what the structure is even used for, excepting the fence part, which almost makes sense. Nobody, not even the scientists. We asked.

Nobody Knows What Built These Weird Little Web Structures

Troy Alexander, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, spotted the first of these structures on June 7. The little, seemingly woven fence was parked on the underside of a blue tarp near the Tambopata Research Center, in southeastern Peru. He later spotted three more of the bizarre enclosures on tree trunks in the jungle.

“All of them were on the small island used to view the parrot clay lick at Tambopata Research Center,” Alexander said. He described the fences as small – about 2 centimeters across — and posted a second photo of the structure on the subreddit whatsthisbug last week, hoping someone could explain the origin of the fortified mini-Maypoles. No one could.

We noticed the weirdness last Thursday, when Phil Torres, a biologist who also works at Tambopata, posted a link on Twitter. In the intervening days, we’ve tried to find out what on Earth could have made these tiny towers.

But it turns out that even scientists who study such things haven’t a clue.

“I have no idea what made it, or even what it is,” said William Eberhard, an entomologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“I’ve seen the photo, but have no idea what animal might be responsible,” echoed Norm Platnick, curator emeritus of spiders at the American Museum of Natural History.

“I don’t know what it is,” said arachnologist Linda Rayor, of Cornell University. “My guess is something like a lacewing, but I don’t really know.”

We have several more inquiries out, and will update this story as responses — mystified or not — come in.

Here are a few more comments:

“I do not know what organism made it. Never seen such a structure before,” said Jonathan Coddington, who studies spiders and is associate director for science at the National Museum of Natural History.

We asked WIRED’s incoming bug blogger, entomologist Gwen Pearson, if she had any thoughts on what the strange and beautiful structure could be. “The general consensus amongst people I know is this group,” she said, referencing moths in the Bucculatricidae family. But, “I would have gone with a relative of this group in Vietnam,” she noted, pointing toward the Urodidae family, known for weaving basket-like cocoons.

“We are all guessing,” Pearson said. “We have no freakin’ clue. And that’s my expert opinion.”

Suspecting that some sort of Lepidopteran (a butterfly or moth) might be responsible for the design, we’ve begun querying entomologists who specialize in these organisms. “I have no idea,” said Todd Gilligan of Colorado State University, and president of The Lepidopterists’ Society. “Some moths construct an ‘egg fence’ around eggs, using scales from the abdomen to protect the eggs,” he said. “So constructing fences around objects isn’t unheard of, but I haven’t seen anything like this before.”

Suggestions from the Interwebs have ranged from an incomplete cocoon, to the work of a moth in the Bucculatricidae family, to a spider from Mars. Alexander’s favorite theory, described on Facebook, is that “there are spider eggs in the base of the pole, and the spiderlings climb the pole and sail away on silken parachutes, protected by the fence the whole time.”

Conclusion: The structure itself, and the organism that made it, are still a mystery.

Map of Where 29,000 Rubber Duckies Made Landfall After Falling off a Cargo Ship in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean (#19), and 39 Other Informative Cartographies

Map of where rubber duckies made landfall

Amazing and unusual maps from

If you’re a visual learner like myself, then you know maps, charts and infographics can really help bring data and information to life. Maps can make a point resonate with readers and this collection aims to do just that.

Hopefully some of these maps will surprise you and you’ll learn something new. A few are important to know, some interpret and display data in a beautiful or creative way, and a few may even make you chuckle or shake your head.

If you enjoy this collection of maps, the Sifter highly recommends the r/MapPorn sub reddit. You should also check out There were also fantastic posts on Business Insider and Bored Panda earlier this year that are worth checking out. Enjoy!


1. Where Google Street View is Available


Map by Google



2. Countries That Do Not Use the Metric System




3. The Only 22 Countries in the World Britain Has Not Invaded (not shown: Sao Tome and Principe)




4. Map of ‘Pangea’ with Current International Borders


Map by via Reddit


Pangea was a supercontinent that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, forming about 300 million years ago. It began to break apart around 200 million years ago. The single global ocean which surrounded Pangaea is accordingly named Panthalassa.


5. McDonald’s Across the World




6. Paid Maternal Leave Around the World




7. The Most Common Surnames in Europe by Country




8. Worldwide Driving Orientation by Country




9. Map of Time Zones in Antarctica




10. Global Internet Usage Based on Time of Day


Map by Carna Botnet via Reddit



11. The World’s Busiest Air Routes in 2012




12. Visualizing Global Population Density




13. Flag Map of the World




14. Map of Alcohol Consumption Around the World




15. Map of Alcoholic Drink Popularity by Country




16. Map of Rivers in the Contiguous United States




17. US Map of the Highest Paid Public Employees by State




18. World Map of Earthquakes Since 1898




19. Map of Where 29,000 Rubber Duckies Made Landfall After Falling off a Cargo Ship in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean




20. Map of Countries with the Most Violations of Bribery




21. World Map of Vegetation on Earth





22. Average Age of First Sexual Intercourse by Country




23. If the World’s Population Lived in One City




24. The Number of Researchers per Million Inhabitants
Around the World




25. Worldwide Map of Oil Import And Export Flows




26. The 7000 Rivers that Feed into the Mississippi River




27. World Map of the Different Writing Systems




28. Worldwide Annual Coffee Consumption Per Capita




29. The Economic Center of Gravity Since 1 AD




30. The World Divided Into 7 Regions,
Each with a Population of 1 Billion




31. Earth’s Population by Latitude and Longitude


Photograph by mrgeng on Reddit



32. Map of Contiguous United States
Overlaid on the Moon




33. Frequency of Lightning Strikes Throughout the World




34. Overall Water Risk Around the World




35. The Most Dangerous Areas in the World
To Ship Due to Pirates




36. Area Codes in Which Ludacris Claims to Have H*es
(song reference)




37. Where 2% of Australia’s Population Lives




38. The Longest Straight Line You Can Sail on Earth
(Pakistan to Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia – 20000 miles)





39. Map of Europe Showing Literal
Chinese Translations for Country Names




40. Reversed Map with Southern Hemisphere at Top of Map (because position of North is arbitrary)


Map via



World Map Tattoo with Countries Visited Coloured


A Lovely English Garden Full of Deadly Poisonous Plants

"The Poison Garden" gates



View The The Alnwick Garden on a map  More on the Alnwick Poison Gardens can be found on Atlas Obscura — Some rights reserved by tölvakonu

To enter the poison garden of Alnwick you must fetch a guide to unlock the black iron gates, which are decorated with a white skull and crossbones and a worrying message: “These plants can kill.”

Inspired by the legendary poison gardens in Padua where the Medicis plotted the untimely, frothing ends of their royal enemies, the Duchess of Northumberland created this garden in 2005, dedicating it entirely to flora which are poisonous or narcotic.

The duchess herself, Jane Percy, is an unlikely patron. In 1995 her husband unexpectedly became the twelfth Duke of Northumberland following his brother’s untimely death, and Alnwick Castle fell into the family’s care. Roaming the elaborate gardens the newfound Duchess decided to transform an overgrown, neglected section into something the was at once both traditional and dangerous. The poison garden now sits nestled among 14 acres of greenery dotted with water sculptures, a cherry orchard, a bamboo labyrinth, and an enormous treehouse.

This carefully curated garden contains about 100 legendary killers. Guides explain their deadly properties while enforcing the strict “No touching; no smelling” rules. Included in the gardens are narcotic plants like poppies, cannabis, magic mushrooms, and tobacco. Because of the danger posed by the flora (some can kill or sicken just through touch), some plants are caged, and the garden is secured each evening behind gates under a 24-hour security watch.


View The Alnwick Garden on a map  More on the Alnwick Poison Gardens can be found on Atlas Obscura Some rights reserved by fuzzytnth3

Walter Koessler project: An extensive personal look into World War I

Photograph from Walter Koessler Project

Walter Koessler Project by Dean Putney (@deanputney,;
Kickstarter project link:

As I was getting ready to leave home after Thanksgiving, almost two years ago, my mom said she had something to show me. She pulled out a big black photo album from under our coffee table, casually laid it out in front of me, and blindsided me with the most meaningful, wonderful project I have ever undertaken.This is my great-grandfather Walter Koessler’s photo album from when he was an officer throughout all four years of World War One. It’s incredible for many reasons:

  1. Walter was German, and he was an independent photographer. Most surviving photos from the war are from the Allies, and they tend to be propaganda or journalistic. Walter’s photos are very personal.
  2. Walter was trained as an architect. When he left Germany after the war, he moved to Los Angeles and became an art director for some of the first talkie films. His photos are beautifully composed and well-shot.
  3. Photography was going through big changes at the time, and Walter was a major early adopter. Film cameras were fairly new, and he took his in the trenches and everywhere else. WWI saw the first major use of airplanes in war, and Walter took aerial reconnaissance photos from biplanes and hot air balloons. Stereographs were also becoming more readily available at the time, and Walter made his own 3D images of life in the war.
  4. Since Walter moved to Los Angeles so soon after the war, he preserved pretty much everything. The album was made in Los Angeles, and it’s about a hundred pages long, with over 700 photos in it. Since then, the album has been tucked away in Southern California, so it has no mold and has hardly faded at all.

As soon as I saw this, I knew I needed to research it carefully and share it with the world. For the most part, there are no captions for the photos, so that research has been a big challenge. I’ve gone through the album many times, interviewed family members, reached out to people online, and visited one of the places in the album.

My family has also saved a box of about a hundred more stereographs that show WWI in 3D. I’ve since found that my grandma saved hundreds of the original negatives from both the album and the stereographs, and they’re practically pristine. It’s a formidable, and frankly somewhat intimidating collection. Nearly a hundred years later, it seems almost impossible that these things have been kept in such great condition, and I’m so grateful my family has let me take charge of it.

Finally, I think I’m prepared to start the process of scanning and sharing them here. I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I do.

First scanned photos: scroll to the bottom of each page and click “<<< prev” for subsequent images.

What Is the Icelandic Word for “Four”? Fjórar. No, fjórir. No, fjögurra. No, fjarki. No …

"Thinking In Numbers" book cover

By from

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

The following is an excerpt from Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math, by Daniel Tammet, out now from Little, Brown.

Ask an Icelander what comes after three and he will answer, “Three what?” Ignore the warm blood of annoyance as it fills your cheeks, and suggest something, or better still, point. “Ah,” our Icelander replies. Ruffled by the wind, the four sheep stare blankly at your index finger. “Fjórar,” he says at last.

However, when you take your phrase book—presumably one of those handy, rain-resistant brands—from your pocket and turn to the numbers page, you find, marked beside the numeral four, fjórir. This is not a printing error, nor did you hear the Icelander wrong. Both words are correct; both words mean “four.” This should give you your first inkling of the sophistication with which these people count.

Icelanders have highly refined discrimination for the smallest quantities. “Four” sheep differ in kind from “four,” the abstract counting word. No farmer in Hveragerði would ever dream of counting sheep in the abstract. Nor, for that matter, would his wife or son or priest or neighbor. To list both words together, as in a textbook, would make no sense to them whatsoever.

This numerical diversity applies not only to sheep. Naturally enough, the woolly mammals feature little in town dwellers’ talk. Like you and me, my friends in Reykjavík talk about birthdays and buses and pairs of jeans but, unlike in English, in Icelandic these things each require their own set of number words.

For example, a toddler who turns 2 is tveggja years old. And yet the pocket phrase book will inform you that “two” is tveir. Age, abstract as counting to our way of thinking, becomes in Icelandic a tangible phenomenon. Perhaps you too sense the difference: The word tveggja slows the voice, suggesting duration. We hear this possibly even more clearly in the word for a 4-year-old: fjögurra. Interestingly, these sounds apply almost exclusively to the passage of years— the same words are hardly ever used to talk about months, days, or weeks. Clock time, on the other hand, renders the Icelander almost terse as a tick: the hour after one o’clock is tvö.

What about buses? Here numbers refer to identity rather than quantity. In Britain or America, we say something like, “the No. 3 bus,” turning the number into a name. Icelanders do something similar. Their most frequent buses are each known by a special number word. In Reykjavík, the No. 3 bus is simply þristur (whereas to count to three the Icelander says “þrír”). Fjarki is how to say “four” when talking buses in Iceland.

A third example is pairs of something—whether jeans or shorts, socks or shoes. In this case, Icelanders consider “one” as being plural: einar pair of jeans, instead of the phrase book einn.

In English, I would suggest, numbers are considered more or less ethereal—as categories, not qualities. Not so the smallest numbers in Icelandic. It is as though each corresponded to a delicate nuance of color. Where the English word red is abstract, indifferent to its object, words like crimson, scarlet, and burgundy possess their own particular shade of meaning and application.

We can only speculate as to the reason why Icelanders stop at the number five (for which, like every number thereafter, a single word exists). According to psychologists, humans can count in flashes only up to quantities of four. We see three buttons on a shirt and say “three”; we glance at four books on a table and say “four.” No conscious thought attends this process—it seems to us as effortless as the speech with which we pronounce the words. The same psychologists tell us that the smallest numbers loom largest in our minds. Asked to pick a number between one and 50, we tend toward the shallow end of the scale (far fewer say “40” than “14”). It is one possible explanation for why only the commonest quantities feel real to us, why most numbers we accept only on the word of a teacher or textbook. Forty, to us, is but a vague notion; 14, on the other hand, is a quantity within our reach. Four, we recognize as something solid and definite. In Icelandic, you can give your baby the name “Four.”

This profusion of Icelandic words for the purpose of counting appears to be an exception to the rule. Many of the world’s tribal languages, in contrast, make do with only a handful of names for numbers. The Veddas, an indigenous people of Sri Lanka, are reported to have only words for the numbers one (ekkamai) and two (dekkamai). For larger quantities, they continue: otameekai, otameekai, otameekai … (“and one more, and one more, and one more … ”). Another example is the Caquintes of Peru, who count one (aparo) and two (mavite). Three they call “it is another one”; four is “the one that follows it.”

In Brazil, the Munduruku relay quantity by according an extra syllable to each new number: one is pug, two is xep xep, three is ebapug, and four is edadipdip. They count, understandably, no higher than five.

All this may sound almost incomprehensible for those brought up speaking languages that count to thousands, millions, and beyond, but it does at least make the relationship between a quantity and its appointed word sound straightforward and conventional. Quite often, though, it is not. In many tribal languages, we find that the names for numbers are perfectly interchangeable, so that a word for “three” will also sometimes mean “two,” and at other times “four” or “five.” A word meaning “four” will have “three” and “five”—occasionally “six”—as synonyms.

There is a tribe in the Amazon rain forest that knows nothing whatsoever of numbers. Their name is the Pirahã or the Hi’aiti’ihi, meaning “the straight ones.” Surrounded by throngs of trees, their small clusters of huts lie on the banks of the Maici River. Tumbling gray rain breaks green on the lush foliage and long grass.

Manioc (a tough and bland tuber), fresh fish, and roasted anteater sustain the population. The work of gathering food is divided along lines of sex. At first light, women leave the huts to tend the manioc plants and collect firewood, while the men go upriver or downriver to fish. They can spend the whole day there, bow and arrow in hand, watching the water. For want of means of storage, any catch is consumed quickly. The Pirahã apportion food in the following manner: Members of the tribe haphazardly receive a generous serving until no more remains. Any who have not yet been served ask a neighbor, who has to share. This procedure only ends when everyone has eaten his fill.

The vast majority of what we know about the Pirahã is due to the work of Daniel Everett, a Californian linguist who has studied them at close quarters over a period of 30 years. With professional perseverance, he gradually heard their cacophonic ejections as comprehensible words and phrases, becoming in the process the first outsider to embrace the tribe’s way of life.

To Everett’s astonishment, the language he learned has no specific words for measuring time or quantity. Names for numbers like “one” or “two” are unheard of. Even the simplest numerical queries brought only confusion or indifference to the tribesmen’s eyes. Of their children, parents are unable to say how many they have, though they remember all their names. Plans or schedules older than a single day have no purchase on the Pirahã’s minds. Bartering with foreign traders simply consists of handing over foraged nuts as payment until the trader says that the price has been met.

It seems the Pirahã make no distinction between a man and a group of men, between a bird and a flock of birds, between a grain of manioc flour and a sack of manioc flour. Everything is either small (hói) or big (ogii). A solitary macaw is a small flock; the flock, a big macaw. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle shows that counting requires some prior understanding of what “one” is. To count five or 10 or 23 birds, we must first identify one bird, an idea of “bird” that can apply to every possible kind. But such abstractions are entirely foreign to the tribe.

Lest anyone should think tribes such as the Pirahã somehow lacking in capacity, allow me to mention the Guugu Yimithirr of north Queensland in Australia. In common with most aboriginal language speakers, the Guugu Yimithirr have only a handful of number words: nubuun (one), gudh-irra (two), and guunduu (three or more). This same language, however, permits its speakers to navigate their landscape geometrically. A wide array of coordinate terms attune their minds intuitively to magnetic north, south, east, and west, so they develop an extraordinary sense of orientation. For instance, a Guugu Yimithirr man would not say something like, “There is an ant on your right leg,” but rather “There is an ant on your southeast leg.” Or, instead of saying, “Move the bowl back a bit,” the man would say, “Move the bowl to the north-northwest a bit.”

We are tempted to say that a compass, for them, has no point. But at least one other interesting observation can be drawn from the Guugu Yimithirrs’ ability. In the West, young children often struggle to grasp the concept of a negative number. The difference between the numbers two (2) and minus two (-2) often evades their imagination. Here the Guugu Yimithirr child has a definite advantage. For two, the child thinks of “two steps east,” while minus two becomes “two steps west.” To a question like, “What is minus two plus one?” the Western child might incorrectly offer, “Minus three,” whereas the Guugu Yimithirr child simply takes a mental step eastward to arrive at the right answer of “one step west” (-1).

The Kpelle tribe of Liberia offers a final example of culture’s effect on how a person counts. The Kpelle have no word in their language corresponding to the abstract concept of “number.” Counting words exist but are rarely employed above 30 or 40. One young Kpelle man, when interviewed by a linguist, could not recall his language’s term for 73. A word meaning “100” frequently stands in for any large amount.

Counting people directly is believed by the Kpelle to bring bad luck. In Africa, this taboo is both ancient and widespread. There exists as well the sentiment, shared by the authors of the Old Testament, that the counting of human beings is an exercise in poor taste. The simplicity of their number words is not only a question of language; it also reveals an ethical dimension.

I read with pleasure a book of essays published several years ago by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. In one, Achebe complained of the Westerners who asked him, “How many children do you have?” Rebuking silence, he suggested, best answered such an impertinent question. “But things are changing and changing fast with us … and so I have learned to answer questions that my father would not have touched with a bargepole.”

Achebe’s children number ano (four). In Iceland, they would say fjögur.