Saturday, December 31, 2005

Minstrel Camping and Actinium Messiah

Like most people, I get spam--lots of spam. Most of it is dreary, depressing nonsense: bogus stock tips, attempts to phish out my bank account numbers, and offers to meet lonely, sex-starved housewives right in my neighborhood. But lately I've been getting spam with a weird, almost poetic twist. The contents of the e-mails are ridiculous, as always--offers to buy viagra, cialis, and other drugs at a discount. But the subject lines are truly unique. They consist of two-word phrases apparently constructed by picking words at random from a dictionary.

Here are some of the subject lines that have landed in my in-box the last few days:

Re: forehand messieurs
Re: negotiate lagging
Re: minstrel camping
Re: footwork diminished
Re: slough outpost
Re: usable synonymous
Re: imbroglio typographer
Re: actinium messiah
Re: seasonable abolitionism
Re: deficit sling
Re: kinematics blubbered
Re: reformer milage
Re: naturalize seedsman

(A few footnotes: actinium is "a radioactive, silver-white, metallic element that glows blue in the dark, resembling the rare earths in chemical behavior and valence." Might be a nice substance for making a dramatic, glow-in-the-dark statue of Jesus--an actinium messiah. Kinematics is "the branch of mathematics that deals with pure motion, without reference to the masses or forces involved in it." And the word milage seems to be a misspelling; it should be mileage, of course.)

Is this weird or what? It reminds me of "found poetry," or of the esthetic of randomness once espoused by people like the Dadaists. Randomness was also an element in the pop culture of the 1960s and 70s, when there were singing groups with names like The Strawberry Alarm Clock and John Lennon was writing lyrics like "Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower." (A pilchard is "a small, S European marine fish, Sardina pilchardus, related to the herring but smaller and rounder.") By the way, try Googling "Semolina pilchard." I just did, and I'm stunned by the quantity of hits. Among many other things, "Semolina Pilchard" seems to be the name of a prolific blog commenter. Maybe she (he?) will read and react to this post . . .

In the same era, my friend Arthur Maisel named his "underground" newspaper The Rajpramukh Ballute. I can't find either of those words in the Random House College Dictionary I happen to have at my side as I write, and I'm feeling too lazy to go get the OED from downstairs. So as Robert Benchley once wrote in a similar context, "You should look it up yourself because then you will remember it better."

I'd love to understand the strategy behind these ridiculous email message lines. Are they supposed to provoke curiosity and stimulate reading? Or is the theory that random words will avoid triggering the spam recognition software that most people have in their email systems? (If the latter, it doesn't work. All of these messages were appropriately classified as spam by my AOL account.)

If anyone has the skinny on this, please inform the rest of us.

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