[Warning: spoilers ahead!]
In 1943, Henry Kuttner wrote a short story in which language and semantics turn the tide of World War II. "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" is both the title of the story and the name of a marching song in the story—or rather, of an approximate English translation of a German marching song. Like the song that Reich uses as a mind-shield in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, the gingerbread song is catchy—so catchy, and so distracting, that it sweeps through the German-speaking world and sabotages military morale and efficiency.
The writer of the song is a professor named Phil Rutherford, who is "in charge of semantics at the University". One night while correcting papers, he overhears his son repeating a schoolyard rhyme used for choosing sides: "Ibbety zibbety zibbety zam—". He can't get it out of his head, and he has trouble concentrating on his work. Later, while discussing the morale of German soldiers in occupied Europe with with one of his honor students, Jerry O'Brien, he brings up the distracting rhyme.
"Ibbety zibbety," Bill muttered.
"Like that," O'Brien said. "Get some crazy tune going around a guy's skull, and he'll find it difficult to concentrate. I know I do, sometimes, whenever I go for a thing like the Hut-Sut song." [more about the Hut-Sut song below...]
Rutherford said suddenly, "Remember the dancing manias of the middle ages?"
"Form of hysteria, wasn't it? People lined up in queues and jitterbugged till they dropped."
"Rhythmic nervous exaltation. It's never been satisfactorily explained."
They wonder if they might apply their knowledge of German and semantics and write a song that's so catchy you can't forget it.
"Exactly." Rutherford looked pleased. "Get a perfect semantic formula and you can't forget it. And the perfect formula would have everything. It'd have rhythm, and just enough sense to start you wondering what it meant. It woudn't necessarily mean anything, but—"
"Could such a formula be invented?"
"Yeah. Yeah. Combine language with mathematics and psychology, and something could be worked out. Could be, such a thing was accidentally written in the middle ages..."
They write the song, and arrange to have it broadcast into occupied Europe. Crucially for their plan, the song is langauge-specific, so it will only work on German speakers. Kuttner doesn't provide us the song itself, of course. As he says in the opening lines of the story, "The only way to make people believe this story is to write it in German. And there's no point in doing that, for the German-speaking world is already starting to worry about gingerbread left." But he does give us an approximate translation:
LEFT a wife and SEVenteen children in
STARVing condition with NOTHing but gingerbread LEFT
LEFT a wife and SEVenteen children—
The rest of the story is a series of vignettes that shows the song spreading and disrupting Nazi forces in Europe. I particularly like several stream-of-consciousness passages that show the song hijacking the thought processes of various Germans. Here's an officer named Eggerth, stationed in Poland:
Eggerth bent over the report, squinting in the bad light. Ten head of cattle, scarely worth slaughtering for their meat, but the cows giving little milk . . . Hm-m-m. Grain—the situation was bad there, too. How the Poles managed to eat at all—they'd be glad enough to have gingerbread, Eggerth thought. For that matter, gingerbread was nutritious, wasn't it? Why were they in starving condition if there was still gingerbread? Maybe there wasn't much—
Still, why nothing but gingerbread? Could is be, perhaps, that the family disliked it so much that they ate up everything else first? A singlularly shortsighted group. Possibly their ration cards allowed them nothing but gingerbread LEFT
LEFT a wife and SEVenteen children in
Here's Herr Doktor Schneidler, a Nazi scientist (and excellent stereotype) who keep ruining his experiments because he can't focus, as he tries to unwind on a train:
He lay back on the cushions, relaxing. Thing about nothing. That was it. Let the precision tool of his mind rest for a while. Let his mind wander free. Listen to the somnolent rhythm of the wheels, clickety-clickety—
CLICK a wife and CLICKenteen children in
STARVing condition with NOTHing but gingerbread
The story continues in this vein, showing increasing disruption to the German war effort. German soldiers fail to see the Polish resistance machine guns they're searching for, even though they're right before their eyes. Germans manning anti-aircraft artillery don't shoot down Allied planes because they're preoccupied with an abandoned family surviving on gingerbread. Gunners on German bombers fail to open fire on attacking fighters because they too busy singing. Finally the little song about gingerbread works it way up to the highest levels of the Nazi hierarchy. I won't spoil the ending. Go read it.
It's interesting to compare this story with the Bester novel I wrote about before. They both use the idea of a catchy, circular song that gets stuck in your head, but in rather different ways. In Bester's story, the song is just a very catchy TV theme song that the murderer Reich uses for a new purpose: to shield his mind from police telepaths. In Kuttner's story (which was written some years earlier), on the other hand, the song is a precision weapon, designed using semantic, mathematical, and psychological principles to worm it's way into the minds of German speakers and sabotage their efficiency. In both cases the rhythm and meter of the song are important, and the meaning is also key in the Kuttner story, but neither story mentions the syntax of the song. I suspect that if such a story were written today, the writer would make analogies with computers, and have the songs' syntax be designed to crash or infinite-loop the sentence processing mechanisms in the brain. In fact, there's some stuff like this in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (which I'll probably get around to writing about one of these days—I'll have to reread it first).
The idea that there are scientific principles of language (and of the mind, and history, and philosophy...) that can be easily turned into applied techniques was quite common in science fiction in those days. Several prominent writers were devotees of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, a (pseudo?) scientific theory of language and meaning. These included A. E. Van Vogt, who based his novel The World of Null-A on ideas from General Semantics, and later got involved in Dianetics. I actually have a copy of Korzybski's Science and Sanity that I found at a thrift store a few years ago, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet—if GS were really that good, wouldn't it be more than an odd footnote in the history of science fiction? I'll report back if I ever get through it.
I wonder, by the way, if the guys in Monty Python based their sketch about the funniest joke in the world on "Nothing but Gingerbread Left". The idea of inflicting a fatally funny joke on the Germans during WWII is very close to Kuttner's scheme, but it's impossible to rule out independent invention.
Also, at the risk of drifting into patented Lileks territory, here's a link to a page where you can hear "The Hut-Sut Song" that Rutherford refers to. Fair warning, the chorus is pretty catchy, so don't listen if you need to conquer Europe this month.
Finally, here's an article I found on the web that covers much of the same ground as this post.
[Now playing endlessly in my head: "The Hut-Sut Song" by Freddy Martin]