John Steinbeck Literary Mystery
February 4, 2014 4:41 PM   Subscribe

John Steinbeck included this inscription in a friend's copy of Cannery Row: Kahn ni melm Sarat Twini Sener Ni Melm Siri Here is a copy. Any ideas on what it could mean are much appreciated.

You will notice that one side of link includes the inscription and the other side includes a personal note from Steinbeck to my friend, Tom. It reads:

For Tom,

From John Steinbeck

"Who's been sleeping in my bed"

My friend, Tom, rented a room from Steinbeck's sister in what was probably 1965 or so. Beth Steinbeck was living at the time in the Steinbeck family home in Pacific Grove.
posted by JCMFD to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This is maybe completely off-base, but that is kind of pushing my "I'm an anagram" buttons. It could have the word "think" or "thinks" in it, and/or something ending in "ism". I tried running it through various anagram programs online but none of them could handle a full 35 letters, and if it has proper names in it, it won't know them anyway. What was Tom's surname? Do you know if he was an anagram fan, or if he and Beth had some common interest or joke about anagrams?

Of course, I could be wrong and it might be a foreign language or some sort of quote.
posted by lollusc at 4:57 PM on February 4, 2014

Oh and if it's an anagram, it could also contain the words "sister" and "thanks", which might be relevant.
posted by lollusc at 5:17 PM on February 4, 2014

It may be a cryptogram with a simple substitution...I tried a couple of cryptogram solvers, but they were not helpful. Maybe it's a crypto anagram.
posted by Calzephyr at 5:47 PM on February 4, 2014

"Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed" was also a 1963 movie with Dean Martin in it.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:54 PM on February 4, 2014

Best answer: There are two i's with acute accents (at the end of Twini and Siri), and many of the words look broadly Germanic to my inexpert eyes. The capitalised words could be proper nouns, or maybe it's something like German capitalisation of all nouns.

According to wiktionary, "ni" and "melm" mean "not" and "dust", respectively, in Old High German. So maybe, a list of names of people...A list of people, e.g., "name" not dust? Fanciful, perhaps.

Maybe "ni" is the phonetic spelling of née and "melm" is the surname, though not capitalised. So, Kahn ni melm could be Kahn née Melm, and the next line is the given names?
posted by methroach at 7:43 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Assuming it's an anagram, I get:

mine thanks mine writer in Salinas

with this left-over: r i m m e l
posted by aspen1984 at 8:08 PM on February 4, 2014

Best answer: The string "ni melm" occurs twice in this blog, which I think is in an Indonesian language.
posted by zeri at 8:43 PM on February 4, 2014

Swimmer in a lake is
Slimmer in the inn
posted by maggieb at 12:06 AM on February 5, 2014

Is it one of those things where you run the words together really fast to make sense, like Owa tagoo siam?
posted by DarlingBri at 2:33 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Steinbeck and his sister had invented a language based on middle english and Le Mort d'Arthur...
posted by Marauding Ennui at 8:09 AM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for chiming in. In response to some of your questions. Tom's surname is Thomas. Thomas Thomas - no joke. He even lived on Thomas street at one point. I hadn't thought of it as an anagram but I suppose that's possible. "Melm" is clearly an operative word and is found in Old High German and Middle Dutch, both of which languages could be connected to Steinbeck's obsession with Malory and Mort d-Arthur. My understanding is some combination of those languages could have been the language of Arthur and the Round Table. Re "ni melm," a professor at Stanford reported that that it could be related to Malay. "Siri" is clearly important, too. However, I think I'm inclined to believe that it has something to do with the secret language between Steinbeck and his sister. Incidentally, Thomas Thomas rented the room from Beth Steinbeck - married name Beth Ainsworth. Finally, if "Melm" refers to dust, could it have to do with Genesis 3:19:

By the sweat of your brow
You will eat your food
until you return to the ground
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return
posted by JCMFD at 10:47 AM on February 5, 2014

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