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Caltech Student Turns Quirky Gift Into a Pronounced Talent

February 28, 1990|E. PAGE BUCY | Bucy is a Manhattan Beach free-lance writer

Ask Scot Fagerland to recite the Gettysburg Address his way. Quicker than you can say Abraham Lincoln, he analyzes the text, recasts the famous opening and blathers: "Foru ceors adn eensv aersy ago . . ."

If Fagerland's utterance sounds more like an incomprehensible stream of gibberish than a persuasive oration, it is because the 18-year-old Caltech student has the ability to see words differently. Literally.

He can take a word, instantly alphabetize its letters, then pronounce it using a special set of rules he has devised for letter combinations that don't conform to normal speech.

Following Fagerland's system of alphabetization, hello becomes "ehllo" and good night "dgoo ghint."

The long-haired math and engineering student said he picked up the habit at age 7 or 8, when he started noticing words whose letters were in natural alphabetical order, such as at, apt, for, beer, deer, ghost and almost.

"I thought it would be an interesting grammatical rule if all words had to be spelled that way. I wondered what certain words would sound like if that was true," he said. "I picked up on it pretty well. It doesn't require any thought. It's just kind of subconscious."

Dr. Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist and expert on people with unusual mental abilities, said Fagerland's talent seems extremely rare.

However, he noted, some people may not report having such abilities because the talents don't have any utilitarian value. "A lot of people will identify with having some of these skills as a child, but lose them as an adult," said Treffert, consultant on the film "Rain Man" and author of the book "Extraordinary People." "People haven't paid much attention to them. These are rather obscure skills that have no real value."

Fagerland said his strange linguistic ability did come in handy when he was a little boy pretending to be an alien from Venus.

And now, as an adult, he has discovered that audiences find it amusing.

He made his public debut reading Bible passages at a National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia last summer. Apparently no one thought it sacrilegious, or "acegiilorssu."

In September, after arriving at Caltech, Fagerland decided to try his hand at an institute talent show, held each year during "Frosh Camp" on Catalina Island.

While most students bold enough to get up on stage played a musical instrument or sang, Fagerland uttered nonsense.

"I thought, what the heck, everybody else is going to be playing the piano, so I'd do this instead. I knew it had good audience response," Fagerland said. "I had everybody in the front row give me their name tags. I read their names and they all thought it was pretty funny. I read the Caltech alma mater, too."

Impressed by Fagerland's crowd-pleasing ability, Robert Finn, a science writer in the Caltech public relations office, pitched Fagerland's "act" to Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show." On Thanksgiving eve, the freshman from Rapid City, S.D., landed a spot on national television, after Dolly Parton and Carol Siskind.

"He had the audience in stitches," Finn said. "Some names and phrases sound really funny. It was hilarious. He's a very personable fellow. He's quick on his feet. He's very comfortable in front of people. He sells this talent very well. He was even trading quips with Johnny."

Carson asked Fagerland how long he had been alphabetizing words.

Fagerland replied: "Professionally, about 30 seconds now."

"Obviously, Scot, you're looking for your own talk show down the line somewhere," Carson retorted. Fagerland, clad for the appearance in black jeans, Caltech sweat shirt and white high tops, just smiled.

Fagerland said his confidence comes from participation in high school drama classes and from working last summer as a tour guide in the Black Hills caves near Mt. Rushmore.

On "The Tonight Show," Fagerland issued an appeal for other instant alphabetizers to get in touch with him: "Please tell me that I'm not the only one."

After his appearance, Fagerland received various calls, including one from a professor in New York who has been searching for the longest naturally alphabetized word in the English language. Fagerland didn't know. He agreed with the professor that "billowy" is a good candidate.

A story about Fagerland in the on-campus Caltech News smoked out another bright college student capable of instant alphabetizing. Jonathan Kevles, whose father is a humanities professor at Caltech, said he can immediately assess the number of letters in a word and rearrange them alphabetically.

Unlike Fagerland, Kevles just repeats individual letters rather than pronouncing the reconstituted word. Kevles said his primary interest is in the "aesthetics of rhythm": whether the letters rearrange "harmoniously," or if the number of letters is odd or even.

"It's basically something that I do to fill the time," said Kevles, a senior majoring in comparative literature (French and Italian) at Princeton University. "It's just a quirky, useless talent."

For years, Kevles said, his parents have been trying to figure out a way for him to profit from his ability. "We noticed he had this peculiar talent but we never figured out how to capitalize on it," Dan Kevles said. "It's just an amusement that comes up at parties. It's fun. I get a kick out of it."

Fagerland, who wants to work in the aerospace field, acknowledges that he is unlikely to make a career out of his alphabetizing acumen. Still, since his "The Tonight Show" appearance, he has received a lot of publicity, with stories appearing in local newspapers from Pasadena to South Dakota.

He is not, however, going out of his way to land a spot on, say, the Stupid Human Tricks segment on "Late Night With David Letterman."

"I think," Fagerland said, "I better keep my mouth closed for a while."

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