Extraordinary Lengths


A number of German writers intentionally suppressed the letter ‘r’ (as did also a fair number of Italians), of whom the eighteenth-century German poet Gottlob Burmann (1737-1805) is perhaps the most amusing: he is reported to have hated the letter ‘r’ to such an extent that in 130 poems he never used it and refused to pronounce his own last name.

— Laurence de Looze, The Letter & the Cosmos, 2016

In a Word

adj. winding, sinuous, involved

n. the manner, way, or means

v. to entreat earnestly

adj. plain-speaking

In a 1993 New York Times article lamenting the obscurity of scholarly writing, University of Colorado history professor Patricia Nelson Limerick cited this passage from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind as an example of indecipherable prose:

If openness means to ‘go with the flow,’ it is necessarily an accommodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it.

She wrote, “Is there a reader so full of blind courage as to claim to know what this sentence means?”



In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Arthur Conan Doyle created an inadvertent grammatical puzzle: Who does the term “solitary cyclist” refer to? Apart from the title, the phrase appears only twice in the story:

  1. “I will now lay before the reader the facts connected with Miss Violet Smith, the solitary cyclist of Charlington, and the curious sequel of our investigation, which culminated in unexpected tragedy.”
  2. “‘That’s the man!’ I [Watson] gasped. A solitary cyclist was coming towards us. His head was down …”

The first passage describes a woman and the second a man, Bob Carruthers. Which is the solitary cyclist of the title? For 69 years Holmes fans debated the question. Those who argued for Smith read “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” as an appositive phrase, another name for “Miss Violet Smith.” Certainly Carruthers was “a” solitary cyclist, but “the” solitary cyclist was Smith.

Those who argued for Carruthers thought that “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” above was not a description of Smith but the second item in a list — that is, Watson was promising to describe three things: the facts of the case, the cyclist, and the sequel. They allowed, though, that the comma after that phrase was unusual (I gather that the serial comma wasn’t commonly used then). In the story Carruthers pursues Smith, both on bicycles, so either interpretation seems reasonable.

The matter was resolved in 1972, when Andrew Peck tracked down the original manuscript in Cornell University’s rare book room. In the title and in the first passage above Doyle had originally written “man” and then crossed it out and substituted “cyclist.” So the solitary cyclist is definitely Bob Carruthers. Another mystery solved!

(Andrew J. Peck, “The Solitary Man-uscript,” Baker Street Journal, June 1972.)


From reader Dave Lawrence: What is notable about these 14 sets of words?

accost commit launch deeded
adhere heckle silent versed
ampere arrive angers theses
chance ascent tester stored
chaste ascend tinder seeded
cohere heckle silent versed
debase mucked refile stress
demure riffle silent versed
endure shelve riling nested
forego recess gossip needed
herein advice resins stones
rebate locket career tested
recast costar pirate esters
remade astute surest rested
Click for Answer

Sound and Sense


In this passage from Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur, the mail-clad Sir Bedivere carries his wounded king down to a lake by a narrow path along a cliff:

Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels —
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.

“This passage is particularly interesting in the sudden change from the harsh imitative sounds describing the trip itself to the peaceful passage, dominated by liquids and nasals, representing the arrival at the shore,” writes Calvin Brown in Music and Literature.

He gives two examples of poets attempting to imitate musical timbres. Detlev von Liliencron’s Die Musik kommt describes the progress of a military band through a little German village:

Klingling, tschingtsching und Paukenkrach,
Noch aus der Ferne tönt es schwach,
Ganz leise bumbumbumbum tsching,
Zog da ein bunter Schmetterling,
Tschingtsching, bum, um die Ecke?

And the first stanza of Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne famously imitates a violin:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur

In The Craft of Translation, John Biguenet writes, “English simply has no matching nasal sounds in words that would convey the meaning, unless we turn to trombones, and then we have changed instruments.”

In a Word

n. cessation of labor

v. to extend hospitality to

adj. disposed to follow a leader

adj. brought back to one’s senses

I spent an evening at the house of the president of Harvard University. The party was waited on at tea by a domestic of the president’s, who is also Major of the Horse. On cavalry days, when guests are invited to dine with the regiment, the major, in his regimentals, takes the head of the table, and has the president on his right hand. He plays the host as freely as if no other relation existed between them. The toasts being all transacted, he goes home, doffs his regimentals, and waits on the president’s guests at tea.

— Harriet Martineau, Society in America, 1837

Long Hand


The framers of medieval charters needed to make them visually striking and memorable — relatively few people would be able to understand the Latin legalities, but many would see the documents, and in order to carry authority they had to look different from ordinary texts, remarkable and unique.

One way to do this was with “an altogether peculiar sort of writing, of which the first characteristic is elongation,” writes Nicolete Gray in Lettering as Drawing. In this charter given by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to the bishopric of Bamberg in 1057, the text is written in long, attenuated letters:


“The strange letter forms impress themselves, due to their difference from the norm, on the peoples’ consciousness and they thus endow the charter with a kind of aura that sets it apart,” writes Laurence de Looze in The Letter & the Cosmos. The signatures were often elaborate for the same reason: “A trace of worldly power is carried over into the writing, the letter forms performing this transfer of the power from the people who created the charter into the document itself.”

In a Word

v. to prepare or apply oneself

adv. elegantly; cleverly; ingeniously

n. utter perfection

n. a great or wonderful thing

A villainous Nazi named Roehm
Was searching for rhymes matching “poem.”
Then, chortling with glee,
Stated that he
Had found one at last. “That’ll show ’em!”

— J.M. Crais

More Word Sums

Back in 2012 I mentioned that if A=1, B=2, C=3, etc., then ARM + BEND = ELBOW and KING + CHAIR = THRONE.

Peter Dawyndt of Ghent University challenged his students to come up with more, and they found these:

WHITE (65) + HOUSE (68) = GOVERNMENT (133)
PETER (64) + PAN (31) = NEVERLAND (95)
COMIC (43) + BOOK (43) = FANTASY (86)
ABSENT (61) + MINDED (49) = FORGETFUL (110)
BLOOD (48) + BATH (31) = MASSACRE (79)
DRUG (50) + ADDICT (41) = STONER (91)
MICRO (58) + SOFT (60) = COMPUTING (118)
RED (27) + BULL (47) = COCKTAIL (74)
EGG (19) + PLANT (63) = AUBERGINE (82)
CUSTARD (86) + CREAM (40) = BISCUITRY (126)
VISUAL (84) + BASIC (34) = MICROSOFT (118)
MONA (43) + LISA (41) = LEONARDO (84)
DOWN (56) + LOAD (32) = ITUNES (88)
BLACK (29) + JACK (25) = VEGAS (54)
SUN (54) + RISE (51) = HORIZON (105)
POLICE (60) + CAR (22) = PATROL (82)
CHURCH (61) + MAN (28) = RELIGION (89)
FAMILY (66) + TREE (48) = ANCESTORS (114)
HAND (27) + GUN (42) = MAGNUM (69)
RAIN (42) + BOW (40) = COLORS (82)
ANT (35) + LION (50) = DOODLEBUG (85)
BOTTOM (85) + LINE (40) = CONCLUSION (125)
BACK (17) + SLASH (59) = HYPHEN (76)
BILL (35) + FOLD (37) = MONEY (72)
URBAN (56) + LEGEND (47) = BULLSHIT (103)
CALL (28) + GIRL (46) = HARLOT (74)
STAR (58) + TREK (54) = VOYAGERS (112)

Names of famous people:

JOHN (47) + CLEESE (49) = HUMOUR (96)
TOM (48) + HANKS (53) = FORREST (101)
BOB (19) + MARLEY (74) = RASTAFARI (93)
KURT (70) + COBAIN (44) = NOVOSELIC (114)
EMMA (32) + WATSON (92) = VOLDEMORT (124)
JAMES (48) + BOND (35) = DANIEL (45) + CRAIG (38)
GEORGE (57) + LUCAS (56) = JAR (29) + JAR (29) + BINKS (55)
STEPHEN (87) + HAWKING (73) = TEXT (69) + TO (35) + SPEECH (56)
CLOCKWORK (111) + ORANGE (60) = STANLEY (96) + KUBRICK (75)

(Thanks, Peter.)

No, Seriously


When Bertrand Russell was invited to China in 1920, he thought it might be a hoax — the letter was signed “Fu Ling-yu.”

When the Russells reached Peking, “the mystery of Mr Fu Ling-yu was solved in the person of Professor Fu, a tall Northern Chinese, young and handsome and of extremely fine presence.”

(From Dora Russell’s memoir The Tamarisk Tree.)