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Pop Quiz


Visiting London for the first time in 1912, Russian poet Samuil Marshak asked a man on the street, “Please, what is time?”

The man said, “That’s a philosophical question. Why ask me?”

In a Word


n. an unmarried person

Schedule of a bachelor’s life, from the Yorkshire Observer, Nov. 30, 1822:

At 16 years, incipient palpitations are manifested towards the young ladies.
17. Blushing and confusion occurs in conversing with them.
18. Confidence in conversing with them is much increased.
19. Is angry if treated by them as a boy.
20. Betrays great consciousness of his own charms and manliness.
21. A looking-glass becomes indispensible in his room.
22. Insufferable puppyism exhibited.
23. Thinks no woman good enough for him.
24. Is caught unawares by the snares of Cupid.
25. The connection broken off from self-conceit on his part.
26. Conducts himself with airs of superiority towards her.
27. Pays his addresses to another lady, not without hope of mortifying the first.
28. Is mortified and frantic at being refused.
29. Rails against the fair sex in general.
30. Seems morose and out of humour in all conversations on matrimony.
31. Contemplates matrimony more under the influence of interest than formerly.
32. Begins to consider personal beauty in a wife not so indispensible as formerly.
33. Still retains a high opinion of his attractions as a husband.
34. Consequently has no idea but he may still marry a chicken.
35. Fails deeply and violently in love with one of seventeen.
36. Au dernier desespoir! another refusal.
37. Indulges now in every kind of dissipation.
38. Shuns the best part of the female sex.
39. Suffers much remorse and mortification in so doing.
40. A fresh budding of matrimonial ideas, but no spring shoots.
41. A nice young widow perplexes him.
42. Ventures to address her with mixed sensations of love and interest.
43. Interest prevails, which causes much cautious reflection.
44. The widow jilts him, being as cautious as himself.
45. Becomes every day more averse to the fair sex.
46. Gouty and nervous symptoms begin to appear.
47. Fears what may become of him when old and infirm.
48. Thinks living alone irksome.
49. Resolves to have a prudent young woman as housekeeper and companion.
50. A nervous affection about him, and frequent attacks of the gout.
51. Much pleased with his new house-keeper as nurse.
52. Begins to feel some attachment to her.
53. His pride revolts at the idea of marrying her.
54. Is in great distress now to act.
55. Is completely under her influence, and very miserable.
56. Many painful thoughts about parting with her.
57. She refuses to live any longer with him solo.
58. Gouty, nervous, and bilious to excess.
59. Feels very ill, sends for her to his bed-side, and intends espousing her.
60. Grows rapidly worse, has his will made in her favour, and makes his exit.

In a Word

n. an acronym whose derivation few can remember


  • Dorothy Parker left her entire estate to Martin Luther King Jr.
  • SOUTH CAMBRIDGE, NY contains 16 different letters.
  • 45927 = ((4 + 5) × 9)2 × 7
  • “You cannot be both fashionable and first-rate.” — Logan Pearsall Smith


Further ill-considered newspaper headlines gathered by readers of the Columbia Journalism Review:

MILK DRINKERS TURN TO POWDER (Detroit Free Press, Nov. 12, 1974)
COLUMNIST GETS UROLOGIST IN TROUBLE WITH HIS PEERS (Lewiston, Idaho, Morning Tribune, March 17, 1975)
STUD TIRES OUT (Ridgewood, N.J., News, March 30, 1978)
ALBANY TURNS TO GARBAGE (New York Daily News, Oct. 3, 1977)
PASTOR AGHAST AT FIRST LADY SEX POSITION (Alamogordo, N.M., Daily News, Aug. 13, 1975)
TIME FOR FOOTBALL AND MEATBALL STEW (Detroit Free Press, Oct. 19, 1977)
CHILD’S STOOL GREAT FOR USE IN GARDEN (Buffalo Courier-Express, June 23, 1977)
FARMER BILL DIES IN HOUSE (Atlanta Constitution, April 13, 1978)
DEAD EXPECTED TO RISE (Macon, Ga., News, Aug. 11, 1976)
CARIBBEAN ISLANDS DRIFT TO LEFT (Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 26, 1976)
NEW CHURCH PANNED (Albuquerque News, July 22, 1978)
CARTER TICKS OFF BLACK HELP (San Francisco Examiner, April 7, 1978)
DEER KILL 130,000 (Minneapolis Tribune, Dec. 7, 1967)
DRUNK GETS NINE MONTHS IN VIOLIN CASE (Lethbridge Herald, Oct. 30, 1976)
POLICE KILL MAN WITH AX (Charlotte Observer, Nov. 27, 1976)
YOUNG MAKES ZANZIBAR STOP (Wisconsin State Journal, Feb. 4, 1977)
CHESTER MORRILL, 92, WAS FED SECRETARY (Washington Post, April 21, 1978)
PROSTITUTES APPEAL TO POPE (Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard, Dec. 18, 1975)

When the Carmichael, Calif., chamber of commerce received relatively few applications for its 1975 beauty pageant, the local Courier ran the headline FEW HAVE ENTERED MISS CARMICHAEL.

See News to Us.

In a Word

v. to wander aimlessly


INCONSISTENT is an anagram of N IS, N IS NOT, ETC.

A Small Start


Europe once had a state whose official language was Esperanto. When boundaries were redrawn after the Napoleonic wars, a dispute arose regarding the border between Prussia and the Netherlands, and a sliver of 3.44 square kilometers became a no man’s land known as Neutral Moresnet. In 1908, German immigrant Wilhelm Molly proposed making the territory into the world’s first Esperanto-speaking state. They rechristened the area Amikejo (literally, “friend-place”) and adopted a national anthem, and the International Esperantist Congress even decided to move its headquarters from The Hague to the new “world capital” of the international language.

But it wasn’t to be. Germany overran the tiny territory as World War I broke out, and it was formally annexed by Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles.

Somewhat related: In 2004 deaf journalist Marvin T. Miller proposed building the “world’s first sign language town,” a community whose common languages would be American Sign Language and written English. Miller chose a site in South Dakota and named it Laurent, after Laurent Clerc, who co-founded the country’s first school for the deaf. But the project appears to have stalled due to lack of funding.

“The Poet’s Reply”

What’s unusual about this poem, composed by James Rambo for Word Ways, May 1977?

Use fulsome howl or direst word in galling us; toil over a shoddy ode?
Listen, dressed in gyves, tiger, allies fall, ensnared in timeless eras, mentally in agony, essays in gall.
Outwit Hades, ignore verses, you real lover? Come!

Useful somehow, Lord, I rest, wording all in gusto I love.
Rash odd yodel is tendresse; dingy vestige rallies fallen snared.
In time, lesser as men tally, I nag on — yes, say, sing all out — with a design.
O reverses, you’re all overcome!

The two stanzas are spelled identically.




is an anagram of


A Loss for Words

What’s the worst dictionary in the world? It appears to be Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language: Handy School and Office Edition, published in the late 1970s by Book-Craft Guild, Inc. While on vacation in 1994, Christopher McManus of Silver Spring, Md., had to rely on HSOE to arbitrate word games, and he quickly discovered that it had no entry for cow, die, dig, era, get, hat, law, let, may, new, now, off, old, one, run, see, set, top, two, who, why, or you. In fact, of 1,850 common three- and four-letter words that McManus found listed unanimously in seven other dictionaries, HSOE omitted fully 46 percent. At the same time it included such erudite entries as dhow, gyve, pteridophyte, and quipu.

“To find took, one must know to look under take,” McManus writes, “and disc is listed as a variant only at the disk entry.” The volume includes a captioned illustration of a raft, but no entry for raft!

It’s not clear what happened, but McManus suspects that the book was assembled from blocks of typeset copy, about 40 percent of which disappeared during publication. “Since the erstwhile publisher, Book-Craft Guild, is not listed in current publishing directories, definitive explanations are not available.”

(Christopher McManus, “The World’s Worst Dictionary,” Word Ways, February 1995)

(Note that this doesn’t indict all Webster’s dictionaries — most invoke Webster’s name only for marketing purposes.)


In 2004 wind energy company Gamesa Energy UK announced plans to erect a 40-meter test mast in a field outside the Welsh village of Llanfynydd.

The villagers value their seclusion, and the area is home to three endangered bird species — the red kite, the curlew, and the skylark.

So they changed the town’s name to Llanhyfryddawelllehynafolybarcudprindanfygythiadtrienusyrhafnauole, which means “a quiet beautiful village, an historic place with rare kite under threat from wretched blades.”

At 66 letters, this surpassed Anglesey’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch as the longest place name in the United Kingdom, attracting some media attention and free publicity for the village’s battle against the energy company.

The change lasted only a week, but it served its purpose. “It might seem that changing the name of the village for the week is a bit of a joke, but we could not be more serious,” villager Meirion Rees told the BBC. “If our community is to be overshadowed it might as well change its name and its identity.”

In a Word

adj. fearless

There was a young fellow named Weir
Who hadn’t an atom of fear;
He indulged a desire
To touch a live wire,
(‘Most any old line will do here!)

– Anonymous, quoted in Carolyn Wells’ Book of American Limericks, 1925

“Owen Kerr vs. Owen Kerr”

From the Western Jurist, November 1878:

Two cousins, each claiming that the other was indebted to him, were in court litigating the matter. During the trial, a member of the bar, possessing a somewhat poetical turn of mind, composed the following lines on the merits of the case:

If the strife in this case is extremely perverse,
‘Tis because ’tis between a couple of ‘Kerrs.’
Each Owen is owin’ — but here lies the bother;
To determine which Owen is owin’ the other.
Each Owen swears Owen to Owen is owin’,
And each alike certain, dog-matic, and knowin’;
But ’tis hoped that the jury will not be deterred
From finding which ‘Kerr’ the true debt has incurred;
Thus settling which Owen by owin’ has failed,
And that justice ‘twixt curs has not been curtailed.

In a Word

n. the process of forgetting

Gray Area


A legal conundrum from Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope’s Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741): Sir John Swale bequeaths to Matthew Stradling “all my black and white Horses.” Sir John has six black, six white, and six pied horses. Should Stradling get the pied ones?

On the one hand, “Whatever is Black and White, is Pyed, and whatever is Pyed is Black and White; ergo, Black and White is Pyed, and, vice versa, Pyed is Black and White.”

On the other, “A pyed Horse is not a white Horse, neither is a pyed a black Horse; how then can pyed Horses come under the Words of black and white Horses?”

Perhaps this will help — a proof that all horses are the same color, condensed from Joel E. Cohen, “On the Nature of Mathematical Proofs,” Opus, May 1961, from A Random Walk in Science:

It is obvious that one horse is the same colour. Let us assume the proposition P(k) that k horses are the same colour and use this to imply that k+1 horses are the same colour. Given the set of k+1 horses, we remove one horse; then the remaining k horses are the same colour, by hypothesis. We remove another horse and replace the first; the k horses, by hypothesis, are again the same colour. We repeat this until by exhaustion the k+1 sets of k horses have each been shown to be the same colour. It follows then that since every horse is the same colour as every other horse, P(k) entails P(k+1). But since we have shown P(1) to be true, P is true for all succeeding values of k, that is, all horses are the same colour.

Word Sums

If A=1, B=2, C=3, etc., then ARM + BEND = ELBOW and KING + CHAIR = THRONE.

In a Word


v. to eat often or in large quantities


In the early 1980s, William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter programmed a computer to write English prose at random. “The specifics of the communication in this instance would prove of less importance than the fact that the computer actually appeared to be communicating,” Chamberlain wrote. “Quite simply: what the computer said would be secondary to the fact that it said it correctly.”

Written in BASIC, RACTER (short for “raconteur”) ran on 64K of RAM. Its output, which strung together individual words according to programmed structures and rules of composition, was largely gibberish, but it could produce startling flashes of apparent lucidity:

More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.

Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they will do other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their happiness. They have love but they also have typewriters. That is interesting.

A crow is a bird, an eagle is a bird, a dove is a bird. They all fly in the night and in the day. They fly when the sky is red and when the heaven is blue. They fly through the atmosphere. We cannot fly. We are not like a crow or an eagle or a dove. We are not birds. But we can dream about them. You can.

A tree or shrub can grow and bloom. I am always the same. But I am clever.

And even the gibberish could be deep. RACTER’s first published work, Soft Ions, appeared in OMNI in November 1981. Its conclusion included some apparent nonsense about eating a leotard that was replenished by hordes of commissioners. But then the program reflected: “Is that thought understandable to you? … I wonder. Yet a leotard, a commissioner, a single horde, all are understandable in their own fashion. In that concept lies the appalling truth.”

Zip Lit

“Bored silly” one day, science fiction author Damon Knight and his wife invented logogenetics, “the new science of selling stories without actually writing”:

  1. Get two books and open each to a random page.
  2. Choose a word from the first book and then another from the second that might reasonably follow it. Write these down.
  3. Read the next word in each book. Write these down.
  4. Continue in this way, discarding “lousy” words as necessary, until you’ve spliced together an entire story.

As an example, Knight combined A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A with Ray Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun” to produce The World of Null-Apples, by A. Ray Van Vogtbury:

Gosseyn moved, but around the door.

‘Swallow the pills.’ In the sky with great desperate coming-in, danger flowering unreal whistlings, Prescott quietly said, ‘From the women that saw it, helicopters will blizzard.’ The hotels, the private people, cities that rose to strange power. Warm, strangely, with easy pink picture faces, because the race of bound men would sound mysterious. ‘You opposed the assault, man!’

Murder. Two supposed chocolate Gosseyn malteds. He smiled curtly, for the mute problem would slowly, reluctantly untangling, tell him the partial color acceptance. It again was a picture of a mind, dark, closer to sanity, one uneasy white reverie shining down. …

Logogenetic writing seldom makes sense, but Knight points out that it’s ideal for writing little books to go with exhibitions of ultramodern art. And he found it particularly entertaining to combine how-to articles from Woman’s Day:

With a whisk knife, sweep 3/4 inch under crust. Vacuum 1 cup grated pedals or rugs. Spread seats in trunk; put dirt on floor. Bake 1 tablespoon moderate detergent, 325° F., in hot bucket. Break upholstery apart, and serve.

UPDATE: A reader tells me that computer algorithms using Markov chains have been used similarly to marry texts — here’s Alice in Wonderland combined with Genesis and Revelations.

A Foreign Tongue


English was Joseph Conrad’s third language. Born in Poland, he learned French as a child but heard no English until he went to sea as a teenager. In 1874 he had just rowed a dinghy alongside an English cargo steamer at Marseilles when a deck hand threw him a rope and called, “Look out there.” “For the very first time in my life, I heard myself addressed in English — the speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships of the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and of solitary hours too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of remembered emotions — of my very dreams!”

His captivation with the language, he would later say, was “too mysterious to explain,” “a subtle and unforeseen accord of my emotional nature with its genius.” He made his way to England and began to puzzle out newspaper articles with help from a local boat builder. “I began to think in English long before I mastered, I won’t say the style (I haven’t done that yet), but the mere uttered speech,” he wrote to Hugh Walpole in 1918. “You may take it from me that if I had not known English I wouldn’t have written a line for print in my life.”

Though he spoke with a strong Polish accent throughout his life, with “years of devoted practice” his writing advanced him to the first rank of English novelists. Graham Greene declared him the best English stylist of the 20th century; T.E. Lawrence called him “absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was.” Here’s his memory of that morning in Marseilles as he watched the English steamer depart:

Her head swung a little to the west, pointing towards the miniature lighthouse of the Jolliette breakwater, far away there, hardly distinguishable against the land. The dinghy danced a squashy, splashy jig in the wash of the wake and turning in my seat I followed the James Westoll with my eyes. Before she had gone in a quarter of a mile she hoisted her flag as the harbour regulations prescribe for arriving and departing ships. I saw it suddenly flicker and stream out on the flagstaff. The Red Ensign! In the pellucid, colourless atmosphere bathing the drab and grey masses of that southern land, the livid islets, the sea of pale glassy blue under the pale glassy sky of that cold sunrise, it was as far as the eye could reach the only spot of ardent colour — flamelike, intense, and presently as minute as the tiny red spark the concentrated reflection of a great fire kindles in the clear heart of a globe of crystal. The Red Ensign — the symbolic, protecting warm bit of bunting flung wide upon the seas, and destined for so many years to be the only roof over my head.

“The truth of the matter is that my faculty to write in English is as natural as any other aptitude with which I might have been born,” he wrote in A Personal Record. “I have a strange and overpowering feeling that it had always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head.”

In a Word



n. fear of one’s mother-in-law

Above: “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law,” from Puck, November 1915.

Asked what was the maximum punishment for bigamy, Lord Russell of Killowen said, “Two mothers-in-law.”

News to Us

Unfortunate newspaper headlines collected by readers of the Columbia Journalism Review:

READER IS UPSET OVER DOG EATING FILIPINOS (The Wayne County Outlook, Monticello, Ky., Feb. 25, 1982)

MORE OF US WILL LIVE TO BE CENTURIONS (The Times Reporter, Dover-New Philadelphia, Ohio, Feb. 11, 1987)

POLICE BRUTALITY POSTPONED (The Mishawaka, Ind., Enterprise, Oct. 1, 1981)

DESPITE OUR BEST EFFORTS, BLACK EMPLOYMENT IS STILL RISING (The Evening Times, West Palm Beach, Fla., Oct. 3, 1980)



CROWDS RUSHING TO SEE POPE TRAMPLE 6 TO DEATH (Journal Star, Peoria, Ill., July 9, 1980)


EYE DROPS OFF SHELVES (Tri-City Herald, Pasco, Wash., Aug. 5, 1982)

PESTICIDE CONCERNS BLOSSOM (Williamsport, Pa., Sun-Gazette, May 21, 1985)

PRINCE ANDREW TAKES KOO PEASANT HUNTING IN SCOTLAND (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Nov. 28, 1982)

In February 1986 the Durham, N.C., Sun reported that contributions to Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business had increased by 120 percent in the previous year. It chose the headline FUQUA SCHOOL GIVING UP.

In a Word


n. careful consideration