Talking Down

The interactive installation Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, invites participants to view themselves on a monitor while letters rain down upon them. “Like rain or snow, the text appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The text responds to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again. The falling text will land on anything darker than a certain threshold, and ‘fall’ whenever that obstacle is removed.”

The letters aren’t random — they form the poem “Talk, You,” from Evan Zimroth’s 1993 book Dead, Dinner, or Naked:

I like talking with you,
simply that: conversing,
a turning-with or -around,
as in your turning around
to face me suddenly …
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We are the opposite
of tongue-tied, if there
were such an antonym;
We are synonyms
for limbs’ loosening
of syntax,
and yet turn to nothing:
It’s just talk.

“If a participant accumulates enough letters along their outstretched arms, or along the silhouette of any dark object, they can sometimes catch an entire word, or even a phrase,” the artists note. “‘Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.”

In a Word

n. a description of the sea

Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield climaxes with a dramatic tempest at Yarmouth:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

Tolstoy wrote, “If you sift the world’s prose literature, Dickens will remain; sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain; sift David Copperfield, the description of the storm at sea will remain.” The scene formed the conclusion of Dickens’ public readings from the novel, and was often hailed as the grandest moment in his performances. Thackeray’s daughter Annie said the storm scene was more thrilling than anything she had ever seen in a theater: “It was not acting, it was not music, nor harmony of sound and color, and yet I still have an impression of all these things as I think of that occasion.”

Gender Studies

Most restrooms use simple labels such as MEN and WOMEN, but some are more creative. R. Robinson Rowe shared his collection in Word Ways in February 1977:

rowe restroom diagram

He added, “I was reminded of an incident at the treaty congress in San Francisco in 1952, when Japanese delegates unfamiliar with our language were briefed on the nomenclature of hotel restrooms: MEN would be a shorter word than WOMEN. An amused press reported their confusion and embarrassment when they were lodged in a posh hotel with facilities labelled GENTLEMEN and LADIES.”

In a Word

v. to grow dark, to become night


In 1948 Melvin Wellman discovered this pretty anagram:


And Dave Morice found this:


Lee Sallows discovered two similar specimens in Spanish:



These can be combined to make more:



In a Word

n. a prayer or devout wish

An 1898 item in the New York Times notes that William Gladstone once attended a Presbyterian service in Scotland where the minister said, “We pray Thee, Lord, of Thy goodness, to bless the Prime Minister of this great nation, who is now worshipping under this roof in the third pew from the pulpit.” And a Presbyterian minister opening an outdoor event reportedly prayed, “In consequence of the rain, O Lord, and by reason of the regretted absence of the Princess of Lochnagar, caused, doubtless, by the stormy weather, I do not purpose to address Thee at any length.”

Before a battle in the Irish rebellion of 1641, John Leslie, bishop of Clogher, prayed, “O God, for our unworthiness we are not fit to claim Thy help: but if we are bad our enemies are worse, and if Thou seest not meet to help us, we pray Thee help them not, but stand Thou neuter this day, and leave it to the arm of flesh.”

(During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “We, on our side, are praying to Him to give us victory, because we believe we are right; but those on the other side pray to Him, look for victory, believing they are right. What must He think of us?”)

In his 1863 history of France, Victor Duruy tells of a soldier named La Hire who sought absolution from a priest during the siege of Montargis in 1427. The priest asked him to confess first, and he said, “I have not time, for I must fall upon the English. But I have done all that a man of war is wont to do.” The chaplain gave him absolution such as it was, and La Hire fell on his knees by the roadside and said, “God, I pray thee that to-day thou wilt do for La Hire that which thou wouldst have La Hire do for thee, if he were God and thou were La Hire.”

Others think the notion of a timeless God, with its perceptual metaphor of God passively perceiving each and every moment of time in a single, unchanging, comprehensive vision, fails to give God the freedom to act in creation, in particular, in the future. Suppose a student receives acceptances from three different universities and is trying to decide which to attend. She prays to God: ‘Lord, at which of the three universities will I have the best overall collegiate experience?’ On the timelessness view, God sees only the choice our petitioner actually makes, not the alternative futures that would have transpired had she chosen to go elsewhere. So how can God answer this prayer?

— W. Jay Wood, God, 2011

“Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces to this: ‘Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'” — Turgenev

See Asking Back.

In a Word,_1922.png

n. the act of loving in return

Zelda to Scott Fitzgerald, spring 1919 or 1920:

I look down the tracks and see you coming – and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me – Without you, dearest dearest I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think – or live – I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you. I want to kiss you so – and in the back where your dear hair starts and your chest – I love you – and I can’t tell you how much – To think that I’ll die without your knowing – Goofo, you’ve got to try to feel how much I do – how inanimate I am when you’re gone – I can’t even hate these damnable people – Nobodys got any right to live but us – and they’re dirtying up our world and I can’t hate them because I want you so – Come Quick – Come Quick to me – I could never do without you if you hated me and were covered with sores like a leper – if you ran away with another woman and starved me and beat me – I still would want you I know

Lover, Lover, Darling –

Your Wife

In a Word

adj. poor or impecunious

adj. lacking wealth or resources; needy

n. government by the poor

In a Word

adj. long-lived

n. fullness of years, length of life, agedness

Index entries from A. Lapthorn Smith’s How to Be Useful and Happy From Sixty to Ninety, 1922:

Absurdity of voluntary retirement at sixty
Adding ten years to life
Alcohol as cure for insomnia, very bad
All day in garden
Beard, long white, don’t wear
Carriage and pair shortens life
Cause of insomnia must be found
Cook, good, source of danger to elderly men
Crime to die rich
Engine drivers over sixty, what to do with them
Garrett, Mrs., of Penge, active voter at 102
If no relatives, spend on poor
Young people, company of, at sixty, how to keep

See Jonathan Swift’s “Resolutions — When I Come to Be Old.”

An Untranslatable Poem

In his 1983 book En Torno a la Traducción, Spanish philologist and translator Valentín García Yebra cites a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:




Broadly, it’s an image of an evening tryst, but its import is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue.

“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.

“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”