n. the process of forgetting
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.
If A=1, B=2, C=3, etc., then ARM + BEND = ELBOW and KING + CHAIR = THRONE.
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.”
“Bored silly” one day, science fiction author Damon Knight and his wife invented logogenetics, “the new science of selling stories without actually writing”:
- Get two books and open each to a random page.
- Choose a word from the first book and then another from the second that might reasonably follow it. Write these down.
- Read the next word in each book. Write these down.
- 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.
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.”
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.”
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)
BRITISH LEFT WAFFLES ON FALKLANDS (Guardian, April 28, 1982)
FRIED CHICKEN COOKED IN MICROWAVE WINS TRIP (The Oregonian, July 8, 1981)
CROWDS RUSHING TO SEE POPE TRAMPLE 6 TO DEATH (Journal Star, Peoria, Ill., July 9, 1980)
HERE’S HOW YOU CAN LICK DOBERMAN’S LEG SORES (Reading Eagle, May 23, 1982)
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.
n. careful consideration
- Holmes and Watson never address one another by their first names.
- Until 1990, the banknote factory at Debden, England, was heated by burning old banknotes.
- The vowels AEIOUY can be arranged to spell the synonyms AYE and OUI.
- 741602 + 437762 = 7416043776
- “In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” — Mark Twain
Two trick questions:
Who played the title role in Bride of Frankenstein? Valerie Hobson — not Elsa Lanchester.
Did Adlai Stevenson ever win national office? Yes — Adlai Stevenson I served as vice president under Grover Cleveland in 1893.
n. the act or posture of reclining on a couch
At the climax of the 1934 film The Black Cat, Boris Karloff recites a “black mass” over a swooning Jacqueline Wells:
Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Humanum est errare. Lupis pilum mutat, non mentem. Magna est veritas et praevalebit. Acta exteriora indicant interiora secreta. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. Amissum quod nescitur non amittitur. Brutum fulmen. Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Fructu, non foliis arborem aestima. Insanus omnes furere credit ceteros. Quem paenitet peccasse paene est innocens.
This sounds marvelous in Karloff’s portentous baritone, but it’s weaker in translation:
With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. To err is human. The wolf may change his skin, but not his nature. Truth is mighty, and will prevail. External actions show internal secrets. Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even. The loss that is not known is no loss at all. Heavy thunder. With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. By fruit, not by leaves, judge a tree. Every madman thinks everybody mad. Who repents from sinning is almost innocent.
He might have added Omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina: “Everything sounds more impressive in Latin.”
From Henry Fowler’s immortal 1906 Modern English Usage, a table of commonly confused terms:
“So much has been written upon the nature of some of these words, and upon the distinctions between pairs or trios among them, that it would be both presumptuous and unnecessary to attempt a further disquisition,” Fowler wrote. “But a sort of tabular statement may be of service against some popular misconceptions.”
n. capacity for happiness
From J.A. Lindon in Recreational Mathematics Magazine, December 1962: If you advance I MUNCH BUN six places through the alphabet, you get O SATIN HAT:
Surely this means something.
“I am willing to give you a show,
But are these all the rôles that you know?”
The manager cried.
And the actor replied,
“Sirrah! No, sir; I know ‘Cyrano’!”
There was a young lady of Butte,
Who thought herself very acute.
That her suitor might praise her,
She gave him a razor,
Which suited her suitor hirsute.
There was a nice fellow named Jenner,
Who sang a phenomenal tenor,
He had little to spend,
So I often would lend
The tenor a ten or a tenner.
‘Tis said, woman loves not her lover
So much as she loves his love of her;
Then loves she her lover
For love of her lover,
Or love of her love of her lover?
– From Carolyn Wells’ Book of American Limericks, 1925.
Published in 1961, the New English Bible was an attempt to translate the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts of the Bible into modern English. Dwight MacDonald found this was “like finding a parking lot where a great church once stood.” As an illustration, he recast the Sermon on the Mount using only phrases that appear in the NEB:
When he realized how things stood, Jesus held a meeting to look into the matter. It was no hole-in-the-corner business. He went up the hill and began. ‘And now, not to take up too much of your time, I crave indulgence for a brief statement of our case. How blest are they that know they are poor. You are light for all the world. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. I also might make bold to say that you cannot serve God and money. Do not feed your pearls to pigs, and be ready for action, with belts fastened and lamps alight. Thanks for giving me a hearing.’ He then went to lunch with some distinguished persons.
“True, they did preserve ‘Jesus wept,’” MacDonald wrote. “But I’m sure there was strong support for ‘Jesus burst into tears.’”
n. ignorance; lack of knowledge
n. the study of ignorance
In 1927, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi isolated a substance in lemons and oranges that seemed to prevent scurvy.
He couldn’t identify it chemically, so he called it “ignose,” meaning “I do not know.”
When the editors of the Biochemical Journal asked for a different name, Szent-Györgyi suggested “godnose.” Finally they settled on “hexuronic acid.”
It turned out to be vitamin C.
In 1975, radio personality Jim Everhart published a three-volume Illustrated Texas Dictionary of the English Language:
ARN: A silver-white metallic element. “Mah muscle is as strong as arn.”
TOAD: The past tense of tell. “Ah toad you never to do that.”
PRAYED: A large public procession, usually including a marching band. “That was some prayed they had downtown.”
Four years later, Chase Untermeyer contributed a “Texlexicon” of words uttered by his colleagues in the state legislature:
HARD: Employed, as “I hard him to do the job.” Also a man’s name, as “Mah wife’s a cousin of Hard Hughes.”
RULE: Nonurban, as “He comes from the rule area.”
FORCED: A large group of trees, as “Lemme showya mah pine forced.”
BAR SHUN: The termination of pregnancy, as “Bar shun is murder!”
WHORED: Difficult, as “That was a whored one.”
WON’T: To desire, as “Ah won’t to seeya tonight.”
LOWERED BARN: An English poet (1788-1824).
“The amazing thing about this is that I never had one single Texan tell me he resented it,” Everhart told the New York Times. “They have accepted it more enthusiastically than anybody else. I think they’re kind of proud of it.”
n. a teetotaler
After an unusually queasy Channel crossing in 1868, Henry Bessemer conceived a steamer whose cabin was mounted on gimbals. In heavy seas the hull could roll beneath the passengers without rippling their cognac.
Work began immediately; in 1872 constructor E.J. Reed promised, “Although she may not fulfil every random prophecy that has been printed respecting her, she will thoroughly fulfil the object which the travelling public desire — namely, that of enabling us to cross to and from the Continent with health, decency, and comfort.”
The 350-foot S.S. Bessemer undertook her first public voyage on May 8, 1875 — and inauspiciously crashed into the pier. She moved too slowly and would not answer the helm. Investors lost confidence and the ship was eventually sold for scrap, but Bessemer insisted to the last that his conception had not been fully realized: “My hydraulic controlling apparatus was never completed, was never tested at sea, and consequently never failed.”
Everyone in Lyndon Johnson’s family had the same initials: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Lynda Bird Johnson, and Luci Baines Johnson. His dog was named Little Beagle Johnson.