Incontrovertibly the greatest nickname in history is The Snodgering Blee, Charles Dickens’ name for his eldest son, Charley. Some further inventive handles:
- Thorpedo – Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe
- Bathing Towel – Robert Baden-Powell
- “Chariots” – English former rugby league and rugby union footballer Martin Offiah
- “Singing” – Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain
- Attila the Hen – Margaret Thatcher
- The Prince of Whales – George, Prince of Wales, later George IV (Leigh Hunt was sent to prison for calling him “a corpulent man of fifty”)
- The Lizard of Oz – former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, after putting his arm around the queen in 1992
- The Ambling Alp – Italian boxer Primo Carnera (6’5″, 260 lbs.)
- Starvation Dundas – British Tory politician Henry Dundas, who said in a 1775 debate that he was “afraid” that a bruited famine in the American colonies “would not be produced” by a trade-restricting bill
The Doubleday publishing company was founded in 1897 by Frank Nelson Doubleday, whose initials inevitably led Rudyard Kipling to dub him “effendi.” In Ogden Nash, Douglas M. Parker says this was “a nickname he would carry for his entire career.”
v. to squeak like a rat
v. to bark like a dog
v. to cry like a quail
n. the noise made by peacocks
“When did the world begin and how?”
I asked a lamb, a goat, a cow:
“What’s it all about and why?”
I asked a hog as he went by:
“Where will the whole thing end and when?”
I asked a duck, a goose, a hen:
And I copied all the answers too,
A quack, a honk, an oink, a moo.
– Robert Clairmont
- What time is it at the North Pole?
- The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
- After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
- 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
- PRICES: CRIPES!
- “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial
When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.
A clever Toronto lawyer was deep into a technical argument before the Supreme Court. His position was dependent upon a close reading of the legal text and turned on the letter of the law. Suddenly the chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, leaned forward and asked the counsel if his argument also worked in French. After all, the law is the law in both languages and a loophole in one tends to evaporate in the other. Only an argument of substance stands up. The lawyer had no idea what to reply.
– John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country, 2008
n. a circumnavigation, an epic journey, an odyssey
In 1505 Ferdinand Magellan sailed east to Malaysia, where he acquired a slave named Enrique who accompanied him on his subsequent westward circumnavigation of the globe. When that expedition reached the Philippines, Enrique escaped, and his fate is lost to history. That’s intriguing: If he managed to travel the few hundred remaining miles to his homeland, then he was the first person in history to circumnavigate the earth.
In 1936, as Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for re-election against Republican Alf Landon, a group from Wall Street’s financial district sponsored a competition to find the best anagram for FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. The winner was VOTE FOR LANDON ERE ALL SINK.
During the 1980 campaign, Jimmy Carter was accused of reversing his position on several issues to maintain his popularity. Edward Scher of New York University coined the palindrome TO LAST, CARTER RETRACTS A LOT.
Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan, who inspired Howard Bergerson to compose a “press conference” in 1982 using only the letters in RONALD WILSON REAGAN. Here the Gipper describes his foreign policy:
We are sworn nonaggressors; we need law and order, we disallow war as lawless and senseless, and in a larger sense we also regard war as, now and again, needed. A needed war is no dead end or swan song, nor need we ride in war as no-good sinners on genderless geldings! We need androgens and derring-do! We need Old Glories, and seasoned soldiers garrisoned worldwide, generals in golden regalia, and raised dander! We need all-seeing, world-girdling radar, seagoing sonar and liaison ensigns, newer DEW lines and earlier NORAD warnings, larger arsenals and deadlier arrows in silos, R-and-D on lasers, and goodlier anger! We need no ring-a-ding dissensions and wild-goose rallies, nor do we need addled ding-a-ling diagnoses on wielding dread winged swords and daggers — or on wielding God’s own grenades! Ordained grenadiers alone assess, and ordained godlings alone will wield Gold’s sidereal grenades riding on Odin’s arrows. Godless Leningrad warlords and roodless, religionless Red warriors sold on Red-engendered Warsaw agreeings are as sidling sidewinders in loose sand! In nine innings (I disdain gridiron analogies) we will win — no one is dawdling! We are leaning on oars! We and God will engage all Red raiders, and, God willing, we will win odds-on! No one dragoons or goads God!
Reagan’s name can also be rearranged to spell INSANE ANGLO WARLORD.
adj. producing ducks or geese
A deservedly rare word; it arises from the medieval belief that the barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) grew underwater, emerging from barnacles that fell from trees. In his Topographia Hibernica of 1188, Welsh monk Giraldus Cambrensis wrote:
There are likewise here many birds called barnacles,(barnacle geese) which nature produces in a wonderful manner, out of her ordinary course. They resemble the marsh-geese, but are smaller. Being at first, gummy excrescenses from pine-beams floating on the waters, and then enclosed in shells to secure their free growth, they hang by their beaks, like seaweeds attached to the timber. Being in progress of time well covered with feathers, they either fall into the water or take their flight in the free air, their nourishment and growth being supplied, while they are bred in this very unaccountable and curious manner, from the juices of the wood in the sea-water. I have often seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and, already formed.
Apparently the belief arose because these geese were never seen to nest like other birds; it was not yet understood that birds migrate.
In September 1905, printers in Ivan Sytin’s Moscow publishing house went on strike, demanding pay for punctuation marks. Discontented workers in other trades and other cities soon joined them in sympathy: bakers, railroad workers, lawyers, bankers, even the Imperial Ballet. Without the railroad, steel and textile mills were forced to shut down; soon nearly the entire adult population of Petrograd had ceased work. The general strike led Tsar Nicholas II to issue the October Manifesto, granting a constitution to Russia for the first time in its history. Thus, wrote Trotsky, “a strike which started over punctuation marks ended by felling absolutism.”
A somewhat related story, from David Kahn’s The Codebreakers: In June 1887 Philadelphia wool dealer Frank J. Primrose sent his agent William B. Toland west, ordering him to buy 50,000 pounds of wool in Kansas and Colorado and await further instructions. The two corresponded by telegram using phrase codes like these to shorten the messages.
On June 16 Primrose planned to send the message Yours of the 15th received; am exceedingly busy; I have bought all kinds, 500,000 pounds; perhaps we have sold half of it; wire when you do anything; send samples immediately, promptly of purchases. Shortened with phrase codes this read DESPOT AM EXCEEDINGLY BUSY BAY ALL KINDS QUO PERHAPS BRACKEN HALF OF IT MINCE MOMENT PROMPTLY OF PURCHASES.
Unfortunately, somewhere between Brookville and Ellis, Kansas, someone added a dot, converting BAY into BUY. Consequently Toland bought 300,000 pounds of wool. Primrose lost more than $20,000 in settling with the sellers and sued Western Union, but the Supreme Court ruled against him on a technicality (he had declined to have his message read back to him). He collected only the cost of the telegram, $1.15.
adj. having an expressive face
n. the art of judging character by the features
n. a grimace
No matter how grouchy you’re feeling,
You’ll find the smile more or less healing.
It grows in a wreath
All around the front teeth,
Thus preserving the face from congealing.
– Anthony Euwer
v. the act or art of driving a chariot or coach
Banker James M. Fail repeatedly donated money to his alma mater, the University of Alabama, which he credited for his success in the business world. But he declined opportunities to give his name to an Alabama facility. “After all,” he said, “who would want anything with the name ‘Fail’ on it?”
In 2008 he found a way to support the school and accept credit — he put his name on the visitors’ locker room.
One wonders if there’s a personal story behind this “method of concealing partial baldness,” patented by Donald and Frank Smith in 1977. The hair is grown to a length of 3 or 4 inches, divided into equal portions, and brushed over the bald area, using hair spray to hold it in place. “By lightly sweeping the hair into the desired style as the hair spray dries, an appearance of a full head of hair is given.”
Expressions banned from use in New Zealand parliamentary debate:
Clown of the House
Idle vapourings of a mind diseased
I would cut the honourable gentleman’s throat if I had the chance
His brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides
Kind of animal that gnaws holes
Member not fit to lick the shoes of the Prime Minister
Energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral
Shut up yourself, you great ape
Snotty-nosed little boy
You are a cheap little twerp
Could go down the Mount Eden sewer and come up cleaner than he went in
Dreamed the bill up in the bath
The full list is here. In brighter news, saying that a fellow member “scuttles for his political funk hole” was deemed allowable in 1974.
adj. using high-flown and affected language
When pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I, he commissioned a “concerto for the left hand” from Maurice Ravel.
When his friend Dick Mohr had a cerebral episode in the early 1960s that impaired the use of his left hand, William Zinsser remembered Ravel and composed a “fantasia for the left hand” that Smolens could type as a recovery exercise:
crazed zebras craved egress
at a garage
scared bats vacated
begat a gaffe
at a cafe
a wet sweater starts a stagger
devastates a swagger
degraded a revered settee
a reader dazed a referee
drab cad dabbed at a cravat
treed a deaf cat
a fezzed Arab
razzed a verger
retarded gaffer basted a stag
braggart ate a garbage bag
at a data base
sex exerted Exeter cadets
aged drag star
segregated a sextet
“Dick Mohr never fully recovered,” Zinsser wrote in his 2012 book The Writer Who Stayed. “But my verses helped to keep us connected and amused a little longer.”
n. an account of what happens during a particular night
Two or three of them got round me and begged me for the twentieth time to tell them the name of my country. Then, as they could not pronounce it satisfactorily, they insisted that I was deceiving them, and that it was a name of my own invention. One funny old man, who bore a ludicrous resemblance to a friend of mine at home, was almost indignant. ‘Ung-lung!’ said he, ‘who ever heard of such a name? — ang-lang — anger-lang — that can’t be the name of your country; you are playing with us.’ Then he tried to give a convincing illustration. ‘My country is Wanumbai — anybody can say Wanumbai. I’m an ‘orang-Wanumbai; but, N-glung! who ever heard of such a name? Do tell us the real name of your country, and then when you are gone we shall know how to talk about you.’
– Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Aru Islands,” The Malay Archipelago, 1869
In the old times these isles lay there as they do now, with the wild sea round them. The men who had their homes there knew naught of the rest of the world and none knew of them. The storms of years beat on the high white cliffs, and the wild beasts had their lairs in the woods, and the birds built in trees or reeds with no one to fright them. A large part of the land was in woods and swamps. There were no roads, no streets, not a bridge or a house to be seen. The homes of these wild tribes were mere huts with roofs of straw. They hid them in thick woods, and made a ditch round them and a low wall of mud or the trunks of trees. They ate the flesh of their flocks for food, for they did not know how to raise corn or wheat. They knew how to weave the reeds that grew in their swamps, and they could make a coarse kind of cloth, and a rude sort of ware out of the clay of the earth. From their rush work they made boats, and put the skins of beasts on them to make them tight and strong. They had swords made from tin and a red ore. But these swords were of a queer shape and so soft that they could be bent with a hard blow.
– Helen W. Pierson, History of England in Words of One Syllable, 1884
n. the art of horseback riding
v. to ride away
Lewis Carroll was a poor sleeper and did a lot of thinking in bed. The notes he made in the dark often turned out to be illegible the next day, but he didn’t want to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp in order to scribble a few lines.
So in 1891 he invented the nyctograph, a card containing a grid of cells that could guide his writing in the dark, using a peculiar alphabet he invented for the purpose:
“I tried rows of square holes,” he wrote, “each to hold one letter (quarter of an inch square I found a very convenient size), but the letters were still apt to be illegible. Then I said to myself, ‘Why not invent a square alphabet, using only dots at the corners, and lines along the sides?’ I soon found that, to make the writing easy to read, it was necessary to know where each square began. This I secured by the rule that every square-letter should contain a large black dot in the N.W. corner. … [I] succeeded in getting 23 of [the square letters] to have a distinct resemblance to the letters they were to represent.”
“All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages, without even putting the hands outside the bed-clothes, replace the book, and go to sleep again. Think of the number of lonely hours a blind man often spends doing nothing, when he would gladly record his thoughts, and you will realise what a blessing you can confer on him by giving him a small ‘indelible’ memorandum-book, with a piece of paste-board containing rows of square holes, and teaching him the square-alphabet.”
v. to smile contemptuously
adj. given to evil-speaking; slanderous
n. a curse
If the English names of the natural numbers are spelled out consecutively, what letter occurs most frequently? In 1981 Frank Rubin showed that I never overtakes E in this race. When we reach NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, the letter E has appeared 3,130 times, while I has appeared only 1,310. After NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, each of the names ONE through NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE has appeared 1,000 times to the left of the word THOUSAND and 999 times to the right, so at the ONE MILLION mark I has appeared 2,620,000 times and E 6,260,000.
When we reach ONE BILLION, I has had a bit of a boost by appearing 1,998,000,000 times in the word MILLION, but it’s not enough: At this point E has appeared 9,390,000,000 times and I only 5,928,000,000.
The gap is never closed. It narrows if an -illion word has two or more Is and no Es, but if E also appears (SEXTILLION, SEPTILLION) then it widens. I makes its closest approach at ONE SEXTILLION, when we’ve racked up 2.0159 × 1022 Is and 2.191 × 1022 Es.
In fact, the only letters that ever surpass E, anywhere in the sequence, are O at the end of TWO and T before THREE is spelled out.
(“Colloquy,” Word Ways, November 1981)
Excerpts from an Independence Day oration by Nashville attorney Edwin H. Tenney to the Young Men’s Association of Great Bend, Tenn., July 4, 1858:
- “Venerable, my Fellow Citizens, on the brilliant calendar of American Independence, is the day we celebrate. Venerable as the revolving epoch in our anniversaries of freedom is this avalanche of time. Venerable as the abacus on the citadel of greatness, thou well-spring of hope. Homestead of Liberty, we venerate thy habitation. Monument of immortality, we adorate thy worth.”
- “To those veterans eulogy is preposterous and monuments unavailing, but a heart soaking with gratitude is never bleak nor serene. Cold calumny may chill it and life’s icicles freeze it, but when thawed by recollections blood leaps through its veins. Could we learn from immortality their fame or presage their memory, the priceless league — the serried rank — the siren yell — the solemn march — the cracking bone — the flying flesh — the clinic pang — the grilling wail — the quenchless sigh and the clattering footsteps of that army welding sympathy to ages and liberty to life, will float like the dying groans of Calvary down the rapids of mortality, and whistling salvation along the whirlpool of nations, they will enter like their fathers a sea of bliss.”
- “Such a theme needs no epitasis. It needs no amphitheatre with its Ignatius irritating the lions to accelerate his glory. It needs not the inflexibility of a Laurentius — or the suavity of a Pionius for its apodosis.”
- “Some of our ladies find this romance ‘mid flounces and ostentation — ‘mid luxury and expense — ‘mid smatterers of French peppered with Latin; of Latin salted with Greek; or of Greek hashed with German. To petrify their brains with problems or dishes would be blowing up the ramparts of beauty and fortune; pillaging the flower pots of geranium magnificence, and insulting the bounties of a benevolent God.”
- “”Would you remove these Senacheribs from Amaranthus — then become Malanchthons in reforms not Catalines of your country. Better banish — like Lycurgus — politician and poet rather than not tear from our wheels this drag-chain of Romance which is the pabulum of fancy and nursery of woe.”
“What does he mean by ‘blowing up the ramparts of beauty?’” wondered the Daily Alta California afterward. “The obscurity can’t be in the writer, and must therefore lie in our own ignorance. Still we ask — what are the ramparts of beauty?”
adj. not to be spoken of, unmentionable
n. things to be passed over in silence