In a Word

adj. secret, private

“Special Correspondence. I learn from a very high authority, whose name I am not at liberty to mention, (speaking to me at a place which I am not allowed to indicate and in a language which I am forbidden to use) — that Austria-Hungary is about to take a diplomatic step of the highest importance. What this step is, I am forbidden to say. But the consequences of it — which unfortunately I am pledged not to disclose — will be such as to effect results which I am not free to enumerate.” — Stephen Leacock, The Hohenzollerns in America, 1919

In a Word

adj. devouring knives

John Cummings was a game drunk. In June 1799, having watched a French mountebank pretend to swallow clasped knives, the 23-year-old American sailor boasted that he could do the same, and “after drinking freely” he proceeded to swallow his own pocketknife and three others offered by his friends.

Thus began a memorable career. According to George Budd in the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, Cummings recounted his exploit in Boston six years later and was immediately challenged to repeat it. He swallowed six more knives, and an additional eight the following morning, “so that he had swallowed a knife for every day that the month was old.”

Why stop there? Nine months later, drunk again, he made the same boast in England and swallowed five knives on Dec. 4 and nine clasp knives on Dec. 5 (plus, he was told, another four that he was too drunk to remember).

Through the next four years, in great pain and continually vomiting, Cummings applied to a number of doctors, at least one of whom dismissed his story as incredible. But when he died finally in March 1809, his stomach was opened and “a great many portions of blades, knife-springs, and handles were found in it, and were carefully collected for the museum at Guy’s Hospital, in which they are now preserved,” Budd notes — Cummings’ contribution to medical science.

In a Word

n. a love of solitude

n. a dislike of social intercourse (“want of love to mankind” — Johnson)

n. a hater of strangers


Bill Nucker once told me that the sober response to a young wife’s obvious query about the small tear in his trousers acquired from a see-saw whilst scooping up the small son who had just fallen, giggling, from it in startlement at a response to his ocarina playing from a passing bird was: No, ma’am, this is a teetotaler’s teeter-totter ‘tater-tooter tweeter twitter titter tottered tot toter tatter.

— Charles W. Bostick, Word Ways, February 1977


If you move each of its letters to the mirror position in the alphabet (A <-> Z, B <-> Y, etc.), WIZARD becomes DRAZIW.

A word-level palindrome:

“Is it crazy how saying sentences backwards creates backwards sentences saying how crazy it is?”


There once was a ,cal fellow,
Who grew .ically mellow;
With a — he was gone
To the town of :
To write for a sheet that was yellow.

She was wooed by a handsome young Dr.,
Who one day in his arms tightly lr.;
But straightway he swore
He would do so no more,
Which the same, it was plain, greatly shr.

A boy at Sault Ste. Marie
Said, “To spell I will not agree
Till they learn to spell ‘Soo’
Without any u
Or an a or an l or a t.”

There was an old maid from Duquesne
Who the rigor of mortis did fuesne;
She came to with a shout,
Saying: “Please let me out;
This coffin will drive me insuesne.”

— Stanton Vaughn, ed., Limerick Lyrics, 1904

Thorough Enough

Seven ways to pronounce ough:

  • dough
  • tough
  • hiccough
  • bough
  • ought
  • cough
  • through

A letter to the London Times, Sept. 20, 1934:


‘A rough-coated dough-faced ploughman strode coughing and hiccoughing through the streets of Scarborough’ used to be set as a spelling-test at my prep school at Crowborough in the middle nineties.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

H. Pirie-Gordon

“If the English language made any sense,” wrote Doug Larson, “lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.”

In a Word

adj. of the nature of an obstacle

v. to put an obstacle in the way of; to obstruct

v. to enclose between walls, to wall in

v. to wall round

Law and Punctuation

In Ward v. Ward, a North Carolina court’s entire finding rested on the presence of a single comma. The will of Alvin T. Ward read:

My Trustee is directed to pay such amounts of and from the income generated by said trust, and from the principal of said trust if he deems same to be advisable, to, for, or on account of my said wife in quarterly installments or more frequently if he deems advisable and if practicable.

Is the trustee required to pay the income to Ward’s wife, or can he use his discretion? The income payments are required, ruled the court: The comma after “said trust” shows that only the distribution of the principal is left to the trustee’s judgment.

In Henderson v. State, Jacob Henderson’s 1984 burglary conviction in Mississippi was reversed in part because of a misplaced period:

The Grand Jurors for the State of Mississippi, … upon their oaths present: That Jacob Henderson … on the 15th day of May, A.D., 1982.

This is a “non-sentence,” noted the court. “The unmistakable period after 1982 is used by astute defense counsel to nail down the point — that the indictment fails to charge that Jacob Henderson did anything on May 15, 1982.” (This whole indictment is a notorious trainwreck.)

And in People v. Vasquez, a New York court disregarded an affidavit and dismissed a complaint because a misplaced comma made it unclear whether a key affidavit was hearsay:

“It may be that the confusion [about the affidavit] arises from the typographical error of placing a comma before the expression ‘upon information and belief,'” wrote the court. “Had the comma not existed, the entire expression ‘and that the assertion upon information and belief’ would have referred back to the earlier mentioned accusatory instruments so as to render the affidavit non-hearsay.”

In a Word

adj. speaking learnedly