Language Arts

“Suppose someone to assert: The gostak distims the doshes. You do not know what this means; nor do I. But if we assume that it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know too that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak. If, moreover, the doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.”

— Andrew Ingraham, Swain School Lectures, 1903

In a Word

n. judgment; a judicial sentence; penalty

William Vodden had a particularly bad day in 1853. He was on trial in Wales for larceny, and the jury foreman delivered a verdict of not guilty. The chairman discharged Vodden, but then there was a stir among the jurors, who said they had intended a verdict of guilty.

Vodden objected and appealed the case, but Chief Baron Pollock decided that “What happened was a daily occurrence in the ordinary transactions of life, namely that a mistake was made but then corrected within a reasonable time, and on the very spot on which it was made.” Vodden got two months’ hard labor.

Type Talk

In 1881 Puck published four faces assembled from printing characters and announced that its compositors intended to surpass “all the cartoonists that ever walked.”

Six years later, in an essay entitled “For Brevity and Clarity,” Ambrose Bierce offered a character to make irony clear in written text:


In April 1969, New York Times interviewer Alden Whitman asked Vladimir Nabokov, “How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?” He answered, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”

(Thanks, Justin.)

In a Word

n. a list of written stupidities

Unfortunate lines in poetry, collected in D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ The Stuffed Owl, 1930:

  • He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease. (Tennyson, “Sea-Dreams”)
  • Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old. (Earl of Lytton, “Love and Sleep”)
  • Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? (Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”)
  • Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse / At the feet of the fisherman’s wife. (Alfred Austin, “The Wind Speaks”)
  • With a goad he punched each furious dame. (Chapman, translation of the Iliad)
  • Forgive my transports on a theme like this, / I cannot bear a French metropolis. (Johnson, “London”)
  • So ’tis with Christians, Nature being weak, / While in this world, are liable to leak. (William Balmford, The Seaman’s Spiritual Companion)
  • Now Vengeance has a brood of eggs, / But Patience must be hen. (George Meredith, “Archduchess Anne”)
  • O Sire of Song! Sonata-King! Sublime and loving Master, / The sweetest soul that ever struck an octave in disaster! (Eric Mackay, “Beethoven at the Piano”)
  • The vales were saddened by a common gloom, / When good Jemima perished in her bloom. (Wordsworth, “Epitaph on Mrs. Quillinan”)
  • Such was the sob and the mutual throb / Of the knight embracing Jane. (Thomas Campbell, “The Ritter Bann”)
  • Poor South! Her books get fewer and fewer, / She was never much given to literature. (J. Gordon Coogler)
  • Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet, / And yet another, for the last is wett. (Anonymous, A Funeral Elegie Upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658)
  • Tell me what viands, land or streams produce, / The large, black, female, moulting crab excel? (Grainger, The Sugar-Cane)

In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell says, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.” Isabel asks, “What do you mean exactly?” He says, “Just that.”


Bilingual palindromes, offered by Luc Étienne in Palindromes Bilingues, 1984:

  • Mon Eva rêve ton image, bidet! = Ted, I beg, am I not ever a venom?
  • Untrodden russet! = T’es sûr, Ned dort nu?
  • Sir, I ate merely on it. = Tino, y le remet à Iris.
  • Isadora rêve = Ever a rod as I?
  • Ton minet t’adora = A rod, at ten, I’m not!
  • Crop, editor, not any Bob = Bob, y n’a ton rôti de porc!

I offer you a sentence which does not indeed read backward and forward the same, but reads forward in English and backward in Latin,– making sense, it seems to me, both ways; granting that it is hardly classical Latin.

Anger? ‘t is safe never. Bar it! Use love!

Evoles ut ira breve nefas sit; regna!

Which being freely translated, may mean,

Rise up, in order that your anger may be but a brief madness; control it!

— John Townsend Trowbridge, ed., Our Young Folks, 1866

Another Equivoque

This poem takes a pretty dark view of marriage — unless you read only the alternate lines:

That man must lead a happy life
Who’s free from matrimonial chains,
Who is directed by a wife
Is sure to suffer for his pains.
Adam could find no solid peace
When Eve was given for a mate;
Until he saw a woman’s face
Adam was in a happy state.
In all the female race appear
Hypocrisy, deceit, and pride;
Truth, darling of a heart sincere,
In woman never did reside.
What tongue is able to unfold
The failings that in woman dwell;
The worths in woman we behold
Are almost imperceptible.
Confusion take the man, I say,
Who changes from his singleness,
Who will not yield to woman’s sway,
Is sure of earthly blessedness.

— W.S. Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892