In a Word

v. to make happy

In a Word,_Ludolf_-_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee_-_1695.jpg

adj. stormy

adj. causing shipwreck

Running On

Cushing Biggs Hassell’s thousand-page History of the Church of God (1886) is notable for a single sentence — this one, on page 580, beginning “The nineteenth is the century …”

It’s six pages long, with 3,153 words, 360 commas, 86 semicolons, and six footnotes. Many regard it as the longest legitimate sentence ever published in a book.

Essentially it’s one long indictment of the 19th century, proving for Hassell that “after all our progress, this is still a very sinful and miserable world.” Why he felt he had to show this in a single sentence is not clear.

Alphabet Soup

A story has been told of a graceless scamp who gained access to the Clarendon printing-office in Oxford, when the forms of a new edition of the Episcopal prayer book had just been made up and were ready for the press. In that part of the ‘form’ containing the marriage service, he substituted the letter k for the letter v in the word live, and thus the vow to ‘love, honor, comfort,’ etc., ‘so long as ye both shall live,’ was made to read, ‘so long as ye both shall like.’ The change was not discovered until the whole of the edition was printed off.

Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, October 1870

When Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in in 1901, the New York Times printed a B in place of an O in one story and recorded that “surrounded only by a few friends, Theodore Roosevelt took his simple bath to defend and carry out our Constitution.”

“The most amusing feature of the above,” reported the Bookman, “is due to an English newspaper which quoted the paragraph, did not recognise the misprint and went on to comment upon it with perfect seriousness.”

A Rather Long Resume

In 1867, the finance department of the city of Madrid employed a man named Don Juan Nepomuceno de Burionagonatotorecagageazcoecha.

If he had moved to northern Bohemia and become “deputy-president of the Food-Rationing-Winding-Up-Commission,” his job title would have been Lebensmittelzuschlusseinstellungskomissionsvorsitzenderstellvertreter.

In a perfect world he would then moonlight as a Gesundheitswiederherstellungsmittelzusammenmischungsverhältniskundiger, Bismarck’s term for an apothecary.

In his library he would keep the Antipericatametanaparbeugedamphicribrationes Toordicantium, mentioned by Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall, in which the phrenologist Mr. Cranium describes anatomical structures as osseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary and osteosarchaematosplanchnochondroneuromuelous.

And he would vacation in Bristol, whose spa waters were described by the English medical writer Edward Strother (1675-1737) as aequeosalinocalcalinoceraceoaluminosocupreovitriolic.

Or perhaps he should just stay in Madrid.

In a Word

adj. bellowing again

Black and White

‘”No,” she laughed.’ How on earth could that be done? If you try to laugh and say ‘No’ at the same time, it sounds like neighing — yet people are perpetually doing it in novels. If they did it in real life they would be locked up.

— Hilaire Belloc, “On People in Books,” 1910

History Denied

In 1997, University of Edinburgh linguistics professor Geoffrey K. Pullum submitted the following letter to the Economist:

‘Connections needed’ (March 15) reports that Russia’s Transneft pipeline operator is not able to separate crude flows from different oil fields: ‘they all come out swirled into a single bland blend.’ This is quite true. And worse yet, the characterless, light-colored mix thus produced is concocted blindly, without quality oversight, surely a grave mistake. In fact, I do not recall ever encountering a blinder blander blonder blender blunder.

It “would have been a true first in natural language text,” Pullum wrote, “a grammatical and meaningful sequence of five consecutive words in a natural context that are differentiated from each other by just a single character.” Alas, the Economist chose not to print it.

In a Word

v. to turn into a bat


I’ll prove the word that I have made my theme
Is that that may be doubled without blame,
And that that that thus trebled I may use
And that that that that critics may abuse
May be correct. Yet more–the dons to bother–
Five thats may closely follow one another:
For well ’tis known that we may safely write
That that that that that man writ was right.
Nay, e’en that that that that that that followed
Through six repeats the grammar’s rule has hallowed,
And that that that (that that that that began)
Repeated seven times is right! Deny’t who can.

— Anonymous

“A Curious Dilemma”

A leading paper decides that the plural of titmouse is titmouses, not titmice. ‘On the same principle,’ says another paper, ‘the plural of a tailor’s goose is gooses, as, indeed, we hold that it is.’ This reminds us of an anecdote with regard to a country merchant, who wanted two of these tailor’s irons, several years ago, and ordered them of Messrs. Dunn and Spencer, hardware merchants. He first wrote the order: ‘Please send me two tailor’s gooses.’ Thinking that this was bad grammar he destroyed it, and wrote as follows: ‘Please send me two tailor’s geese.’ Upon reflection he destroyed this one also, for fear he should receive live geese. He thought over the matter till he was very much worried, and at last, in a moment of desperation, he seized his pen and wrote the following, which was duly posted: ‘Messrs. Dunn and Spencer,–Please send me one tailor’s goose, and–hang it! send me another.’

Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals, and Newspapers in the World, Oct. 22, 1881

In a Word

n. a reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed

That’s from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, which is more colorful than one might suppose. It also defines cough as “a convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity” and lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.”


Yet worse was the condition of the editor who, having in a touching obituary notice of a soldier described the deceased as a ‘battle-scarred veteran,’ was driven frantic to find in the morning that the types had made him write of a ‘battle-scared veteran.’ The next day he published the following apology for the blunder: ‘The editor was deeply grieved to find that through an unfortunate typographical error he was made to describe the late gallant Major H. as a “battle-scared veteran.” He tenders his sincerest apologies for the mistake to the friends and relatives of the deceased; but to every reader of this journal acquainted with the feats of the major, it must have been apparent that what the editor wrote was bottle-scarred veteran.’

— “Some Humors of the Composing-Room,” Macmillan’s Magazine, December 1897

In a Word

n. one who acknowledges no superior

“In America everybody is of the opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors, for, from the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal applies only upwards, not downwards.” — Bertrand Russell

In a Word

n. the divination of one’s character by the manner of his laughter

See “Note How Your Friend Laughs.”

Fire and Fog

Image: Flickr

“My mother … pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Proceed With Caution

Welsh cyclists were confused in 2006 to discover a temporary sign at the Barons Court roundabout between Penarth and Cardiff:



The first part is fine … but llid y bledren is Welsh for “inflammation of the bladder.”

“Road signs are mistranslated on an enormously regular basis, usually because people use online translators,” Aran Jones of the Welsh language group Cymuned told the South Wales Echo. But even using a human translator doesn’t guarantee a good result. In Swansea, a sign posted in October 2008 read:



The latter phrase means “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

(Thanks, Tom.)

Words and Numbers

In English, the name of each integer shares a letter with each of its neighbors. ONE shares an O with TWO, TWO shares a T with THREE … and so on to infinity.

In a Word

adj. loving supper

Greek and Roman

The South African flower Mesembryanthemum draws its name from the Greek roots for middle, embryo, and flower.

It’s believed to be the English word containing the highest “score” in Roman numerals — four Ms.

Bent Lines

Slips of the tongue are often made on the stage, even by the most prominent actors and actresses. Mrs. Langtry at one performance said to her stage lover, ‘Let us retire and seek a nosey cook.’

An actor at the Queen’s Theatre, Manchester, turned ‘Stand back, my lord, and let the coffin pass’ into, ‘Stand back, my lord, and let the parson cough.’ …

A well-known actor who has often been applauded by New York theater-goers, in one of his speeches intended to say, ‘Royal bold Caesar,’ but forgot himself in his excitement and said, ‘Boiled rolled Caesar, I present thee with my sword.’

— John De Morgan, In Lighter Vein, 1907

In a Word

n. an excessive desire for material wealth

n. the process of becoming wealthy


  • Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president born in a hospital.
  • Hamlet has 1506 lines, fully 39 percent of the play.
  • 736 = 7 + 36
  • NOOK combines two antonyms.
  • “Everything that deceives may be said to enchant.” — Plato

New-Minted Coins

Words of which William Shakespeare was the only recorded user, at some point, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • bepray
  • bragless
  • compulsative
  • conceptious
  • confineless
  • continuantly
  • correctioner
  • disliken
  • exceptless
  • exsufflicate
  • foxship
  • insultment
  • oathable
  • offendress
  • omittance
  • overgreen
  • overstink
  • questant
  • razorable
  • successantly
  • thoughten
  • uprighteously
  • wenchless

In Inventing English, Stanford literary historian Seth Lerer credits him with inventing nearly 6,000 new words.