n. fear of Friday the 13th
Harold Ross personally edited every issue of the New Yorker between 1925 and 1951. Unfortunately, he was a fiend for commas, peppering every sentence until all possible ambiguity was removed. An example from 1948:
“When I read, the other day, in the suburban-news section of a Boston newspaper, of the death of Mrs. Abigail Richardson Sawyer (as I shall call her), I was, for the moment, incredulous, for I had always thought of her as one of nature’s indestructibles.”
His writers hated this. James Thurber revised Wordsworth:
She lived, alone, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be,
But, she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference, to me.
And E.B White wrote, “Commas in the New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”
But Ross was immovable. “We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here,” he acknowledged to H.L. Mencken, “probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don’t know how to get it under control.”
So on it went. A correspondent once asked Thurber why Ross had added the comma to the sentence “After dinner, the men went into the living-room.” Thurber responded, “This particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”
v. to imitate one’s father
adj. surpassing one’s father
adj. worse than one’s father
I shall dever see her bore!
Dever bore our feet shall rove
The beadows as of yore!
Dever bore with byrtle boughs
Her tresses shall I twide–
Dever bore her bellow voice
Bake bellody with bide!
Dever shall we lidger bore,
Abid the flow’rs at dood,
Dever shall we gaze at dight
Upon the tedtder bood!
Ho, doe, doe!
Those berry tibes have flowd,
Ad I shall dever see her bore,
By beautiful! by owd!
Ho, doe, doe!
I shall dever see her bore,
She will forget be id a bonth,
(Bost probably before)–
She will forget the byrtle boughs,
The flow’rs we plucked at dood,
Our beetigs by the tedtder stars.
Our gazigs at the bood.
Ad I shall dever see agaid
The Lily and the Rose;
The dabask cheek! the sdowy brow!
The perfect bouth ad dose!
Ho, doe, doe!
Those berry tibes have flowd –
Ad I shall dever see her bore,
By beautiful! by owd!!
– Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell, Puck on Pegasus, 1868
What is gopher wood? Noah used it to build his ark, but there’s no other reference to it in the Bible.
Similarly, no one’s quite sure what a kankedort is. It appears in one passage in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:
Was Troilus nought in a kankedort,
That lay, and myghte whisprynge of hem here,
And thoughte, “O Lord, right now renneth my sort
Fully to deye, or han anon comfort!”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it helplessly as an awkward situation or affair and says it’s “of unascertained etymology.”
See Hapax Legomenon.
Alexander III once wrote a warrant condemning a prisoner to transportation:
PARDON IMPOSSIBLE, TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA.
The man appealed to the czar’s wife, who transposed the comma:
PARDON, IMPOSSIBLE TO BE SENT TO SIBERIA.
The prisoner was released.
The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske once found this message attached to the mirror in her dressing room:
MARGARET ANGLIN SAYS MRS. FISKE IS THE BEST ACTRESS IN AMERICA.
She returned it to Anglin, who found she had added two commas:
MARGARET ANGLIN, SAYS MRS. FISKE, IS THE BEST ACTRESS IN AMERICA.
(“Dedicated to the End of the Dictionary”)
A xylographer started to cross the sea
By means of a Xanthic Xebec;
But, alas! he sighed for the Zuyder Zee,
And feared he was in for a wreck.
He tried to smile, but all in vain,
Because of a Zygomatic pain;
And as for singing, his cheeriest tone
Reminded him of a Xylophone–
Or else, when the pain would sharper grow,
His notes were as keen as a Zuffolo.
And so it is likely he did not find
On board Xenodochy to his mind.
The fare was poor, and he was sure
Xerofphagy he could not endure;
Zoophagous surely he was, I aver,
This dainty and starving Xylographer.
Xylophagous truly he could not be–
No sickly vegetarian he!
He’d have blubbered like any old Zeuglodon
Had Xerophthalmia not come on.
And the end of it was he never again
In a Xanthic Xebec went sailing the main.
– Mary Mapes Dodge, Poems and Verses, 1904
It’s said that when Christopher Wren completed St. Paul’s cathedral in 1708, Queen Anne told him his work was “awful, artificial, and amusing.”
He took this as a compliment — in those days these words meant awe-inspiring, artistic, and amazing.
n. a dance performed to persuade people to enlist in the Hungarian army
“L E G on the Death of L X and R N S, Squire of the Coun T of S X”
In S X once there lived M N,
Who was Xceeding Y Y;
But with so much O B C T
It almost closed his I I.
When from his chair E would R I I,
U would have laughed to C
The awkwardness his fat did cause
To this old O D T.
But barring that E was so fat,
E was a right good fell O,
And had such horror of X S
U never saw him mell O.
N O O so red E did not like,
As that which wine will give,
So did S A to keep from drink
As long as E did live.
Two daughters fair this old man had,
Called Miss M A and L N,
Who, when the old chap took his E E,
Would try to T T the men.
Over the C C, these maids to please,
There came two gallants gay;
M A and L N ceased to T T,
And with them ran away.
These gallants did them so M U U,
And used such an M N C T
Of flattery, U must X Q Q
Their fugitive propensity.
The poor old man heaved many S I I
For frail M A and L N;
E called each gallant gay a rogue,
A rascal, and a villain.
And all with half an I might C
His gradual D K,
Till M T was his old arm-chair,
And E had passed away.
– William T. Dobson, Literary Frivolities, Fancies, Follies and Frolics, 1880
Laid up in the hospital, James Thurber passed the time doing crossword puzzles.
One day he asked a nurse, “What seven-letter word has three u’s in it?”
She said, “I don’t know, but it must be unusual.”
n. the first person one meets after leaving the house
Poet/farmer Thomas Tusser composed his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573) for the most part in rhyming couplets. But in Chapter 49 he gets ambitious, casting his conclusion in 94 consecutive words that begin with the letter T:
The thrifty that teacheth the thriving to thrive,
Teach timely to traverse, the thing that thou ‘trive,
Transferring thy toiling, to timeliness taught,
This teacheth thee temp’rance to temper thy thought.
Take Trusty (to trust to) that thinkest to thee,
That trustily thriftiness trowleth to thee.
Then temper thy travell, to tarry the tide,
This teacheth thee thriftiness, twenty times try’d.
Take thankfull thy talent, thank thankfully those,
That thriftily teacheth thy time to transpose.
Troth twice to be teached, teach twenty times ten,
This trade thou that takest, take thrift to thee then.
“Perhaps this was the most difficult chapter, according to its length, that our author had to compose,” writes editor William Mavor, “yet he has strained alliteration to the most extravagant pitch; for when he writes trive for contrive, and for the sake of the rhyme uses thee for thrive, we cannot help pitying the miserable expedients to which he was reduced, in order to accomplish his design.”
“In other respects the advice is good.”
n. that part of an animal’s skin that it cannot reach to scratch
ODO TENET MULUM, MADIDAM MAPPAM TENET ANNA
[Odo, holding Master Doctor's mule, and Anne with her tablecloth]
The above line is said, in an old book, to have ‘cost the inventor much foolish labor, for it is perfect verse, and every word is the very same both backward and forward.’
— Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint and the Quizzical, 1882
Readers of Punch were perplexed to find a classical verse in its pages:
It’s faux Greek; the author had simply replaced Latin letters with Greek ones:
To the Leading Periodical
This compliment, great sir, o take,
You’re a brick and no mistake.
Enemy to cant and fudge,
Time to thee I ne’er begrudge.
And I hope to see your name
Foremost in the lists of fame.
– Tom Smith, Grub Street
adj. opposed to fun
“Quit. That’s what reporter Milt Sosin did today.”
– Resignation notice discovered on a Miami News bulletin board after an editor insisted that beat reporters use “short and punchy paragraphs”
The disciples of Descartes made a perfect anagram upon the Latinised name of their master, ‘Renatus Cartesius,’ one which not only takes up every letter, but which also expresses their opinion of that master’s speciality–’Tu scis res naturae’ (Thou knowest the things of nature).
– William T. Dobson, Poetical Ingenuities and Eccentricities, 1882
A wandering tribe, called the Siouxs,
Wear moccasins, having no shiouxs.
They are made of buckskin,
With the fleshy side in,
Embroidered with beads of bright hyiouxs.
When out on the war-path, the Siouxs
March single file–never by tiouxs–
And by “blazing” the trees
Can return at their ease,
And their way through the forests ne’er liouxs.
All new-fashioned boats he eschiouxs,
And uses the birch-bark caniouxs;
These are handy and light,
And, inverted at night,
Give shelter from storms and from dyiouxs.
The principal food of the Siouxs
Is Indian maize, which they briouxs,
And hominy make,
Or mix in a cake,
And eat it with pork, as they chiouxs.
Now, doesn’t this spelling look cyiouxrious?
‘Tis enough to make any one fyiouxrious!
So a word to the wise!
Pray our language revise
With orthography not so injiouxrious.
– Charles Follen Adams
n. excessive use of the letter M
My Madeline! my Madeline!
Mark my melodious midnight moans,
Much may my melting music mean,
My modulated monotones.
My mandolin’s mild minstrelsy,
My mental music magazine,
My mouth, my mind, my memory,
Must mingling murmur “Madeline.”
Muster ‘mid midnight masquerade,
Mark Moorish maidens, matrons’ mien;
‘Mongst Murcia’s most majestic maids,
Match me my matchless Madeline.
Mankind’s malevolence may make
Much melancholy musing mine;
Many my motives may mistake,
My modest merits much malign.
My Madeline’s most mirthful mood
Much mollifies my mind’s machine;
My mournfulness’s magnitude
Melts–make me merry, Madeline!
Match-making ma’s may machinate,
Manoeuvring misses me misween;
Mere money may make many mate,
My magic motto’s “Madeline.”
Melt, most mellifluous melody,
‘Midst Murcia’s misty mounts marine;
Meet me ‘mid moonlight–marry me,
Madonna mia! My Madeline!
– Walter Parke, “A Mellifluous Madrigal,” Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, January 1888
An Austrian Archduke, assaulted and assailed,
Broke Belgium’s barriers, by Britain bewailed,
Causing consternation, confused chaotic crises;
Diffusing destructive, death-dealing devices.
England engaged earnestly, eager every ear,
France fought furiously, forsaking foolish fear,
Great German garrisons grappled Gallic guard,
Hohenzollern Hussars hammered, heavy, hard.
Infantry, Imperial, Indian, Irish, intermingling,
Jackets jaunty, joking, jesting, jostling, jingling.
Kinetic, Kruppised Kaiser, kingdom’s killing knight,
Laid Louvain lamenting, London lacking light,
Mobilizing millions, marvellous mobility,
Numberless nonentities, numerous nobility.
Oligarchies olden opposed olive offering,
Prussia pressed Paris, Polish protection proffering,
Quaint Quebec quickly quartered quotidian quota,
Renascent Russia, resonant, reported regal rota.
Scotch soldiers, sterling, songs stalwart sung,
“Tipperary” thundered through titanic tongue.
United States urging unarmament, unwanted,
Visualized victory vociferously vaunted,
Wilson’s warnings wasted, world war wild,
Xenian Xanthochroi Xantippically X-iled.
Yorkshire’s young yeomen yelling youthfully,
“Zigzag Zeppelins, Zuyder Zee.”
– John R. Edwards
Army slang collected in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words:
- snafu: situation normal, all fucked up
- janfu: joint army and navy fuckup
- susfu: situation unchanged: still fucked up
- fumtu: fucked up more than usual
- tarfu: things are really fucked up
- fubb: fucked up beyond belief
- fubar: fucked up beyond all recognition
- sapfu: surpassing all previous fuckups
George Washington said, “An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass.”