MINE (English), MIEN (French), and MEIN (German) are synonyms and anagrams in three languages.

In a Word

n. the reflection of moonlight on a body of water

I Contain Multitudes

OPERAS is the plural of OPERA, which is the plural of OPUS.


  • SCINTILLESCENT contains 7 pairs of letters.
  • Rub two pennies together and you’ll see a third between them.
  • Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day.
  • 1285 = (1 + 28) × 5
  • Squeeze an orange peel into a candle flame and you’ll produce a burst of fire.

Switching Polarity

BEST and WORST are synonyms when used as verbs:

he bested his opponent, he worsted his opponent

But they’re antonyms when used as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns:

the best player, the worst player

it best suits his skills, it worst suits his skills

I am the best, I am the worst

William James wrote, “Language is the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought.”

In a Word

n. fear of Friday the 13th

Giving Pause

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.”

In a Word

v. to imitate one’s father

adj. surpassing one’s father

adj. worse than one’s father

Lay of the Deserted Influenzaed

Doe, doe!
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

Lonely Words

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.

Editorial License

Alexander III once wrote a warrant condemning a prisoner to transportation:


The man appealed to the czar’s wife, who transposed the comma:


The prisoner was released.

The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske once found this message attached to the mirror in her dressing room:


She returned it to Anglin, who found she had added two commas:


The Zealless Xylographer

(“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

A Manner of Speaking

Image: Flickr

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.

In a Word

n. a dance performed to persuade people to enlist in the Hungarian army

A Man of Letters

“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.”

In a Word

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.”

In a Word

n. that part of an animal’s skin that it cannot reach to scratch

“Literary Ingenuity”


[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

All Greek

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

In a Word

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”

What’s in a Name

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