Summing Up

Suppose I write these phrases on a blackboard:

the sum of the numbers denoted by expressions on the board in Room 213

And suppose I’m in Room 213. It’s clear what the first two phrases denote, but what of the third? If it denotes the quantity k, then k = π + 6 + k, which is absurd. So the third phrase is pathological — it appears to denote a number but it doesn’t.

But if the third phrase doesn’t denote a number, then the sum of the numbers denoted by expressions on the board in Room 213 is π + 6 — and the third phrase has a clear meaning. Asks University of North Carolina professor Keith Simmons, “How can the same phrase be pathological and yet successfully refer?”

(Keith Simmons, “Reference and Paradox,” in JC Beall, ed., Liars and Heaps, 2003)

Plain Language

A reporteress on the St. Paul Globe speaks of a lady ‘who is a well-known real estate speculatress.’ The Pittsburg Press alludes to ‘the Presidentress of the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Fair,’ and the Indianapolis Journal tells of the elopement of a ‘dime museum freakess.’

Des Moines Leader, quoted in New York Times, Feb. 13, 1891

Letter to the Times from the director of the Royal School for the Blind, Dec. 23, 1986:


Radio 4 this morning (December 15) introduced the verb ‘anonymise’. May I therefore letterise you that such verbising terribilises the English language and should not be radioised by the BBC.

Yours sincerely,

Bernard Coote

“I would never use a long word where a short one would answer the purpose,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes. “I know there are professors in this country who ‘ligate’ arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well.”

“Essay to Miss Catharine Jay”

An S A now I mean 2 write
2 U sweet K T J,
The girl without a ∥,
The belle of U T K.

I 1 der if U got that 1
I wrote 2 U B 4
I sailed in the R K D A,
And sent by L N Moore.

My M T head will scarce contain
A calm I D A bright,
But A T miles from you I must
M{ this chance 2 write.

And first, should N E N V U,
B E Z, mind it not.
Should N E friendship show, be true:
They should not be forgot.

From virt U nev R D V 8;
Her influence B 9
Alike induces 10 dern S,
Or 40 tude D vine.

And if you cannot cut a —
Or cause an !
I hope U’ll put a .
2 1 ?

R U for an X ation 2,
My cous N ? — heart and ☞
He off R’s in a ¶
A § 2 of land.

He says he loves you 2 X S,
U R virtuous and Y’s,
In X L N C U X L
All others in his I’s.

This S A, until U I C,
I pray U 2 X Q’s,
And do not burn in F E G
My young and wayward muse.

Now fare U well, dear K T J,
I trust that U R true–
When this U C, then you can say,
An S A I O U.

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890

Pictures of England

Letters to the Times, April 1949:


Your recent report that a rackets player ‘literally blasted his opponents out of the court’ suggests that gamesmanship is becoming less subtle. Is not the use of dynamite as out of place in a first-class match as, for instance, the word ‘literally’ in a metaphor?

Yours truly,

B.W.M. Young


Perhaps the most picturesque use of ‘literally’ was that of a writer who asserted that ‘for five years Mr Gladstone was literally glued to the Treasury Bench.’

Yours faithfully,

E.W. Fordham


My own favourite for the ‘Literal Stakes’ is the biographer who wrote of his subject that ‘he literally died in harness.’

Yours faithfully,

Gerald Barry


Last summer a BBC commentator describing an easy victory in the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon, said: ‘Miss so-and-so literally wiped the court with her opponent.’

Yours faithfully,

Eileen Orde


I submit the following, long and lovingly remembered from my ‘penny dreadful’ days: ‘Dick, hotly pursued by the scalp-hunter, turned in his saddle, fired, and literally decimated the Indian.’

Yours faithfully,

Edward Evans


When I was assistant editor of the Saturday Review in the early 1920s, during a temporary absence of the editor I allowed a reviewer to declare in those august pages that his heart was literally in his boots.

Yours faithfully,

Ivy Davison


A widely-read pre-war guide to Greece used to describe the inhabitants of that country as so interested in politics as to be visible daily ‘in cafés and restaurants literally devouring their newspapers.’

Yours faithfully,

F.J.B. Watson

“A Llyric of the Llama”

Behold how from her lair the youthful llama
Llopes forth and llightly scans the llandscape o’er.
With llusty heart she llooks upon llife’s drama,
Relying on her llate-llearnt worldly llore.

But llo! Some llad, armed with a yoke infama
Soon llures her into llowly llabor’s cause;
Her wool is llopped to weave into pajama,
And llanguidly she llearns her Gees and Haws.

My children, heed this llesson from all llanguishing young lllamas,
If you would lllive with lllatitude, avoid each llluring lllay;
And do not lllightly lllleave, I beg, your llllonesome, lllloving mammas,
And llllast of allll, don’t spelllll your name in such a silllllly way.

— Burges Johnson, Everybody’s Magazine, August 1907