A Few Words

At the climax of the 1934 film The Black Cat, Boris Karloff recites a “black mass” over a swooning Jacqueline Wells:

Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Humanum est errare. Lupis pilum mutat, non mentem. Magna est veritas et praevalebit. Acta exteriora indicant interiora secreta. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. Amissum quod nescitur non amittitur. Brutum fulmen. Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Fructu, non foliis arborem aestima. Insanus omnes furere credit ceteros. Quem paenitet peccasse paene est innocens.

This sounds marvelous in Karloff’s portentous baritone, but it’s weaker in translation:

With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. To err is human. The wolf may change his skin, but not his nature. Truth is mighty, and will prevail. External actions show internal secrets. Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even. The loss that is not known is no loss at all. Heavy thunder. With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. By fruit, not by leaves, judge a tree. Every madman thinks everybody mad. Who repents from sinning is almost innocent.

He might have added Omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina: “Everything sounds more impressive in Latin.”

Target Practice

From Henry Fowler’s immortal 1906 Modern English Usage, a table of commonly confused terms:

fowler table

“So much has been written upon the nature of some of these words, and upon the distinctions between pairs or trios among them, that it would be both presumptuous and unnecessary to attempt a further disquisition,” Fowler wrote. “But a sort of tabular statement may be of service against some popular misconceptions.”


“I am willing to give you a show,
But are these all the rôles that you know?”
The manager cried.
And the actor replied,
“Sirrah! No, sir; I know ‘Cyrano’!”

There was a young lady of Butte,
Who thought herself very acute.
That her suitor might praise her,
She gave him a razor,
Which suited her suitor hirsute.

There was a nice fellow named Jenner,
Who sang a phenomenal tenor,
He had little to spend,
So I often would lend
The tenor a ten or a tenner.

‘Tis said, woman loves not her lover
So much as she loves his love of her;
Then loves she her lover
For love of her lover,
Or love of her love of her lover?

— From Carolyn Wells’ Book of American Limericks, 1925.

Brass Tacks


Published in 1961, the New English Bible was an attempt to translate the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts of the Bible into modern English. Dwight MacDonald found this was “like finding a parking lot where a great church once stood.” As an illustration, he recast the Sermon on the Mount using only phrases that appear in the NEB:

When he realized how things stood, Jesus held a meeting to look into the matter. It was no hole-in-the-corner business. He went up the hill and began. ‘And now, not to take up too much of your time, I crave indulgence for a brief statement of our case. How blest are they that know they are poor. You are light for all the world. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. I also might make bold to say that you cannot serve God and money. Do not feed your pearls to pigs, and be ready for action, with belts fastened and lamps alight. Thanks for giving me a hearing.’ He then went to lunch with some distinguished persons.

“True, they did preserve ‘Jesus wept,'” MacDonald wrote. “But I’m sure there was strong support for ‘Jesus burst into tears.'”

In a Word


n. ignorance; lack of knowledge

n. the study of ignorance

In 1927, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi isolated a substance in lemons and oranges that seemed to prevent scurvy.

He couldn’t identify it chemically, so he called it “ignose,” meaning “I do not know.”

When the editors of the Biochemical Journal asked for a different name, Szent-Györgyi suggested “godnose.” Finally they settled on “hexuronic acid.”

It turned out to be vitamin C.

Another Country

In 1975, radio personality Jim Everhart published a three-volume Illustrated Texas Dictionary of the English Language:

ARN: A silver-white metallic element. “Mah muscle is as strong as arn.”
TOAD: The past tense of tell. “Ah toad you never to do that.”
PRAYED: A large public procession, usually including a marching band. “That was some prayed they had downtown.”

Four years later, Chase Untermeyer contributed a “Texlexicon” of words uttered by his colleagues in the state legislature:

HARD: Employed, as “I hard him to do the job.” Also a man’s name, as “Mah wife’s a cousin of Hard Hughes.”
RULE: Nonurban, as “He comes from the rule area.”
FORCED: A large group of trees, as “Lemme showya mah pine forced.”
BAR SHUN: The termination of pregnancy, as “Bar shun is murder!”
WHORED: Difficult, as “That was a whored one.”
WON’T: To desire, as “Ah won’t to seeya tonight.”
LOWERED BARN: An English poet (1788-1824).

“The amazing thing about this is that I never had one single Texan tell me he resented it,” Everhart told the New York Times. “They have accepted it more enthusiastically than anybody else. I think they’re kind of proud of it.”

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