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Extra Points for Creativity

“The boy who explained the meaning of the words fort and fortress must have had rather vague ideas as to masculine and feminine nouns. He wrote: ‘A fort is a place to put men in, and a fortress a place to put women in.’”

– Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders, 1893

In a Word

adj. delicious; voluptuous

Hare Today

On the Isle of Portland, in the English Channel, it’s considered bad luck to say the word rabbit.

So people use the term “underground mutton.”

In a Word

adj. relating to a birthday or to the casting of horoscopes


“Military intelligence,” said Groucho, “is a contradiction in terms.” Other examples:

  • Almost exactly
  • Detailed summary
  • Dry lake
  • Elevated subway
  • Exact estimate
  • Found missing
  • Guest host
  • Limited omniscience
  • Liquid gas
  • Local long distance
  • Mandatory options
  • Neoconservatism
  • Only choice
  • Open secret
  • Original copy
  • Virtual reality
  • Wireless cable

Also: Dodge Ram.

In a Word

v. to rob (someone) while a partner hustles

That Explains It


Chicago means “land of smelly onions.”

That’s how the native Potawatomi described the swampy area next to Lake Michigan. French explorers picked up the name, and it stuck.


Real-life palindromes:

  • MALAYALAM is a language of southern India.
  • EKALAKA LAKE exists in southeastern Montana.
  • DR. (Michael) AWKWARD is Longstreet Professor of English and Afro-American Literature at Emory University.

In a Word

adj. having beautiful buttocks



Irish Bulls

Three “Irish bulls” cited in Henry B. Wheatley’s Literary Blunders (1893). “We know what the writer means, although he does not exactly say it”:

  • From the report of an Irish Benevolent Society: “Notwithstanding the large amount paid for medicine and medical attendance, very few deaths occurred during the year.”
  • A country editor’s correspondent wrote: “Will you please to insert this obituary notice? I make bold to ask it, because I know the deceased had a great many friends who would be glad to hear of his death.”
  • Quoted in the Greville Memoirs: “He abjured the errors of the Romish Church, and embraced those of the Protestant.”

“From the errors of others,” wrote Publilius Syrus, “a wise man corrects his own.”

“A Siege of Cranes”

Ornithological nouns of assemblage:

  • a murmuration of starlings
  • a desert of lapwing
  • a parliament of owls
  • a gulp of cormorants
  • a pitying of doves
  • a murder of crows
  • an exaltation of larks
  • a charm of finches
  • a stand of flamingoes
  • a watch of nightingales
  • a rafter of turkeys
  • a committee of vultures
  • a descent of woodpeckers
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • a convocation of eagles

Who comes up with these? They’re wonderfully poetic. Also: a sleuth of bears, a shrewdness of apes, a flutter of butterflies, an intrusion of cockroaches, a bask of crocodiles, a skulk of foxes, a smack of jellyfish, a leap of leopards, a crash of rhinoceroses, a scurry of squirrels, a streak of tigers, a shiver of sharks.

In a Word

n. rule or control of horses

In Other Words

Twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy were severely neglected by their San Diego parents, attended minimally by a German-speaking grandmother. They saw no other children, rarely played outdoors, and did not go to school.

They were 8 years old when a speech therapist realized they had invented their own language:

GRACE: Cabengo, padem manibadu peeta.
VIRGINIA: Doan nee bada tengkmatt, Poto.

It was apparently a mix of English and German, with some original words and grammatical oddities.

Their father soon forbade their speaking it, saying, “You live in a society, you got to speak the language.” They learned English, but they still bear the emotional scars of their neglect: Virginia works on an assembly line, and Grace mops floors at a fast-food restaurant.

In a Word

n. the study of brambles

An International Irony

In America, when both people on a date pay for their own meals, we call it “Dutch treat.”

The Dutch have another name for it.

They call it an “American-style party.”

“Cover With the Moon”

Hobo lingo:

  • accommodation car – the caboose of a train
  • angelina – young inexperienced kid
  • banjo – a small portable frying pan
  • bindle stick – collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
  • bone polisher – a mean dog
  • bull – a railroad officer
  • cannonball – a fast train
  • catch the westbound – to die
  • chuck a dummy – pretend to faint
  • cow crate – a railroad stock car
  • crums – lice
  • doggin’ it – traveling by bus
  • hot shot – a train with priority freight
  • jungle – an area near a railroad in which hoboes camp and congregate
  • knowledge bus – a schoolbus used for shelter
  • road kid – a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road
  • rum dum – a drunkard
  • soup bowl- a palce to get soup, bread and drinks
  • yegg – a traveling professional thief

In a Word

adj. disfigured by weeping


The initials SPQR appear everywhere in Rome — they were emblazoned on the standards of the Roman legions, and they appear today in the city’s coat of arms. The only trouble is that no one knows what they stand for. Historians think it’s probably one of these mottoes:

  • Senatus Populus Quiritium Romanus (“The senate and the citizens’ Roman people”)
  • Senatus Populusque Quiritium Romanorum (“The senate and people of the Roman citizens”)
  • Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The senate and the Roman People”)
  • Senatus Populusque Romae (“The senate and the people of Rome”)

But that hasn’t stopped everyone else from making suggestions:

  • Sono Pazzi Questi Romani (“These Romans are crazy.”)
  • Sono Porci Questi Romani (“Those Romans are pigs.”)
  • Solo Pago Quando Ricevo (“I will pay when I get paid.”)
  • Soli Preti Qui Regnano (“Only priests rule here.”)

Supposedly Pope John XXIII noted that SPQR backward reads RQPS, which he suggested meant “Rideo Quia Papa Sum” — “I laugh, because I am the Pope.”

“CAPILLARY, a Little Caterpillar”

There have always been bad students. Here’s what kids were writing on English exams 150 years ago:

  • ABORIGINES, a system of mountains.
  • ALIAS, a good man in the Bible.
  • AMENABLE, anything that is mean.
  • AMMONIA, the food of the gods.
  • ASSIDUITY, state of being an acid.
  • AURIFEROUS, pertaining to an orifice.
  • CORNIFEROUS, rocks in which fossil corn is found.
  • EMOLUMENT, a headstone to a grave.
  • EQUESTRIAN, one who asks questions.
  • EUCHARIST, one who plays euchre.
  • FRANCHISE, anything belonging to the French.
  • IDOLATER, a very idle person.
  • IPECAC, a man who likes a good dinner.
  • IRRIGATE, to make fun of.
  • MENDACIOUS, what can be mended.
  • MERCENARY, one who feels for another.
  • PARASITE, a kind of umbrella.
  • PARASITE, the murder of an infant.
  • PUBLICAN, a man who does his prayers in public.
  • TENACIOUS, ten acres of land.
  • REPUBLICAN, a sinner mentioned in the Bible.
  • PLAGIARIST, a writer of plays.

– From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887

A Good Word

Words dropped since the 1901 edition of the Chambers Dictionary:

  • decacuminated adj. having the top cut off
  • effodient adj. habitually digging (zoology)
  • essorant adj. about to soar
  • flipe v. to fold back, as a sleeve
  • lectual adj. confining to the bed
  • neogamist n. a person recently married
  • nuciform adj. nut-shaped
  • numerotage n. the numbering of yarns so as to denote their fineness
  • pantogogue n. a medicine once believed capable of purging away all morbid humours
  • parageusia n. a perverted sense of taste
  • presultor n. the leader of a dance
  • ramollescence n. softening, mollifying
  • roytish adj. wild, irregular
  • sagesse n. wisdom
  • salebrous adj. rough, rugged
  • sammy v. to moisten skins with water
  • sarn n. a pavement
  • scavilones n. men’s drawers worn in the sixteenth century under the hose
  • tarabooka n. a drumlike instrument
  • tortulous adj. having swellings at regular intervals
  • wappet n. a yelping cur

In a Word

n. abnormal compulsion for wandering


“Only the fool would take trouble to verify that his sentence was composed of ten a’s, three b’s, four c’s, four d’s, forty-six e’s, sixteen f’s, four g’s, thirteen h’s, fifteen i’s, two k’s, nine l’s, four m’s, twenty-five n’s, twenty-four o’s, five p’s, sixteen r’s, forty-one s’s, thirty-seven t’s, ten u’s, eight v’s, eight w’s, four x’s, eleven y’s, twenty-seven commas, twenty-three apostrophes, seven hyphens and, last but not least, a single !” — Lee Sallows



Here’s a famous goof from the 1935 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.

There’s no such word as dord — the chemistry editor had intended it to say “D or d”, but somehow his slip got misinterpreted and the mistake stayed on the books until 1939.

Editor Philip Babcock Gove later wrote that it was “probably too bad, for why shouldn’t dord mean ‘density’?”