In a Word

n. one who hates the smell of tobacco smoke

Opposites Attract

When used as verbs, BEST and WORST have the same meaning.

Two by Two

BOOKKEEPER has three consecutive pairs of like letters. SUBBOOKKEEPER has four.

What’s the limit? Honolulu English teacher Joel D. Gaines proposed BALLOONNOONNOOKKEEPPOOBAH, “an agent who sits on balloons at noon in a corner, in order to earn his keep.” It has 10 consecutive pairs.

A More Perfect Union

In 1836 James Daniel Royster began a curious family tradition — he named all his children after states.

He named his sons Iowa Michigan Royster, Arkansas Delaware Royster, Wisconsin Illinois Royster, Vermont Connecticut Royster, and Oregon Minnesota Royster.

The daughters were named Virginia Carolina Royster and Indiana Georgia Royster.

The practice came to a wider knowledge a century later — Royster’s great-grandson, Vermont Connecticut Royster, won two Pulitzer Prizes as editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Pink Labels

In gathering material for The American Language, H.L. Mencken collected unusual girls’ names from printed sources in the 1930s and 1940s, mainly in the Southwest. Here’s a sampling. “Though some of them may seem almost impossible, all are typical”:

  • Apple
  • Armadilla
  • Arthurene
  • Australia
  • Beatfred
  • Begonia
  • Birdeen
  • Cementa
  • Chlorine
  • Covadonga
  • Coweene
  • Elicious
  • Faucette
  • Garguerite
  • Gazelle
  • Glary Ann
  • Glenoulia
  • Halloween
  • Hygiene
  • Hughzetta
  • Kiwanis
  • Larceny
  • Leafy Ella
  • Locust
  • O’Dwaine
  • Pencilla
  • Pleasantina
  • Scharlott
  • Townzella
  • Ukdene
  • Vasoline
  • Wroberta
  • Wyneese
  • Zelvateen

Of the stranger specimens, Mencken says, “It is as if the ambitious mother of a newly-hatched darling wrote all the elements of all the ancient girls’ names upon slips of paper, added slips bearing syllables filched from the terminology of all the arts and sciences, heaved the whole into an electric salad-tosser, and then arranged the seethed contents two by two or three by three.”

In a Word

adj. capable of being cut easily with a knife

An Ennobling Pause

The following ‘True Copy of a Jury taken before Judge Doddridge, at the Assizes holden at Huntingdon A.D. 1619,’ may amuse our readers. The Judge had in the preceding circuit censured the Sheriff for impannelling men not qualified by rank for serving on the Grand Jury, and the Sheriff being a humourist, resolved to fit the Judge with sounds at least. On calling over the following names and pausing emphatically at the end of the christian, instead of the surname, his lordship began to think he had indeed a jury of quality.

The Judge, it is said, was highly pleased with this practical joke, and commended the Sheriff for his ingenuity. The descendants of some of these illustrious Jurors still reside in the County, and bear the same names; in particular, a Maximilian King we are informed still presides over Toseland.

The News Magazine, August 1864


Why do we say “The United States is” rather than “The United States are”? The founding fathers tended to use are — in 1783 John Adams wrote, “The United States are another object of debate,” and the 13th Amendment declares that slavery shall not exist “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The standard answer is that the Civil War established the country as a unified nation in the modern consciousness. In 1887 a writer in the Washington Post declared that the war had “settled forever the question of grammar. … The surrender of Mr. Davis and Gen. Lee meant a transition from the plural to the singular.” “Since the civil war the tendency has been toward such use,” confirmed John W. Foster in the New York Times in 1901.

It’s not quite so simple, of course — authoritative writers can be found who used is before the war or are afterward. William Cullen Bryant banned the singular use from the New York Post in 1870, and Ambrose Bierce was pressing for the plural as late as 1909. (In 1881 New Englander C.H.J. Douglas proposed “The United State of America,” but he got nowhere.)

But the standard answer is essentially true. “The rebellion made the State rights and State sovereignty idea very obnoxious to loyal people, and gave corresponding prominence and popularity to the idea of nationality,” observed the New York Times in 1895. “The United States is, not are,” concluded Carl Sandburg in 1958. “The Civil War was fought over a verb.”

Between the Lines

Read the first letter of each sentence of the preface of Transport Phenomena, a 1960 chemical engineering textbook by Robert Bird, Warren Stewart, and Edwin Lightfoot, and you’ll discover the message THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO O.A. HOUGEN.

In the second edition, the initial letters of successive paragraphs spell the word WELCOME.

In the afterword, they spell ON WISCONSIN.


A bookworm in Kennebunk, Me.,
Found pleasure in reading Monte.,
He also liked Poe
And Daniel Defoe,
But the telephone book caused him pe.

There’s a girl out in Ann Arbor, Mich.,
To meet whom I never would wich.
She’d gobble ice cream
Till with colic she’d scream,
Then order another big dich.

As he filled up the order book pp.,
He said, “I should get higher ww.”
So he struck for more pay,
But alas, now, they say,
He is sweeping out elephants’ cc.