Practical Math

Sample questions from L. Johnson’s 1864 textbook Elementary Arithmetic Designed for Beginners, used in North Carolina during the Civil War:

  1. A Confederate soldier captured 8 Yankees each day for 9 successive days; how many did he capture in all?
  2. If one Confederate soldier kill 90 Yankees how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?
  3. If one Confederate soldier can whip 7 Yankees, how many soldiers can whip 49 Yankees?

Students were also asked to imagine rolling cannonballs out of their bedrooms and dividing Confederate soldiers into squads and companies. Let’s hope they didn’t take field trips.

As You Wish

In 1951 G.V. Carey published a 15-page booklet called “Making an Index,” intended to guide new authors in preparing indexes for their books. When it was published, a friendly reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement suggested jokingly that the booklet might have benefited from an index of its own, in which Carey could have given “a full-dress demonstration of his principles.”

So, charmingly, Carey made one: In the second edition he added a 3-page index to his 15-page book, writing, “The reviewer, though he may have had his tongue in his cheek, has put the author on his mettle and tempted him, at the opportunity afforded by a new impression, to take up the challenge.” Admittedly, this required some stretching, particularly as he wanted to include every letter of the alphabet. Some sample entries:

Anybody, mere page-numbers not of the slightest use to, 7
Bibliographer, seventeenth-century, 3
Cherry, twice bitten, once shy. See Cross-references
Common sense, use your, 9, 15, and pass.
Earl of Beaconsfield, 11
Eye in, getting your, 5
Fiction, non-, 3
Haystack, looking for needle in, 4
Jehu (son of Nimshi), 12-13
John, St, 10
Life of Abraham Lincoln, 6
Lincoln, Abraham, Life of, 6
Omniscient, indexers not always, 4
Perfection, counsel of, 3
Sense, common. See Common sense
Suez Crisis, 14
What not to do. See Anybody, Earl of Beaconsfield, von Kluck, etc., etc.
York, New, missing, 10
Yourself in the users’ place, put, 6-7, 12
Zealand, New, 10

One thicket of cross-references never finds its way back to the text:

Chase, wild goose, See Von Kluck
Goose chase, wild. See Kluck, von
Kluck, von. See Von Kluck
Von Kluck. See Kluck, von
Wild goose chase. See Kluck, von

And evidently he hates the word alphabetisation:

Order, alphabetical. See Horrid word
Horrid word. See Alphabetisation
Alphabetisation, 9-10

But “It remains only to affirm that the author has made a serious attempt to demonstrate, even in this not very serious index, some at least of the principles set forth in the preceding pages.”

The Demon-Haunted World

Index entries from The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s history of myth and religion:

Africa, North, charms to render bridegroom impotent in
Africa, South, disposal of cut hair and nails in; magic use of spittle in; story of the external soul in
Anointing stones, in order to avert bullets from absent warriors; in a rain-charm
Apple-tree, barren women roll under, to obtain offspring; straw man placed on oldest; torches thrown at; as life-index of boys
Bag, souls of persons deposited in a
Beating a man’s garments instead of the man; frogs, as a rain-charm
Birds, cause headache through clipped hair; absent warriors called
Charms, to prevent the sun from going down
Chastity observed for sake of absent persons; as a virtue not understood by savages
Clothes, magic sympathy between a person and his
Conception in women caused by trees
Continence, required during search for sacred cactus
Departmental kings of nature
Dogs crowned
East Indies, pregnant women forbdden to tie knots
Fairies, averse to iron
Fish, magical image to procure
Foreskins used in rainmaking
Gout, transferred to trees
Hyaenas, supposed power over men’s shadow
Impregnation of women by the sun
Jar, the evil of a whole year shut up in
Lemon, external souls of ogres in
Magnets thought to keep brothers at unity
Toothache, transferred to enemies
Twins, water poured on graves of
Whale’s ghost, fear of injuring

Augustus De Morgan wrote, “My opinion of mankind is founded upon the mournful fact that, so far as I can see, they find within themselves the means of believing in a thousand times as much as there is to believe in, judging by experience.”

Making Fun

Minutes from a New Yorker editorial meeting to consider the week’s cartoon submissions, Feb. 5, 1935:

PRICE, Gar.: Man and two small boys in picture gallery; man has stopped before nude painting. One of the small boys is saying to the other, ‘There’s something about it gets the old man every time.’

Not right type of people; should be smart people.

SHERMUND: Scene in beauty parlor; masseuse is massaging the back of a woman’s neck and saying, ‘You’re one of the lucky few who have a normal skin, Madame.’

Make better drawing; this too unpleasant.

DUNN: Couple looking at grandmother in next room mixing herself a whiskey and soda. ‘Just because it’s Mother’s Day she thinks the lid is off.’

Better whiskey bottle.

The Tuesday afternoon cartoon meeting had been a fixture in the editorial routine since the magazine’s inception. Editor Harold Ross would point out each drawing’s weaknesses with knitting needles while art department administrator Daise Terry took notes. The resulting feedback ranged from hopelessly vague (“Make funnier”) to absurdly specific (“Mr. Ross is troubled by the fact that a man wouldn’t use a sledge hammer in the house, and thinks the scene had better be in the back yard with the doll placed on a large stone”).

Among the cartoonists whom this infuriated was James Thurber, who wrote to Terry in resubmitting a rejected drawing in 1937, “If this drawing is not funny, and is not a swell drawing, I shall engage to eat it, and with it all of Price’s fantasies that just miss, all of Taylor’s S. Klein women, and all eleven versions of every drawing Day does of two men in a restaurant. I will also eat every drawing of a man and a woman on a raft, every drawing of a man and a native woman on a desert island, and every drawing of two thin women in big-backed chairs. … I will also eat every drawing of a small animal talking to its parents, and every drawing of two large animals talking about their young.” Terry’s response is not recorded.

(From Ben Yagoda, About Town, 2000.)

Twice Indeed,_headshot.jpg

In Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice, a head injury gives James Bond amnesia, and the world briefly thinks him dead. An obituary appears in the London Times:

To serve the confidential nature of his work, he was accorded the rank of lieutenant in the Special Branch of the RNVR, and it is a measure of the satisfaction his services gave to his superiors that he ended the war with the rank of commander.

In For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Ben MacIntyre notes that this wording contains a “knowing glimmer of self-congratulation”: Fleming himself had been commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in July 1939 as a lieutenant and was promoted to commander a few months later.


Sigourney Weaver was born Susan Weaver. She named herself Sigourney at 14, after a character mentioned briefly by Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby:

She came over to me and whispered, ‘I’ve just heard the most surprising thing. Look, please come and see me. I’m staying at my aunt’s … Mrs. Sigourney Howard … phone book …’ She was hurrying away as she spoke, to join her friends who were waiting to drive her home.

“I was so tall,” Weaver told Time in 1986, “and Susan was such a short name. To my ear Sigourney was a stage name — long and curvy, with a musical ring.”

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but it appears that Fitzgerald intended Sigourney to be a man’s name: He had borrowed it from his friend Father Sigourney Fay, to whom This Side of Paradise is also dedicated.

“Jordan, it is clear, is here adopting the formal ‘English’ style of addressing her aunt by her husband’s name(s),” writes John Sutherland in Curiosities of Literature. “This was not just etiquette in the best circles; it was standard procedure in phone books of the 1920s. The husband paid the bills, and his was the name listed.”


Whoever prepared the index for Desmond Ryan’s 1967 book The Fenian Chief: A Biography of James Stephens had a mordant sense of humor — it contains this entry:

O'Brien, An:
  never turns his back on an enemy, 32
  would never retreat from fields in which ancestors were kings, 33
  does, 34

Short Work,_1740_-_1795._Diarist_and_biographer_of_Dr_Samuel_Johnson_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

F.A. Pottle’s index to the 1950 Edinburgh University Press edition of James Boswell’s London Journal condenses an entire romantic relationship into one paragraph:

Lewis, Mrs (Louisa), actress. JB to call Louisa in journal; receives JB; JB visits; JB’s increased feeling for; JB discusses love with; JB anticipates delight with; JB lends two guineas to; disregards opinion of world; discusses religion with JB; JB entreats to be kind; uneasiness of discourages JB; JB declares passion for; promises to make JB blessed; … makes assignation with JB; consummation with JB interrupted; … JB likes better and better; JB’s felicity delayed; … JB afraid of a rival; JB feels coolness for; … JB incredulous at infection from; JB enraged at perfidy of; … JB asks for his two guineas back …


Louisa May Alcott’s father suffered a stroke in 1888, and she arrived at his bedside on March 2, just two days before he died.

She said, “Father, here is your Louy, what are you thinking as you lie here so happily?”

He said, “I am going up. Come with me.

She said, “Oh, I wish I could.”

She did: She died four days later, on March 6.

Last Words

A letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Light, April 5, 1930:

SIR, — It might interest your readers to know that some weeks ago I had a communication which professed to come from Thomas Hardy. It came through an amateur Medium from whom I had only once before had a message, which was most veridical. Therefore, I was inclined to take Hardy’s message seriously, the more so as intrinsically it was worthy of him. I should place it on the same level of internal evidence as the Oscar Wilde and the Jack London scripts. Hardy gave a posthumous review of his own work, some aspects of which he now desired to revise and modify. The level of his criticism was a very high and just one. He then, as a sign of identity, sent a poem, which seems to me to be a remarkable one. It describes evening in a Dorsetshire village. Without quoting it all I will give here the second verse which runs thus:

Full well we know the shadow o’er the green,
When Westering sun reclines behind the trees,
The little hours of evening, when the scene
Is faintly fashioned, fading by degrees.

The third and fourth lines are in my opinion exquisite. I do not know if they were memories of something written in life. I should be glad to know if anyone recognises them.

Arthur Conan Doyle