In a Word

n. thundering

Finnegans Wake is punctuated by ten thunderclaps, which occur at moments of crisis in the text. “A situation is presented, developed, and subjected to increasing stress until, with the thunder, a collapse, and suddenly a complementary situation that was latent in the first is seen to be in place,” writes scholar Eric McLuhan.

First thunderclap:




















Like everything in Joyce, the claps’ meaning is open to question, but they’re not arbitrary: Each of the first nine words contains exactly 100 letters, and the tenth has 101. Joyce, who called thunder “perfect language,” had apparently adjusted the spelling of the thunderclaps as the book took shape: McLuhan found tick marks in Joyce’s galley proofs, “the only evidence of actual letter-counting I have found in any of the manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, and galleys.”

(Eric McLuhan, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, 1997.)

New Lamps

Aladdin, the best-known of the tales in the Arabian Nights, is not an authentic folk tale — it was written and inserted into the book by its French translator, Antoine Galland, in 1709.

Galland said that he’d heard the story from a Syrian monk, but there’s no precedent for it in the Arabic tradition — the story was unknown until Galland published it.

(Thanks, Joseph.)

Behind Schedule

In 1980 Philip K. Dick was asked to forecast some significant events in the coming years. Among his predictions:

1983: The Soviet Union will develop an operational particle-beam accelerator, making missile attack against that country impossible. At the same time the U.S.S.R. will deploy this weapon as a satellite killer. The U.S. will turn, then, to nerve gas.

1989: The U.S. and the Soviet Union will agree to set up one vast metacomputer as a central source for information available to the entire world; this will be essential due to the huge amount of information coming into existence.

1993: An artificial life form will be created in a lab, probably in the U.S.S.R., thus reducing our interest in locating life forms on other planets.

1997: The first closed-dome colonies will be successfully established on Luna and on Mars. Through DNA modification, quasi-mutant humans will be created who can survive under non-Terran conditions, i.e., alien environments.

1998: The Soviet Union will test a propulsion drive that moves a starship at the velocity of light; a pilot ship will set out for Proxima Centaurus, soon to be followed by an American ship.

2000: An alien virus, brought back by an interplanetary ship, will decimate the population of Earth, but leave the colonies on Luna and Mars intact.

2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.

Also: “Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts.”

(From David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace, The Book of Predictions, 1980.)

Big Talk,_1909.jpg

“The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham,” wrote Mark Twain. “Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: ‘Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-chief of the Police Department,’ yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble: ‘Mrs.-late-commander-in-chief-of-the-police-department’s-widow-Smith.'” He gives this anecdote in his autobiography:

A Dresden paper, the Weidmann, which thinks that there are kangaroos (Beutelratte) in South Africa, says the Hottentots (Hottentoten) put them in cages (kotter) provided with covers (lattengitter) to protect them from the rain. The cages are therefore called lattengitterwetterkotter, and the imprisoned kangaroo lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte. One day an assassin (attentäter) was arrested who had killed a Hottentot woman (Hottentotenmutter), the mother of two stupid and stuttering children in Strättertrotel. This woman, in the German language is entitled Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutter, and her assassin takes the name Hottentotenstrottermutterattentäter. The murderer was confined in a kangaroo’s cage — Beutelrattenlattengitterwetterkotter — whence a few days later he escaped, but fortunately he was recaptured by a Hottentot, who presented himself at the mayor’s office with beaming face. ‘I have captured the Beutelratte,’ said he. ‘Which one?’ said the mayor; ‘we have several.’ ‘The Attentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte.’ ‘Which attentäter are you talking about?’ ‘About the Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutterattentäter.’ ‘Then why don’t you say at once the Hottentotenstrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?’

He calls the long word “a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language.”


Washington University philosopher Roy Sorensen dedicated his 2003 book A Brief History of the Paradox “to those who never have a book dedicated to them.”

Day Job

Despite being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Wallace Stevens held down a full-time career as an insurance lawyer. He took a job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916, at age 36, and worked there until his death in 1955.

He composed his poems on hour-long walks that he took during his lunch break, stopping periodically to scribble lines on the half-dozen or so envelopes that were always in his pockets. He would also pause occasionally at work to record fragments of poems, which he kept filed in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk. Then he would hand the collected fragments to his secretary for typing.

He was promoted to vice president in 1934 but declined all further opportunities for advancement. His colleagues knew of his poetry, but he avoided talking about it, and he earned a reputation as “the grindingest guy … in executive row”: Working diligently and largely alone, he came to be considered “the dean of surety-claims men in the whole country” and “absolutely the diamond in the tiara” of his company.

“I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once wrote. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.”

Now and Then

Most stories are told in the past tense. “It was a dark and stormy night.” In reading the story we understand that the storm is happening “now,” in the present, but the language that communicates this to us places it in the past.

This is a strange way of managing things. Imagine reading a novel using a bookmark. Everything to the left of the bookmark is in the past, already known. Everything to the right is in the future, not yet known. Our current location, at the bookmark, is someone else’s present narrated in the past tense. And this implies that there’s some future present in relation to which “current” events are past.

“If the past is to be read as present, it is a curious present that we know to be past in relation to a future we know to be already in place, already in wait for us to reach it,” writes Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot (1984). “Perhaps we would do best to speak of the anticipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative, the master trope of its strange logic.”

(From Mark Currie, About Time, 2007.)


We had a dark grey cat (Norfolk bred, very Norfolk in character) called Tom. He was reserved, domineering, voluptuous — much as I imagine Tiber to be. When he was middle-aged he gave up nocturnal prowlings and slept on my bed, against my feet. One evening I was reading in bed when I became aware that Tom was staring at me. I put down my book, said nothing, watched. Slowly, with a look of intense concentration, he got up and advanced on me, like Tarquin with ravishing strides, poised himself, put out a front paw, and stroked my cheek as I used to stroke his chops. A human caress from a cat. I felt very meagre and ill-educated that I could not purr. It had never occurred to me that their furry love develops from what was shown them as kittens.

— Sylvia Townsend Warner, letter to David Garnett, June 18, 1973, quoted in The Oxford Book of Friendship

Postal Constraints

Letter from Lewis Carroll to Gertrude Chataway, Dec. 9, 1875:

This really will not do, you know, sending one more kiss every time by post: the parcel gets so heavy it is quite expensive. When the postman brought in the last letter, he looked quite grave. ‘Two pounds to pay, sir!’ he said. ‘Extra weight, sir!’ (I think he cheats a little, by the way. He often makes me pay two pounds, when I think it should be pence). ‘Oh, if you please, Mr. Postman!’ I said, going down gracefully on one knee (I wish you could see me go down on one knee to a postman — it’s a very pretty sight), ‘do excuse me just this once! It’s only from a little girl!’

‘Only from a little girl!’ he growled. ‘What are little girls made of?’ ‘Sugar and spice,’ I began to say, ‘and all that’s ni–‘ but he interrupted me. ‘No! I don’t mean that. I mean, what’s the good of little girls, when they send such heavy letters?’ ‘Well, they’re not much good, certainly,’ I said, rather sadly.

‘Mind you don’t get any more such letters,’ he said, ‘at least, not from that particular little girl. I know her well, and she’s a regular bad one!’ That’s not true, is it? I don’t believe he ever saw you, and you’re not a bad one, are you? However, I promised him we would send each other very few more letters — ‘Only two thousand four hundred and seventy, or so,’ I said. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘a little number like that doesn’t signify. What I meant is, you mustn’t send many.’

So you see we must keep count now, and when we get to two thousand four hundred and seventy, we mustn’t write any more, unless the postman gives us leave.


  • Denver International Airport is larger than Manhattan.
  • C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy died on the same day.
  • Shakespeare mentions America only once, in Act 3, Scene 2 of The Comedy of Errors.
  • π4 + π5e6
  • “All styles are good except the boring kind.” — Voltaire

(Thanks, Larry.)