In a Word

n. a person of great and varied learning

n. one who may be depended upon

n. a dispute about or concerning words

v. to speak of with disparagement or contempt

In 1746 Samuel Johnson set out to write a dictionary of the English language. He proposed to finish it in three years.

Dr. Adams found him one day busy at his Dictionary, when the following dialogue ensued.

ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies? JOHNSON. Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others; and there is a Welch gentleman who has published a collection of Welch proverbs, who will help me with the Welch. ADAMS. But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see: forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.

(From Boswell.) (In the end it took him seven years.)

More Odd Fiction

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang contains no commas. (“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”)

Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence is a single sentence of 120 pages.

Mathias Enard’s Zone is a single sentence of 517 pages.

Michel Thaler’s Le Train de Nulle Part contains no verbs. (“Quelle aubaine! Une place de libre, ou presque, dans ce compartiment. Une escale provisoire, pourquoi pas! Donc, ma nouvelle adresse dans ce train de nulle part: voiture 12, 3ème compartiment dans le sens de la marche. Encore une fois, pourquoi pas?”)

Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon is a “pragmatic lipogram” — all its verbs are conditional, future, subjunctive, etc., so that nothing is actually happening in the present: “I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.”

Adam Adams’ 2008 novel Unhooking a DD-Cup Bra Without Fumbling contains no Es.

My notes say that Iegor Gran’s Les Trois Vies de Lucie can be read straight through, recto pages only, or verso pages only, yielding three different stories, but I haven’t managed to find a copy to check.

Curioser and Curioser

“I’m sure I’m not Ada, for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and — oh dear, how puzzling it all is! I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!”

So frets Alice outside the garden in Wonderland. Is the math only nonsense? In his book The White Knight, Alexander L. Taylor finds one way to make sense of it: In base 18, 4 times 5 actually is 12. And in base 21, 4 times 6 is 13. Continuing this pattern:

4 times 7 is 14 in base 24
4 times 8 is 15 in base 27
4 times 9 is 16 in base 30
4 times 10 is 17 in base 33
4 times 11 is 18 in base 36
4 times 12 is 19 in base 39

And here it becomes clear why Alice will never get to 20: 4 times 13 doesn’t equal 20 in base 42, as the pattern at first seems to suggest, but rather 1X, where X is whatever symbol is adopted for 10.

Did Lewis Carroll have this in mind when he contrived the story for Alice? Perhaps? In The Magic of Lewis Carroll, John Fisher writes, “It is hard … not to accept Taylor’s theory that Carroll was anxious to make the most of two worlds; the problem as interpreted by Taylor interested him, and although it wouldn’t interest Alice there was no reason why he shouldn’t use it to entertain her on the level of nonsense. It is even more difficult to suppose that he, a mathematical don, inserted the puzzle in the book without realising it.”

In the Winter 1971 edition of Jabberwocky, the quarterly publication of the Lewis Carroll Society, Taylor wrote, “If you find a watch in the Sahara Desert you don’t think it grew there. In this case we know who put it there, so if he didn’t record it that tells us something about his recording habits. It doesn’t tell us that the mathematical puzzle isn’t a mathematical puzzle.”


In Dante’s Inferno, a sign above the gate to hell reads LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, VOI CH’ENTRATE.

There are many ways to translate this (Robert Ripley claimed to find 100), but a common one is ABANDON YE ALL HOPE WHO ENTER HERE.

By an unlikely coincidence, this yields ABANDON Y.A.H.W.E.H.

(Discovered by Dave Morice.)



I think Jacques Jouet was the first to notice this. In the first few pages of the Tintin adventure The Secret of the Unicorn, as Tintin visits the Vossenplein antique market in Brussels, Snowy the dog keeps scratching himself. Why?

Click for Answer

Stop and Go,_Paris_7_April_2014_003.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1990s Jacques Jouet introduced “metro poems,” poems written on the Paris Métro according to a particular set of rules. He explained the rules in a poem:

There are as many lines in a metro poem as there are stations in your journey, minus one.
The first line is composed mentally between the first two stations of your journey (counting the station you got on at).
It is then written down when the train stops at the second station.
The second line is composed mentally between the second and the third stations of your journey.
It is then written down when the train stops at the third station.
And so on.

The poet mustn’t write anything down when the train is moving, and he mustn’t compose anything when the train is stopped. If he changes lines then he must start a new stanza. He writes down the poem’s last line on the platform of the final station.

Jouet’s poem was itself composed in the Métro, according to its own rules. Presumably this type of writing could be done in any subway, but Marc Lapprand notes that the Paris system supports it unusually well: It’s dense, with 368 different stations, including 87 connecting points (or 293 nominal stations, including 55 connecting points) and a fairly short distance between them (543 meters, on average). The average run between two stations in Paris is a minute and a half, which means the poet has to think quickly in order to keep up.

Levin Becker, who tried the technique for his book 2012 Many Subtle Channels, found it surprisingly challenging: “It constrains the space around your thoughts, not the letters or words in which you will eventually fit them: you have to work to think thoughts of the right size, to focus on the line at hand without workshopping the previous one or anticipating the next.”

In April 1996 Jouet wrote a 490-verse poem while passing through every station in the Métro, following an optimized map laid out for him by a graph theorist. “At the end of those fifteen and a half hours,” he wrote, “I was very tired.”

(Jacques Jouet and Ian Monk, “Metro Poems,” AA Files 45/46 [Winter 2001], 4-14.)


One more Sherlock Holmes oddity: “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” appeared in the Strand in 1893. In it, Holmes tells Watson, “As a medical man, you are aware, Watson, that there is no part of the body which varies so much as the human ear. Each ear is as a rule quite distinctive and differs from all other ones. In last year’s Anthropological Journal you will find two short monographs from my pen upon the subject.”

Just a few months later, in October and November 1893, the Strand published “A Chapter on Ears,” analyzing the ears of famous Britons. Interestingly, the article carries no byline. Was it inspired by the story, or is it the work of Sherlock Holmes himself?

Christopher Morley noted that one of the featured ears was that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Surely, from so retiring a philosopher, then eighty-four years old, this intimate permission could not have been had without the privileged intervention of Sherlock.”


In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Arthur Conan Doyle created an inadvertent grammatical puzzle: Who does the term “solitary cyclist” refer to? Apart from the title, the phrase appears only twice in the story:

  1. “I will now lay before the reader the facts connected with Miss Violet Smith, the solitary cyclist of Charlington, and the curious sequel of our investigation, which culminated in unexpected tragedy.”
  2. “‘That’s the man!’ I [Watson] gasped. A solitary cyclist was coming towards us. His head was down …”

The first passage describes a woman and the second a man, Bob Carruthers. Which is the solitary cyclist of the title? For 69 years Holmes fans debated the question. Those who argued for Smith read “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” as an appositive phrase, another name for “Miss Violet Smith.” Certainly Carruthers was “a” solitary cyclist, but “the” solitary cyclist was Smith.

Those who argued for Carruthers thought that “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” above was not a description of Smith but the second item in a list — that is, Watson was promising to describe three things: the facts of the case, the cyclist, and the sequel. They allowed, though, that the comma after that phrase was unusual (I gather that the serial comma wasn’t commonly used then). In the story Carruthers pursues Smith, both on bicycles, so either interpretation seems reasonable.

The matter was resolved in 1972, when Andrew Peck tracked down the original manuscript in Cornell University’s rare book room. In the title and in the first passage above Doyle had originally written “man” and then crossed it out and substituted “cyclist.” So the solitary cyclist is definitely Bob Carruthers. Another mystery solved!

(Andrew J. Peck, “The Solitary Man-uscript,” Baker Street Journal, June 1972.)


One sticks a finger into the ground to smell what country one is in. I stick my finger into the world — it has no smell. Where am I? What does it mean to say: the world? What is the meaning of that word? Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here? Who am I? How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought from a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager — I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

— Kierkegaard, Repetition, 1843