Winston Churchill said that playing golf was “like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.”
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening — any evening — would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
— C.S. Lewis
In 1910, unable to get his one-act play “The First Poet” published, George Sterling prevailed on his friend Jack London to publish it under his own name. London resisted, pointing out that Sterling had already shown the play to Herbert Heron and Mike Williams, who would recognize it. He wrote:
“Your showing ‘The First Poet’ to Heron and Williams, and then coming on and asking me to father it, is equivalent to exposing your penis to a couple of 90¢ alarm clocks, and then trying to rape a quail. I’m the quail. And if I let you rape me, both alarm clocks would immediately go off and tell the news to the world.”
Eventually he relented, and “The First Poet” appeared in the Century Magazine in June 1911 under London’s name. The fact of Sterling’s authorship came to light only later.
The Epworth Instigator, a monthly publication in Santa Monica, edited by Saml. Carlisle, has probably the smallest sworn circulation statement of any paper in the United States. According to the sworn statement, Forrest Harris, the business manager, says that the number of copies printed and circulated for the month of August, 1907, was one.
The paper is published in the interests of the Epworth league here, and the only copy is taken to the meeting and read aloud, advertisements and all.
— Printers’ Ink, Oct. 16, 1907
Anthony Trollope established himself as one of the world’s most prolific novelists while holding down a 30-year career as a full-time civil servant.
He did this by simply demanding it of himself. Even while traveling he rose at 5:30 each morning and worked for three hours, “allowing himself no mercy,” counting words as he went and noting his progress on a chart, “so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the efficiency might be supplied.” He disdained inspiration: “To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.”
“All those I think who have lived as literary men — working daily as literary labourers — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours — so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom … to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.”
His brother Tom said, “Work to him was a necessity and a satisfaction. He used often to say he envied me the capacity for being idle.”
The goal of the Shakespeare programming language is to create code that reads like a Shakespearean play: Variables are “characters” that interact through dialogue, constants are represented by nouns and adjectives, and if/then statements are phrased as questions. (Insulting Macbeth assigns him a negative value.) Act and scene numbers serve as GOTO labels, and characters can tell one another to “remember” or “recall” values. The phrases “Open your heart” and “Speak your mind” output a variable’s numerical value and the corresponding ASCII character, respectively.
This program prints the phrase HELLO WORLD:
Romeo, a young man with a remarkable patience. Juliet, a likewise young woman of remarkable grace. Ophelia, a remarkable woman much in dispute with Hamlet. Hamlet, the flatterer of Andersen Insulting A/S. Act I: Hamlet's insults and flattery. Scene I: The insulting of Romeo. [Enter Hamlet and Romeo] Hamlet: You lying stupid fatherless big smelly half-witted coward! You are as stupid as the difference between a handsome rich brave hero and thyself! Speak your mind! You are as brave as the sum of your fat little stuffed misused dusty old rotten codpiece and a beautiful fair warm peaceful sunny summer's day. You are as healthy as the difference between the sum of the sweetest reddest rose and my father and yourself! Speak your mind! You are as cowardly as the sum of yourself and the difference between a big mighty proud kingdom and a horse. Speak your mind. Speak your mind! [Exit Romeo] Scene II: The praising of Juliet. [Enter Juliet] Hamlet: Thou art as sweet as the sum of the sum of Romeo and his horse and his black cat! Speak thy mind! [Exit Juliet] Scene III: The praising of Ophelia. [Enter Ophelia] Hamlet: Thou art as lovely as the product of a large rural town and my amazing bottomless embroidered purse. Speak thy mind! Thou art as loving as the product of the bluest clearest sweetest sky and the sum of a squirrel and a white horse. Thou art as beautiful as the difference between Juliet and thyself. Speak thy mind! [Exeunt Ophelia and Hamlet] Act II: Behind Hamlet's back. Scene I: Romeo and Juliet's conversation. [Enter Romeo and Juliet] Romeo: Speak your mind. You are as worried as the sum of yourself and the difference between my small smooth hamster and my nose. Speak your mind! Juliet: Speak YOUR mind! You are as bad as Hamlet! You are as small as the difference between the square of the difference between my little pony and your big hairy hound and the cube of your sorry little codpiece. Speak your mind! [Exit Romeo] Scene II: Juliet and Ophelia's conversation. [Enter Ophelia] Juliet: Thou art as good as the quotient between Romeo and the sum of a small furry animal and a leech. Speak your mind! Ophelia: Thou art as disgusting as the quotient between Romeo and twice the difference between a mistletoe and an oozing infected blister! Speak your mind! [Exeunt]
Because it’s written as a play, a program can be performed by human actors, but the drama lacks a certain narrative drive:
B.S. Johnson’s 1969 “book in a box” The Unfortunates consists of 27 unbound sections, ranging in length from a single paragraph to 12 pages. The first and last chapters are specified, but the 25 in between can be read in any order. Johnson felt this was a “better solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book.”
Jerzy Andrzejewski’s 40,000-word novel The Gates of Paradise, published in 1960, consists of only two sentences. The second is “And they marched all night.”
When Edgar Wallace published his detective thriller The Four Just Men in 1905, he challenged readers of the Daily Mail to guess the murder method, offering first, second, and third prizes of £250, £200, and £50. Unfortunately he failed to specify that each prize would go to a single entrant, so he was legally obliged to award a prize to every correct entry. He went bankrupt, and the newspaper had to pay more than £5,000 to protect its reputation.
Shortly after his travel book Alexandria appeared in December 1922, E.M. Forster received a regretful letter from the publisher, Whitehead Morris & Co. There had been a fire in the warehouse and the entire edition had been burned. Fortunately, it had been insured, and they enclosed a substantial check in compensation.
“A few weeks later Forster received a yet more regretful letter from the publishers,” notes editor Lawrence Durrell in the book’s 1961 edition. “The books had been found intact, in a cellar which had escaped the flames. This, in view of the insurance money, his publishers wrote, had created a most awkward situation, and they had taken the only way out: they burnt the books deliberately.”
Index entries in Hilaire Belloc’s The Aftermath: Or, Gleanings From a Busy Life, 1903:
Abingdon, History of, by Lord Charles Gamber, see Pulping, p. 187.
Advertisement, Folly and Waste of, see Pulping, p. 187.
All Souls, College of, see Pulping, p. 187.
Cabs, Necessity of, to Modern Publisher, see Pulping, p. 187.
Cabs to Authors, Unwarrantable Luxury, see Pulping, p. 187.
Call, Divine, to a Literary Career, see Pulping, p. 187.
Dogs, Reputation Going to the, see Pulping, p. 187.
England, Source and Wealth of, see Pulping, p. 187.
Fame, see Pulping, p. 187.
Genius, Indestructibility of, see Pulping, p. 187.
India, Lord Curzon’s Views on, see Pulping, p. 187.
Jesuits, Their Reply to “Huguenot,” see Pulping, p. 187.
“Mamma,” “Darling Old,” Story for Children, by the Countess of K——, see Pulping, p. 187.
Name, Real, of “Diplomaticus,” see Pulping, p. 187.
Rhodes, Cecil, Numerous Lives of, see Pulping, p. 187.
Suzanna and the Elders, Sacred Poem, see Pulping, p. 187.
Uganda Railway, Balance-sheet of, see Pulping, p. 187.
So runs the whole thing, right up to the summary “W.X.Y.Z., see Pulping, p. 187″ at the end.
There’s also an entry for “Pulping, p. 187.”
You are quite correct in saying it is a long time since you have heard from me: in fact, I find that I have not written to you since the 13th of last November. But what of that? You have access to the daily papers. Surely you can find out negatively, that I am all right! Go carefully through the list of bankruptcies; then run your eye down the police cases; and, if you fail to find my name anywhere, you can say to your mother in a tone of calm satisfaction, ‘Mr. Dodgson is going on well.’
— Lewis Carroll to Edith Blakemore, Jan. 1, 1895
Scottish writer Alasdair Gray is a practical joker. As his collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly was going to press in 1984, he called publisher Stephanie Wolfe Murray and said, “I want to have an erratum slip inserted.”
She said, “Oh God! What’s wrong? Surely we corrected everything. What do you want to say on it?”
He said, “I want it to say: THIS ERRATUM SLIP HAS BEEN INSERTED BY MISTAKE.”
“Of course we said yes immediately,” remembered Wolfe Murray, “but it was a hell of a nuisance, having to get it inserted into every single book, and expensive probably, but well worth it. All of us thought so.”
During Arthur Conan Doyle’s first tour of the United States, in 1894, he encountered a cabbie in Boston who declined his fare and asked instead for a ticket to that evening’s lecture. Surprised, Doyle asked how he had recognized him. The cabbie replied:
“If you will excuse other personal remarks, your coat lapels are badly twisted downward, where they have been grasped by the pertinacious New York reporters. Your hair has the Quakerish cut of a Philadelphia barber, and your hat, battered at the brim in front, shows where you have tightly grasped it, in the struggle to stand your ground at a Chicago literary luncheon. Your right overshoe has a large block of Buffalo mud just under the instep, the odor of a Utica cigar hangs about your clothing, and the overcoat itself shows the slovenly brushing of the porters of the through sleepers from Albany. The crumbs of doughnut on the top of your bag could only have come there in Springfield … and stenciled upon the very end of your walking stick, in fairly plain lettering, is the name Conan Doyle.”
After a performance of his play The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter received a note from an audience member:
Can you tell me the meaning of your play? There are three points I do not understand.
i. Who are the two men?
ii. Where did Stanley come from?
iii. Were they all supposed to be normal?
You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot understand your play.
He wrote back:
I would be obliged if you could explain to me the meaning of your letter. There are three points which I do not understand.
i. Who are you?
ii. Where do you come from?
iii. Are you supposed to be normal?
You will appreciate that without the answers to these questions I cannot fully understand your letter.
“Why I began to write for children,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer:
- Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics.
- Children don’t read to find their identity.
- They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
- They have no use for psychology.
- They detest sociology.
- They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake.
- They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
- They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes.
- When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
- They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.
(From his 1978 Nobel banquet speech.)
From a letter from Gerard Manley Hopkins to his sister Kate, April 25, 1871:
We were all vaccinated the other day. The next day a young Portug[u]ese came up to me and said ‘Oh misther Opkins, do you feel the cows in yewer arm?’ I told him I felt the horns coming through. I do I am sure. I cannot remember now whether one ought to say the calf of the arm or the calf of the leg. My shoulder is like a shoulder of beef. I dare not speak above a whisper for fear of bellowing – there now, I was going to say I am obliged to speak low for fear of lowing. I dream at night that I have only two of my legs in bed. I think there is a split coming in both of my slippers. Yesterday I could not think why it was that I would wander about on a wet grass-plot: I see now. I chew my pen a great deal. The long and short of it is that my left forequarter is swollen and painful (I meant to have written arm but I cowld not.) Besides the doctor has given us medicine, so that I am in a miserable way just now.
Ernest Thompson Seton called his father “the most selfish man I ever knew, or heard of, in history or in fiction.” In 1881, on Seton’s 21st birthday, his father called him into his study, took down an enormous cash book from a high shelf, and opened it at E.
In the book he had recorded every expense he had ever made on the boy, including the day and date of each outlay, all the way back to the doctor’s fee for his delivery. The total was $537.50.
“Hitherto,” he said, “I have charged no interest. But from now on I must add the reasonable amount of 6 per cent per annum. I shall be glad to have you reduce the amount at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Stunned, Seton staggered to his feet and left the room, refusing his father’s offer “to furnish without expense a full copy of the indebtedness.”
His father called after him, “God bless you, my son. In the natural course of events, you cannot much longer be an inmate of my house; but I must prayerfully trust that, wherever your lot is cast in the near future, you will never forget the debt you owe your father, who is to you on earth the next to God.”
Seton paid the bill and never spoke to him again.
“If Bacon wrote Shakespeare, who wrote Bacon?” — George Lyman Kittredge
Literature often inspires music, but the reverse is less common. Here’s an intriguing exception: In Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts (1948), Calvin S. Brown argues that the third part of Thomas De Quincey’s 1849 essay “The English Mail-Coach” is deliberately structured as the literary equivalent of a musical fugue.
That part of the essay, titled “The Dream-Fugue,” tells how De Quincey’s dreams were dominated by a recent experience in which his carriage had nearly collided with that of a young woman. As De Quincey describes his dreams, the fugue subject is a group of ideas (speed, urgency, and a girl in danger of sudden death) that remain static while the shifting settings and details act as a contrapuntal accompaniment: In the first section a girl dances on a ship that is run down by another ship; in the second she escapes; in the third she runs along a shore and is engulfed in quicksand.
[The] middle part begins with Section IV, and is constructed exactly as it should be. The news of Waterloo and victory, the coach carrying that news, the cathedral seen in the distance and rapidly approached and entered — all these are presentations of material closely connected with the subject; but there is a definite departure from the set statements of this subject found in the exposition. In the middle section we expect at least one direct restatement of the subject in addition to this episodic material; hence we look for another vision of sudden death. We are not disappointed. After a considerable interval the girl of the visions, now an infant, appears directly in the path of the coach, which is thundering up the aisle of the vast cathedral. There is a moment of suspense, and then, just as death seems certain, she vanishes. After a dramatic pause, she reappears as a full-grown woman, on an altar of alabaster, within the cathedral and yet among the clouds. On one side of her is dimly seen the shadow of the angel of death, and on the other her better angel prays for her. What we have here is simply a recurrence of the subject and answer, the counter-subject appearing with the answer only. It will be observed that the answer always saves the victim from the immediate peril presented in the subject, but keeps the idea of further danger. In the single instance where fugue-form does not demand an answer (Section III), the girl goes on to her fate.
In the book, Brown even presents a chart identifying the exposition, the development, and the final section of the fugue. “Most commentators have brushed aside the title of this section with some meaningless comment, but De Quincey’s knowledge of music and his interest in it, together with his passion for intellectual analysis, make it reasonable to suppose that his title was something more than a fanciful name. Actually, De Quincey’s method of producing the musical effect was to follow, as far as the limitations imposed by a different medium would permit, the structure of the musical form. He succeeded in following it far more closely than has been generally realized.”
There was one moment in Stratford the other afternoon when I really did feel I was treading upon Shakespeare’s own ground. It was in the gardens of New Place, very brave in the spring sunlight. You could have played the outdoor scene of Twelfth Night in them without disturbing a leaf. There was the very sward for Viola and Sir Andrew. Down that paved path Olivia would come, like a great white peacock. Against that bank of flowers the figure of Maria would be seen, flitting like a starling. The little Knott Garden alone was worth the journey and nearer to Shakespeare than all the documents and chairs and monuments. I remember that when we left that garden to see the place where Shakespeare was buried, it didn’t seem to matter much. Why should it when we had just seen the place where he was still alive?
— J.B. Priestley, Apes and Angels, 1927
More wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Thirst after desert — not reward.
- Gifts much expected, are paid not given.
- Children and princes will quarrel for trifles.
- Praise little, dispraise less.
- The Child thinks 20 Shillings and 20 Years can scarce ever be spent.
- Industry need not wish.
- ‘Tis great Confidence in a Friend to tell him your Faults, greater to tell him his.
- Neglect kills Injuries, Revenge increases them.
- Observe all men; thyself most.
- Do not do that which you would not have known.
- He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now.
- The honest Man takes Pains, and then enjoys Pleasures; the knave takes Pleasure, and then suffers Pains.
- All would live long, but none would be old.
- Nothing more like a fool, than a drunken man.
- What e’er’s begun in anger, ends in shame.
- As often as we do good, we sacrifice.
- There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him.
And “Cut the Wings of your Hens and Hopes, lest they lead you a weary Dance after them.”
Dismissals of Shakespeare:
- “An upstart crow beautified with our feathers.” — Robert Greene
- “The most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” — Samuel Pepys, on A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- “His rude unpolished style and antiquated phrase and wit.” — Lord Shaftesbury
- “A disproportioned and misshapen giant.” — David Hume
- “Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion.” — Samuel Johnson
- “I cannot read him, he is such a bombast fellow.” — George II
- “Was there ever such stuff as the greater part of Shakespeare? Only one must not say so.” — George III
- “Shakespeare — what trash are his works in the gross.” — Edward Young
- “One of the greatest geniuses that ever existed, Shakespeare, undoubtedly wanted taste.” — Horace Walpole
- “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” — Darwin, Autobiography
- “The undisputed fame enjoyed by Shakespeare as a writer is, like every other lie, a great evil.” — Tolstoy
- “If all the work of Shakespeare could be gathered up and burned in one pile, the world would witness the most beneficial action for the sake of literature since the invention of alcohol.” — Waterloo, Iowa, Times-Tribune, 1920
After seeing Henry Irving’s production of Cymbeline, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity.”
Here’s a special kind of genius: In 1997 Daniel Nussbaum rewrote Oedipus Rex using vanity license plates registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles:
ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.
OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.
JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”
SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.
SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.
NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.
UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.
YEGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!
The world’s most beautiful book is also its most mysterious. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published anonymously in 1499, recounts the “struggle for love in a dream” of Poliphilo, who pursues his beloved Polia through 370 pages of gorgeous woodcuts and epoch-making typography. Their story is told in a cryptic polyglot text of Tuscan, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, replete with arcane references and hidden meanings.
“The Hypnerotomachia is a catalogue of every possible and imaginable foil to understanding,” writes Liane LeFavre in her 2005 exploration of the text. “On every page one is confronted by words whose meaning must be deciphered, inscriptions that have to be interpreted, episodes whose conclusion is ambiguous, a hero and a heroine who embody ideas that have to be divined. Texts and images in code, symbolic images and their interpretation, are recurrent patterns in these cryptic tactics.”
The author’s enormous erudition continually interrupts his story: He fills 200 pages with architectural descriptions and another 60 with botanical lore. The book’s patron, Leonardo Crasso, wrote that it contains “so much science that one would search in vain through all the ancient books [for its meaning], as is the case for many occult things of nature.” The author, he wrote, “devised his work so that only the wise may penetrate the sanctuary.”
Why would anyone produce such a prodigious work of art and learning and then conceal his identity? No one knows for certain. A century and a half after its publication, a French reader discovered an acrostic concealed in the first letters of the book’s 39 chapters. These spell out “Poliam Frater Francescus Columnia Peramavit,” or “Brother Francesco Colonna loved Polonna immensely.” Who was Francesco Colonna? There are two candidates by that name, a Venetian friar and a Roman aristocrat. But both lived on for decades after 1499 and neither claimed to be author of this remarkable book. His identity, and that of the illustrator, remain uncertain.
Raymond Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems consists of 10 sonnets with the same rhyming sounds, so that their 140 lines can be combined into 1014 different poems.
Milorad Pavić’s 1984 “lexicon novel” Dictionary of the Khazars consists of three miniature encyclopedias that cross-reference one another. Together they document, from varying perspectives, the causes of the disappearance of the Khazar empire in the eighth century. “Each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards, and, as with a mirror, he will get out of this dictionary as much as he puts into it, for you … cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it.”
Julio Cortázar’s 1963 “counter-novel” Hopscotch can be read in two ways: The reader can advance through the 56 chapters in conventional order or according to an alternate order laid out by the author, which incorporates 99 “expandable chapters” supplied at the end of the book. Thus the novel “consists of many books, but two books above all.”
Georges Perec’s 1978 novel Life A User’s Manual concerns the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional Paris apartment house. Perec structured the novel by lifting off the building’s facade and mapping its rooms onto a 10×10 grid. He then placed an imaginary chess knight on a central square and worked out a tour that took the knight to every location in the building:
He used a similar technique to assign “elements” to each chapter: furniture, animals, clothes, jewels, music, books, toys, flowers, and more were salted into the building’s rooms according to the same rules. “With so much of its material predetermined,” wrote Perec biographer David Bellos, “the place of each chapter in the novel’s sequence, the place of each room described in the block of flats, and forty-two different things to say about every room — surely the book would just write itself.”
In fact Perec wrote it in 18 months. “Writing a novel is not like narrating something related directly to the real world,” he wrote. “It’s a matter of establishing a game between reader and writer.”
In Other Inquisitions, Borges writes of a strange taxonomy in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:
On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g), stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
This is fanciful, but it has the ring of truth — different cultures can classify the world in surprisingly different ways. In traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia, each noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words that classify all objects in the universe:
- bayi: men, kangaroos, possums, bats, most snakes, most fishes, some birds, most insects, the moon, storms, rainbows, boomerangs, some spears, etc.
- balan: women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fishes, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc.
- balam: all edible fruit and the plants that bear them, tubers, ferns, honey, cigarettes, wine, cake
- bala: parts of the body, meat, bees, wind, yamsticks, some spears, most trees, grass, mud, stones, noises and language, etc.
“The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and anthropologists,” writes UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). “More often than not, the linguist or anthropologist just throws up his hands and resorts to giving a list — a list that one would not be surprised to find in the writings of Borges.”
When George’s Grandmamma was told
That George had been as good as Gold,
She Promised in the Afternoon
To buy him an Immense BALLOON.
And so she did; but when it came,
It got into the candle flame,
And being of a dangerous sort
Exploded with a loud report!
The Lights went out! The Windows broke!
The Room was filled with reeking smoke.
And in the darkness shrieks and yells
Were mingled with Electric Bells,
And falling masonry and groans,
And crunching, as of broken bones,
And dreadful shrieks, when, worst of all,
The House itself began to fall!
It tottered, shuddering to and fro,
Then crashed into the street below —
Which happened to be Savile Row.
When Help arrived, among the Dead
The Still-Room Maid.
And I am dreadfully afraid
That Monsieur Champignon, the Chef,
Will now be
While George, who was in part to blame,
Received, you will regret to hear,
A nasty lump
The moral is that little Boys
Should not be given dangerous Toys.
— Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales for Children, 1922