In a Word

polysemant
n. a word having more than one meaning

In 1000 Most Obscure Words, lexicographer Norman Schur notes that the Oxford English Dictionary gives three strikingly different definitions for rosmarine:

rosemary
sea spray
the walrus

Similarly, merkin manages to mean both “an artificial covering of hair for the female pubic region” and “a mop to clean cannon.” Kudos.

In 1973, textile merchant Marcus Shloimovitz sued the Oxford Dictionary for defining Jew in part as “a grasping or extortionate money-lender or usurer.” “The Jewish race includes sages, scholars, judges, scientists and people from the arts and stage,” he argued. “They have done great service for their countries. They are not cheats or unscrupulous usurers.” He lost because he failed to show that the definition had caused him personal suffering.

Feeling Low

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In 1839, Louisville physician John Croghan opened a tuberculosis hospital inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Thinking that the steady temperature and humidity would help restore his patients, he built a few small buildings deep inside the cave, and a number of patients moved in for several months. A guide from the period reads:

Immediately beyond the Great Bend, a row of cabins, built for consumptive patients, commences. All of these are framed buildings, with the exception of two, which are of stone. They stand in line, from thirty to one hundred feet apart, exhibiting a picturesque, yet at the same time, a gloomy and mournful appearance. They are well furnished, and without question, would with good and comfortable accommodations, pure air and uniform temperature, cure the pulmonary consumption.

But morale in the sunless environment was low, and the close air made their condition worse. Patient Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson wrote, “I left the cave yesterday under the impression that I would be better out than in as my lungs were constantly irritated with smoke and my nose offended by a disagreeable effluvia, the necessary consequence of its being so tenanted without ventilation.”

Croghan ended the experiment after five months, and himself died of TB six years later.

(Thanks, Sandy.)

Black and White

huggins chess problem

By A.Z. Huggins. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Condensed Ilk

In 2009 experimental poet Robert Fitterman erased most of The Sun Also Rises, retaining only phrases that begin with the word I. The result can sound strangely like the diary entry of a random Saturday afternoon:

I went up to the flat. I put the mail on the table. I heard the door-bell pull. I put on a bathrobe and slippers. I filled the big earthenware jug with water. I dressed slowly. I felt tired and pretty rotten. I took up the brandy bottle. I went to the door. I found some ash-trays and spread them around. I looked at the count. I had that feeling of going through something that has already happened before. I had the feeling as in a nightmare of it all being something repeated, something I had been through and that now I must go through again. I took a note out of my pocket. I looked back and there were three girls at his table. I gave him twenty francs and he touched his cap. I went upstairs and went to bed.

Of Hemingway, Tom Wolfe said, “People always think that the reason he’s easy to read is that he is concise. He isn’t. The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using ‘and’ for padding.”

Togetherness

https://www.google.com/patents/US4364132

In 1980 Michigan inventor Lawrence Robinson suggested wrapping an aquarium around a bathtub so that fish lovers can bathe with their pets:

This invention relates to a bathing fixture or tub such as ordinarily employed in the home, which also is an aquarium. The device may be used in the normal manner in the typical home bathroom, but it also provides the unique feature of an aquarium. The aquarium is so related to the bathing section of the tub that a bather will be literally surrounded by the aquarium creatures and/or plants while taking his or her bath.

I wonder what the fish think about this.

Pillow Talk

In 1951 James Thurber’s friend Mitchell challenged him to think of an English word that contains the four consecutive letters SGRA. Lying in bed that night, Thurber came up with these:

kissgranny. A man who seeks the company of older women, especially older women with money; a designing fellow, a fortune hunter.

blessgravy. A minister or cleric; the head of a family; one who says grace.

hossgrace. Innate or native dignity, similar to that of the thoroughbred hoss.

bussgranite. Literally, a stonekisser; a man who persists in trying to win the favor or attention of cold, indifferent, or capricious women.

tossgravel. A male human being who tosses gravel, usually at night, at the window of a female human being’s bedroom, usually that of a young virgin; hence, a lover, a male sweetheart, and an eloper.

Unfortunately, none of these is in the dictionary. What word was Mitchell thinking of?

15 Puzzle

A problem from the 1999 Russian mathematical olympiad:

Show that the numbers from 1 to 15 can’t be divided into a group A of 13 numbers and a group B of 2 numbers so that the sum of the numbers in A equals the product of the numbers in B.

Click for Answer

Shhhh!

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To amuse themselves in 1907, librarians Edmund Lester Pearson and John Cotton Dana published The Old Librarian’s Almanack, a pamphlet they alleged to have been written originally in 1773 by Jared Bean, “curator or librarian of the Connecticut Society of Antiquarians,” and evidently a man of strong opinions:

So far as your Authority will permit of it, exercise great Discrimination as to which Persons shall be admitted to the use of the Library. For the Treasure House of Literature is no more to be thrown open to the ravages of the unreasoning Mob, than is a fair Garden to be laid unprotected at the Mercy of a Swarm of Beasts.

Question each Applicant closely. See that he be a Person of good Reputation, scholarly habits, sober and courteous Demeanour. Any mere Trifler, a Person that would Dally with Books, or seek in them shallow Amusement, may be Dismiss’d without delay.

The book was reviewed seriously in the New York Sun, the New York Times, the Hartford Courant, Publisher’s Weekly, the Newburyport Daily News, the Providence Sunday Journal, and even the Library Association Record, which asked “what librarian would not at times in his secret soul sympathize” with Bean’s irritation with patrons who disturbed his reading time.

Finally Helen E. Haines of the Library Journal discerned the hoax, and the library community realized it had been had. Public Libraries wrote, “We congratulate the author of the book on being so clever to project himself into the past, as to deceive even the very elect. The book is well worth owning and reading. Let us be thankful that one with humor, imagination and sympathy has created for us dear old Jared with his gentle comradeship and his ardent love of books.”

Insight

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Still more wisdom from German aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799):

  • “That man is the noblest creature may also be inferred from the fact that no other creature has yet contested this claim.”
  • “If people should ever start to do only what is necessary, millions would die of hunger.”
  • “I am convinced we do not only love ourselves in others, but hate ourselves in others too.”
  • “Erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit.”
  • “Nothing is judged more carelessly than people’s characters, and yet there is nothing about which we should be more cautious. Nowhere do we wait less patiently for the sum total which actually is the character. I have always found that the so-called bad people gain when we get to know them more closely, and the good ones lose.”
  • “Completely to block a given effect requires a force equal to that which caused it. To give it a different direction, a trifle will often suffice.”
  • “Undeniably, what we call perseverance can lend the appearance of dignity and grandeur to many actions, just as silence in company affords wisdom and apparent intelligence to a stupid person.”
  • “The sure conviction that we could if we wanted to is the reason so many good minds are idle.”
  • “There were honest people long before there were Christians and there are, God be praised, still honest people where there are no Christians. It could therefore easily be possible that people are Christians because true Christianity corresponds to what they would have been even if Christianity did not exist.”
  • “He who knows himself properly can very soon learn to know all other men. It is all reflection.”
  • “It is certain, it seems, that we can judge some matter correctly and wisely and yet, as soon as we are required to specify our reasons, can specify only those which any beginner in that sort of fencing can refute. Often the wisest and best men know as little how to do this as they know the muscles with which they grip or play the piano. This is very true and deserves to be pursued further.”

See Diamonds and Pearls, From the Notebooks, and The Sage of Göttingen.

Doctor Doctor

Apt names of medical specialists, collected by the MEDLIB-L discussion list in 1998:

Cardiologists: Dr. Valentine, Dr. Hart, Dr. Safety R. First

Chiropractors: Dr. Popwell, Dr. Wack, Dr. Bonebrake, Dr. Bender

Dentists, endodontists and orthodontists: Dr. Pullen, Dr. Fillmore, Dr. Hurt, Dr. Yankum, Dr. Les Plack, Dr. Toothman, Dr. Borer, Dr. Pullman, Dr. Filler, Dr. Harm, Dr. Hurter, Dr. Toothaker

Dermatologists: Dr. Rash, Dr. Pitts, Dr. Skinner, Dr. Whitehead

Family practice, internists: Dr. Kwak, Dr. Blood, Dr. Coffin, Dr. Patient, Dr. Payne, Dr. Slaughter, Dr. A. Sickman, Dr. Deadman, Dr. Will Griever

Hand surgeons: Dr. Palmer, Dr. Nalebuff, Dr. Watchmaker

Medical librarian: Rita Book

Neurologists: Dr. Johnathan Treat Paine, Dr. Brain, Dr. Head

Pediatricians: Dr. Donald Duckles, Dr. Small, Dr. Bunny, Dr. Tickles

Psychiatrists/psychologists/mental health: Dr. Brain, Dr. Strange, Dr. Dippy, Dr. Moodie, Dr. Nutter, Dr. Looney

Surgeons: Dr. Hackman, Dr. Blades, Dr. Klutts, Dr. Graves, Dr. Cutts, Dr. Slaughter, Dr. Kutteroff, Dr. Doctor, Dr. Butcher, Dr. Hurt

More here. In 1977 authors A.J. Splatt and D. Weedon submitted an article on incontinence to the British Journal of Urology. It was accepted.