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Unprepossessing English town names:

  • Bishop’s Itchington
  • Brokenborough
  • Great Snoring
  • Mockbeggar
  • Turners Puddle
  • Pett Bottom
  • Twelveheads
  • Ugley
  • Nether Wallop
  • Nasty
  • Wetwang
  • Blubberhouses
  • Yelling

Charles Dickens called the chipper-sounding Chelmsford “the dullest and most stupid spot on the face of the earth.”

Pi Squared

pi magic square

This curiosity was discovered by T.E. Lobeck. The square on the left is a conventional magic square — each row, column, and long diagonal totals 65. Replacing each number with the corresponding digit of pi (for example, replacing 17 with the 17th digit of pi, which is 2) yields the square on the right, in which the rows and columns yield equivalent sums.

A King’s Homework


When Edward VI succeeded to the throne at age 9, William Thomas, clerk of the council, set him 85 questions on history and policy to answer at his leisure. “For though these be but questions, yet there is not so small an one among them, as will not administer matter of much discourse, worthy the argument and debating.” Samples:

  • Whether it is better for the commonwealth, that the power be in the nobility or in the people?
  • How easily a weak prince with good order may long be maintained, and how soon a mighty prince with little disorder may be destroyed?
  • What is the occasion of conspiracies?
  • Whether the people commonly desire the destruction of him that is in authority, and what moveth them so to do?
  • How flatterers are to be known and despised?
  • How dangerous it is to be author of a new matter?
  • Whether evil report lighteth not most commonly upon the reporter?
  • Whether a puissant prince ought to purchase amity with money, or with virtue and stoutness?
  • What is the cause of war?
  • Whether the country ought not always to be defended, the quarrel being right or wrong?
  • What danger it is to a prince, not to be revenged of an open injury?
  • Whether it be not necessary sometimes to feign folly?

Thomas closes by suggesting that Edward keep the questions to himself, since it is better “to keep the principal things of wisdom secret, till occasion require the utterance.”

In a Word

adj. somewhat fat and squat

adj. short and fat

Dead Letters


In a trance in 1926, medium Geraldine Cummins wrote out messages transmitted to her by a disembodied spirit who had died 1900 years earlier. Architect Frederick Bligh Bond transcribed, punctuated, and arranged the messages. When Bond published these in a newspaper, Cummins sued him. This raises an interesting legal question: Who holds the copyright?

In an extempore judgment, Justice J. Eve wrote that, although all parties agreed that “the true originator of all that is found in these documents is some being no longer inhabiting this world,” the medium’s “active cooperation” had helped to translate them into modern language. This might make her a joint author with the disembodied spirit, but “recognizing as I do that I have no jurisdiction extending to the sphere in which he moves,” he found that “authorship rests with this lady.”

Bond had claimed that the writing had no living author, that, in Eve’s words, “the authorship and copyright rest with some one already domiciled on the other side of the inevitable river.” But “That is a matter I must leave for solution by others more competent to decide it than I am. I can only look upon the matter as a terrestrial one, of the earth earthy, and I propose to deal with it on that footing. In my opinion the plaintiff has made out her case, and the copyright rests with her.”



One day the elderly soldier [Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington] chanced on a small boy weeping bitterly and on asking the cause the child began to explain that he was going away to school next day … not waiting to hear more the Duke read him a severe lecture on his attitude, which was cowardly, unworthy of a gentleman and not at all the way to behave, etc. At last the little boy managed to explain he was not crying because he was going to school, but he was worried about his pet toad, as no one else seemed to care for it and he wouldn’t know how it was. The Duke, a just man, apologized to the child for having wronged him, and being human as well as just, took down the particulars and promised to report himself about this pet. In due course the little boy at school received a letter saying ‘Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to Master —– and has the pleasure to inform him that his toad is well.’

— G.W.E. Russell, Collections and Recollections, 1963

The Counterfeit Coin

You have nine coins and a balance scale. One of the coins is lighter than the others. Is it possible to identify it in only two weighings?

Click for Answer

The Carisbrooke Donkey


The well at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight is 200 feet deep, so the residents raise water using an enormous wheel driven by a donkey, a practice that dates to at least 1690.

“While it is not claimed that the same individual donkey has drawn its water all of these years,” wrote a correspondent to American Machinist in 1904, “the claim is made that the duty of drawing water from this famous well descends from father to son, and is never shared outside this one royal family of donkeys.”

“One ass has been known to perform this service at Carisbrooke for fifty years, another for forty, a third for thirty, and a fourth had performed it for ten years at the time of the writer’s last visit,” wrote Caroline Bray in 1876. “The dates are marked down inside the door of the well-house.”

(“The donkey was continuing his labour and looking towards the well when the question was asked, ‘What is he looking at?’ ‘He is looking for the bucket,’ said the man; and, in fact, as soon as the bucket appeared the donkey stopped, and very deliberately walked out of the wheel to the place at which he stood at our entrance, knowing full well that he had done what was desired.”)

Gripping Pages


Mark Twain found it exasperating to compose a scrapbook using mucilage and glue. In order to “economize the profanity of this country,” in 1873 he patented a “self-pasting scrapbook” whose pages are already covered with adhesive — the user simply moistens a portion of the page to paste in each piece.

You know that when the average man wants to put something in his scrap book he can’t find his paste — then he swears; or if he finds it, it is dried so hard that it is only fit to eat — then he swears; if he uses mucilage it mingles with the ink, and next year he can’t read his scrap — the result is barrels and barrels of profanity. This can all be saved and devoted to other irritating things, where it will do more real and lasting good, simply by substituting my self-pasting Scrap Book for the old-fashioned one.

Twain called it “the only rational scrapbook the world has ever seen.” It proved to be his only profitable invention, selling still in 1912. One wag called it “a book to which readers could easily become attached.”

Calamari Ripieni

From the London Times, July 4, 1874, an account of an attack by a giant squid on the schooner Pearl, as told by its master to the rescuing steamer Strathowen:

I was lately the skipper of the ‘Pearl’ schooner, 150 tons, as tight a little craft as ever sailed the seas, with a crew of six men. We were bound from the Mauritius for Rangoon in ballast to return with paddy, and had put in at Galle for water. Three days out we fell becalmed in the bay (lat. 8°50’N., long 84°5′ E.). On the 10th of May, about 5 p.m.,–eight bells I know had gone,–we sighted a two-masted screw on our port quarter, about five or six miles off; very soon after, as we lay motionless, a great mass rose slowly out of the sea about half a mile off on our larboard side, and remained spread out, as it were, and stationary; it looked like the back of a huge whale, but it sloped less, and was of a brownish colour; even at that distance it seemed much longer than our craft, and it seemed to be basking in the sun. ‘What’s that?’ I sung out to the mate. ‘Blest if I knows; barring its size, colour and shape, it might be a whale,’ replied Tom Scott; ‘And it ain’t the sea sarpent,’ said one of the crew, ‘for he’s too round for that ere crittur.’ I went into the cabin for my rifle, and as I was preparing to fire, Bill Darling, a Newfoundlander, came on deck, and, looking at the monster, exclaimed, putting up his hand, ‘Have a care, master; that ere is a squid, and will capsize us if you hurt him.’ Smiling at the idea, I let fly and hit him, and with that he shook; there was a great ripple all round him, and he began to move. ‘Out with all your axes and knives,’ shouted Bill, ‘and cut at any part of him that comes aboard; look alive, and Lord help us!’ Not aware of the danger, and never having seen or heard of such a monster, I gave no orders, and it was no use touching the helm or ropes to get out of the way. By this time three of the crew, Bill included, had found axes, and one a rusty cutlass, and all were looking over the ship’s side at the advancing monster. We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length and just as thick; the wake or train might have been one hundred feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel and she heeled over; in another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts, Bill screaming ‘Slash for your lives;’ but all our slashing was of no avail, for the brute, holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam-ends; we were thrown into the water at once, and just as I went over I caught sight of one of the crew, either Bill or Tom Fielding, squashed up between the masts and one of those awful arms; for a few seconds our ship lay on her beam-ends, then filled and went down; another of the crew must have been sucked down, for you only picked up five; the rest you know. I can’t tell who ran up the ensign.

“This tale has never been confirmed,” notes Bernard Heuvelmans, “and it may well have been an opportune hoax, for the Strathowen is not to be found in Lloyd’s Register for that year.”