In a Word

adj. able to tell skilled or artful lies


In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt directed the government printing office to adopt revised spellings for 300 English words. Wished would become wisht, calibre caliber, and though tho. “It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all,” he wrote. “It is merely an attempt to cast what slight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.”

That’s about as far as he got. The House of Representatives called on the printing office to “observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.” The New York Evening Post declared “This is 2 mutch,” and the Louisville Courier-Journal opined, “Nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, nor tu lo for him tu notis. … He now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself a sort of French Academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot himself.”

Roosevelt rescinded the order but continued to use the new spelling himself. “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in, and it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten,” he told Brander Matthews. But “I am mighty glad I did the thing.”


How do you tell a worm’s head from its tail?

Put it in a saucer of flour and wait till it coughs.

(Purportedly this is a favorite riddle of Prince Charles.)

Some Enchanted Evening

A communication in the Naturalist some time ago in regard to musical mice, prepared me for a phenomenon which recently came under my observation, which otherwise would have astonished me beyond conception. I was sitting a few evenings since, not far from a half-open closet door, when I was startled by a sound issuing from the closet, of such marvellous beauty that I at once asked my wife how Bobbie Burns (our canary) had found his way into the closet, and what could start him to singing such a queer and sweet song in the dark. I procured a light and found it to be a mouse! He had filled an over-shoe from a basket of pop-corn which had been popped and placed in the closet in the morning. Whether this rare collection of food inspired him with song I know not, but I had not the heart to disturb his corn, hoping to hear from him again. Last night his song was renewed. I approached with a subdued light and with great caution, and had the pleasure of seeing him sitting among his corn and singing his beautiful solo. I observed him without interruption for ten minutes, not over four feet from him. His song was not a chirp, but a continuous song of musical tone, a kind of to-wit-to-wee-woo-woo-wee-woo, quite varied in pitch. While observing him I took for granted that he was the common house-mouse (Mus musculus), but when he sprang from the shoe to make his escape he appeared like the prairie mouse (Hesperomys Michiganensis), a species I had not, however, observed before indoors. I have thus far failed to secure this little rodent musician, but shall continue to do all I can in the way of pop-corn to entertain him, and if his marvellous voice gives him the preëminence in mousedom which he deserves, by the aid of Natural Selection I shall presently have a chorus of mice, in which case you shall receive their first visit.

— W.O. Hiskey, Minneapolis, Minn., in American Naturalist, May 1871

Cloud Nine

In 1974 Jack Jensen proposed a new way to stop hijackers from commandeering airplanes — each seat would be fitted with a solenoid-actuated lock in the seatbelt, an inflatable seat back, and a hypodermic syringe. Using remote switches, the crew could lock any passenger into his seat, force his head to his knees, and inject him through the seat cushion with “a strong sedative or poison.”

“Heretofore airlines have adopted numerous measures to curb hijacking, including observation of passengers, use of metal detecting devices, random searching of loading passengers, and the use of armed guards on the aircraft,” reads the patent abstract. “However, such measures … have been ineffective.”

Head Games

The present King of France is bald.

Is this statement true or false? Well, it’s not true — France has no king presently. But if it’s false then its negation ought to seem true: The present King of France is not bald. That’s no better. Yet it’s not gibberish — the sentence seems to have a clear meaning that we can understand.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead spent much of their time at Cambridge debating this point. “It is astonishing what intricate and remote considerations can be brought to bear on this interesting question,” Russell wrote to his wife. “We finally decided that he isn’t, altho’ he has no hair of his own. Experienced people will infer that he wears a wig, but this would be a mistake.”


In the late 1880s, the body of a 16-year-old girl was pulled from the Seine. She was apparently a suicide, as her body showed no marks of violence, but her beauty and her enigmatic smile led a Paris pathologist to order a plaster death mask of her face.

In the romantic atmosphere of fin de siècle Europe the girl’s face became an ideal of feminine beauty. The protagonist of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge writes, “The mouleur, whose shop I pass every day, has hung two plaster masks beside his door. [One is] the face of the young drowned woman, which they took a cast of in the morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, because it smiled so deceptively, as if it knew.”

Ironically, in 1958 the anonymous girl’s features were used to model the first-aid mannequin Rescue Annie, on which thousands of students have practiced CPR. Though the girl’s identity remains a mystery, her face, it’s said, has become “the most kissed face of all time.”

Block Party

From a 1987 Hungarian math contest for 11-year-olds:

How can a 3 × 3 × 3 cube be divided into 20 cubes (not necessarily the same size)?

“I used to flatter myself that I would immediately be able to see through any problem that might be asked of an 11-year-old,” writes University of Waterloo mathematician Ross Honsberger. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore!”

Click for Answer

“The Lass o’ the Lab”

“On being asked by an F.R.S. — no less — why modern poetry was so little inspired by Science. To the tune of The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington.

Now there once was a lass and a very pretty lass,
And she was an isotope’s daughter
And they called her Ethyl-Methyl, for her mother was a gas
Made of Ch17 and water.

She was built on such lines, perhaps parallel lines,
(For Einsten says they’ll never meet),
And her lips resembled the most delicate sines,
And her cheeks were like cosines sweet.

Her hair it was like transformers in a way,
And her eyes like two live coils,
While as for her spectrum, I always used to say,
“I could watch it till it boils.”

Though at making of love I never was a dab,
We were soon on the best of terms,
In fact the first time that I saw her in the lab,
We generated n2 therms.

Her metabolisms I shall never forget
Nor her parallaxes till I die,
But the sad thing is that, whenever we met,
The sparks they used to fly.

Alas and alack! it was ever, ever thus;
We had perforce to part,
For she — she was a minus, and I — I was a plus;
In fact we were poles apart.

Still, Scientists all, I am sorry I was wrong,
And ±0.3
With the Higher Hydrocarbons now shall decorate my song
Instead of the willow-tree.

— Sir J.C. Squire, in Punch, 1936

Sign of the Times

On Nov. 24, 2004, sign language interpreter Nataliya Dmytruk was presenting a live news broadcast on a state-run Ukrainian television channel when the voice announcer (and her official script) declared that prime minister Viktor Yanukovych had won the recent run-off presidential election, a result widely believed to be fraudulent.

She signed, “I am addressing everybody who is deaf in Ukraine. Our president is Victor Yushchenko. Do not trust the results of the central election committee. They are all lies. … And I am very ashamed to translate such lies to you. Maybe you will see me again.”

Her act emboldened other Ukrainian journalists to stand up against manufactured news accounts and led to another election, in which Yushchenko, the opposition candidate, was declared the winner.

For her stand, Dmytruk received the International John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award. “After every broadcast I had to render in sign language, I felt dirty,” she explained later. “I wanted to wash my hands. Without telling anyone, I just went in and did what my conscience told me to do.”