Changeable State

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES alternates vowels and consonants.

“Groaning Boards”

Groaning boards were the wonder in London in 1682. An elm plank was exhibited to the king, which, being touched by a hot iron, invariably produced a sound resembling deep groans. At the Bowman tavern, in Drury Lane, the mantelpiece gave forth like sounds, and was supposed to be part of the same elm tree. The dresser at the Queen’s Arm Tavern, St. Martin le Grand, was found to possess the same quality. Strange times, when such things were deemed wonderful — so much so as to merit exhibition before the monarch.

— Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint and the Quizzical, 1882

A Lost Hope

Joseph Merrick once told his doctors he wanted to visit a hospital for the blind.

He said he wanted to find a woman who would not be frightened by his appearance.

In a Word

n. work done only while the boss is looking

Stirred, Not Shaken

Beginning work on a new novel in 1953, Ian Fleming found himself stumped for a name for his hero, a British Secret Service agent. His eye strayed across the bookshelves of his Jamaican estate, and he found “just what I needed.”

It was Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond.


Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia is fear of the number 666, which is linked to Satan and the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation.

Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to avoid. 666 is the sum of the squares of the first seven primes:

666 = 22 + 32 + 52 + 72 + 112 + 132 + 172


666 = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 567 + 89

= 123 + 456 + 78 + 9

= 9 + 87 + 6 + 543 + 21

= 13 + 23 + 33 + 43 + 53 + 63 + 53 + 43 + 33 + 23 + 13

In 1989, after his second term as president, Ronald and Nancy Reagan moved to a new home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles. They had the address, 666 St. Cloud Road, changed to 668 St. Cloud Road.

The Great Crush Collision

Apparently bored in 1896, Texas railroad agent William G. Crush decided to make his own fun. He got two 35-ton train engines, painted one green and one red, and set them at opposite ends of a four-mile track. Then he sent them toward each other at 45 mph:

Viewed strictly as a publicity stunt, it was a great success: Crush’s advertising had attracted more than 40,000 spectators. Unfortunately, falling debris killed two of them. Moral: Stick to pinochle.

Good Boy

A dog with a gas mask. “This dog was employed by a sanitary corps in locating wounded soldiers.”

From Francis Whiting Halsey, The Literary Digest History of the World War, 1920.


James Joyce thought cuspidor the most beautiful word in the English language. Arnold Bennett chose pavement. J.R.R. Tolkien felt the phrase cellar door had an especially beautiful sound.

These may seem odd choices, because it’s hard to separate sound from sense. “The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word,” wrote Max Beerbohm, “is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes.”

Beerbohm once pressed this point with his friend Robert Hichens (related in David Cecil’s 1964 biography Max):

One day [Beerbohm] said to Hichens, ‘Do you think, Crotchet, that a word can be beautiful, just one word?’

‘Yes,’ Hichens said, ‘I can think of several words that seem to me beautiful.’


A pause.

‘Then tell me, do you think the word ermine is a beautiful word?’

‘Yes,’ Hichens said, ‘I like the sound of it very much.’


Another pause.

‘And do you think vermin is a beautiful word?’

Are We Tilting?

Make a rigid map of the United States and add a weight for each person in the country. Then try to balance it on your finger.

In 1790, you’d find a neat equilibrium point under Chestertown, Md. — but you’d have to keep shifting as settlers moved west. By 1850 the balance point had slid into West Virginia; in 1900 it reached Indiana.

It’s still moving. During the 20th century, the point shifted another 324 miles to the west, into Phelps County, Mo. That includes a dramatic jump of 10 miles in a single year — in 1960, when Alaska and Hawaii first appeared on the census.