The Vague Specific

In Collier’s in 1949, Richard B. Gehman identified a troubling feature of American language — the tendency to refer to specific things vaguely.

“Say, what about all those things in the front room?” his wife had asked him, supposing that he knew what she meant. “I didn’t,” Gehman wrote. “For all I knew, ‘those things’ could have been the furniture, books, rugs, magazines, lamps, or the remnants of a sandwich I’d been eating.”

Some more examples:

  • “Here,” my wife said, “you can take these. … Put them with those things behind the others.”
  • “Remember the girl from the place with the stuff? Well, she’s here.”
  • “The men came today.” (Gehman tried asking, “What did you tell them?”, but she only answered, “I told them to go ahead.”)
  • “Do you remember that time we were at the shore, and it rained?”
  • “When was it that we had the Coes over?”
  • “The woman’s here for the money.”
  • “What was the name of that couple we met the time we went to the Zeamers’?”
  • “What’s the name of that fellow who drives the truck?”

A neighbor appeared at Gehman’s door one day and asked his help in repairing a washing machine — his wife had said that the thing on its side was acting funny. “He sighed, and asked if I had anything to drink in the house.”

“A Victim of Irregularity”

Though no great catch, this man was caught,
And neighbors tell, I’m told,
That oft, with scratch, his face was scraught,
Till fearful yells he yold.

In sink of sadness almost sunk,
To quit all strife he strove —
And after he a think had thunk,
A happier life he love.

To steal a kiss, no more he stole;
To make a break, he broke;
To remedy the deal he’d dole,
A secret sneak he snoke.

Fate’s dice with crafty shake he shook;
As gamblers feel he felt;
But ere the final stake he stook
A bitter squeal he squelt.

Of earlier days, I think, he thought,
Ere Hymen’s bonds had bound —
Before his links were firmly lought —
When he by blond was blound.

A stroke for liberty he struck;
For in a fly he flew —
But though full many a joke he juck,
A secret cry he crew.

Then stings of conscience no more stung,
And so in peace he slept;
For, on the wings of Morpheus brung,
In Paradise he pept.

— George B. Moregood, Puck, Oct. 2, 1912

Good Boy

The best dog breeds to sit for paintings, according to British artist Briton Rivière:

The best dog to sit is an animal which I am afraid I must admit I thoroughly dislike — an intelligent poodle. Many dogs are a long time before they grasp what is wanted of them, and one has to go through no small amount of patience to get them to behave themselves. The most restless sitters are the collie and the deerhound. Still, notwithstanding their restlessness, I am very fond of both, and have frequently painted them. Perhaps the dog I admire most is the bloodhound; but, as a matter of fact, I am fond of all short-haired dogs.

He also found greyhounds and fox terriers to be restless. “Some dogs are very difficult to manage, but however awkward and ill-tempered a dog may be, in time he gets used to the studio. I have watched a dog for hours at a time, until I have been able to get exactly what I wanted, for however troublesome an animal may be, it is only a question of waiting, when you will be sure to get what you want.”

(From The Strand, January 1896.)


A poem written by Amelia Earhart in 1928:

Courage is the price that
Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull grey ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.

“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she wrote in a final letter left to her husband. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

The Discursive Dilemma

The employees of a company are trying to decide whether to give up a pay raise so they can afford to install a workplace safety measure. Each employee will vote for the sacrifice if she thinks the danger is sufficiently serious, if the safety measure is sufficiently effective, and if the pay sacrifice is sufficiently bearable. Otherwise she’ll vote against it. The three employees come to this result:

discursive dilemma

This is troubling: A majority of employees supports each of the criteria, and yet each of the three resolves to reject the proposal. If the employees reach their decision by comparing their views about the measure as a whole, then they’ll reject the pay sacrifice. But if they compare their views about each criterion, they’ll accept it.

Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit worries that this phenomenon makes it impossible for us to make confident statements about the beliefs of a group. “Going the conclusion-driven way means adopting a course that is inconsistent with the premises endorsed by the group, and going the premise-driven way means adopting a course that a majority individually reject.”

Both outcomes are undesirable. “Going the first way means sacrificing collective rationality for the sake of responsiveness to individuals, going the second means sacrificing responsiveness to individuals for the sake of collective rationality.”

(Philip Pettit, “Deliberative Democracy and the Discursive Dilemma,” Philosophical Issues 11:1 [2001], 268-299.)


From the postscript to a 1737 letter by Jonathan Swift — “Here is a rhyme; it is a satire on an inconstant lover.”

You are as faithless as a Carthaginian,
To love at once Kate, Nell, Doll, Martha, Jenny, Anne.

Moving Pictures

In 1864 a photographer employed by Mathew Brady used a four-lens camera to record activity at a Union Army wharf along Potomac Creek in Virginia. The four images were taken in quick succession, so staggering them produces a crude time lapse of the events they record:

In effect they present a four-frame film, perhaps the closest we’ll come to a contemporary movie of life during the Civil War. Here are a few more, all taken in Virginia in 1864:

Union cavalry crossing a pontoon bridge over the James River:

Traffic in front of the Marshall House in Alexandria:

Union soldiers working on a bridge over the Pamunkey River near White House Landing:

There’s more information at the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park blog.

Podcast Episode 103: Legislating Pi

In 1897, confused physician Edward J. Goodwin submitted a bill to the Indiana General Assembly declaring that he’d squared the circle — a mathematical feat that was known to be impossible. In today’s show we’ll examine the Indiana pi bill, its colorful and eccentric sponsor, and its celebrated course through a bewildered legislature and into mathematical history.

We’ll also marvel at the confusion wrought by turkeys and puzzle over a perplexing baseball game.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on the Indiana pi bill:

Edward J. Goodwin, “Quadrature of the Circle,” American Mathematical Monthly 1:7 (July 1894), 246–248.

Text of the bill.

Underwood Dudley, “Legislating Pi,” Math Horizons 6:3 (February 1999), 10-13.

Will E. Edington, “House Bill No. 246, Indiana State Legislature, 1897,” Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 45, 206-210.

Arthur E. Hallerberg, “House Bill No. 246 Revisited,” Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 84 (1974), 374–399.

Arthur E. Hallerberg, “Indiana’s Squared Circle,” Mathematics Magazine 50:3 (May 1977), 136–140.

David Singmaster, “The Legal Values of Pi,” Mathematical Intelligencer 7:2 (1985), 69–72.

Listener mail:

Zach Goldhammer, “Why Americans Call Turkey ‘Turkey,'” Atlantic, Nov. 26, 2014.

Dan Jurafsky, “Turkey,” The Language of Food, Nov. 23, 2010 (accessed April 21, 2016).

Accidental acrostics from Julian Bravo:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
STASIS starts at line 7261 (“Says I to myself” in Chapter XXVI).

CASSIA starts at line 443 (“Certainly; it would indeed be very impertinent” in Letter 4).
MIGHTY starts at line 7089 (“Margaret, what comment can I make” in Chapter 24).

Moby Dick:
BAIT starts at line 12904 (“But as you come nearer to this great head” in Chapter 75). (Note that this includes a footnote.)

The raw output of Julian’s program is here; he warns that it may contain some false positives.

At the paragraph level (that is, the initial letters of successive paragraphs), Daniel Dunn found these acrostics (numbers refer to paragraphs):

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: SEMEMES (1110)

Emma: INHIBIT (2337)

King James Bible: TAIWAN (12186)

Huckleberry Finn: STASIS (1477)

Critique of Pure Reason: SWIFTS (863)

Anna Karenina: TWIST (3355)

At the word level (the initial letters of successive words), Daniel found these (numbers refer to the position in a book’s overall word count — I’ve included links to the two I mentioned on the show):

Les Miserables: DASHPOTS (454934)

Critique of Pure Reason: TRADITOR (103485)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: ISATINES (373818)

Through the Looking Glass: ASTASIAS (3736)

War and Peace: PIRANHAS (507464) (Book Fifteen, Chapter 1, paragraph 19: “‘… put it right.’ And now he again seemed …”)

King James Bible: MOHAMAD (747496) (Galatians 6:11b-12a, “… mine own hand. As many as desire …”)

The Great Gatsby: ISLAMIC (5712)

Huckleberry Finn: ALFALFA (62782)

Little Women: CATFISH (20624)

From Vadas Gintautas: Here is the complete list of accidental acrostics of English words of 8 letters or more, found by taking the first letter in successive paragraphs:

TABITHAS in George Sand: Some Aspects of Her Life and Writings by René Doumic

BASSISTS in The Pilot and his Wife by Jonas Lie

ATACAMAS in Minor Poems of Michael Drayton

MAINTAIN in The Stamps of Canada by Bertram W.H. Poole

BATHMATS in Fifty Years of Public Service by Shelby M. Cullom

ASSESSES in An Alphabetical List of Books Contained in Bohn’s Libraries

LATTICES in History of the Buccaneers of America by James Burney

ASSESSES in Old English Chronicles by J.A. Giles

BASSISTS in Tales from the X-bar Horse Camp: The Blue-Roan “Outlaw” and Other Stories by Barnes

CATACOMB in Cyrano De Bergerac

PONTIANAK in English Economic History: Select Documents by Brown, Tawney, and Bland

STATIONS in Haunted Places in England by Elliott O’Donnell

TRISTANS in Revolutionary Reader by Sophie Lee Foster

ALLIANCE in Latter-Day Sweethearts by Mrs. Burton Harrison

TAHITIAN in Lothair by Benjamin Disraeli

Vadas’ full list of accidental acrostics in the King James Bible (first letter of each verse) for words of at least five letters:

ASAMA in The Second Book of the Kings 16:21
TRAIL in The Book of Psalms 80:13
AMATI in The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 3:9
STABS in The Acts of the Apostles 23:18
ATTAR in The Book of Nehemiah 13:10
FLOSS in The Gospel According to Saint Luke 14:28
SANTA in The First Book of the Chronicles 16:37
WATTS in Hosea 7:13
BAATH in The Acts of the Apostles 15:38
ASSAM in The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 12:8
CHAFF in The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans 4:9
FIFTH in The Book of Psalms 61:3
SAABS in The Third Book of the Kings 12:19
SATAN in The Book of Esther 8:14
TANGS in Zephaniah 1:15
STOAT in The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 16:20
IGLOO in The Proverbs 31:4
TEETH in Hosea 11:11
RAILS in The Book of Psalms 80:14
STATS in The First Book of the Kings 26:7
HALON in The Fourth Book of the Kings 19:12
TATTY in The Gospel According to Saint John 7:30
DIANA in The Second Book of the Kings 5:4
ABAFT in The Third Book of Moses: Called Leviticus 25:39
BAHIA in The Book of Daniel 7:26
TRAILS in The Book of Psalms 80:13
FIFTHS in The Book of Psalms 61:3
BATAAN in The First Book of Moses: Called Genesis 25:6
DIANAS in The Second Book of the Kings 5:4
BATAANS in The Second Book of the Chronicles 26:16

Vadas’ full list of accidental acrostics (words of at least eight letters) found by text-wrapping the Project Gutenberg top 100 books (of the last 30 days) to line lengths from 40 to 95 characters (line length / word found):


Great Expectations



War and Peace

The Romance of Lust: A Classic Victorian Erotic Novel by Anonymous

Steam, Its Generation and Use by Babcock & Wilcox Company

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Republic

A Study in Scarlet

The Essays of Montaigne

Crime and Punishment

Complete Works–William Shakespeare

The Time Machine

Democracy in America, VI

The King James Bible

Anna Karenina

David Copperfield

Le Morte d’Arthur, Volume I

Vadas also points out that there’s a body of academic work addressing acrostics in Milton’s writings. For example, in Book 3 of Paradise Lost Satan sits among the stars looking “down with wonder” at the world:

Such wonder seis’d, though after Heaven seen,
The Spirit maligne, but much more envy seis’d
At sight of all this World beheld so faire.
Round he surveys, and well might, where he stood
So high above the circling Canopie
Of Nights extended shade …

The initial letters of successive lines spell out STARS. Whether that’s deliberate is a matter of some interesting debate. Two further articles:

Mark Vaughn, “More Than Meets the Eye: Milton’s Acrostics in Paradise Lost,” Milton Quarterly 16:1 (March 1982), 6–8.

Jane Partner, “Satanic Vision and Acrostics in Paradise Lost,” Essays in Criticism 57:2 (April 2007), 129-146.

And listener Charles Hargrove reminds us of a telling acrostic in California’s recent political history.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, based on a Car Talk Puzzler credited to Willie Myers.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Pagan Island

Twenty-six villages are ranged around the coastline of an island. Their names, in order, are A, B, C, …, Z. At various times in its history, the island has been visited by 26 missionaries, who names are also A, B, C, …, Z. Each missionary landed first at the village that bore his name and began his work there. Each village was pagan to begin with but became converted when visited by a missionary. Whenever a missionary converted a village he would move along the coastline to the next village in the cycle ABC-…-ZA. If a missionary arrived at an uncoverted village he’d convert it and continue along the cycle, but there was never more than one missionary in a village at a time. If a missionary arrived at a village that had already been converted, the villagers, feeling oppressed, would kill him and revert to a state of paganism; they would do this even to a missionary who had converted them himself and then traveled all the way around the island. There’s no restriction as to how many missionaries can be on the island at any given time. After all 26 missionaries have come and gone, how many villages remain converted?

Click for Answer