Seeing and Saying

New York radio station WQXR used to inflict this pronunciation test on prospective announcers — try reading it aloud:

The old man with the flaccid face and dour expression grimaced when asked if he were conversant with zoology, mineralogy, or the culinary arts. ‘Not to be secretive,’ he said, ‘I may tell you that I’d given precedence to the study of genealogy. But since my father’s demise, it has been my vagary to remain incognito because of an inexplicable, lamentable, and irreparable family schism. It resulted from a heinous crime, committed at our domicile by an impious scoundrel. To err is human … but this affair was so grievous that only my inherent acumen and consummate tact saved me.’

It’s a minefield. In Another Almanac of Words at Play, Willard R. Espy lists the pronunciations that were considered correct:

flaccid     FLACK-sid         inexplicable      in-EX-plic-able
dour        DOO-er            lamentable        LAM-entable
grimaced    gri-MACED         irreparable       ear-REP-arable
conversant  KON-ver-sant      schism            SIZ-m
zoology     zoh-OL-o-ji       heinous           HAY-nus
mineralogy  miner-AL-o-ji     domicile          DOMM-i-sil
culinary    KEW-li-ner-y      impious           IM-pee-yus
secretive   see-KEE-tiv       err               ur
precedence  pre-SEED-ens      grievous          GREEV-us
genealogy   jan-e-AL-o-ji     inherent          in-HERE-ent
demise      de-MIZE           acumen            a-KEW-men
vagary      va-GAIR-y         consummate (adj.) kon-SUMM-it
incognito   in-KOG-ni-toe

Getting 20 of the 25 “stumpers” right was considered excellent. But that was 40 years ago, and even at the time Espy found 21 dictionary listings that accepted different pronunciations. “So not to worry when you don’t sound like WQXR,” he wrote. “One man’s AB-do-men is another man’s ab-DOUGH-men.”

Black and White

billiards chess puzzle

Billiards chess is a variant of traditional chess in which the pieces carom off the sides of the board at right angles. In the diagram above, the white bishop at a2 controls the diagonal a2-g8 as in normal chess, but its attack also “bounces” from g8 to h7 and then back along the h7-b1 diagonal. Both bishops attack and move along these “bouncing” lines. How can White mate the black king in two moves?

Click for Answer


wetalltok map

Before 1914, white explorers of Hudson’s Bay knew very little about the location, size, or number of the Belcher Islands — cartographers placed them on maps largely by guesswork, and some even doubted their existence.

In 1895, an Inuit named Wetalltok sketched the map above on the back of an old missionary lithograph, but explorers remained skeptical. “That a land mass of such extent … could exist not a hundred miles to seaward of the centuries-old post at Great Whale River and remain unknown to the Hudson’s Bay Company seemed to me altogether improbable,” wrote anthropologist Robert J. Flaherty.

Only 20 years later, with Flaherty’s expedition of 1912-16, was the striking accuracy of Wetalltok’s map borne out (below). “In its grasp of the intricacies of the island system this map is a specially noteworthy example of its kind,” Flaherty wrote. “The Big Islands are ancient history in the bay now, and Wetalltok stands vindicated.”

flaherty map

(Robert J. Flaherty, “The Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay: Their Discovery and Exploration,” Geographical Review 5:6 [June 1918], 433-458.)

Speaking Volumes

A puzzle by A. Kozlov from the Soviet popular science magazine Kvant:

Watching a solar eclipse, a girl asks her father how much farther away is the sun than the moon.

He says, “As far as I remember, 387 times farther.”

She says, “Then I can figure out how much greater is the sun’s volume than the moon’s.”

He thinks about this and says, “I think maybe you can.” How can she do this?

Click for Answer

Royal Descent

A puzzle from Stuart Collingwood’s Lewis Carroll Picture Book, 1899:

A captive Queen and her son and daughter were shut up in the top room of a very high tower. Outside their window was a pulley with a rope round it, and a basket fastened at each end of the rope of equal weight. They managed to escape with the help of this and a weight they found in the room, quite safely. It would have been dangerous for any of them to come down if they weighed more than 15 lbs. more than the contents of the lower basket, for they would do so too quick, and they also managed not to weigh less either.

The one basket coming down would naturally of course draw the other up.

The Queen weighed 195 lbs., daughter 105, son 90, and the weight 75.

How did they do it?

Click for Answer

Special Order

a.p. herbert

In 1961, irate at receiving a bill for an £85 surtax from the Inland Revenue, A.P. Herbert sent them a check in verse:

Dear Bankers, PAY the undermentioned hounds
The shameful sum of FIVE-AND-EIGHTY POUNDS
By “hounds,” of course, by custom, one refers
And these progenitors of woe and worry

This is the second lot of tax, you know,
On money that I earned two years ago.
(The shark, they say, by no means nature’s knight,
Will rest contented with a single bite:
The barracuda, who’s a fish more fell,
Comes back and takes the other leg as well.)
Two years ago. But things have changed since then.
I’ve reached the age of threescore years and ten.
My earnings dwindle; and the kindly State
Gives me a tiny pension — with my mate.
You’d think the State would generously roar
“At least he shan’t pay surtax any more.”
Instead by this un-Christian attack
They get two-thirds of my poor pension back.
Oh, very well. No doubt it’s for the best;
At all events, pray do as I request;
And let the good old customs be enforced —
Don’t cash this check, unless it is endorsed.

To his astonishment he received this reply:

Dear Sir,

It is with pleasure that I thank
You for your letter and the order to your bank
To pay the sum of five and eighty pounds
To those here whom you designate as hounds.
Their appetite is satisfied. In fact,
You paid too much and I am forced to act,
Not to repay you, as perchance you dream,
Though such a course is easy, it would seem.
Your liability for later years
Is giving your accountants many tears;
And ’til such time as they and we can come
To amicable settlement on the sum
That represents your tax bill to the State
I’ll leave the overpayment to its fate.
I do not think this step will make you frown:
The sum involved is only half-a-crown.

Yours faithfully,

A.L. Grove

He wrote back:

I thank you, Sir, but am afraid
Of such a rival in my trade:
One never should encourage those —
In the future I shall pay in prose.


“Travelling is one Way of lengthening Life, at least in Appearance. It is but a Fortnight since we left London; but the Variety of Scenes we have gone through makes it seem equal to Six Months living in one Place.” — Benjamin Franklin, letter to Mary Stevenson, from Paris, Sept. 14, 1767

A Premonition

First-Sergeant Thomas Innes Woods, of Company B, was killed on May 8th [1864]. The first time that Sergeant Woods was ever known to ask permission to leave his post on march or in battle occurred this day, after the Regiment’s all-night march to reach Spottsylvania ahead of Lee. When it became evident that a battle was imminent, Sergeant Woods asked Captain H.W. Grubbs for a pass to go to the rear. On his declaring that he was not sick, he was advised by the Captain that under the circumstances he could not be excused, and Sergeant Woods resumed his post at the head of the Company. Shortly after, during a halt by the roadside, Sergeant Woods wrote in his diary the following, addressed to his friend, Sergeant James A. McMillen: ‘I am going to fall to-day. If you find my body, I desire you to bury it and mark my grave so that if my friends desire to take it home they can find it. Please read the Ninetieth Psalm at my burial.’ He was killed early in the battle. His body was found by Sergeant McMillen and others of Company B, the diary being found in his pocket. His request for the Ninetieth Psalm to be read at the grave was complied with.

— Charles F. McKenna, ed., Under the Maltese Cross, Antietam to Appomattox: The Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865: Campaigns 155th Pennsylvania Regiment, 1910

Pas de Deux

In Pale Fire, Nabokov notes an “absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant” verbal curiosity:

A newspaper account of a Russian tsar’s coronation had, instead of korona (crown), the misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this was apologetically ‘corrected,’ it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow).

“The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian koronavoronakorova series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet,” he wrote. “I have seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double coincidence defy computation.”

Podcast Episode 126: The Great Australian Poetry Hoax

In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian servicemen invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, they were accepted and their author hailed as “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Ern Malley hoax, its perpetrators, and its surprising legacy in Australian literature.

We’ll also hear a mechanized Radiohead and puzzle over a railroad standstill.

See full show notes …