“I always turn to the sports section first. The sports section records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures.” — Earl Warren

In Other Words

The crews of American heavy bombers now stationed in the British Isles have fraternized, of course, with the personnel of R.A.F. It was a case of love at first sight — but both sides experienced a little difficulty at first in savvying each other’s lingo. One American aviator, for instance, cited this example of the R.A.F.’s version of the King’s English:

‘Three ropey types, all sprogs, pranged a cheeseye on bumps and circuits. One bought it; the other two sent for a burton. The station-master took a dim view and tore them off a strip. They’d taken along shagbat wofficer, who was browned off. The queen bee was hopping mad.’

It took some time for the American to translate this cryptic report. Roughly, this is what it meant:

‘Three unpopular individuals, all brand new pilot officers, crashed a workout airplane while practicing circuits and landings. One was killed; the other two were reprimanded severely. The station commander disapproved strongly and roundly berated them. They had taken along with them a somewhat plain WAAF officer, who was bored. The station’s WAAF commander was very angry.’

Queen’s University Journal, Sept. 29, 1944

Back on Track


Partially paralyzed in the Boer War, British infantry officer Hugh Trenchard traveled to Switzerland to recuperate and took up tobogganing out of boredom. Because he couldn’t brake properly, he traveled dangerously fast, and one day the toboggan leapt over the bank and parted company with him in midair. “His body hit the side of the hill two or three times before coming to rest in a snowdrift nearly thirty feet below”:

When he came to his head was throbbing violently. Solicitious hands raised him. He pushed them aside in a sudden fury of excitement and happiness. He could walk again unaided. Whatever other damage he might have done himself as he bounced down the hill-side like a rubber ball, he had recovered the use of his legs. Apart from a dull pain near the base of his spine he felt no aftereffects. Something must have clicked back into place; he had cured himself by violence.

Before the accident he could walk only with sticks; now he threw them away. For good measure, he won the freshman and novices’ tobogganing cups for 1901. Biographer Andrew Boyle writes, “It was a singular achievement for a man with no previous experience, and for one regarded as a virtual cripple until the week before the event.”

Trenchard went on to play a central role in establishing the Royal Air Force.

(From Andrew Boyle, Trenchard, 1962.)



In April 1861, Thaddeus Lowe set out from Cincinnati in the balloon Enterprise, hoping to reach the eastern seaboard. After wandering 900 miles he came down in Unionville, S.C., where he received a rather cold welcome:

Many of them thought Mr. Lowe was an inhabitant of some ethereal or infernal region, who had floated to the earth to do damage to its inhabitants. He thought he would pacify them by showing that he could live on the substantial things of earth just as they did; so he took from the basket a variety of cakes, crackers, bread and butter, cold meats, etc. He also passed out several India-rubber bottles of water which had frozen solid, and to let them realize how cold it was in the upper region of the atmosphere where he had been, he cut one of them open and took out a large mold of ice, shaped exactly like the bottle. This was the worst thing he could have done, for immediately one man asked how any one but a devil could put so large a piece of ice through so small a place as the nozzle. At last an old dissipated man suggested that one who was capable of doing such things was too dangerous to run loose and moved that he be ‘shot on the spot where he had dropped from the skies.’

He won his freedom only by appealing to the officers of South Carolina College, who knew Smithsonian secretary (and ballooning enthusiast) Joseph Henry.

On the way back to Cincinnati, Lowe stopped at a meeting of the Tennessee legislature. He became the first to notify Lincoln of that state’s decision to secede.

(William Jones Rhees, “Reminiscences of Ballooning in the Civil War,” Chautauquan, June 1898.)

Podcast Episode 104: The Harvey’s Casino Bombing


In August 1980, an extortionist planted a thousand-pound bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in western Nevada. Unless the owners paid him $3 million within 24 hours, he said, the bomb would go off and destroy the casino. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the tense drama that followed and the FBI’s efforts to catch the criminal behind it.

We’ll also consider some dubious lawn care shortcuts and puzzle over why a man would tear up a winning ticket.

See full show notes …

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.)