Image: Wikimedia Commons

I had written about this back in 2006, but it’s worth mentioning again because someone has created this pellucid diagram: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is a grammatical English sentence. It means something like “Bison residing in Buffalo, New York, feeling themselves intimidated by their fellows, visit a similar fate upon yet others of their local ilk.”

I’d attributed it to linguist William J. Rapaport, but apparently it’s arisen independently at least three times, first (it is believed) by wordplay maven Dmitri Borgmann, in 1965.

Root Words

Square roots:

EIGHTY-ONE has 9 letters.

ONE HUNDRED has 10 letters.


Cube roots:



ONE MILLION and ONE BILLION have 10 letters each, making them a sixth root and (in the United States) a ninth root word.

(Dave Morice, “Kickshaws,” Word Ways 30:2 [May 1997], 129-141.)

Better Safe
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In January 1943, a brick “hive” was built around Michelangelo’s David to protect it from incendiary bombs.

Two and a half years later, preservationist Deane Keller wrote to his wife, “The bright spot yesterday was seeing Michelangelo’s David at length divested of its air raid protection. It was dusty and dirty but it was a great thrill.”

(From Ilaria Dagnini Brey, The Venus Fixers, 2010.)


In London the Standard newspaper, now defunct, had an effective method of ensuring it got news before its rivals. Every messenger bringing material or news reports to the Standard was given, on arrival, a blue ticket if it was a Government or official report and a red ticket for anything else. The tickets (a quart of beer for a blue ticket, a pint of beer for a red one) could only be redeemed at The Black Dog pub next door. This meant the Standard got its material first — and their rivals much later — since the messengers would always redeem their tickets before going on.

— N.T.P. Murphy, A Wodehouse Handbook, 2013

A Perfect Square

An old problem from the Soviet Mathematical Olympiad:

Find the 4-digit number aabb that is a perfect square.

Click for Answer

Photo © David Tyers (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Yorkshire’s 4-mile Kiplingcotes Derby has been held every year since 1519, making it the oldest annual horse race in England. According to the ancient rules, if the race ever fails to take place, it must never be run again, so organizers make sure to arrange at least a nominal showing even in bad conditions. In 1947, 2001, and 2018 (harsh winter, foot-and-mouth crisis, heavy rain) the full race was not run but a single horse was led around the course to keep the tradition alive.

Another oddity: Under the rules the winner gets 50 pounds but the second-place finisher gets the remainder of the entry fees — so he may come out ahead.

One of a Kind

An unpaired word has a prefix or suffix that suggests that an antonym exists when in fact it doesn’t: disheveled is a word, but sheveled isn’t. In many cases the seeming antonym is a real word that’s fallen out of popular usage: corrigible, domitable, effable, feckful, gainly, nocuous, scathed, stinting, trepid, and wieldy are words; they’re just not used as often as their opposites.

Somewhat similarly, a plurale tantum is a noun that appears only its plural form: We speak of scissors and trousers, but not normally of “a scissor” or “a trouser.” A singulare tantum is a noun that’s used only in the singular, such as information, dust, or wealth.

(See “A Very Descript Man.”) (Thanks, Matt.)

Podcast Episode 311: A Disputed Russian Princess

In 1920, a young woman was pulled from a canal in Berlin. When her identity couldn’t be established, speculation started that she was a Russian princess who had escaped the execution of the imperial family. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the strange life of Anna Anderson and her disputed identity as Grand Duchess Anastasia.

We’ll also revisit French roosters and puzzle over not using headlights.


In 1899, English engineer E.W. Barton-Wright introduced his own martial art.

One early American locomotive was driven by a horse walking on a belt.

Photo: The Russian royal family at Livadiya, Crimea, 1913, five years before the execution. Left to right: Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra Fyodorovna, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana. Sources for our feature on Anna Anderson:

Greg King and Penny Wilson, The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the World’s Greatest Royal Mystery, 2010.

John Klier and Helen Mingay, The Quest for Anastasia: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Romanovs, 1999.

James B. Lovell, Anastasia: The Lost Princess, 1995.

Frances Welch, A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson, 2007.

Toby Saul, “Death of a Dynasty: How the Romanovs Met Their End,” National Geographic, July 20, 2018.

Alan Cooperman, “An Anastasia Verdict,” U.S. News & World Report 117:11 (Sept. 19, 1994), 20.

“What Really Happened to Russia’s Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov,” Haaretz, Dec. 27, 2018.

Nancy Bilyeau, “Will the Real Anastasia Romanov Please Stand Up?”, Town & Country, April 25, 2017.

“Is This Princess Alive?”, Life 38:7 (Feb. 14, 1955), 31-35.

Martin Sieff, “Romanov Mystery Finally Solved,” UPI, May 1, 2008.

“Amateurs Unravel Russia’s Last Royal Mystery,” New York Times, Nov. 24, 2007.

Lena Williams, “Chronicle,” New York Times, Oct. 6, 1994, D.24.

“Topics of The Times; Anastasia Lives,” New York Times, Sept. 11, 1994.

John Darnton, “Scientists Confirm Identification of Bones as Czar’s,” New York Times, July 10, 1993.

“Appeal in Anastasia Case Rejected in West Germany,” New York Times, Feb. 18, 1970.

“Appeal in Anastasia Mystery Is Rejected by Hamburg Court,” New York Times, March 1, 1967.

Arthur J. Olsenbonn, “Anastasia: Grand Duchess or Grand Hoax?”, New York Times, Aug. 24, 1958.

Left: Franziska Schanzkowska in 1913. Right: Anna Anderson in 1920.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Lynmouth Flood” (accessed Sept. 2, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Project Cumulus” (accessed Sept. 2, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Philip Eden” (accessed Sept. 2, 2020).

John Vidal and Helen Weinstein, “RAF Rainmakers ‘Caused 1952 Flood,'” Guardian, Aug. 30, 2001.

Susan Borowski, “Despite Past Failures, Weather Modification Endures,”, Dec. 31, 2012.

“Rain-Making Link to Killer Floods,” BBC News, Aug. 30, 2001.

Laura Joint, “Lynmouth Flood Disaster,” BBC, Jan. 25, 2008.

Philip Eden, “The Day They Made It Rain,” Weather Online.

Locust Watch.

Sam Harrison, “The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Rural France May Soon Be Protected by Law,” Atlas Obscura, July 28, 2020.

“Proposition de loi nº 2211 visant à définir et protéger le patrimoine sensoriel des campagnes françaises,” French National Assembly, Sept. 11, 2019.

“France: 74,000 Sign Petition Calling for Justice for Murdered Rooster,” Euronews, Aug. 17, 2020.

Agence France-Presse, “Justice Sought for Marcel, French Rooster Shot for Crowing,” Courthouse News Service, Aug. 17, 2020.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jule Ann Wakeman.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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!

Risk Analysis

The Society of Actuaries holds a regular speculative fiction contest. Here’s an excerpt from “The Temple of Screens,” by Nate Worrell, FSA, MAAA, recognized last year for describing the “most innovative actuarial career of the future”:

‘Ever since humans began to be aware of a future, we’ve wanted to explore it. We’ve cast stones, searched in tea leaves, held the entrails of animals in our hands to try to extract some knowledge of our fate. Some of our stories try to show us that like Oedipus, we can’t change our fate. In other stories, we find an escape, we have the power of choice, at least to some degree. But in either case, knowing our future changes how we act. Now that you’ve seen your possible futures, they are tainted. If you were to go back in, they’d all change, reflecting that you had some knowledge. The algorithm would reallocate a new set of weights to your tendencies, increasing some behaviors and decreasing others.’

A wave of anger flashes through me, and I stand and start pacing. ‘So what’s the use of this?’

‘To help you embrace what’s possible, to come to terms with it. You came here because you were afraid of a certain future, one you hoped to avoid somehow. We can’t fight or flee from the future, whatever one we fall into. But we can find serenity in any of our futures, if we so desire.’

MetaFilter has a guide to past contests.