“Bulwell Is Considered a Good Writer”

Excerpts from 19th-century students’ English exams:

  • “Lord Byron was the son of an heiress and a drunken man.”
  • “Gibbon wrote a history of his travels in Italy. This was original.”
  • “George Eliot left a wife and children who mourned greatly for his genius.”
  • “George Eliot Miss Mary Evans Mrs. Cross Mrs. Lewis was the greatest female poet unless George Sands is made an exception of.”
  • “Sir Walter Scott Charles Bronte Alfred the Great and Johnson were the first great novelists.”
  • “Thomas Babington Makorlay graduated at Harvard and then studied law, he was raised to the peerage as baron in 1557 and died in 1776.”
  • “Homer’s writings are Homer’s Essays Virgil the Aenid and Paradise lost some people say that these poems were not written by Homer but by another man of the same name.”
  • “A sort of sadness kind of shone in Bryant’s poems.”
  • “Holmes is a very profligate and amusing writer.”

— From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887


Mark Twain reports on a student who was asked to analyze this stanza from Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake”:

Alone, but with unbated zeal,
The horseman plied with scourge and steel;
For jaded now and spent with toil,
Embossed with foam and dark with soil,
While every gasp with sobs he drew,
The laboring stag strained full in view.

The student wrote:

The man who rode on the horse performed the whip and an instrument made of steel alone with strong ardor not diminishing, for, being tired from the time passed with hard labor overworked with anger and ignorant with weariness, while every breath for labor he drew with cries full or sorrow, the young deer made imperfect who worked hard filtered in sight.

Twain’s comment: “I see, now, that I never understood that poem before. I have had glimpses of its meaning, it moments when I was not as ignorant with weariness as usual, but this is the first time the whole spacious idea of it ever filtered in sight. If I were a public-school pupil I would put those other studies aside and stick to analysis; for, after all, it is the thing to spread your mind.”

Words to Live By


  • Benford’s Law of Controversy: Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available.
  • Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
  • Hlade’s Law: If you have a difficult task, give it to a lazy person; he will find an easier way to do it.
  • Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
  • Imbesi’s Law of the Conservation of Filth: In order for something to become clean, something else must become dirty.
  • Macfarlane’s Law of Disparate Communications: You can talk faster than you can type, but you can read faster than you can listen.
  • Tuttle’s Law: The percentage of working hardware in the world is constant.

Kneebone Connected to the …

Excerpts from 19th-century students’ physiology exams:

  • “Physillogigy is to study about your bones stummick and vertebry.”
  • “Occupations which are injurious to health are cabolic acid gas which is impure blood.”
  • “We have an upper and lower skin. The lower skin moves all the time and the upper skin moves when we do.”
  • “The body is mostly composed of water and about one half is avaricious tissue.”
  • “The stomach is a small pear-shaped bone situated in the body.”
  • “The gastric juice keeps the bones from creaking.”
  • “The Chyle flows up the middle of the backbone and reaches the heart where it meets the oxygen and is purified.”
  • “The salivary glands are used to salivate the body.”
  • “In the stomach starch is changed to cane sugar and cane sugar to sugar cane.”
  • “The olfactory nerve enters the cavity of the orbit and is developed into the special sense of hearing.”
  • “The growth of a tooth begins in the back of the mouth and extends to the stomach.”
  • “If we were on a railroad track and a train was coming the train would deafen our ears so that we couldn’t see to get off the track.”

— From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887


The swinging Brassie strikes; and, having struck,
Moves on: nor all your Wit or future Luck
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Stroke,
Nor from the Card a single Seven pluck.

— From “The Golfer’s Rubaiyat” by H.W. Boynton, collected in The Wit and Humor of America, Volume II, 1907

“It’s a Great Advantage to Be Able to Hurdle With Both Legs”

Memorable sportscasting quotes:

  • “And here’s Moses Kiptanui, the 19-year-old Kenyan, who turned 20 a few weeks ago.” (David Coleman)
  • “Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class.” (Ron Pickering)
  • “With half of the race gone, there is half of the race still to go.” (Murray Walker)
  • “What I said to them at halftime would be unprintable on the radio.” (Gerry Francis)
  • “I was in Saint-Etienne two years ago. It’s much the same as it is now, although now it’s completely different.” (Kevin Keegan)
  • “I imagine that the conditions in those cars are totally unimaginable.” (Murray Walker)
  • “The Baggio brothers, of course, are not related.” (George Hamilton)
  • “For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are in the all-yellow strip.” (John Motson)

“Real Madrid are like a rabbit in the glare of the headlights in the face of Manchester United’s attacks,” Hamilton once said. “But this rabbit comes with a suit of armor in the shape of two precious away goals …”

Road Warriors

Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you think your commute is bad, check out the Kinetic Sculpture Race, held every Memorial Day weekend in Ferndale, Calif. In three days, participants must cover 42 miles of mud, sand, water, gravel and pavement in vehicles powered only by people (“and friendly extraterrestrials”). Arrows, anchors and grappling hooks are strictly disallowed.

The race’s slogan is “adults having fun so children want to get older.”

“The Marriage Was Illegible”

Excerpts from student exams in the 19th century:

  • “He enjoys riding on a philosopher.”
  • “The leopard is watching his sheep.”
  • “They had a strawberry vestibule.”
  • “The men employed by the Gas Company go around and speculate the meter.”
  • “Her hat is contiguous because she wears it on one side.”
  • “He preached to an egregious congregation.”
  • “The captain eliminated a bullet through the man’s heart.”
  • “You should take caution and be precarious.”
  • “We should endeavor to avoid extremes–like those of wasps and bees.”
  • “There are a good many donkeys in theological gardens.”
  • “A verb is something to eat.”
  • “A circle is a round straight line with a hole in the middle.”
  • “Things which are equal to each other are equal to anything else.”
  • “North America is separated by Spain.”
  • “The principal products of the U.S. is earthquakes and volcanoes.”
  • “The Rocky Mountains are on the western side of Philadelphia.”
  • “One of the leading industries of the United States is mollasses, book-covers, numbers, gas, teaching, lumber, manufacturers, paper-making, publishers, coal.”
  • “Russia is very cold and tyrannical.”
  • “Hindoostan flows through the Ganges and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.”
  • “Ireland is called the Emigrant Isle because it is so beautiful and green.”

— From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887


A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
While hunting around for the meter,
Touched a leak with his light.
He arose out of sight,
And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.

— Anonymous