“Does a One-Legged Duck Swim in Circles?”

Recent winners of the Foot in Mouth Award, presented each year by the British Plain English Campaign for “a baffling quote by a public figure”:

  • 2005: Welsh politician Rhodri Morgan on the police: “The only thing which isn’t up for grabs is no change, and I think it’s fair to say it’s all to play for, except for no change.”
  • 2004: M.P. Boris Johnson on the television program Have I Got News For You: “I could not fail to disagree with you less.”
  • 2003: U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns–the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
  • 2002: Actor Richard Gere: “I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake, I’d think, ‘No, actually I am a giraffe.'”
  • 2001: English artist Tracey Emin: “When it comes to words, I have a uniqueness that I find almost impossible in terms of art–and it’s my words that actually make my art quite unique.”
  • 2000: Alicia Silverstone, quoted in the Sunday Telegraph: “I think that [the film] Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it’s true lightness.”

“A Bill Becomes a Law When the President Vetoes It”

Excerpts from students’ civics exams in the 1800s:

  • “The three departments of the government is the President rules the world, the governor rules the State, the mayor rules the city.”
  • “The first conscientious Congress met in Philadelphia.”
  • “The Constitution of the United States was established to ensure domestic hostility.”
  • “The Constitution of the United States is that part of the book at the end which nobody reads.”
  • “Congress is divided into civilized half civilized and savage.”

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

Rimshot

Two racehorses and a dog are in the stable on the night before the big race.

The old horse says, “Kid, I have a favor to ask. Tomorrow’s the last race of my career. If I win, they’ll have a big parade in my honor and put me in a nice pasture for the rest of my life. If I lose, they’ll send me to the glue factory. Now, I’m still a pretty good racer, but I think we both know that if you try tomorrow, you can beat me. So I’m asking you, just this once … will you let me win?”

The younger racehorse looks at the ground for a long time. “I understand what you’re asking,” he says, “and I feel for you, I really do. But look at this from my point of view. I’ve never lost a race. If I keep up my record, there’s no telling how far I’ll go. And, no offense, but if I lose this early in my career to a horse as old as you, I could never recover. I’m really sorry, but I just can’t do it.”

The dog says, “Are you out of your mind? You’ve said yourself that you already have a great record, and he’s asking you to come in second, in one race, to save his life. How can you refuse that? Have you no soul at all?”

The young horse looks at the old horse and says, “Look — a dog that can talk!”

“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

Analysis

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

Adages:

  • 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

Fore!

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