In a Word

adj. resounding with arms

The Battle of the Somme began with a weeklong artillery bombardment in which more than a million shells were fired at the German lines. A soldier describes the first day:

The sound was different, not only in magnitude but in quality, from anything known to me. It was not a succession of explosions or a continuous roar; I at least, never heard either a gun or a bursting shell. It was not a noise; it was a symphony. And it did not move. It hung over us. It seemed as though the air were full of vast and agonized passion, bursting now with groans and sighs, now into shrill screaming and pitiful whimpering … And the supernatural tumult did not pass in this direction or in that. It did not begin, intensify, decline and end. It was poised in the air, a stationary panorama of sound, a condition of the atmosphere, not the creation of man.

At the Battle of Messines in June 1917, 19 mines comprising 600 tonnes of explosives were detonated, producing the largest man-made explosions in history to that date. One witness recalled that the “earth rocked as though a giant hand had roughly shaken it.”

(John Ellis, Eye-Deep in Hell, 1989, via Joy Damousi et al., eds., Museums, History and the Intimate Experience of the Great War, 2020.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The color fuchsia is named after the flower of that name, which was named after 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. And Fuchs is German for fox. So the color is named after a plant named after a man named after an animal.

The color orange is named after the fruit, rather than the other way around.

Canaries are named after the Canary Islands, rather than the other way around.

04/20/2024 UPDATE: The Canary Islands in turn derive their name from the Latin name Canariae Insulae, “islands of the dogs.” Pliny the Elder records that the islands contained “vast multitudes of dogs of very large size.” So animal -> islands -> bird. (Thanks, Bob, Randy, Derek, and Sam.)

And chartreuse is named after the French liqueur of that color, which is named after the Grand Chartreuse order of monks that created it in the eponymous Chartreuse Mountains. Mountains -> monastery -> beverage -> color. (Thanks, John.)

Better Safe

The word curfew derives from the Old French phrase couvre-feu, which means “cover fire.” Under a law imposed by William the Conqueror, all lights and fires had to be covered by 8 p.m. to reduce the risk of conflagration in towns still built largely of timber.

The practice spread through medieval Europe. Writes historian Roger Ekirch, “Not only were streets swept of pedestrians, but homes still aglow after the curfew bell ran afoul of authorities. Besides incurring fines, offenders faced the risk of incarceration, especially if caught outdoors.”

(At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, 2006.)

Do It Yourself

That wise philosopher, William J. Boardman, tells me that those first threatening aggressive noises [man’s first swearing] were full of G’s and K’s and P’s and H’s and harsh sibilants. Such noises had the effect of a blow; they needed no dictionary to prove they were primed with all the bad magic of an evil wish. …

If I am to take seriously Mr. Boardman’s assertion that only a certain five letters have objurgatory value, then why not make words out of them and consider them as much our own private property as ‘jobjam’ belonged to Booth Tarkington, or ‘Malaga!’ to Dumas? Try ‘Bodkogh!’ for instance, or ‘Hagbadek!’ ‘Khigbod!’ ‘Dakadigbeg!’ or ‘Godbekho!’

— Burges Johnson, The Lost Art of Profanity, 1948


In a friendly competition with linguist Richard Lederer in 1990, Bruce Monrad, a student at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., produced an 11-word “supersentence” — “a single sentence that includes one example of each of the four phrases and three subordinate clauses that are identified in English grammar. These are: prepositional phrase, participial phrase, gerund phrase, infinitive phrase, adverb clause, adjective clause, and noun clause”:

Whoever rebels, daring oppose by fighting when oppressed, which overcomes, conquers.

Dave Morice labels the parts here. Lederer notes that the adjective clause, “which overcomes,” is a dangling modifier. “Still, I have never been able to improve on Bruce’s effort.”

(Richard Lederer, “The Glamour of Grammar,” Verbatim 16:4 [Spring 1990], 5-6.)

In a Word
Image: Wikimedia Commons

n. an unexpected view of something that startles one; a sudden fear

n. the act of sneering or laughing derisively; mockery; derision

adj. bringing or producing death

adj. inciting, animating, or inspiring

Photographer Philippe Halsman took three hours to pose seven women in the shape of a skull for his surrealistic portrait In Voluptas Mors, after a sketch by Salvador Dalí, who’s seen in the foreground. Director Jonathan Demme borrowed the idea for the one-sheet poster for his 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs — the skull image on the “death’s head moth” is a miniature version of the same tableau.

Turns of Phrase

Erasmus’ 1512 rhetoric textbook Copia lists 195 variations on the sentence “Your letter delighted me greatly”:

Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.
I was in no small measure refreshed in spirit by your grace’s hand.
From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable pleasure.
Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.
I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages.
Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy.
The greatest joy was brought to me by your lines.
We derived great delight from your excellency’s letter.
From my dear Faustus’ letter I derived much delight.
In these Faustine letters I found a wonderful kind of delectation.
At your words a delight of no ordinary kind came over me.
I was singularly delighted by your epistle.
To be sure your letter delighted my spirits!
Your brief missive flooded me with inexpressible Joy.
As a result of your letter, I was suffused by an unfamiliar gladness.
Your communication poured vials of joy on my head.
Your epistle afforded me no small delight.
The perusal of your letter charmed my mind with singular delight.

He followed this with 200 variations on the phrase “Always, as long as I live, I shall remember you.”

In a Word
Image: Wikimedia Commons

adj. sharp, as a taste

n. a mistake, an error

mauvais quart d’heure
n. a short period of time which is embarrassing and unnerving

adj. worthy to be chosen

The label on Angostura bitters is larger than the bottle. When company founder Johann Siegert died, his sons planned to enter the tonic in a competition and divided the preparatory work between them. One oversaw the design of a new bottle, the other of a new label. They failed to coordinate the work, and by the time the mismatch was apparent they had no choice but to use the oversize labels. The oddity was so distinctive that it’s been retained as a branding measure.

(Thanks, Colin.)