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.)

In a Word
Image: OpenStreetMap

adj. rare, unusual

adj. extraordinary in appearance

adj. heart-shaped

n. engagement to be married

The Croatian islet Galešnjak, in the Pašman Canal of the Adriatic Sea, is one of the few naturally occurring heart-shaped objects in the world.

It’s uninhabited, but the family that owns it provides facilities for engagements and weddings.


What’s the longest possible 10-word telegram? One wordplay enthusiast offered this try, at 198 letters:


But in Language on Vacation (1965), Dmitri Borgmann observes that “we don’t like a message interrupted by two hyphens, three apostrophes, and a period.” He offered this:


It’s 45 letters longer.

Dead Letter

Last year Grant Maierhofer published Ebb, a novel written entirely without the letter A:

Ben went to school, worked in the Co-op, tried to write some but liked to be close with his friends. His friends comprised this kind of collective, this unity of spirit. Ben studied history. His friends studied too, some music, some writing, some science. They didn’t hope to extend their lives beyond this though, which left them odd. People who study, who hope to write, who hope to sing, who hope to push something through of their spirit, they often wish to flee, to go to New York, somewhere more, somewhere living, somewhere electric. These friends though they’d decided to let this be enough, their little communion with themselves, their communion of the work, which Ben enjoyed endlessly.

To describe the project, he wrote a thousand-word essay, itself without the letter A:

Why write the book? Good question. Possibly to try something out. To see where something brings you, then the things beyond this something. People write things. Sure, of course they do. People write things frequently. I write things, hm, since I like to figure the writing out. I bring problems on myself, then figure some route out of the box. The box? Stupid. Out of the box, outside the box? So stupid. Then how would you put it? The problem could be this cell, this thing you built surrounding your work. The problem could be the cell, then your working through it could be the tunneling out. This is nice. This is the thing, sure.

The essay and a longer excerpt are here. See The Void, The Great Gadsby, and Dead Letters.