An Odd Word
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In E.M. Forster’s 1907 novel The Longest Journey, the description of the country estate Cadover contains a surprising term:

The lawn ended in a Ha-ha (‘Ha! ha! who shall regard it?’), and thence the bare land sloped down into the village.

A ha-ha is indeed the term for a sort of buried wall adjoined by a sloping ditch — it will keep deer out of your garden without blocking the view. But how it came by that name seems uncertain. Possibly it’s a shortened form of “half and half” (half wall, half ditch), and possibly it’s named for the cries of its observers — the earliest usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is John James’ 1712 translation of Antoine-Joseph Dézallier d’Argenville’s Theory and Practice of Gardening — he refers to “a large and deep Ditch at the Foot.., which surprizes..and makes one cry, Ah! Ah! from whence it takes its Name.”

In Terry Pratchett’s novel Men at Arms, a ha-ha is accidentally specified to be 50 feet deep. The result is called a hoho, and it claims the lives of three gardeners. In Snuff, two characters go for a walk in the countryside and “navigate their way around the ha-ha, keep their distance from the ho-ho and completely ignore the he-he.”

Moving Words

In October 1996, Parade magazine published the results of a vanity license plate contest that received more than 7,000 entries. Here are the 10 winning plates:

  2. RUD14ME?
  5. IM12XL
  6. ULIV1S
  7. AXN28D+
  8. VAN GO
  9. H2OUUP-2
  10. TI-3VOM

What are their meanings?

Click for Answer

In a Word

n. a wayfarer; traveler

adj. likely to cause harm or damage

adj. exploding or detonating

adj. in heaps

British director Cecil Hepworth made “How It Feels To Be Run Over” in 1900. The car is on the wrong side of the road. (The intertitle at the end, “Oh! Mother will be pleased,” may have been scratched directly into the celluloid.)

Hepworth followed it up with “Explosion of a Motor Car,” below, later the same year.

For What It’s Worth

In a 2009 survey, readers of Stuttgarter Nachrichten, the largest newspaper in Stuttgart, chose Muggeseggele as the most beautiful word in Swabian German.

Muggeseggele means “the scrotum of a housefly.” It’s used ironically to describe a very small length.

Counting Sheep
Image: Flickr

Shepherds in Northern England used to tally their flocks using a base-20 numbering system. They’d count a score of sheep using the words:

Yan, tan, tether, mether, pip,
Azer, sayzer, acka, konta, dick,
Yanna-dick, tanna-dick, tethera-dick, methera-dick, bumfit,
Yanna-bum, tanna-bum, tethera-bum, methera-bum, jigget

… and then denote the completion of a group by taking up a stone or marking the ground before commencing the next count.

These systems vary by region — Wikipedia has them laid out in pleasing tables.

(Thanks, Brieuc.)

In Pain

When I feel a pain in my leg, what do I mean by in? It might seem that I’m referring to spatial location: The pain resides within the tissues of my leg. But philosopher Ned Block points out that then this argument should be valid:

The pain is in my fingertip.
The fingertip is in my mouth.
Therefore, the pain is in my mouth.

“The conclusion obviously does not follow, so we must conclude that ‘in’ is not used in the spatial enclosure sense in all three statements. It certainly seems plausible that ‘in’ as applied in locating pains differs in meaning systematically from the standard spatial enclosure sense.”

(Ned Block, “Mental Pictures and Cognitive Science,” Philosophical Review 92:4 [1983], 499-541.)


  • The state sport of Maryland is jousting.
  • North and South Dakota were established together, in 1889.
  • Percentages are reversible: 25% of 16 is 16% of 25.
  • “Success in research needs four Gs: Glück, Geduld, Geschick, und Geld [luck, patience, skill, and money].” — Paul Ehrlich