• The negative space in the eight of diamonds forms an 8.
  • William Brewster, leader of the Plymouth Colony, named his children Jonathan, Patience, Fear, Love, and Wrestling.
  • Wilfred Owen’s mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day.
  • “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.” — William James

The Vowel Triangle

Chris McManus discovered this oddity. If W and Y are accepted as vowels, that gives us AEIOUWY. Starting with O, number these according to their positions on a circular alphabet without starting the count over for A (that is, O is the 15th letter of the alphabet, so it’s assigned number 15; beyond Z we’d reach A as the “27th” letter; and so on). Now write these numbers into a triangle, again starting with O:

   O                15
 U W Y           21 23 25
A  E  I         27  31  35

Each of the five lines in the figure gives a different arithmetic progression:

UWY: difference of 2
AEI: difference of 4
OUA: difference of 6
OWE: difference of 8
OYI: difference of 10

(David Morice, “Kickshaws,” Word Ways 34:4 [November 2001], 292-305.)

Fortuitous Numbers

In American usage, 84,672 is said EIGHTY FOUR THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED SEVENTY TWO. Count the letters in each of those words, multiply the counts, and you get 6 × 4 × 8 × 3 × 7 × 7 × 3 = 84,672.

Brandeis University mathematician Michael Kleber calls such a number fortuitous. The next few are 1,852,200, 829,785,600, 20,910,597,120, and 92,215,733,299,200.

If you normally say “and” after “hundred” when speaking number names, then the first few fortuitous numbers are 333,396,000 (THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTY THREE MILLION, THREE HUNDRED AND NINETY SIX THOUSAND), 23,337,720,000, 19,516,557,312,000, 56,458,612,224,000, and 98,802,571,392,000.

And 54 works in both French and Russian.

(Michael Kleber, “Four, Twenty-Four, … ?,” Mathematical Intelligencer 24:2 [March 2002], 13-14.)

Subscriber Trouble

A letter to the New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1998:

To the Editor:

I read the review of Nathan Miller’s ‘Star-Spangled Men’ (Feb. 22) by Douglas McGrath, who challenged the reader to produce a sentence with three prepositions in a row, after I had picked my copy of The New York Times up from under the front porch, thankful that I didn’t have to get it down from above the porch roof, and at the same time, knowing that the delivery boy usually threw it to within a foot of the door, leaving me a quick way back in out of the cold each morning, I decided not to yell at him, especially since an argument was not something I wanted to get into outside of the house at this time of the morning, but still thinking that this was a matter that should be taken up from inside of the house by writing a letter to the editor, being careful not to use up to over three or four prepositions in a row in any sentence.

George F. Werner
Edgewood, N.M.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Michael C. [Codron] told me this story about Lady Dorothy Macmillan saying to Mme. de Gaulle at the Élysée Palace, ‘Now that your husband has achieved so much, is there any particular wish, any desire you have for the future?’ and Madame replied, ‘Yes — a penis.’ Whereupon Gen. de Gaulle leaned over and said, ‘No, my dear, in English it is pronounced Happiness.’

— Kenneth Williams, diary, April 10, 1966

In Other Words

University of Arizona anthropologist Keith Basso found that when the automobile was introduced into the reservation of the Western Apache of Arizona, they described it by applying their words for the human body:

Anatomical Term Extended Meaning
“shoulder” “front fender(s)”
“hand+arm” “front wheel(s), tire(s)”
“chin+jaw” “front bumper”
“foot,” “feet” “rear wheel(s), tire(s)”
“face” “area extending from top of windshield to bumper”
“forehead” “front portion of cab, or automobile top”
“nose” “hood”
“back” “bed of truck”
“hip+buttock” “rear fender(s)”
“mouth” “opening of pipe leading to gas-tank”
“eye(s)” “headlight(s)”
“vein(s)” “electrical wiring”
“entrails,” “guts” “all machinery under hood”
“liver” “battery”
“stomach” “gas-tank”
“heart” “distributor”
“lung” “radiator”
“intestine(s)” “radiator hose(s)”
“fat” “grease”

“When the automobile was introduced into Apache culture, it was perceived to possess a crucial defining attribute — the ability to move itself — which prompted its inclusion in the category labeled hinda [phenomena that are capable of generating and sustaining locomotive movement by themselves, such as man, quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and some machines]. The traditional practice of describing the other members of this category with anatomical terms was then applied to automobiles, to produce the extended set described above.”

(Keith H. Basso, “Semantic Aspects of Linguistic Acculturation,” American Anthropologist, New Series 69:5 [October 1967], 471-477.)

The Elements of Style

A letter from E.B. White to J.G. Case, March 30, 1962:

Dear Jack:

The next grammar book I bring out I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, ‘What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?’

And how are YOU?



See Over and Out.

In a Word

n. a minor dispute or contest

v. to beat or thrash

adj. pertaining to a master

n. saying enough

Somebody once asked pool hustler Don Willis how good Glen “Eufaula Kid” Womack was.

Willis said, “I never saw him play.”

“What do you mean, you never saw him play? I heard you just beat him out of a lot of money.”

“I did,” Willis said, “but he never got to shoot.”

(From Robert Byrne’s Wonderful World of Pool and Billiards, 1996.)

Sound and Sense

In 1929 linguist Edward Sapir made up two words, mal and mil, and told 500 subjects that one of them meant “large table” and the other “small table.” When asked to tell which was which, 80 percent responded that mal meant “large table” and mil meant “small table” — suggesting that different vowels evoke different sizes.

Four years later, Stanley Newman extended the experiment to include all the vowels. He placed them in a sequence that he said English speakers associate with increasing sizes: i (as in ill), e (met), ae (hat), a (ah), u (moon), o (hole), and so on.

Interestingly, this ranking also reflects the size of the mouth shape needed to pronounce each vowel. “In other words,” writes Peter Farb in Word Play, “the psychological awareness that speakers of English have about what the vowels convey matches the anatomical means of producing them.”

See The Bouba/Kiki Effect.

(Edward Sapir, “A Study in Phonetic Symbolism,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 12:3 [1929], 225; Stanley S. Newman, “Further Experiments in Phonetic Symbolism,” American Journal of Psychology 45:1 [1933], 53-75.)

War Talk

Just an interesting fragment: When the Chiricahua Apaches of southern Arizona went on a raiding party, they adopted a special speech. One informant told anthropologists Morris Edward Opler and Harry Hoijer:

I used to know many words, but I have forgotten just about all of them. Only one sticks in my mind, and that is the ceremonial way of asking for a drink of water. Instead of saying, ‘I want to drink some water,’ we had to say, ‘I begin to swim the specular iron ore.’

Peter Farb writes in Word Play (1981), “This kind of formal speech had to be maintained until the war party returned to the camp, at which time conversation switched back to everyday language.”

(Morris Edward Opler and Harry Hoijer, “The Raid and War-Path Language of the Chiricahua Apache,” American Anthropologist, New Series, 42:4 Part 1 [October-December 1940], 617-634.)