# A Little Latin

In M.R. James’s superbly creepy 1904 short story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad,” a Cambridge professor investigating a Templar ruin finds a whistle bearing the inscription “Quis est iste, qui venit?”

“I suppose I am a little rusty in my Latin,” he thinks. “It ought to mean, ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him.” And he does, and everything follows from there.

“It’s a rare use by M.R. James of Latin as a pivotal plot point, and a wonderful pedagogic caution to study hard in your lessons or else be grabbed by a ghoul,” writes Roger Clarke in A Natural History of Ghosts.

James says no more about it, but “a Latin scholar would know that iste was a pejorative term, that whoever was coming is unpleasant or, indeed, not exactly human. It should be translated as ‘What is this revolting thing coming towards me?'”

# Grammatical Illusions

More people have been to Russia than I have.

Most listeners find this sentence acceptable when they first hear it, but it’s meaningless: The phrase “more people” seems to set up a comparison between two sets of individuals, but there’s no second set.

“In light of the fact that the sentence lacks this basic property, it is remarkable that speakers so commonly fail to notice the error,” write linguists Colin Phillips, Matthew W. Wagers, and Ellen F. Lau.

No head injury is too trivial to be ignored.

At first this seems to mean “No head injury should be ignored — even if it’s trivial,” but reflection shows that it really means “All head injuries should be ignored — even trivial ones.”

“This difficulty has certain interesting properties,” write psychologists Peter Wason and Shuli Reich. “When the correct interpretation was explained it was often adamantly rejected in our informal studies, as if the informants literally could not see an alternative view.”

(Colin Phillips, M. Wagers, and E. Lau, “Grammatical Illusions and Selective Fallibility in Real-Time Language Comprehension,” in Jeffrey T. Runner, ed., Syntax and Semantics 37: Experiments at the Interfaces, 2011; Peter C. Wason and Shuli S. Reich, “A Verbal Illusion,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31:4 [1979], 591-597.)

# Constrained Travel

In 1853, a lady at a social dinner challenged explorer Jacques Arago to compose an account of his circumnavigation without using the letter A.

He did.

Allegedly she thanked him without using the letter C.

# Misc

• Peter Davison, who played the fifth Doctor in Doctor Who, is the father-in-law of David Tennant, who played the 10th.
• Sharks are older than trees.
• ABHORS, ALMOST, BEGINS, BIOPSY, and CHINTZ are alphabetical.
• $\displaystyle \sqrt{7! + 1} = 71$
• “The punishment can be remitted; the crime is everlasting.” — Ovid

“Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” — Pete Conrad, after becoming the third human to set foot on the moon

# In a Word

unyore
adv. not long ago, recently, lately

obliviality
n. liability to be forgotten

nutual
adj. expressed merely by a gesture

illation
n. an inference; conclusion

Norbert Wiener of MIT was well known as an extreme example of someone who could get lost in thought. Once while walking on campus, Wiener met an acquaintance, and after a while he asked his companion: ‘Which way was I walking when we met?’ The man pointed, and Wiener said, ‘Good. Then I’ve had my lunch.’

— Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner, Loving and Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life, 2010

# Fair Exchange

The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay, premiered in 1728 at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, managed by John Rich.

It was an enormous success, becoming one of the most popular plays of the 18th century.

This “had the effect, as was ludicrously said, of making Gay rich and Rich gay.”

(From Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.)

# Donkey Sentences

Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it. The pronoun it in this sentence seems to have a clear meaning. But does it? Normally the phrase a donkey refers to some particular donkey; the indefinite article a refers to something that exists. But here its meaning is more abstract — a donkey seems to refer to a whole class of unfortunate donkeys. And in that case the pronoun it seems to have nothing to point to.

Yet most readers have no trouble understanding the sentence. How?

Suppose you have two brothers, both of whom are older than you are.

Then it becomes perversely accurate to say, “My younger brother is older than I am.”

# In a Word

belua
n. a huge or monstrous creature or beast

pervagate
v. to wander through (a place)

cibation
n. taking food, feeding

epichoric
adj. characteristic of or peculiar to a particular country or district

From October to December, a herd of elephants walks through the lobby of Zambia’s Mfuwe Lodge to reach the fruit of a wild mango tree.

At least three generations of one family has returned to the lodge to visit the tree.

# Testamentary Matters

In December 1995, puzzlemaster Will Shortz challenged listeners of National Public Radio to write grammatical and understandable sentences that contained the same word four or more times in succession. The greatest number settled on the word will, which lends itself readily to such strings:

Will Will will Will his yacht? (Marianne Stambaugh)

So some got more ambitious:

Of his own free will, will Will will Will Jr. his dog? (Daniel Waldman)

Will, will Will will Will will to continue on? (Jennie Raymond)

The will Will will will Will will will Will to change his behavior. (Karan Talley)

Relatives wonder if the Will Will will will will Will Will Jr. any part of his father’s estate. (Alan Singer)

What will show how much affection Will had for Will? The will Will will will Will will: Will will will Will Will Shakespeare’s will! (Edgar Bley)

The purest entry came both from Jeff and Loni Doyle and from Bill Topazio — it concerns the bequest of G. Gordon Liddy’s 1980 autobiography:

Will Will will Will Will?

(A. Ross Eckler, “When There’s A Will …,” Word Ways 29:3 [August 1996], 151-155.)