Stops and Starts

Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle is written in his famously tortured syntax:

It led, briefly, in the course of the October afternoon, to his closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder, yet not quite a remembrance, as they sat much separated at a very long table, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly.

James Thurber parodied this with “The Beast in the Dingle”:

He had brought himself so fully in the end, poor Grantham, to accept his old friend’s invitation to accompany her to an ‘afternoon’ at ‘Cornerbright’ that now, on the very porch of the so evident house, he could have, for his companion, in all surrender, a high, fine — there was no other word for it — twinkle.

Thurber originally called this “The Return of the Screw.” See Homage and A Prose Maze.


  • Dorothy Parker said that James Thurber’s cartoon figures had the “semblance of unbaked cookies.”
  • In typing AUTHENTICITY, the left and right hands alternate.
  • P.G. Wodehouse wrote the last 26 pages of Thank You, Jeeves in one day.
  • 1232882 + 3287682 = 123288328768

(Thanks, Steve.)

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.)