Scattered Stars

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

That’s Walt Whitman. In 2000, mathematician Mike Keith noted a similar idea in Psalm 19:1-6:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech,
And night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language,
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
His going forth is from the end of the heaven,
And his circuit unto the ends of it:
And there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

So he married them by rearranging the psalm’s letters:

When I had listened to the erudite astronomer,
When his high thoughts were arranged and charted before me,
When I was shown the length and breadth and height of it,
The Earth, the horned Moon, the chariot of fire,
The hundredth flight of the shuttle through heavyish air,
How soon, mysteriously, I became sad and sick,
Had to wander out, ousted, charging through the forest,
Joining the sure chaos here in a foreign heath,
Having forgotten the vocation of the learned man,
And in the mystic clearing, once more looked up
In perfect silence at the sermon in the stars.

(Michael Keith, “Anagramming the Bible,” Word Ways 33:3 [August 2000], 180-185.)


  • 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.