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.)

A Signature Achievement

The 2018 Name of the Year title went to Canadian hockey player Jimbob Ghostkeeper, beating Dr. Narwhals Mating with 57 percent of 7,500 votes cast. Notable also-rans in this year’s contest: Salami Blessing, La Royce Lobster-Gaines, Makenlove Petit-Fard, Bernard Bumpus, Christine Plentyhoops, Habbakkuk Baldonado, Early Champagne, Fabulous Flournoy, Dr. Dimple Royalty, Darthvader Williamson, Chosen Roach, Chardonnay Beaver, Forbes Thor Kiddoo, Quindarious Gooch, Darwin Tabacco, Blossom Albuquerque, Rev. Dongo Pewee, Mahogany Loggins, and Gandalf Hernandez.

Each year 64 candidates are chosen from reader nominations to compete in an NCAA-style bracket to establish the world’s most entertaining personal name. So far the “Hall of Name” includes Assumption Bulltron, Doby Chrotchtangle, Crescent Dragonwagon, Honka Monka, Excellent Raymond, Licentious Beastie, Mummenschontz Bitterbeetle, African Grant, Largest Agbejemison, Nimrod Weiselfish, Tokyo Sexwale, Tanqueray Beavers, Roszetia McConeyhead, Moses Regular, Jerome Fruithandler, Delano Turnipseed, Princess Nocandy, and Destiny Frankenstein. Send your nominations to nameoftheyear@gmail.com.

In a Word

I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I hadn’t realized the source was known: In 1844, British general Sir Charles Napier was criticized in Parliament for his ruthless campaign to take the Indian province of Sind. On hearing this, 16-year-old schoolgirl Catherine Winkworth “remarked to her teacher that Napier’s despatch to the Governor General of India, after capturing Sind, should have been Peccavi (Latin for ‘I have sinned’).”

She sent this immortal pun to Punch, which unfortunately printed it as a factual report:


This mangled its meaning and credited Napier. Winkworth’s authorship was discovered only by later literary sleuths.