Points and Pauses

Gertrude Stein’s 1935 lecture “Poetry and Grammar” includes a section on punctuation, for which she had a peculiar disdain:

There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not. Let us begin with the punctuations that are not. Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting.

In 2000, Kenneth Goldsmith rather archly removed the words from this passage and offered the bare punctuation as a poem titled “Gertrude Stein’s Punctuation from ‘Gertrude Stein on Punctuation'” (the full passage and the poem are both here). Goldsmith did the same thing with the punctuation chapter from Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses — a few hyphens and a period.

Carl Reuterswärd’s 1960 novel Prix Nobel consists entirely of punctuation marks. Reuterswärd felt that ordinary writing robs punctuation of its meaning; the surrounding words convey concepts and the commas, colons, and periods simply help to mark it. Removing the words, though, revealed an “interesting alternative: not to ignore syntax but certainly to forgo ‘the preserved meaning of others.’ The ‘absence’ that occurs is not mute. For want of ‘governing concepts’ punctuation marks lose their neutral value. They begin to speak an unuttered language out of that already expressed. This cannot help producing a ‘colon concept’ in you, a need of exclamation, of pauses, of periods, of parentheses.”

In 2005, Chinese novelist Hu Wenliang offered 140,000 yuan ($16,900 U.S.) to the reader who could decipher his novel «?», which consists entirely of punctuation marks.

The autobiography of the American eccentric “Lord” Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) contains 8,847 words and no punctuation. When readers complained, he added a page of punctuation marks to the second edition, inviting them to “peper and solt it as they plese.”

06/30/2022 More: Reader Kevin Orlin Johnson sent this poem by David Morice, from the February 2012 issue of Word Ways:

% , & –
+ . ? /
“ :
% ;
+ $ [ \

It’s a limerick:

Percent comma ampersand dash
Plus period question mark slash
Quotation mark colon
Percent semicolon
Plus dollar sign bracket backslash

(Thanks, Kevin.)

Double Duty

Image: Gallica

In 840 the Frankish Benedictine monk Rabanus Maurus composed 28 poems in which each line comprises the same number of letters. That’s impressive enough, but he also added painted images behind each poem that identify subsets of its letters that can be read on their own.

The final poem of the volume shows Rabanus Maurus himself kneeling in prayer at the foot of a cross whose text forms a palindrome: OROTE RAMUS ARAM ARA SUMAR ET ORO (I, Ramus, pray to you at the altar so that at the altar I may be taken up, I also pray). This text appears on both arms of the cross, so it can be read in any of four directions.

The form of the monk’s own body defines a second message: “Rabanum memet clemens rogo Christe tuere o pie judicio” (Christ, o pious and merciful in your judgment, keep me, Rabanus, I pray, safe).

And the letters in both of these painted sections also participate in the larger poem that fills the body of the page.

(From Laurence de Looze, The Letter and the Cosmos, 2016.)

In a Word

n. a person who investigates

adj. obscure

adj. of the nature of, resembling, or containing butter

n. a slight knowledge of something

In “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” Sherlock Holmes makes an enigmatic allusion: “You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.”

He says nothing more. In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Leslie Klinger writes, “Numerous pastiches and analyses of the ‘Abernetty business’ have been written and are surveyed in detail in William Hyder’s ‘Parsley and Butter: The Abernetty Business.’ Hyder concludes, without foundation, that no less than murder was involved. Is it not equally likely that a business — perhaps an inn or tavern — run by the Abernetty family was ‘dreadful’ (that is, kept in poor sanitation), and that that condition was first brought to Holmes’ notice by the butter having been left out on a hot day? The connection between this observation and the ensuing investigation remains undetermined. A number of scholars consider whether and how fast parsley will sink into butter. Not surprisingly, they do not agree.”


  • Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe all died on July 4.
  • Australia is wider than the moon.
  • NoNRePReSeNTaTiONaLiSm can be assembled from chemical symbols.
  • 1 × 56 – 1 – 7 = 15617
  • “‘Needless to say’ is, needless to say, needless to say.” — Enoch Haga

Lip Service

British tongue twisters:

United States twin-screw steel cruisers.

I shot three shy thrushes. You shoot three shy thrushes.

The rain ceaseth and sufficeth us.

A wicked cricket critic.

Many an anemone sees an enemy anemone.

All I want is a proper cup of coffee,
Made in a proper copper coffee pot.
You can believe it or not —
I want a cup of coffee
In a proper coffee pot.
Tin coffee pots or
Iron coffee pots,
They’re no use to me,
If I can’t have a
Proper cup of coffee
In a proper copper coffee pot
I’ll have a cup of tea.

Ken Parkin’s 1969 Anthology of British Tongue-Twisters is arranged anatomically, so to speak, according to the part of the mouth that gets the workout. These are listed under “Two Lips”:

Bill Badger brought the bear a bit of boiled bacon in a brown bag.

Gig-whip. Gig-whip. Gig-whip.

The broom blooms when the bluebells bloom.

And “Weak writers want white ruled writing paper.”


Hungarian physician Alexander Lenard spent seven years translating Winnie-the-Pooh into Latin:

‘Quid ergo est, Porcelle?’ dixit Christophorus Robinus lectulo exsurgens.

‘Heff,’ dixit Porcellus anhelitum ducens ut vix loqui posset, ‘heff — heff — heffalumpus!’


‘Illic,’ exclamavit ungulam agitans Porcellus.

‘Qualum praebet speciem?’

‘Sicut — sicut — habet maximum caput quod unquam vidisti. Aliquid magnum et immane — sicut — sicut nihil. Permagnum — sane, putares — nescio — permagnum nihil. Sicut caccabus.’

When it reached the New York Times bestseller list in 1960, the Christian Science Monitor wrote, “It is hard to conceive of a Latin work more calculated than this attractive volume to fascinate the modern public, young and old.” Here it is.

In a Word

v. to make like a Presbyterian church in appearance

(This is in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s English Note-Books of 1857: “Then we went to St Giles’s Cathedral, which I shall not describe, it having been kirkified into three interior divisions by the Covenanters.”)

Coming and Going

An anecdote from Oliviu Felecan and Alina Bughesiu’s Onomastics in Contemporary Public Space, 2013:

A Zulu owned a dog that used to roll in dirt and dung when it was young. When it came to the house, everyone shouted, “Phuma phela!”, meaning “Get out now!” or “Get out, then!” As the dog became more disciplined it was allowed into the house and the phrase simply became its name. But if Get Out Now was now the dog’s name (asked the confused interviewer), then surely it was used to call the dog into the house?

‘Yes, that is so,’ was the answer. Then what do they say now to get the dog out of the house, seeing that ‘get out now’ brings the dog in?

The answer to this question was simple, and perhaps predictable: ‘we say “Hheyi, voetsek wena!”‘

“That is to say, in order to chase away this particular dog, one would have to tell it that much in Afrikaans.”

(Steven Wright used to joke that he named his dog Stay so he could call, “Come here, Stay! Come here, Stay!” “Now he just ignores me and keeps on typing.”)

In a Word

res angusta domi
n. straitened financial circumstances

adj. having the hand opened out so as to display the palm

n. a state of hesitation or doubt

n. careful guidance

n. the art of counting on the fingers

v. to roar or bellow


Obscure words from Paul Hellweg’s Insomniac’s Dictionary, 1989:

tomecide: the destruction of a book

lampadomancy: augury by torch flame

shotclog: a drinking companion tolerated because he pays for the drinks

allonym: the name of a real person borrowed by an author

ephelides: freckles

feuterer: someone who keeps a dog

hypnopedia: the process of learning while asleep (e.g. by listening to a recording)

girouettism: the practice of frequently altering personal opinions to follow popular trends

panchreston: a broadly inclusive thesis that purports to cover all aspects of its subject but usually ends up as an unacceptable oversimplification

grangousier: one who will swallow anything

A few facetious Latinisms collected by Michael Quinion:

ferroequinologist: a railroad enthusiast (“one who studies the iron horse”)

infracaninophile: a lover of the underdog

anti-fogmatic: an alcoholic drink that counteracts the effects of fog

In 2014 a Futility Closet reader led me to elephantocetomachia, “a fight between an elephant and a whale,” a valuable word assembled from spare parts. And my notes say that vacansopapurosophobia means “fear of blank paper” — a useful expression, even if it’s not in the dictionary.