Pictures of England

Letters to the Times, April 1949:


Your recent report that a rackets player ‘literally blasted his opponents out of the court’ suggests that gamesmanship is becoming less subtle. Is not the use of dynamite as out of place in a first-class match as, for instance, the word ‘literally’ in a metaphor?

Yours truly,

B.W.M. Young


Perhaps the most picturesque use of ‘literally’ was that of a writer who asserted that ‘for five years Mr Gladstone was literally glued to the Treasury Bench.’

Yours faithfully,

E.W. Fordham


My own favourite for the ‘Literal Stakes’ is the biographer who wrote of his subject that ‘he literally died in harness.’

Yours faithfully,

Gerald Barry


Last summer a BBC commentator describing an easy victory in the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon, said: ‘Miss so-and-so literally wiped the court with her opponent.’

Yours faithfully,

Eileen Orde


I submit the following, long and lovingly remembered from my ‘penny dreadful’ days: ‘Dick, hotly pursued by the scalp-hunter, turned in his saddle, fired, and literally decimated the Indian.’

Yours faithfully,

Edward Evans


When I was assistant editor of the Saturday Review in the early 1920s, during a temporary absence of the editor I allowed a reviewer to declare in those august pages that his heart was literally in his boots.

Yours faithfully,

Ivy Davison


A widely-read pre-war guide to Greece used to describe the inhabitants of that country as so interested in politics as to be visible daily ‘in cafés and restaurants literally devouring their newspapers.’

Yours faithfully,

F.J.B. Watson

“A Llyric of the Llama”

Behold how from her lair the youthful llama
Llopes forth and llightly scans the llandscape o’er.
With llusty heart she llooks upon llife’s drama,
Relying on her llate-llearnt worldly llore.

But llo! Some llad, armed with a yoke infama
Soon llures her into llowly llabor’s cause;
Her wool is llopped to weave into pajama,
And llanguidly she llearns her Gees and Haws.

My children, heed this llesson from all llanguishing young lllamas,
If you would lllive with lllatitude, avoid each llluring lllay;
And do not lllightly lllleave, I beg, your llllonesome, lllloving mammas,
And llllast of allll, don’t spelllll your name in such a silllllly way.

— Burges Johnson, Everybody’s Magazine, August 1907

In a Word

n. a mass execution by drowning

adj. crying out together

adj. dying together or at the same time

J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting The Slave Ship recalls a brutal convention in the Atlantic slave trade — an insurance company would reimburse a captain for a slave who was lost at sea, but not for one who died of illness aboard ship. In 1781 Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, threw 133 sick and malnourished Africans overboard so that he could claim their value from his insurers. Turner displayed the painting next to lines from his own poem:

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying — ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?

Britain had already outlawed its own slave trade when the painting appeared, but its impact encouraged the empire to oppose the institution everywhere.

Phrase Anatomy

Curiosities of medical language:

  • HIRSCHSPRUNG’S DISEASE contains seven consecutive consonants.
  • PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM contains each vowel at least twice.
  • PANCREATICODUODENOSTOMY contains five vowels in alphabetical order. SUBPOPLITEAL has them in reverse order.
  • VESICULOGRAPHY contains no repeated letters.
  • PARASITOLOGICAL alternates vowels and consonants.
  • HYDROXYZINE is the only word in the Oxford English Dictionary (second edition) that contains XYZ.
  • BIOPSY is in alphabetical order.
  • Each letter in ZOONOSIS is rotationally symmetrical in uppercase.
  • Each letter in BERIBERI and INTESTINES appears twice.

In 2007 a Spanish physician wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine to tell of a 29-year-old patient with acute tendonitis isolated to the right infraspinatus. The doctor traced the problem to the patient’s new Wii videogame, with which he’d played tennis for several hours the previous day. He dubbed the ailment WIIITIS, a word with three consecutive Is. It’s a variant of NINTENDINITIS, a condition that doctors first recognized in 1990.

(Thanks, Bob.)

Coming to America

It is a hard and lengthy task to become acquainted with the vagaries of the language, not to mention the forgotten or altered meanings of many words. Some of these vagaries are aptly illustrated by the story of the Frenchman who said to an American:

I am going to leave my hotel. I paid my bill yesterday, and I said to the landlord, ‘Do I owe anything else?’ He said, ‘You are square.’ ‘What am I?’ He said again, ‘You are square.’ ‘That’s strange,’ said I. ‘I lived so long that I never knew I was square before.’ Then, as I was going away, he shook me by the hand, saying, ‘I hope you’ll be round soon.’ I said, ‘I thought you said I was square; now you hope I’ll be round.’ He laughed and said, ‘When I tell you you’ll be round, I mean you won’t be long.’ Then, seeing me count my change twice over, he said, ‘Are you short?’ I did not know how many forms he wished me to assume: however, I was glad he did not call me flat.

— William S. Bridge, “The English Language,” in The Typographical Journal, March 15, 1902