Lonely Words


What is gopher wood? Noah used it to build his ark, but there’s no other reference to it in the Bible.

Similarly, no one’s quite sure what a kankedort is. It appears in one passage in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

Was Troilus nought in a kankedort,
That lay, and myghte whisprynge of hem here,
And thoughte, “O Lord, right now renneth my sort
Fully to deye, or han anon comfort!”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it helplessly as an awkward situation or affair and says it’s “of unascertained etymology.”

See Hapax Legomenon.

Imaginative Literature

False book-backs ordered by Charles Dickens in 1851 to fill blank spaces in his study at Tavistock House:

  • Five Minutes in China (3 volumes)
  • Forty Winks at the Pyramids (2 volumes)
  • History of the Middling Ages (6 volumes)
  • Jonah’s Account of the Whale
  • Captain Parry’s Virtues of Cold Tar
  • Kant’s Ancient Humbugs (10 volumes)
  • Bowwowdom: A Poem
  • The Quarrelly Review
  • The Art of Cutting the Teeth
  • Drowsy’s Recollections of Nothing (3 volumes)
  • Heavysides Conversations With Nobody (3 volumes)
  • Growler’s Gruffiology, With Appendix (4 volumes)
  • Miss Biffin on Deportment
  • Lady Godiva on the Horse
  • Munchausen’s Modern Miracles
  • On the Use of Mercury by the Ancient Poets

And Hansard’s Guide to Refreshing Sleep, “as many volumes as are required to fill up.”

Two and Two

In 1977, a gravely ill 19-month-old Qatari girl was flown to a London hospital, where her condition continued to worsen, baffling her doctors.

On the sixth day, the observing nurse was startled to see that the girl began to lose her hair. She realized that the patient’s symptoms were strikingly similar to those in Agatha Christie’s novel The Pale Horse, which she had been reading.

In Christie’s novel, the murder victims had been killed by thallium poisoning. Tests confirmed elevated levels of thallium in the girl’s urine, and doctors treated her accordingly. Three weeks later she was well enough to go home.

Tempus Edax Rerum

Visiting Rome in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain reflects on “the unsubstantial, unlasting character of fame.” He imagines how the people of 5868 A.D. will remember Ulysses S. Grant:

URIAH S. (or Z.) GRAUNT — popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say flourished about A.D. 742; but the learned Ah-ah Foo-foo states that he was a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet, and flourished about A.D. 1328, some three centuries after the Trojan war instead of before it. He wrote ‘Rock me to Sleep, Mother.’

“These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed.”


Laid up in the hospital, James Thurber passed the time doing crossword puzzles.

One day he asked a nurse, “What seven-letter word has three u’s in it?”

She said, “I don’t know, but it must be unusual.”

Short Subjects

While adapting The Big Sleep for the screen, a confused Howard Hawks wired Raymond Chandler asking who was supposed to have killed General Sternwood’s chauffer in the novel. Chandler responded:


When a Paris news editor asked Ernest Hemingway for an accounting of his expenses, he cabled:


A movie studio once approached Eugene O’Neill to write a screenplay for a Jean Harlow film. They asked him to reply in a collect telegram of no more than 20 words. He wrote:


When Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in in 1969, he received a telegram from a Parisian named Georges Godot … apologizing for keeping him waiting.

Long Addition

http://books.google.com/books?id=TLoNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA38&dq=snark+butcher+beaver&as_brr=1&ei=2nBXSb_pE5fUzATGnoA_#v=onepage&q=snark%20butcher%20beaver&f=false" title="2009-10-23-long-addition

In The Hunting of the Snark, the Butcher confirms for the Beaver that Two and One are Three:

Taking Three as the subject to reason about–
A convenient number to state–
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
By One Thousand diminished by Eight.

The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
By Nine Hundred and Ninety and Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
Exactly and perfectly true.

Fittingly for Carroll, the math works:

snark math

Graduate Work

In 1947, the University of Chicago rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis, calling it “unprofessional.”

Twenty-four years later, in 1971, they granted the degree — accepting Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle as a thesis in anthropology.

Strike Three

Notice, Hartford Courant, May 20, 1875:

TWO HUNDRED & FIVE DOLLARS REWARD–At the great base ball match on Tuesday, while I was engaged in hurrahing, a small boy walked off with an English-made brown silk UMBRELLA belonging to me, and forgot to bring it back. I will pay $5 for the return of that umbrella in good condition to my house on Farmington avenue. I do not want the boy (in an active state) but will pay two hundred dollars for his remains.

Samuel L. Clemens