Youth Club

The same Dr. Webb was on one occasion counsel for Peter Mulligan, who made an application before the Recorder of Dublin for a license for a public-house. The applicant was only twenty-five years of age, and the police objected on account of his youth.

‘He is very young for so responsible a position,’ quoth the Recorder.

Dr. Webb instantly rose to the occasion:

‘My lord,’ he said, ‘Alexander the Great at twenty-two years of age had–had crushed the Illyrians and razed the city of Thebes to the ground, had crossed the Hellespont at the head of his army, had conquered Darius with a force of a million in the defiles of Issus and brought the great Persian Empire under his sway. At twenty-three René Descartes evolved a new system of philosophy. At twenty-four Pitt was Prime Minister of the British Empire, on whose dominions the sun never sets. At twenty-four Napoleon overthrew the enemies of the Republic with a whiff of grape-shot in the streets of Paris, and is it now to be judicially decided that at twenty-five my client, Peter Mulligan, is too young to manage a public-house in Capel Street?’

The license was hurriedly granted.

— Matthias M’Donnell Bodkin, Recollections of an Irish Judge, 1915

One Gloomy Evening

A schoolmaster gave a Latin grammar to the 10-year-old Winston Churchill and directed him to learn a series of words.

Churchill found it an “absolute rigmarole” but memorized the list and reeled it off when asked.

‘But,’ I repeated, ‘what does it mean?’

‘Mensa means a table,’ he answered.

‘Then why does mensa also mean O table,’ I enquired, ‘and what does O table mean?’

‘Mensa, O table, is the vocative case,’ he replied.

‘But why O table?’ I persisted in genuine curiosity.

‘O table,–you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table.’ And then seeing he was not carrying me with him, ‘You would use it in speaking to a table.’

‘But I never do!’ I blurted out in honest amazement.

“Such was my introduction,” he later wrote, “to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.”

Shadow Governments

In 1907 an anonymous turner produced a vase that threw a shadow of Queen Victoria.

Seventy years later, for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, a vase was produced that evoked the profiles of both Prince Philip and Elizabeth II.

Is this a tradition? It might lead us to see too much.

The Paradox of Non-Punishment

Suppose counterfeiting carried a mandatory life sentence. In the face of such a severe penalty, no one counterfeits, and thus the penalty is never imposed. This is a desirable outcome, and yet most of us would not wish to live in such a society. Why?

“A law can be unjust even if it is never applied,” writes Saul Smilansky. “But someone can hardly be a victim of unjust punishment when no punishment occurs!”


Overhearing a group of scientists praising financier E.H. Harriman during an 1899 expedition to Alaska, John Muir interrupted them.

“I don’t think Mr. Harriman is very rich,” he said. “He has not as much money as I have. I have all I want, and Mr. Harriman has not.”

“Spanish Etiquette”

Philip the Third was gravely seated by the fireside: the fire-maker of the court had kindled so great a quantity of wood, that the monarch was nearly suffocated with heat, and his grandeur would not suffer him to rise from the chair; the domestics could not presume to enter the apartment, because it was against the etiquette. At length the Marquis de Potat appeared, and king ordered him to damp the fires; but he excused himself; alleging that he was forbidden by the etiquette to perform such a function, for which the Duke D’Usseda ought to be called upon, as it was his business. The duke was gone out; the fire burnt fiercer; and the king endured it, rather than derogate from his dignity. But his blood was heated to such a degree, that erysipelas of the head appeared the next day, which, succeeded by a violent fever, carried him off in 1625, in the twenty-fourth year of his age.

— Isaac Disraeli, Curiosities of Literature, 1824

William Shepard Walsh tells of “two Englishmen who, after being shipwrecked on a desert island, refuse to speak to each other because they have not been introduced.”

“French for Americans”

Phrases most in demand by American visitors to Paris, compiled by Robert Benchley:


a = ong
e = ong
i = ong
o = ong
u = ong

Haven’t you got any griddle-cakes?
N’avez-vous pas des griddle-cakes?

What kind of a dump is this, anyhow?
Quelle espèce de dump is this, anyhow?

Do you call that coffee?
Appelez-vous cela coffee?

Where can I get a copy of the N.Y. Times?
Où est le N.Y. Times?

What’s the matter? Don’t you understand English?
What’s the matter? Don’t you understand English?

Of all the godam countries I ever saw.
De tous les pays godams que j’ai vu.

I haven’t seen a good-looking woman yet.
Je n’ai pas vu une belle femme jusqu’à présent.

Here is where we used to come when I was here during the War.
Ici est où nous used to come quand j’étais ici pendant la guerre.

Say, this is real beer all right!
Say, ceci est de la bière vrai!

Oh boy!
O boy!

Two weeks from tomorrow we sail for home.
Deux semaines from tomorrow nous sail for home.

Then when we land I’ll go straight to Childs and get a cup of coffee and a glass of ice-water.
Sogleich wir zu hause sind, geh ich zum Childs und eine tasse kaffee und ein glass eiswasser kaufen.

“Word you will have little use for”:

Vernisser — to varnish, glaze.
Nuque — nape (of the neck).
Egriser — to grind diamonds.
Dromer — to make one’s neck stiff from working at a sewing machine.
Rossignol — nightingale, picklock.
Ganache — lower jaw of a horse.
Serin — canary bird.
Pardon — I beg your pardon.

To Whom It May Concern

Visiting France in 1777, Benjamin Franklin received hundreds of inquiries from ardent Frenchmen seeking to join the American army. Finally he penned a “model of a letter of recommendation of a person you are unacquainted with”:

Sir.–The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name. This may seem extraordinary, but I assure you it is not uncommon here. Sometimes, indeed, one unknown person brings another equally unknown to recommend him; and sometimes they recommend one another! As to this gentleman, I must refer you to himself for his character and merits, with which he is certainly better acquainted than I can possibly be; I recommend him however to those civilities which every stranger, of whom one knows no harm, has a right to, and I request you will do him all the good offices and show him all the favour that, on acquaintance, you shall find him to deserve. I have the honour to be, &c.

See Backhanded Letters of Reference.

PG Profanity

In October 1921, Rep. Thomas L. Blanton (D-Texas) was nearly expelled from the House of Representatives for inserting “grossly indecent and obscene language” into the Congressional Record.

Blanton opposed unions; he was quoting an argument between a union and a non-union printer. The offensive passage was called “foul,” “disgusting” and “derogatory to the dignity” of the House; the New York Times reported that it “contained matter so indecent as to cause criminal prosecution if it had gone through the mails in an ordinary way.” Brace yourself — here it is:

G__d D___n your black heart, you ought to have it torn out of you, you u____ s_____ of a b_____. You and the Public Printer has no sense. You k_____ his a____ and he is a d_____d fool for letting you do it.

The expurgations are in the original.

Blanton kept his seat but was censured unanimously by his colleagues. “In the corridor he fell exhausted, striking his head on the marble floor. He rested a few minutes on a couch, refused medical aid, and shuffled to his office, tears running down his face as he forced his way between spectators and members who were leaving the session.”

Stepping Down

In certain professions there is no shortage of new applicants but, on the contrary, many people who are waiting to enter …; half of the people currently employed are below average, and for each of them leaving their job would not cause enormous hardship. … [Therefore] Half of the people should each consider giving up their place for such a newcomer. … If I am correct, a great many people have a substantial moral and personal reason to retire, even if it were thought too morally demanding to expect them to do so. To put it bluntly: for a great many people, the best professional action that they can currently take is to leave their profession.

— Saul Smilansky, Ten Moral Paradoxes, 2007