A New Word

In 1940 H.L. Mencken received a letter from a woman who called herself Georgia Southern. She said her profession was known as strip teasing, and she wondered whether Mencken could provide “a new and more palatable word to describe this art.” He wrote back:

It might be a good idea to relate strip teasing in some way or other to the associated zoological phenomenon of molting. Thus the word moltician comes to mind, but it must be rejected because of its likeness to mortician.

A resort to the scientific name for molting, which is ecdysis, produces both ecdysist and ecdysiast. Then there are suggestions in the names of some of the creatures which practice molting. The scientific name for the common crab is Callinectes hastatus, which produces callinectian. Again there is a family of lizards called the Geckonidae, and their name produces gecko.

She went with ecdysiast. Mencken notes that the popular press consulted scholars S.I. Hayakawa, who “seemingly demurred on the incredible ground that he had never seen a strip teaser in action,” and Stuart Chase, who made no reply, “so I won by a sort of forfeit.” The British correspondent for United Press cabled the new word to England, where it was briefly hoped that it might open the way to lifting a ban on strip teasing; that went nowhere, but “the inevitable Association of Ecdysiasts soon appeared in the United States.”

(“Euphemisms,” from Mencken’s The American Language, 1947.)

Podcast Episode 284: The Red Barn


When Maria Marten disappeared from the English village of Polstead in 1827, her lover said that they had married and were living on the Isle of Wight. But Maria’s stepmother began having disturbing dreams that hinted at a much grimmer fate. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Red Barn, which transfixed Britain in the early 19th century.

We’ll also encounter an unfortunate copycat and puzzle over some curious births.

See full show notes …

Sure Enough


Another time-lengthening effect, the ‘watched-pot’ phenomenon, has been studied by Richard A. Block. Actually using the old adage ‘a watched pot never boils’ as the impetus for his experiments, Block tested the subjective time experiences of observers watching a pot of water as it was heated slowly to the boiling point. One group of subjects, told that they would subsequently be asked for a time estimate, attended carefully to the passage of time. They felt that the time interval was long. A second group, instructed that the experiment involved visual perception, attended to time less carefully and therefore estimated the duration to be shorter. One of Block’s conclusions is that attention to time has a strong influence on perceived length.

— Jonathan D. Kramer, The Time of Music, 1988

(Richard A. Block, Edward J. George, and Marjorie A. Reed, “A Watched Pot Sometimes Boils: A Study of Duration Experience,” Acta Psychologica 46:2 [1980], 81-94.)

Gold and Dross


It is in this vein that I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against the attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of sf is crud. The Revelation:

Ninety percent of everything is crud.

Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.

Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.

— Theodore Sturgeon, “On Hand: A Book,” 1958

(In a 1953 speech he’d said, “When people talk about the mystery novel, they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it ‘that Buck Rogers stuff.'”)

A Reckoning

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” the narrator declares that “Holmes seldom laughed, but he got as near it as his old friend Watson could remember.”

Is that so? In 1960, Charles E. Lauterbach and Edward S. Lauterbach compiled this “Frequency Table Showing the Number and Kind of Responses Sherlock Holmes Made to Humourous Situations and Comments in His 60 Recorded Adventures”:

Smile 103
Laugh 65
Joke 58
Chuckle 31
Humor 10
Amusement 9
Cheer 7
Delight 7
Twinkle 7
Miscellaneous 19
Total 316

In a 1964 issue of the Sherlock Holmes Journal, A.G. Cooper claimed to have counted 292 instances of Holmes’ laughter. The Lauterbachs suggest that Watson may have been deaf.

(Charles E. Lauterbach and Edward S. Lauterbach, “The Man Who Seldom Laughed,” Baker Street Journal Christmas Annual 1960, 265–271.)

A Lofty Honor

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The names of 72 French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are engraved on the Eiffel Tower, under the first balcony, in letters about 60 cm high:

Petiet • Daguerre • Wurtz • Le Verrier • Perdonnet • Delambre • Malus • Breguet • Polonceau • Dumas • Clapeyron • Borda • Fourier • Bichat • Sauvage • Pelouze • Carnot • Lamé • Cauchy • Belgrand • Regnault • Fresnel • De Prony • Vicat • Ebelmen • Coulomb • Poinsot • Foucault • Delaunay • Morin • Haüy • Combes • Thénard • Arago • Poisson • Monge • Jamin • Gay-Lussac • Fizeau • Schneider • Le Chatelier • Berthier • Barral • De Dion • Goüin • Jousselin • Broca • Becquerel • Coriolis • Cail • Triger • Giffard • Perrier • Sturm • Seguin • Lalande • Tresca • Poncelet • Bresse • Lagrange • Belanger • Cuvier • Laplace • Dulong • Chasles • Lavoisier • Ampère • Chevreul • Flachat • Navier • Legendre • Chaptal

Gustave Eiffel added the names when artists had protested against the tower on aesthetic grounds. But the choice of the honorees is itself open to criticism: None of the 72 are women, and none has a name longer than 12 letters.

Water Music

The hydraulophone is a “woodwater” instrument: By fingering holes, the player stops the flow of of a fluid, but in this case the fluid is water. (The actual sound-producing mechanism can vary.)

Because the spray can obscure the finger holes, they’re sometimes marked in Braille, and the whole instrument can be built into a hot tub for use in cold weather.

Etna’s Rings

Periodically Mount Etna emits rings of steam and ash. Not much is known as to how they form — perhaps a vent has assumed a particularly circular shape, so that emitted gas forms vortex rings — but they can be hundreds of feet wide.

Naturalist filmmaker Geoff Mackley captured these in June 2000, but they’ve recurred as recently as 2013.

Ghosts in Color


From Reddit: Stare at the red dot on this woman’s nose for 30 seconds, then look at a white wall and blink.

Erasmus Darwin, 1786:

I was surprised, and agreeably amused, with the following experiment. I covered a paper about four inches square with yellow, and with a pen filled with a blue colour wrote upon the middle of it the word BANKS in capitals, and sitting with my back to the sun, fixed my eyes for a minute exactly on the centre of the letter N in the middle of the word; after closing my eyes, and shading them somewhat with my hand, the word was distinctly seen in the spectrum in yellow letters on a blue field; and then, on opening my eyes on a yellowish wall at twenty feet distance, the magnified name of BANKS appeared written on the wall in golden characters.