An Odd Word
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In E.M. Forster’s 1907 novel The Longest Journey, the description of the country estate Cadover contains a surprising term:

The lawn ended in a Ha-ha (‘Ha! ha! who shall regard it?’), and thence the bare land sloped down into the village.

A ha-ha is indeed the term for a sort of buried wall adjoined by a sloping ditch — it will keep deer out of your garden without blocking the view. But how it came by that name seems uncertain. Possibly it’s a shortened form of “half and half” (half wall, half ditch), and possibly it’s named for the cries of its observers — the earliest usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is John James’ 1712 translation of Antoine-Joseph Dézallier d’Argenville’s Theory and Practice of Gardening — he refers to “a large and deep Ditch at the Foot.., which surprizes..and makes one cry, Ah! Ah! from whence it takes its Name.”

In Terry Pratchett’s novel Men at Arms, a ha-ha is accidentally specified to be 50 feet deep. The result is called a hoho, and it claims the lives of three gardeners. In Snuff, two characters go for a walk in the countryside and “navigate their way around the ha-ha, keep their distance from the ho-ho and completely ignore the he-he.”

Moving Words

In October 1996, Parade magazine published the results of a vanity license plate contest that received more than 7,000 entries. Here are the 10 winning plates:

  2. RUD14ME?
  5. IM12XL
  6. ULIV1S
  7. AXN28D+
  8. VAN GO
  9. H2OUUP-2
  10. TI-3VOM

What are their meanings?

Click for Answer

Bending the Rules

New York zoning rules limit the height of skyscrapers, so Oiio Studio has proposed an innovative solution: Bend the building into a horseshoe. Designer Ioannis Oikonomou’s “Big Bend” building would be the “longest” building in the world, at 4,000 feet, but it would stand only 200 feet taller than One World Trade Center, currently the city’s tallest building.

“If we manage to bend our structure instead of bending the zoning rules of New York we would be able to create one of the most prestigious buildings in Manhattan,” the firm says in its building proposal. “The Big Bend can become a modest architectural solution to the height limitations of Manhattan.”

Whether that can be done remains to be seen. The project remains in the proposal stage.

For What It’s Worth

In 1882 Anton Chekhov published eight “Questions Posed by a Mad Mathematician.” Here are the first three:

  1. I was chased by 30 dogs, 7 of which were white, 8 gray, and the rest black. Which of my legs was bitten, the right or the left?
  2. Ptolemy was born in the year 223 A.D. and died after reaching the age of eighty-four. Half his life he spent traveling, and a third, having fun. What is the price of a pound of nails, and was Ptolemy married?
  3. On New Year’s Eve, 200 people were thrown out of the Bolshoi Theater’s costume ball for brawling. If the brawlers numbered 200, then what was the number of guests who were drunk, slightly drunk, swearing, and those trying but not managing to brawl?

The full list appears in The Undiscovered Chekhov, translated by Peter Constantine (1998). No answers are provided.


At the 1961 Solvay conference on physics, Abdus Salam overheard this conversation between Richard Feynman and Paul Dirac:

Feynman extended his hand towards Dirac and said: ‘I am Feynman.’ It was clear from his tone that it was the first time they were meeting. Dirac extended his hand and said: ‘I am Dirac.’ There was silence, which from Feynman was rather remarkable. Then Feynman, like a schoolboy in the presence of a Master, said to Dirac: ‘It must have felt good to have invented that equation.’ And Dirac said: ‘But that was a long time ago.’ Silence again. To break this, Dirac asked Feynman: ‘What are you yourself working on?’ Feynman said: ‘Meson theories’ and Dirac said: ‘Are you trying to invent a similar equation?’ Feynman said: ‘That would be very difficult.’ And Dirac, in an anxious voice, said: ‘But one must try.’

“At that point the conversation finished because the meeting had started.”

(Abdus Salam, “Physics and the Excellences of the Life It Brings,” in Ideals and Realities: Selected Essays of Abdus Salam, 1987.)

Podcast Episode 306: The Inventor Who Disappeared,_1880s.jpg

In 1890, French inventor Louis Le Prince vanished just as he was preparing to debut his early motion pictures. He was never seen again. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the possible causes of Le Prince’s disappearance and his place in the history of cinema.

We’ll also reflect on a murderous lawyer and puzzle over the vagaries of snake milking.

See full show notes …

All Aboard
Image: Chemistry Blog

This is brilliant: University of Hull chemist Mark Lorch has combined the periodic table with London’s classic Tube map to create an Underground Map of the Elements.

“My son loves trains. So I came up with a train related twist to an inspection of the periodic table. We sat and cut up a copy of the table and then rearranged each element as a ‘station’ on an underground rail system. Each line represents a characteristic shared by the elements on that line.”

More details at the Guardian and at Chemistry Blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Henry Irving, actor-manager at the West End’s Lyceum Theatre, was powerful, imperious, self-absorbed, and manipulative — qualities that made a fateful impression on his theater’s business manager, Bram Stoker. University of California historian Louis S. Warren writes:

Scholars have long agreed that keys to the Dracula tale’s origin and meaning lie in the manager’s relationship with Irving in the 1880s. … There is virtual unanimity on the point that the figure of Dracula — which Stoker began to write notes for in 1890 — was inspired by Henry Irving himself. … Stoker’s numerous descriptions of Irving correspond so closely to his rendering of the fictional count that contemporaries commented on the resemblance. … But Bram Stoker also internalized the fear and animosity his employer inspired in him, making them the foundations of his gothic fiction.

The two worked together for 28 years. Warren writes, “Understandably, Stoker felt most secure when Irving took an interest in him personally, as he did in the early 1880s; and he became anxious and jealous when Irving turned his gaze to other men, as he did by 1885.”

One contemporary wrote, “To Bram, Irving is as a god, and can do no wrong.”

(Louis S. Warren, “Buffalo Bill Meets Dracula: William F. Cody, Bram Stoker, and the Frontiers of Racial Decay,” American Historical Review 107:4 [October 2002], 1124–1157.)