Tuesday, November 9, 2010

They were positive about him being a crook, however

Today is the 92nd birthday of Spiro Agnew, 39th Vice President of the U. S. (he died in 1996), who served under Richard Nixon and who delivered one of the great (and most alliterative) epithets ever, when he referred to members of the media as "nattering nabobs of negativity."

In October of 1973 Agnew was forced to resign as Vice President after being charged with accepting bribes of more than $100,000 while governor of Maryland and also Vice President.

"Spiro Agnew" is an anagram of "prison wage."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Scrabble in Music City, and that starts with S

Big Scrabble tournament in Musical City last weekend. There were six of us "experts" in the top division. I won the division. In my most interesting game I led off with ANTEFIX for 100 points. My opponent was stunned, of course, but then he went to town adorning the word, first hooking it with an A (ANTEFIXA) and then hooking that with an E (ANTEFIXAE), scoring 40 or so on each play. Meanwhile I was busy elsewhere, following up my opening play with IODOPHOR and then RECURVES, all without the benefit of a blank. I had 247 points after three turns. I added another late bingo, and if it hadn't been for a little lull when I was saddled with a surfeit of vowels I would have scored over 600. I had 542.

Dumb word of the day (mainly because I challenged it and lost): toileted. The Scrabble dictionary says this the past tense of the verb toilet. Merriam-Webster does not count toilet as a verb, but since when has that ever deterred the intrepid adventurers responsible for the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary?

The litmus test for including a word in the OSPD, to my way of thinking, ought to be this: Has anyone in the history of spoken English ever uttered the word?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Scrabble in Music City, and that starts with S

Big Scrabble tournament in Musical City yesterday. There were six of us "experts" in the top division. I finished second. In my most interesting game I led off with ANTEFIX for 100 points. My opponent was stunned, of course, but then he went to town adorning the word, first hooking it with an A (ANTEFIXA) and then hooking that with an E (ANTEFIXAE), scoring 40 or so on each play. Meanwhile I was busy elsewhere, following up my opening play with IODOPHOR and then RECURVES, all without the benefit of a blank. I had 247 points after three turns. I added another late bingo, and if it hadn't been for a little lull when I was saddled with a surfeit of vowels I would have scored over 600. I had 542.

Dumb word of the day (mainly because I challenged it and lost): toileted. The Scrabble dictionary says this the past tense of the verb toilet. Merriam-Webster does not count toilet as a verb, but since when has that ever deterred the intrepid adventurers responsible for the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary?

The litmus test for including a word in the OSPD, to my way of thinking, ought to be this: Has anyone in the history of spoken English ever uttered the word?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How the Grunch stole driving

Every hick down in Hickville liked driving a lot,
But the Grunch, who lived north of Hickville,
Did not!
The Grunch hated autos, and people who ran them;
If he'd had his way, the government would ban them!
It could be that his head was screwed on the wrong way;
It could be, perhaps, that he just had a sleigh.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
Was the Grunch, being Arab, didn't want to play ball

(Grunch: proper noun, a portmanteau word composed of gas and crunch)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Born in Bath (or "sanitizing water")

Today is the birthdate of Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), the English physician immortalized by the verb bowdlerize, which means to censor something, often in a schoolmarmish manner.

Bowdler published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work, edited by his sister Harriet, intended to be more appropriate for 19th-century women and children than the original. He similarly published an edited version of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

These were widely ridiculed, although they did have the effect of bringing Shakespeare to new audiences.The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne said, in fact: "More nauseous and foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children."

An example of Bowdler's modus operandi:  In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's famous cry "Out, damned spot!" was changed to "Out, crimson spot!"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Any portmanteau in a storm

On July 4, 1865, Alice in Wonderland was first published.

In the book, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that the word “slithy” in the poem Jabberwocky is a "portmanteau" word – a cross between “slimy” and “lithe.”

He also points out that the word “mimsy” in the same poem is another portmanteau word, a cross between “miserable” and “flimsy.”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cynic pothers

My neighbor starts shooting off fireworks about a week before the Fourth (and also prior to New Year’s) every year. This might be endearing if he weren’t now at least 22 years old, and if his fireworks were at all interesting instead of the inevitable cherry bombs and firecrackers—mere noisemakers.

I’m not disgusted, to paraphrase P. G. Wodehouse, but I’m far from gusted.

Interestingly enough, pyrotechnics is an anagram of cretin psycho (and also chronic types. And the title of this entry).

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A heads-up to the baggage handlers

“60 severed heads were discovered on a Southwest Airlines flight to Fort Worth, Texas.” -- Harper’s Magazine.

Today's Perverse Verse:

Were they all in one trunk?
Don’t you think it would flunk
Pre-boarding inspection?
Did Economy section
Lose their heads when they learned
That these riders had earned
Discounts that were moreso?
(Flying without torso.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

He didn't hit a homerun as far as everyone is concerned

Today is the birth date of Abner Doubleday (born 1819), the purported inventor of baseball.

Abner Doubleday is an anagram of bored and blue, ay?

Today's ghost word: abnermal, adj. Exceedingly boring, tedious, slow and overblown.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Just as the clock was striking thirteen

George Orwell was born on this day in 1903. Because of his novels 1984 and Animal Farm and other works, his name became an adjective (Orwellian) describing a state of society antithetical and inimical to freedom, and buttressed by the misuse of language.

In 1984 Orwell invented an ultra-fascist state which kept an iron grip on the reins of language. WAR IS PEACE is one of it slogans.

Orwell also invented the terms doublespeak and doublethink. Today, some of the most successful politicians are those who have mastered both of those arts.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell said.

The use of the word "fascist" itself is an example of how language can corrupt political thought. Those who label Barack Obama a fascist are surely igorant of the real conditions of a fascist state.

"It would seem that, as used, the word 'Fascism' is almost entirely meaningless," Orwell wrote. "In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, youth hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I don't know what else."

For more about Orwell

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Quackle snap pop

Quackle is the name of a Scrabble software program that allows you to play against a computer. The other day is scored 320 points against Quackle with "FANZINES," an idiotic word recently added to the Scrabble dictionary. Today Quackle retaliated with "WHEEZING" against me for 356 points. Still, I won't duck Quackle, ever.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Collectively speaking

Comedian George Carlin died on this day in 2008.  Carlin, who called himself a "cunning linguist," loved words and all the ways we use and misuse and dance around them. A lot of his jokes were about how inadequate words could be.  "What's the plural of hell of a guy?" he asked. "Would it be hells of guys?" 

How about hellows?  Not great, but we'll try to do better with these suggestions for collective nouns, in Carlin's honor:

A slew of gladiators
A herd of sounds
An order of skunks
A brood of beers
A band of books
A drove of cars
A knot of zeroes
A muster of hotdogs
A rash of diapers
A horde of prostitutes

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My meal ticket

Thinking of starting a new business, offering specialty placemats for diners and cafeterias. They would feature pithy quotations, riddles, jokes, et al.

The name: Place Mots.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Just banning "Trees" would have saved a million trees

Kay Ryan was named poet laureate of the United States. "I might take it upon myself," she said, "to prevent all bad poetry from being published."

She's a poet,
And boy, does she know it.
Just because she's the Laureate,
She feels entitled to excoriate
The poetasters among us?
As if we were fungus,
To be scraped away.
But how can she say
What's superior in verse
Without preserving what's worse

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dickens, as dead as a door-nail, still lives

Charles Dickens died on this day in 1870.

He gave his name to idioms in this vein -- A "dickens" of a time, the "dickens" you say, what the "dickens," et al.

Dickens also created many characters whose names have entered the lexicon, or instantly suggest an image of a certain type of person -- Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Micawber, Pickwick, Fagin.

Some characters, only Dickens could have named: Sweedlepipe, Honeythunder, Bumble, Pumblechook, M'Choakumchild, Podsnap, Gradgrind.

The word Dickensian, of course, conjures up a whole slew of images.

One scientist of onomastics (the study of names) has declared that Dickens created 989 distinct characters, which inspires us to coin a word of our own to describe this fastidious scholar:


For more about Dickens, visit Farewells, June 9

Monday, June 7, 2010

Noisy Parker

Writer and wit Dorothy Parker died on this day in 1967. She was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers, journalists, raconteurs and general idlers and time wasters that regularly met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City to drink and insult everyone including each other, and to exchange the barbs and one-liners they'd saved up for the occasion.

Parker was probably the most talented of the group. She wrote several short stories that have stood the test of time, notably "Big Blonde," and her poems ("Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.") are still quoted.

She apparently coined the phrases "what the hell," "one-night stand," and "ball of fire."

"Maybe it is only I," Parker wrote, "but conditions are such these days, that if you use studiously correct grammar, people suspect you of homosexual tendencies."

For more about Dorothy Parker, visit Today in Farewells

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Bentley of an insult

Today is the birthday of George III of England, born in 1738.

George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder

-- Edmund Clerihew Bentley

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Of cribbages and kings

Sir John Suckling, the English Cavalier poet, died on this day in 1842. He invented the game -- and apparently the word -- cribbage.

I met a lady last year who played in a cribbage group every week. Each time she left home to attend, her husband would ask her:

"Going to play that cabbage game again?"

Sunday, May 30, 2010

More Tom Swifties

"You just don't turn me on," Tom said limply.

"You just think I'm a cow or something?" she asked moodily.

"No, I just don't much care for small, sharp breasts," Tom said pointedly.

"Maybe I should wear falsies," she said flatly.

"Here, put on this mink bra," Tom said furtively.

"OK. Well, my lovely, that seems to have done the trick," she said gruesomely.

"I think you're right," Tom said firmly.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


French novelist Honore de Balzac was born on this day in 1799.

Here is how a contemporary decribed him:

"A fat little flabby person with the face of a baker, the clothes of a cobbler, the size of a barrelmaker, the manners of a stocking salesman, and the dress of an innkeeper."

Balzac coined the word bricabracologie, meaning the hobby or practice of collecting knickknacks, or bric-a-bracs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Not for all the tea in China can anyone prove...

Philosopher Bertrand Russell was born on this day in 1872.

Russell coined an analogy about a Celestial Teapot. It was in answer to those who said that the burden of proof lies upon the sceptic to disprove unfalsifiable claims of religions.

Russell wrote:

"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

"But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

"If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

Today's ghost word: crackteapot, n. One who believes steadfastly in the existence of something despite evidence that is flimsy as a teabag.

For more about Russell, visit Today in Cynic's Almanac

Friday, May 14, 2010

A be-night-ed expression

Having seen the annoying "at the end of the day..." already attain the status of a cliche in its relatively short existence, we were wondering: Why its popularity?

We're guessing it's because it sounds metaphorical and lends a touch of color to an otherwise drab pronouncement ("At the end of the day, I had to think about what's right for my family and I.").

But as poetry we feel it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi. In the first place, what does it mean, exactly? Is the end of the day at nightfall? Then what about the night? Or is the end of the day when one goes to bed?

And what about the next day? Do you have to reassess the previous day's events and come to a conclusion again at the end of that day?

All in all, it's pretty unsatisfactory, as sayings go.

What was wrong with "When all is said and done," or even "All things considered?" These are perfectly serviceable expressions and not ones that someone reaches for to make himself sound eloquent, as if he'd just invented a novel turn of phrase.

These are my thoughts on the matter -- at the end of the day.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Tom Swifties, part 1

"That big fat baseball player died," she said ruthlessly.

"Well, he did like his hotdogs," Tom said frankly.

"He must have loved his desserts, too," she said piously.

"They're burying him tomorrow," Tom said gravely.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Borne back into the present

May 5 is a palindromic date (5.05) -- one that is the same backward as forward.

There is no tome
That's a palindrome,
Nor scarcely a paragraph, I believe;
The form is plain,
As: when the first swain
Said "MADAM, I'M ADAM" to EVE.

Monday, May 3, 2010

If you frankly give a damn

On this day in 1937, Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize.

"Gone with the wind" is a phrase synonymous with one of the most beautiful of words, ephemeral (from the Greek epi, meaning around or about, and hemera, "a day"), and one of the ugliest, fugacious (derived from the Latin fugax, meaning ready to flee or fly).

For more about Gone With the Wind, Go here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nessie was tartled

On this day in 1933, the first rumor of the Loch Ness Monster went abroad. (For more information, Go here.)

Today's Word of the Day:

Tartle, (Scottish; verb): to hesitate in recognizing a person or thing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A word worth keeping

Poet William Wordsworth was born on this day in 1770. Wordsworth was said to have coined the word pedestrian, the noun meaning someone going on foot. That could be, however, just another of the pedantries (anagram of pedestrian) of certain word scholars.

Pedestrian comes from the Latin pedester, going on foot (from pedes, foot).

Has A PRESIDENT (another anagram of pedestrian) ever been a pedestrian of note? Our current one is pedestrian (adj.), to be sure -- meaning dull and mediocre -- but no modern Presidents have been walkers, to speak of, except maybe Eisenhower, who walked along golf courses.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The understudy is overstuffed

Those two words (understudy, overstuffed) are the only two I can come up with that have four consecutive letters of the alphabet (r, s, t, u) in consecutive order.

Any others?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gored by bull

Ghost word:

Algorism, n.: A statement, easily disproved, claiming credit for something.

Today is Al Gore's 62nd birthday. At one time or another, to some degree or another, the Nobel Prize-winner has said that he was instrumental in the creation of the Internet, and in coining the terms "nanotechnology" and "the Information Superhighway."

Wait around long enough, and Gore will claim he discovered global warming.

Anagram of the day:

Albert Arnold Gore = blander rot galore

This is also the 62nd birthday, by the way, of Rhea Perlman, who played Carla on Cheers. She coined a word of her own: Birdzilla, the oversized turkey that Norm stuck in her oven on Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Do you clerihew?

Edmund Clerihew Bentley died today in 1956. He invented the verse form named after him, the clerihew. Here is one of his famous ones:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium

Bentley's first collection of verse in this vein, Biography for Beginners, was published in 1905. The name clerihew was bestowed on the form soon after.

There are no rigid rules to creating a clerihew, but basically it should be a humorous quatrain about someone well-known, rhymed as two couplets with lines of unequal length. The name of the subject usually ends the first or second line.

Here are some clerihews by the Master:

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes;
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy

The meaning of the poet Gay
Was always as clear as day,
While that of the poet Blake
Was often practically opaque

I doubt if King John
Was a sine qua non.
I could rather imagine it
Of any other Plantagenet

Dante Alighieri
Seldom troubled a dairy.
He wrote the Inferno
On a bottle of Pernod

Nicholas Bentley followed in his father's footsteps with this admirable clerihew:

Cecil B. De Mille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of 'The Wars of the Roses'

Here’s my attempt:

The playwright Moliere
Could be quite a holy terror.
While telling audiences they were vile,
He had them rolling in the aisle

Monday, March 29, 2010


Ghost word (one that appears in the language for a time, but may just as quickly disappear):

Tipperware, n.: The means, methods, or technology of labeling items, in order to apprise consumers of the content within.

Originally applied to record albums, the systemology has since been extended to other categories of items, such as alcoholic spirits, tobacco and food.

On this day in 1990, record companies agreed to carry warning labels on the albums they produced. That innovation came about largely through the efforts of Mary Elizabeth "Tipper" Gore, wife of the future Nobel Prize winner.

As a teenager and college student back in the heyday of vinyl, I would certainly have appreciated warning labels on record albums. Buying one was often a hit-or-miss proposition, and a label along the lines of "Warning: There's only one decent song on this entire album -- the one you heard on the radio," or "Warning: There are some dirty words on this album but the music is so loud you can't understand them" would have been helpful.

I don't know why Tipper Gore didn't go after books, which can be just as seditious and corrupting as music.

Someone could have done an inestimable service to adolescents everywhere by labeling books. I remember spending a couple of feverish hours paging through my mom's copy of Lolita, searching for the titillating stuff. A label like "Warning: Kids should not expect to find any tawdry sex or filthy language in this book, as it is literature" would have saved me, and many others like me, I'm sure, a lot of disappointment.

And what about labels like this: "Warning: This book may induce headaches or extreme drowsiness in underage persons; read at your own risk." They might even have made our teachers think twice about administering too-heavy doses of the classics.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

It's a pleasure to present...

Today is the birthdate of author Flannery O'Connor. Here are some excerpts from her great short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

"A young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage..."

"She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus..."

"In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady."

"The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled."

"His jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe."

"Behind them the woods gaped like a dark open mouth."

"She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath."

"'Lady', the Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, 'there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.'"

And the last, stunning, musical line:

"'Shut up, Bobby Lee,' the Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life.'"

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Happy (and lucky) EASTER!

What is EASTER?

One of the best of all combinations of letters to have on your rack in Scrabble.

You can form all of these Scrabble-acceptable six-letter anagrams of EASTER: ARETES, EATERS, RESEAT, SEATER, TEASER.

EASTER is also an acceptable Scrabble word. It means a wind or a storm from the east.

You can also combine the letters in EASTER with 20 of the 25 other letters of the alphabet to make seven-letter words, or bingos, worth a bonus of 50 points. Using these 20 other letters, you can make a total of 49 seven-letter bingos.

The Scrabble word geeks who compute such things rate EASTER as the 10th-best (bingo-prone) six-letter combination of letters.