True Ghost Stories

Life is full of ghost stories that turn out to be true

As a child, I loved ghost stories. I still do, but I particularly appreciate those that turn out to be explicable. One of my favorites is of the Fire Dog of Asu, which was related in George Plimpton’s outstanding edited collection of narratives by members of the Explorer’s Club.

The story of the Fire Dog is related by an exploration team who investigated the legend among some Pacific Islanders of a terrifying, bloodthirsty gigantic dog that roamed through the jungle and glowed in the dark. Shortly before the arrival of the team on the island, a man died of a heart attack, apparently due to terror caused by the fire dog. (Yes, this all sounds eerily like The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the Fire Dog of Asu is a non-fiction story).

The team of explorers investigates the part of the jungle where the beast is rumored to live. As night is falling they arrive at a beach. Here they find a cave in which they hear the snuffling and growling of a large animal. They feel paralyzed with fear as a glowing beast emerges from the gloom, charging straight at them. Continue reading “True Ghost Stories”

Friday Quiz

It is not a Rorschach ink blot, nor does it require a subjective interpretation. But what is it? A year’s free subscription to RBC for the first right answer.


UPDATE AT 6:35AM PACIFIC: No right answers so far. Here is a hint: It’s related to politics.
UPDATE AT 2:46PM PACIFIC: Many good guesses, but so far not the right one. Here is a second hint: Turned to the right.

One of Richard Nixon’s Many Faults

Nixon even cheated at bowling

Megan McArdle related a funny Richard Nixon story last week, concerning his creation of a White House Palace Guard. The palace guard episode is silly at any level and also reveals something of Nixon’s character. Let me start off your August weekend with a similar anecdote.

BowlingIf you tunnel deep down under The West Wing, you will find a maze of poorly lit, unpainted hallways with exposed pipes and wires (no OSHA rules apply underneath The White House, apparently). If you stumble about the labyrinth for awhile you will come to a nondescript door that, quite surprisingly, opens onto a two-lane bowling alley which was built for President Truman.

Here I am showing fantastic form therein. I bowled 300. It took me about 50 frames, but I did it. I can’t bowl at all really. But I am very good at looking like I know what I am doing when in fact I don’t — an essential Washington D.C. survival skill.

Anyhoo, almost every President since Truman has gone down at least once to the White House bowling alley and posed for a photo, bowling ball in hand. Most never return. But Richard Nixon actually liked to bowl and did so frequently. Study his left foot in the photo below and ask yourself: “Was there anything at which this guy wouldn’t cheat?”


The OED as (literally) the first wiki?

As noted by the Senior Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, there’s been some consternation recently about the inclusion of a figurative interpretation of ‘literally’ to the list of acceptable definitions of the word.

What may surprise [people] is to find that th[e figurative] usage is much older than you would think. While it is true that it has become increasingly common in modern usage, it was actually first included in the OED in 1903. When the entry was updated and published online in September 2011, we found even earlier examples of this usage – our earliest example is currently from 1769…

I’m no lexicographer, nor am I a philologist by any stretch of the imagination. My knowledge of the terms ‘prescriptivist’ and ‘descriptivist’ just about exhausts my familiarity with the field.

Simon Winchester’s history of the OED did, however, make me think that inclusion of the figurative interpretation of ‘literally’ may in fact have been well overdue. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to squeeze it in as (perhaps your final) summer read.* I won’t regurgitate the history, as much of the material can be found in condensed form at Wikipedia, or in far more entertaining and engaging form from the book itself. I’ll draw attention to just one aspect of the story: the Dictionary project emerged after a series of lectures that were delivered to the newly formed Philological Society convinced its members of the inadequacy of previous efforts (notable examples including Dr. Johnson’s). If the task was to succeed, the lectures argued, the English Dictionary would need to jettison the approach of having a committee decide on the correct usage of words by central diktat. While such an approach might have worked for languages like French or Italian, for which the rules and vocabulary were more rigid, the “mongrel” nature of English required a different approach altogether. Instead, an English Dictionary necessitated soliciting English speakers for suggestions of how words have been used, rather than how they ought to be used.

The Philological Society lectures argued that because English is such a mish-mash of different rules and practices, any lexicographer assembling an English dictionary would be forced to apply only the very lightest touch in providing guidance. Indeed, this is reflected in Ms. McPherson’s post. Back to her:

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that people often have strong opinions about “new” senses of words. Perhaps the question is not so much why do people have a problem with literally but rather why do lexicographers not have a problem? It comes down to that oft-spoke mantra – language changes. Our job is to document that for better or for worse. Except for us, there is no worse. We have to look at language objectively and dispassionately. Of course, part of our job is to give guidance on what might be acceptable when. That is why we label some words as slang and why we give a usage note at the offending sense of literally, making clear that although it is very common, it is considered irregular in standard English.

We’ve known for a long time what is meant when someone says “I literally can’t take any more.” It’s perfectly regular and comprehensible, and objection to its use is really just the same kind of snobbery as quibbling over whether ‘data’ is singular or plural. The answer: yes, technically, ‘data’ is a plural word, but if you want to treat it as such, you’re probably being a hypocrite in the way you use many other words. So you’re best off just sticking with what comes naturally (i.e., the singular). Moreover, as McPherson notes, the greatest harm (if any) is that a figurative use of ‘literally’ is pleonastic. All of this is just another way of saying that language use in English generally resorts to conventions rather than rules set out by lexicographers. The originators of the OED at the Philological Society have been vindicated, it seems.

In addition to being one of the most impressive and inspiring projects of which I know, the OED also strikes me as a model for one of the first ‘open-source’ data collection projects. With its practise of soliciting input on word usage from word users throughout the world, I wonder how much precedent can be found in the history of the OED in the formation of Wikipedia.

*By which I mean Winchester’s book. Then again, if you want to read the OED, …I suppose some people do that for fun.


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Language police inquiry

Before we even get to our big question, we need to clear preliminary underbrush aside.  English does not really have a word for the small room furnished with a water closet (incorrectly called a toilet, a word that properly denotes not an object but the process or activity involving a hairbrush, innumerable lotions and unctions, a dressing gown, a mirror, and the like) and lavatory (semi-correctly called a washbasin and incorrectly called a sink).  Perhaps because there is no possible way to bathe in it, we call it a bathroom or even more strangely, a bath.   Other languages known to me are awash in similar fogs of euphemism and indirection here.   Spanish-speaking countries often have these marked for caballeros (but I have never seen a hitching rail), and none for peatóns.

One way or another, we get to it, and find equipment for one person at a time, marked graphically or verbally for either men or women.  Why?  what modesty is offended by using one of these, alone, after someone of the opposite sex has done so, modesty that does not demand hotel rooms be so segregated?  Why should someone be standing around waiting for the one on the left when the other is empty? But this is not a language question.

We may also find a sign that reads Unisex. Ah, and now we come to my question:  why is a uniperson, disex (or multigender) bathroom, labelled with a madeup word that is wrong both ways, with no fastidious or euphemistic result?

Update 13/VIII/13: anyone who reads this far (and I’m humbled by seeing more than 30 comments!) deserves more and better lunacy.  So with the thinnest possible connection, I nominate (i) Jonathan Miller’s immortal bit (by the way, the complete BtF is here, woo hoo!) and (ii) a Wikipedia article I never in my wildest fevered dreams imagined could exist, let alone extend beyond about fifty words.

It is a wondrous world, in so many ways