CRAIG CONLEY (Prof. Oddfellow) is recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation.” He has been called a “language fanatic” by Page Six gossip columnist Cindy Adams, a “cult hero” by Publisher’s Weekly, a “monk for the modern age” by George Parker, and “a true Renaissance man of the modern era, diving headfirst into comprehensive, open-minded study of realms obscured or merely obscure” by Clint Marsh. An eccentric scholar, Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time. He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan. His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size. Conley’s website is OneLetterWords.com.
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A Turkish Delight of musings on languages, deflations of metaphysics, vauntings of arcana, and great visual humor.

June 14, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Perfect Behavior, by Donald Ogden Stewart:

***

A bachelor, accompanied by a young unmarried woman, when stepping accidentally into an open coal or sewer hole in the sidewalk, removes his hat and gloves as inconspicuously as possible.

***

A young man, if run over by an automobile driven by a strange lady, should lie perfectly still (unless dead) until an introduction can be arranged; the person driving the car usually speaks first.

An unmarried woman, if run into and knocked down by a taxicab driven by someone in her own "set," usually says "Why the hell don't you look where you're going?" to which the taxi driver, removing his hat, replies "Why the hell don't YOU?"

***

In order to listen to music intelligently—or what is really much more important—in order to give the appearance of listening to music intelligently, it is necessary for the novice to master thoroughly two fundamental facts

The first, and most important of these, is that the letter "w" in Russian is pronounced like "v"; the second, that Rachmaninoff has a daughter at Vassar.

***

CORRECT BEHAVIOR AT A PIANO RECITAL

The same procedure is recommended for the piano or violin recital, with the possible addition of certain phrases such as "Yes—of course, she has technique—but, my dear, so has an electric piano." This remark gives you a splendid opportunity for sarcasm at the expense of Mr. Duo-Art and other manufacturers of mere mechanical perfection; the word "soul"—pronounced with deep feeling, as when repeating a fish order to a stupid waiter—may be introduced effectively several times.

***

[Bewitched dept.]

"On Monday next comes All-Hallows-Even,

My grandmother's maiden name was Stephens."

    or

"On Hallowe'en you may see a witch

If you don't look out, you funny fellow."

***

This invitation would of course be worded differently for different circumstances, such as, for example, if the name of the people giving the party wasn't Weems or if they didn't live at 1063 Railroad Ave., or if they didn't have any intention of giving a dinner party on that particular evening.

***

[New (old) evidence that this was a "thing"!:]

An elderly lady with a closed umbrella, for example, desiring to take a street car, should always stand directly under a large sign marked "Street Cars Do Not Stop On This Corner." As the car approaches she should run quickly out to the car tracks and signal violently to the motorman with the umbrella. As the car whizzes past without stopping she should cease signalling, remark "Well I'll be God damned!" and return to the curbstone.

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June 11, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From A Bit of a Do, by David Nobbs:

***

He was a tall, slim man with cool eyes, handsome in a rather theoretical way, like a drawing of a good-looking man.

***

[Re. a cheap suit]

He felt as if it had put him on in a great hurry.

***

His face had an immature, unformed look, as if it were waiting for his personality to be delivered.

***

[As a smarmy photographer takes wedding pictures]

"Relax!" said Nigel Thick. "Let it all hang out."

Laurence regarded this phrase with extreme distaste. He found it impossible to comply... but he did manage to make a bit of it almost hang out.

***

"You can't just say 'but' and walk off. It's unacceptable behaviour both socially and grammatically."

***

Aunt Gladys.... had found an artificial pearl in her portion of cake, and Liz had felt that her outrage was almost as much because it wasn't real as because it shouldn't have been there at all.

***

Eric's reply suggested that he did indeed, he anticipated no problem, indeed he seemed confident that it would be just the job, thoroughly tickety, and probably boo as well.

***

Ted wished he hadn't said "Neville!!!" with three exclamation marks. He knew, really, that there couldn't possibly be anything between Rita and Neville Badger or indeed anybody but especially somebody like Neville Badger which could justify one exclamation mark, let alone three!!

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June 7, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Corey Ford:

***

Cheerfulness was the word for the Vanity Fair offices, though the startled Mr. Nast, peering incredulously through the door, might have preferred the word lunacy. There were the Keene Twins, a pair of dancing sisters who had temporarily deserted musical comedy to work as file clerks. They kept themselves in shape for their profession by doing limbering and stretching exercises besides the water cooler, or pulling out all the top drawers of the files and dancing past the cabinets, kicking the drawers back in place one by one. Sometimes [editor] Crownie, an amateur magician, would call the staff together to demonstrate a new card trick, or vie with his friend John Mulholland at feats of legerdemain involving canaries or coins. Again, all production would be halted while the editor organized an office game of charades...

***

[On a friend named Alison Smith]

Her hands were always in motion, dipping and swerving to accent what she was saying. The only trouble was that the gesture never quite matched the subject. She would form a circle with a thumb and forefinger to illustrate the phrase "My mother..." or make a victory V as she said, "So I went upstairs..." or else remark, "Next summer we're going to Norway," and point vaguely in the direction of the door.

***

[William Faulkner, the first telecommuter?]

After staring blankly at the bare walls of his office for several days, he smuggled a message to Dave Selznick, asking if he might be permitted to work at home instead of coming to the office every day. A couple of weeks later, Selznick decided to confer with him about the progress of the script and phoned his hotel, to be informed that Faulkner had checked out some time previously. A search of all the lodging places in the Los Angeles area failed to disclose any trace. At last a frantic long-distance call located him back in Oxford, Mississippi.

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June 4, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From My Northern Exposure by Walter E. Traprock:
***
He looked as if he were about either to embalm a body or tune a piano.
***
Silhouetted against the sky I could see the curved feather in his cap, a minute question mark.
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May 31, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From a collection of pieces that appeared in the original Vanity Fair mag between the mid-teens and the mid-thirties:

***

The Little Blue Devil, at the Central, can be traced back through a maze of vulgarity (adv.) to an indistinct beginning in Clyde Fitch’s The Blue Mouse.

—Dorothy Parker, in a column of theatrical reviews

***

It is a good thing to know that someone is writing letters and, as a reward, receiving them. It makes you feel that all that is being taken care of, and so you can just sit back and take off those heavy shoes.

—Parker, in a piece about Alexander Woolcott

***

The chaps I should really like to vote for [in the magazine’s “Ten Dullest Authors” symposium] are the really first-class Sedatives who can fatigue you in a paragraph. You don’t have to plow through pages and pages to know whether they weary you or not. No: these fellows are considerate, they ring the gong instantly.

—Christopher Morley

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May 28, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Corey Ford's Three Rousing Cheers for the Rollo Boys:

***

"Where are your binoculars?"

"My bin-what-ulars?" asked Cap'n Tom with a wink, and all over the house people could be heard giggling and repeating "Bin-what-ulars!" under their breath, and several little girls had to be carried up the aisle in hysterics.

***

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May 24, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

***

The Soul.... became personified into a sort of sprite which peered out of its apartment at the material world.... The eyes were "the windows of the Soul," and when the Soul took a look at something especially pleasing the windows were supposed to "light up."

Modern science explains this lighting business as being due to natural causes, such as the appearance of a piece of French pastry....

***

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May 21, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Corey Ford's collected Rollo Boys:

***

"         !" went the baseball, as Tom's bat failed to connect with it, and the disconnected sphere sailed on toward Merriwell Hall.

***

"!" exclaimed Dr. Merriwell, examining the weapon. "Someone has put a silencer on the starting-gun."

***

The leader in the prow barked out a single word in Arabic: "&"

***

She advanced slowly down the garden path, her eyes radiant with youth and love, her arms filled with a bunch of fragrant asterisks which she had plucked from the good, rich dirt where they grew in profusion, the tips of their star-shaped petals suffused with a passionate pink glow and exuding at times an almost overpowering odour.

[Elsewhere, as I recall, we also have a night sky with asterisks.]

***

". . . ." she replied, and was gone. Phut!

***

And his mother's name was Quetch, if that makes it any funnier.

[And, paraphrasing, as I lost the place: someone does card tricks with matches.]

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May 17, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

In the light verse of Samuel Hoffenstein, I like some of his poem and section titles:

Songs to Break the Tedium of Riding a Bicycle, Seeing One's Friends, or Heartbreak

Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing

Notes for a Superfluous Poem

Songs of Faith in the Year After Next

Love Songs, at Once Tender and Informative--an Unusual Combination in Verses of This Character

Lyric, to Be Skipped by Those Who Do Not Care for This Sort of Thing

Come Weal, Come Woe, My Status Is Quo

'Tis I, Sir, Rhyming Rapidly

Well, Let's Include Them, Anyhow

Flies Without Ointment

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May 14, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Murder Comes Home, by Anthony Gilbert:

***

[An obvious one, but new to me.]

"Got as many ears as a field of corn, that woman."

***

[And a new-to-me twist on "moth balls"!]

"[That old coat] must have been used for moths' balls for years past"...

"Then the moths must have been holding a ball elsewhere yesterday.... Because that coat wasn't there last night."

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May 10, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Black Smith, by Constance and Gwenyth Little:

***

"Well, who does he think he is, with all that stuffing in his shirt? Nobody likes the men better than I do, but you can have that one--even on Sundays and holidays."

***

"Did you ever see such a bunch of dead ones, outside the morgue? They look nude, walkin' around without their coffins."

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May 7, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Death Wears a Mask, by Douglas G. Browne:

***

[The protagonist is playfully accusing his wife of being indiscreet with one of his secrets.]

"Delilah!" said Mr. Tuke to his wife. "Or do I mean someone else?"

***

"Many a time I've said to 'im, 'A rolling-pin don't gather no moss.'"

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May 3, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Black Curl, by Constance and Gwenyth Little:

***

One of the guests unexpectedly found this hilariously funny.... He collected the laughter.

[Like scooping up winnings after an unanticipated win in a poker hand, I guess?]

***

"He can have a watch fob made of it." She added almost immediately, "What /is/ a watch fob?"

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April 30, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Murder in the Bookstore, by Carolyn Wells:

***

Dr. Jamison, the Medical Examiner, was what the novelists call a strong, silent man. Two not indispensable traits for one of his calling, for his strength was seldom needed and his silence was frequently exceedingly annoying.

***

[Ooh la la!]

"As I sat there a few minutes waiting, I noticed it was twenty past ten. I shouldn't have noticed, probably, but there was a little clock on the table that had a quick, saucy little tick. I felt sure it was a French clock and I looked at it with admiration, it was such a pretty little piece of property."

#vintage illustration
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April 26, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Ghost of a Chance, by Kelley Roos:

***

[Apple-Munching dept.]

"You know, that I solved six murders which baffled the best police minds in the city, solved them singlehanded while simultaneously practicing my hobby of earning a living being a photographer, whipping up exotic curries in my streamlined kitchen and munching an apple."

***

"What do you know?" he inquired.

"Not much," Jeff said.

The man shoved his hat back on his head and a smug look spread over his face.... "Twenty years," he said, "I been asking people what they know. Always get one of two answers. 'Not much' or 'You're drunk.'"

***

The bartender at the Belfast smiled a pleased welcome at us. He seemed to have won a bet with himself that we would be back again that evening.

***

[Rhetorical Questions Answered?]

"Why don't you mind your own business?"

"My business hours don't start until nine-thirty," Jeff said.

***

I threw myself into my part. I was Miss Somebody from Someplace, New Jersey, in town for a day's shopping.

***

"That's me, in a nutshell."

"Move over," May said, "and I'll get in the nutshell with you."

"You get a nutshell of your own."

***

"And, personally, in weather like this I don't blame the line for being down. If I were a line, I should be down, too."

***

In the center of the small room stood a fat-bellied coal stove. It was unlighted, cold, and black, but two men and an elderly woman had crowded around it, as if to get some warmth from its reputation.

***

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April 23, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Dead Man's Watch, by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole:

***

[Witty Typography dept. (i.e., the final use of all-caps in the excerpt).]

Next door but one to the post office stood one of those forlorn confectioners, with three or four plates of dismal buns and a notice, DEVONSHIRE TEAS. CREAM SENT TO ANY PART OF THE WORLD, of the kind with which wayside villagers make optimistic bids to stay the speeding stream of cars. In it were two rickety tables with vases of paper flowers, at one of which a non-descript man was facing a DEVONSHIRE TEA.

***

"Nice little tin Lizzie he's got, I don't think," said the girl. "Must pay being a whatever-is-it*."

[*Police doctor.]

***

[For those keeping score: I believe this is our second generic reference to "uncles" within the week.]

"Bittaford, when you were living with your Uncle Percy, had he got a beard?"

"No, of course he hadn't," said Ronald, as though uncles were soil upon which beards would not grow.

***

"The what sort of hoppers?"

"Pentecostal. They're the International Bible something-or-other, really; but that's what they're called. When the Spirit moves them, they hop--all at once."

[Later.]

"I like them even less when they're Pentecostal what-ever-it-is."

***

"He's got the loveliest head you ever saw, like pictures of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob all together, with a long white beard and long white hair that's very thick and curls over his collar.... When you see him sitting down you think goodness me, that's a real church saint and no mistake. And then he gets up and you see his legs are tiny...and his beard looks as if it would be tickling his knees all the time, and he just looks an old comic. And he's got a little squeaky voice like a young pig's."

[Now, that is one of the protagonists' description of a minor character called Mr. Cole; and Mrs. Cole is given a description that is no more flattering. When we recall that the authors of this book are a husband-and-wife team named Cole--who were cosmopolitan socialists who probably bore little resemblance to these small-town "Pentecostal Hoppers"--I think the humor gets taken to the next level!]

***

It was not well; it was very far from well, Wylie reflected crossly, as he tried to pick some coherent sense out of the confusion of Mrs. Devene's italics and her melodramatic mind.

***

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April 19, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Copy for Crime, by Carol Carnac:

***

Joe's charwoman was named Mrs. Oaks, but as she always added an aspirate to her own name, "Mrs. Hoax" she became.

***

[Mixed Hat Metaphors dept.]

"I lift my lid to anybody who produces a home out of a hat."

***

"Why not co-opt me? Two fools are better than one."

***

"Curtains are much nearer my heart than uncles."

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April 16, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Death in Seven Volumes, by Douglas G. Browne:

***

[X here is simply the classic "unknown" person in the mystery. But the protagonists' theorizing is getting overly complicated. Thus the caution...]

"We don't want too many Xs knocking about."

***

Wadeson's bushy eyebrows, which Fleurette afterwards likened to moustaches in the wrong place, rose slightly.

***

"Whew!--if that's how it's pronounced."

***

[Literary scholar H. J. Jackson wrote a fascinating 300-page book about the history of marginalia...but mystery author Douglas G. Browne sums the topic up in about twenty words]:

"But they don't find anything—or only the marginal scribbles that learned readers can't resist making. 'See page 42.' 'Bosh!' 'What about Poffenheim?'"

***

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April 12, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Off With Her Head! by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole:

***

[I love this. It's sort of the opposite of an omniscient narrator—a narrator who, like an omniscient, is a disembodied device rather than a character, and yet who seems to have just wandered onto the scene without knowing much more about anything going on than the reader does. (An approach more commonly found in children's books, I suppose.)]


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April 9, 2019 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Man from the River, by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole:

***

The conversation descended into such abysses of allusiveness that Michael gave up the attempt to understand.

***

Worse still was an enormous Early Victorian atrocity in yellowish-grey, with bands of Palladian ornament, which stood beside the Queen Anne block, and just succeeded in overtopping it with an obvious and ludicrous effort. It was as if one's grandmother had decided to stand permanently on tiptoe.

***

"Who are all those people?" Michael asked [....]

"Oh, nobody in particular." [But she immediately proceeds to give specifics about exactly who each of them is!]

***

"That man's like a revolting Greek chorus, always turning up and moralising where he isn't wanted!"

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Original Content Copyright © 2019 by Craig Conley. All rights reserved.