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, 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.
January 31, 2011

Colorful Allusions (permalink)
William Keckler marvels: "I tried to find a picture of a lime in lime light.  And I couldn't find a single photograph of this.  I felt like asking Google for a divorce.  All I wanted was to see a lime in a perfectly matching lime light, a lime camouflaged in lime light."

Ladies and gentlemen, we present an Internet first: an actual lime in limelight.


 
June writes:

Lovin' you in the liminal zone!

QAII writes:

So it's true.  You ARE the light of my life!!!!!

AskAndYeShallReceive writes:

You are a philosopher, a gentleman and a spectacle. I can only achieve the last one. Thank You, My Friend!

Prof. Oddfellow writes:

Woohoo!  Thank you -- I'm glowing!

Catherine writes:

You are truly amazing my friend - a living legend - I'm green with envy at your genius ;~/

Prof. Oddfellow writes:

I'm blushing, Kate!  (I do realize you'll have to take my word for it!)
> read more from Colorful Allusions . . .


Go Out in a Blaze of Glory (permalink)
Gordon spotted our Skeleton Key of Solomon: Unlocking the Secret Reflections of Sigils and Vévés (the yellow book on the middle shelf) at Chicago's Quimby's Bookstore, sitting next to The Key to Solomon's Key: Is This the Lost Symbol of Masonry? (the red book) and Aleister Crowley's Diary of a Drug Fiend (in purple).  Now that's some heady reading!


> read more from Go Out in a Blaze of Glory . . .


Book of Whispers (permalink)

Imagine a game of "What's My Line," in which either a cherub or an imp whispers into a blindfolded panelist's ear.

Are the whispered words pictured on the right of an angelic or a diabolical nature?


Answer: Angelic. "Turn—yet turn and live!" —Andrew Cleaves, "Chapters on Churchyards," in The Living Age, Vol. VII, Dec. 1845, p. 362. (The answer is in black text on the black background. Highlight it to view.)
> read more from Book of Whispers . . .

January 30, 2011

This May Surprise You (permalink)
"As unlikely as it sounds there's strong evidence that some sections of the audience relish tedium."
The Independent
> read more from This May Surprise You . . .


Presumptive Conundrums (permalink)
INSTRUCTIONS: Click on the puzzle image below to reveal one possible solution.

You Do the Math - Presumptive Conundrums
* Learn more about Presumptive Conundrums at Amazon.com.
> read more from Presumptive Conundrums . . .

January 29, 2011

Simple Answers (permalink)
Difficult Question? Here's a simple answer

"The answer is simple: He will undoubtedly get it.”

—Kiplinger’s Personal Finance (Dec. 1956)

If this is not the answer you’re looking for,
click here for a different answer.
> read more from Simple Answers . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait from Memoir of Rachel Hicks.

Note that the Rachel Hicks appears more jovial in spectral form.

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 28, 2011

I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought (permalink)
All kidding aside, there's a book entitled What Shall I Read Next?  We can just see this title scrawled (without irony) on someone's list of to-be-read books.  (Even more deliciously, as we type this post, the book has not yet been released but is pre-orderable.)  It's like something out of a procrastinator's Calvinoesque dream.


> read more from I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought . . .


Your Ship Will Come In (permalink)


“Your boat waits, and I have the honor to bid you good-evening.” —Molly Seawell

 
* Our printed collection of vintage nautical postcards is entitled Your Ship Will Come In and is available from Amazon.com.
> read more from Your Ship Will Come In . . .

January 27, 2011

This May Surprise You (permalink)
"Believe it or not, there are some [TV] producers out there who are not very nice people."
Lee Goldberg, Successful Television Writing
> read more from This May Surprise You . . .


Pfft! (permalink)

Photo by bazookabill.  See full-size image here.
One of the definitions of "pfft" in our popular dictionary of all-consonant words is "a spray from an aerosol can."  So we weren't at all surprised to see the word spray painted on a wall.
> read more from Pfft! . . .


Two Sides / Same Coin (permalink)
* Inspired by Jeff Hawkins.
> read more from Two Sides / Same Coin . . .

January 26, 2011

Images Moving Through Time (permalink)
We understand this is the first and last time Hollywood extras were acknowledged in a film's opening credit sequence.  The film is the stunning noir masterpiece The Shanghai Gesture:


> read more from Images Moving Through Time . . .


Book of Whispers (permalink)
"The parentheticals are where the answers lie."
Geof Huth


"Closed Parentheses" by theilr.
> read more from Book of Whispers . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait from The Life of Sir Walter Scott.

“His face was grim in the ghostly blue light.” —P. J. Parrish

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 25, 2011

I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought (permalink)
Two birds fly past.  They are needed somewhere.
Robert Bly

via A Murder of Crows, An Unkindness of Ravens
> read more from I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought . . .


Puzzles and Games (permalink)
Here's one of Nabokov's methods for a secret code.  Note the charming detail that "one-letter words remain undisguised":

For their correspondence in the first period of separation, Van and Ada had invented a code ... One-letter words remained undisguised. In any longer word each letter was replaced by the one succeeding it in the alphabet at such an ordinal point–second, third, fourth, and so forth–which corresponded to the number of letters in that word. Thus "love", a four-letter word, became "pszi" ("p" being the fourth letter after "l" in the alphabetic series, "s" the fourth after "o" et cetera), whilst, say, "lovely" (in which the longer stretch made it necessary, in two instances, to resume the alphabet after exhausting it) became "ruBkrE", where the letters overflowing into the new alphabetic series were capitalized.

—V. Nabokov, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Via Gretel und Hänsel
> read more from Puzzles and Games . . .


It's Really Happening (permalink)
"It's happening.  It's really happening.  Everything is falling into place, just like you said."
K.E. Mills, Wizard Squared (2010)


The foreground photo of this collage is from the wrongfully-canceled comedy series Arrested Development.  The background photo is from "Berlin Block Tetris" by Sergej Hein.  (See his animation here.)
> read more from It's Really Happening . . .

January 24, 2011

Rhetorical Questions, Answered! (permalink)
From our former outpost at Twitter:

Why do we praise people for making a "difference" when they're actually making a "sum"?

Gary Barwin wittily answers:

I think it's a product of the times.

June adds:

It just doesn't add up.
> read more from Rhetorical Questions, Answered! . . .


I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought (permalink)
"There are two kinds of truth:  trivialities, where the opposite is obviously impossible, and deep truths, which are characterized by their opposite also being a deep truth." —Niels Bohr
> read more from I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought . . .


Book of Whispers (permalink)

Imagine a game of "What's My Line," in which either a cherub or an imp whispers into a blindfolded panelist's ear.

Are the whispered words pictured on the right of an angelic or a diabolical nature?


Answer: Diabolical. "Some Demon whispered, 'Visto! have a taste.'" —Alexander Pope, "Epistle IV," The Works of Alexander Pope Vol. III, 1881, p. 173. (The answer is in black text on the black background. Highlight it to view.)

---

Gordon writes:

Love this series!
> read more from Book of Whispers . . .

January 23, 2011

This May Surprise You (permalink)
"Are you sitting down?  Good.  Now for a dose of reality.  You are not super-leader."
Blaine Allen, When People Throw Stones (2005)
> read more from This May Surprise You . . .


Presumptive Conundrums (permalink)
INSTRUCTIONS: Click on the puzzle image below to reveal one possible solution.

You Do the Math - Presumptive Conundrums
* Learn more about Presumptive Conundrums at Amazon.com.
> read more from Presumptive Conundrums . . .

January 22, 2011

Forgotten Wisdom (permalink)
From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook:

This piece was inspired by Andy Paik and Arcana Chaos.  The red letter C is from the award-winning typeface created for our One-Letter Words: A Dictionary (HarperCollins) by Mucca Design.


Printed collections of Forgotten Wisdom diagrams are available: Volume I from Mindful Greetings and Volumes II, III and IV from Amazon.  Selected posters are also available via Zazzle.
> read more from Forgotten Wisdom . . .


I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought (permalink)
We were chatting with a Hollywood screenwriter the other day about the great dramatic pitfall of the wizard genre — problems can be solved with the wave of a hand.  We're reminded of thrillers in which logician savants battle wits (it's fun when the two masterminds form a Yin/Yang connection, each respecting his rival's intellect).  It's a stalemate ... until one of them fails to predict a tiny repercussion that tips the balance.  Every wave of the magic wand initiates an action, but the ripple effects are for the machinations of Chaos to sort out.  Consider the murderer who, with a wave of the hand, throws the incriminating evidence in the river, unable to predict where the material might wash up.  (Or consider the classic Bewitched series, in which a vexing and hexing mother-in-law's action invariably triggers a chain of unforeseen consequences.)  Perhaps a magician's foremost powers need to be of logic and of foresight.
> read more from I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait from Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel.

It’s not every day we meet a spirit who has been transferred to the University of Washington library.

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 21, 2011

Inflationary Lyrics (permalink)
"Too Much Candy for a Dime" by Eddy Raven

ORIGINAL LYRIC:

You're just too much candy for a dime, ain't no way
I can look into those eyes of yours and walk away
You think I would know better, but I fall every time
You're just too much candy for a dime

ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION

You're just too much candy for a tenner, ain't no way
I can look into those eyes of yours and eat my dinner
You think I would know better, but I ain't no thinner
You're just too much candy for a tenner
* Payphones used to take dimes, but now they take quarters.  Isn't it time to update song lyrics to reflect the realities of inflation?  Alas, it's vastly easier to rhyme the word "dime" than the word "quarter," but here at Inflationary Lyrics Headquarters we have risen to the challenge.  Please join the fun and share your own inflationary lyrics, with both the "before" and "after" versions!
> read more from Inflationary Lyrics . . .


Your Ship Will Come In (permalink)
“Be tenacious! One day your ship will come in.” —Ann Majchrzak


 
* Our printed collection of vintage nautical postcards is entitled Your Ship Will Come In and is available from Amazon.com.
> read more from Your Ship Will Come In . . .

January 20, 2011

Rhetorical Questions, Answered! (permalink)
In the British comedy series "Absolutely Fabulous," a life coach gives this ridiculous "daily aim": "Have a great idea and write a pop song."  We couldn't help but think back on that line when we saw this advice:

Create a poignant rhetorical question, use it often, and make it yours.
—The Complete Idiot's Guide to Power Words




This frame is from the hilarious and endearing Mapp & Lucia series, based on E. F. Benson's novels.  We agree with Nigel Hawthorne here — well-chosen words don't write themselves!
> read more from Rhetorical Questions, Answered! . . .


Two Sides / Same Coin (permalink)
* Inspired by Jeff Hawkins.
> read more from Two Sides / Same Coin . . .

January 19, 2011

Images Moving Through Time (permalink)
"The Heaven of the Time Machine" from Louis Untermeyer's Heavens, 1922.


> read more from Images Moving Through Time . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait from Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke.

“A poet’s ghost is the only one that survives for his fellow-mortals, after his bones are in the dust.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, Our Old Home

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 18, 2011

Unicorns (permalink)
Philosopher G.E. Moore suggested that there must be such thing as a unicorn, since the human mind can think of it and can distinguish the thought of a unicorn from the thought of a griffin.  See his convincing explanation here.
> read more from Unicorns . . .


Book of Whispers (permalink)

Imagine a game of "What's My Line," in which either a cherub or an imp whispers into a blindfolded panelist's ear.

Are the whispered words pictured on the right of an angelic or a diabolical nature?


Answer: Angelic. "An angel whispered in her ear, 'Stretch out thy hand.'" —Emanuel Geibel, "As It Often Happens,” The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature by John Clark Ridpath, 1898. (The answer is in black text on the black background. Highlight it to view.)
> read more from Book of Whispers . . .


Suddenly, A Shot Rang Out (permalink)
Is it true, as Momus suggests, that there are "few tales which would not be improved by the addition of the phrase 'suddenly, a shot rang out'"?  Decide for yourself as we alter the opening lines of . . .

THE SHADOW LINE by Joseph Conrad

Only the young have such moments.  I don't mean the very young.  No.  They very young have, properly speaking, no moments.  It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection.
     One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness—and enters an enchanted garden.  Its very shades glow with promise.  Suddenly, a shot rings out.
> read more from Suddenly, A Shot Rang Out . . .

January 17, 2011

Unicorns (permalink)
Prof. Oddfellow goes into the field (in this case, an icy lake freezing around his precarious canoe) to listen for unicorns.  Join the adventure on YouTube or the superior Vimeo.

The next morning, only the canoe's wake remains unfrozen (see bottom photo).


Discover Oddfellow's surprising tools for luring unicorns.

> read more from Unicorns . . .


Colorful Allusions (permalink)
Nabokov suggests that the "ultimate vision is the incandescence of a book or a box grown completely transparent and hollow.  This is, I believe, it:  not the crude anguish of physical death but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another."  (Transparent Things)


Hans Christian Anderson transparent book by Sam Provoas.
> read more from Colorful Allusions . . .

January 16, 2011

This May Surprise You (permalink)
"What most people don’t understand is that typography is the use of language that in itself is its own language – one that can take a lifetime to learn and perfect, and that few ever do."
Chip Kidd, The Learners, 2008, via DJMisc

---

June adds:

"As the saying goes, type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters." —Matthew Carter
> read more from This May Surprise You . . .


Presumptive Conundrums (permalink)
INSTRUCTIONS: Click on the puzzle image below to reveal one possible solution.

You Do the Math - Presumptive Conundrums
* Learn more about Presumptive Conundrums at Amazon.com.
> read more from Presumptive Conundrums . . .

January 15, 2011

Go Out in a Blaze of Glory (permalink)
From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook:

"Did they have a sale on twinkling antlers?"
Rosemary Laurey & Karen Kelley & Dianne Castell, The Morgue the Merrier


Illustration by Gary Barwin.
> read more from Go Out in a Blaze of Glory . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait of Queen Anne and her son William from Where Ghosts

Walk: The Haunts of Familiar Characters in History and Literature.

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 14, 2011

Inflationary Lyrics (permalink)
"My Girl is a Dime" by Charlie Wilson

ORIGINAL LYRIC:

My girl is a dime
Dime dime dime
My girl is a dime
Dime dime dime
Man I got a dime
dime dime dime

ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION:

My girl is a dollar
Holler, holler, holler
My girl is a dollar
Call her, call her, call her
Man I got a dollar
Ain't no Montrealer*

*No disrespect to the Canadian dollar is intended.
* Payphones used to take dimes, but now they take quarters.  Isn't it time to update song lyrics to reflect the realities of inflation?  Alas, it's vastly easier to rhyme the word "dime" than the word "quarter," but here at Inflationary Lyrics Headquarters we have risen to the challenge.  Please join the fun and share your own inflationary lyrics, with both the "before" and "after" versions!
> read more from Inflationary Lyrics . . .


Your Ship Will Come In (permalink)


“One day your ship will come. Just wait and see.” —Jeanne Goosen

 
* Our printed collection of vintage nautical postcards is entitled Your Ship Will Come In and is available from Amazon.com.
> read more from Your Ship Will Come In . . .

January 13, 2011

A Fine Line Between... (permalink)
Q:  What is the difference between a crevice and a question?

A:  A crevice contracts and expands and holds little bits of darkness like water, shadow and air.  A question is something used to plumb the depths of a crevice.

Geof Huth, personal correspondence

---

June writes:

"What was the question?" —Gertrude Stein on her deathbed


> read more from A Fine Line Between... . . .


Two Sides / Same Coin (permalink)
* Inspired by Jeff Hawkins.
> read more from Two Sides / Same Coin . . .

January 12, 2011

Forgotten Wisdom (permalink)
From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook:


This piece was inspired by and is dedicated to Gary Barwin.
Printed collections of Forgotten Wisdom diagrams are available: Volume I from Mindful Greetings and Volumes II, III and IV from Amazon.  Selected posters are also available via Zazzle.
> read more from Forgotten Wisdom . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait from Memoir of the Late Thomas Scatcherd.

“He has just enough life to create a presence, a face in the background of the story that is like an image on the other side of the coin.” —Fondazione Federico Fellini

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 11, 2011

Forgotten Wisdom (permalink)
From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook:

This one is for our friend Jeff;  we immediately noticed that the name of his mysterious pen pal "Redacted the Jackal" is an anagram of "Jacketed Cathedral."


Jeff writes:

Thank you, Craig, and I believe one of my relatives was the model for those shoulder accessories.
> read more from Forgotten Wisdom . . .


Did You Hear the One I Just Made Up? (permalink)
Since my ancestors fall on both sides of the Wars of the Roses, I could say I'm fiscally Yorkist but socially Lancastrian.

---

Jeff quips:

And all the while, the resolution to the conflict was only Tudors down.
> read more from Did You Hear the One I Just Made Up? . . .

January 10, 2011

I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought (permalink)
"Writing is just the process of reading backwards, of unpacking from the skull what watching has filled the head with."
Geof Huth

---

Daryl Griffiths writes:

Via beauty of the timing of this statement I am ordered to intervene. From yesterday it certainly arrives and demands to know what time is it today, while hoping it not be tomorrow.
> read more from I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought . . .


Forgotten Wisdom (permalink)
From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook:


Relatedly, here's a Pompeian mosaic of a skeleton holding two wine jugs.
Printed collections of Forgotten Wisdom diagrams are available: Volume I from Mindful Greetings and Volumes II, III and IV from Amazon.  Selected posters are also available via Zazzle.
> read more from Forgotten Wisdom . . .

January 9, 2011

Presumptive Conundrums (permalink)
INSTRUCTIONS: Click on the puzzle image below to reveal one possible solution.

You Do the Math - Presumptive Conundrums
* Learn more about Presumptive Conundrums at Amazon.com.
> read more from Presumptive Conundrums . . .

January 8, 2011

Unicorns (permalink)
Here's a literal New Yorker cartoon caption involving a unicorn.
> read more from Unicorns . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait from Melba: A Biography.

“In . . . a face half-clear and half-blurry, he sees the blue reflection of the ghost.” —Charles L. Grant, Shadows 8

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 7, 2011

The Right Word (permalink)
Poet Bob Grumman [in a suddenly missing blog post] uses the subject of one-letter words as an example of a "knowleplex," defined as a "reasonably coherent unified knowledge, practice, use and understanding of some subject."  There are five kinds of knowleplexes; which would you guess describes our own dictionary of one-letter words?

1. Academically-Approved Knowleplexes (by 90% of academics)

2. Academically-Tolerated Knowleplexes (insufficient data to approve or disapprove)

3. Academically-Unexamined Knowleplexes (too trivial)

4. Academically-Disapproved Knowleplexes (by 90% of academics)

5. Academically-Denounced Knowleplexes (considered a significant danger to right thinking)
> read more from The Right Word . . .


Your Ship Will Come In (permalink)

 
* Our printed collection of vintage nautical postcards is entitled Your Ship Will Come In and is available from Amazon.com.
> read more from Your Ship Will Come In . . .

January 6, 2011

Forgotten Wisdom (permalink)
From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook:


Printed collections of Forgotten Wisdom diagrams are available: Volume I from Mindful Greetings and Volumes II, III and IV from Amazon.  Selected posters are also available via Zazzle.
> read more from Forgotten Wisdom . . .


Two Sides / Same Coin (permalink)
* Inspired by Jeff Hawkins.
> read more from Two Sides / Same Coin . . .

January 5, 2011

Go Out in a Blaze of Glory (permalink)
Prof. Oddfellow ventures out, armed with a viewing crystal and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.  Yes — the door knocker is from Warwick Castle; Prof. Oddfellow is related to the first fifteen Earls of Warwick.


> read more from Go Out in a Blaze of Glory . . .


The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Portrait from Life of P. T. Barnum.

“The ghost of Barnum was not easily exorcised.” —George Lewis Levine, Constructions of the Self

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .

January 4, 2011

Book of Whispers (permalink)

Imagine a game of "What's My Line," in which either a cherub or an imp whispers into a blindfolded panelist's ear.

Are the whispered words pictured on the right of an angelic or a diabolical nature?


Answer: Diabolic. "And then my familiar demon whispered: 'Why not? Think of the fun.'" —Patience Croswell, "The Confessions of a Vicarious Person,” The Bookman, Vol. XVI, 1903, p. 72. (The answer is in black text on the black background. Highlight it to view.)
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Suddenly, A Shot Rang Out (permalink)
Is it true, as Momus suggests, that there are "few tales which would not be improved by the addition of the phrase 'suddenly, a shot rang out'"?  Decide for yourself as we alter the opening lines of . . .

FORBIDDEN TO MARRY by Isabella Banks

It has been intimated that Muriel's homecoming had not been the unmixed joy she had anticipated.  Suddenly, a shot had rung out.
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January 3, 2011

Forgotten Wisdom (permalink)
From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook:

This piece is in honor of Gary Barwin's new volume of poetry, The Porcupinity of the Stars.


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The Right Word (permalink)

Abracadabra (the red line) rises in popularity in the 1920s.
From our Magic Words outpost:

Our intriguing magician friend Chris Philpott posed an interesting question about the preponderance of the two most popular magic words:

So since you're The Man on magic words (and you are, whether you like it or not) I have a question for you.  My most recent blog was about trying to find various magical applications for Google's Ngram viewer -- as you may know, this is Google's database of all the millions of books they've digitized -- you can enter a word or phrase and see its relative popularity over hundreds of years.  I was putting in various magic-related words (like magicians' names and various magic tricks) when I decided to compare the relative popularity of two well-known magic words, Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus.  I discovered the word Abracadabra had a huge surge in popularity in the 1920s (comparable to the word Wizard in the 1990s) -- I suspect there's a reason for the surge (probably as clear as J. K. Rowling's influence on the word Wizard), but I can't think what it would be.  Any thoughts?

Chris, there are actually two very different answers to your question about abracadabra's surge in the 1920s.

Here's our first answer:  What we see when presented with a chart comparing word density over time from the Google Books scanspace is both something and nothing at all.  It's certainly something because we can perceive it, i.e. the charts dazzle us with their jagged edges and numerous nodes, suggesting the compilation of many data.  However, the trends that they argue are circular, based as they are only upon the tiny subset of books which Google has scanned from the periods under consideration.  If we had it on reliable word that Google had scanned, say, 95% of all extant publications, we should still consider word density measurements statistically insignificant considering that the missing 5% might contain 95% of the contemporary appearances of "abracadabra" in print.  Moreover, Google cannot estimate the readership of its catalog, which would be necessary to make any evaluative claims about the familiarity of a word or phrase in common culture or parlance, which is really what the word density charts are attempting to demonstrate.  Words used by authors in printed publications which survived until 2010 are not, by themselves, particularly significant.  The field of statistics is famous for its bold sleights of hand.  Most any contention can be illustrated by a sufficiently culled data set and evaluative methodology.  Google's scanned word data are of course too fun not to keep playing with, but we must always bear in mind their inherent balderdash.

Here's our second answer:  The rise of "abracadabra" in 1920s is the exhalation of a meme's biorhythm.  Decades later, the "wizard" meme began its exhalation, and J.K. Rowling rode the wave.  We can't even say that Rowling buoyed the wave -- she is merely part and parcel of a grand expansion cycle.

Chris responds:

I'm not sure I'm 100% with you on J.K. Rowling -- certainly she rode some kind of wave but I think her talent was a wave generator of its own.  I suspect if she had called Harry a "mage", then instead of showing The Wizards of Waverly Place, The Disney Channel would now be showing The Mages of Mulberry Lane.  Writers are notorious copycats (though the demands of the marketplace tend to accentuate this weakness).

Indeed, Chris, one definition of "meme" is an expression that can be copycatted.  (The Greek root is mimema:  that which can be mimicked or imitated).  Without discounting Rowling's achievements, let's remember that she didn't coin the word "wizard"; it was already a charming Briticism for "excellent."  Just as the common cold spreads one handshake at a time (Richard Dawkins has unsavorily called memes "viruses of the mind"), human culture spawns.  Rowling, bless her heart, is simply one node of the complex informational network that enables the "wizard" meme to spread and thrive.
> read more from The Right Word . . .

January 2, 2011

The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine (permalink)

~ Classic Sightings ~

Frontispiece from The Eagle’s Shadow.

Fashionistas will note that hemlines are shorter on the Other Side.

* The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine promises real ghosts, actual hauntings, and necromancy by proxy.
> read more from The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine . . .


Presumptive Conundrums (permalink)
INSTRUCTIONS: Click on the puzzle image below to reveal one possible solution.

You Do the Math - Presumptive Conundrums
* Learn more about Presumptive Conundrums at Amazon.com.
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January 1, 2011

Images Moving Through Time (permalink)
Happy new year!  (This drawing is from Louis Untermeyer's Heavens, 1922.)


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The Only Certainty (permalink)
"It would be bitterly cold, the only certainty of the days ahead."
Scott Ridley, Morning of Fire (2010)
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