A mystery letter among the leaves

November 3, 2018

Walking clears my head. Especially here, on the eastern lip of the Atlantic, the fresh winds gusting in over Galway Bay clear the cobwebs of editing and writing from my mind. When I need a break from work – from books, paragraphs, sentences, words, letters – I walk.

Sometimes, though, the letters follow me. This one gave me a proper surprise, almost glowing in the wet autumn ground:

Photo of about 1 square metre of wet footpath, with a white letter Q stencilled on the ground, surrounded by a dozen or so colourful autumn leaves.

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Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

June 15, 2017

Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.

The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:

Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.

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A cussed acrostic

September 4, 2016

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

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Raymond Chandler on storytelling and style

August 4, 2013

I’ve begun reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, an anthology of 23 Marlowe stories written by different crime/mystery authors plus one by Chandler himself (‘The Pencil’). It was edited by Byron Preiss with the consent of the Chandler estate, to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.

Taking on Marlowe is a tall order, but I expect even the weaker stories will offer much to please and interest. The introduction, by Chandler biographer Frank MacShane, quotes from a letter Chandler wrote in his late fifties in which he muses on writing and style. I found more of the letter elsewhere, and it’s too good not to excerpt at length:

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ETAOIN SRHLDCU, or: What are the most common words and letters in English?

January 7, 2013

Most of us know that ‘e’ is the most common letter in English and the is the most common word. Many are familiar with ETAOIN SHRDLU, the nonsense string that used to appear in print because of early-20thC printer design and now serves as shorthand for the most popular letters.

Beyond prevailing lore and trivia, we’re generally less certain about the English language’s most common words and letters. Different studies over the years have produced varying results, depending on the datasets and methods used.

Now Google’s director of research Peter Norvig has used the vast data from the Google Books corpus – over 743 billion words – to produce updated word- and letter-frequency tables. Here’s his letter count:

Peter Norvig - English language letter count frequency table

As you can see, it violates ETAOIN SHRDLU only slightly, becoming ETAOIN SRHLDCU.

The 50 most common words, in order of frequency, are: the, of, and, to, in, a, is, that, for, it, as, was, with, be, by, on, not, he, I, this, are, or, his, from, at, which, but, have, an, had, they, you, were, there, one, all, we, can, her, has, there, been, if, more, when, will, would, who, so, no.

Norvig also investigated the most common word lengths, sequences of letters (“n-grams”), letters in various positions in words, and much more. It’s a fascinating page – a feast for data fiends and word nerds alike. (And they are often alike.)

Don’t tell Richard Feynman

September 4, 2012

I’ve been reading Don’t You Have Time to Think?, a collection of letters written by (and to) the great physicist Richard Feynman.

As I tweeted earlier today, Feynman comes across as warm, generous, sincere and self-effacing. He was also blessed with wit, patience, and admirable directness.

Here’s a short, amusing exchange he had with Francis Crick in 1978:

Dear Francis,
I regret having to do this, but I’m returning this paper to you unread. My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else’s theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I’d be with something else to think about.
Richard P. Feynman

Crick replied:

Dear Dick,
I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: “Don’t tell me – I might think about it!”
Yours ever,

Don’t tell me – I might think about it! I may adopt that.

On a linguistic note, the book includes correspondence with A. M. Hughes at the OED, who was seeking further information on the origins of parton, a word coined by Feynman to refer to what we now call quarks and gluons.

The provisional definition of parton to be included in the OED Supplement was: “Each of the hypothetical point-like constituents of the nucleon that were invoked by R. P. Feynman to explain the way the nucleon inelastically scatters electrons of very high energy.” Feynman found the definition “admirable”.

Over on Tumblr, I posted one other letter from the book, wherein Feynman gives his reasons for declining an honorary degree after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.

If you’re interested in buying Don’t You Have Time to Think?, you can do so at Penguin Books so long as typos don’t bother you inordinately: the edition I have, pictured above, contains several. Steven Poole has a short, accurate review in the Guardian that might sway you.

C. S. Lewis, language botanist

January 5, 2012

C. S. Lewis received a lot of correspondence from strangers, as you can imagine, and he was very diligent about answering it. I read his Letters to Children yesterday, and on Tumblr posted something he wrote to his godchild about the kinds of things people do.

Below is another passage, this one having to do with language. It was addressed to “Kathy” and was sent in April 1963:

By the way I also wd. say “I got a book”. But your teacher and I are not “English teachers” in the same sense. She has to put across an idea of what the English language ought to be: I’m concerned entirely with what it is and however it came to be what it is. In fact she is a gardener distinguishing “flowers” from “weeds”; I am a botanist and am interested in both as vegetable organisms.

The gardening analogy reminded me of Otto Jespersen’s description of the language as “like an English park . . . in which you are allowed to walk everywhere according to your own fancy”. But this might give a child the wrong idea.

There is much to admire in the metaphor Lewis uses to convey, without prejudice or guile, the difference in attitudes between Kathy’s teacher and himself.


A post I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog looks at some more examples of the linguistic botany analogy.