Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

Five Fascinating Facts About English Literature

catkins-bookshelf-literatureWhen Brian Boone, a writer and editor for the trivia-packed Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series, wrote English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism, a lively and entertaining romp through seven centuries of Britain’s greatest writers and their works, he stumbled upon five fascinating facts.

1. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a reversed Latinized version of his real first and middle names (he was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). The clever author translated Charles Lutwidge into Latin, Carolus Ludovicus, and then back to English, Carroll Lewis; then he simply reversed their order to Lewis Carroll. 

2. Frankenstein was the first vampire novel were the result of a writing contest. The scene: a house on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The guests: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelly, and John William Polidori. On a dark, stormy day, to pass the time away, they — what else? — read dark German stories, like the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. This, in turn, inspired Byron to propose a ghost story contest. The result? Shelley famous novella, Frankenstein, and Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre — both seminal works that created the monster and romantic vampire genres.

3. George Orwell (born Eric Blair), author of the classics Animal Farm and 1984, was ahead of his time, not only with respect to his insights into the modern world, but also blogging. Orwell, according to Boone, pioneered the concept of writing about a wide variety of rather mundane topics, foreshadowing the blogs of today (eg., listicles, best of lists, how-to guides, etc.) like postcards, how to make tea, and the difference between British and American pulp novels. In short, Orwell was the first blogger — before there was an internet and a real Big Brother!

4. Thanks to the efforts of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic The Lord of the Rings, the 1,000-year-old epic poem, Beowulf, is well-known and studied. In 1936, Tolkien, a professor of literature and languages at Oxford University, wrote “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that ignited a 20th century interest in the poem. Moreover, this poem is what inspired him to write fiction — without Beowulf and Grendel, we would not have Frodo and Sauron.

5. King Arthur was not English — at first. The stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, and Robin Hood did not originate in England; they originated from France and Wales. During the 8th century, Nennius, a monk, wrote the story of the warlord Arthur who led the Britons in their defense of the invading Saxons in the 5th century. It is these stories that were passed down via oral tradition in France. By the 1300s, they had been shaped into an epic poem, the inspiration for English writer Thomas Malory’s French-titled (Le Morte d’Arthur) but English-language narrative of the King Arthur legends published in 1484.

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For further reading: English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism by Brian Boone

How Much Do You Love Your Pet?

atkins bookshelf triviaWhen it comes to Americans and their pets, it is truly a love story for the ages — and the wallets. Pet owners are very generous with their affection; according to the American Pet Products Association, in 2016 Americans spent more than $63 billion on their pets. And there is a lot of love to go around — about 54% of households in the U.S. own a dog (about 78 million dogs) and 43% of households own a cat (about 85.8 million cats). Dog lovers, in particular, view their dogs as actual members of their families (i.e., the dogs appear in family portraits and their name is signed on greeting cards). In honor of National Puppy Day, here is a statistical snapshot of how much Americans love their dogs:

Throw birthday parties for their dogs: 1%

Talk to their dogs on the phone: 33%

Allow their dog to sleep in bed at night: 42%*

Buy their dogs Christmas gifts: 55%

Walk their dog every day: 56%

Include their dogs in family portraits: 58%

Have a coat or sweater to keep their dogs warm: 60%

Sign their dogs names to holiday and greeting cards: 70%

Curl up with their dog to watch television: 87%

Give their dog treats every day: 88%

Speak to a puppy using high-pitched baby talk: 100%

*In a survey, Novosbed, a mattress company, found that 71% of pet owners let their pets (dogs and cats) sleep in bed with them. 43% let their pet sleep with them every night; 5% grant that privilege only when their significant other is out of town. 52% of pets sleep at their owners’ feet, while 23% of pets sleep right next to their owners. 14% of pet owners let their pets sleep under the covers; 11% share their pillows.

Read related post: What is the Smartest Breed of Dog?
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Epitaph to a Dog
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Best Dog Novels
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What Famous Authors Name Their Pets
Epitaph to a Dog
The Best Movies for Dog Lovers
Chaser, The Smartest Dog in the World
Why Was Charles Schulz’s Comic Strip Called Peanuts?

For further reading: Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Dog Lover’s Companion by the BRI

How Much Would Darth Vader’s Suit Really Cost?

When it comes to villains in modern times, there is no character more iconic, more evil than Darth Vader — with his menacing dark helmet, creepy mechanical breathing apparatus hidden behind imposing body armor, flowing black cape that cuts through the air like a knife. And then there is the foreboding Darth Vader theme that follows him wherever he goes (composed by the legendary John Williams): “BOM-bom! Bom bom bom BOM-bom! Bom bom bom BOM bom! Bom bom bom bom…” You get the picture. When you see Darth Vader, you don’t have to be a total Star Wars geek to wonder, what would Darth Vader’s super evil suit cost if you built it in real life? And we’re not talking about those very high-end, detailed costumes that you can buy for Halloween (that can cost as much as $,1000; a movie-quality replica — the Anovos Premier Line Darth Vader costume — can cost as much as $6,000). Thanks to the inquisitive and clever folks at, wonder no more. The cost of Darth Vader’s suit would cost a cool $18.3 million. That’s quite a bit more than an original Darth Vader costume from “The Empire Strikes Back” that was valued at about $250,000 by Christie’s auction house back in November, 2010.

Here’s the a breakdown of Vader’s black suit of evil:

Helmet: $600,00
Similar to the mounted display of the F-35 helmet, it features augmented reality functionality (night vision, navigational capability, and advanced targeting)

Base suit: $12 million
Similar to a pressurized NASA space suit

Prosthetic legs and left arm: $180,000
Spoiler alert: in one of the films, Darth Vader loses some limbs in a battle with Obi Wan Kenobi

Lifetime maintenance for prosthetic limbs: $5.4 million
Prothetic limbs require yearly maintenance

Breathing apparatus: $45,000
In order to breathe, Vader must utilize a heart and lung machine

Voice: $1,000
Vader’s voice is modified by a high-end voice synthesizer

Read related posts: The Most Expensive Movie Props
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For further reading:

How Rock Bands Got Their Names 4

atkins-bookshelf-musicSome rock band names are very clever, and some are just plain odd. Regardless of how they sound, all were inspired by a magazine, toy, sexual terms, or even a passing comment. Below are a few interesting band names and their origins (some might earn an MA rating):

Goo Goo Dolls: The band was named after a toy, a Goo Goo Doll, that was featured in an ad in the magazine True Detective.

Scissor Sisters: The pop group began as Dead Lesbian, then Fibrillating Scissor Sisters, before they settled on Scissor Sisters. The name is derived from the lesbian sex act in which a woman rubs her vulva against her partner’s vulva, their legs intersecting like two scissors (the formal name is tribadism, the slang term is tribbing).

Smashing Pumpkins: Vocalist and guitarist Billy Corgan explained that he was in someone’s kitchen and they were having a conversation about something, and he heard someone talk about smashing pumpkins, and he thought to himself “Oh, that’s a pretty good mythical band name, ha, ha.”

Steely Dan: Founding members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named the band after a strap-on dildo, the Steely Dan III from Yokohama, mentioned in the novel The Naked Lunch (1959) by William S. Burroughs. Really. (Incidentally, the novel, a series of loosely connected vignettes, is told from the point of view of a William Lee, a junkie. The book’s title was suggested by Jack Kerouac. Naked lunch is the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”)

Stone Temple Pilots: During their youth, the members of the band were huge fans of the STP motor oil stickers. They wanted a band name that contained those same initials and considered Shirley Temple’s Pussy and Stereo Temple Pirates, before settling on Stone Temple Pilots.

SuperTramp: The band was initially known as “Daddy” but it sounded to similar to another band, Daddy Longlegs. The band members chose Supertramp from the title of the book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908) by Welsh poet W. H. Davies.

Talking Heads: The band started out as The Artistics since three band members (David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth) were alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design. Founding member Tina Weymouth explains “A friend found the name in the TV Guide, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as ‘all content, no action.’ It fit.”

Yes: Founding member and vocalist Jon Anderson initially suggested “Life” while bassist Chris Squire wanted “World.” Anderson explains “Yes got pulled out of the bag, I think. We wanted to display a strong conviction in what we were doing. We had to have a strong and straight title for the band.”




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How Rock Bands Got Their Names 1
How Rock Bands Got Their Names 2
How Rock Bands Got Their Names 3

For further reading: Rock Names: From Abba to ZZ Top by Adam Dolgins, Citadel Press (1998)

What is a False Friend?

atkins bookshelf wordsFalse friends are the worst. Just ask Holden Caulfield — he hated phonies with a passion. The Catcher in the Rye is littered with diatribes against phony friends and phonies in general. In linguistics, however, a false friend is something entirely different than a phony friend. The term “false friend” is a shortened version on the longer term “false friend of a translator” coined by two French translators, Jules Derocquigny and Maxime Koessler, in 1928. False friends (in French, faux amis) are words in two different languages that may sound or look familiar but differ significantly in meaning. This is not a case of “lost in translation” but rather “mangled in translation.” For example, in Dutch “die” means “that one”; in English it means “stop living.” Unlike a false friend in real life that can leave you distraught or annoyed, a linguistic false friend can cause you some embarrassment. For multinational companies that name their products unwittingly using a false friend, it creates an expensive marketing disaster (recall Chevrolet’s Nova — in Spanish it means “doesn’t go” — imagine, Chrysler developed a car that doesn’t go…). Here are some common false friends drawn from various languages:

French: bitepronounced “beet'” (penis)
English: beet (a herbaceous plant widely cultivated as a source of food)

French: cul – pronounced “cool” (butt or ass)
English: cool (excellent or at low temperature)

Spanish: embarazada (pregnant)
English: embarrassed (to feel awkward or ashamed)

French: envie (wish or desire)
English: envy (a feeling of discontented longing evoked by someone else’s possessions or situation)

French: fesse (buttock)
English: face (the front of a person’s head)

German: gift (poison)
English: gift (a present)

Swedish: kissa (to pee)
English: kiss (touch with lips as a sign of love)

Dutch: lul (penis)
English: lull (calm; send to sleep)

British English: nonce (slang for child molester)
American English: nonce (present moment; a word used only once)

Turkish: peach (bastard)
English: peach (a round fruit with juicy yellow flesh and downy skin; an attractive person)

Portuguese: peidei (I farted)
English: payday (a day when someone receives their wages)

French/Catalan: pet (fart)
English: pet (domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship)

Russian: preservativ (condom)
English: preservative (a substance used to preserve food)

Korean: seolsa (diarrhea)
English: salsa (a spicy tomato sauce)

British English: spaz (offensive term for disabled person)
American English: spaz (clumsy person)

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For further reading:

Novels with the Most Exclamation Points

The lively exclamation point (referred to as an exclamation mark by the Brits) was introduced in the Middle Ages (400-1400s). It evolved from Medieval scribes who wrote “io” (Latin for “joy”) at the end of a sentence as — you guessed it — an exclamation of joy (as in “My hand is cramped; thank God I have finally reached the end of copying this really boring passage from an obscure and obtuse religious treatise philosophical work that no one is going to read io”). By the late 1400s, the io evolved into its current form (the i moved about the o, and then became a line and dot) in the world of printing. By then the exclamation transitioned from conveying joy to conveying emphasis. Interestingly, although the typewriter was invented in 1868, it took more than a century, until the early 1970s, before the exclamation point had its own dedicated key. In old typewriters, one had to type a period, backspace and type an apostrophe — imagine that!

Although messages on social media are overwhelmingly peppered with exclamation points (everyone is shouting!), the general rule of thumb in formal or professional writing is to use the exclamation point sparingly; that is say, only when appropriate. And there are very few instances when an exclamation point is appropriate; specifically, used in a direct quotation of a exclamatory sentence or used after an interjection. And you typically only need one!

However, students of English are well aware that as soon as you master the rules of English grammar, you are free to break them. And there are plenty of role models in American and English literature (the poster boy, of course, is James Joyce who gives new meaning to run-on sentences devoid of punctuation). In his recently published book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, journalist Ben Blatt used data analysis to provide insight into famous authors and their works. Here are the top ten novels with the most extensive use of exclamation points!:

(Note: numbers in parentheses indicate rate of exclamation points per 100,000 words; thus, a book with a rate of 2,000 exclamation marks per 100,000 words is equivalent to about six exclamation points per page! )

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: 2,131

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: 2,102

The Chimes by Charles Dickens: 1,860

The Cricket by Charles Dickens: 1,793

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis: 1,352

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 1,351

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 1,348

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe: 1,341

Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis: 1,274

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Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

Names of Things You Didn’t Know Had Names

atkins bookshelf wordsWhat makes the English language so amazingly fascinating is not the words you know — it’s the words you don’t know. In the vast restaurant of the English language, the most delicious words are the ones off the menu, the ones you didn’t even know existed. Those are the words that you truly savor and evoke the response, “Really, there’s actually a word for that?” And word lovers all over the world recognize that cherished moment — just a few seconds, really — when they take delight in the knowledge of an obscure word that very few people know. You know the look — a knowing smile comes over their face, revealing the satisfaction of acceptance into some elite club or secret society. Herewith, Bookshelf presents a list of rare but delightfully delicious morsels for the indulgence of logophiles everywhere:

accismus: when a person pretends to refuse something when they really want it (eg., “I have no room for this appetizing piece of chocolate cake.”)

apthong: the silent letters in words like “know” or “naught”

armsate: the hole in a shirt or jumper through which you put your hand and arm

borborygmus: stomach growling

brannock device: that funky-looking metal device that measures your feet

chanking: food that a person spit out

diastema: the gap between front teeth (famous gap-toothed actors include: Madonna, Woody Harrelson, Jack Black, Elijah Wood, Anna Paquin)

fillip: the technical term for snapping fingers

grawlix: a sequence of typographical symbols to represent a swear word (eg., “What the #*%&!? happened here?!)

griffonage: very bad, illegible handwriting

lalochezia: swearing to relieve pain or stress (used disproportionately by parents of teens)

lemniscate: the infinity symbol

mucophagy: eating the boogers that one picks from their nose (see rhinotillexis)

ophyron: the space between the eyebrows

popliteal: the hollow area behind the knee

rasceta: the creases  on the inside of the wrist

rhinotillexis: nose-picking

sillage: the faint smell of perfume of a person who passes by

tittle: the dot above the letter “i”

tragus: the small lump of flesh just before the ear canal

ucalegon: A neighbor whose house is on fire or has burned down

ullage: the empty space between liquid and the bottle top

What other obscure words should be added to this list?

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For further reading: Words by Paul Dickson
The Whatchamacallit: Those Everyday Objects You Just Can’t Name by Danny Danziger and Mark McCrum
There are Tittles in this Title by Mitchell Symons

Word Drops by Paul Anthony Jones

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