Category Archives: Words

The Little Pun Book

alex atkins bookshelf booksIt was easy to miss in the used bookstore crammed with a maze of floor to ceiling bookshelves: a slim, little volume measuring 4.5 x 7 inches, 62 pages long, with a colorful red and blue dust jacket, titled The Little Pun Book. Back in 1960, it sold for $1. Naturally, I rescued it from its forlorn and dusty existence. The book, featuring puns collected by Robert Margolin, was published in 1960by the Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, New York. Peter Pauper Press, established in 1928, is a small publisher of finely bound letterpress books that featured slipcovers and illustrations by acclaimed artists. Some of the press’s finest books were published between 1930-1950s, however, it continues to print children’s books, journals, calendars, and holiday cards to this day.

Instead of a foreword or introduction, the book begins with a quote attributed to English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), considered the most distinguished man of letters in English history, largely for his publication of the A Dictionary of the English Language (1755):

I should be punished
For every pun I shed:
Do not leave a puny shred
Of my punish head!

Puns are supposed to be timeless; you be the judge. Here are some notable highlights:

The explorer came down from the North Pole; when he reached the last Lapp he knew he was at the Finnish line.

A nudist is one who suffers from clothestrophobia.

When the principal asked the teacher how long she planned to teach school, she replied, “From here to maternity.”

A good masseur leaves no stern untoned.

An ass can never be a horse, but he can be a mayor.

The electric chair is period furniture. It ends a sentence.

A fad is in one era and out the other.

There was a knock at the hospital-room door. “Who goes there,” said the patient, “friend or enema?”

A room full of married people is empty because there isn’t a single person in it.

When a group of cattle were put in Sputnik, it became the herd shot round the world.

A prominent Turk got an audience with the Sultan who said, “I don’t know your name, but your fez is familiar.”

An anthologist is one who likes to spend a quiet evening raiding a good book.

Read related posts: The Best of Puns, the Worst of Puns
Top Ten Puns
Best Pi Puns

For further reading: The Little Pun Book by Robert Margolin.


What is a Pleonasm?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsA pleonasm is a rhetorical device (why do all rhetorical devices sound like nasty medical conditions?) that uses more words than are necessary to express a concept clearly, either for emphasis, fault of style (redundancy) or because it is an established phrase or idiom. The word is derived from the Greek word pleon, meaning “more, too much.” A pleonasm is the opposite of an oxymoron, which is the juxtaposition of two contradictory terms (e.g., “new classic” or “accurate estimate”). “Burning fire” is a perfect example of a pleonasm — naturally, a fire is burning, so you really don’t need the first word. “Tuna fish” and “free gift” are two examples of pleonasms that are established idioms; even though they are redundant, they sound right. Correct, right?

George Carlin was a brilliant comedian who was fascinated by the use and abuse of the English language. He wrote some of the funniest bits about euphemisms, oxymorons, morons in politics, and of course, pleonasms. His collection of observations, “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops” Carlin includes this gem titled “Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies”: “I needed a new beginning, so I decided to pay a social visit to a personal friend with whom I share the same mutual objectives and who is one of the most unique individuals I have ever personally met. The end result was an un­expected surprise. When I reiterated again to her the fact that I needed a fresh start, she said I was exactly right; and, as an added plus, she came up with a fi­nal solution that was absolutely perfect. Based on her past experience, she felt we needed to join together in a com­mon bond for a combined total of twenty-four hours a day, in order to find some new initiatives. What a novel innovation! And, as an extra bonus, she presented me with the free gift of a tuna fish. Right away I noticed an immedi­ate positive improvement. And although my recovery is not totally complete, the sum total is I feel much better now knowing I am not uniquely alone.”

Here are some other examples of pleonasms to sprinkle in your conversation and writing:

armed gunman

big giant

boat marina

completely destroyed

difficult dilemma

exact replica

extra accessories

fellow colleagues

foreign imports

free gifts

frozen ice

mass exodus

necessary essentials

past experience

regular routine

stupid idiot

temper tantrum

tuna fish

unexpected surprise

Read related posts: What is a Pangram?
What is a Malaphor?
What is a Semordnilap?
What is a Rhopalic?
What Do You Call a Word with Capitals in the Middle?
Words for Collectors
Words for Collectors 2
Unusual Color Names


For further reading:

How Long Does it Take to Read Every Word in the Dictionary?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsMeet affable English teacher Christian Saunders, founder of Canguro English, a YouTube channel where he teaches English as a foreign language. Saunders thought about how he could uniquely celebrate World Teacher’s Day as well as raise money to provide teachers and teaching materials for thousands of refugees in Europe who do not have access to English education. At some point the English muse inspired him: why not read every word — specifically every headword — in an English dictionary? And broadcast it to the world via a YouTube and Facebook live stream. So Saunders inspired 30 other students and teachers to read the Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd Edition published in 2010, 2,069 pages long, containing approximately 100,000 headwords. Now that’s a mountain of words to climb, brother! The reading began at 10:00 am on Thursday, October 5, 2017 and ended at 3:00 am Saturday, October 7. (Incidentally, the final word was Zyrian, which was met with great excitement — and exhaustion). In short, it took 41 hours of continuous reading to read the 100,000 words in the dictionary. Bravo!

In an interview with Oxford Dictionaries, Saunders reflected on the impact of the fundraising project: “[Everyone] involved said that they actually enjoyed reading their pages. Once you start reading it’s like a kind of meditation and I think it activates something deep in our brains. I had such crazy dreams the night we finished. I think that the lack of sleep was the hardest part. And after a while it actually physically hurt to read. The inside of my cheeks were red raw from the friction of my teeth rubbing on them, and my tongue was swollen. I expected to lose my voice, but that didn’t happen.” When asked about the least favorite part of the dictionary, Saunders responded: “The hardest part was definitely all of the entries beginning with ‘un-’. It was like reading the whole dictionary again but with ‘un-’ in front of every word. And the repetition of that sound at the beginning made it pure torture.”

So what do you learn from reading 100,000 words? Apparently, a lot. Saunders elaborates: “I think what surprised me the most is the amount of foreign words that we have adopted without any type of anglicization, especially French words. I have a chart in my office that shows that 21% of modern English comes from Old French, but it’s only when you start to read the words without any context that you realize just how plunderous English has been of other languages. But the most surprising [thing I learned] is that it is actually really fun to read the dictionary in that way! There was not a single person reading who didn’t stop once in a while to marvel at a word and take the time to read its definition and absorb it. I also learned that you sound a bit like Eminem when you read really fast.”

To learn more about Team Saunder’s efforts or to donate, visit here.

Read related posts: How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
How Many Words Does the Average Person Speak in a Lifetime?

How Many Books Does the Average American Read?

For further reading:

There’s a Word for That: Cacoepy

atkins-bookshelf-wordsAlthough it sounds like a disease of the intestines, cacoepy is defined as the mispronunciation of a word. Ironically, the word is difficult to pronounce: kuh KOH uh pee. The word is derived from the Greek kakoepeia, meaning “faulty language.” The proper pronunciation of a word, on the other hand, is orthoepy (pronounced: or THA we pee).

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia
There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology

Clichés that Famous Authors Use

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s a cliché by now: writing teachers admonishing students not to use clichés in their writing. You know the classroom spiel: using clichés reveals laziness in writing; it makes writing stale; it weakens the writing; blah, blah, blah. So cliché…. But if you read enough novels by famous writers — and you read them carefully — you will find clichés lurking unabashedly in the prose. So the next time an English teacher draws a red circle around a cliché in one of your papers that reduces your score, ask for some leniency by showing them this list. Here are common clichés that famous writers use in more than half their works:

Isaac Asimov (7 Foundation Series books): past history

Jane Austen (6 novels): with all my heart

Tom Clancy (13 novels): by a whisker

Clive Cussler (23 Dirk Pitt novels): wishful thinking

Theodore Dreiser (8 novels): thick and fast

James Joyce (3 novels): from the sublime to the ridiculous

George R. R. Martin (8 novels): black as pitch

Herman Melville (9 novels): through and through

J. K. Rowling (7 Harry Potter books): dead of night

J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit): nick of time

Read related posts: Words Invented by Famous Authors
Words Invented by Famous Authors 2

Words Invented by Dickens

For further reading: Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt.

The Unwritten Rules of the Internet

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesBack in 2002, there were about 569 million internet users (9.1% of the world’s population). In a decade that number shot up to an astounding 2.27 billion (33% of the world’s population). With that many people using the internet, and since human beings are creatures of habit, what sort of behaviors or patterns emerge with respect to digital dialogue? Excellent question. If you have spent enough time reading posts in the comments section and FAQs these patterns of behavior will emerge. Eventually, because they are so self-evident, these behaviors acquire a specific name, entering the lexicon of “unwritten rules” or “unwritten laws.” They join the classics, like Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available for its completion) or Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong). Here are some of the most common unwritten rules of the internet:

Armstrong’s Law: When discussions between Americans and non Americans about a variety of topics, where America is not the greatest at said topic, the likelihood of the American arbitrarily bringing up the U.S. moon landings increases dramatically. (Named after astronaut Neil Armstrong, first man to set foot on the moon.)

Cunningham’s Law: the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question — it’s to post the wrong answer. (Attributed to Ward Cunningham)

Godwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, eventually someone will make a comparison involving Hitler or his deeds. (Coined by Mike Godwin)

Muphry’s Law: If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written. (And no, this is not a typo: Murphy is misspelled deliberately). (Coined by John Bangsund).

Poe’s Law: Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article. (Coined by Nathan Poe)

Streisand Effect: an attempt to remove or censor information on the internet has the unintended consequence of bringing more attention to that information. (Named after Barbara Streisand who was trying to suppress aerial photos of her house in Malibu in 2003).

Wadsworth Constant: The first 30% of any video can be skipped because it contains no worthwhile or interesting information. (Coined by a Reddit editor named Wadsworth.)

Read related posts: Godwin’s Law
Unwritten Rules of Life
What is the Barnum Effect?
What is the Pinocchio Effect?

For further reading:

Epithets of Famous People

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAn epithet, from the Greek word epithetos (meaning “added” or “attributed”), is a nickname that is added to a person’s name (eg, Ivan IV Vasilyevich is known as Ivan the Terrible) or an attribution of specific qualities to a person’s name (eg, André René Roussimoff is known as Andre the Giant). Some epithets become so established that they are more well known than the actual persons they refer to (eg, most people know of Alexander the Great, but don’t know his real name, Alexander III of Macedon). Here is a list of some famous people and their epithets.

Adele: British Queen of Soul

Alexander III of Macedon: Alexander the Great

Muhammed Ali: The Greatest or The Greatest of All Time

Louis Armstrong: The King of Jazz Trumpet

Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll

Tony Blair: Teflon Tony

James Brown: Godfather of Soul

Jerry Brown: Governor Moonbeam

Al Capone: Scarface

Wilt Chamberlain: Wilt the Stilt

Winston Churchill: British Bulldog

Bill Clinton: Slick Willie or Bubba

William Frederick Cody: Buffalo Bill

Bob Dylan: King of Folk

Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Soul

Henry Louis Gehrig: The Iron Horse

Andrew Jackson: Old Hickory

Michael Jackson: King of Pop

Michael Jordan: Air Jordan

Abraham Lincoln: Honest Abe

Charles Lindbergh: The Lone Eagle

Madonna: Queen of Pop

Benito Mussolini: Il Duce (Italian for “The Chief” or “The Leader”)

Richard Nixon: Tricky Dick

Annie Oakley: Little Miss Sure Shot

Elvis Presley: King of Rock and Roll

Prince: The Artist or The Purple One

Ronald Reagan: The Gipper or The Great Communicator

Rihanna: Caribbean Queen

André René Roussimoff: Andre the Giant

Bruce Springsteen: The Boss

Taylor Swift: Country-Pop Princess

Mother Teresa: Saint of the Gutters

Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady

Usher: King of R&B

Ivan IV Vasilyevich: Ivan the Terrible

John Wayne: The Duke

Neil Young: Godfather of Grunge

Read related posts: Most Common Nicknames for Shakespeare
How Did O. Henry Get His Pen Name?
Who is Alan Smithee?
How Famous Singers Got Their Names
How Rock Bands Got Their Names

For further reading: Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: Colloquialisms, and Catch-Phrases, Solecisms and Catachresis, Nicknames, and Vulgarisms by Eric Partridge
Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meaning by James Skipper
A Dictionary of Epithets and Terms of Address by Leslie Dunkling


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