Category Archives: Oddities

Whence “towering infernos”?

The most common sense of inferno in English, when used as a common noun rather than with reference to Dante’s poem, is “large conflagration.” But why? Because of the traditional (and biblical) image of hell-fire, of course — but why is the Italian word inferno, which entered English through Dante, used this way when hell so rarely is? Those who have read Dante’s Inferno know that fire hardly figures in it at all; and of course etymologically inferno simply means “underworld” (related to inferior and infra-). No one would dream of calling a conflagration a “towering underworld.”

Nevertheless, the word inferno is inextricably linked with the idea of a conflagration — so much so that some publishers simply must have a fire on the cover of Dante and aren’t too picky about what kind of fire it is. Here’s the Collins Classics edition:


Notice anything strange about that picture? Why is a horse burning in hell? Because this wasn’t originally meant to be a picture of hell at all. It’s Johann Georg Trautmann’s painting View of the Burning Troy. You will search Dante in vain for anything resembling this scene. But it shows “an inferno” — a conflagration — and was thus deemed appropriate.


My theory is that English-speakers are subconsciously influenced by the phonetic resemblance of inferno to furnace, with perhaps echoes of fire, burn, and incinerate as well.


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Low-gravity dreams evoke “real” memories

Note: An updated version of this post can be found here. Please comment on the new post, not here.

. . . when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.

— Pope, Essay on Criticism

I have had dozens of dreams in which I seem to be less than ordinarily affected by gravity. The dreams always appear to take place on earth, and other things and people in the environment behave normally; only I (and occasionally a few other people) move as if in a low-gravity environment.

These dreams take two basic forms. In the more common of the two, I am walking and find that every step sends me sailing gently into the air, several meters up, and then slowly back down. I can move almost effortlessly this way; by simply “kicking off” from the ground a few times a minute, as one might do when using a playground swing, I can keep myself moving forward in great slow bounds. In the dreams, the thought that always accompanies this is: “I’d forgotten I could do this. I should do this more often.”

In the second form of the dream, I am in a supine position about 70 cm above the ground and am moving “forward” (that is, in a caudal direction). As in the jumping dreams, I have to “kick off” with one foot occasionally to maintain my speed, though in these dreams I am reminded more of a skateboard than a playground swing. In these dreams, unlike the others, I do not rise or fall; I stay at a constant distance from the ground, and kicking off serves only to give me a burst of forward speed, not to send me sailing up into the air.

In my slow-jumping dreams, I have an exhilarating sense of freedom, and at the apex of my leaps I enjoy looking down on the scenery (generally rolling green hills, dotted with trees). In the supine-skimming dreams, though, I often feel that I am going where I am “supposed to” go, following a leader who is walking ahead of me. I never see this leader, though, because I am always looking straight up at the sky — though I am somehow simultaneously aware of the ground (usually a hard gray surface) rushing past beneath my back.


What makes these dreams unusual is that, upon waking, I am left with an unshakable conviction that they really happened. I don’t mean that I feel as if the dream itself had been real — the dream was obviously just a dream. However, I have a compelling feeling that the dream is reminding me of something I really experienced, that some long-forgotten memory from my real life has been jogged almost back into conscious recollection by the dream. I feel sure — my body feels sure — that somehow, somewhere, sometime, I really have moved that way, if only I could remember where or when. But, rack my brain how I may, I can never quite retrieve those elusive memories. I am left with an unsatisfying certainty that somehow those dreams must be about something “real,” but without being able to explain how they possibly could be.


Filed under Dreams, Oddities

Name suggestions for Bake Shape Ape

There’s a restaurant in the town where I live called Bake Shape Ape. That’s right, Bake Shape Ape.


It’s not even a bakery, but a Japanese-style barbecue place. The English name is a character-for-character literal translation of the Chinese 烤狀猿. The first character, 烤, means “bake, roast, grill, etc.” — basically any kind of cooking that doesn’t involve a lot of water or oil. The rest of it, 狀猿, is a pun on 狀元, which is pronounced the same way. The latter is a title used in old China for the person who got the highest score on the imperial civil service exam. The final character, 元, has been replaced with the homophonous 猿, which means “ape.”

So what would have been a better translation? Any good English translation should include a punning reference to apes or monkeys, and ideally should refer both to barbecuing and to the idea of a champion or an excellent scholar. Here are my proposals:

  • Barbecue Chimpion
  • Ape-Plus Barbecue (sounds like “A-plus”)
  • ApeX Grill
  • The Prime-Ate (as in “prime rib” — really scraping the bottom of the barrel here)
  • The Frying Pan (as in Pan troglodytes — even worse)
  • Monkey Bar and Grill (pun on “monkey bars” — fail)
  • G’rilla (gorilla / griller — my personal favorite)

Any other ideas? (Of course this is purely an academic exercise, since I would never dream of suggesting that a name as perfect as Bake Shape Ape actually be changed! The food is nothing special, but I still eat there from time to time just for the name.)


Filed under Language, Oddities, Translation

Not very factual on motorcycles

Robert M. Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance begins with a disclaimer stating that the book “should in no way be associated with the great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice” and that it is “not very factual on motorcycles, either.” I was willing to believe the first part of the disclaimer, since the author shows no special knowledge of Zen, but I always kind of assumed that he really did know what he was talking about when it came to motorcycles.

So when my wife’s motorcycle wouldn’t start and we were wondering if it was because the battery was dead, I remembered an example Pirsig had used to illustrate deduction and hypothesis testing. If “the mechanic knows the horn of the cycle is powered exclusively from the battery, then he can logically infer that if the battery is dead the horn will not work. That is deduction” (pp. 92-93). He can then try to honk the horn as a way of testing the hypothesis that the battery is dead.

I honked the horn, and it worked fine, so I confidently announced to my wife that the problem was definitely not the battery. Probably the spark plug. And then, since I’m not Robert M. Pirsig, I walked the motorcycle to a nearby mechanic’s shop to have it fixed.

He told me it was the battery. I tooted the horn for him and told him he was wrong. He looked at me like I was an idiot, replaced the battery, which was ancient and badly corroded, and sent me on my way with a perfectly good motorcycle.


It seems like there ought to be some deep “Chautauqua” lesson to be learned from this. Always believe disclaimers, I suppose, even when they appear to have been written in jest.


Filed under Anecdotes, Oddities

Morphological scofflaws

One of the basic rules of English word construction is that a compound word takes its basic meaning and grammatical character from its final component. A housecat is a kind of cat, but a cathouse is a kind of house. Milk chocolate is a kind of chocolate, but chocolate milk is a kind of milk. (The latter two examples are considered compound words even though they are written with a space between the components.)

However, there seems to be a small but significant set of words which are exceptions to this rule. For example, killjoy ought by all rights to be a kind of joy. It ought to mean something like “the joy of the kill” — the feeling that makes you want to high-five your buddies after blowing the brains out of an eland. Iris Murdoch somewhere coins the word snowjoy (with reference to the emotions of dogs in winter), and it is instantly understandable. Hemingway would have been equally understandable if he had written of the killjoy of a toreador — but instead killjoy breaks the rules and means “one who kills joy.” Likewise, you ought to be able to say “He scoffed at the king and was jailed for violation of the scofflaw” — but in fact scofflaw follows the same pattern as killjoy and means “one who scoffs at the law.”

The other exceptions I’ve been able to think of all follow the same pattern: the structure is verb+noun, and the meaning is “one that [verbs] [noun].” Here’s my list so far:

  • be-all and end-all
  • breakwater
  • catchall
  • catchpenny
  • cure-all
  • cutpurse
  • cutthroat
  • dreadnought
  • killjoy
  • know-it-all
  • know-nothing
  • makeweight
  • makework
  • pickpocket
  • scarecrow
  • scofflaw
  • spoilsport

If you know any others, add a comment.

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Dante asserts his moral right

I picked up the Collins Classics edition of the Inferno at a secondhand bookstore and tried to find out who the translator was — only to find that he was completely uncredited. The colophon duly credits the author of the preface, the dictionary from which the glossary was adapted, and even the company that did the typesetting, but you will scour the volume in vain for the slightest hint that every word of the text was actually written by a certain H. W. Longfellow.

My search did turn up this rather amusing notice, though.

Dante asserts his moral right

That’s right, Dante Alighieri, who died in 1321 but was apparently far ahead of his time when it came to intellectual property law, asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work. If only Longfellow had thought to do the same!

Consulting another Collins Classics volume, I was even more amused to discover that Homer — you know, the semi-legendary poet who may or may not have lived in or around the 8th century B.C. — asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of the Iliad. He ought to sue Giambattista Vico.

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Mercedes Benzes, palaces, and Swiss bank accounts

I’m less than 100 pages into Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, but already I keep thinking, “Wait, didn’t I just read that?” I know pointless repetition is a standard feature of academic writing (tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said), but I think you’re at least supposed to vary the wording a bit.

Here’s Professor Wintrobe on page 14, explaining his use of the word timocracy:

I borrow this term (perhaps inappropriately) from Plato (in The Republic [1974]). I use it to refer to a benevolent dictatorship, one in which the dictator genuinely cares for his or her people. It was not Plato’s ideal form of rule — it ranked second to rule by the Philosopher-King in his scheme. Still, the Greek root of timocracy is Thymos — to love.

And here he is on page 80, refreshing the reader’s memory:

I borrow the term “timocracy” from Plato (in The Republic), who designated by it what is obviously a benevolent dictatorship, although this type of regime ranked second to rule by the Philospher-King in Plato’s scheme. Still, the Greek root of the word “timocracy” is Thymos — to love.

And here he is, preparing his students for the exam question, “What three luxury goods do tinpot dictators crave?”:

Tinpots are regimes in which the ruling government does not disturb the traditional way of life of the people; instead it represses them only to the modest extent necessary to stay in office and collect the fruits of monopolizing political power (Mercedes Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 11).

A totalitarian regime uses these instruments of repression and loyalty to maximize power over the population, whereas a tinpot regime seeks no more power over its citizenry than is required to remain in power and collect the fruits (Mercedes-Benzes, palaces, Swiss bank accounts) of that office (p. 15).

The tinpot leader is essentially a rent-seeker, who seeks no more power over the population than the minimum needed to stay in office, using the rest of the resources of the state for his or her own purposes (palaces, Mercedes Benzes, Swiss bank accounts, and so on) (p. 79).

I wish Cambridge University Press had thought to hire an editor. Prof. Wintrobe’s central ideas are engaging, but these  déjà vu moments are starting to get really distracting. (When you stop reading to go back through the book looking for examples and then write a blog post about it, that’s generally a sign that you’ve been successfully distracted.)

Update (9/8): I’ve finished the book now and recommend it. The distracting repetitions stopped after the first 100 pages or so — or perhaps I just got sufficiently absorbed in the book that I didn’t notice them.


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