A talk for Savages (members of The Savage Club, that is)

Notes for a talk to fellow Savages (who delight in literary oddities)

The wonderful world of Willard Espy.

Willard Espy is an American who has written many books.  Two I own are so well thumbed that they are falling to pieces.  There are hundreds of fascinating linguistic peculiarities, word games, and curiosities of language within their pages and these notes were put together for a talk given to those present at one of the regular members lunches in April 2009.



As a little tease, this clever example of a complex acrostic was written into the menu for the lunch but leaving out the lower case letters after the line for March


JANet was quite ill one day.

FEBrile troubles came her way.

MARtyr-like, she lay in bed;

APRoned nurses softly sped.

MAYbe, said the leech judicial,

JUNket would be beneficial.

JULeps, too, though freely tried,

AUGured ill, for Janet died.

SEPulchre was sadly made;

OCTaves pealed and prayers were said.

NOVices with many a tear

DECorated Janet’s bier.


Acrostics are wonderful.  Willard himself has composed one which is firstly a sonnet – difficult enough to create anyway – which has its hidden message down the lines three times using the first letter of each line, the the first letter of the third word of each line and the first letter of the last word of each line


Incidentally – why are there no synonyms for Thesaurus?

Which are the words which have the greatest number of synonyms?  I have not counted but ‘boat’ and ‘container’ are contenders.  If you want a good word game for Christmas see how many alternatives your guests can think of in ten minutes.



Private. No swimming allowed

Private? No. Swimming allowed

Eats shoots and leaves

A vegetation of greengrocer’s 


Which leads delightfully onto collectives – some are well established such a ‘swarms of… variopus creatures.,’ but why ‘a school of whales’?  On the other hand there are some wonderful inventions such as a ‘squirm of snakes’, ‘a stinking of skunks’ and for ladies of the night, a ‘peal of Jezebels’, ‘a flourish of strumpets’, a jam of tarts and ‘a pride of loins’.


Which leads us to


Palindromes come in several guises:  pure, word, numerical – even musical and visual 

Our last palindromic year was 2002

Dates turn up regularly in shorted form

                3/1/3 (3rd March 2003) or 30/3/03

                But 20/02/2002 is more satisfactory but these are few and far between

‘Reviver’ is the longest word in English that is a palindrome.  The longest word in the Roman alphabet is ‘Saippurakaruppias’ which is Finnish for ‘soap salesman’

There are lots of word palindromes as you will know.  But an unusual one I like is

Girl bathing on Bikini, eying boy, find boy eying bikini on bathing girl and my favourite.

In its pure form there are few common ones : Able was I ere I saw Elba etc   and

Now, Ned, I am a maiden nun; Ned, I am a maiden won

Rise to vote, Sir

but a particularly complex and delightful example is

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet  (created by Alistair Reid)

There are even palindromic poems

Returning Exquisite desire

Burning, then ashes and smoke

Glowing ember or flaming –oak

Unknowing, unknown secret fire!


Fire, secret unknown, unknowing

Oak flaming or ember glowing.

Smoke and ashes; then burning

Desire, exquisite returning.


English as she is pronounced

‘Telling hearth from earth is tough stuff Suzy’  is a poem created by British officers working with many different nationalities  during the Second World War to help them understand the way in which English is spoken.  It begins


Dearest creature in creation

Spelling’s not pronunciation


And goes on for several fantastic and intricate pages

Hear is another on similar lines (the spelling is deliberate as you will see if you actually read out the poem)


I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

On hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through?

I write in case you wish perhaps

To learn of less familiar traps:

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard, and sounds like bird.

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead;

For goodness’ sake, don’t call it `deed’!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

For goodness’ sake, don’t call it `deed’!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother

Nor both in bother, broth in brother

And here is not a match for there

Nor dear for bear, or fear for pear.

There’s dose and rose, there’s also lose

(just look them up) and goose and choose

And cork and work, and card and ward

And font and front, and word and sword

And do and go and thwart and cart

Come, come, I’ve bearly made a start

A dreadful language? Man alive,

eI’d mastered it when I was five!


Double entendres:

Some are unintentional.  Browning read a 17th Century poem which included the lines:

They talk’d of his having a Cardinall’s Hat 
They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat 

and assumed that ‘twat’ was an article of clothing and, in ‘Pippa Passes’, wrote:

Then owls and bats 
Cowls and twats 
Monks and nuns in a cloister’s moods 
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry 

I’ve tried to find out whether the following passage was, in fact, deliberate and inspired by Charles Dickens’ extra marital relationship but I do not think so.  It was published in 1843 and he did not meet Ellen Ternan until 1857.  What we do know is that Dickens’s affair with her, which lasted until his death, had several influences on his later fiction which explores sexual passion with an intensity and perceptiveness not previously apparent in the meek, goody-two-shoes heroines of most of his work.’

So in Martin Chuzzlewit, when Dickens describes the infatuation of Tom, the church organist, with a member of the choir I think this was inadvertent:

‘When she spoke, Tom held his breath, so eagerly he listened; when she sang, he sat like one entranced.  She touched his organ and from that bright epoch, even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence.’


And on that note….





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