The Magic of Words

The writer discovers first for himself by moving words around, bringing out surprising new meanings in them through arranging them in never-before-seen combinations. And if he hits upon the perfect combination, a light goes off, and the world will seem a brighter place to him and his readers. Joseph Epstein

Country Names
I am sometimes entranced by a word, by the way it sounds and how it looks on the page. “Burkina Faso.” Yes it is really two words but it describes a single entity. Do you know where it is?

How about its capital? Talk about a word. Ouagadougou. Just how do you pronounce that one? Pop the word in Google’s Translator under the “Detect Language” menu and listen to its smooth sound. Pretty exotic. Yes? And it was correctly identified as French in origin, reflecting Burkina Faso’s colonial heritage.


I must have been down and out a few years ago when I went to see Wordplay, a documentary about the world of crossword puzzlers and the legendary Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz. Or just plain fed up with the rubbish playing in the local cinemas.

From the first glimpse of the ever-smiling Will, I too began to smile as he introduced me to a world where there was much to feel good about. The world is primarily the people who construct and play crosswords with such remarkable skill. What a small world, but what talent, what knowledge and what unassuming humor about their gift. Nothing but “Ah, shucks, there’s not much I can do about it.” or “I don’t know how I do it, I just can.”

A refreshing movie, a delightful one for a change, nothing to ponder the moral implications or the madness that surrounds us. How reassuring that not everyone has lost their marbles. Maybe we will get through this after all.

Other’s Words

In The Words of Others, Gary Morson explores the history, the variety, and the multiple uses of quotations. It’s not a book of quotations, as in a unannotated commonplace book, but rather an analysis of the role of quotations in literature, anthologies, and contemporary culture. Through the magic of Kindle’s Highlights, I made note of a number of passages--quotations by authors of some renown, including famous last words and ideas and questions about quotations that Morson discusses in his book.

A wise man once said that ‘no man is ever an island,’ and truer words were never spoken.

Was Adam the only one able to speak without quoting?

As the Talmud testifies, commentary invites ever more commentary. A single gnomic line can come to resonate with centuries of subsequent wisdom.

Anatole France frankly advised, “When a thing has been said and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it”). Yes, indeed, but do more. Copy many well-said things. Piece them together. Assimilate them. Make the process of reading them a way to form the mind and shape the soul.

Sometimes phrases we have read or heard become so thoroughly assimilated into our way of speaking or thinking that we no longer recognize them as anything but our own.

Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful. Dorothy Parker

Erasmus saw his amazingly popular anthology as fulfilling the most important purposes of literature, guiding the use of language and conveying valuable lessons. Quotations distilled, and reading them instilled, wisdom.

It could be said of me that in this book I have only made up a bunch of other men’s flowers, providing of my own only the string that ties them together. Montaigne