Some Alarming News


I don’t mean to alarm everyone. But there have been an alarming number of alarms here lately. In fact, as I write this, I hear one that’s completely new. It sounds — oh, there, it’s just stopped. Well, it sounded like someone was running a vacuum cleaner that has just inhaled a throw rug. Whatever that means can’t be good. My guess it is it means the dogs nearby aren’t nervous enough.

Anyway that’s just the latest strange and alarming-like noise here. Another one only stands out when I go outside. This is … well, it sounds like a smoke detector complaining about a low battery. This is a more successful alarm than that vacuum cleaner that’s swallowed the throw rug, which is back, by the way. It’s not just more unsettling because the smoke alarm’s been going on a week now. The smoke alarm is unsettling because it implies there’s some house on the block where it’s always 4:30 am. This seems improbable. If it’s always 4:30 am in there how do its residents know when to oversleep for work? But more, how am I hearing the smoke alarm from some other house? It can’t be the neighbors. I know them, kind of, and they’d absolutely have replaced the batteries or smashed the smoke alarm with a sledge hammer by now. But what other house could possibly be near enough to hear? Unless all their windows were open, and they had set up a megaphone right by the smoke alarm and aimed it right at our driveway?

But what other explanation makes sense? Could someone have set a smoke alarm in the park at the end of the block? This would be great, since the local squirrels and raccoons need some warning of brush fires. The skunks do too, but they need something less alarming, for the obvious reason. The local skunks have been very alarmed by many things all summer and fall, I infer. We don’t need to add to that.

Anyway — there’s that vacuum cleaner again — there’s a bunch of alarms in the area. Like, this past Saturday they did the usual monthly tornado siren test. My area of Michigan, despite being in the Midwest, doesn’t actually get that many tornadoes. It gets tornadoes about as often as my old area, New Jersey, does. And New Jersey doesn’t get tornadoes. When I grew up we only ever heard about tornadoes touching down in warehouse districts of Brooklyn. These days, tornadoes have been entirely priced out of Brooklyn. Where are they even going to go, Staten Island? So the point is we don’t really need a tornado siren in Lansing, Michigan. One Halloween they tried using the torando siren to announce the official start and end of trick-or-treating hours. The catch is that year it was so rainy, and windy, and turbulent that everyone figured we were getting a tornado, so everybody stayed home, confused. This foiled our plan to get a good reputation by giving out full-size peanut butter cups.

And then this Tuesday they tested a different alarm. This is one they’ve set up to warn people that the dam has broken. Also that there’s a dam which, if broken, could be a problem. We’re near a river, but not the one that’s got a dam so far as anyone has told us about. But we are near enough that other river that I could hear the siren. It was this kind of quick, rising tone, with silent intervals, sounding like someone was trying to hurry through the tornado siren and made a mistake and had to start over again.

After like thirty seconds of that, the siren gives way to a prerecorded announcement. Here, this booming voice gives people the useful emergency information: I don’t know. We’re far enough from the river that by the time the sound reaches us, it all sounds like Charlie Brown’s French teacher. So, if the dam does break, I’ll have to follow the instruction of “le hrronk, la bwooonk-wa-wa-honk et les nous hawrooronkarronk sur ta plume”.

I think that vacuum cleaner has digested the throw rug, so whatever problem that is has cleared up. I know I feel more secure now.

A Quick, Dumb Little Thing Because I Want To Lower My Words-Per-Post Average


Elvis, or as he is known in French-speaking countries Le Vis.

(Thanks; come back next week for my “Aquaman or is he, in fact, Thequaman?” post.)

Robert Benchley: The Word “Three”


I’m a know-it-all. By this I mean simply that I assume you have an opinion about David Rice Atchison, and whatever it is I am prepared to argue that you are wrong. It’s amazing that I don’t spend more time running away from people meaning to slap me. But I credit that for my always loving the mock-explanatory essay. I love the real things, certainly, but the humorist who can capture the rhythms of explanation while producing nonsense — well, that’s wonderful. Robert Benchley in My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew provides one of the most perfect examples of this. From the fourth paragraph on there’s barely a misfired word or a weak sentence, and the first three paragraphs are a good warming up. The antepenultimate paragraph alone is worth learning what “antepenultimate” means.

The Word “Three”

I don’t know whether you care or not, but etymological circles are in an uproar. They have just discovered what the word “three” comes from.

They have known the derivation of all the other words in the number-table (as, for example, “two” from “Tuesday,” or the second day in the week if you don’t count Sunday as the first, and “five” from the god Woden, or Thor, or Buttercup, and so forth and so forth), but they have never been able to figure out where the word “three” came from.


A little fellow from the University of Welf discovered it. He doesn’t speak English himself, but he is awfully interested in people who do. It was during one of these periods (I should have told you that he has periods when he looks up words) that he found out about the word “three.” He was looking up the word “tree” and, not speaking English well, he thought that it was pronounced “three.” You can see how that might very well be.

The word “three” comes to us direct from the French, collect. The original word was (and still is) tri, which means a sorting, or, as in card-playing, a deal. Thus, one would say: “Give me a tri,” or “How is your tri?” meaning “Give me a deal” or “How is your deal?” If one were really speaking in French, of course, all the other words in the sentence would be French, too. (i.e., “Donnez-moi un tri” or “Votre tri, ça marche?”)

Just how the word tri got into the French language is a mystery which occupies practically nobody’s attention at the moment. It is supposed to have come from the Creole patois of New Orleans, and was used to signify hurry or lethargy. The old form of the word was blo, which gradually was shortened into tri. Later the whole word was dropped from the language by a rising vote.

The Normans brought the word into England just before the Norman Conquest. In their use of it an extra syllable was added, making it triouille, meaning white-bait or Roger crab. We still are no nearer than we were to finding out how it came to mean three of anything. Don’t think that I’m not just as worried as you are.

With the advent of water-power and the subsequent water-pistol, Luke (Luke was the fellow I was speaking of a few yards back) didn’t know what to do. Unless I am greatly mistaken, this paragraph belongs in another article.

Well, anyway, the people who are making up the English language found themselves with names for every digit except “three.” And, as there were three of quite a lot of things (Marx Brothers, blind mice, wishes and cent stamps) it got increasingly embarrassing not to have a word to express “three.” They tried using the word “four,” but it ended only in confusion, especially when addition or subtraction was at stake.


Suddenly someone said: “Why don’t we take the word tri from the French? They’ll never miss it, and they owe it to us anyway.” This seemed like a logical plan, and everybody but one man agreed to it. He later committed suicide when he found out how successfully it had worked out. “I was a blind fool,” he wrote.

As it sounded rather common to say tri, they put in an h and substituted a double e for the i. This made as pretty a “three” as you could wish, and from that day on it was a part of the language. They tried it out in a little rhyme: “One-two-three—buckle my shoe,” and it went so well that soon everybody was saying it.

Frankly, I don’t know whether I like it as a word or not. It still sounds a little slangy.

Why I’m In A Good Mood (Pet Store Edition)


I was in the pet store and after spending enough time watching the guinea pigs (who just had a litter of six! Six! Can you imagine?) I wandered into the aquarium supplies, to get food for our goldfish. There they had a gadget for catching snails, which apparently people need to do every now and then.

The Snail Collect was labelled, in English, as a “snail trap”. Fine enough. It was also identified on the box as, in French, “piège á escargots”, which is maybe better. And then in German it was “Schnecken-Falle”, and I can’t decide whether the French or the German is more wonderful. I have got to find out what this is called in Dutch.

Statistics Saturday: Most Popular Unwritten Articles


Here are the most popular things which I did not write in the past month:

  1. French Words I Do Not Know, a quick guide to things you can’t talk about with me in French.
  2. Bacon Moustaches In Mason Jars, frankly, clickbait for the hipster audience that saw through me so clearly that they were over me before everyone else was.
  3. The Studio Audience, and other things not found around my apartment (I haven’t had a studio apartment since 1998).
  4. Episodes of Automan I Still Have In My Head, a cautionary tale. Warning: they’re all stupid.
  5. Robert Benchley: My First Radio Set, an essay about trying out life as a ham radio operator which the great humorist never wrote.