If you can’t improve your health, improve your writing


Hypertextbook.com says that an average educated person knows about 20,000 words and uses about 2,000 words in a week. Most sources say that the English language contains between 600,000 to over 1 million words depending upon how you count.  (Thank you, Captain Obvious.)  Not only do most of us use less than 3% of available words, we employ them poorly.  And when I say “we,” I mean “me, myself and I.”

As a charter member of the Failed Writers Society, I recognize my repetitive, trite speech and writing patterns especially when I come across informative reading matter.

A recent article from The New Yorker entitled Alone in the Alps by James Lasdin described the connection between the Via Alpina trail in Europe and its rich culture as follows:

“That sense of multiplicity is still strong. The Rockies may offer wilder wilderness, but you don’t experience the pleasure of sharp cultural variegation as you move from place to place…   It’s there […] in the freshly incomprehensible road signs, which is Slovenia are clotted with consonant clusters, as if vowels were an indulgence.”

This description of a consonant-rich Eastern European language is the best I’ve come across since a Car Talk episode called Vowels to Bosniahttp://www.cartalk.com/content/vowels-bosnia

So what’s the connection between not improving your health and improving your writing? Well, if nothing else, not improving your heath will give you less time to improve your epitaph* when that inevitable day comes.

[*Dr. Language Guy wishes to point out that he word “epitaph” comes from the Latin epitaphium, which, in turn, comes from the Greek epitaphion, meaning “over or at a tomb.”  This is derived as epi (“on” or “over”) + taph(os) (“tomb”).]

Here are some better examples.

In a London cemetery:

Here lies Ann Mann,

Who lived an old maid

But died an old Mann

Dec. 8, 1767

 In a Ribblesford, England cemetery:

The children of Israel wanted bread;

And the Lord sent them manna.

Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,

And the Devil sent him Anna.

In Boot Hill, Tombstone, Arizona:                          

Here lays Butch,

We planted him raw.

He was quick on the trigger,

But slow on the draw.

 Also in Boot Hill:                          

Here lies Lester Moore

Four slugs from a 44

No Les

No more.

 Of a hanged sheep thief, in Lame, Ireland:

Here lies the body

Of Thomas Kemp

Who lived by wool

But died by hemp.*

 * A witticism from Cervantes’ Don Quixote states:  “One does not speak of hemp in the house of the hanged.”

A lawyer’s epitaph in England:

 Sir John Strange

Here lies an honest lawyer,

And that is Strange.

 In Newbury, England (1742):

 Tom Smith is dead, and here he lies,

Nobody laughs and nobody cries;

Where his soul’s gone, or how it fares,

Nobody knows, and nobody cares.

 In a Welland, Ontario cemetery:

Here lies all that remains of old Aunt Charlotte,

Born a virgin, died a harlot.

For sixteen years she kept her virginity,

A marvelous thing for this vicinity.


And finally, in Hollywood Forever cemetery:



Cast a Cold Eye

In responding to a post by Invisible Mikey, I quoted the epitaph of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 to 1939).  Yeats is buried in Drumcliff churchyard, Sligo, Ireland and the inscription is engraved on his simple tombstone.  It is taken from the last lines of his poem Under Ben Bulben.

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!


[Tombstone of W. B. Yeats]

I’ve read numerous explanations of the interpretive meaning of these words – you can read more, for example, at http://ireland.wlu.edu/landscape/Group4/analysis6.htm – but what interests me is the literal derivation.  The only explanation that I remember – and it may be apocryphal – of this brief ending to Yeats’ poem came from William F. Buckley.  I am now paraphrasing from faulty memory.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, at the entry to fortifications, everyone who was not among the landed class was stopped and questioned by the gatekeeper.  It was also the time of the bubonic plague that claimed lives of all ages suddenly and indifferently.  The gatekeeper, who determined whether or not a person gained entry, was suspicious of anyone who did not belong or who was ill.

Hence “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death.”

Anyone on horseback was considered a member of the gentry – knights, priests and noblemen – and did not need to be questioned.  They were allowed to pass without stopping.

Thus “Horseman, pass by!”

The interpretive meanings I leave to others.


[Drumcliff churchyard courtesy of 2c..’sphotostream https://www.flickr.com/photos/2cme/ ]