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Chapter & Verse

Correspondence on not-so-famous lost words

September-October 2017

Jeffrey Tigay hopes someone can provide the source of an anecdote involving a Latin correspondence between Catherine the Great and Voltaire (or another Enlightenment figure) in which the two competed to see who could write more concisely. Eventually one sent a one-word letter, possibly rusticabo (I shall go to the country). The other won the day, though, by replying with a single letter, i (Go!—the imperative of ire).

Wayles Brown asks whether William S. Gilbert was thinking of a real example of a public figure changing nationality when he penned the H.M.S. Pinafore lines, “For in spite of all temptations / To belong to other nations / He remains an Englishman!” “Some of the motifs in Pinafore,” Brown writes, “are known to be based on current events of 1877-1878, such as the choice of W.H. Smith, the non-sea-going bookseller and stationer to be First Lord of the Admiralty.”

“When the action gets heavy, keep the rhetoric cool” (July-August). Jim Henle identified this advice from President Richard M. Nixon, in response to a question about then vice president Spiro Agnew during a press conference on May 8, 1970. According to the American Presidency Project™ transcript, Nixon said, “I would hope that all the members of this administration would have in mind the fact, a rule that I have always had, and it is a very simple one: When the action is hot, keep the rhetoric cool.”

“the boredom of living” (July-August). Dan Rosenberg was the first to identify this assertion by Samuel Beckett. It appears—in a passage about the dangers and mysteries of transitional periods during a person’s life—in the essay “Proust,” printed in various editions of the book Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. Such periods, Beckett writes, are “perilous zones…when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.”

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