At The Margin
Vol. 3, Issue 6 (Whole Issue #32)
July 31, 2002

Matters, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. Fossilized Expression Watch
2. The Bad Fiction Contest
3. Books and Holiday Travel
4. Blue Underlined Words
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?

1. Fossilized Expression Watch
The English language is remarkable in its capacity for growth and change, but it also sometimes preserves expressions and figures of speech long after their original meaning has been leached away.

The petard, for example, is no longer a household item, and you can't find it in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But it's still in the dictionaries. It has to be, in order to provide a referent for the expression "hoist with his own petard." Merriam-Webster says the petard is (or was) "a case containing an explosive to break down a door or gate or breach a wall." The Oxford English Dictionary offers the helpful qualifier: "Now nearly or quite out of use." The OED was compiled between 1879 and 1928, so the petard was passing into obscurity by the turn of the previous century. It apparently had a last hurrah, for the Random House (second edition) says it was also the name of a spigot mortar (also called "the Flying Dustbin") used by the British in World War II.

The petard is almost completely unknown today, but the expression that fossilized it is probably still the most economical way in English to convey the notion of destroying yourself with your own scheme.

The first written appearance of petard (according to the OED) was in 1598, in a text explaining its use. In seventeenth century warfare, engineers were sent to breach fortifications with petards, which they would fasten to walls, doors, or gates below ground level. The engineer put the petard in place, lit the fuse, and removed himself as expeditiously as possible.

Technology in the seventeenth century was no more reliable than it is now, and petards sometimes exploded unexpectedly, before the engineer had made good his escape. So being hoist with your own petard meant being blown up with your own bomb.

Who was it that thought to use the word "hoist" for "blown up"? The usual culprit: Shakespeare, who apparently coined the expression in 1604 for Hamlet:

There's letters seal'd; and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar; and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon. O, 'tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

In those days, "hoist" meant the same thing it means now: "to raise aloft; to set or put up; to raise on high." There were also secondary meanings, mostly in sixteenth and seventeenth century usage, that included "to lift and remove, to bear away." "to overtax, surcharge," and "to be raised, to rise aloft." Shakespeare no doubt meant to use the word in the sense of "raise aloft." It's the kind of wordplay he seemed to be fond of. His mention of "sport" makes it sound like sometimes people would light a engineer's fuse before he was ready in the interests of fun. (The OED has three pages of definitions for "sport," but most of them have to do with recreation and fun.)

What's interesting about the expression "hoist with his own petard" is that its very obscurity will probably keep it alive. It would be clearer today to use "blown up with his own bomb," but the modern context would create ambiguity. Nobody ever tries to be hoist with his own petard, but we read in our newspapers every day about those who are intentionally blown up by their own bombs.

I was tipped off to this history by the "Weird Words Section" of World Wide Words, a website with a British viewpoint maintained by Michael Quinion:

2. The Bad Fiction Contest
The results of the 2002 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are in. You may remember that Bulwer-Lytton is the novelist who first wrote the line, "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Every year, the English Department of San Jose State University holds a contest to see if a modern writer can create an opening line as bad as Bulwer-Lytton's. This year's winner:

On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.

It was written by Rephah Berg of Oakland, California, an editor who also produces magazine puzzles. She placed in the contest once before (winning the Detective Category last year), which makes her, in the words of the contest's sponsors, a "recidivist."

The contest's website ( has more of this year's entries, as well as archives and information about the planning for Bulwer-Lytton's 200th birthday party, in 2003.

3. Books and Holiday Travel
"A Journey and a Book Are Perfect Companions" by Alain de Botton (,,923-344636,00.html) offers a thoughtful perspective on reading while traveling. Part meditation, part how-to, the piece is one of those that provokes flashes of recognition.

Traveling and reading seem to go together, de Botton points out, because both heighten our receptivity to new experiences. A book can deepen your appreciation of a place, as when you read Kundera while visiting Prague. Or you can indulge in a kind of rebelliousness and "read against the grain," with, say, DAS KAPITAL on the Riviera.

De Botton suggests we all tend to take too many books with us on holiday, and I was glad to know that, because I thought I was the only one. Much of my anticipation of a holiday trip revolves around what books I'm going to pack. Thank heaven for paperbacks. They are lighter and take up less room. Packing the books gives me a feeling of satisfaction; I will make a significant advancement on my reading list before I return. But I never do.

What's worse, the books I do manage to get read are never the literature, history, and philosophy that I intended but the trashy techno-thriller I threw into the suitcase at the last minute (or picked up at the drugstore when I got there!). I remember a delightful trip to Bermuda in 1983, during which I read an adventure novel about a nuclear-powered zeppelin. It was a terrible book, but I so much enjoyed the experience of lying on a beach blanket reading it. What a way to get a sunburn!

Going away in August? Don't take along more books than you can read. But drop ATM a note and let us know which ones you're taking and where you're going. We'll do a little roundup and see what use everybody made of the summer. Please let us know (via "[name withheld]") if you'd rather not be identified with your holiday reading.

4. Blue Underlined Words
Interesting items I've found on the web this month, not always related to books.

Political figures lie. They do it all the time. Sometimes they do it so baldly it is difficult to believe they aren't trying to entertain us with it. But sometimes they try to do it seriously, under the cover of "spin." The reason I like Spinsanity is that it doesn't let them get away with it. It doesn't care who the public figure is, either. It goes after anybody who spins, regardless of ideology or party affiliation.

Fanatical Apathy
If you've ever listened to the public radio show "Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me!", you've probably heard Adam Felber, who can be a pretty funny guy. He also maintains a pretty funny website.

Letters to J. D. Salinger
The website for the University of Wisconsin Press book, Letters to J. D. Salinger, edited by Chris Kubica and Will Hochman, lets you post your own letter to J. D. Salinger. The letters are often as foolish as you might expect, but they seem heartfelt, even the one that says, "PLEASE ANSWER MY QUESTION AS SOON AS POSIBLE."

Table of Condiments That Periodically Go Bad
You just have to see this to see how funny it is. Each of the 75 condiments has a symbol (like My for mayonnaise and Wu for worcestershire) and a lifespan.

Guns Don't Kill People, Books Do
This article discusses the irony that Attorney General Ashcroft has prohibited FBI agents from reviewing firearm purchase records in terror investigations even while they continue to gather information on book purchases and library circulation records.

5. E-mail to the Editor
Editor's Note: The messages we receive here at ATM often take on the character of a dialogue or conversation with the previous issue. You can find that issue on the web:

Why Aren't Cars Named for Famous Writers?
I was standing on a street corner and started thinking about the different names for all the cars passing by. They're named for places like Tacoma or Monte Carlo, for animals like Jaguar or Mustang, but some of the oldest are named for people like Ford, Cooper, and Tucker. I started wondering what if they named cars after famous writers. How would they promote them and what kind of models would there be? Like

When Duty calls
When you're going down a mean dark street
Where danger can be round every corner
You'll be glad you're driving a Chandler


Out where the mountains meet the sky
Where the mustangs run free
There's only one pickup that can handle all the challenges of rough country.
The L'Amour.


Last night I drove to Manderly
Of course, I was in my Du Maurier.


Cool Cat, Hip Cat, Fast Cat.
It grips the road like it's got claws.
It goes like a bat out of --
Well, it's an Avallone.

Tom Owen

[Floyd's Response: I laughed out loud at the Du Maurier. Thanks, Tom.]

On Typewriters (See Atm #31)
There are typewriter collectors and, probably, collectors of offset presses. Several weeks ago, I saw my favorite Hermes typewriter for sale on eBay. The shudder of struck keys under my fingers gave me a feeling of accomplishment, until I reread what I had written.

William Metcalfe

[Floyd's Response: Those were the days when men were men and writers had strong fingers.]

A Cat Story
You've asked for cat stories. We've two, ginger littermates, Sampson & Homer. (They were named as kittens, the second with the theory that, if he matured as a wise & dignified animal, then he would have been named after the poet, if not, then, Duh!)

When he was small, Sampson liked to watch television. He would sit, with ears twitching & head moving to follow the movement upon the screen. One day, I noticed him watching the News keenly. Head weaving, ears at attention. Until an item about the Royal Family, when he turned immediately from the screen & began vigorously to lick his parts & arsehole.

What discrimination! What taste! A real republican cat! Since I've no time for the Windsors either, you can imagine how much I prize him.

Bryan McEnroe

[Floyd's Response: Thanks for the laugh. Great to hear from you, Bryan.]

At The Margin has 1,220 subscribers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 1,209 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (

6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book by a famous writer that is at least 10 years old. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence
Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice's Lenten fast in the desert.

At The Margin has never seen anything like this. Fifteen readers submitted the correct answer: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Those who knew it: Adilee, John Caiazza, Brigid Cassidy, Amber Enright, Ted Graham, Barbara Haven, Elizabeth Hogan, Alice Maggio, Bryan McEnroe, William Metcalfe, Joshua Paulin, Frank Palmer Purcell, Sonny, Paul Spiteri, Loann West, and Denese Young. Two of them, Bryan McEnroe and Paul Spiteri, are among ATM's English readers.

Perhaps even more interesting, no less than 12 readers were moved to add comments: "I recognized it right away for that weird combination of ecclesiastical tone and Southwest American setting. I read the book years ago and still think it's one of the best science fiction novels out there." (Ted Graham)

"I know of no other sci-fi book that takes place in a Southwestern monastery." (Elizabeth Hogan)

"How many books would feature Brothers on pilgrimages in Utah? It's one of my favorite books and I read it again recently last year. I especially love the idea of these monks carefully reproducing the look of blueprints, wasting blue ink, never knowing that blueprints were the cheapest form of reproduction." (Loann West -- who owns a substantial collection of apocalyptic fiction)

"I read the book about 25 years ago; some things just stick in an untidy mind." (Brigid Cassidy).

"The book, of course, is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr, his one and only novel. A flash in the pan, some would say. Some flash. Some pan." (Adilee)

Barbara Haven noted that there is some interest in the book in religious circles: "You might enjoy curious, thorough (30,000+) references on religious groups in literature on a website at includes Canticle for Leibowitz in Catholics on"

Several people said they had not read the book but remembered the line anyway!

Many of the messages were positively celebratory, as this one from John Caiazza: "Finally, finally, finally, I solved one your 'Do You Know Me?' puzzles. Usually they are from such arcane books as the third volume of Proust's Recherche la Temps Perdue or a collection of Lady Jane Birdwell's delightfully entertaining but soulful missives from her trip to The Continent in 1837 (recently re-published by the University of Witwatersrand Press) that I have no chance of getting them. But not this time, for this is the first line from A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a gifted science fiction author. I recognized it because I have read the novel a number of times and until recently had an old paperback copy of it kicking around the house. Once in the early 80s, I heard a dramatization of Canticle on public radio in Boston, but I'm sure that you know more about this wonderful book and its author than I do, and I await your comments in the next issue of ATM."

In fact, I don't know as much about this book or its author as John knows, and I certainly didn't know as much about it as William Metcalfe and Adilee (who both correctly pointed out it was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction) or Loann (who knew about the sequel).

Technically, A Canticle for Leibowitz was Miller's only novel, but in fact there was a second book, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, published in 1997. Miller had written 592 pages of final draft when he committed suicide in 1996. Science fiction writer Terry Bisson (himself a Hugo winner) was hired to complete the book from Miller's outline and notes. "It was and still is Miller's book entirely," writes Bisson. "Whatever I did, I did writing as him; and it is, I hope, transparent." (

There are two other novels listed in Miller's bibliography, The Lineman (1957) and The Reluctant Traitor (1952), but they were published in magazines and don't seem to have ever appeared as books.

The story of A Canticle for Leibowitz spans about 36 centuries, and it is divided into three sections: "Fiat Homo," "Fiat Lux," and "Fiat Voluntas Tua." Each of these is a short novel in itself, telling a story that plays out in the course of a year or less. The stories are separated by millennia. "A Canticle for Leibowitz," which in the book became "Fiat Homo" ("Let There Be Man"), appeared in 1955 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The second two stories appeared in the same place as "And the Light is Risen" (1956) and "The Last Canticle" (1957). Miller then substantially reworked as well as retitled the three stories for the publication as a novel in 1959.

In the late 1950s, there was a spate of nuclear holocaust books published, including On the Beach by the incomparable Nevil Shute. I remember the titles Alas Babylon and Level Seven from my own reading as a teenager. Although Miller got a Hugo Award for Canticle (which validates the book's science fiction credentials), it was also part of this mainstream nuclear holocaust trend and garnered a readership outside the science fiction community. It stayed in print for a long time, but I cannot confirm that it is in print any longer.

The first story in the novel concerns the doings at the monastery near the village of Sanly Bowitz (say it out loud if you don't get it by sight), where the monks toil to preserve fragments of human knowledge and wait to hear if New Rome has approved the canonization of their founder, an electrical engineer martyred by a mob 500 years before. One of the monks discovers relics of the founder, actual documents he had produced -- things like grocery lists and schematic drawings. The monastery cares for these precious items, and the denizens of its scriptorium produce hand-illuminated copies. The story is humane in its outlook even while it is not optimistic about humanity. The novel uses a recurrent line: "It was a good year for buzzards." The subsequent stories are separated by new holocausts, and the overall vision is that of humanity, condemned by its nature to endlessly repeat a cycle of cultural advancement resulting in self- destruction.

Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman is not so much a sequel as a story that takes place in the world Miller created for the second section of Canticle. It covers a few years in the life of a monk named Blacktooth St. George. Here's an interesting fact about Miller's novels. Although Wild Horse Woman covers only a few years, it is 432 pages. Canticle, which covers 36 centuries, is only 278 pages.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was born in Florida in 1923. He attended the University of Tennessee, but his education was interrupted by World War II. As a radioman and tail gunner in the Army Air Force, he flew over 50 missions in Italy and the Balkans, and he had an experience that apparently marked him deeply. He was part of the force that bombed the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino so the Germans wouldn't be able to use it for a gun emplacement. There weren't even any Germans there when it was bombed. Miller himself later realized that the destruction of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz in the conclusion of his novel may have been a veiled description of the bombing of Monte Cassino. When Miller returned from the War, he married, enrolled in the University of Texas, and converted to Catholicism. He and his wife had four children.

After the publication of A Canticle for Leibowitz in 1959, he kept fairly silent. He co-edited a collection of Armageddon-oriented stories with Martin H. Greenburg and he worked on Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, but otherwise he seems to have become a recluse. When Terry Bisson was contacted by Miller's agent about finishing the book (Miller was still alive at the time), the agent admitted that despite representing him for over 40 years, he had never met Miller. Bisson also tells a story that in his later life Miller wrote a fan letter to a young science fiction writer and commented at length on the man's work, ending with the P.S. "This does not mean I want to meet you!" He is said to have struggled with depression for the final decades of his life.

Here is a brief bio: And here's a long article that is part essay, part biography: A study guide for Canticle ( was prepared by Paul Brians of the Department of English, Washington State University.

If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.

At The Margin is a learning project of novelist Floyd Kemske. He is committed to keeping it free for readers who enjoy it. But if you are moved somehow to support what he's doing, consider ordering one of his books. You can read the first chapter of any of his novels at his website: , or you can order one right now through one of these URLs:

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(c) Copyright 2002 Floyd Kemske

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