Posts filed under “General Knowledge”


Dear Dr. Boli: My sister is getting married in May, and she insists on having three Elvis impersonators for her bridesmaids. This, of course, has caused a heated argument in our family over the obvious question: viz., what is the proper plural of Elvis? —Sincerely, Miss Aralia Throttle, D.Litt.

Dear Madam: The answer depends on etymology. You will find that this principle holds true for most of the vital questions: when in doubt, turn to etymology, and you will find the answer. In this case, the ending -is is common to Latin and Greek. If it were a Greek term, the proper plural of Elvis would be Elvides. The letter V is not native to classical Greek, however, so the answer is probably to be sought from Latin. The most correct plural of Elvis would then be Elves. Make sure to pronounce both syllables, of course, or you will just sound silly.


Dear Dr. Boli: In light of the current situation regarding the blockage of the Suez Canal, do you think it might be the proper time for suitable authorities to reconsider the route forged by General Chesney’s Euphrates Expedition? While I grant that towing cargo vessels via wagon across the Syrian desert might be a considerable challenge, the likelihood of ships being sunk by a hurricane strike on the Euphrates River remains an insignificant risk. If nothing else, it will probably be faster than the antecanalian route around the Cape. —Sincerely, Colin.

Dear Sir: It seems that every generation is doomed to have its Suez crisis. This should teach us something about canals and inland shipping in general. The clear solution, then, is not to dislodge ships when they become tightly wedged, but to send more ships after them, from both directions, until the entire canal has become one dense wad of ships. Then we can build a railroad across the decks.


Our frequent correspondent “RepubAnon” asks,

Is there a cat-resistant ink well? (Nothing is cat-proof to a feline determined to remind the primates who is the boss.)

It would indeed be difficult to imagine much of anything that would resist the assault of a determined cat. Much ingenuity went into designing inkwells that were nearly impossible to spill, usually by giving them broad bases that resist tipping. But a cat would inevitably dip an experimental paw in the ink, and then, discovering that a foreign substance had polluted the paw, would begin vigorous flicking. Somewhere in the course of it the inkwell would be knocked off the desk.

Instead of adapting the inkwell, therefore, Dr. Boli would suggest adapting the room to the inevitable. One might consider speckled wallpaper and a Rorschach-patterned rug. These decorations would only acquire more character when the cat discovered the inkwell and allowed natural feline instincts to operate.


Dear Dr. Boli: I just got a letter from the IRS saying my check is in the mail. Well, why should I believe that from them? They never believe it from me. —Sincerely, Alfred Piscator, Professional Tax Dodger.

Dear Sir: The Internal Revenue Service has a reputation for humorless and dogged enforcement of the tax code. But IRS employees are as human as the rest of us, and they would like us to think of them that way. They are sending these little jokes to you in the mail every once in a while to let you see the humorous, one might almost say puckish, side of the IRS.


Dear Dr. Boli: I want to start my own business, but I read somewhere that most new businesses fail in the first six months. Well, that sucks. I’ve decided to start a business that can’t possibly fail. All I need to know is what kind of business it should be. —Sincerely, A 17-Year-Old Who’s, Like, Sick of the Daily Grind.

Dear Sir or Madam: Dr. Boli would advise you to start a business selling shipping supplies on line. Every order will have to be shipped, of course, and each shipment will require shipping supplies. And from whom will those supplies be ordered? You can see how this business very quickly becomes completely self-sustaining.


March is set aside as the one month in the year when we express our gratitude for the steel pen, an invention that continues to improve lives and handwriting all over the world. Is Dr. Boli the only writer still obsessed with steel pens? The answer is a resounding no. The Steel Pen is a site made by a true obsessive in the best sense, and it is well worth wasting a few hours to explore its byways.

Can you still get steel pens? A similar question came up in International Typewriter Appreciation Month, and the answer was that one Chinese factory was making a sort of distant echo of a good typewriter for the American market. But for steel pens, the answer is a resounding and unqualified yes.

First of all, many pens were abandoned very suddenly in the middle twentieth century, when offices bought their last orders of steel pens and then found that no one was using them anymore. Those unopened boxes of pens often turn up on auction sites for reasonable prices.

But the pens are still being made today in great variety by some of the original makers. William Mitchell makes pens for every use, and also keeps up the Joseph Gillott line of drawing pens. Speedball keeps up a variety of lines, including the Standard School Pen, which was meant for inexperienced hands, and the Hunt line of artists’ pens. Leonardt, one of the other great Birmingham brands, is still making a every kind of steel pen, including the Index Nib, a novelty pen shaped like a hand with a pointing finger. Brause, Nikko, Hiro, Zebra, Tachikawa—there are almost as many choices now as there were a hundred years ago. There was a dark age of about thirty years when it was hard to find a good selection of steel pens; but then came the Internet, and now a dealer on one side of the world can find a customer on the other side.

When it comes to ink, writers of our own era have a decided advantage over the writers of a century ago. We are living in the golden age of ink. Many of the old brands—Sheaffer, DiamineWaterman, Herbin, and the like—are still making the same formulas they have made for decades or centuries. But the boom in expensive fountain pens has meant a boom in small companies producing ink in endless colors and varieties. Noodler’s lists 40 shades in the “blue” category alone. If you worry about your pen’s diet, you can choose Organics Studio inks. Of course you can make your own ink from walnuts, but if you wanted to sell it you would run into the difficulty that “Walnut” has been registered as a trademark for a brown ink that is made from something other than walnuts.

In short, you cannot use the excuse that the supplies are difficult to come by as a reason for sticking with a ballpoint. You will have to come up with some more baroque reason.

Meanwhile, there is the complex issue of paper, which deserves an article of its own.


Wikipedia is the world’s greatest outlet for the pedantic instinct. Consider the beginning of the article on St. Benedict of Nursia:

Benedict of Nursia (Latin: Benedictus Nursiae; Italian: Benedetto da Norcia; Vulgar Latin: *Benedectos; Gothic: Benedikt; c. 2 March 480 – c. 21 March 547 AD) is…”

Could one be more pedantic than that? Yes, indeed one could. One could do what Dr. Boli was sorely tempted to do, which is to add “[citation needed]” after the Vulgar Latin and Gothic forms.


Our frequent commenter “The Shadow” writes, in reply to “International Typewriter Appreciation Month,”

I’ve never yet encountered an international typewriter to appreciate.

That is a pity. Fortunately the L. C. Smith & Corona Typewriter Co. comes to our rescue with this chart of the International keyboard available on four-bank portable Coronas. The numbers (1) and (11) indicate that it can be had in Pica or Micro type styles.4-bank-international-corona

It comes from a brochure listing a wide variety of other special-order keyboards—including the one Dr. Boli most covets, the F101 Writer’s, with true em dash, proper quotation marks, and the ligatures æ and œ.