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Book with ‘Fun’ in Its Title Makes Good on Its Promise


                                                     By Tom McMorrow

our dynamic editor and publisher, jeanne lieberman, the woman who brought colorful journalism to Fire Island, has invited this old Ocean Beachcomber to tell the story of my book, “Having Fun with Words of Wit and Wisdom” and I thank the gracious lady.


When an author is 90, his name is anathema to major publishers and agents (can’t make that promotional book tour) and so despite my lifelong list of writing credits I had to go the self-publishing route.  And I am well satisfied with the job the printer did, producing not only the book but the fabulous cartoons illustrating it by my old Daily News colleague, the master caricaturist Sam Norkin.


It actually had its origin on Fire Island, when I would sit in my father’s (an author) study summer evenings perusing his remarkable (19th) Century Encyclopedic Dictionary, a monumental task (ten volumes!), in a vocabulary-improving exercise, jotting down words I should know as a writer but didn’t – not the remotest idea of a book. That literary treasure chest, published in an era when there was no radio, no tv or movies to divert you from the Number One entertainment, reading, fairly bristled with quotations from the great writers – there could be six or seven from Shakespeare on one word, and I copied them all.


I did this as a regular hobby over the years, from the 1950’s in Stuyvesant Town as young marrieds through the years when our children joined us in West Hempstead, and then on to Forest Hills, not every night but when there was no ballgame or good movie on tv, as that folder I had in my filing cabinet labeled “Words” grew thicker.


It was after the children had grown up and married and we had moved to Manhattan that I knew I had been building what could surely be an interesting and stimulating book, and getting the nonpareil Sam Norkin to work with me I started to put together these words and quotations, not in the stonefaced dictionary style but aiming for a light and breezy approach so that the reader would be entertained. As my reviewer from the Associated Press put it, “Brimming with references to literature, journalism and history, the book delivers on its promise to entertain even as it informs.”


My project got a major boost when I visited my lifelong buddy Joe Wills in California and his wife Dorothy, a scholarly former librarian, loaned me their copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.  With that and Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” I was well-equipped to explore word origins – and also have some fun. Under Cogent we find “Forcibly convincing, from the Latin cogens, present participle of cogere, to force, drive together,” as in this delightfully self-deprecating Johnsonism: ‘Johnson added, very complacently, “Sir, I have two very cogent reasons for not publishing a list of my  subscribers: one, I have lost all the names; the other, I have spent all the money.” – James Boswell, Life of Johnson


Johnson’s Dictionary also inspired Sam’s first cartoon in the book, a hilarious portrayal of an 18th Century card sharp, under Above Board.


For richly quotable lyrics, it helps to be a Gilbert & Sullivan devotee. In prep school I was a first tenor (Irish, you know) in the Glee Club and our director, also the Speech and Drama teacher and producer-director of the annual school play, was a devoted Savoyard. Along with staging a G&S beauty every year, so that I saw four of them twice each, at our Winter and Spring Festivities, he gave us in the Glee Club a program exclusively of their work. W. S. Gilbert was a sort of 19th Century Oscar Hammerstein II, providing the perfect lyrics to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s soaring melodies (see the film “Topsy-Turvy”) that Hammerstein did to the gorgeous music of Richard Rodgers.  W. S. Gilbert is quoted 25 times in the book.


I was further helped by complete sets of Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Bret Harte, the cultured chronicler of the uncultured Old West, and the brilliant 16th Century French satirist Michel de Montaigne, so admired that he could dis the king in a day when kings enjoyed saying “Off with his head!” He wrote: “Sit a man on no matter how high a throne, he still sits on his bottom.”  Also: “I consider myself an ordinary man, except in that I consider myself an ordinary man.” He had our number.


While begging your tolerance for quoting my own stuff, I offer the explanation that none of us remembers everything he or she did 25 years ago, and a lot of this is older than that, so for me a look through it is in large part a voyage of discovery.


Here among the Shakespeares and the Henry Jameses we find Woody Allen in his film “Small-Time Crooks,” he and his wife (Tracy Ullman) being shown around Greenwich Village by a scholarly chap played by  Hugh Grant, who stops before a brownstone and says reverently, “This was once the home of Henry James.”


Woody (Muttering to his wife): “Who is Henry James?”

His wife: “A bandleader, stupid.”


Shakespeare couldn’t have said it funnier.  (For those of my grandchildren’s era, Harry James was a bandleader and the greatest trumpeter of his1940’s-1960’s day, .secondary distinction: married to Betty Grable, our WW II statuesque sex symbol about whom the German battlefield prisoner in “Saving Private Ryan” desperately trying to prove he loves things American, cries: “Betty Grable! Vot a set of gams!”)


Though the great Brits of literature inevitably lead the list (it’s been their language a lot longer than it’s been ours, and the world gets only one Shakespeare) Americans are numerous on every page, led by our New England sage Ralph Waldo Emerson with 45 quotations, closely followed by Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, the cultured chronicler of the uncultured Old West Bret Harte, also Thomas Wolfe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H, L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, the no-frills tough guy Elmore Leonard (“I look over what I’ve written, and if I see anything that looks like writing, I take it out.”), my favorite spymaster Alan Furst with 20, along with his predecessors in the field, the great Brits Graham Greene and John le Carré, and the New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and  Gail Collins and critic Alessandra Stanley.


For something a little spicy, an intriguing anecdote from back in my college days about old pop song lyrics, see Heinous (Did Cole Porter really write that?)


For a change-of-pace disquisition on something we had probably never thought about, the total domination of American Indian names, once you get west of the New England states, for our states, great lakes, rivers and mountains, the longest story by far in the book, see Minnesota, one of them.


You’re not going to forget what Frederick the Great wrote in a letter to Voltaire about the Catholic ceremony of the wine-soaked wafer on your tongue – you’ll find it under Eucharist.


And what Leonardo da Vinci said about the implements used in the world’s favorite pastime when the lights are out, to be found under Pent, is one you’ll be telling your friends.


Under Actress, absurd things that happened when women were barred from the stage in Shakespeare’s day – e.g. Juliet, one night, had a problem: she needed a shave.


A most extraordinary phenomenon of Medieval times, reported in every weird detail, was the appearance at funerals of the Sin-Eater, promising to do your time in hell and prevent you from walking although dead.


Under Yes, probably heading the list of hard-to-believe, the fact that in the ancient language of The Land of Saints and Scholars there is no word for Yes or No.  A report from the Hiberno-English Dictionary and from a Gaelic language scholar..


Serendipity: How the tale of the Three Princes of Serendip gave us the word for the happy accidents through which Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, Roentgen the X-ray and what the hero of Charles Lamb’s “A Dissertation on Roast Pig” discovered when he touched the body of a hog after his barn burned down and put his burned fingers to his mouth.


For a touch of the macabre, see “The Bullet’s Song to Its Victim” (Bret Harte) under Front..


As is stated up front, some of this is reported with attitude, like the dissing of the traditional dictionary’s occasional lazy lexicography found under Tinker’s Damn.  And under that super-sexy Norkin portrait of the Houri, an innocent question about the destiny of faithful Moslem women.


I hope I’ve said enough to intrigue you, and in closing I leave you with the image of lovely Greek goddesses, and for what they’re doing worthy of being remembered these thousands of years later go to Page 44 where you will find Caryatid.


Having Fun with Words of Wit and Wisdom is available on Amazon and can be ordered at Barnes & Noble.


The reviews:


“Tom McMorrow’s ‘Words of Wit and Wisdom’ is a great resource for teachers, students and lovers of language.  It connects people to their linguistic heritage and promotes the project of continual cognitive enrichment . . . an entertaining and infinitely useful support for any who want to deepen their understanding of language.”

. – Dorothy D. Wills, Ph.D., Linguistic Anthropologist

Chair, Department. of Geography and Anthropology

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


“A compilation of ten-dollar words made memorable by Tom McMorrow’s flair for describing their priceless back stories. Dictionary definitions pale when compared to McMorrow’s peculiar brand of etymology. (Pompous, he writes, is “a perfectly respectable word that has harrumphed itself into disrepute over the centuries.” )  Brimming with references to literature, journalism and history, ‘Words of Wit and Wisdom’ delivers on it promise to entertain even as it informs.”

– Jeff Carlton, The Associated Press, Dallas


“Tom McMorrow has created a monumental work honed from a lifetime of literary interest..  With fascinating quotations selected to cleverly illustrate a broad range of words, he has produced a memorable volume that is illuminating, useful and entertaining.  It stands solidly in the tradition of language and appreciation of wit, and is a most welcome book that one will want to keep handy for exploration and inspiration.”

 – William Wolf, critic, author, NYU professor and president of

 The Drama Desk, the association New York theater critics


“Tom McMorrow’s ‘Words of Wit and Wisdom’ will certainly be a good addition to any library, and it will have an honored place in mine. The book is much like Sam Johnson’s Dictionary, with quotations serving as illustrations. Dr. Johnson’s work has some eccentric definitions and a little wit, but I like Tom McMorrow’s explanations better.”

 – Valdon Johnson, Professor Emeritus of English,

University of Northern Iowa


One of America’s most prestigious prep schools, Choate Rosemary Hall, alma mater of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, and Greenwich Country Day School are using Having Fun with Words of Wit and Wisdom as a textbook. “I love the quotations! They help the kids to understand and remember the words.”Tom Yankus, Choate Fourth Form English teacher