The Volokh Conspiracy, Extra 



Monday, January 26, 2004


PROFESSION: The division of this map

into various colors was, I wager, done by a lawyer (and not just because I know that FIRE, which runs, is heavy on the lawyers). The colors track the division of the country into the federal circuit courts of appeals. The dark blue is the 9th Circuit; the orange is the 5th and the 10th; the lighter blue is the 6th, 7th, and 8th; the red is the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd; and the green is the D.C., 4th, and 11th.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004


SILENT LETTERS: We all know about the common "silent e," but which letters in English are silent at least in some words? "Silent" is, I realize, not a fully well-defined term, but I mean a letter that is not pronounced (rather than just pronounced in a distorted way, as the first "l" in "colonel"). I exclude situations where two letters in a row have the same sound, for instance the last two letters in "bass" or "clock"; I do not treat either as silent. A word is acceptable if it (and the pronunciation that shows the letter's silence) is listed as an English word in any standard online dictionary. Don't complain that the word is "really foreign" because it's borrowed from a foreign language. Most English words were borrowed from some other language.

     Here's my tentative list so far; a few words have links to their dictionary entries, just to forestall claims that they're somehow not legit. E-mail me if you have words that match some of the letters for which I don't yet have words. No need to send any words for letters for which I already have words, unless the current word is potentially controversial, and the replacement is open-and-shut.
Wednesday (suggested by several readers).
No great "f" answer. Maciej Stachowiak suggests arfvedsonite, but while that seems to be in use, it's highly obscure, and present in only a few dictionaries; "halfpenny" and, surprisingly, "fifth," are sometimes pronounced with silent "f"s, but only sometimes; "chef d'oeuvre" and "roman a clef" are still listed as foreign in my New Shorter Oxford.
Rhino (thanks to R.J. Schoettle; I originally had the less common "noh").
Business (suggested by several readers).
Marijuana (thanks to Maciej Stachowiak) (I originally had "rijsttafel," but then nixed it on the grounds that the "j" does seem to have a "y"-like sound there).
Half (suggested by several readers -- d'oh!).
Dossier (thanks to Dan Simon).
Apropos (thanks to Ellen Dahlgren for this; I originally had the less common "pas").
League (thanks to Kathy Kraig).
v? Some say "fivepence," but I haven't found any pronunciation key proving this.
Whole (suggested by several readers -- d'oh again!).
Prayer (thanks to John Thacker for this).
Rendezvous (suggested by several readers).

Tuesday, December 16, 2003


Northernmost national capital, southernmost national capital, westernmost national capital in the Americas: Reykjavik (65 N), Wellington (41 S), Mexico City.


Heh, heh-heh, heh-heh. He said "Penal Code." Heh, heh-heh, heh-heh.


Double-landlocked countries: Lichtenstein and Uzbekistan.

Monday, December 08, 2003


William Blythe IV is most famous for being the President of the United States from 1993 to 2001.

Saturday, October 04, 2003


Here's a puzzle -- find three letters out of which you can make the most three-letter words, using each letter exactly once. (Each word must be spelled differently; multiple meanings of the same spelling, such as the different meanings of BAR, don't count.) Out of A, B, and C, for instance, you can only make one (CAB). The words must follow the Scrabble rules: They must be writable in all lower case, which excludes initialisms (such as ABC), place names, and abbreviations that must be followed by a period or must include an apostrophe. Naturally, the maximum number of words you can make out of three letters is six.

     The best answer I've found is T, A, and E -- EAT, ATE, TEA, ETA (the name of a Greek letter), and TAE ("to" in Scottish dialect, but a legit Scrabble word).

Monday, September 08, 2003


What are the three most populous countries in Africa? According to the July 2003 estimates from the U.S. government, which are also used the ones used in the CIA Factbook, they are Nigeria (134M), Egypt (75M), and Ethiopia (67M). I wasn't surprised by the first two, but I was by the third. My guess would have been South Africa, which is fifth at 43M; the fourth largest is the former Zaire, now generally labeled Congo (Kinshasa), at 57M.

     Egypt, of course, is partly in Asia, but my sense is that the overwhelming majority of its population is in Africa.

Monday, August 11, 2003


Which European countries have English names that have virtually nothing to do with their local names? Albania (Shqiperia), Finland (Suomi), Germany (Deutschland), Greece (Ellas), and Hungary (Magyarorszag).

     Armenia and Georgia aren't part of Europe under my definition; Austria (Oesterreich) and Croatia (Hrvatska) are indeed connected to their native language names; and Serbia and Montenegro (Srbija-Crna Gora) doesn't quite qualify largely because of the Serbia/Srbija, but also partly because Montenegro is actually a literal translation of the words "black mountain," which is what Crna Gora means in the local language (not sure how that fits within the terms of my question). Switzerland, according to the CIA factbook, is known chiefly as Schweiz, Suisse, or Svizzera, even though some items -- such as stamps -- bear the Latin name, "Confoederatio Helvetica."

UPDATE: I am told that Suomi means more or less "swamp land" or "fen land," which is also supposedly the source of "Finland." I'm skeptical that this is the origin of "Finland," since my New Shorter Oxford says that it comes from the Greek "phinnoi" (though, who knows, maybe that means swamp, too); see also this post from Sam Mikes. But if this is true, then we might have yet another "crna gora" example here, which wouldn't literally fit within my "virtually nothing to do with their local names." Still, maybe the question should have been framed as "have a different root in English than in the local language" or some such, in which case Suomi and Crna Gora would still qualify, but Serbia & Montenegro wouldn't, because of the overlap as to Serbia.

Sunday, July 20, 2003


The license plate GHUKET, I suspect, means "Fuck it." GH is sometimes pronounced "f," though not at the beginning of words; and George Bernard Shaw, commenting on the complexity of English pronunciation, once famously remarked that the (nonexistent) word "ghoti" might be pronounced "fish": "gh" would be "f" as in "laugh," "o" would be "i" as in "women," and "ti" would be "sh" as in "nation." I think that GHUKET is thus likely an allusion to "ghoti," and a (successful) attempt to fool the California DMV into letting through a license plate with a profanity.

     Why "GHUKET," then, instead of "GHUKIT"? My guess -- which a quick search via the DMV personalized license plate availability page confirmed -- is that "GHUKIT" was already taken.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003


From which points on Earth can you go 10 miles south, 10 miles west, 10 miles north, and arrive at the place from which you started?
  1. The obvious answer is the North Pole.

  2. But where else? Well, a bit north of the South Pole, there's a parallel that's exactly 10 miles long. If you then go the parallel that's exactly 10 miles north of that parallel, all the points on that parallel will qualify as answers to my question.

  3. But wait, there's more! The same is true of a parallel that's 10 miles north of the 5-mile-long parallel around the South Pole, 10 miles north of the 3 1/3-mile-long parallel, 10 miles north of the 2 1/2-mile-long parallel, and so on. Any parallel that's 10 miles north of a parallel around the South Pole that's 10/n miles long, where n is an integer qualifies.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003


"Pissant" + "u" = "puissant".

Monday, May 05, 2003


"Flammable" = "Inflammable." "Valuable" more or less = "Invaluable"; technically, "invaluable" means "valuable beyond measure," but in common usage it has ended up meaning something much like simply "valuable."

     Reader Michael Lorton contributed the third item: "Heritable" = "inheritable."

     UPDATE: Reader Warren Yemm passes along another one, which is considerably more obscure -- "candescent" = "incandescent" (and likewise for "candescence"); and Brian Erst passes along "habitable" = "inhabitable."

Thursday, April 24, 2003


THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: I think the answer is 3, though there are plausible (though ultimately in my view unpersuasive) arguments that it should be 4.
  1. "I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me." This is fortunately not legally enforceable; in fact, the First Amendment would prohibit the government from enforcing this.

  2. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them . . . ." Again, this is fortunately not legally enforceable, neither as to the prohibition on graven images, nor on the visiting of the fathers' sins upon the sons.

  3. "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." Some states have enacted blasphemy laws in the past, though to my knowledge they've generally been limited to public blasphemy. Fortunately they are not enforced today.

  4. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates . . . ." This is generally not the law today; some states still require some businesses to be closed Sundays, but there's no general prohibition on work on the Sabbath -- no-one is going to arrest you for working from home on Sundays, and that too is very good.

  5. "Honour thy father and thy mother . . . ." Not legally enforceable.

  6. "Thou shalt not kill." Legally enforceable, though of course with the usual qualifiers.

  7. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Not in practice legally enforced today, though I believe that some states do still have criminal prohibitions on adultery on the books. There are plausible arguments for enforcing these prohibitions, and also for considering adultery in various civil contexts (in property settlements in divorce and the like), though I think that on balance the current approach is better for a wide range of practical reasons.

  8. "Thou shalt not steal." Legally enforceable.

  9. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." Legally enforceable, at least in a wide range of contexts (such as perjury and libel).

  10. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." Not legally enforceable -- can you imagine a law prohibiting coveting?
So there it is: Many of these rules may be morally good, and all may be theologically important to some people. But only 3 (no killing, stealing, and false witness) are currently enforceable under American law, though there are plausible arguments that adultery should also be included.


MILITARY SPENDING VS. EDUCATION SPENDING: Each year, we spend roughly twice as much on education as on the military. In 2000-01, total spending on education (both private and public) was $700 billion, of which 80% was on public education; at 3% inflation per year, the fiscal year 2003 spending should be over $750 billion. The Defense Department spending for 2003 was a titch over $350 billion. (State National Guard spending is negligible compared to this.)

     Naturally, total federal spending on education is considerably less, only $60 billion in 2003; but that's simply because the lion's share of the spending is by states and local school boards, followed by spending by individual parents and students. One way or another, through private spending, state and local taxes, and federal taxes, twice as much of our nation's wealth is spent on education as on the military.

     (By the way, I don't mean to be a grouch, but if you're inclined to e-mail me to suggest that these numbers are off because they fail to take into account spending category X or zone of overlap Y, please (1) figure out just how much money X and Y actually involve, and (2) make sure that they make a material difference. No need to point out that some $100 million military expenditure is actually folded into the budget of the Department of Framastats; the analysis is the same whether the total is "a titch over $350 billion" or "a titch over $350.1 billion." These numbers are all estimates in any event, since utterly precise information can't be had here -- but I think they're pretty sound estimates at the level of accuracy that's needed for this question. My apologies for bringing this up, but I thought I'd try to nip some of the objections in the bud.)

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