Tag Archives: sortes Virglianae


scarabgrub1Yesterday I had vertigo for the better part of the day. What set my world in motion is still not clear: too little sleep, too much booze the night before, dehydration, antihistamines, chocolate, a migraine, the inner ear. The first few bars of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Four in One’ looped in my head, a spinning, dizzying syntax.

I had planned to bring a tall ladder to the garden and prune the lilacs — which have already bloomed and gone. Negotiating the staircase proved hard enough. So, instead, I kneeled and, when I could not kneel, sat in the dirt and listlessly pulled a few weeds.

A copper-headed scarab grub made his way, with difficulty, out of a rotted tree stumpĀ and into the daylight. He writhed and pushed and lurched his fat body forward, but his legs twitched, as if in a palsy, unable to gain traction. As I left him, he had started to burrow back into the moist darkness of the decayed stump.

In the evening, when I was again able to focus my eyes, I went back to my book, and read about Archimedes, who ran naked and dripping wet through the streets of Syracuse shouting Eureka! He had, he explained, discovered the force that kept him afloat in the bathtub.


Prone To Error

Earlier today, someone at the YUNiversity of Righteous Grammar posted this tweet:

A good rule of thumb — but, it turns out, not much more than that. Just a few hours later, I came across the word “prone” used to mean both prostrate and supine in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (Part 3, Chapter X).

Stuck on the Great Isabel, Martin Decoud, “the brilliant Costaguanero of the boulevards,” is about to die of solitude:

It had been a day of absolute silence — the first he had known in his life. And he had not slept a wink. Not for all these wakeful nights and the days of fighting, planning, talking; not for all that last night of danger and hard physical toil upon the gulf, had he been able to close his eyes for a moment. And yet from sunrise to sunset he had been lying prone on the ground, either on his back or on his face.

The OED defines the adjective prone as “situated or lying face downwards, or on the belly”; and my discovery of this exception to the rule proves only that:
A) Kory Stamper is right: prescriptivists can learn from descriptivists to be a little more accommodating;
B) good writers don’t always follow the rules, and sometimes make mistakes;
C) you never know how one thing you read will connect with another — a lesson in literary serendipity as ancient as the Virgilian dip; and
D) Conrad didn’t need the word “prone” in that sentence.