An e-mail from the always thoughtful and thought-provoking gentleman who goes (for reasons best known to himself) by the sobriquet “dungbeetle” around these parts has reminded me of the story of “Lord” Timothy Dexter, who among his many eccentricities (you can read about them here and, in a more censorious 19th-century version, here), published a booklet called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones full of the wisdom he wished to impart from his haphazard but financially successful life:

Not only did the content of his booklet cause readers to shake their heads, so did the format. As the quotes above show, Lord Timothy’s spelling was atrocious, and he had no use for punctuation. After the first printing sold out, he amended the second edition. He inserted a page of punctuation marks at the end with the note: “Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in a Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese”

Incidentally, he is mentioned towards the end of an amusing and amazingly sensible article, “A Dissolving View of Punctuation” by Wendell Phillips Garrison, first published in the August 1906 issue of The Atlantic:

Either some light has been shed on the principles of punctuation by studying the diversity of good usage, or else my readers may envy Lord Timothy Dexter’s, who were bid to pepper and salt as they chose. This ignoramus, in bunching his points at the end of his book, intimated two truths—one, that punctuation is, to a large extent at least, a personal matter; the other that punctuation may be good without being scientific.


  1. what a great posting. i was just reading “The Mushri-English Pronouncing Dictionary”, an obscure little book about another 19 century eccentric, Edmund Mooreshead, who taught classics at Winchester College from 1874 to 1903. The book was conceived as a joke, by a couple of his 6th form students, but it is actually a really interesting and serious attempt to record all the idiosyncratic speech, the ideolect I guess, of Mr. Mooreshead.

  2. Yes, that is a great post. It called to mind Lewis Thomas’s “Notes on Punctuation.” Advance apologies for the longish taste:
    There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and the exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops, we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).
    That last sentiment isn’t too far from some that you have expressed here.

  3. Thank you, Jason. My Inner Programmer is sobbing. 😉

  4. Just ran across this quote from Tatyana Tolstaya: “Only my father was a physicist. When he was applying for entrance into the physics department, he forgot to put commas in his essay, so he placed a whole string of them at the end as a protest against literary subtleties: Put them where you wish . . . ”

  5. January First-of-May says

    I’m personally reminded of the story told of young Korney Chukovsky (then Korneychukov), who was (supposedly) known to be very good with punctuation, so his classmates devised an elaborate system for how he would tell them where to put punctuation marks during dictations (so that they could also get good grades).
    Except the classmates didn’t realize that they should have accounted for little Korneychukov’s writing speed, which had, for the most part, differed from theirs (IIRC, he was faster, but I’m not sure). So most of their punctuation ended up in completely inappropriate places, often in the middle of words. This of course did not especially please the teacher.

    As for Timothy Dexter himself, I keep trying to compare him to Moritz Benyovsky, perhaps the only other (known) person of comparable weirdness in their life history. But Benyovsky had mostly been forced to live in interesting times (so to say); Dexter was just regularly insanely lucky.

  6. So I looked Benyovsky up. Quite a guy!

    Móric Ágost (Máté Móric Mihály Ferenc Szerafin Ágost) Count de Benyovszky (20 September 1746 – 23 May 1786) was a Hungarian nobleman of Polish and Hungarian ancestry. He was an explorer, writer, the self-declared King of Madagascar, and a military officer in the French, Polish, Austrian and American armies. He is considered a national hero in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.

    Apparently he’s inspired at least two operas, an epic poem, and a couple of historical novels.

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