Asterisked material is temporary, semi-fictional, extrapolated stuff that fills gaps between what people can know for sure. The dictionary entry for “arse,” for example, suggests that the word “arsoz” existed in northern Germany two thousand years ago. No one has a written example of it, but the speculation helps link the modern “arse” back to an ancient Greek word, orsos, which also meant a bum.
Dictionaries mark their made-up stuff with asterisks, hence the name. I loved the idea of making one symbol mean, “We would like the following fact to be true.”
Tom Howell is the author of The Rude Story of English, to be published in November.
I have spent the past few years living, or so it seems, with Austrian archdukes, Russian generals, French pacifists, American diplomats or British bureaucrats, as well as trying to understand arms races, military plans, and diplomatic tangles. This was my own fault because I gave way to the temptation to add my bit to the endless discussion over who or what started the First World War.
In the course of my research, I have been reminded yet again of the sheer role of chance in human affairs.
The heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo at the start of Europe’s summer holidays, so many, whether statesmen or citizens, failed to take the resulting crisis seriously until it was too late. And in removing Franz Ferdinand from the scene, the Serbian terrorists ensured that there would be no voice of moderation in Vienna.
The German chancellor had just lost his beloved wife and was not prepared or able to stand up to his own military who urged war.
In Paris, a powerful minister who was a leading advocate of friendship with Germany had been obliged to resign because his wife had shot and killed one of his political enemies.
The British, who might have acted as a brake on the slide to war, were preoccupied with the possibility of a civil war over Irish independence.
In five weeks during a lovely hot summer, Europe went from peace to war.
Margaret MacMillan is the author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, to be published in October.
Are you worried that nothing can halt eco-crushing population growth – currently, a million more every 4.2 days – because China’s one-child policy, with forced abortions for anyone wanting more, sounds hideously draconian? Or because, as some shrill white Europeans claim, proliferating Muslim hordes aim to take over the world?
Happily, while travelling to 21 countries to research how many humans our planet can hold without collapsing, I learned that on both counts, you’d be wrong. Belying Islamophobic fear-mongering, it happens that the most successful family planning effort on Earth occurred in Muslim Iran, which once had the world’s highest birth rate, but in the 1990s reversed that faster than China – with a completely voluntary program.
How? They made contraception free to everybody, and encouraged women to study. Want another surprise? To do the same worldwide would cost less annually than the United States once spent monthly in Iraq.
So why don’t we?
Alan Weisman is the author of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, to be published this month.
Clarence King, the diminutive and courageous explorer whose pioneering seven-year expedition of the mid-19th-century American West led to his appointment as first-ever director of the US Geological Survey, was an archetypal New England Yankee – but also a man with no time at all for women of his own race.
Following decades of bachelorhood, he met, in a New York City park, the woman of his dreams – a freed slave from Georgia named Ada Copeland. On the spur of the moment, he opted not to tell her his real name or race: He claimed instead to be James Todd, an employee of the Pullman railway company and, despite his lily-white appearance, a pale-skinned black man. The couple married, and raised four children: and he then lived for the rest of his days two entirely separate lives – with Ada Todd learning only her husband was a white Yale-educated geologist as he lay on his deathbed.
King was just one of The Men Who United the States – and by no means the most unusual I uncovered from a cast of long-forgotten visionaries and eccentrics who helped knit America into one.
Simon Winchester is the author of The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible, to be published in October.