Fig Juice for QQ

Looking for a doctor?  I heard about a fantastic one yesterday, through a testimonial that popped up in my Facebook stream:

“Quickly as fig-juice, pressed into bubbly, creamy milk, curdles it firm for the man who churns it round, so quickly he healed the violent rushing Ares.”

Remarkable, huh? 

This passage is from The Iliad (Fagles translation), which one of my Facebook friends is reading on his Kindle.  It describes an act by the healer-god Paeon and it assumes you have at least a peripheral awareness of the speed with which fig-juice curdles milk. 

(My intent in posting it here is not to encourage kitchen experimentation, but if anyone is so inclined, I’d be curious to hear about any measurements you might take with your stopwatch.)

What does this passage have to do with QQ? 

For one, it alerts us to the Homeric simile as a writing model, a source of inspiration, ideas, and techniques for use in our own daily challenge. 

When you think of it, Homer’s similes tackle the very problem that’s at the heart of QQ: how to elucidate relationships between seemingly disparate concepts, and how to do this in a compact (though not necessarily brief) utterance.  Those of us who attempt it today might wish to examine how it’s been done (way, way, way) before.

Here are a few starting points for exploration:

The Similes of Homer’s Iliad, a 1877 compilation by W. C. Green, is available free via Google Books.

Two books by William C. Scott, The Artistry of the Homeric Simile and The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile, are also freely available.

This also seems a good opportunity to start a more specific discussion about grammatical and/or rhetorical ideas that could be useful members of a QQ solutioneer’s toolbox.

From this simile quoted above, I learned a sentence pattern that I had probably encountered before, but certainly never used myself.  The basic pattern is:

[ADVERB] AS [description of something]…, SO [ADVERB repeated] [description of something similar].

To see what’s interesting about this pattern, let’s start with a simplified version of the fig-juice simile, rendered in a more straightforward form:

“Paeon healed Ares as quickly as fig-juice curdles milk.”

Now consider this reordering, which to my ear has greater dramatic impact:

“As quickly as fig-juice curdles milk, so Paeon healed Ares.”

Note that Homer (via his translators) often uses “so” to signal the transition from the first to the second part of a simile.  In the simplified example directly above, “so” is not so important, but in an extended sentence it is often helpful, and sometimes essential as a parsing aid.

Finally, let’s modify the sentence further, bringing it in line with the quoted pattern.  For me, something special happens when “As” is removed from the opening, and “quickly” is repeated in the second part of the simile:

“Quickly as fig-juice curdles milk, so quickly Paeon healed Ares.”

Or, as Homer/Fagles actually have it:

“Quickly as fig-juice, pressed into bubbly, creamy milk, curdles it firm for the man who churns it round, so quickly he healed the violent rushing Ares.”

Notice that omitting the first “As” puts “quickly” in the opening slot and therefore emphasizes that word.  Such an emphasis makes aesthetic sense because the simile is all about speed. 

Repeating “quickly” after “so” helps to signal the transition between the two parts of the simile, and gives the reader a reminder of what is actually being compared.  I like the way the repeated “quickly” operates on two levels here, both emphasizing meaning and adding structural clarity.

One of the things I love about QQ is the variety of solutions, how many different ways participants connect the same four words.  I’m also intrigued (and I gather you might be too) by a similar variety in the domain of translation: how many different ways the same passage can be coaxed, dragged, and in some cases lambently coursed from one language into another.  So, here are some other versions of Homer’s fig-juice simile, from different translators and times, and in no particular order.  Have fun reading them, and please let me know of any others you encounter or perhaps devise!


As the juice of the fig tree curdles milk, and thickens it in a moment though it is liquid, even so instantly did Pae??on cure fierce Ares.
S. Butler

Just as fig juice
added quickly to white milk clots it at once
as it’s stirred, that’s how fast headstrong Ares healed.
I. Johnston

As wild fig sap
when dripped in liquid milk will curdle it
as quickly as you stir it in, so quickly
Paeon healed impetuous Ares’ wound.
R. Fitzgerald

As quickly as white milk
Thickened with fig juice
Curdles when stirred,
Paieon healed impetuous Ares.
S. Lombardo

The wound healed over at once, just as you might drop fig-juice into a bowl of milk and it curdles as you stir.
W. H. D. Rouse

And quick as fig-juice curdles the white milk—
Liquid before, but, as ’tis stirred around,
Fast thickening into clots—so swift the leech
Staunched with his simples the bold War-god’s wound.
W. C. Green

Even as fig juice maketh haste to thicken white milk, that is liquid but curdleth speedily as a man stirreth, even so swiftly healed he impetuous Ares.
A. Lang, W. Leaf, E. Myers

Like as when fig-juice by its quick action curdles the white milk which is liquid, but curdles quickly at the stirring, so Paeon healed fierce Ares.
G. H. Macurdy

And as fig-juice hasteth to turn white milk to a sudden curd,
That the thin-flowing standeth in clots when scarce by the hand it is stirred,
So Ares the wild-heart’s blood-flow changed into flesh forthright.
A. S. Way

He healed the fierce god as swiftly as fig-juice thickens milk that curdles when stirred.
A. S. Kline

As when the juice of the fig in white milk rapidly fixes that which was fluid before
and curdles quickly for one who stirs it; in such speed as this he healed violent Ares.
R. Lattimore

Thus he who shakes Olympus with his nod;
Then gave to Paeon’s care the bleeding god.
With gentle hand the balm he pour’d around,
And heal’d the immortal flesh, and closed the wound.
As when the fig’s press’d juice, infused in cream,
To curds coagulates the liquid stream,
Sudden the fluids fix the parts combined;
Such, and so soon, the ethereal texture join’d.
A. Pope

QQ’s Cartographic Celebrity

Today the comic site XKCD features a cartographic envisioning of the world of online communities: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and so on.

I was particularly pleased to find, in the bottom right-hand corner (main figure), a sizable region occupied by our very own QQ!

Though I remain hopeful, I have started to suspect that this part of the map might not in fact represent our site.  Google informs me that QQ is also the name of the largest instant messaging service in Mainland China.  Apparently a lot goes on in China that I don’t know about!



Here is Wikipedia’s article on the “other” QQ:

Today I also learned that in World of Warcraft II, the keystroke ALT+Q+Q quits the game.  This gives rise to imperatives such as “Shut up or QQ!” 


Further, QQ has been used as an emoticon for a crying face. 

And James Joyce mentioned QQ in the following sentence from Finnegan’s Wake (interpretations invited):

A pushpull, qq: quiescence, pp: with extravent intervulve coupling.

There is also such a thing as a Q-Q plot:



And, as I’ve known for some time, Quadrivial Quandary is the name of a solo guitar work by Andrew York.

Still more uses for “kissing Q’s” can be found at Wikipedia’s disambiguation page:

While I fully support the process of neologism that gives such variety to our language (I’ll even declare myself a semantic progressive), I must say I prefer the “received” definition of QQ as a challenge in which a writer uses four daily words together in one illustrative sentence.  And if this definition is somehow not the received one, I still think it is maximally frabjous.



What to do in the case of a word/definition mismatch

Yes, I know — the “Definitions” section of the QQ homepage occasionally exhibits a searing internal conflict in which a word and its accompanying definition disagree. This happens when one of QQ’s word sources offers conflicting data in its RSS (syndication) feed.

Today, for example, Merriam-Webster tempts us with juicy “tenderloin” but then provides a definition of, like, you know, “phatic.” With these two words competing for our attention, which should we favor?

The Official QQ Policy is to use whatever word appears in the yellowish box at the top left of the homepage. So, for today, tenderloin prevails over phatic. However, contributors are invited to intensify the day’s challenge by using phatic, or whatever the extra word happens to be, along with the other four from the yellow box.


Et Seqq on process and participation

[Here are a few words from correspondence with Et Seqq.  -Rudi]

On process:

“I don’t have much to offer on my QQ creative process . . . initial trial linkage(s), rejection, rejection, frustration/desperation/inspiration (just one or all three), honing, honing, that’ll do, and then ‘click’ and toodleoo. That about sums it up.”  – Et Seqq

On staying engaged:

“QQ stands or falls by the quality of its daily contributions. We all of us have our good, average, and bad days. For my part, if I find one or two of my own and others’ contributions per week reasonably entertaining, witty or humorous, or just straightforwardly well-crafted, then it keeps me engaged and ready for the next day’s mini-challenge.” – Et Seqq

What makes a successful QQ sentence?

[Here at Omnium Gatherum, QQ contributors are invited to share their thoughts about the challenge — what makes a successful QQ sentence and how to actually write one?  To get us started, cusheamus has written this post expanding on those questions, setting down a few groundrules for discussion, and offering some initial examples.  What do you think?  If you have a brief comment, add it directly to this post (comments are moderated); if you have longer response, send it to and I’ll add it as a separate OG post — Rudi]


There are two things it would be interesting to discuss. The first is what makes a successful QQ sentence. The second is how meaning can be made clear from context.

When we talk about successful QQ sentences, there a few things we might keep in mind. First, for the sake of everybody’s sanity and self-respect, if we need to give an example of something that doesn’t work, it should be our own work, something we make up to illustrate a particular point or even something of our own we’ve posted on QQ. On the other hand, when looking for an example of a sentence that does work, other people’s submissions are fair game, a possible bonus being that the author may be prompted to discuss it from his/her own perspective.

So the question is, what QQ sentence do you particularly like and why do you think it’s a successful solution to the Quandary? This is an exercise undertaken primarily from the point of view of the reader, not the writer.

The second matter for discussion is from the writer’s point of view: how do you make meaning clear from context? Meaning-from-context is perhaps the hardest part of QQ and any thoughts about how it’s achieved would be welcome.


Ex. 1. What makes a successful QQ sentence? I picked a date at random and chose the contribution I liked best. (I don’t think there’s any need to give the date or the contributor’s name.) The words were canonical, occult, doldrums, and draconian. The sentence is:

” Dear Kapellmeister Bach, We acknowledge receipt of your latest musical offering, The Art of the Fugue, but would respectfully observe that it is not only incomplete but includes many wilfully abstruse canonical pieces that are, frankly, altogether passe, having been occulted by more accessible rococo styles; therefore we trust that you will not find our considered rejection unreasonably draconian, driven as it is by the commercial imperative to escape the doldrums of the current recession.”

This seems like a very good example of a sentence where the meanings are obvious despite the fact that there aren’t any synonyms or restatements or analogies or stealthy definitions. I think this is because the setting is really clear, the evolution of it is straightforward (no tangents), and most of the phrases are stealthily helpful, resulting in there being only one small class of thing each word can mean in at least three of the four cases. For instance, if the letter writer is driven by the imperative to escape the recession, clearly the doldrums are not a happy, productive place to be! The words fit nicely in their places without any explanation at all, which is pretty impressive.

Ex. 2. What are some ways to make meaning clear from context? Just a brief example here from my submission on 9/4. The laziest way to define a noun, in this case thimblerig, is to find a way to say it in a couple of different ways, synonyms, or almost. So I read about thimblerig and learned that it is a shell game, related to three card monte and the like, so I just worked those two (“shell game” and “three card” – a slangy way of saying ‘three card monte’) into my sentence in a way that made it clear that thimblerig was the same sort of thing.


Captain Thunderbeard: How I solve the Quandary. Plucking banjo vs. violin.

I solve the quandary by choosing a word I already know and picking out the strongest image that comes to mind. I then take that image and try to build a scene based on the definitions of the remaining words.

I am satisfied when I come back after 5 minutes and reread my sentence — if it is not apparent I am shoe-horning four words, I am happy. I also strive for a certain level of ‘flow’. My sentences are sometimes very long, and getting the punctuation correct is a bear.

I find that the most challenging part of QQ is making the sentence feel natural, without being wordy. I like to read long, descriptive sentences, but in general hate writing them. My mind works like a plucking banjo, not a violin.

At first I just wrote the kind of sentence that came naturally with the four words: four distinct ideas crammed into a single, long sentence. I now continue to do QQ because my goal is to fit them into a single, short, crisp sentence rather than a long one. It becomes a different kind of challenge. At first it was to use the words each on their own, and now it is to use them as ingredients, rather than standalone dishes. For example:

(in the beginning):

The harried mother chased her two rambunctious boys across the bistro, adjuring the elder to return the baguette he pilfered from the fulsome feast laid out on the neighboring table, but he paid no heed and busticated it happily over his brother’s head.

The stolid bear looked up from his fresh kill to watch a mischievous crow bouncing jauntily along the esker toward him, piercing the air as he went with his squawking koans.


Captain Thunderbeard



Editor’s note 9/15/2010:

Some correspondence followed Captain Thunderbeard’s post.

One contributor felt that, of the two sentences Captain provided, the first made the meanings clearer. In the second sentence, “stolid,” “esker” and “koans” could be replaced with very different words (say “hungry,” “telephone wire,” and “comrades”) and still make sense, whereas in the first, the Quandary words seem more firmly situated; if not inextricable, at least harder to substitute.  This contributor wanted to know more about how Captain weighs “the requirement that a reader unfamiliar with a word be able to make a good guess about its meaning from the way it’s used in the sentence.” “For me,” writes the contributor, “it’s dead easy to write a sentence using all the words, but very difficult to do so in a way that gives real clues about their meanings. All of us falter, if not fail, regularly at the meaning-from-context problem, so I’d really like to read a follow-up post with more thoughts about that in particular.”

Captain replied with some comments about how he’d been interpreting the word “illustrative” in QQ’s challenge statement “use all four words together in one illustrative sentence.” He had been seeking to paint a vivid picture with the words, but not necessarily to explain by example. He preferred his second sentence because he felt it evoked a “simple, uncluttered image.” He pointed out that in some cases a writer might over-suggest the meaning of word using contextual clues and thereby make the word itself seem extraneous.

Still, Captain looks to refine his approach. He follows the philosophy that “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.  However, Captain plans to balance his interest in crisp sentences that convey a vivid, uncluttered image with the aim of conveying definitions – “illustrating” the words in the sense of expressing their meanings.

Aye, Captain – good luck seeking that balance, don’t be afraid of a misstep here and there, and keep the sentences coming!


cusheamus: what Quadrivial Quandary is and some notes about the process of composing a solution

Guest post from QQ contributor cusheamus about the process of composing a solution.?? (From July correspondence.)

Most popular word puzzles are funnel-shaped. The big open part at the top is where the clue or definition goes, along with all its associations, and often along with some limiting factor, e.g., it has to contain certain letters or it has to be a specific length or perhaps it has to rhyme. The small opening at the bottom is where the word comes out, and lies inertly, often with each of its letters inside a little box, so the word not only has no context but also it's been dismembered, like an organ donor ("I need an 'i' in a fourteen-letter word for 'cold-blooded'").

Quadrivial Quandary is funnel-shaped, too, but joyfully upside-down. The word is still there in the small base of the funnel, but the process moves upward and outward, accreting more associations and a more intricate context as it goes, until it emerges from the big opening as part of a story, having fulfilled its wordy destiny as purveyor of meaning.

For people who are used to the first kind of puzzle, however, making the transition to QQ can be overwhelming, setting off into the pathless wilderness with nothing but four peculiarly intransigent words and a writing instrument, and no earthly idea how to begin.

Without getting into a discourse about what puzzles (of any kind) are for, let me just note what QQ seems to do for me: it's imagination calisthenics and writing warm-up. Not only doesn't it take much time (10-30 minutes most days), but the fact that it can't take a lot of time even if I want it to is a very good thing; there's no time here for fiddly perfectionism. Just get out there and get the blood flowing! This is not the time or place for self-consciousness or competitiveness. It's an ideal exercise for writers at any level, beginning with bright middle-schoolers (provided their teachers don't spoil it by grading their solutions).

I have been composing QQ solutions almost every day for about nine months and can share a few things I have learned about arriving at an acceptable solution. Other contributors will certainly have different advice and strategies.

1. Being comfortably clear about the meanings of the words is the first step. Some you may already know and love, with some you may have a nodding acquaintance, some will ring a faint bell, and others will be utterly unfamiliar. You're at the computer already, so just google around through definitions and etymologies and encyclopedia entries until you have a good sense of how the words are used. Do not rely solely on the QQ definitions of strange words, since those definitions are usually partial and occasionally misleading. Also, sometimes another meaning or usage will give you a idea about how to use a word that's been resisting your advances.

hypernatremic, lincolnesque, will-o'-the-wisp, salient

2. There will always be a word (or two) of the four that will, at the very least, strike a spark. See what other words are attracted to the one you like. For example, what is it the narrator has been eating to make her 'hypernatremic'?

It will be, more or less gracefully, like watching little blobs of mercury coalesce into a bigger puddle. The four puzzle words will start attracting other words, fragments of story, once you've tentatively asked your first couple of questions. I.e., it turns out to be a group of people who are 'hypernatremic' because they have been compulsively eating salty snacks while watching something mesmerizing on TV.

3. The next step is to encourage the four words to develop relationships to each other. Perhaps by this point you will have four separate nascent narratives or only one. Although I have never done it, I have considered that one strategy might be to write two stories, each with two of the words and then find some way, however outlandish, to combine them. What I do instead is just to go on to the next word that attracts me and fit it in with whatever's there already. So, in my example, I now have some 'hypernatremic' people watching TV and the second word,?? 'lincolnesque', now brings to mind a certain kind of beard and I realize the people are Franciscan friars.

The next word in this series is 'will-o'-the'-wisp', so that will have to be the subject of the program they're watching on the Discovery Channel, and it only remains to fit in the fourth word, 'salient'. Perhaps they're looking for information on will-o'-the-wisps, some 'salient' fact or other, so all that's left is for me to think up a reason why a group of Franciscans would urgently need such information.?? (My solution, 3/11/10.)

4. The most devilish part of the puzzle is that it requires that someone reading the sentence and encountering an unfamiliar word be able make a good guess about the meaning of it from the context. The only thing that has ever helped me here is patience, which in this puzzle manifests itself in the willingness to write a longer sentence in which things have the time and space to unfold. That is, I find I must often abandon economy and concision to give the reader room to breathe. It's one of those rare times when I am glad of all those lack-luster words that otherwise weigh down sentences. Open 'er up and let 'er breathe and never mind about brevity being the soul of wit, because when the goal is to use four difficult, unrelated words in one sentence, you'll come up with something fairly tortuous most of the time and the reader has to be given a chance to navigate.

Practically, this seems work out to saying a lot of things more than once, in different words. The underpinnings of the story have to be well enough established that there are, at worst, only a limited number of things that, e.g., 'hypernatremic' could possibly mean.

5. Finally, a suggestion for a way to jump-start the process when you look at the four words and Absolutely. Nothing. Happens. Go online or to a favorite reference work and get a random article or quote and make up a story about that using the four words. Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, The Top 500 Poems, The New York Times, etc., etc. Even when what you get seems totally unusable it will often be enough to get the ball rolling, if only in self defense.


Introducing QQ’s Omnium Gatherum

The Quandary for April 17, 2010 was:


Here, I announce an omnium gatherum of information, ideas, and stories relating to Quadrivial Quandary.?? I'm not yet sure how we'll organize it, and yes, like some blogs it risks becoming more of a floordrobe than an ordered closet.?? Let's first start building the heap.?? When we begin stumbling over it, then we'll consider how to transmogrify chaos into order.

What goes here??? To start, a few questions for QQ contributors: How do you go about solving the Quandary??? What brings you back to the challenge??? Is there a process you follow??? How do you work Quandary into your day??? Do you talk about your solutions with others?

As for the logistics of posting: for now, this will be a moderated blog, accepting posts on any topic relating to QQ.?? Email me at if you have something to share — a proposed post, or just an idea.

Following shortly: some thoughts from a QQ participant about the problem-solving process and what QQ is all about.

Also, a note about this blog.?? QQ is a community for word lovers, and often word lovers expect a lot of their own writing.?? In this forum though, I would like to encourage us all (starting with myself) to relax and focus on communication over the pursuit of perfection.?? QQ itself is the place for wordcrafting — whatever gymnastics we enjoy, whatever virtuosity we may wish to summon.?? This blog is different, not quite a place for chitchat, but for casual "backstage" discussion about our shared endeavor.

-Rudi Seitz
Founder of

see also —
Apr 17 Quandary: