America’s chief WWII codebreaker, language and dialect in Appalachia, new season for Serial; newsletter, September 14, 2018

September 17, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, newsletter, podcasting.

This newsletter was emailed to everyone on Jim’s email list (x) on August 30, 2018

At this writing, a major hurricane is about to slam into the east coast of the U.S., and predictions are that it will cost lives and do great damage. In the middle of this past week, as we were traveling south on Interstate 81 through Virginia and Tennessee, we noticed many power company trucks (from who knows where) going in the opposite direction — headed toward the storm. My heart and prayers went out to those people who are going to be most affected by the storm and to those brave souls who are on their way to help even before the disaster occurs.

A sharp-eyed reader and good friend, Brennan L., pointed out that I had missed Frances Hodgson Burnett’s birthday — mentioned in last week’s newsletter — by 10 years. She was born in 1849, not 1859. Thanks, Brennan. I am also happy to be corrected, so if you see something I’ve written that amiss,  please let me know.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ve had a wonderful week and are looking forward to a great weekend.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.


America’s chief World War II codebreaker and her posthumous teaching of cryptology

Journalist Jason Fagon, when he set out to write a biography of the extraordinary Elizebeth Friedman, America’s chief codebreaker during World War II, had an obstacle to overcome that most biographers don’t face: He had to learn cryptology, the art and science of secret writing.

Fortunately, Fagon had a good teacher: Elizebeth Friedman herself.

Friedman had been dead for more than two decades when Fagon began his research — she died in 1980 — but she had left much of her work in papers given to the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia.

Fagon started by reading about cryptology and trying to get an idea of how it happened. He admitted in an interview with Fortune magazine that he didn’t feel he had gotten very far.

But then this lucky thing happened, and I discovered a codebreaking manual written by Elizebeth herself, left behind in her personal archive. It’s an unpublished manuscript of a book she wrote for young adults, explaining how to break common types of codes and ciphers with a pencil and paper, in this very clear and encouraging and witty style. The spirit of the book is like: You can do it! Jump in! Have fun! It’s a game! Don’t be afraid! And it was perfect for me, as an amateur. That’s how I learned the basics of cryptanalysis, by reading Elizebeth’s own book and stepping through some of the example problems that she laid out. Elizebeth Smith Friedman: ‘The Woman Who Smashed Codes’

Besides his willingness to dig into cryptology, Fagon had another advantage as a biographer: he had a spectacular and important subject that few people knew anything about. Friedman’s life defies a short description.

She stumbled into cryptology after being asked by an eccentric millionaire to help prove that Sir Francis Bacon had written the plays of William Shakespeare. (He didn’t, according to a book she and her husband wrote many years later.) This job led her to her working for the government during Prohibition, breaking codes of smugglers and testifying against them in court.

When World War II broke out for America in 1941, she became America’s chief cryptanalyst, breaking Nazi and Japanese codes and helping the FBI track down Nazi spies throughout North and South America. Because her work was often classified and because she was a woman, and a modest one at that,  FBI director J. Edgar Hoover never gave her the credit she deserved for her work.

Fagon’s book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, published in 2017, has helped to correct that injustice. The book has become a best-seller and was named as a National Public Radio Best Book of the Year. Stuart Smith’s biography, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, is available at WorldCat at this link.

Note: She spelled her name Elizebeth, so the story goes, because she didn’t want to be called “Eliza.”


Serial Season 3: A deep dive into the justice system

Serial, the ambitious podcast that set the standard for the use of the compelling nature of audio, is set to begin its third season on Sept. 20. This season will focus on stories about the U.S. justice system, using the local courts in Cleveland, Ohio, as a springboard for its episodes.

Podcast journalist Nicholas Quah has the details in this story for Vulture magazine:

Serial will officially return for its third season later this month, and this time, the hit investigative podcast is switching things up. Instead of focusing on a single case — a murder in Baltimore in season one, a soldier’s desertion in season two — the upcoming season will dive into the infinitely complicated topic of the American criminal justice system by delivering weekly stories from inside the courts of Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s one courthouse, week by week,” according to a press release. Source: Serial Season 3: When Does It Premiere? What Is It About?

Quah also reports, in a different venue, that Serial has signed on a single sponsor in what is probably the biggest deal in the short history of podcasting. This is an interesting look inside the production of podcasts.


Giveaways and offers

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


Appalachian language and other myths about the region

You’ve probably heard this rural legend (as opposed to urban legend): The people of Appalachia speak a dialect of English that harkens back to the English of Chaucer; it’s older even than the English of Shakespeare.

No, they don’t.

Just as everyone else’s English has done, the English of rural Appalachia has constantly evolved and is the product of multiple influences.

That’s the argument that Chi Luu, a computational linguist, makes in an interesting and arresting article in JSTOR Daily: The Legendary Language of the Appalachian “Holler” | JSTOR Daily

Language has an important place in the folklore of Appalachia and has evolved to become something quite different from its original linguistic sources. It’s one of the ways Appalachian communities show solidarity and belonging. Language lovers may marvel at this unique linguistic quilt, a thing of threads and patches, that extends across a region that often seems to have little else going for it. But in some ways, the folksiness, the romanticized hearkening back to the past, holds the region back from telling a more nuanced story about itself, where it came from, and where it might be going.

Luu posits that Appalachia should be recognized for its diversity — cultural as well as linguistic — rather than being thought of as fiercely and exclusively white descendants of Scots-Irish stock. Movement in and out of Appalachia was just as prevalent as in any other part of the country.

We may think of Appalachia as poor, rural, white, backward, and uneducated (and, in today’s political climate, angry). But to do so makes us the fools rather than the people of this fascinating region. Or, as Luu puts it:

So the theory of the poor, white, rural Appalachian mountain men going it alone, preserving a pure and unchanging strain of archaic British English, isolated in a hardscrabble place far from civilization, could not be further from the truth. Without the influence of diverse communities of other Appalachians such as African American Appalachians, the southern Appalachian speech and culture simply would not be what it is today. To ignore their contributions to culture and language means Appalachia will always be a distant story, burdened by the myths and legends written by others, left half told.


Left-brain-right-brain: time to get another theory

You probably run into the left-brain-right-brain theory of behavior a lot, as I do. It’s undoubtedly a popular way to explain why people are different.

The left side of the brain is the analytical side; the right is the creative side. Or maybe I have that backward. Anyway, one side is supposed to be dominant, and that determines how we see the world and how we behave.

The problem with that neat little concept is that it’s nonsense.

The brain and its functions are far too complex to be explained by this simplistic formulation. As Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D., (psychologist and neuroscientist) and G. Wayne Miller (author) write in this Psychology Today article:

Neuroscientists have known for a long time that research does not support such sweeping claims about how people differ in their left and right sides, or hemispheres. The functions of the hemispheres are in fact different, but these differences aren’t what the popular culture holds to be true — the differences lie in how each side processes very specific kinds of information. Example: The left hemisphere processes details of visible objects whereas the right processes overall shape. The left hemisphere plays a major role in grammar and decoding literal meaning whereas the right plays a role in understanding verbal metaphors and decoding indirect or implied meaning. And so forth. Hardly the sort of stuff that can guide your life! Source: Left Brain, Right Brain? Wrong | Psychology Today

Read the whole article, or maybe this one: The Truth About Being Left-Brained or Right-Brained.

If you’re subscribing to this theory, it’s time to get a new one.xx

In case you missed these recent (and ancient) posts on

The Lincoln-Douglas debates, every word. How did that happen?

The long life of Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”

Zero and the concept of nothingness: a gift from India

Churchill: The man who loved to write



King James and the witches
Keith G.: You talk about King James interest in witchcraft and his prosecution of those people who practised that craft. What you have not referred to, and may not have been covered by the BBC documentary, is the change due to King James “importing” European witchcraft. He had grown up in Europe so that was what he knew, but the attitude was very different in England. Before King James took the throne, if a witch killed a cow, they were prosecuted for the death of the cow, not for the means by which they killed it. Afterward, witches were prosecuted for being witches. I guess there are different opinions as to whether that was progress.

Self-publishing workshop at Blount County Public Library, Oct. 6, 2018

My duties and responsibilities as writer-in-residence at the Blount County Public Library (Maryville, Tennessee) continue to evolve. On the first Saturday of October, I will be offering a half-day workshop on getting started with self-publishing.

If you’re in the area and are interested in this topic, sign up here:

Here’s the description:

The workshop will be held Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Sharon Lawson Room. You will learn the basics of self-publishing in this half-day workshop conducted by Jim Stovall, the Blount County Public Library’s current writer-in-residence ( The workshop will cover everything you need to know about getting started in the world of independent publishing and how to make your book available on Amazon, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and other book-selling forums. Advance online registration is required as is a $10 registration fee which includes a box lunch from the library’s Bookmark Café. Lunch is not optional, and lunch order options are on the registration form below. Seating is limited to 30. For more details, call Adult Services (Reference Desk) at 865-273-1428 or 865-982-0981, option 3.

Remember, the $10 fee includes lunch!

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Elizebeth Friedman



Best quote of the week:

I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it. Edith Sitwell, poet (1887-1964) 

Helping those in need

This is my weekly reminder to all of us (especially me) that there are many people who need our help. It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here). When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: A 19th century writer-rock star, King James’ obsession, costly commas, and the Clinton impeachment revisited: newsletter, Sept. 7, 2018



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