To Coin a Phrase

Born May 25, 1803, Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, First Baron Lytton, was an author of no small renown. Though his name is little remembered today, his words endure in several still-popular phrases such as, “the great unwashed,” “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Bulwer-Lytton’s publishing career began in 1820 with a book of poetry, but he achieved popularity in a number of genres, from political satire to historical fiction to the occult and science fiction. Several of his novels became the story lines of operas; one was made into a movie (The Last Days of Pompeii) three different times; and in 1878, his Ernest Maltravers was the first western novel to be translated in its entirety into Japanese. Altogether, the British Library catalogue lists a whopping 618 items under his name.

Sounds like the kind of guy you might name a writing contest after, doesn’t it? Well, yes, but it’s probably not what you think. You see, the above list of memorable phrases that sprang from his pen isn’t quite complete. Thanks to Charles Schultz’s character Snoopy, who toiled at a typewriter atop his doghouse trying to perfect it, the most widely-known Bulwer-Lytton phrase is, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Actually, that’s the short form. The original, infamous opening sentence read: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Thus began Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, Paul Clifford, which was not a comedy. Nor was it a laughingstock in its day; it sold well enough to be published in twelve editions. But tastes and styles change, and the stars of the past often lose their shine to the patina of time and the shifting point of view of public opinion; until by now, this bountiful and respected nineteenth-century author’s work is inspiration for a contest requiring entrants to write the most horrendous novel openings in their creative power. (I hope Bulwer-Lytton would approve of that last sentence. I’m sucking up in case I might want to interview him someday.)

The contest began in 1982 as a byproduct of the frustrations of Professor Scott Rice, of San Jose State University’s English Department. After serving as judge in too many literary events featuring overlong submissions, Professor Rice thought it would be nice to hold a competition that accepted only short entries. In the first round, a grand total of three students entered. The following year the competition was opened to the general public, and today, thousands vie for stinkiness awards in such categories as Adventure, Children’s Literature, Spy Fiction, Fantasy, and Romance, as well as the Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award. Each category (except the Grand Panjandrum) has a winner, a runner-up, and a Dishonorable Mention.

A read-through of past winners can be great fun. According to the university’s website (, the grand prize-winning entry of 2008, created by Garrison Spik of Washington, DC, reads:

“Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city of their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, J.J.”

Christopher Wey of Pittsburgh, PA (go Steelers!) [author’s comment, not from the website] took the prize for Purple Prose last year with this submission:

“The mongrel dog began to lick her cheek voraciously with his sopping wet tongue, so wide and flat and soft, a miniature pink fleshy cape soaked through and oozing with liquid salivary gratitude; after all, she had rescued him from the clutches of Bernard, the curmudgeonly one-eyed dogcatcher, whose own tongue—she remembered vividly the tongues of all her lovers—was coarse and lethargic, like a slug in a sandpaper trenchcoat.”

Also in 2008, Becky Mushko of Penhook, Virginia came up with this winning Vile Pun:

“Vowing revenge on his English teacher for making him memorize Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality,’ Warren decided to pour sugar in her gas tank, but he inadvertently grabbed a sugar substitute so it was actually Splenda in the gas.”

Such fun! How can I get in on it, you may ask? The contest website ( says each entry must consist of a single sentence, but you may submit multiple entries. Submissions can be snail-mailed on index cards, or emailed in the body of a message. The official deadline for the contest, the results of which are released in mid-June, is April 15 “(a date that Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories).” However, submissions are accepted “every day of the livelong year.” For full details, click on the link above.

In closing, let me share the sentence that won the 2008 Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award, brilliantly crafted by Stefan Croker of Bury, Greater Manchester, UK:

“Upon discovering that Miles Black, the famous phrenologist from Yorkshire was going to take up yodeling to lonely goats in Bali, James White decided to balance four planks of wood on a beer keg and call it an abstract work of art in the style of a famous fourteenth-century architect, just going to prove that people will read any old garbage if they think there will be a good pun at the end of it.”

Have a Happy New Year, and see you at the Bulwer-Lyttonies!