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In his song in The Pirates of Penzance, the Major-General states that he can "floor peculiarities parabolous," and do it "in conics."

I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;

Does this mean anything? If so, what would be an example?

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    I wonder if “floor” is another name for “section.” A conic section is the intersection of a cone and a plane (floor?) and the conic sections are ellipses, hyperbolas, and parabolas.
    – Thomas Andrews
    Feb 19, 2020 at 19:46
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    "Floor" may mean "defeat", as in "knock to the floor". Certainly, "parabolous" is a punny adjectival form of "parabola". So, "I can floor peculiarities parabolous" becomes something like "I can dispel mysteries pertaining to the parabola".
    – Blue
    Feb 19, 2020 at 19:56
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    Yeah, floor meaning defeat seems more likely. See gsvloc.org/gilbert-sullivan-resources/…
    – Thomas Andrews
    Feb 19, 2020 at 19:58
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    I will point out that each of the feats that Major General Stanley boasts about being able to perform although may sound impressive to a lay person are on a whole quite trivial. For instance, being able to name every detail of Caractacus's uniform is trivial as legend is that he rode into battle either naked or barely clothed, e.g. via a loincloth.
    – JMoravitz
    Feb 19, 2020 at 20:01
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    Maybe "floor" is a verb meaning "knock down", and the phrase means something like "I can nail tricky parabola problems" (where "nail" means "perfectly accomplish".) Feb 19, 2020 at 20:02

2 Answers 2

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The way to approach a difficult line like this to work out what it needs to mean in context, and then check the dictionary to see if there are any meanings that are close enough, and which might plausibly have been employed by the writer.

Here the context is that the Major-General is boasting of his accomplishments: he knows history, he answers acrostics, he quotes elegiacs, and he floors pecularities of parabolas. So “floor” must mean something like “solve”. Looking in the Oxford English Dictionary I find a couple of senses that could work:

floor, v. 3.b. To overcome in any way; to beat, defeat, prove too much for.

3.c. To do thoroughly, get through (a piece of work) successfully. to floor a paper (University slang): to answer every question in it.

Of these senses, 3.c. seems the closest fit: the Major-General boasts that he can answer every question about the pecularities of parabolas. The OED gives citations showing that this sense was current in the 1850s when W. S. Gilbert (born 1836) was studying at King's College, London.

1852   C. A. Bristed Five Years Eng. University I. 186   Our best classic had not time to floor the paper.
1861   T. Hughes Tom Brown at Oxf. I. x. 167   I've nearly floored my little-go work.

As for “in conics”, a parabola is a kind of conic section, being the intersection of a cone and a plane. So if there were an exam on the subject of conics, it would include questions on the pecularities of parabolas.

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I think "Floor" may mean surprised or astounded. Like, "I was floored by the fact that my mother was a spy." In that case, I would interpret the sentence like this:

I can floor people with my knowledge of the peculiarities of the parabolous cross sections of conics.

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    This can't be right, since in context the object of "floor" is "peculiarities", not "people". Mar 11, 2022 at 15:53

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