Surplussed Barrelware.

As I said in my review of Sasha Sokolov’s Школа для дураков (A School for Fools), Sokolov was bowled over by Aksyonov’s Затоваренная бочкотара (translated by Joel Wilkinson as Surplussed Barrelware) when he was just beginning to write, so I followed up my reading of Bitov’s Жизнь в ветреную погоду (Life in Windy Weather; see this post) by tackling the Aksyonov, which I read years ago with minimal comprehension. As with the Bitov, I’m really glad I returned to it, both because it shed new light on Sokolov and because I now fully realize why it was such an event in Soviet literature. To give you the basic idea of what it’s about, I’ll quote the summary in Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos, by Mark Lipovetsky and Eliot Borenstein:

The plot of this story is extremely simple. The driver Volodya Teleskopov is bringing empty barrels (the “surplussed barrelware” of the story’s title) to Koryazhsk, the regional center. Along the way he is joined by Gleb Shustikov, a marine; Irina Valentinova, a schoolteacher; Vadim Afanasievich Drozhinin, a scholar; the retired activist Mochenkin; and others. During their travels, strange things happen to them: All of them have lyrical dreams about a “Good Person,” and all of them grow strangely attached to one another and to the barrelware, without which they cannot even imagine their lives. So when the bureaucrats in Koryazhsk refuse to accept the empty barrels, the group decides to continue their journey with their beloved barrelware, only now they have no apparent destination whatsoever. […]

The absence of a mimetic dimension completely transforms the utopian discourse itself. Utopia always considers its own possible application to reality. In Aksyonov’s novel, the presence of “reality” itself seems problematic. In Aksyonov’s hands, the Soviet utopia turns into a kind of children’s fairy tale. The barrelware becomes a magical being, leading the unlikely traveling companions to the magic kingdom; in his letter to his girlfriend, Volodya Teleskopov writes: “Simka, you want the truth? I don’t know when we’ll see each other again, because we go not where we want to go but where our dear barrelware wants us to go. Understand?” […]

[Aksyonov] basically removes the spell of the Soviet utopian myth by transforming it into belles lettres rather than a “reflection of life.” In this case, the text obeys only the laws of literary play.

But not only is it a subversive deconstruction of Soviet myth, it’s an encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet cultural references: poetry from Pushkin and Lermontov to doggerel chastushki, music from Mozart to pop hits and Gulag songs (I was astonished when an entire stanza of «Этап на Север, срока огромные» was quoted — how did that get past the censors in 1968?), and all sorts of Soviet realia that I had to have explained to me by Yuri Shcheglov’s «Затоваренная бочкотара» Василия Аксенова: Комментарий. If you understand the references in this novella, you basically understand the mentality of Aksyonov’s generation.

So what did Sokolov get from it? Beyond the invigorating “you mean you can do that?” effect, there are all sorts of details, like the unpunctuated monologues, the sexualization of teachers (Aksyonov’s flirty geography teacher Irina Seleznyova becomes Sokolov’s biology teacher Vera Arkadyevna, who goes with young men to their apartments and lets them do what they will with her), and the river that “runs through Russia” at the end of the Aksyonov, which could have suggested the river Lethe that may or may not exist in Sokolov; there are butterfly nets in both; even the unusual word земснаряд ‘suction dredge, dredging barge,’ which I have encountered only twice in my reading, occurs in these two texts. In general, there’s what Shcheglov calls “all these fantasies, dreams, doubles, mirror reflections, and excursions into zaum [всех этих фантазий, снов, двойников, зеркальных отражений, экскурсов в заумь], which Sokolov drew freely from. But the main thing is that they’re both superb modernist works that will repay your investment in them; I have only seen Google snippets of the Wilkinson translation of Surplussed Barrelware, but it seems all right, and it has good annotations. Give it a try!

Imps and Elves.

Anatoly Liberman posts about a couple of words with interesting histories:

The German for “to give a shot, to vaccinate” is impf-en (-en is the ending of the infinitive). Impf– is an exact cognate of English imp. How can it be? Many centuries ago, impfen (in a slightly different phonetic form) appeared in Old High German as a borrowing of Medieval Latin impotāre “to graft.” Latin impotus, itself a borrowing from Greek, meant “graft”; Greek émphutos designated “grafted, implanted.” In German, the verb became a term of winemaking and horticulture and acquired the sense “to improve the quality of wine by bunging the vessel.” Centuries later, the term began to be used for “vaccination”: thus, from “corking a bottle” to “administering a shot.”

It is the sense “graft” that determined the development of the same Latin verb in English. The Old English noun impe ~ impa meant “sapling, young shoot” (shoot: compare shot in the arm!). Later, sapling broadened its meaning and began to designate “child.” The train of thought is predictable: compare sap “juice,” the root of sapling “young tree” and still later “young person,” as in Shakespeare; scion also first meant “shoot, slip, graft.” With time, the word imp “sapling” acquired the sense “the child of the Devil” and still later “mischievous child.” […]

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I became aware of Harry Martinson’s book-length poem Aniara as an sf fan in the early ’60s, though it may have been the opera rather than the book; in any case, while I of course welcomed the idea of a spaceship driven off course by an asteroid and sent on an unchangeable new path, the details sounded awfully gloomy, and I never investigated further. Now I learn, from Geoffrey O’Brien’s NYRB review of poem, opera, and (recent) movie, that Hugh MacDiarmid was one of the original translators! MacDiarmid, as I wrote here, is one of my oldest poetic lodestones, and had I known that I might well have sought out the translation (though it’s apparently not easy to find; Amazon has “3 Used from $893.34 2 New from $969.00 1 Collectible from $199.99”). At any rate, there are some linguistically interesting bits in O’Brien’s review:

When I first encountered Aniara in the original translation by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert (1963), its propulsive urgency carried me along in an uninterrupted reading. The effect is musical even if the translators did not attempt to replicate the various meters and rhyme schemes deployed by Martinson, and there is an echo in its voicings of cosmic emptiness of MacDiarmid’s stark evocations of rock and sea in such poems as “On a Raised Beach” and “Island Funeral,” as well as his devotion to incorporating scientific and technical vocabulary into his poetry. In 1968, the year it appeared as a science-fiction paperback—oracular song smuggled into mass distribution—Aniara seemed a model for further attempts at epic in its fusing of concepts from astrophysics, the trappings of pulp fantasy, the contemporary science fiction of A.E. van Vogt and Ray Bradbury (writers Martinson greatly admired), the memories of wartime trauma, the fear of future weaponry, and the deep well of myth and ancient history. The theme was claustrophobic but the form was exhilarating, open to all manner of variations and tonal shifts.

Binding it together is the swirl of neologisms around whose repetitions the poem’s rhythm constructs itself: the Mima [“the spaceship’s feminized computer, an omniscient entity whose bulletins from Earth provide respite for the passengers who cluster around her worshipfully in the Mima Hall”] and her priestly guardian, the Mimarobe; Douris (Earth); goldonda (spaceship); phototurb (weapon of future destruction); the abandoned lands of Rind and Xinombra and Upper Gond. Pleasure-seeking passengers are nostalgic for the lost slang of Dourisburg: “Come rockasway and shimble…. Droom dazily, come hillo in my billows.” All this vocabulary is not clutter but a fluid element, offering momentary respite from the oppressiveness of strict definition, a last stand of playfulness even when the subject is annihilation. Of “Aniara,” the name of the spaceship and the most haunting coinage of all, Martinson said, “The name Aniara doesn’t signify anything. I made it up. I wanted to have a beautiful name.” A glossary to the MacDiarmid-Schubert translation describes it as

a combination of letters, rich in vowels, which represents the space in which the atoms move. The adjective aniaros (fem. aniara) in ancient Greek means sorrowful. Thus, Aniara = the ship of sorrow.

When sung by a chorus in Blomdahl’s opera, “Aniara” becomes a wail of lamentation.

I’m curious about the originals of those invented words (the Swedish poem does not seem to be online), but the one that most caught my interest was in another place, where he talks about “the fragments of futuristic dance band music played in the ship’s lounge where everybody is doing ‘the yurg’” — the yurg! (I wonder if it was anything like the lipsi?) Happily, I found the relevant stanza 12 quoted here in Swedish (emphasis added):

Orkestern spelar fancies och vi dansar ut.
Den flicka jag för runt är absolut.
Hon är en flicka ifrån Dorisburg,
men fast hon dansar här sen flera år
i Aniaras danshall säger hon rent ut
att hon för sin del inte alls förstår
att finna någon skillnad på den yurg
som dansas här och den i Dorisburg.

Och när vi dansa yurgen står det klart
att allt som heter yurg är underbart
när Daisi Doody vrider sig i yurg
och jollrar slangen ifrån Dorisburg […]

My question is: shouldn’t it be jurg in Swedish?

If you want to read more about it, with further excerpts in Swedish, check out Lisa’s Reviews > Aniara: En revy om människan i tid och rum, and here’s the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for Martinson.


An amusing 2007 piece by Roger Ebert, “The Ping of Pong: Mystery Solved,” discusses the origins of the term “ping pong,” mainly quoting variously indignant (“I am very sad to see you trapped by your own ignorance”) and would-be scholarly (“As someone who lives in China and has an obsessive need to correct facts, I need to take issue with Nic Hautamaki’s statement that ping pong is derived from Mandarin”) communications from readers. The two most informative are these:

Arsen Azizyan, New Haven CT: “As a Chinese major in college who has spent two years in Beijing, I am compelled to correct Nic Hautamaki’s linguistic note. The term “ping-pong” is, in fact, an onomatope which originated in England, where the sport was invented (a more anemic alternative, now thankfully lapsed, was “whiff-whaff”). The Chinese word “ping-pang” was borrowed from the English, not vice versa – although Mr. Hautamaki’s confusion is understandable, given that the Chinese invented two new characters for the term, both intentional mutations of a pre-existing, phonetically similar character (pronounced “bing”). If any of your readers had doubts as to the practical usefulness of a college education, surely my letter has helped to reinforce them.’

Jake Jacobs, Singapore: “Your correspondent is somewhat misinformed. “Ping pang qiu” came from English, not the other way around. Parker Brothers trademarked the onomatopoetic term back in 1900, and early usage goes back to 1823. The pivot of the Chinese term is “qiu” which means ball, and the “ping pang” is a phonetic copy of “ping-pong.” Your earlier correspondent’s nose was out of joint because a sport (table tennis) which he takes seriously doesn’t get much respect.”

What bothers me is Jacobs’ assertion that “early usage goes back to 1823”; the OED, in an entry updated as recently as June 2006, does not have any citations before 1900 (Daily Chron. 8 May 6/6 “Our correspondent seems to hope that the unclean, playing Ping-Pong with the clean, will become unpleasantly conscious of his uncleanness and reform”). Anybody know anything about the early history of this “imitative or expressive” term?

Also, I learn from the OED that there is another ping-pong: “Also more fully ping-pong drum. A drum which supplies the melody in a Caribbean steel band; a tenor pan (first citation 1948 E. Leaf Isles of Rhythm viii. 196 “This transformation has occurred through the invention of the ping-pong, a percussion steel drum”).

How the Civil War Got Its Name.

The U.S. Civil War, that is; an interesting bit of history summarized by Livia Gershon at JSTOR Daily:

In the years after the war ended, [Historian Gaines M.] Foster writes, no single term prevailed among southern whites. Some spoke of the “Confederate War for Independence,” or just the “Confederate War.” (The “War of Northern Aggression” was rarely used until it was adopted by neo-Confederates and others opposed to racial integration in the mid-twentieth century.) Gradually, southerners settled on the “War between the States.” Former Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens argued that this reflected the fact that the United States had never been “one Political Society” and that the war had been between states “regularly organized into two separate Federal Republics.”

In the North, meanwhile, a shift was happening. During and immediately after the war, northerners most commonly referred to it as a “rebellion.” But as Reconstruction was quashed and the nation permitted the rise of the Jim Crow terror regime, many white northerners sought to bridge the divide with their southern counterparts by using a neutral term. By the 1890s, “Civil War” was clearly the favorite term used in newspapers. Soon after the turn of the century, Congress officially adopted it over “the rebellion.”

I hadn’t realized the current name took so long to become standard. Thanks, Bathrobe!


The English Language & Usage Stack Exchange had a very interesting thread on the topic Why did Jitney become slang for nickel?. The most thorough response was from David L. Gold:

It may be possible to antedate the word (which has been spelled jetney, gitney, and jitney) to the 1870s:

“Does jitney mean a nickel, or a ride, or a method of transportation, or a state of mind? […] in reading the old files of the Overland Magazine some time ago, dated in the seventies, ]I found that the term jitney is used by one of the characters of a story of San Francisco life, the context of the story shows that this particular ‘jitney’ was a quarter. A further proof that a jitney is not necessarily a nickel is that in early times no coin of less value than a quarter circulated on the coast.

So. Mr. Jitneur, when some opponent upbraids you for not being a true jitney because you may charge more than five cents, read him this article and crush him to earth. A jitney is a small coin, such as the great American public are now paying for trackless transportation.

“Postscript—Alas, for trying to prove anything! We have just received word that a Canadian board of councilmen have decided that a ‘jitney’ is five cents” (unsigned, “What does Jitney Mean?,” The Jitney Bus, vol. 1, no. 4, July 1915, p. 114; the bracketed addition is mine [I have omitted most of the piece; see link for more — LH]).

I say “may be possible to antedate,” because the passage of time (cf. “some time ago”) may play tricks on one’s memory. Issues of The Overland Monthly have to be examined line by line (so far I have been unable to find the word there).

The anonymous writer’s speculation in the rest of the passage is likewise subject to examination. Nothing is to be taken on faith, such as his inference that “the word was in common use because we had learned it there” and his reasoning that the word had been used in California “since the days of ’49 […] because several pioneers have told us it was used.”

Also, since five-cent coins have been minted in the United States since the 1790s, the writer’s ability to know what the situation was “in the days before nickels were invented” is doubtful.

The following articles have more information about the word:

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The Name of the Black Sea.

I found this exchange in an Indo-European Linguistics group I’m a member of interesting enough to post here. The poster said:

There was an interesting Latin word in the designation of the Latin old name of Black sea – Axenum aequor. I understood that axenum from anti-xenium (unfriendly), where Latin xenium (gift given to guests or foreign ambassadors, often of food). Also Greek – ξένῐον (xénion). What is the general etymology and origin of this word? How related to Russian gostinec (gift from a guest, often in the form of food) or siny (dark-blue)?

Our old pal Piotr Gąsiorowski responded:

Latin has nothing to do with it. Latin names on maps only reflect their Greek prototypes: ὁ Ἄξεινος or Ἄξενος ‘the Inhospitable (Sea)’ was one of the Greek names for the Black Sea, then replaced by the euphemism ὁ Εὔξε(ι)νος ‘the Hospitable’. When latinised, they became Axenum, Euxinum etc., with the gender changed to neuter after Latin mare.

Of course both are derived from ξένος, Epic/Ionic ξεῖνος, Doric ξένϝος. Myc. (Linear B) ke-se-nu-wo < *ksenwos 'guest, foreigner'. Nothing to do with any colour words. A relationship to *gostь < *gʰostis is not impossible if both derive from PIE *gʰes- 'eat' (a verb root attested only in Indo-Iranian), assuming *gʰs-en- > *ksen- in Proto-Greek. But the relationship is uncertain and is at best a “root equation”.

There is also an explanation of ὁ Ἄξεινος as a Greek folk etymology of Iranian *axšaina- ‘dark-coloured’. It was popularised by Vasmer, and has become widely believed. The word is authenticalIy Iranian (Av. axšaēna etc.); I don’t, however, know of any evidence the the Iranians actually used it to name the Black Sea.

Thomas Wier added:

Yes, Axenum is direct Latinization of the original Πόντος Ἄξεινος, which is in turn a folk-etymologization of the Persian *Axshayna ‘dark-grey/blue’. The Georgians had a truly separate word for this before they borrowed the Greek root: ზღვა სპერისა zghva Sp’erisa ‘Sea of the Sasperi’ (an Anatolian tribe mentioned by Herodotus and Xenophon). I wrote more on this here.

And Martin Kümmel wrote:

There is indeed no evidence that the Black Sea was called axšaina- by Iranians, see F. de Blois, The name of the Black Sea. In: Maria Macuch, Mauro Maggi, Werner Sundermann (eds.), Iranian languages and texts from Iran and Turan. Ronald E. Emmerick memorial volume, 1-8, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. In the same paper, it is also argued that the Greek evidence rather points to ἄξεινος being secondary vs. εὔξεινος, and both only secondary epithets of the real “name” of the Black sea, i.e. Πόντος (while the normal word for ‘sea’ is ϑάλασσα, ϑάλαττα).

(There is also some discussion about the actual color of the Black Sea.) I will of course be interested in what the Hattery has to add.

Not worth a post of its own, but some people might be interested in this Map of find spots showing all sites where Tocharian texts are known to have been discovered. Alas, the links don’t seem to work yet.

Rereading Bitov.

In my recent post on Sasha Sokolov’s great first novel A School for Fools (and I urge everyone intrigued by it to get the new translation by Alexander Boguslawski), I said that he was influenced by Andrei Bitov’s “Life in Windy Weather” and Vasily Aksyonov’s Surplussed Barrelware; as it happens, I had read both, and have been meaning to reread the Aksyonov for years (it made a strong impression on me), but the Bitov had irritated me, so it was with some reluctance that I decided to give it another try. You see, I had gone through something of a Bitov phase a while ago, reading all the early stories and travel memoirs I had access to, and while I could tell he was a good and innovative writer, I soon got fed up with his single-minded solipsism. It seemed like every story was about a boy or young man who had an obsessive love for an older woman who showed him amused tolerance, and had endless scenes of the hero walking around (preferably at night) meditating bitterly on his sufferings. By the time I got to “Life in Windy Weather” I was zooming through it, noting “OK, dude is restless at the dacha with his wife and son, insists on going back to the city even though he’s got no rational reason for it but maybe he’ll meet an interesting woman, then he’s irritated by the arrival of his wife’s family, got it, can we move on?” It turns out this was entirely the wrong way to approach it (and it seems there is such a thing as reading too many things by a single author without a break). When I read it with Sokolov in mind, an entirely different story emerged.

It begins with Sergei, the protagonist, arriving at the dacha belonging to his in-laws in his father’s car (I quote the translation by Richard Luplow and Priscilla Meyer, except that I change their “Alexei” — reflecting another version of the story — to Sergei):

He was as usual struck by how overgrown the garden had become and how the lot itself seemed to have shrunk, and the dacha, hidden by undergrowth, seemed less bulky than it had last year. The trees, recently small, now reached to the windows of the second floor. The dacha, still unfinished, had already begun to get dilapidated, the frame, not yet trimmed, had gotten still blacker, and the entire dacha, which had stuck out so awkwardly and tastelessly before, now seemed to have made itself at home, to have taken root, and for the first time he liked it.

Его привычно поразило, как разросся сад и как сам участок будто уменьшился, и дача, заслоненная зеленью, не показалась ему такой громоздкой, как в прошлом году. Деревья, недавно небольшие, нынче достигали окон второго этажа. Дача, все еще не достроенная, уже начала ветшать, сруб, так и не обшитый, почернел еще больше, и вся она, так нелепо и безвкусно торчавшая раньше, как бы обжилась, вросла и впервые понравилась ему.

After a brief conversation with the father, it continues:

As he accompanied his father to the car, he thought that the dacha, which would probably never be finished, somehow corresponded perfectly to this “limousine,” which would never be a decent car. If his wife’s parents had a sort of country house, then his father had a sort of car. In this way there was established a sort of balance.

Провожая отца до машины, он подумал, что дача, которая, по-видимому, никогда не будет достроена, как-то очень соответствует этой «декавешке», которая никогда не станет приличной машиной. Если у родителей жены был как бы загородный дом, то у его отца была как бы машина. Таким образом, наступало как бы равновесие.

The themes of time, change, family relationships, and emotional attitude will be important throughout, as will the phrase как бы ‘sort of.’ (I should add that I’m not sure how well the translation “limousine” renders Bitov’s декавешка ‘DKW’; I’m not a car person.) The time theme continues on the next page:
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How Do Drugs Get Named?

A reader writes:

My wife and I watch Jeopardy religiously, so we suffer through the commercial breaks on the show. About half the commercials, it seems, are for medications for a variety of unusual ailments, and some pretty esoteric drugs are featured. I started noticing that besides the brand name for these drugs, the generic name is also listed, and many of these seem to have endings like “mab,” “lib,” and “fil”. So I got to wondering how the drug companies come up with these names. As far as I can find, it’s not one that has been explored much in linguistic circles.

So it turns out this is a two-fold process. The brand names, or trade names (Advil, for example) are selected for marketing purposes and go through a vetting process with the FDA. There’s a bit of a creative process involved.

He provides Timothy O’Shea’s Pharmacy Times piece “15 Rx Drug Name Origins“:

Naming a new prescription drug is a long and complex process, costing upwards of $2.25 million.

“Coming up with a brand name used to be an afterthought,” said Bill Trombetta, professor of pharmaceutical marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “But today, pharmaceutical companies realize that they need to brand drugs as early as they can and build equity in that brand.” By the time a drug has completed phase I clinical testing in humans, most companies are already working to develop a brand name. To do so, drug manufacturers often work with branding agencies that use large databases to help them generate unique names. The generated names often use linguistic tricks such as plosive letters (P, T, D, K, Q, and hard C) to convey power, or fricative letters (X, F, S, or Z) to imply speed.

But authority over pharmaceutical trade names ultimately rests with the FDA and the US Patent and Trademark Office. The FDA prohibits names that imply efficacy or are associated with the intended indication. As a result, marketers often look for names that subtly and indirectly convey an idea, suggesting improved quality of life. Still, the FDA fully rejects one-third of the hundreds of names proposed annually.

There follows the list of 15 commonly prescribed drugs with the origins of their names. And for the generic name, we have Gail B. Karet’s August 2019 AMA Journal of Ethics article “How Do Drugs Get Named?“; abstract:

Since the 1960s, the United States Adopted Names Program has been assigning generic (nonproprietary) names to all active drug ingredients sold in the United States. Pharmaceutical names are assigned according to a scheme in which specific syllables in the drug name (called stems) convey information about the chemical structure, action, or indication of the drug. The name also includes a prefix that is distinct from other drug names and that is euphonious, memorable, and acceptable to the sponsoring pharmaceutical firm. Drug names are the product of complex, multiparty negotiations in which the needs and desires of various stakeholders (patients, pharmaceutical firms, physicians, pharmacists, other health care professionals, and US and international regulators) must be balanced.

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As I learn from MetaFilter, tomorrow is the first Gray Day, “a celebration of the writer and artist Alasdair Gray, on the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece Lanark”; there will be a free hour-long Gray Day Broadcast that will feature Ali Smith, Yann Martel, Alan Cumming, Denise Mina, Irvine Welsh, and many others, and if you don’t want to wait you can hear the author read the Epilogue to Lanark (n.b.: the Epilogue doesn’t come at the end of the book). Gray is one of those writers I know I’ll like, but I still haven’t gotten around to him; I can, however, add my mite by contributing the etymology of the wonderful place name Unthank, which features in Lanark (as “a strange Glasgow-like city in which there is no daylight and whose disappearing residents suffer from strange diseases”). It is, according to A Dictionary of British Place Names by A. D. Mills, “‘(Land held) without consent’, i.e. ‘a squatter’s holding’. OE. unthanc.” And the OED has an entry (from 1926) for unthank:
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