My Sammelband Has Frisket-Bite.

Jer Thorp (“currently the Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress”) presents “A Short Glossary of Delightful Library Terms.” Some of them are pretty basic (incunabula, verso/recto, gloss), but there are enough truly delightful ones I thought it was worth passing along, e.g. Wimmelbilderbuch “A kind of large-format picture book,” respect des fonds “A principle in archival theory that proposes to group collections of archival records according to their fonds — that is to say, according to the administration, organization, individual, or entity by which they were created or from which they were received,” and of course inherent vice “The tendency in physical objects to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components of which they are made.” Note that we discussed volvelle here a couple of years ago and manicule back in 2008.

The Georgian Sea.

I’m still reading Dmitry Bykov’s biography of Pasternak (see this post; it’s been less than two years, and I’m already over halfway through!), and when he got to Pasternak’s translations from Georgian he quoted the first stanza of his version of Valerian Gaprindashvili‘s poem “The Sea,” and I was impressed enough to memorize it:

Море мечтает о чем-нибудь махоньком,
Вроде как сделаться птичкой колибри
Или звездою на небе заяхонтить,
Только бы как-нибудь сжаться в калибре.

The sea dreams of something tiny,
like turning itself into a little hummingbird
or a star to jacinth in the sky,
if only it could somehow shrink in caliber.

Bykov says it’s wonderful poetry but sounds more like Mayakovsky than Pasternak, who doesn’t reveal himself fully in translation. If you’re wondering about “jacinth,” it’s my attempt to render заяхонтить [zayákhontit’], which is not a Russian verb, nor is яхонтить a word if you get rid of the за- prefix — it’s a nonce form based on the obsolete noun яхонт [yákhont], which could mean either ‘ruby’ or ‘sapphire.’ The noun is from Middle High German jachant, which is from Latin hyacinthus, and as it happens there’s an obsolete English jewel word jacinth which derives from the same Latin source, so I figured it was as close as I could get.
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There are a number of punts in English; I’m concerned here not with the flat-bottomed boat (from Latin pontō, from pons ‘bridge’) nor with the drop kick (perhaps a dialectal variant of bunt) nor yet the Irish pound, but rather with the betting term meaning ‘to stake against the bank’ (hence UK punter ‘gambler,’ slang ‘customer’). Older etymologies (1st ed. OED, M-W) derive this from Latin punctum ‘point,’ but AHD says “French ponter, from obsolete pont, past participle of pondre, to put (obsolete), lay an egg, from Old French, to lay an egg, from Latin pōnere,” and the Trésor de la langue française informatisé agrees:

Étymol. et Hist. 1718 jeux «miser contre le banquier» intrans. (Ac.); 1831 trans. (Balzac, loc. cit.). Dér. (à l’aide de la dés. –er) de pont, forme anc. du part. passé masc. de pondre* (v. ponte1), propr. «poser, mettre»; cf. l’a. prov. ponher «poser» 1344 […]. Le lat. class. ponere connaît l’accept. «déposer (un enjeu)».

I was looking it up because of this passage in Alexander Veltman’s last novel, Счастье – несчастье [Good luck is bad luck] (1863):

Это былъ дѣйствительный статскій совѣтникъ и ордена Св. Анны кавалеръ, Андрей Павловичь, извѣстный только подъ именемъ и отечествомъ своимъ, всему нѣмецкому клубу, куда ежедневно являлся онъ въ извѣстный часъ, игралъ въ карты вплоть до штрафнаго часа, украшалъ рѣчь свою латинскими пословицами, требовалъ по окончаніи игры рюмку водки, котлету, стаканъ вина, и потомъ понтировалъ или ѣхалъ на ванькѣ обратно на квартиру.

It was Active State Councillor and holder of the Order of Saint Anna Andrei Pavlovich, known only by his given name and patronymic to the entire German club where he appeared every day at a certain hour, played cards up until the fine/penalty hour, embellished his speech with Latin proverbs, at the end of the game called for a glass of vodka, a cutlet, and a glass of wine, and then either punted or took a cab back to his apartment.

I was wondering what “punted” meant, and now I’m wondering how you can go on betting against the bank after the card game is over. I’m also wondering what the штрафной час ‘fine/penalty hour’ is (the time when players pay up, or when it’s illegal to keep playing?). If anyone can shed light on these matters, I will of course be grateful.

GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition.

A few months ago I reported on the return of Nick Nicholas to blogging; he’s been doing great stuff ever since, and it’s high time I posted about some of it. I’ll start with his delightful posts titled “GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition”: Part #1, Part #2. He takes “comically literal translations of Greek into English” and explains how they work, beginning with a Facebook meme: “Years and Zamania i have to come to America. Last time i was here i saw the Christ soldier…” Nick goes into detail about each element:

Greek has plenty of loans from Turkish […] zaman is also such a word. In Turkish it means “time, period”, and it derives from Persian zamān. If you google, you’ll see that it used to be used somewhat more widely; e.g. μια φορά κι ένα ζαμάνι “at one time and one zaman” = “once upon a time” (the only expression now is μια φορά κι έναν καιρό “at one time and one season”); or the Cretan folk song ζαμάνια το ’χα να σε δω “it’s been zamans since I’ve seen you.” (2:06 of the recording by Nikos Xilouris .) Even when it was used more widely, it would be paired with a Greek word: μια φορά κι ένα ζαμάνι, where ζαμάνι has been replaced by καιρός; and in Xilouris’ folk song, it’s paired with καιρός itself […] Now zaman survives in only one fixed expression, which again pairs it with an equivalent Greek word: χρόνια και ζαμάνια έχω να Χ, “I have years and zamans to X” = “it’s been ages since I’ve X.” The object years and zamans has been fronted before the verb, for emphasis; it adds to the emphasis already provided by the repetition in “years and zamans”.

I love this kind of thing, and if you too like seeing idioms taken apart, you should enjoy the posts even if you don’t know modern Greek.

And as lagniappe: Did Tzetzes write the first attested instance of μουνί?. I’ve long been a fan of the erudite and touchy Tzetzes; see this 2003 post and this 2010 one (both featuring Nick, as a matter of fact).

Wars on Language, 1917.

Dong Hyun Kang (a senior at Seoul International School with “a keen interest in historical and comparative linguistics”) writes (pdf) for Babel: The Language Magazine about the anti-German campaign in America and the anti-French campaign in German-ruled Alsace during WWI; it’s a sad tale full of linguistic interest, and I recommend the whole thing (four pages), but I’ll excerpt the same bit of patriotic peevery Trevor tempted me with when he sent me the link:

The Chicago Woman’s Club, whose prominent members included Jane Addams and Lucy Flower, suggested that public education in America make it mandatory for children to recite the Watch Your Speech pledge, which actually became a reality in 1918. Schoolchildren found themselves saying “I love my country’s language. I promise: (1) that I will not dishonor my country’s speech by leaving off the last syllables of words; (2) that I will say a good American ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in place of a foreign ‘ya’ or ‘yeh’ and ‘nope’; (3) that I will do my best to improve American speech by avoiding loud harsh tones, by enunciating distinctly and speaking pleasantly, clearly and sincerely.”

Nice work, Dong Hyun Kang, and thanks, Trevor!

Lake Chad.

I’m finally bracing myself to read Ben Taub’s New Yorker essay “Lake Chad: The World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster” (that’s the online title — in the physical magazine it’s called “The Emergency”), but I was stopped cold and forced to post by the opening:

Chad was named for a mistake. In the eighteen-hundreds, European explorers arrived at the marshy banks of a vast body of freshwater in Central Africa. Because locals referred to the area as chad, the Europeans called the wetland Lake Chad, and drew it on maps. But chad simply meant “lake” in a local dialect.

Nothing surprising in that, of course, but I don’t trust etymologies from journalists, so I tried to find out more. Wikipedia says the same thing (“a local word meaning ‘large expanse of water’, in other words, a ‘lake'”), but its source is Adrian Room, whose books are lots of fun but not entirely reliable. I tried Google Books and found this in the CIA World Factbook 2017 (page 169):

etymology: named for Lake Chad, which lies along the country’s western border; the word “tsade” means “large body of water” or “lake” in several local native languages

So everyone’s agreed on the basic story, but I’d like to know where it came from — what languages are involved, who documented the word, and is the information reliable? All theories, references, and anecdotes are, as always, welcome.

Expresso, the Computational Sequel.

We discussed the espresso/expresso thing briefly in 2014 (though most of the thread is on weird pronunciations); now Vitaliy Kaurov (of Wolfram Science and Innovation Initiatives) has a much deeper dive that quickly gets too technical for me, Finding X in Espresso: Adventures in Computational Lexicology. But I’m sure some of my readers will happily go into the details; me, I just enjoy the pretty graphs, and I will share the largely comprehensible conclusion:

The following factors affirm why expresso should be allowed as a valid alternative spelling.

Espresso/expresso falls close to the median usage frequencies of 2,693 official alternative spellings with Levenshtein EditDistance equal to 1
• The frequency of espresso/expresso usage as whole pair is above the median, so it is more likely to be found in published corpora than half of the examined dataset
• Many nearest neighbors of espresso/expresso in the frequency space belong to a basic vocabulary of the most frequent everyday usage
• The history of espresso/expresso usage in English corpora shows simultaneous growth for both spellings, and by temporal pattern is reminiscent of many other official alternative spellings
• The uniqueness of the sx mutation in the espresso/expresso pair is typical, as numerous other rare and unique mutations are officially endorsed by dictionaries

So all in all, it is ultimately up to you how to interpret this analysis or spell the name of the delightful Italian drink. But if you are a wisenheimer type, you might consider being a tinge more open-minded. The origin of words, as with the origin of species, has its dark corners, and due to inevitable and unpredictable language evolution, one day your remote descendants might frown on the choice of s in espresso.

Thanks, Kobi!

The New Lesvos English.

Matt Broomfield of the New Statesman reports on the lingua franca developing at Moria prison camp on Lesvos:

But in the crucible of the overcrowded detention centre at Moria, English is undergoing an accelerated evolution, tentatively beginning to develop its own unique grammar and idiom. My six months working on the island were a crash course in “Lesvos English” – and in the remarkable ways people adapt and communicate as they attempt to survive a worsening humanitarian crisis.

One striking change is the systematic simplification of vocabulary. To commonly stands in for other prepositions such as at, in or on: not only I go to beach now, but also I stay to beach tonight. The phrase too much is similarly overburdened, doing the work of a lot, very, many, and entirely: the camp at Moria is too much full with too much people. Other examples heard many times every day include after in place of then or next, and finish in place of stop, go home and so on.

The simplified terms of Lesvos English are not random, but show how languages are learned. For example, one of the first verbs all students of a foreign language learn is “to speak” – I speak English, I don’t speak Farsi. Thus speak often does the work of say, tell and ask, as in I speak him why?, he speak me because I am hungry. The sense is clear – why complicate matters any further?

In general, English as spoken on Lesvos displays an “isolating morphology”, meaning nouns and words tend to be used in their simplest possible form: I am sleep to Moria, and not I am sleeping. This is a trait typical of many pidgin languages. […]

Some loan words, such as the universally-used German ausweis for ID papers, were brought to the island by Western activists. Other often-heard phrases are evidently transliterations from Arabic and Farsi, while one common tic is doubling-up pronouns and proper nouns in a sentence to avoid confusion, for example stating Aiwan he go Athens or asking you stay beach you? Reduplication, either for intensification or to create a plural, is a feature of many well-established pidgins.

For a newspaper journalist, it’s an astonishingly good piece of linguistic description; my hat is off to Matt Broomfield. (Thanks, Lameen and JC!)

White Elephant.

Ross Bullen’s essay “Race and the White Elephant War of 1884” is, as you can tell by the title, not primarily about language, but this passage is linguistically interesting enough to excerpt:

Further complicating the relationship between human whiteness and white elephants is the fact that the English term “white elephant” is an inadequate and misleading translation of the Thai phrase for these animals. The Thai word for elephant is chang, and a white elephant is a chang pheuak. According to Rita Ringis, “chang pheuak . . . literally means ‘albino (or strange-coloured) elephant’, the usual word for the colour ‘white’ being different entirely.” Like virtually every other American or European who wrote about Siam and white elephants in the nineteenth century, Vincent was open about the fact that “white elephant” was a poor translation of chang pheuak. And yet he still describes these animals as “so-called ‘white’ elephant[s]”, glossing over what he admits is a semantic problem in order to cast creatures like Toung Taloung as racial imposters who — like a light-skinned African American — might try to pass as white in order to access the closely guarded privileges of white identity.

If the white elephant is viewed as an imposter because of its improper claim on whiteness, this conception of the animal as a kind of fraud is also supported by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “white elephant” as both “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”, and “A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

Although this story of the Siamese king and his ruined courtier does provide a compelling explanation for why “white elephant” can mean “an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”, it is nevertheless a complete fabrication. Indeed, if read together, the OED’s two definitions for “white elephant” present a paradox: If white elephants are “rare” and “highly venerated”, why would the king of Siam give one away to punish a subordinate? Unsurprisingly, there is no recorded instance of this practice in Thai history. Nevertheless, this figurative definition of “white elephant” as a kind of fatal gift has had a lasting influence on the English language. It can be detected today in phenomena like “white elephant sales” or “white elephant gift exchanges”, but in the 1880s, “white elephant” was a common expression for any kind of useless or burdensome object.

There are some splendid illustrations (as well, of course, as a great deal of historico-cultural analysis).

A Year in Reading 2017.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year; my contribution is up, featuring my review of Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (see this post), as well as my other favorites of the year. And seriously, if you haven’t read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, give it a try.