Another delightful tidbit from the Public Domain Review (see this LH post):

Jé Wilson charts the migration of the Lustucru figure through the French cultural imagination — from misogynistic blacksmith bent on curbing female empowerment, to child-stealing bogeyman, to jolly purveyor of packaged pasta.

It’s an amazing story, but this is the bit of linguistic interest:

His name, Lustucru, comes from a slurring of “L’eusses-tu-cru?”, a stock phrase used in that period by theatrical fools, which meant, “Would you have believed it?” or in this case, “Would you have thought a woman’s head could be fixed?”

Once I have it spelled out for me, I can see the derivation, but I wouldn’t have guessed it, because the imperfect subjunctive of avoir is not uppermost in my consciousness. My question to actual French-speakers is: is it obvious to you that Lustucru = L’eusses-tu-cru? (I am reminded, for some reason, of the Russian phrase andermanir shtuk.)


Today I had the great pleasure of a visit from Slavomír Čéplö, known around Blogovia as bulbul of bulbulistan, who’s in Providence for the Eighth North American Syriac Symposium (program) and thought he’d take advantage of the proximity to visit the Hattery. We all went into Amherst for the Taste of Amherst, where we sampled various restaurant offerings and watched the kung fu exhibition put on by my grandson’s class, then returned here to talk and examine my overloaded bookshelves. I asked him what he was presenting at the symposium, and he told me it was “HUNAYNNET: Greek-Syriac-Arabic corpus of scientific texts”; of course I wanted to see the website, and I was very impressed:

This project aims to facilitate a comprehensive comparison of Syriac and Arabic translations through lexicographical analysis by developing an innovative research tool. Drawing on online lexicography and corpus linguistics, we will produce a parallel corpus of Syriac scientific and philosophical translations to facilitate the analysis and comparison of Syriac scientific terminology and translation techniques both with extant Greek originals and with Arabic versions. The lexicographic database will provide definitive data for the study of Syriac and Arabic translations and the connections between them. It will reveal how the Syriac translations along with underlying methods and tools that were put to use for the first time ever by Syriac Christians eventually formed the bedrock for the prosperity of the Islamic sciences. The open-access database thus creates a new instrument for a study of the history of the transmission of Greek scientific literature in antiquity and the middle ages.

If you click on the Texts link at the top you can choose works by Aristotle, Pseudo-Aristotle, Porphyry, Galen, etc.; click on, say, Categoriae, and you’ll get a Greek text on the left and an empty space on the right which you can fill by clicking on the + sign and choosing Aramaic and/or Arabic, which will appear in parallel columns. Furthermore, if you hold your cursor over one of the sentence numbers in parentheses, the corresponding passage will be highlighted in all the versions, and if you click on a word in any of the languages you’ll be offered your choice of lexica to look it up in. There’s a Syriac Dictionary Lookup from Sedra, which has online libraries, and you can get Syriac words analyzed at ElixirFM Resolve Online (e.g., يقال). What a wonderful world, and what a good job they’ve done of putting this valuable material online!

Also, he told me that Syriac is much less well described than you’d think; he wanted to define classes of words for analysis, but it turned out Nöldeke only had a few prepositions, and when Slavo went through text corpora he found a couple dozen. There’s lots of work to be done, and I look forward to his further discoveries; I also look forward to his next visit, because my wife and I both enjoyed his company tremendously (and were impressed by his astonishing command of vernacular American English). Somebody fund this man for another local conference!

A Linguistic Dystopia.

Jacqueline Leung reviews Yoko Tawada’s novel The Emissary for Asymptote; it begins:

The very existence of language—the signified and the signifier, the sender and the recipient—denotes distance. For a writer like Yoko Tawada, who practices her craft in both Japanese and German (the latter picked up in her twenties), the space between reality and what is written or said is where poetry resides. Linguistic play is at the heart of Tawada’s creativity; in The Naked Eye, she wrote one chapter in German and another in Japanese, alternating between the two until the end. Then she decided to translate everything the other way so that she had a German manuscript and a Japanese manuscript for her publishers.

This exophonic maneuver—exophony being a term indicating the practice of writing in a language not your mother tongue (the distinction makes you wonder if there ever was a term for writing in your mother tongue)—is an impossibility in the dystopian Japan depicted in Tawada’s latest novel, The Emissary, translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani. Learning a foreign language is forbidden in the fictionalized Japan that has regressed to closing its borders after irreparable environmental disasters, possibly nuclear, contaminated the archipelago and pulled it away from the Eurasian continent, geographically and politically forcing its isolation. The aftermath is an exacerbated impression of Japan’s current dilemma with its aging population—government statistics released just this April reveal that over a third of its people are 60 and above.

I’m always glad to see novelists dealing with language in interesting ways, and that’s quite a story about the two versions of The Naked Eye. Thanks, Trevor!

X is for…

The Public Domain Review has a post answering a question that probably never occurred to you: what did alphabet books do about the letter X before X-rays?

Xylophones, which have also been a popular choice through the twentieth century to today, are mysteriously absent in older works. Perhaps explained by the fact that, although around for millennia, the instrument didn’t gain popularity in the West (with the name of “xylophone”) until the early twentieth century. So to what solutions did our industrious publishers turn?

As we see below, in addition to drawing on names — be it historical figures, plants, or animals, all mostly of a Greek bent (X being there much more common) — there’s also some more inventive approaches. And some wonderfully lazy ones too.

Xerxes was the most common (“X is for Xerxes,/ Who now lives no more”), but Xanthippe was also popular (there’s a marvelous illustration of her emptying a chamber pot over the head of a chuckling Socrates), and there was an entirely unexpected entrant:

We are not sure of the exact history of this figure known as Xany, but he seems to be associated with foolishness — perhaps a convenient mis-spelling of the more common “zany” (which itself refers to “Zanni”, a character type of Commedia dell’arte best known as a trickster).

There are others, including words that don’t actually start with X (“X is Extinct; he thinks everything bad,/ That was not invented, when he was a lad”) or even contain it (“X is for crossroads”) and one book that simply omits the letter, and the illustrations are well worth the visit on their own.

Also, check out the freely downloadable books at the U of Cal Press site; juha linked to it in an earlier thread, mentioning Nile Green (ed.), The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca (which I instantly grabbed for my Kindle), and listed a bunch more titles in this comment.

Karenina Tidbits.

The foreign prince whom Vronsky is forced to escort around Petersburg had hunted “гемз” in Switzerland; while trying to find out what that might be (it turns out to be a russified form of German Gemse ‘chamois’ [Old High German gamiza < Late Latin camox], for which the normal Russian word is серна), I happened on Aleksandr Khavchin’s Перечитывая «Анну Каренину» [Rereading Anna Karenina], a collection of observations he had made on the novel. I love that sort of thing, and I’ll send those who read Russian to the link to enjoy it; for the rest of you, I’ll translate a few tidbits. He mentions some examples of awkward constructions and says (the passage starts “Общеизвестно, что Толстой писал коряво” in the Russian):

It’s generally known that Tolstoy wrote clumsily and awkwardly on purpose: he tried to make sure the reader’s gaze would not glide along but stumble; he wanted to slow down the process of reading and make it more difficult. And up to the last minute, even in the final proofs he would “spoil” the style, adding “which” and “that,” burdening and muddling grammatical constructions. Bunin thought it useful, perhaps as a practice exercise, to go through Tolstoy’s works with a pencil, polishing and cleaning. […]

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, and the Sebastopol Sketches are written in a more correct and clear style Anna Karenina. Might it be because at Sovremennik they weren’t afraid to correct a young author, whereas at Russkii vestnik they couldn’t bring themselves to correct a venerable, famous, great one? To correct a Tolstoy, you have to be a Bunin at the very least!

After giving examples of what they call “continuity errors” in movies (Kitty is wearing slippers at one point, shoes a bit later), he says (“Если уж сам Толстой”):

If Tolstoy himself committed errors, that means that:
– absolutely everybody needs an editor;
– we, mere mortals, have to be three times as vigilant, because we won’t be forgiven. Accuracy is that quality which even an untalented author is required to have.

He quotes some bits of direct speech which actors find extremely difficult to bring off when staged, and says (“В жизни люди так не говорят!”):

People don’t talk that way in real life! Ordinary people don’t talk in such cumbersome compound sentences! Those poor actors, forced to learn all that by heart!

I don’t mean to say that in Gogol, Ostrovsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov the heroes talk “like real people.” Of course the illusion of conversational language is constructed with the help of artificial techniques. But Tolstoy, like Dostoevsky, seems not to go to the trouble of creating simpler forms of speech for his characters, to distinguish them stylistically from authorial speech. In Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are parentheses within direct speech — even in school they told us to avoid that!

I did enjoy catching him in an error. He says only Stiva and Anna meet all the rest of the main characters — Levin and Kitty don’t meet Karenin [Левин и Кити не встречаются с Карениным]. Not true: both of them meet Karenin at Oblonsky’s dinner in IV:9!

I’m a little over halfway through, and (of course) I have a complaint. In general the novel is just as great as its reputation; I gobbled up the first three parts feeling I was in the hands of a master. But in Part 4, I started grumbling when (spoiler!) Levin finally wins Kitty’s heart. Up till then, Tolstoy’s handling of the thwarted relationship has been superb: the intrusion of Vronsky, the rejection of the awkward Levin (who’s stayed away for months), the letdown of the ball when she realizes Vronsky doesn’t love her after all, and Levin’s bitter renunciation, apparently forever. Now Tolstoy brings them together at last, and immediately falls into what feels to me like a combination of a romance novel and a young-adult story. Levin, a man in his thirties, suddenly starts acting like a schoolboy; well and good, that can happen. But (I quote Garnett’s translation):
[Read more…]


Eyehawk at posted:

I was curious how “litter” evolved from a term used for strewn trash into a group of babies produced by one cat or dog.

Dave Wilton responded:

Litter comes to English from the Anglo-Normans lit(t)ere in the early 14th century. The original sense was a bed or a bed-like carriage hauled by humans. Think of nobles in medieval or classical times being taken around the city in litters.

In French, it could also have the sense of straw or other material that made up a bed, and this sense was also used for straw used as bedding material for animals in stables and barns. This sense appears in English in the early 15th century.

By the mid 15th century, the word was being used to refer to animals born among such straw or material.

Then in the 18th century, litter came to mean odds and ends strewn across the floor, like straw. This is where the trash and rubbish sense comes from.

The stretcher sense goes back to the original sense of a bed-like carriage.

I’ll add that the Anglo-Norman word is from medieval Latin lectāria, derived from Latin lectus ‘bed’ (which of course gives French lit). An interesting semantic range, though Eyehawk’s original question of how it got to mean, in the OED’s words, “The whole number of young brought forth at a birth” (first citation 1486 Bk. St. Albans F vj A Litter of welpis) is not really answered — Dave’s “animals born among such straw or material” is a plausible guess but not immediately convincing.

If Then.

As regular readers know, I am a staunch descriptivist; that is, I hold to a scientific, fact-based description of language: whatever native speakers of a language say is ipso facto correct (unless, of course, they make a slip of the tongue). It’s absurd, for example, to claim that the way the vast majority of English-speakers use “beg the question” is incorrect and the only acceptable usage is an obscure philosophical one that makes no sense in English (since it’s a literal translation of the Latin petitio principii; see this LH post). I deplore prescriptivism, the idea that there is some Platonic ideal of language that is eternally “correct” and that all deviations from it must be chastised and if possible forbidden, and I mock the peevery it inspires.

And yet I myself am human, all too human, and I have my inner peever who occasionally demands to be taken out for a walk. So just as back in 2003 I complained about contrary-to-fact past may have (“if he’d run faster he may have caught the ball”) — which still bothers the hell out of me — I now feel compelled to gripe in public about another bête noire, the use of the if … then construction in something other than a conditional statement (“If you get good grades then you will get into a good college”). This is prompted by having read a particularly grating example of what I cannot help but call misuse in Annette Gordon-Reed’s 2017 NYRB review of Geoffrey R. Stone’s Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century, currently available online here; she writes:

For Luther it was celibacy that was devilish, while sex was as “necessary to the nature of man as eating and drinking.” If the early Christians had especially dire views on these matters, then Protestantism, which has been the dominant religious tradition in America from the beginning, rejected those views.

I couldn’t understand the second sentence until I went back and reread it, so alien is that usage to me. It’s bad enough to use “if” in a vague non-conditional way, as a sort of equivalent to “while,” but I’m more or less used to that; the problem is that people are thereby tempted to follow it with “then,” which to me directly and ineluctably implies a conditional statement. Stop it, all of you! Use English in a way that makes sense to me!

Whew. OK, having gotten that off my chest, I now return LH to its regular schedule of calm, scientific discussion of language and related matters.

Addendum. J.W. Brewer, in the comments, mentions Mark Liberman’s 2004 Log post on concessive (bleached? conditional?) “if,” with examples back to 1965; he adds:

Significantly, however, the examples given of that usage of “if” tend not to be followed by a “then,” which might mean that using the “then” with an other-than-truly-conditional “if” really is a more recent innovation calculated to aggravate those who weren’t acclimatized to it in their formative years. Indeed, Prof. says regarding the specific example that had prompted the post: “In fact Wilgoren & Justice don’t use ‘then’ — it would have been weird if they had.”

North American English Dialects.

I actually posted Rick Aschmann’s dialect map back in 2011, but although it’s just as ugly there’s plenty of new information, and I figure a lot of people didn’t see it back then, so here it is again; besides the map in its various forms, there are a Guide to the Sounds of North American English and Special Interest and Historical Articles (e.g., The Cot-Caught Merger and The Father-Bother Distinction; scroll around the page and who knows what you’ll find. Thanks, Terry!

Bring Back Irremediless!

A Thing About Words, the M-W Unabridged blog, is reliably interesting, and I enjoyed the post The Wayward Cousins of ‘Irregardless’ so much I thought I’d quote it here:

Dictionaries, and the people who make them, depend not on the kindness of strangers, but rather on their continued interest in language. Because of this, we applaud a passion for words in all the ways this may manifest itself. That being said, even the doughtiest lexicographer feels a frisson of boredom when receiving yet another whinge about how irregardless is not, or shouldn’t be, a word.

However, if it is your life’s dream to inveigh against words that shouldn’t be, you should follow your bliss, even if you do so in peevish fashion. To help you in such endeavors we thought to provide a short list of other words which bear some passing resemblance to irregardless. Now even the most jaded complainant will have the necessary variety to make each day’s complaints feel fresh and new.

For instance, we enter the word irremediless, with a definition that manages to be both succinct and seemingly nonsensical: “remediless.” Irremediless and remediless (“lacking hope of assistance or relief; being beyond help”) are obscure, or obsolete, and so you are unlikely to encounter either in current writing. […]

Less often found are irresistless (“resistless”) and irrelentlessly (“relentlessly). These are antiquated and rare enough that we do not enter them, but may be found in the works of such 17th century illiterates as John Dryden and Richard Montagu. […]

Moving on from the ir– prefix, there are a number of un– words which appear to contradict themselves. Earlier editions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries had entries for both unremorseless and unmerciless. These words were defined in 1913 as “utterly remorseless” and “utterly merciless,” shortened to “remorseless” and “merciless” in 1934, and removed in 1961. […]

The words listed above are a good way from being in common use, which is why no one is yet complaining about them. If you truly love to hear the phrase “that’s not a word” you will do your part to popularize them, in order that more people may have the pleasure of exclaiming this in the [sic; etwa “future.”]

I looked up irremediless in the OED and found an entry unchanged from 1900:


Used erroneously for remediless adj. and adv.

1602 W. Watson Decacordon Ten Quodlibeticall Questions 230 The most dangerous, infectious, and..irremedilesse poyson.
c1630 Strafford in Browning Life (1891) 70 It is irremediless, and therefore must be yielden unto.
1665 J. Evelyn Mem. (1857) III. 150 Upon these irremediless assaults.
1675 T. Brooks Golden Key 147 This despair effect occasioned by the sinners view, of his irremediless woful condition.

When they get around to updating it, they will of course remove the misguided “erroneously”; if you search Google Books you will find a lot more uses, many of them 19th-century (“a multitude of condemned mortals consigned to irremediless woe,” “a road which ends in wo so irremediless,” “and then he falls into the depth of endless and irremediless torment,” “but it is irremediless, and therefore must be yielden unto”), and it was clearly a word, just like irregardless.

Irregardless of irrelevancy, I have to mention that the Log has a guest post by John V. Day that is so silly I feel vicarious embarrassment for them for treating it seriously: An Indo-European approach to the alphabet. According to the good Mr. Day, the alphabet was not created by non-Indo-European Phoenicians but by Indo-Europeans. If you need any convincing that this is an untenable hypothesis, see the comments there.

Geomaunt and Teraphim.

I’m reading Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation — I haven’t quite figured out what he’s up to, but then I’m not very far into it — and I wanted to quote part of his combined exegesis and demolition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Angelica Rescued from the Sea-monster” (available, along with a small image of the Ingres painting it describes, here — scroll down to 5), which I enjoyed:

What is going on in Rossetti’s reproduction? What, except a search for rhyme, informs ‘The evil length of body chafes at fault’? In what way does Ingres’s nude, so firmly rounded in pictorial treatment, so neo-classically modelled, ‘trail’ her limbs? Hell-spurge is odd. Applied to a common genus of plants, the word may, figuratively, stand for any kind of ‘shoot’ or ‘sprout’. One suspects that the present instance resulted from a tonal-visual over­lap with surge. In the 1870 edition of the Poems, the phrase becomes Hell-birth. Geomaunt and teraphim make a bizarre pair. The O.E.D. gives Rossetti’s sonnet as reference for ‘geomant’ or ‘geomaunt’, one skilled in ‘geomancy’, the art of divining the future by observing terrestrial shapes or the ciphers drawn when handfuls of earth are scattered (geomancy occurs in Büchner’s Woyzeck when the tor­mented Woyzeck sees a hideous future writ in the shapes of moss and fungi). Rossetti’s source for this occult term may well have been its appearance in Dante:

quando i geomanti lor maggior fortuna
  veggiono in oriente, innanzi all’ alba,
  surger per via che poco le sta bruna. . .
          (Purgatorio, XIX. 4-6)

The occurrence of surger so close to geomanti makes it likely that a remembrance of Dante in fact underlies this part of Rossetti’s sonnet and may be more immediate to it than Ingres’s painting. Teraphim is, of course, Hebrew and figures as such in the Authorized Version. It signifies both ‘small idols’ and such idols used as means of divi­nation. It has a markedly heathen ring and Milton used the word with solemn reprobation in his Prelatical Episcopacy of 1641. What does either noun have to do with a sea-monster, especially with the rather pathetic marine beast at the bottom right of Ingres’s compo­sition? If anything, these sonorous rarities are ‘of the earth, earthy’. … The impertinent grandeur of ‘Hell-spurge of geomaunt and teraphim’ only aggravates the offence of nullity. ‘Vexed at its base’, with the exact, Latinate control of the verb, is the one redeeming item.

I’m posting it mainly for the wonderful words geomaunt and teraphim, as well as Steiner’s phrase “The impertinent grandeur of ‘Hell-spurge of geomaunt and teraphim'”; the OED has both geomant (“< Italian geomante (a1319 in Dante) < post-classical Latin geomantis (5th cent.) < ancient Greek γεω- geo- comb. form + μάντις prophet, diviner (see mantic adj.). Compare German Geomant,” first citation 1802 H. Boyd tr. Dante Purgatorio xix, in Divina Commedia II. 239 Now draws the Geomant his magic ring On the dark ground) and teraphim (“< ecclesiastical Latin theraphim (Vulgate), Greek θεραϕίν (Septuagint), < Hebrew th’rāphīm, or Aramaic –īn,” going back to the 14th century). There are two spurge entries, “One or other of several species of plants belonging to the extensive genus Euphorbia, many of which are characterized by an acrid milky juice possessing purgative or medicinal properties” and “A shoot or sprout”; the latter has only one citation (630 R. Brathwait Eng. Gentleman 138 Cabbages of such huge proportion, as the very leaves thereof (so largely extended were the spurges) might..give shadow to five hundred men), but it makes more sense here than the vegetable meaning. Unless, of course, Steiner is right that it’s just an echo of Dante with no particular definable sense.