The History of Uranus Jokes.

Forgive me; this is a low, vulgar post, but in me, as in most of us, there is an inner twelve-year-old who will not be entirely suppressed, and he enjoys Albert Stern’s A Deep Dive Into Uranus Jokes so much he has to share it. The first line will suggest the style: “Uranus, it has been pointed out, has long been the butt of jokes.” Now that you have been warned, here are some excerpts:

My own introduction to Uranus jokes must have come close to half a century ago, and certainly the playground comedian who related the jape was working solidly within a received older tradition. But how old might that tradition be?

Certainly, no planet Uranus joke can predate March 13, 1781, as that was when astronomer Sir William Herschel first discovered the celestial body from the garden of his house in Bath, England. Okay then, you say — the tradition started March 14, 1781. But the story of the planet’s nomenclature is more involved, as Herschel didn’t just peer through his telescope and say “I can see Uranus.” The astronomer’s name for the object he discovered (and at first misidentified as a comet) was Georgium Sidus, after King George III. According to Mark Littmann in his 2004 tome Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System, that appellation proved “instantly unpopular” wherever the monarch did not reign. German astronomer Johann Elert Bode, one of the first observers to properly identify the body as the seventh planet from the sun, named it Uranus after the father of Saturn and grandfather of Jupiter in ancient Roman cosmology. However, writes Littmann, “The new planet remained officially ‘The Georgian’ in Britain until after the discovery of Neptune and through the 1847 publication of the Nautical Almanac for 1851.” […]

I was set on the circuitous path to the first Uranus joke by sheer chance, via a history book for general readers titled 100 Diagrams That Changed the World. In it, author Scott Christianson identifies the first print appearance of an emoticon […] Emoticons first appeared in an American satirical magazine called Puck on March 30, 1881.

What do emoticons have to do with anything? Because Stern, in idly perusing the page of Puck reproduced by Christianson, discovered the first known Uranus joke on the same page! I leave you to learn the details, and be exposed to many Uranus-related turns of phrase, at the link. (A tip o’ the Languagehat hat to DyRE’s MetaFilter post, My what will be at right angles?)

The Midnight Court.

Ciarán Lenoach, an editor with Nuacht RTÉ who has a PhD in sociolinguistics, writes for RTÉ about a wonderful discovery; there are so many interesting features to the story that all I can do is quote a few bits and send you to the full article for the rest:

A version of the wildly licentious 18th century comic poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) adapted to a dialect of Irish no longer spoken has been discovered in a manuscript by a linguist in Dublin. The manuscript is held in the Royal Irish Academy Library, but up until now there was no record of it containing a version of The Midnight Court in the Connacht Irish of Roscommon rather than the Munster Irish of Clare poet Brian Merriman’s original. Clare Irish survived longer than Roscommon Irish, but both are now extinct.

The Roscommon Irish version of the poem was discovered by dialectologist and sociolinguist Prof Brian Ó Curnáin of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. It was written by scribe Éamann Ó hOrchaidh (anglicised as Hore or Hoare) and is being made available to the public for the first time here.

The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman is the greatest comic dramatic poem of the Irish literary canon. The poem is just over 1,000 lines long and was composed by Merriman in his native Clare Irish around the year 1780. […] The Roscommon version, written in 1817, is unique because it is the only known Connacht version of the Midnight Court. All other extant versions from the late 18th century and early 19th century are in Munster Irish, reflecting Merriman’s original idiom. Furthermore, Ó hOrchaidh’s manuscript is one of the last in the Connacht tradition written down in Irish script and spelling. […] Connacht Irish is in general linguistically quite conservative. It does not share in many of the provincial innovations of Munster or Ulster and it has relatively few independent innovations of its own.

Prof Ó Curnáin says that Merriman’s spellings deviate deliberately from the normal use of the time and are in many cases more dialectal and modern than the Irish spelling we use today. “Merriman provides a very clear indication of how to pronounce Clare Irish through his amazing four rhyming words per line. This provides us with the metrically assured pronunciations of over 4,000 words in Merriman’s own mixture of Clare vernacular and poetic register. In other words, we can tell how Merriman intended practically every syllable to be pronounced.”

Visit the link for examples of dialect words, video clips, photos, and a description of what sounds like a thoroughly delightful piece of ribaldry. Many thanks to faithful correspondent (and fine poet) Trevor Joyce for yet another great link!

The Lost Words.

Daegan Miller interviews Robert Macfarlane (see this LH post) about his new book, a collaboration; here’s the lead-in:

In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, one of the standard reference works found in primary schools throughout the UK, began removing words from its pages that were no longer being used or read enough by children to merit inclusion—words like “acorn,” “bluebell,” “heron,” and “kingfisher.” It replaced these names for the natural world with entries for the likes of “broadband” and “cut-and-paste,” modern words for our technological age. There was an outcry: what does it mean when nature is deemed irrelevant to children’s language? Among the dismayed was the artist and author Jackie Morris, who began imagining a book made up of the dictionary’s losses, a book beautifully illustrated and written, a book that would summon back the words for the natural world.

Morris approached Robert Macfarlane, one of the most beloved nature writers working in the English language, with her idea—would he be interested in writing the text? He was, and thus was born The Lost Words. It is a stunning book, and large. At 11 x 15 inches, Morris’s illustrations have enough room to become an ecosystem of their own. And Macfarlane’s poems—“spells,” Macfarlane and Morris call them—are invitations to imagine, reflect, and laugh as one’s tongue trips over intricate syllables. Daegan Miller reviewed The Lost Words for Public Books in March 2018; this summer he conducted a follow-up interview with the book’s creators to talk about their collaboration.

A nice idea for a book, and I like Macfarlane’s final comment:
[Read more…]

Little Bustard.

I love English, really I do. It’s one of the best languages I know, almost infinitely flexible and expressive. But sometimes it lets me down, and this is one of those times, and I’m going to complain about it.

Mandelstam’s Грифельная ода (Slate Ode; see this post) is one of the most difficult poems I know. Mandelstam wrote a lot of difficult poems, but unlike, say, “The Finder of a Horseshoe” (see this post), where each line is perfectly understandable and the difficulty is in figuring out what to make of them as a group, here half the lines produce an initial reaction of “Huh? Wha?” Take the first line, Звезда с звездой – могучий стык ‘Star with star – (a) mighty styk.’ What’s a styk? Well, it can mean ‘joint, junction’ or ‘butt’ (in a technical sense) or various kinds of meeting-point (e.g., of flanks of adjacent military units) or, in Formalist poetics, a particular kind of sound repetition from the end of one line to the beginning of the next; we can probably leave the last couple out of consideration (though poetics were definitely important to Mandelstam and he’d certainly read Osip Brik’s essay introducing the term), and we can fudge the distinctions and say something like “Star with star: a mighty joining” (or, in Alistair Noon’s version, “The mighty joins of star upon star,” or, in this one, “A powerful junction, a star with a star”)… but what does that mean? Sure, it’s useful to know he’s quoting Lermontov’s famous Выхожу один я на дорогу/I go out on the road alone (see this post), whose fourth line is И звезда с звездою говорит ‘And star talks with star,’ and for that matter the next line quotes another line of the Lermontov poem, Сквозь туман кремнистый путь блестит ‘Through the mist a flinty path shines,’ but what does it mean? We proceed to the next two lines — ‘The language of flint and air,/ Flint with water, a ring with a horseshoe’ — and ask the same plaintive question. We enter a momentary realm of clarity at the start of the second stanza — ‘We sleep on our feet in the thick night/ Under a warm sheepskin hat’ — but after that it’s back to “Huh?” It’s a poem you need to break your teeth over for a long time before it starts to begin to sort of make sense, and I expect to spend the rest of my life chewing at it and trying to extract more from it.

But none of that is what I’m here to complain about; that’s just poetry being poetry. No, I’m here because of the last line of the sixth stanza (in the 1937 revision): Меняю строй на стрепет гневный ‘I exchange (a) stroi for an angry strepet.’ The first word I’ve left in transliteration, stroi, is problematic in the same way as styk above: it can mean ‘system, order; regime; (linguistic) structure; (musical) key, pitch; (fig.) mood; harmony; (military/aeronautical) formation; line, row; (mil.) unit in formation; (mil. and fig.) service, commission,’ and doubtless other things — cf. a dustman’s dumpling. I have no idea what specifically he meant by it here, but again, the translator can fudge. My problem is with the second word, which has one and only one translation: a strepet is a little bustard. I’m sorry, but that’s a stupid and unusable word (or expression). I wouldn’t even look at one flying and making its distinctive sounds and say “that’s a little bustard”; I’d contemplate it in silence. To use it in poetry is unthinkable (unless it’s a very jocular kind of poem). Noon has “I swap […]/ harmony for the bustard’s anger”; in the first place, it’s not a bustard, which is a different bird (Russian дрофа [drofá]), and in the second place, “bustard” is just as bad except for being a little shorter and thus getting out of the way quicker. The other version has “Exchange order for an angry vulture,” which, no, it’s not a vulture, which has entirely the wrong connotations (and doesn’t sound much better anyway). Why isn’t the bird called a “strippet” in English? That would have the same pleasing onomatopoeic sound as the Russian and could be placed with pride in a poem. But no, it is only and always the little bustard, and I declare the poem eternally untranslatable. WTF, English?!

Update. Alex K. (3:57 pm comment) astutely points out:

If strepet is animate, why isn’t its accusative strepeta? It’s most likely inanimate, so not a bird – the first meaning listed by Dahl (whom Mandelstam revered) and Vasmer is a sound: a sharp, whistling noise.

He is, of course, quite right, although all bilingual dictionaries have only the bird sense (which presumably misled the translators I quote above), so I reverse my judgment and declare the poem provisionally translatable.

Further update, resolving the whole thing. D.O. (in a comment from 6:15 pm) quotes an edition of Mandelstam as follows:

Стрепет (было «трепет») — опечатка машинистки, очень понравившаяся Тихонову, из-за чего автор ее сохранил (помета на экз-ре С из собр. М. С. Лесмана).
Strepet (originally trepet [trembling]) is a typo made by a copyist, which Tikhonov liked very much and because of that the author kept it.

You couldn’t make something like that up!


Anne Curzan has a short but extraordinarily interesting Lingua Franca post on one of the many vexing problems of English: how to think about the “nonstandard” pronunciation of mischievous as “mischievious” (four syllables, mis-CHEEV-i-us) in the context of “standard English.” Some excerpts:

What language is considered standard and nonstandard is, of course, socially constructed and changes over time. But the categorization can become so naturalized that its artificiality can be hard to see when we talk about features like double or multiple negation or the construction needs washed. As a result, it can be hard to genuinely grapple with critical questions such as: How do language features become standard? And who decides?

I wondered whether “mischievious” would ground our discussion of these questions in an effective way. Here was a pronunciation that Merriam-Webster labeled nonstandard, even though my informal polling suggested that it was more widespread among highly educated speakers than I had realized. And while some speakers I polled had strong reactions about the pronunciation’s nonstandardness, that status seemed readily challengeable (i.e., the pronunciation seemed not (yet?) to be ideologically naturalized as nonstandard).

I started the class discussion by polling the class on their pronunciation of mischievous. More than half of the 34 students had the pronunciation “mischievious” — whether as their only pronunciation or as one of two available pronunciations. I then put students in pairs, gave them the blog post to read, and asked them to work through two questions:

1. Let’s imagine that you are consulting with Merriam-Webster about whether to remove the label nonstandard from the pronunciation “mischievious.” What are two things you feel like you need to know to make a recommendation?
2. Given the information you currently have in hand, should Anne have left the “nonstandard” pronunciation “mischievious” in the podcast or had it deleted so as not to distract listeners?

The ensuing discussion is fascinating; here’s her conclusion:

In the end, the students voted 27-7 that I should have left the pronunciation “mischievious” in the podcast rather than subscribe (or at least potentially be seen as subscribing) to the notion that the pronunciation is in some way nonstandard, and I think they are right.

I guess I do too, though I have to struggle against my irrational but longstanding prejudice against “mischievious.”

Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries.

I realize this post will be of interest to a limited portion of my readership, but I have to be true to my roots, and even though my days as an Indo-European scholar are four decades behind me now, Matthew Scarborough’s Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries: A Guide for the Perplexed gets my blood racing and I have to share it. He begins:

Over the last three years I have worked more-or-less intensively and widely on Indo-European etymological problems […] Because I have been working on this over the last three years, have come into contact with all manner of etymological resources I had never used before, and (most importantly) because I’m the perverse sort of individual who delights in making lists and bibliographies, I thought I ought to compile a working bibliography of Indo-European etymology as a kind of where-to-go list if you need to make etymological enquiries – something that could be of interest to laypeople who are etymology hobbyists who want to know the relative reliability of different sources and so forth, or maybe you just want a quick resource to know where to go to fact-check dodgy etymology memes floating around the internet.

I will be doing this series in a piecemeal form, first with the general handbooks covering cross-branch cognacy for all of the older Indo-European languages, then the main handbooks that exist branch by branch. […] So, I’ll now begin this series in this post starting with an overview of the general Indo-European etymological dictionaries that are commonly in use today.

He starts with Pokorny’s venerable and still necessary Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959–1969), and continues with the Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben (2001), Nomina im Indogermanischen Lexikon (2008), and Lexikon der indogermanischen Partikeln und Pronominalstämme (2014), with some appetizing images of entries, and for lagniappe adds Cal Watkins’ American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (3rd ed., 2011). I can’t wait for the promised coverage of handbooks for individual languages/branches!

The Rudeness of Metafictional Irony.

I’ve had occasion once again to consult Joe Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (see my posts Shalost and Shalost II), and in the chapter on Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila I found the following passage (pp. 112-13) so illuminating I thought I’d share it here:

The lyrical digressions of RL, again, are a good example. The accepted view has long been that the digressions serve a narratological purpose: to create an ironic bifurcation of the lyrical subject. This idea is worth pausing on because irony is what makes RL possible. There is near universal agreement that RL is a metafictional work — a poema, first and foremost, about poetry. Metafictional texts invariably both “systematically flaunt [their] own condition of artifice” and “criticize previous literary conventions.” […] Postulating a now standard argument, Tomashevskii says that the subjectivity introduced and maintained in the lyrical digressions “infects” the entire poem. Moreover, he says, this was a major innovation. “That is why … the entire poem in all its parts is, in a sense, a chat between the author and the reader, the very opposite of the old epic poema, in which the author did not reveal himself as an individual in the poema‘s verse, and the word was dislocated from its speaker, becoming abstract and monosemantic.” […] Pushkin’s claim to the reader’s attention — his ethos — rubbed many readers the wrong way, and the omnipresence of Pushkin’s lyrical subject(s) displeased a number of his critics. […] The Nevskii zritel’ reviewer, for example, wrote, “The poet likes to talk about himself quite a lot and [always seems to be] addressing himself to pretty girls, to preceptors, to actors, and the like — that is what holds up the progress of the action and hinders unity. I would like to be charmed, to forget myself — but, instead, the poet brings my delight to a halt, and instead of Ancient Rus’, I see today’s world around me: the incongruity becomes plain, and, what’s more, all this distracts the reader’s attention and belittles the importance of the [poet’s] subject.”

The expectations that this reviewer has of poets are extremely telling. He wants to “be charmed, to forget himself.” In other words, he wants to be entertained and delighted. And the poet should not hinder this with a lot of asides and jokes; paradoxically enough, the poet should keep out of the way and let the reader enjoy himself. The poet here is a kind of a servant to the reader, one who, as Voeikov says, “should not for a moment lose sight of his readers, before whom he is obliged to conduct himself politely and respectfully.” Pushkin’s lack of respect for his reader, as evinced by the intrusiveness of his narrator, was one of the central themes in the critical polemic of 1820-21. Clearly, he asserted himself more than was customary and, in Goffman’s terms, took a “line” that was not in keeping with the expectations of the readership. His lyrical subject, like the obnoxious young men Bulgarin describes, “does not respect his elders, is familiar with his superiors, and arrogant with his equals.” As such, we have here an ineluctable intertwining of two sets of conventions: literary and behavioral. Not only did the lyrical digressions that lie at the heart of the poem’s pragmatic structure run against literary convention, they were fundamentally rude. It is impossible to separate the two.

We are so used to accepting whatever an author dishes out as appropriate — not in the sense that we like it, but in the sense that it’s to be considered as literature, not as a personal insult — that it’s very hard indeed to put oneself back in the mindset of people for whom there were norms of literature and norms of conduct, and those norms should not be violated. This is the first time I think I’ve really gotten a grip on it, thanks to that image of the poet as “a kind of a servant to the reader”: I see him summoned to declaim a poem as a juggler might be summoned to perform for the entertainment of a noble audience. The poet starts by talking about far-off times and lands, allowing the audience to drift into a pleasant reverie about knights and fair maids, and when he suddenly says something on the order of “But hey, we’ve all been there, you know what I’m talking about!” (to transpose the idiom a couple of centuries forward), it throws the audience right out of the reverie and pisses them off. The poet is supposed to be a tasteful hireling, not a rude ironist.

What Tech Does to the Reading Brain.

This is exactly the sort of pop-psych piece beloved of op-ed pages and their online equivalents, but what the hell, it’s interesting: Angela Chen interviews Maryanne Wolf about her book Reader, Come Home (subtitle: “the reading brain in a digital world”). Chen starts with a question about the idea of “circuits” in the brain; Wolf responds:

When we have any function, whether it’s language or vision or cognitive functions like memory, we aren’t dealing with a straight line to the brain that says “This is what I do.” The brain builds a network of connections, a network of neurons that have a particular role in that function. So when we have a new cognitive function, like literacy, it doesn’t have a preset network. Rather, it makes new connections among older networks, and that whole collection of networks becomes a circuit. It’s a connected scaffolding of parts.

The beauty of the circuit for functions like literacy is its plasticity. You can have one for each different language, like English or Chinese or Hebrew. And then something miraculous happens: the circuit builds upon itself. The first circuits are very basic — for decoding letters as we’re learning to read — but everything we read builds upon itself.

So what’s changing now with technology? How is that affecting our circuits?

The fact that a circuit is plastic is both its beautiful strength and its Achilles’ heel. Reading reflects our medium. And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

And these slower processes are deep learning, the ones that are more cognitively challenging. They’re the basis for going beyond that initial short circuit of decoding the information and understanding it at a very basic level. The digital medium affordance rewards and advantages fast processing at the cost of the slower processes that build our very important critical, analytical, and empathetic processes.

Wolf proposes we aim for a “bi-literate brain.” I leave it to my readers to decide the relative proportions of sense and woo in all this. Thanks, Jack!


On “Tweet of the day” on Radio 4 (two-minute clip), the actor Sam West talks about the line in Hamlet “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw,” which he had assumed was intended as nonsense. He discovered from a Norfolk bird-watching friend that “hanser” is Norfolk dialect for a Grey Heron, whose appearance in flight could be mistaken for a hawk. My thanks to Alastair for this bit of Shakespeariana, and for the glossary of Norfolk dialect words with which he accompanied it.

Dead as the Moa.

Priscilla Wehi, Hēmi Whaanga, and Murray Cox at The Conversation (“Academic rigor, journalistic flair”) discuss Māori oral traditions:

Tracing extinctions that happened centuries ago is difficult, but our collaborative analysis of ancestral sayings, or whakataukī, found that early Māori paid attention to their local fauna and environment and recognised the extinction of these giant, flightless birds that were an important food resource.

After Europeans arrived, some whakataukī used moa as a metaphor for the feared extinction of the indigenous Māori people themselves, which emphasises the powerful cultural impact the extinction of moa had. […]

Sometimes, what is missing from a body of knowledge reveals more than what is actually there. We searched the whakataukī for bird species that became extinct in the first few centuries after Māori arrived in New Zealand. There were none, apart from moa, and the giant eagle, or pouakai, that preyed on moa. Pouakai tracked moa on the highway to extinction. […]

Many whakataukī highlight the disappearance of the moa, a sign that moa represented more than just another extinction. They were a poster species. A hashtag. Many sayings lament the loss of the moa, using different words and different phrasing, but with an echo that repeats over and over.

Huna i te huna a te moa
Hidden as the moa hid

Thanks, Dmitry!