Object Lesson.

William Giraldi’s New Republic essay “Object Lesson” is, let’s face it, just another books-are-the-greatest-thing-ever rant, with an added helping of e-reader panic (though he gracefully admits at the end that the panic is irrational), but it resonates with me and my 5,000 or so books:

Those of us who dwell within mounts of books—a sierra of them in one room, an Everest in another; hulks in the kitchen, heaps in the hallway—can tell you that, in addition to the special bliss of having and holding them, it’s a hefty, crowded, inconvenient life that’s also an affront to the average bank account. (New hardback books are expensive to buy and economically neutered the second you do.) What’s more, your collection is a fatal Niagara if it falls.[...]

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.[...]

Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no. Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan, the collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay “My Library,” simply to sit with them, “aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used”—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.[...]

Thanks, Paul!


Stan Carey has a post on one of the most successful Yiddish exports to English, kibitz:

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

1927, from Yiddish kibitsen “to offer gratuitous advice as an outsider,” from German kiebitzen “to look on at cards, to kibitz,” originally in thieves’ cant “to visit,” from Kiebitz, name of a shore bird (European pewit, lapwing) with a folk reputation as a meddler, from Middle High German gibitz “pewit,” imitative of its cry.

That is indeed delightful, so I thought I’d share it. I’ll also add the final sentence, which Stan inexplicably omitted: “Young lapwings are proverbially precocious and active, and were said to run around with half-shells still on their heads soon after hatching.”

As Such.

Anne Curzan has a piece at Lingua Franca that pushes my buttons so that they produce a loud, harsh, buzzing noise in my head. She begins:

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times.

Here is an example from a recent dissertation of an as such that I left untouched, given that it is used the way I would use it:

[This scholar] argues that Christianity has become, for many college students, little more than a restrictive moral code, and as such, has earned a bad name.

In this sentence, the pronoun such has a clear antecedent (“a restrictive moral code”) and the prepositional phrase as such accords with the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition: “As being what the name or description implies; in that capacity.”

Here is an example of as such from the same dissertation that I underlined:

[The organization] encourages students to acknowledge where their own lives challenge Christian belief, and as such, these students are unlikely to fear such representation in academically oriented texts.

As such in this sentence seems to be synonymous with therefore or consequently. As a reader, I find myself searching for the antecedent of such, and given that I cannot find one, the sentences feels out of kilter. To me.

“To me, too!” the voice in my head screams. “How can it not! It’s wrong!” But Curzan goes on to discuss the history involved, pointing out that the OED called it colloquial and vulgar in 1915 but that the extended use has been growing so common that Jonathon Owen, in a 2013 post on Visual Thesaurus, “recognizes that these kinds of changes happen” and wonders “if he should loosen up and let this one go.” She concludes:

My as-such underlining does not seem well justified. Yes, there are certainly critics of the construction out there. But the use of as such to mean therefore or consequently seems entrenched enough in published academic prose that writers should not feel they have to avoid this use for fear of harsh judgment that it is too colloquial or “slipshod.” If this use of as such ever comes up on the ballot for American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, I’m voting acceptable.

This puts me in a pickle. As you know, I am a stone descriptivist, and if usage favors a construction, my principles insist it is perfectly good English. On the other hand, I am only human, and as it happens I hate this extended use with a passion (and use my editorial pen to stamp it out when I encounter it in the course of my job); when I see a sentence like one she quotes beginning “The main problem is a lack of data from banks and other institutions that suffer losses; as such, these estimates are heavily dependent on the methods used…,” I snarl “as what?” and change the offending phrase to “therefore.” So I am placing the pickle before the Varied Reader and soliciting input. Does the phrase seem horrible, not so bad, or totally unremarkable? Should I, like Curzan, loosen up and let it go?

Translating Dōgen.

Via Matt at No-sword, a wonderful essay by Carl Bielefeldt called “Translating Dōgen: Thoughts on the Soto Zen Text Project” (paper delivered to the conference The Many Faces of Dogen, Mt. Tremper, July 8-11, 2004). As Matt says: “This is not one of those essays about how translation is really hard, man, with a few challenging lexemes thrown in as examples.” Bielefeldt takes a passage from Dōgen‘s 13th-century Shōbōgenzō (which he’s been working on for years — he says charmingly “Frankly, speaking as one of the translators, I don’t think our translations will be better than the best of what we’ve got already”), provides a smooth, easy-reading version (“The ocean seal samādhi is what is actually happening all around us; it is our own expression of what is actually happening…”) and quotes a previously published one he calls “actually more difficult to understand than the original” (“This samādhi is actualization and attainment of the Way. When we are sleeping at night and grope for the pillow there is no thought of discrimination…”), and then gives us the translation he had just sent off to Dharma Eye, “the Sōtō Zen journal that has been including one of our pieces in each issue.” Here’s the paragraph in full:

Samādhi is the actual present; it is a saying. It is “the night” when “the hand gropes for the pillow behind.”(1) The groping for a pillow like this of “the hand groping for the pillow behind” in the night is not merely “hundreds of millions of tens of thousands of kalpas”; it is “in the ocean, I always preached only the Lotus Sūtra of the Wondrous Dharma.”(2) Because “they don’t state, ‘I arise,’” “I am in the ocean.”(3) The former face is the “I always preached” of “the slightest motion of a single wave, and ten thousand waves follow”; the latter face is the Lotus Sūtra of the Wondrous Dharma of “the slightest motion of ten thousand waves, and a single wave follows.”(4) Whether we wind up or let out “a line of a thousand feet” or ten thousand feet, what we regret is that it “goes straight down.” The former face and latter face here are “I am on the face of the ocean.” They are like saying “the former head” and “the latter head.” The former head and the latter head are “putting a head on top on your head.”(5)

And here’s the first footnote:

1. Allusion to a dialogue between Yunyan Tansheng (780?-841) and fellow disciple Daowu Yuanzhi (769-835) regarding the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who in one form is represented as having a thousand arms with an eye in the palm of each hand. “Yunyan asked Daowu, ‘How does the bodhisattva of great compassion use so many hands and eyes?’ Wu said, ‘Like a person searching behind him for his pillow in the night.’”

The rest of the footnotes and the original Japanese text are at the link, along with much interesting discussion of the problems involved in translating such a difficult and allusive text; he ends:

We tend to treat Dōgen as a wise Zen master, not a wise guy, as a master of Zen, not a Japanese student of Chinese language. But the fact is, Dōgen is also an outsider, an eccentric. His Zen is different from that of both his Chinese and Japanese contemporaries. His Shōbōgenzō is a different kind of book from other texts of his time, a genre almost sui generis. And his use of language in the Shōbōgenzō is different from other authors, very odd and very self-consciously odd. How are we to understand this book and its language? How are we to understand the author’s view of his book and the language in which he chose to write it? How are we to understand the author, his book, and his language as Zen?

Translations like those of the Sōtō Zen Text Project that seek to preserve something of Dōgen’s language may not be the sort you want on your night stand; but, if they can serve not just to help other translators or scholars do their work but to get us thinking about big questions such as these, then I’ll be happy enough with our efforts.

I can understand how people can be put off by this kind of heavily annotated text, but for myself, it is exactly the sort I want on my night stand; I have no interest in somebody’s attempt to assimilate a difficult text to my presumed (low) level of attention and (limited) set of cultural references. I want the whole catastrophe or nothing.

Mabuchi vs. Kanji.

Kamo no Mabuchi, an eighteenth-century Japanese poet and philologist, had some striking ideas about the use of Chinese characters, as reported by Victor Mair at the Log quoting Peter Flueckiger’s translation in “Reflections on the Meaning of Our Country: Kamo no Mabuchi’s Kokuikō” (JSTOR), pp. 247-8:

[An interlocutor said,] “This country, though, has no writing of its own. Instead, we use Chinese characters and through these are able to know about everything.” My response was that first of all, it goes without saying that China is a troublesome and poorly governed country. To give a specific example, there are the characters in the form of pictures. When we look at the characters that someone has put forth as just the ones necessary for ordinary use, they amount to some 38,000. To describe a single flower, for example, one needs to use different characters for blooming, scattering, pistil, plant, stem, and more than ten other things. Moreover, there are characters that are used in the name of a specific country or place, or for a particular type of plant, but are used nowhere else. Could people remember so many characters even if they tried? Sometimes people make mistakes with characters, and sometimes the characters change over time, leading to disputes over their usage; they are burdensome and useless.

In India, though, using fifty characters, they have written and passed down over five thousand volumes of Buddhist texts. Just knowing fifty characters, it is possible to know and transmit a limitless number of words from both past and present. Moreover, it is not only a matter of the characters; the fifty sounds are the voice of Heaven and Earth (ametsuchi no koe [characters omitted]), so what they contain within them is natural (onozukara). In the same way, there seem to have been some kind of characters in our Imperial Land as well, but after the introduction of Chinese characters, this original writing sunk wrongly into obscurity, and now only the ancient words remain. Although these words are not the same as the fifty sounds of India, they are based on the same principle in that fifty sounds suffice to express all things. To repeat the example of the flower discussed above, we can just say “blooming,” “scattering,” “budding,” “fading,” “pistil,” “stem,” and the like; without needing to resort to characters, one can easily express both the good and the bad, and there is nothing troublesome. In Holland they have twenty-five characters, in this country there are fifty, and, in general, characters are like this in all countries. Only China concocted a cumbersome system, so things are disorderly there and everything is troublesome.

Too bad more people didn’t think like him!

He Touched His Dictionary and Died.

Nora-Ide McAuliffe describes for the Irish Times “how ‘Lane’s English-Irish Dictionary’ was born”; it’s quite a story:

It was in Paris in the 1880s that he began work on his dictionary. Dictionaries had been produced in the 18th and 19th centuries, but O’Neill Lane found them to be lacking. His aim was to produce something that would better inform students of Irish. By the time he finally finished, in 1904, he had spent more than £2,500 – more than €325,000 today – to complete it.

O’Neill Lane spent five years travelling around Ireland. He made the most of his time and wrote a series of travel books while visiting Gaeltacht areas, where he collected words and phrases from locals. Words thought to be obsolete in Munster he found alive and well in other parts of the country, so he documented regional variations of Irish words and phrases. …

As soon as his 581-page work was published, however, O’Neill Lane expressed dissatisfaction with it. He had at this stage given up his journalism career and partly blamed his Paris commitments for shortcomings in the first edition.

“When he realised that the first one was inadequate he started work straight away on the second,” says O’Maolcatha. “He had included in his first edition an appeal for corrections and omissions, with a prize of £25 for the person who provided him with the best information.” …

Although he received many subscriptions for the second edition, producing it left O’Neill Lane virtually penniless. The day before he passed away a copy of the dictionary arrived by train at his local station in Limerick. He laid his hands on it on his deathbed and died on May 8th, 1915.

You’ve got to love anything that includes sentences like “O’Neill Lane asked that corrections be sent to Tournafulla, a parish a few kilometres from Templeglantine…” Thanks, Trevor!


Many years ago, when I was going through a Flaubert phase, I read his novel Salammbô; as I was living in New Haven at the time, I used to go up on West Rock and pretend I was looking down on Carthage from the Byrsa hill, imagining where the various areas mentioned would be. I used to wonder where the heroine’s name came from, and now I have a good idea, thanks to this passage at the very end of Stanislav Segert’s “Crossing the Waters: Moses and Hamilcar,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 53, No. 3 (1994), pp. 195-203 (JSTOR):

A final note on the name of the heroine whose name is the title of the novel, Salammbô: according to ancient sources, the name attested in Greek as Salambō and in Latin as Salambo referred to a Babylonian goddess, the equivalent of Aphrodite or Venus. The last part of this form of the name is shortened from the divine name Baal (Phoenician bʿl), as in the feminine name preserved in a Latin inscription, ANNIBONI, corresponding to Punic ḥnbʿʿ, a shortened form of the famous name ḥnbʿl, Hannibal, used for both males and females. The first component /šalam-/ may also refer to the word for “peace” but, more probably, corresponds to the once-attested Punic name šlmbʿl and the name containing the same elements bʿlšlm. It should thus be interpreted as “(the god) Dusk (is) (my?) Lord,” which is analogous to the Phoenician name šḥrbʿl, “(the god) Dawn is (my) Lord.”

A footnote mentions that Flaubert’s original name for the novel was Carthage. (Thanks, Paul!)

When Orientalism met Taxonomy.

At the blog Catching Flies, L. Shyamal has a very interesting post about the impact of orientalism on the study of the fauna and flora of India. There are all sorts of nice linguistic bits (as well as great images); a sampling:

The Dutch East India Company project of Hendrik van Rheede is exceptional in the nature of collaboration in knowledge production that put Indian traditional knowledge on record and gave local knowledge its due. Rheede came from an enlightened upper class background and it is interesting to see how he viewed other cultures. Rheede worked at a time when Linnaeus’ ideas of binomial nomenclature were still in development. The only labels that he could use were what he could find from local usage. He was aware of local variations both regional and linguistic and recorded them quite carefully. He had copperplate engravings made for printing the illustrations and all of them include local names in their original scripts in the corner.

Linnaeus considered words that came from non-classical languages (Greek and Latin) as ‘barbarous’. He is said to have had reservations about using local names except in the Latinized form as species epithets and only rarely for generic names. Joseph Needham accused Linnaeus of being prejudiced about Chinese knowledge although some later workers have pointed out there is little evidence for this claim.(Cook, 2009) It has been pointed out that Linnaeus used nearly 258 names from Malayalam based on Rheede’s work, the Hortus Malabaricus. (See Jain and Singh 2014 for a list)

We have already seen how Brian Hodgson was a big fan of local names in his descriptions as well as binomials. He was however forced by peer-pressure to shift to the use of Greek and Latin roots.

…The French entomologists Amyot and Serville are quite careful in their use of Sanskrit for insects from India. Redescribing a common northeast Indian bug which they called Lohita, they are careful in indicate the etymology and the association, even transcribing the original Sanskrit.

Thanks, Dinesh!

Stalin’s Jaffna Kolaveri.

The admirable fisheyed not only revived this old thread (and remember, every time an old thread is revived, an angel gets his wings) but linked to a video and an explication thereof by Fotheringay-Phipps at Ground Views that are so interesting I thought I’d give them their own post. From the latter:

The day before yesterday SJ Stalin released a fascinating response to the song, entitled “Yarlpanathilirunthu Kolaverida”, a rough translation would be “Dude, Bloodlust from Jaffna”. Its essence is a celebration of Tamil language and culture, a deploration of the bastardisation of Tamil and chastisation of those who are ashamed of their Tamilness.

At first glance, the music video appears to be primarily targeted at Dhanush. His mix of English and Tamil in the Kolaveri song has proved immensely popular with over 30 million hits on Youtube. Stalin considers his song a war on the Tamil language and describes his attitude toward it as bloodlust. He wonders why Dhanush chooses to use English – he asks why Tamil is scarce in its heartland, Tamil Nadu. He seems to imply that if Tamil gave sufficient creative freedom for Kamban, Valluvar and Bharathi it should be enough for Dhanush. Stalin thinks that Dhanush doesn’t give Tamil the respect that it deserves. As an ancient language, one which Stalin describes as predating the creation of stones and sand, Tamil has a rich literature and culture and Dhanush appears to ignore this and consider Tamil lacking. This is brought out by the poignant contrast between the focus on the keyboard in Dhanush’s work as opposed to the harmonium, perceived to be a more indigenous instrument, in Stalin’s video.

Once I got over the cognitive dissonance caused by reading “Stalin” and having to remind myself “No, not that Stalin,” I found the whole thing very enjoyable. Warning: fisheyed says there are some errors in the Ground Views translation of the lyrics.


The Trimūrti (sez Wikipedia) “is a concept in Hinduism ‘in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.’” I couldn’t have told you that, but my years of Sanskrit study, though mercifully four decades in the past, left me with enough passive knowledge to guess it meant something like ‘triad’ when I ran across it, in Russian guise, in Veltman’s Salomea (which I’m still reading — it’s very long). He’s been describing the unhappy marriage of Maria “Mary” Nilskaya, whose stupid and officious husband cuts her off from her family and treats her badly, and he says that she is unable to fulfill a wife’s duty to love her spouse: to love truly, they say, you have to love with mind, heart, and senses. “Но это тримурти любви, говорят, мечта” [But this trimurti of love, they say, is a dream]. The National Corpus of the Russian Language shows no other instance of a writer using the word metaphorically in this way; all other citations are about Indian religion. It’s quite striking to me that Veltman would presume an awareness of the word on the part of at least a substantial element of his readership, which is a reminder of the fact that the Bhagavad Gita was translated into Russian as early as 1788 (by Nikolay Novikov, working from Charles Wilkins‘ English version — it wasn’t translated from the original until 1956).