Yei Bohu.

Alexander Anichkin, who comments here as Sashura, has a funny post about some language used by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is both undiplomatic and untranslatable, namely that the EU, in supporting the US, “played the role of the well-known ‘under-officer’s widow,’ who flogged herself” (выступил в роли небезызвестной “унтер-офицерской вдовы”, которая сама себя высекла). For one thing, the word унтер-офицер [unter-ofitser], which I have rendered as the nonexistent “under-officer,” has no good equivalent in English; my Oxford dictionary defines it as “non-commissioned officer,” but as Sashura points out, this does not capture the “униженность и оскорбленность” (humiliating and insulting nature) of the Russian tsarist term and occupation. And the Gogol reference is well known to Russians but opaque to others; it’s from his great comedy The Government Inspector, and Sashura provides the original and three translations:

Городничий. Унтер-офицерша налгала вам, будто бы я ее высек; она врет, ей-богу, врет. Она сама себя высекла.

(The Government Inspector, перевод Arthur A Sykes, 1892)
GOVERNOR. The sergeant’s wife lied when she told you I flogged her—it’s false, yei Bohu, it’s false. Why, she flogged herself !

(The Inspector-General, translated by Thomas Seltzer)
GOVERNOR. The officer’s widow lied to you when she said I flogged her. She lied, upon my word, she lied. She flogged herself.

(Le Révizor, traduction pa Marc Semenoff)
LE GOUVERNEUR. — La femme du sous-officier vous a menti, menti, j’ai ne l’ai pas faire fouetter. Elle s’est fouettée elle-même.

I was deeply impressed by Sykes’s “yei Bohu” for ей-богу [ei-bogu] ‘really and truly! I swear to God!’; I can’t imagine what he thought English playgoers would make of it, and I wonder if cultivated Russians in the 1890s pronounced the -г- of богу as /h/ or if he’d been hanging out with southerners/Ukrainians. It’s interesting, too, that as the phrase has passed into general Russian usage, it’s lost the sarcastic sense it has in the play (the woman was in fact whipped by the governor, who is producing a ridiculous and unbelievable lie to exculpate himself) and become a term for self-abasement.

Sashura also mentions the phrase “кузькина мать,” famously used by Khrushchev, so I will take this opportunity to brag a bit by quoting the relevant entry (“we will bury you”) in Safire’s Political Dictionary, one of the editing jobs of which I am proudest:

One of the Russian leader’s favorite expressions was the picturesque peasant threat “We’ll show you Kuzka’s mother!” (kuzka being a kind of grain beetle, and its “mother” being the deeply buried larva); the hopelessly overmatched interpreters gave up and started translating this as the more familiar and comprehensible “We will bury you.” (For this eye-opener the lexicographer is grateful to editor and researcher Stephen Dodson.)

To clarify the implication, to show someone Kuzka’s mother — an underground larva — is, by implication, to bury them.

And if you’re interested in hard-to-translate idioms, don’t miss Victor Mair’s latest Log post about the Chinese expression 规矩是死的, 人是活的 “Rules are dead, people are living” and the variants and implications thereof.

Confidence Man.

I’m reading July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin, having enjoyed his The Russian Origins of the First World War (see this post) and having read in R.J.W. Evans NYRB review that it was “almost impossible to put down” (and of course being prompted by the centenary aspect); I’m still on the Prologue, but I’ve already run into a linguistic conundrum. In describing the preparations of the Serbian conspirators, he writes “Chabrinovitch, with papers provided by Popovitch, was to cross the border en route for Zvornik, on the Bosnian side; from there another confidence man would drive him to Tuzla, a town connected by railway to Sarajevo.” On the next page we get “Finally, in Tuzla, the three terrorists, having been reunited, turned over their deadly cargo to another confidence man, Mishko Jovanovitch, who, like Chubrilovitch, was both an upstanding local citizen (he owned a bank and a movie theater) and a member of Narodna Odbrana.” Setting aside the fact that I’ve been hit with a Chabrinovitch, a Ciganovitch, and a Chubrilovitch within the space of a few pages, about which it would be churlish for an aficionado of Russian literature to complain (though why he uses those archaic spellings instead of the correct Čabrinović etc. is beyond me), I want to focus on the phrase “confidence man,” which puzzled me. At first I thought “Well, the ‘con man’ sense I’m familiar with must be peculiar to the US, and in the UK it must mean ‘a man in whom confidence is placed,’” but a trawl through dictionaries put the kibosh on that idea (the OED defines it as “a professional swindler of respectable appearance and address,” the Concise [12th ed., 2011] simply as “a confidence trickster”). Furthermore, googling turns up no instances I can find of the phrase used as McMeekin uses it. So is he simply in error about its meaning, or am I missing something?

Addendum. I should add that he spells place names (e.g., Šabac) correctly; it’s just personal names that get the Ruritania treatment. Also, he spells the name of Sarajevo’s river “Miljăcke” rather than the correct Miljacka (note that he adds an incorrect breve as well as changing a to e), so I’m starting to have concerns about accuracy in general.

Further addendum. My concerns have been heightened by his reference to “a token Bosnian Muslim with the wonderfully evocative name of Mehmedbashitch (‘Mehmed’ being a Turkic variant of Mohammad and ‘bashitch’ the Slavicization of the Turkish word for kickback, baksheesh).” Now, that’s just silly; Mehmedbašić (to give the name its proper spelling) has the Serbo-Croatian - ending added to a name formed from the elements Mehmed and (I presume) Turkish baş ‘head.’ Why do people feel the need to make up “colorful” details like that?

Yet another addendum. OK, this is getting bad. At the start of chapter 1, describing the “glorious summer of 1914,” he says: “On Sunday afternoon, 28 June, Zweig … was … sitting on a park bench in the spa town of Baden, reading a Tolstoy novel.” Naturally, I wondered: which Tolstoy novel? What a stupid detail to omit! If it was War and Peace, for instance, it would be pleasantly piquant. Fortunately, Google Books lets me preview The World of Yesterday (cited in the footnote), where I discovered what Zweig actually wrote: “I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book—I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoievsky—and I read with interest and attention.” It would appear McMeekin was working from vague memories rather than actual notes. If he’s falling down so badly on stuff I can easily check, why should I trust him on the stuff I can’t? And (he asked, futilely, for the umpteenth time) don’t any reviewers ever bother to check up on such things?

The Sex Life of the Nineteenth Century.

John Emerson is, of course, a frequent LH commenter; he also walks the hard path of the independent scholar, hacking his way through untraveled wildernesses of culture and history, asking questions none have asked before him, like “Could Friedrich Nietzsche have married Jane Austen?” Back in 2007 I wrote enthusiastically about his book Substantific Marrow; now he’s come out with a new one, The Sex Life of the Nineteenth Century: An Autobiographical Approach to the History of Western Civilization (you can see its handsome cover, badly photographed by me, at its LibraryThing page). Like its precursor, it has what John calls “interesting scraps of citations”; here are two from pp. 50-51:

“In spite of all this, my father sent me to school when I was ten. “Why”, I would say to myself, “learn Greek and Latin? I don’t know! There’s no need of it, anyway! What does it matter to me if I pass my exams? What’s the use of passing one’s exams? It is of no use at all, is it? Yes it is, though: they say there is no employment without a pass….Then take history: learning the lives of Chinaldon, and Nabopolassar, of Darius, of Cyrus, and of Alexander, and of their cronies, outstanding for their diabolical names (remarquables par leurs noms diaboliques) is a torture. What does it matter to me that Alexander was famous? What does it matter?…..How does anyone know that the Latins ever existed? Perhaps their Latin is some counterfeit language….What evil have I done that they should put me to the torture?”

“Le soleil etait encore chaude….”, Collected Poems, tr. Bernard, written in 1864 when Rimbaud was ten years old.

Sometimes [Rimbaud's mother] would send them to bed supperless because they had been unable to recite, without a slip, the hundreds of Latin verses she had set them to learn from memory.

Bernard, “Introduction”, p. xxix

There are discussions of everything from Tocqueville to the Swedish Rosicrucians, from krakens and basilisks to oafs and wimps, from “Erik Satie and the sewing machine” to “the czarist regime in two anecdotes.” It’s available here; I urge you to check it out, and I hope he will eventually publish his long-promised book on Inner Eurasian history.

Bad English Shaming.

Feargus O’Sullivan posts for CityLab about an interesting and apparently new phenomenon, summed up by the subhead: “English has become the lingua franca of Europe. And politicians who can’t speak it well are getting roundly mocked by their own citizens.”

Recently, the continent’s political masters have been slapped by a new form of satirical attack—Bad English Shaming. A viral-video sub-trend, Bad English Shaming sees public figures foolhardy enough to let their rusty English be recorded on camera getting mocked and mauled for their poor foreign language skills.

Exhibit A of the trend is an impassioned speech made this month by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Supposedly, it was in English. Renzi’s speech is so halting and garbled it’s hard to understand what he’s actually talking about, though it contains occasional lucid but surreal gems as, “He invent the telephone to speaking about in the theatre.” [...] Then there were Madrid Mayor Ana Botella’s attempts last year to sell her city as a contender for the Summer Olympics. Mayor Botella’s stilted, halting English made her a national laughing stock, a reputation she has since solidified through gaffe after gaffe. [...]

It has not been ever thus. Francois Mitterrand’s exceedingly brief 1986 foray into English at the Statue of Liberty’s centenary celebrations was widely taken as a badge of skillful statesmanship. [...]

Clearly, something radical has changed. It probably isn’t the growth of American or British influence per se, as politically and culturally, these are either no greater than before or slightly on the wane. European English seems in fact to be uncoupling itself from native anglophones, a runaway caboose careering down its own track. The dominance of English as a European lingua franca is so total nowadays that it’s a basic tool for interaction even in countries where Brits and Americans rarely tread, as well as between Europe and other continents. [...]

Once the number of English speakers tips over 50 percent, it seems people just get more demanding of each other. It’s one thing for a lazy Brit or American to complain about no one speaking English in Paris (though this happens less and less), but it’s quite another for a Dutch person to complain of the same thing—they’re already making an effort themselves. Like a bachelor’s degree and a clean criminal record, decent English is becoming one of those basic things you need to forge a career in Europe, political or not.

On the one hand, of course I deplore any form of language shaming, and am respectful of anyone trying to speak a foreign language in public. On the other hand, I enjoy seeing politicians shamed. It’s a quandary. (Thanks, Yoram!)

The *Bʰlog.

The *Bʰlog is “a website that hopes to provide an accessible but informed forum for all matters Indo-European”:

The idea for this website arose in the Fall of 2013, when two fables that I recorded for Archaeology Magazine went viral and were heard by hundreds of thousands of people who had never even heard of Proto-Indo-European or the Indo-European language family. The goal of the website is to keep that interest going. If you’re a layperson, feel free to send an e-mail to the *Bʰlog with questions you might have about Indo-European. If you’re a specialist and want to contribute to the site, just let me know and I will set you up an account.

It’s run by University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd and vouched for by Piotr Gąsiorowski (from whose post I learned about it), so I have no hesitation in recommending it and will add it to my blogroll forthwith.

Update. It turns out that “Andrew Byrd … is the administrator of the *Bʰlog but almost all the stuff has been written by his students as a kind of out-of-class exercise, hence its uneven quality.” Caveat lector.

The History of Autocorrect.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus has a Wired article that works a little too hard to be relentlessly amusing but tells an interesting story about how autocorrect came to be and how it works:

The notion of autocorrect was born when Hachamovitch began thinking about a functionality that already existed in Word. Thanks to Charles Simonyi, the longtime Microsoft executive widely recognized as the father of graphical word processing, Word had a “glossary” that could be used as a sort of auto-expander. You could set up a string of words—like insert logo—which, when typed and followed by a press of the F3 button, would get replaced by a JPEG of your company’s logo. Hachamovitch realized that this glossary could be used far more aggressively to correct common mistakes. He drew up a little code that would allow you to press the left arrow and F3 at any time and immediately replace teh with the. His aha moment came when he realized that, because English words are space-delimited, the space bar itself could trigger the replacement, to make correction … automatic! Hachamovitch drew up a list of common errors, and over the next years he and his team went on to solve many of the thorniest. Seperate would automatically change to separate. Accidental cap locks would adjust immediately (making dEAR grEG into Dear Greg). One Microsoft manager dubbed them the Department of Stupid PC Tricks. [...]

With these sorts of master lists in place—the corrections, the exceptions, and the to-be-primly-ignored—the joists of autocorrect, then still a subdomain of spell-check, were in place for the early releases of Word. Microsoft’s dominance at the time ensured that autocorrect became globally ubiquitous, along with some of its idiosyncrasies. By the early 2000s, European bureaucrats would begin to notice what came to be called the Cupertino effect, whereby the word cooperation (bizarrely included only in hyphenated form in the standard Word dictionary) would be marked wrong, with a suggested change to Cupertino. There are thus many instances where one parliamentary back-bencher or another longs for increased Cupertino between nations. Since then, linguists have adopted the word cupertino as a term of art for such trapdoors that have been assimilated into the language.

In the two decades since Hachamovitch moved from the manual coding of corrections like judgement to his loftier executive role in the ambit of data science, autocorrect has followed suit. Autocorrection is no longer an overqualified intern drawing up lists of directives; it’s now a vast statistical affair in which petabytes of public words are examined to decide when a usage is popular enough to become a probabilistically savvy replacement. The work of the autocorrect team has been made algorithmic and outsourced to the cloud.

I was temporarily derailed by “He clearly takes a marmish pride in the artifacts,” having never seen the word marmish and not finding it in my dictionaries; Urban Dictionary says “Conservative to the point of being boring, dull or ugly; usually referring to a manner of dress and/or personality,” which doesn’t really make sense here, but I get the general idea. What really took me aback was “As someone who typed the entire first draft of his book on a phone…” Seriously? The twenty-first century is a weird place for those of us who didn’t grow up in it.


I’m once again reading Abulafia’s The Great Sea (see this post), and I’ve run across an unfamiliar use of a familiar word: “The Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, fat from the proceeds of their northern trade, made their appearance off the coasts of North Africa, in the Barbary ‘regencies’ (so called because their rulers, variously known as deys, beys and bashaws, or pashas, were nominally the deputies of the Ottoman sultan.” I checked the OED (entry updated December 2009), and here’s the relevant sense, with quotations:

4. A town, city, or other territory forming part of a kingdom or empire and governed by a person or body of people in whom authority has been vested by the ruler of the kingdom or empire. Now chiefly hist.

1656 N. Stephens Plain Calculation Name & Number of Beast v. 102 The scope of this Scripture is concerning the Division of the Fourth Kingdom into Ten Regencies or Divisions at one time.
1667 Milton Paradise Lost v. 748 Regions they pass’d, the mightie Regencies of Seraphim and Potentates and Thrones.
1780 Ann. Reg. 5 The territory appertaining to the regency of Burghausen.
1788 tr. M. Chenier Present State Morocco I. i. i. 2 Tremecen..which was formerly subject to Morocco, having been conquered by the Turks of Algiers, is now a part of the territories of that Regency.
1817 T. S. Raffles Hist. Java I. iii. 142 The rice fields of a regency are divided among the whole of the population.
1838 Sparks’ Biogr. IX. vii. 245 The Bashaw gave permission to the American agent to leave the Regency.
1914 Times 9 Aug. 2/6 There is a small army of occupation in the Regency of Tunis.
1977 Arab Times 13 Nov. 4/8 Twelve people have died and 98 others have been hospitalised for cholera in the south Sulawesi regency of Selayar.
1979 Libya: Country Study (ed. 3) i. 19 The Ottoman Maghrib was formally divided into three regencies—at Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
2000 J. Azema Libya Handbk. 259 Military councils..were formed to administer the Barbary regencies, as the Ottoman provinces on the North African coast were known.

Also, I love the phrase “deys, beys and bashaws.” (Apparently, only Algiers and Tripoli had a dey; the word is from Turkish dāī, now writtin dayı, ‘maternal uncle’.)


Today I watched the 1973 movie Zanjeer, an enjoyable police/revenge movie with a minimum of song-and-dance numbers. (Sorry, Bollywood fans, I just don’t like song-and-dance numbers.) What makes it LH material is the linguistic situation. I wasn’t surprised to hear a lot of English spoken; it seemed natural in police stations (relic of the Raj) and at posh parties (prestige). But this did surprise me: before the hero, Angry Young Man Vijay Khanna, goes out to take his long-delayed revenge, there is a brief scene with his romantic interest, Mala (an orphan knife-sharpener whom he rescued from the street). He says there is something he has thought a million times but hasn’t dared say, and now he has to say it. She assumes an expectant look (knowing as well as we do what is coming), and he says, “I love you.” Like that. In English. Perhaps someone more familiar with the conventions of Indian cinema than I can tell me whether that is an attempt to avoid the specification of class, intimacy, register, or what have you that would be required in Hindi/Urdu and whether it’s at all plausible in the situation. (I thought, of course, of aristocratic Russian couples communicating in French, but that was long ago and in another country.)

Etymological lagniappe: I wondered where the word zanjir ‘chain’ came from; my language shelves quickly told me it was Persian, but it took Google Books to find for me this footnote from Languages of Iran: Past and Present, edited by Dieter Weber: “A similar case is possibly provided by the Parthian spelling of zyncyhr ‘chains’ (Pers. zanjir). The routine etymology (*zaina/i-ciθra-) is proved false by Sogdian zyncry’kh (P 2, 1063), in Man. script jyncry’.” (I presume “Man.” stands for Manchu.)

Some Links.

1) William Alexander’s “The Benefits of Failing at French” is an amusing NY Times op-ed piece about his unsuccessful efforts to learn French as an adult and the consolation he derived from an unexpected quarter. He had taken a cognitive assessment test and “scored below average for my age group in nearly all of the categories”; now:

After a year of struggling with the language, I retook the cognitive assessment, and the results shocked me. My scores had skyrocketed, placing me above average in seven of 10 categories, and average in the other three. My verbal memory score leapt from the bottom half to the 88th — the 88th! — percentile and my visual memory test shot from the bottom 5th percentile to the 50th. Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.

He says “researchers … hypothesized that language study should prove beneficial for older adults, noting that the cognitive tasks involved — including working memory, inductive reasoning, sound discrimination and task switching — map closely to the areas of the brain that are most associated with declines due to aging.” Plausible, and certainly comforting to those of us who are both aging and learning languages, but probably overblown. Still, an enjoyable read.

2) Resources for Coptic Phonology (via Memiyawanzi). If you’re interested in Coptic you’ll be glad to know about this.

3) David Nash’s post “What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word” at Endangered Languages and Cultures examines how “the Dieri (Diyari) intransitive verb ngaka-rna ‘flow (of water), blow (of wind)’” got confusingly written, misunderstood, and picked up as a popular toponym:

The reference to flowing or running water has clearly appealed to many agencies when they were selecting a name, because ‘Akuna’ or ‘Akoonah’ has been applied to over forty suburban streets, avenues, drives, closes, courts, and a rural lane. [...]

In short, in modern Australian usage as a ‘euphonious’ name Akuna or Akoonah, the word ngakarna has been anonymised from its linguistic and geographic origins. It has further been dislocated from its part of speech and authentic pronunciation (beyond the demands of English loan phonology). All that remains is some connection to flowing water (and even that has been lost where it has been glossed as ‘to follow’), and this now esoteric attribute is appreciated now only by the few who have informed themselves of it.

Thanks for the link, Yoram!

Opening Paragraphs.

I’m at one of those moments of changeover when I’ve finished up a bunch of reading projects and am starting afresh. To accompany the World Cup I was reading three (excellent) books on football/soccer, and I’ve now finished the last of these (Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round); furthermore, I’ve finally given up on Zagoskin’s Брынский лес (The Bryn Forest), a historical novel that has interesting descriptions of the Kremlin and nearby parts of Moscow in 1682 but otherwise is a stamped-from-cardboard panorama of heroic youth, a fair maiden with a mysterious past, and devotion to God’s chosen tsar (Peter the Great in this case) and the True Orthodox Church (as opposed to those nasty Old Believers) that I stopped trying to force my way through. So I’ve now simultaneously started one of my birthday gifts, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Alexander Veltman’s novel Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life, published 1846-48 in installments and in book form in 1848 as Саломея [Salomea]). It’s great to be reading enjoyable fiction again, and to celebrate I’ll quote the first paragraph of each novel. The Sloan:

Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there—the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.

The Veltman:

A daddy and a mommy had two little daughters. Period. This isn’t about them. Perhaps the reader has met Dmitritsky somewhere? A stately enough man, pale face, green eyes, covered in crosses and decorations, served both here and there, was in all the wars and campaigns, on dry land and at sea, in all countries and realms, knows everybody, is acquainted with everyone… Nothing of the sort! It’s all lies! Let’s open at random some page or other from his life. Here he is riding into the capital to look for happiness right and left — and he keeps getting angry.

У одного папеньки и у одной маменьки было две дочки. Точка. Не об них дело. Читатель, может быть, встречал где-нибудь Дмитрицкого? Довольно статный мужчина, бледное лицо, зеленые глаза, весь в крестах и знаках отличия, служил и там и сям, был во всех войнах и походах, на суше и на море, во всех странах и землях, всех знает, со всеми знаком… Ничего не бывало! все это ложь! Раскроем наудачу какую-нибудь страницу из его жизни. Вот он едет в столицу искать счастья направо-налево — и все сердится.

Both paragraphs exude a joy in storytelling that makes me laugh and want to read more.