27 Missing Kisses.

My wife and I have been watching TCM’s Women Make Film series (schedule) for the last few months; I haven’t posted about it because this isn’t Moviehat, but we’ve seen a lot of good movies we’d never have gotten the chance to see (as well as some not-so-good ones, but that’s life in this imperfect world), and if you like movies I suggest investigating that schedule. I’m here, though, to tell you about the one we saw last night, 27 Missing Kisses (Georgian: 27 დაკარგული კოცნა); as I wrote my brother just now, it’s one of the weirdest movies we’ve ever seen (of course, Georgian movies tend to be weird). It’s full of stunning images (here’s a brief clip — without subtitles, but the TCM version had them), and has one of the funniest (and simultaneously most shocking) scenes in any movie I know. And it’s mostly in Russian and Georgian, though Captain Nemo speaks French; how often do you get to see movies in Georgian?

To my American readers: happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy it as best you can in this strange year, and we’ll hope for less social distancing in 2021.

Trem Neul.

We have a fairly capacious mailbox, and the mail usually fits with little problem, so I was surprised when I saw the mailman walking up the driveway to the garage, where he deposited a hefty stack that included several packages. Two were Russian books I had ordered, but the largest and heaviest was completely unexpected, and came complete with a customs declaration; it turned out to be from Trevor Joyce, and contained two of his collections of poetry, With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold: A Body of Work 1966/2000 and What’s in Store (Poems 2000-2007). I was bowled over — I’d been wanting to read more of Joyce since I got his Fastness in 2017 (see this post). His ear for English and his ability to deploy it in unexpected ways excited me, and now I can dive in to a much wider range of his work. The very first piece in the first collection, a version of Buile Suibne he did in his young youth, starts out with an easy confidence that puts most modern retellings to shame: “It’s no secret how Sweeney, king of Dal Araidhe and scion of noble though disputed stock, wandered deranged from battle.” After that come “The Moon as Other Than a Green Cheese” (“Tonight/ a phosphorescence is toddling along the night/ having the form/ of a silver apple, walking pome”), “River Tolka and Botanical Gardens” (Eggshells of white hoar crackled underfoot”), and other exagminations of the world around him; I particularly like the title “Surd Blab.” Naturally I turned to “Tocharian Music” as soon as I saw the title; here’s the end of the finely restrained little poem:

Eleven thousand
died in the reprisal
and the city laid waste
the airs dispersed
only the names survive

Time slipped out of their tablature
and without stopping
fugitive amongst those sands

“Time slipped out of their tablature”: that has the same kind of phonetic/rhythmic authority that captured me in early Pasternak; I don’t care what the lines mean as long as they sound that good, and it’s a quality sadly missing from most poetry these days. And Joyce has kept it up for decades; the recent poems in What’s in Store are just as convincing. Here’s the start of one of “the thirty-six word poems scattered throughout this volume”:

the sheets
of wheat
are rolled

that blonde
your pillow

I’ll quote another of them in full; how can I not, given that it leads with a fedora?
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Judith Jarvis Thomson, RIP.

To quote the start of Justin Weinberg’s Daily Nous obit, “Judith Jarvis Thomson, professor emerita of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the most influential moral philosophers of the past 50 years, has died.” I don’t normally commemorate philosophers at LH (though I’ve actually read or skimmed a couple of her articles), but there were some things in Claudia Mills‘ introduction of Thomson at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in 2009 (quoted at the link) that resonated enough with me that I wanted to quote them:

I was asked to give this introduction because I knew Judith Jarvis Thomson not only as a brilliant thinker, but as a brilliant teacher. When I was an undergraduate at Wellesley, I took courses with Prof. Thomson through the Wellesley-MIT exchange. Here is my notebook from the first one: 24.231. (At MIT, departments don’t have names, they have numbers, so 24 is Philosophy – I soon learned from my classmates that it was an error to refer to the course as PHIL 24.231 – PHIL was redundant, as 24 already WAS Phil.) […]

Here is the paper assignment for our second paper for the class, due April 7, 1975. “Is there a variety of utilitarianism which is true? If so, which? And why? If not, why not?” One student put up his hand right away: “What do you mean, ‘is true’?” Without a word, Prof. Thomson turned to the chalkboard and wrote: “S” is true just in case S. That was all. Asked for further guidelines to assist us in writing the paper, she gave us this one: “No eloquence!” I felt as if she was addressing that pithy piece of advice directly to me.

Judy Thomson taught me even more about how to write than she taught me about how to do philosophy. For one paper, she commented on my tendency to switch terminology: I’d talk about “duties” for a while, and then, to add some interest, I’d vary my vocabulary a bit and start talking about “obligations.” She taught me not to do that, that the reader was going to become alarmed: wait, a new term has been introduced, why? She taught me that the point of writing was actually to SAY SOMETHING. On another paper, when I had underlined one particular point for emphasis, she told me: “You think that if you say it loudly enough, people won’t hear how false it is.” I finally wrote a paper that began with a sentence that pleased her. I still remember the sentence. It was: “Two things seem to me to be true.” She brightened upon reading it. “You just like it because it’s short,” I told her, as I knew she had disliked my long, flowery, dare I say eloquent, sentences. “I don’t just like its length,” she told me. “I like IT!” That was a wonderful moment that I’ve carried with me for thirty-four years. I wrote a sentence that Judith Jarvis Thomson admired.

Just the thought of having to deal with “S” is true just in case S terrifies me, and I have even more respect for my wife for having done grad work in philosophy (though she sensibly didn’t try to make a career of it). But I’m tickled by the fact that MIT departments don’t have names, they have numbers (but of course!), and I love the insistence on eschewing elegant variation (see my rant about one form of it here). And “No eloquence!” is a widely (though not universally) applicable admonition.

That Key to Knowledge.

Continuing the Raj theme, herewith Maya Jasanoff’s 2008 LRB review of Hartly House, Calcutta, an epistolary novel allegedly by Phebe Gibbes (see below) and first published in 1789. I’ll quote some bits of LH relevance:

Telling Arabella about the imminent departure of ‘our Governor’, Sophia gushes about [Warren] Hastings’s merits:

The Company … will, by this event, be deprived of a faithful and able servant; the poor, of a compassionate and generous friend; the genteel circles, of their best ornament … Nor possibly can a successor be transmitted, of equal information and abilities. For, Arabella, he has made himself master of the Persian language, that key to the knowledge of all that ought to constitute the British conduct in India.

The other danger that Sophia skirts lies in an equally common fate for British women in India: marriage. Condemning the ostentatious new wealth of Anglo-Indian ‘nabobs’, and the women who travel to India to marry them, Sophia vows repeatedly ‘never to marry in Indostan’: ‘I will not violate to be a nabobess.’ Her will is tested by the constant stream of male attention she receives (and coquettishly enjoys receiving), and by her guardian Mrs Hartly, who ‘thinks matrimony the duty of every young woman, who meets with an offer she cannot disapprove’. Yet even when she meets the captivating Edmund Doyly, ‘the best male companion I have met with at Calcutta, the Governor and Mr Hartly excepted’, Sophia sticks to her guns: ‘if nabobism was not the stumbling block of my ambition … there is no saying what might happen.’ […]

This must be the only book currently on sale that carries a blurb by Mary Wollstonecraft on its jacket. Reviewing Hartly House, Calcutta in the Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft praised the novel’s ‘entertaining account of Calcutta … apparently sketched by a person who had been forcibly impressed by the scenes described. Probably the groundwork of the correspondence was actually written on the spot.’ For Wollstonecraft, as for other reviewers, the primary virtue of the novel lay in its informative account of Indian life – an account that many took to be based on personal experience.

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A Pallaqueen and 3 Pallumpores.

Yesterday I posted about gulli-danda; today I have a bunch more Hobson-Jobsonish terms to offer, drawn from Appendix B, “A Selection of Inventories contained in the Factory Miscellaneous Records, the Public Despatches, and the Bengal Inventories,” of The Nabobs: A Study of the Social Life of the English in Eighteenth Century India by Percival Spear — I certainly hope you can see it at this Internet Archive link (p. 178; the single-page text is here — search on “intestate”). It’s chock-full of wonderful words: “A pallaqueen” [presumably a palanquin, though the OED doesn’t list that spelling]; “2 Old Landskipps [=landscapes]”; “3 pallumpores” [palampore, OED: “A kind of richly patterned cotton cloth, originally made in India” < Hindi palaṅg-poś bedspread, coverlet]; “4 Brass Pigdannies” [Hobson-Jobson “Pigdaun, s. A spittoon”]; “One Old Hoboy” [=oboe] is followed by “A Box with a Dead Scorpion”… it’s wonderful reading, and I thank the perspicacious Trevor for passing along his find.


Every once in a while I succumb to an irresistible offer and subscribe to the LRB, as a result of which I get e-mails with more offers, and they’ve sent me one for a book:

The latest in our series of LRB Collections ‘Anyone for gulli-danda?’ features writing about sport from the London Review of Books, by Tariq Ali, Gabriele Annan, Terry Castle, Marjorie Garber, Jane Holland, Benjamin Markovits, Karl Miller, David Runciman, Amia Srinivasan and Heathcote Williams.

I’m not tempted by the book, but needless to say I was intrigued by the title, and a bit of googling turned up the Wikipedia article Gillidanda:

Gilli Danda (also spelled Gulli-Danda) also known as Viti Dandu, Kitti-Pul and by other variations, is a sport originating from the Indian subcontinent, played in the rural areas and small towns all over South Asia as well as Cambodia, Turkey, South Africa, Italy, Poland, and in some Caribbean islands like Cuba. The game is played with two sticks: a large one called a danda (Dandi in Nepali, Dandu/दांडू/ದಾಂಡು in Marathi, Kittipul/கிட்டிப்புள் in Tamil and Kannada, കോൽ in Malayalam), which is used to hit a smaller one, the gilli (Biyo in Nepali, Viti/विटी in Marathi, kittikol/ கிட்டிக்கோல் in Tamil and Chinni/ಚಿನ್ನಿ in Kannada, കുറ്റി in Malayalam). […]

Gillidanda is known by various other names: it is called Tipcat in English, itti dakar in Sindhi, Dandi-Biyo (डण्डी बियो) in Nepali, guli-badi (ଗୁଲି ବାଡ଼ି) in Odia (regional variations dabalapua ଡାବଲପୁଆ and ପିଲବାଡ଼ି pilabadi in Phulbani and guti-dabula ଗୁଟିଡାବୁଳ in Balasore), gulli-ṭāṇ (𑂏𑂳𑂪𑂹𑂪𑂲 𑂗𑂰𑂝) in Bhojpuri, alak-doulak (الک دولک) in Persian, dānggűli (ডাঙ্গুলি) in Bengali, Tang Guti (টাং গুটি) in Assamese, chinni-kolu ಚಿನ್ನಿ ಕೋಲು in Kannada, kuttiyum kolum in Malayalam, vitti-dandu विट्टी दांडू in Marathi, Koyando-bal(कोयंडो बाल) in Konkani, kitti-pul (கிட்டி-புல்) in Tamil, Gooti-Billa (Andhra Pradesh) or Karra-Billa (Andhra Pradesh) or Billam-Godu (Andhra Pradesh) or chirra-gonay (in Telangana) in Telugu, Gulli-Danda (ਗੁੱਲ਼ੀ ਡੰਡਾ) in Punjabi, Geeti Danna (گیٹی ڈنا) in Saraiki, Iti-Dakar (اٽي ڏڪر) in Sindhi, Lappa-Duggi (لپا ڈگی) in Pashto, Kon ko in Cambodian, Pathel Lele in Indonesian, syatong in Tagalog, awe petew in Ilonggo, çelikçomak in Turkish, ciang sat in Zomi language, “Đánh Trỏng” or “Đánh Khăng” in Vietnam, Quimbumbia in Cuba and Lippa in Italy.

Who knows if those are all actually the same game, but it’s quite a collection of names; I’m not sure gulli-danda, with or without the hyphen, isn’t the best.

The Trouble with Pedants.

Sue Butler, who edited the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English for almost 40 years, writes for the Guardian about the misuses that matter to her and those that don’t; there’s nothing especially new here, but I agree with most of it and it’s always good to remind people of these things:

As the long-term editor of an English dictionary, I have arrived at the trouble with pedants: they cry foul too often. I have a sneaking suspicion that the desire to be right is more important to them than the desire to defend the language from degradation, which is what they claim to do. In many instances the transgression that they lament is simply an instance of language change (“agreeance” v “agreement”, for instance), or a variation that is accepted in the community but not their personal choice (the pronunciation of “schedule”), or an innovation that, conservative as they are by nature, they do not like (the use of “agenda” as a verb).

In the comments under a YouTube about gardening, a woman who describes herself as a purist – which is definitely claiming the high moral ground – calls out a gardening expert who was demonstrating how to repot clivias. He referred to the plant as a “klai-vee-uh” at the beginning of the show but then called it a “kli-vee-uh” later on. Both pronunciations are current, although the purist claimed that “klai-vee-uh” was the correct one since it was named after Lady Charlotte Clive, granddaughter of Clive of India. The only rule the presenter broke was the rule of consistency. If you are going to prefer one pronunciation over another where both pronunciations are current and valid, then you should stick to your choice. Otherwise you risk losing your audience while they fight over the different pronunciations, rather than attend to the intricacies of disentangling the roots of overgrown clivias. […]

So when to care and when not to care? I do care when one word is being confused with another, especially when it is part of a phrase where the meaning of the individual word has become less important than the meaning of the whole phrase. For example, we find that increasingly we are handing over the “reigns” to someone else (as opposed to the “reins”), possibly because we are no longer familiar with driving a horse and carriage, or even riding horses, so that phrases like “the reins of power”, and “keeping a tight rein on expenses”, or “giving someone free rein”, all involving a sense of control, seem to be acquiring “reign” rather than “rein’.

Straight-out errors are always worth calling out. I cannot abide the way that “infamous” is used instead of “famous”. We used to have two words. A person was famous for very laudable reasons, and infamous because they had done something reprehensible. Famous – known for the right reasons. Infamous – known for all the wrong reasons. But now we talk about a great hero being infamous. This is simply wrong.

Some errors, however, become so entrenched that the community ceases to see them as mistakes. “Regardless” of how many times we are scolded for using “irregardless” instead, it seems that it makes no difference. The community has accepted “irregardless” for whatever reason. Maybe it sounds better. Maybe the extra syllable gives it more weight. Maybe a language community that is always looking for patterns, lines “irregardless” up with “irrespective” and finds that convincing. This is not actually a change that matters. There is no misunderstanding, no ambiguity, no break in the flow of communication.

Of course, her “straight-out errors” are another person’s language change; I don’t like that use of “infamous” either, but if people keep using it, it’s not wrong, it’s just English. There’s no harm in arguing against it, though, and in general I like the cut of her jib. Thanks, Lars!

Rasputin’s Downstream.

A few months ago I raved about Valentin Rasputin’s Последний срок [Borrowed Time]; his 1972 Вниз и вверх по течению [Downstream and upstream, translated as Downstream] isn’t as good, but I enjoyed reading it — it’s basically a preparatory study for his famous Прощание с Матёрой (Farewell to Matyora), which came out four years later (and which I’ll be reading and reporting on before long). It describes the writer/narrator Viktor’s return by riverboat to his native village, which has been moved because the river it was on has been enlarged to create a reservoir; its message is basically the time-honored You Can’t Go Home Again, but it’s padded out with excessive descriptions of nature (these are almost irresistible to Russian writers). I probably wouldn’t post about it except that I liked this passage, which is entirely extraneous to the story but clearly something Rasputin felt strongly about (you can read the original Russian here — scroll down to “До чего было просто раньше,” near the bottom of the page); Viktor finds himself unable to read in his cabin, and reflects on how reading has changed for him since he became a writer:

How easy it was before, and how hard it is now — as if you’re perpetually on duty and can’t help seeing how a misplaced word fidgets or even thrashes around in painful convulsions, how empty, useless sentences giggle or call out in the middle of a serious conversation because they have nothing to do there, how a positive hero lies, bursts into falsehood like a nightingale, rolling around in high-sounding, respectable words as if in soapsuds just when the author thinks he ought to be uttering the truth, the truth and only the truth, how the whole book is hitting out and kicking, demanding that you read it and howling about equal rights for books, when you won’t and can’t get any benefit from that kind of reading. You see, you understand, but you can’t interfere — you can’t help it, restrain it, or shame it. It would really be better not to see or understand. The whole point is that a good book and a bad one are created from the same material, the same words — placed, however, in a different order, sounding in a different intonation, and blessed by a different finger.

But a good book, thanks to the same professional fastidiousness, is also not easy to read. When a phrase as ordinary as “she began to moan” makes you shudder from the pain of that moaning, when the name of a painted color lets you clearly distinguish its shades and smell, when you hear with your own ears the sound of an apple falling from a tree in a book and cry about the meeting of two people invented by an author’s imagination, you try to understand how all this was achieved, with what living water it was sprinkled; you go over the words again and again, following them like the steps of an endless staircase, trying to penetrate the amazing secret that makes them sound, smell, shine, and agitate. And you see everything, because in a book it’s difficult to hide anything, the whole intricate weave of words, their music, indicated note by note, the joints between phrases and pauses between thoughts — you see it all and still don’t understand a thing. Desperate, you put down the book and impotently close your eyes, hating yourself for your helplessness and mediocrity and all the rest of it.

But you can’t do without books. And of course you read, but lord, what difficult, trying, and endless work it is!

That’s eloquent, but (ironically) also somewhat bloated — compare Babel’s famous “Никакое железо не может войти в человеческое сердце так леденяще, как точка, поставленная вовремя” [No iron can pierce the pierce heart as icily as a period in just the right place]. And I note, checking the translation by Valentina Brougher and Helen Poot (in the indispensable Contemporary Russian Prose edited by Carl R. Proffer and Ellendea Proffer [Ardis, 1982]), that they have mistranslated хихикают ‘giggle’ as “hiccup”; this is not nearly so bad, however, as their later rendering of штабеля леса ‘stacks of timber’ as “neat rows of trees.” And my jaw dropped when I noticed they’d simply omitted this sentence (about a little boy standing in the water to look at an arriving ship):

Зато после некоторого раздумья он приподнял свой открывшийся всему белому свету отросточек и, направив его в сторону теплохода, стал булькать в воду.

But after some hesitation, he lifted his little appendage, which was revealed to the whole wide world, and, directing it towards the ship, began to gurgle into the water.

They’re translating for Ardis, the publisher that provided the world with editions and translations of the most daring modern Russian literature, and they can’t bring themselves to include a little boy pissing in a river!
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Balashon’s latest post, bareket and emerald, is about a connection I had forgotten:

From Hebrew (or some other cognate Semitic language, like the Akkadian barraqtu), bareket entered into Greek as smaragdos, which Latin borrowed as smaragdus, eventually becoming esmaraldus in Medieval Latin, esmeraude in French, and then “emerald” in English.

This might seem like a strange journey, particularly from bareket to smaragdos. But as this Philologos column explains (along with many other interesting linguistic details about the words we’ve discussed here and more) it’s reasonable when you look at how certain letters are exchanged in phonetic shifts.

Philologos actually promotes a different theory than what I’ve presented here. He says that the Hebrew baraket may have its origin in a Sanskrit word – marakata […]

Most of the sources I looked at, including Klein and the Online Etymology Dictionary say the Sanskrit word was borrowed from a Semitic source. (For further discussion see this page).

I say “had forgotten” because it turns out I wrote about it in 2004:

I enjoyed [Philologos’s] detailed investigation of the etymology of Yiddish shmergl ‘emery,’ which traces it back to Latin smericulum and Greek smaragdos ‘emerald’; I think the bald assertion that the latter is borrowed from Sanskrit marakata goes beyond the evidence, but this is, after all, a newspaper column, not a linguistic journal.

AHD fudges the details of the relationships with not one but two instances of “akin to”:

[Middle English emeraude, from Old French, from Medieval Latin esmeralda, esmeraldus, from Latin smaragdus, from Greek smaragdos; akin to Sanskrit marakatam, probably of Semitic origin; akin to Akkadian barraqtu and Hebrew bāreqet, a kind of gemstone (probably emerald); see brq in the Appendix of Semitic roots.]

Anybody know anything more about this tangle?

Son of Yamnaya.

In this 700+-comment thread, which seems to have become a dumping-ground for all DNA-related commentary, Dmitry Pruss said mildly but convincingly:

An ob gripe, I don’t think that it’s the best idea to discuss “everything DNA” in this, already oversize, thread…

So I’m hereby opening this as a continuation. If you have thoughts about genomic components and Denisovan signatures, this is the place for them!