Archives for August 2002


Language hat is going to spend the next week on the West Coast. Regular blogging will be resumed in September. Ciao, poka, and be seein’ y’all…
Update. I’m making a quick internet check while my brother is off on some errand, and (realizing I probably won’t get a chance to blog on Sunday, when I return, very late, to NYC) I wanted to wish my loyal readers a Happy New Year for 7511, as of September 1!


Cornish has been made an official language of the U.K. Now, I’m as big a fan of obscure languages as you’ll find; I even have a book of Cornish place names. But this is ridiculous. Irish is one thing; there are actual native Irish speakers left, and unlikely as it is that the language can be preserved for long, I understand the desire of the Republic of Ireland to try. But Cornish! I don’t care how many people enjoy playing around with it and speaking it to each other at meetings (I love the fact there are three rival versions, by the way), it’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! (Via Billy Blogs.)


Avva has recently learned this slang term for a ten-dollar bill, and in the discussion on his site it turns out that various English-speakers consulted by his Russian-speaking readers were not familiar with the expression. My assumption is that this is generational rather than regional, the term being long past its sell-by date, but I’m curious to hear from my own loyal band of readers. I’ve known the word as long as I can remember, but then I cut my teeth on ’40s pulp fiction (yellowing, not hot off the presses); do you know it, and if so, from reading or as living terminology?


It was brought to my attention by a person who wishes to remain nameless (not wanting to be thought an inveterate scanner of obits) that among the death notices in last Sunday’s NY Times is one that begins as follows:

ROTHSTEIN – Miriam Chilson. Died at age 91, on August 14, 2002. She would’ve turned 92 on September 21. Miriam was the wife of the late Irwin Chilson, the late Lou Fineberg, the late Phil Rispler and the latest late Moe Rothstein.

I submit that Miriam must have been quite a gal to have inspired that bit of affectionate wordplay, and that Irwin, Lou, Phil, and Moe were four lucky guys. I wish I’d known her, and I hereby honor her memory.


Not only is that a meaningful question, it has a perfectly good answer. Until Peter the Great’s calendar reform, Russia counted its years from the creation of the world, which the Russian Orthodox church reckoned as having happened in 5509 BC, and celebrated New Year’s Day on September 1; thus Peter was born in the year 7180, or 180 as they often referred to it (early 1672 by our calendar). Once Peter took full power he began making drastic changes in the Russian way of life to imitate the Western European countries, and along with cutting off beards and banning caftans he updated the calendar, decreeing in late 1699 (or early 208, as it then was) that January 1 would be the New Year, and it would be the beginning of the year 1700. So 7208, which had begun on Sept. 1, only ran for three months before giving way to the newfangled Western year 1700, producing documents with phrases like: “In the years 207 and 208 and in the present year of 1700…” I love this stuff.
What I don’t understand is why he didn’t go all the way and adopt the Gregorian calendar, which had been around for over a century and was used in the Western countries he wanted to emulate. For over two hundred years Russia remained 10 or 11 days behind, and Peter didn’t like being left behind. Strange.


Miguel Cardoso (over at MeFi) expatiates upon Portuguese sexual practices and terminology, and I urge anyone with an interest in Romance obscenities (and obscene romance) to hie themselves thither forthwith. (And scroll down for more.)


Avva has a debate going about Russian orthography. It began with a remark, in a post of his about Pope Gregory’s bull Inter gravissimus (which proclaimed the year 2000 a leap year), that he was writing the Russian adjective for ‘leap’ (in “leap year”) vysokosnyi rather than the standard spelling visokosnyi because that was how he pronounced it. This caused quite a hullabulloo. People accused him of willful flouting of the rules, even of illiteracy. He responded with three long and closely reasoned analyses of the Russian writing system, based not on the simplistic “write as you pronounce” principle but on the phonemic principle, which in this case forced him, precisely, to write the word as he pronounced it. My initial reaction was like that of his opponents: write it the way it is in the dictionary; what’s the problem? But in the end he convinced me with his arguments and analogies. What struck me is how hopeless it would be to reproduce the argument in English, where writing is so far from pronunciation (though not as far as many think) that to introduce even the minor correctives he argues for would be to risk letting the sea wash away the dikes and flood the land. Russian is, as it were, above sea level; it can afford to get a little wet.


Since I lambasted the NY Times a couple of days ago, I feel I should present the other side of the coin. Sometimes they show me things I would probably never have known about and am glad to have discovered. Herewith two examples from the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” section.
Vicki Goldberg presents the photographer Josef Koudelka, who’s led an amazing life, both complicated (“Never married, he has three children by three women of different nationalities. He has helped support all three children, he said, and has remained in touch with them.”) and simple (“I have two shirts…. I have one trousers for one year, one shoes for one year, one jacket for two years, two socks, and for travel a good sleeping bag.”). He did a series of photographs of Gypsies:

The Gypsy pictures are dark, brooding, disjunctive, tinged with tenderness and sorrow. Years later, he said, he met some Gypsies on a pilgrimage and told them he’d done a book on their people: ” ‘We know,’ they said. `We call you Iconar. We have the book. It’s been cut apart and put in a chapel. We pray for the people in them.’ “

And Christopher Hall describes working on a project to build a 13th-century castle in a remote area of Burgundy (Treigny, in la Puisaye, for those keeping score at home; the Times, uncharacteristically, doesn’t supply a map). They’re using medieval tools and techniques and even wearing medieval clothes (barring safety glasses). I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a great way to spend my summer vacation, if I still had a summer vacation.
There’s also a good piece by Norimitsu Onishi on the use and misuse of statistics, but I posted that on MetaFilter (where it sank without a trace).


Naomi, over at Baraita, has taken time out from her lytdybr entries about moving to a new university town and posted a fascinating discussion of, among other things, “Jewish groups who deviated from some perceived norm”: minim, apikursim, and others. One of the reasons I used to wish I were Jewish was so I could be an apikoyres, but the other terms were new to me.


I happened upon the family name Janeway and vaguely wondered about it, as I have every time I’ve seen it. This time, for whatever reason, the vagueness sharpened into an immediate desire to know what the hell was going on. So I went to my Rybakin (Slovar’ angliiskikh familii/Dictionary of English Surnames), and the first thing I discovered was that the name is pronounced in three syllables, Jan-away (traditionally, in England, that is; I assume modern Americans with the name pronounce it Jane-way). The Janeway entry referred me to Janaway, the main entry, where I discovered that alternate spellings are Gannaway, Jannaway, January [!], Janway, and Jennaway—and that the name is derived from the Italian city Genoa! This etymology delighted me no end (not “to no end,” which means something entirely different), and I thought I’d share it.