Archives for December 2002


In a silly article called “Suddenly, It’s Easier to Find a Hero Than a Villain,” Rick Lyman rehashes the ancient wheeze about how hard it is to find acceptable ethnic groups for a villain to belong to since the fall of the Soviet Union. I can forgive him that—the Times has to fill the “Week in Review” section somehow—but I can’t forgive him this sentence:

When it comes to choosing villains for big popcorn movies — a task that used to be as easy as “Where did we put those Nazi uniforms?” — it is becoming more and more difficult to take a step without trodding on someone’s tender toes.

“Trodding”?? Does Rick think about what he’s wroting, or does he just sat down and let flew? And where are the editors, for the love of god?
Addendum. Having recently beaten William Safire like a rented mule, I feel I should compliment him for this week’s column. Not only does he provide interesting information about the etymology of “pot” (I’m not at home and don’t have my full array of sources, but the Online Etymology Dictionary agrees: “pot (2) – ‘marijuana,’ 1938, probably a shortened form of Mexican Sp. potiguaya marijuana leaves.'”), he openly disagrees with the unfortunate Times decision to refer to Saddam Hussein as “Mr. Hussein.” As the column says, “Hussein is not a family name but his father’s first name.” This is something I rarely see referred to, and Safire is absolutely right to insist on calling the dictator “Saddam.”


I have never figured out how to pronounce the family name of Alberto Fujimori, quondam president of Peru. There is debate over whether he was born in Japan or Peru, but his native language is Spanish, so he (like all Peruvians) pronounces his name with a Spanish j (=kh). That should settle the matter, except that it feels strange to be pronouncing a clearly Japanese name in such an un-Japanese way. (Compare the discussion of how to pronounce foreign names in this earlier entry.)


I happened on a very well done site, The Ulwa Project, which includes a dictionary of this language (of the Misumalpan family) of eastern Nicaragua as well as Thomas Green’s dissertation, “A Lexicographic Study of Ulwa” (MIT 1989) and is dedicated to recording and preserving the fast-dwindling language. I liked very much Green’s acknowledgments, in which (along with the usual suspects) he thanks Eugene “Sully” Sullivan, “the night custodian on the third floor of the now-deceased Building 20…. He was always good for some Red Sox talk or griping about the system or keeping a pot of coffee brewing in one of the biohazard labs.”


Great stuff. For example, ‘boot up’ = inspinngehweorfastyrian. Via Avva.


Jacek Krankowski, a professional translator, has a very interesting discussion of problems involved in translating between languages with grammatical gender marking and those without. Some samples:

The Russian painter Repin was baffled as to why Sin had been depicted as a woman by German artists; he did not realize that “sin” is feminine in German (die Sünde), but masculine in Russian (grekh). Likewise a Russian child, while reading a translation of German tales, was astounded to find that Death, obviously a woman (Russian smert, fem.) was pictured as an old man (German der Tod, masc.). My sister Life, the title of a book of poems by Boris Pasternak, is quite natural in Russian, where ‘life’ is feminine (zhizn), but was enough to reduce to despair the Czech poet Josef Hora in his attempt to translate these poems, since in Czech this noun is masculine (zivot). (1959: 237)
Similarly, the German painter Stuck personified the gruesome war as a man (der Krieg, masc.) while, in contrast, the Polish painter Grotger represented a similar war-like figure as a woman (wojna, fem.) (de Courtenay, 1929: 246)….
In Daphne du Maurier’s gothic-like novel Rebecca, the protagonists, Maxim and his wife, have invited some relatives to their once-deserted manor in the English countryside. After dinner, Maxim’s brother-in-law expresses his admiration for the meal by saying:
Same cook I suppose, Maxim?
There is no later reference in the book to the cook and the sex of this chef de cuisine is never revealed. How does a translator, whose task it is to translate the sentence into a language that shows grammatical gender, cope with this problem? How does he/she know whether the cook is male or female? There seems to be no one agreed solution as five different translations into grammatical gender languages show:
French: la meme cuisinière
Italian : lo stesso cuoco
Spanish: el mismo cocinero
Portuguese: a mesma cozinheira
German: dieselbe Köchin
(Wandruszka 1969: 173)
The example demonstrates that three translators assigned ‘generally female’ and two ‘generally male’ as the social gender of cook. Whether this is due to the translators’ lack of knowledge as to what type of cook is more likely to be in a noble English manor or whether this is due to their ideological expectations as to what is likely in their own community, is an open question.

He gives several other examples of different translators coping with the same text; I love this sort of thing, and would happily read an entire book of it. [Via Enigmatic Mermaid.]


Now, here’s a branch of the sciences that has been too long neglected. From the OED:

Od. A hypothetical force held by Baron von Reichenbach (1788-1869) to pervade all nature, manifesting itself in certain persons of sensitive temperament (streaming from their finger-tips), and exhibited especially by magnets, crystals, heat, light, and chemical action; it has been held to explain the phenomena of mesmerism and animal magnetism.

An odd name, you say? But it was chosen for impeccably logical reasons: “I will take the liberty to propose the short word Od for the force which we are engaged in examining. Every one will admit it to be desirable that a unisyllabic word beginning with a vowel should be selected… for the sake of convenient conjunction in the manifold compound words…. Instead of saying, ‘the Od derived from crystallization’, we may name this product crystallod.” (Ashburner 1850, tr. Reichenbach’s Dynamics 224). Those interested can pursue their odylic studies here. Od’s most significant appearance in literature is probably in the Seventh Book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh:

We think, here, you have written a good book,
And you, a woman! It was in you—yes,
I felt ’twas in you: yet I doubted half
If that od-force of German Reichenbach
Which still from female finger-tips burns blue,
Could strike out, as our masculine white heats,
To quicken a man. Forgive me. All my heart
Is quick with yours, since, just a fortnight since,
I read your book and loved it.

But it is also referred to in Avram Davidson‘s The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy, a collection of stories about curious events in the Empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania which I recommend to anyone interested in fine prose and recondite phenomena.


Anton Sherwood cites a story about three Romanian gymnasts being banned by their federation for giving a nude performance in Japan: “The trio had ‘tarnished the image of gymnastics’ with their naked performance . . . in a DVD filmed in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo, said the Romanian gymnastics federation president Nicolae Vieru.” The Ogre remarks: “Spoilsport. He should look up the etymology of gymnast sometime. ”


I should have been paying more attention to Stanley Kunitz. This poem is wonderful:
“The Testing-Tree”, section 4
In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl’s face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!
Copyright (c) 1995 Stanley Kunitz
from Passing Through: the Later Poems, New and Selected (via Wood’s Lot)


From Beth Hatefutsoth (via Plep) comes an introduction to their database of Jewish names. Getting information on particular names costs five bucks a pop, but the introduction is well worth reading:

In all Diaspora communities, Jews had a preference for surnames of biblical or Hebrew origin. Not only did they choose biblical given names that had been in Jewish usage for generations – Shimon, David, Yaakov, Abraham, Aharon and many others – but also biblical toponyms like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other venerated sites and landmarks of the Land of Israel. Yet, Jews did not use the name in the original form, but generally changed its spelling and pronunciation or added prefixes and/or suffixes from other languages. In this way, they wished to combine their ancestral heritage with a sincere desire to be integrated into the non-Jewish surrounding society. Family name Nathansohn is an example of choosing a biblical name – Nathan – to which the German suffix “-sohn” (meaning “son”) was added to confer it a more German appearance. In North Africa, the biblical Yaakov became the family name Vaaknin, which is a diminutive of Yaakov in the local Berber language. As a result, the Hebrew name sounded more similar to a local Berber or Arabic name.
Sometimes family names were created by using acronyms or anagrams of Hebrew words. Thus, the name’s sound and spelling was changed, transforming it into a European name while keeping the original meaning: Katz, which is a Hebrew acronym of Kohen Zedek (“rightful priest”) (ë”õ) means “cat” in German. Family names Wiehl or Weill are anagrams of the biblical name Levi.
Translating a Hebrew name was another popular method for selecting a family name: Hayyim (literally: “life”) became Vivas or Bibas for Ladino speaking Jews, while Cohen (meaning “priest”) was translated as Kaplan (“chaplain”, in German).

I’m assuming that their information is accurate; what I know about seems correct, but as always I welcome corrections from knowledgeable readers.


Over the weekend I was trying to access an earlier entry; my archives had disappeared (which happens every once in a while with Blogger), but I assumed I’d be able to retrieve it via Google. However, Google seemed to have no record of it, which worried me; it occurred to me that some rabid Greek nationalist with hacker skills might have taken offense at my account of Macedonian history and somehow removed it. I had no way of finding out for sure until my archives returned; now they have, and my fears are confirmed: the entry is gone. Here is the problem report I sent Blogger:

Almost a month ago I published in my blog Languagehat an entry titled “Purity vs. History 4,” the last in a series of entries about Greek history. This one concerned Macedonia, and I was aware that it would be controversial (Greeks are obsessed with the issue), but apparently an offended hacker has gone to the trouble of deleting the entry from my blog. I have no idea how it was done, not being a computer maven, but you can see the evidence here:
In that blank space at the top is where the entry should be; it would have been dated either the 18th or the 19th of November. I hope this concerns you as much as it does me, and it concerns me a great deal: I put a lot of work into that entry, and to have it erased is not only a personal violation but an intellectual crime. Even though I am not a paying user, I hope you will respond and treat this with the seriousness it deserves. I thank you in advance.
Language hat

Blogger proudly announces that they do not provide personal support unless you fork out for BloggerPro, but I’m hoping this is serious enough that they will deal with it. If anyone out there knows how to contact Blogger directly, please let me know. This is very upsetting.
Update: It turns out the blank space is unrelated (the source code is missing a line valign=”top” so the vertical alignment defaults to “middle”). However, the entry is still missing. [Thanks, Songdog!]