Archives for January 2004


La Grande Rousse has an entry today on Webster’s Online Dictionary: The Rosetta Edition. This remarkable (if somewhat annoying) site scrapes up huge quantities of information about virtually any string of conjoined letters you can find on the internet (check out the list of items beginning with aa), calling them all “words” and offering definitions (often from the 1913 edition of Webster’s Unabridged), synonyms, crossword definitions, “commercial usages,” images, quotations, usage frequency (telling you how often the word is used as what part of speech, although “midwife” is supposedly used as a noun 100.00% of the time, which is clearly untrue), “Frequency of Internet Expressions,” “Modern Translations,” “Ancestral Language Translations,” “Bible Trace,” “Matched Bible Translations,” “Derivations & Misspellings,” rhymes, “Alternative Orthography” (hexadecimal, Leonardo da Vinci, ASL, semaphore, Braille, &c, even including Arthur Conan Doyle’s “dancing men”), “Bibliographic Items” (mostly media references and, and who knows what all. Much of this stuff is cute but useless; what’s of primary interest to Languagehat, of course, is the translations, and I regret to say they are not to be depended on. You’d expect problems with a multivalent word like set or bow, so I tried whale, which seemed fairly straightforward, but here is the entirety of the Bulgarian entry:

???? ?? ??? ?? ?????? [hodya na lov za kitove], ????? [shibam] (beat, cut, drive, flog, lash, scourge, slash, swinge, switch), ??? [kit] (mastic, paste), ???? ??????? [neshto ogromno] (sockdolager), ??????????? [naperdashvam] (clobber, dress down, lace, lambaste, larrup, lather, paddle, pepper, skin, thrash), ??? [biya] (bang, beat, chime, club, curry, feeze, go, hammer, hide, hit, kill, knoll, lace, lather, lay, lick, maul, palpitate, peal, pelt, pulsate, pulse, ram, ramrod, ring, rough up, shoot, strike, swingle, thrash, thresh, wallop, welt, whip, whop, zap).

There is exactly one useful translation here, kit, and there’s no way to tell that’s the one you want unless you know Bulgarian. The word for ‘shit’ in Danish is given as junk and the Dutch as shit; I don’t know either language, but I have grave doubts about both alleged translations. For Russian it gives der’mo, which is one possibility but hardly the only one—the basic equivalent for the noun is govno and for the verb srat’, neither of which seems to be known to this Webster’s.

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From Transblawg I learn of the word udal; in the OED’s words, udal land or lands are “land(s) in Orkney or Shetland held by the old native form of freehold tenure.” The word is the “Orkney and Shetland form of Norw. odal, odel, ONor. óthal odal,” and odal is defined as “Land held in absolute ownership without service or acknowledgement of any superior, as among the early Teutonic peoples; esp. such an estate among the Scandinavian peoples, or in Orkney and Shetland (where the usual form of the word is udal, q.v.)”—it’s related to German edel ‘noble.’ Some islanders are highly upset about the usurpation of udal law by Scottish feudal law, and you can read all about it at their website; me, I just like the word. It’s so much handier than allodial.


The NY Times tried to get a little too sophisticated in the headline of today’s story by Elaine Sciolino about a government-sponsored attempt to promote doggie bags for unfinished wine in French restaurants. The headline reads “Garçon! The Check, Please, and Wrap Up the Bordelais!” I don’t know if the headline writer thought “bordelais” was a classy synonym for “bordeaux” (if so, “claret” would have been a better choice), but as far as I can tell, its only use in English (in French it’s an adjective meaning ‘of or pertaining to the city of Bordeaux or the adjacent region) is as the name for a breed of cattle. If that’s what the writer was thinking of, it would require quite a bag.


Every once in a while I get a notice from that something on my wish list has become available in the price range I set; rarely have I been happier to get such a notice than when they told me the Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov (published at $65) was available for $20.98 from Labyrinth Books. (No longer, I’m afraid, but maybe another batch will come on the market.) I mention it here not to gloat, but to urge those of my readers who are Nabokov fans (I know there are more than a few) to seek it out at their local library. It’s an absolute treasure trove, almost 800 pages of scholarly articles on every imaginable subject: each of his major works, “Style,” “Teaching,” “Translation and Self-Translation,” and a series on “Nabokov and…” (Bely, Bergson, Blok, Chateaubriand, and over a dozen other writers). And there’s a comprehensive index, so that you can follow a single topic through all the articles, not to mention a detailed chronology and bibliography. Here’s a tidbit from the chapter on translation, by the wonderfully named Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour:

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Jeremy Osner of READIN has brought to my attention a remarkable site called The Modern Word, “the Web’s largest site devoted to exploring twentieth-century experimental literature.” It’s run by Allen Ruch (“though I generally go by my nickname of the Quail”), and I’ll let him explain further:

The Modern Word is a large site, and one that’s been through many changes since its inception. It began in 1995 as The Libyrinth, a portmanteau word coined to represent the two common themes I felt ran through much modern literature – the Library and the Labyrinth… After five years of growing as the Libyrinth, the site was re-dedicated in May 2000 as The Modern Word, its borders greatly expanded but dedicated to the same goal – to celebrate and explore the works of these amazing authors, from the past metamorphoses of Kafka to the Ecos of the future.

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Maria Benet of alembic has a wonderful post [original link dead; Wayback link should work] describing her experiences growing up in communist Romania in a Hungarian-speaking family, where “we dreamt of travel the way Odysseus dreamt of going home. Though our borders were closed and we were shipwrecked, the world was still wide open to us in words.”

The sirens—dictionaries, primers, novels—perched on the shelves of our small bookcase, sang and lilted of enchanted sunny islands in the subjunctive of French, echoed of the cobblestoned meandering paths of German compound nouns, and spoke in clipped tones of the bright, jagged cliffs of English verbs that stood like wardens holding off the invasion of maudlin latinates.
Our passage through these worlds of words was slow and required a great deal of effort, though we traveled light and weather was never an issue. But, back then, we had time and we had plenty of energy—for we had few possessions to care for, and the exercise of effort seemed the only right to free speech left to us.
So we ventured, back and forth, between the languages, whispering words from one or the other to crack open the doors to a bit of fresh air and to another view…

Read the whole thing, finishing off with her lovely poem “A Dish of Peaches in Cluj,” which begins:

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I just learned of the (hypothetical) existence of the (alleged) language Koguryo (or Goguryeo), perhaps spoken in the first millenium C.E. around the Korean/Chinese border. The LINGUIST List description says:

A possible language once spoken in NE China (Liaoning), Manchuria, and Korea, 1st century to mid-8th century A.D. The earliest solid historical reference to the Koguryo people (1st century A.D.) has them in the Liao-hsi area (now part of Liaoning province, northeast of Tientsin) of China. The evidence for this language lies almost solely in toponyms rather than texts, and is thus unreliable. The Archaic Koguryo corpus dates to the third and fourth century A.D. and consists of about a dozen identifiable lexemes recorded in Chinese historical and geographical accounts of the Koguryo kingdom. The Old Koguryo corpus, largely dating to the seventh and eighth centuries, consists of over a hundred lexemes found in the form of glossed toponyms, plus a small number of words recorded in Chinese historical and geographical accounts. The language, if real, may be related to Japanese…

(Via T. Carter at Lifechanges … Delayed.)


Steven of The Sneeze has begun “a gathering of international obnoxia”:

We all grew up reciting irritating rhymes. Some of us grew up primarily on the receiving end of them. Good times.
A few years ago, it occurred to me that these funny little bits of kid comedy must exist in every language all around the world, so I decided they must be collected.

He invites submissions:

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Avva links to a wonderful quatrain at Yulkar’s journal about the rapid change the Russian language is experiencing back in the (former) USSR (or, as the cliche has it, one-sixth of the earth’s surface, though Avva in a subsequent entry suggests that that’s a considerable overestimation). Needless to say, the sentiment can be felt by anyone who’s lived long enough to feel that their language is being hijacked by those damn kids. Here’s my rough-and-ready translation, which doesn’t do the original justice; the latter follows in transcription, because I can’t get the Cyrillic to paste in correctly. You can, of course, see it by following the link.

When they talk, in the Great One-Sixth, I can still
Almost understand what they say,
But the language-bearers are bearing the language
Farther and farther away.

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Harry Mathews is the only American member of Oulipo; you can read about his life and work in a lengthy LRB review by Mark Ford. He wrote an essay called “Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese,” which was first presented at the French Institute in London in October, 1996, as the third of the St. Jerome lectures, a series devoted to the topic of translation, and it is full of suggestive passages, beginning with the opening fantasia about Ernest Botherby, “the scholar who founded the Australian school of ethno-linguistics,” and his discovery of two New Guinean tribes, the Ohos and the Uhas. I will not spoil the punch line by trying to boil it down here; instead I will quote a few later passages that bear on translation:

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