Archives for March 2004


I’m reading From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe (as is Joel of Far Outliers, who posts some good quotes from the early chapters), and I ran across an intriguing word on page 55: “The cacophony of the monsoon gone, the music of the cold season worked up to a climax in the songs of birds both native and migratory, especially the scarlet minivets and the swallows.” I looked it up in my smaller dictionaries and came up empty; finally the big Webster’s informed me that it was a cuckoo shrike of Asiatic origin, etymology unknown. (They’re colorful little fellows, as you can see here.) The only other dictionary I could find it in was, of course, the OED, whose entry reads in its entirety:

minivet (‘mInIvIt). [Etym. obscure.] Any bird of the campophagine genus Pericrocotus.
1862 Jerdon Birds of India I. 418 The Red Shrikes or Minivets (as Mr. Blyth has called them in the Museum Asiatic Society). 1862 Jerdon Birds of India 425, I have found this Minivet extensively spread throughout India. 187. Cassell’s Nat. Hist. IV. 30 The Grey Minivet (Pericrocotus cinereus). 1880 A. R. Wallace Isl. Life iii. 44 The brilliant little minivets are almost equally universal.

I find it very odd that a word that entered the English language in the mid-19th century has no etymology (an official word, as it were, and not a slang term); I can only surmise that the word is simultaneously obscure and banal-sounding enough that it has not attracted the attention of etymologists. (I assume “Mr. Blyth” is Edward Blyth, among other things curator of the zoological museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal; since he died in 1873, over thirty years before the relevant fascicle of the OED appeared, he wouldn’t have been available for questioning, but he surely didn’t make the word up out of thin air.)

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According to this post at Desbladet (and if you can’t trust Desbladet, what Angloscandiwegian prinsessor-obsessed scandal sheet can you trust?), Stanislaw Lem’s novels have been translated into English pretty much exclusively via French versions. Furthermore, Faber & Faber likes it that way:

Solaris indeed has never been translated directly into English and Mr Lem is dissatisfied with the current translation. Whether this state of affairs will change remains an open question. The following quote from a letter from the Managing Director of the Publishing House Faber and Faber serves as an explanation: “With regard to Solaris, I am afraid that we would not currently be willing either to publish a new translation or to license one.”

Now, I am not a fan of Lem’s (and no, I don’t think I’d be a fan even if he were translated direct from the Polish—I’m allergic to that variety of heavy-handed, supercilious irony, and I dislike even more his contempt for all other science fiction writers), but this is ridiculous. I could understand, sort of, translating from the French if the original were in, say, Abkhaz, but can it possibly be that hard to find translators from Polish?


It is with great sadness that I report the death last Saturday of Larry Trask, who combined impeccable linguistic credentials with a fine writing style and a sense of humor not often encountered in academia. The obituary linked above is a fine tribute:

He was a popular teacher, generous with his time and knowledge to students and staff alike. His publications include many guides to ideas about language for the benefit of students and the serious general reader which are models of clarity and accuracy. This same desire for rigour informed his research. He was one of the world’s foremost scholars of Basque, and he wrote a history of the language which is both outstanding in its own terms and a superb vindication of the methods of classical historical linguistics, of which he had also written a fine textbook. Larry’s interests were wide, and he had recently been involved with the question of the origin of language in general and with the relation between different language families, as well as writing guides to Internet etiquette and punctuation. He wore his learning with real modesty and never sought the front of the stage he found himself on in the last eight years or so of his life, though he held his own there with distinction… The respect and love which Larry evoked in us are mixed with sadness and bitterness at the cruelty of his illness which robbed him of his speech and then broke his health bit by bit. We will deeply miss his part in our lives as a colleague and friend, and we will not forget that, true to himself, he was still entertaining us with comments on his reading emailed from his bed two days before he died.

(Thanks to Tim May for the news.)


A nice summary of the history of the letter Q:

During the Old English period, we didn’t use Q in English: we wrote, for example, CWICU for ‘quick’ and CWEN for ‘queen’ (Old English, like Latin, preferred C for the /k/-sound instead of K). But then the French-speaking Normans conquered England, interrupting the English literary tradition, and, when English once again began to be written after the Conquest, a number of French spelling conventions were introduced, including the business of always writing Q for the /k/-sound when the next letter was U. And we’re still stuck with it.

(Via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.)


I’m not surprised that a newspaper partly in Chinook Jargon was published in British Columbia a century ago, but I’m astonished it lasted for over thirty years; the University of Saskatchewan Library has acquired a run of it and is mounting an exhibition, and the corresponding web page has some great images.

U of S Library has just acquired one of the largest and most complete runs in existence of an important 19th century British Columbia newsletter, the Kamloops Wawa, published between 1891 and 1923. The Kamloops Wawa was a multi-lingual publication written in English, French and Chinook Jargon.
The Wawa was published by the missionary Father Jean-Marie Raphael LeJeune out of the backroom of a church on the Kamloops reserve between 1891 and 1923. At its peak it had a distribution of 2000 copies per month, with a circulation that reached as far as Quebec and France. The newsletter is unusual for its time in that Le Jeune actively sought an Aboriginal audience and focused on local and national Native concerns. It is a very valuable and largely untapped source for scholarly research in History, Native Studies, Religious Studies, Linguistics and other disciplines.
Chinook Jargon is a “pidgin” language, a much simplified and easy-to-learn version of traditional Chinook, designed to allow communication between tribes speaking disparate languages and between First Nations people and Europeans. Its primary use was to facilitate trade, but Chinook Jargon was also employed at treaty negotiations. The Wawa featured both the longhand and the Duployan shorthand version of Chinook Jargon, with English and sometimes French translations, and also translations into other Aboriginal languages.

(Via Bill Poser at Language Log, who provides additional information about the language and the shorthand it was written in.)


Another in the Marvels of the Internet series: the entire Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) and Scottish National Dictionary (SND) are now online and searchable under the rubric Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL). How many times have I wished I had easy access to those magnificent works of lexicography, especially when reading the magnificent Hugh MacDiarmid! I tested the DSL on the vocabulary in “The Eemis Stane” (quoted in the linked LH entry) and was somewhat disappointed to find that neither eemis nor how-dumb-deid was in there, but there was a nice entry for yowdendrift that actually quoted the poem:

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Mark of Alliterative has an entry about an interesting question asked by a student in his Old English class: does the use of the dual pronoun imply greater intimacy?

I wasn’t really sure how to answer this. Is the dual pronoun ever used to refer to two antagonists in Old English? I suppose one could say that the dual pronoun is sometimes used when the dual number of the referent is specifically regarded, not only because of intimacy. Sometimes the dual is conspicuous by its absence; for instance Adam and Eve are not refered to using dual pronouns in Ælfric’s translation of Genesis.
But what of other languages? I know that Old Norse also preserves the dual pronouns. What other languages do? Is there any special implication in the use of the dual in those languages (other than simply number)?

I’ve studied some languages with duals, but never paid enough attention to the circumstances under which they were used to be able to answer the question; anybody have any thoughts on the subject?


One last dividend from the Winchester book (which, thankfully, I’ve now finished)—a word I hadn’t run across in the OED or anywhere else, and am very glad to know about:

drogulus (‘drQgjUl@s). [Coined ‘on the spur of the moment’ by A. J. Ayer perh. by subconscious association with dragon + L. –ulus as in dracunculus.] An entity whose presence is unverifiable, because it has no physical effects. Also transf.
1957 A. J. Ayer in Edwards & Pap Mod. Introd. Philos. 608 Suppose I say ‘There’s a “drogulus” over there,’ and you say ‘What?’ and I say ‘Drogulus,’ and you say ‘What’s a drogulus?’ Well I say ‘I can’t describe what a drogulus is, because it’s not the sort of thing you can see or touch, it has no physical effects of any kind, but it’s a disembodied being.’ 1959 L. S. Penrose in New Biol. XXVIII. 98, I had difficulty in finding a suitable name for the activated complexes produced in these experiments. On showing one of them to Professor A. J. Ayer, I inquired whether it perhaps might be a ‘drogulus’… He replied that it was undoubtedly a ‘drogulus’.


An interesting news story (sent to me by Kelly Nestruck—thanks, Kelly!)

Deaf signs ruled offensive
Political correctness has caught up with sign language for deaf people. Gestures used to depict ethnic and religious minorities and homosexuals are being dropped because they are now deemed offensive.
The abandoned signs include “Jewish”, in which a hand mimes a hooked nose; the sign for “gay”, a flick of a limp wrist; and “Chinese”, in which the index fingertips pull the eyes into a slant. Another dropped sign is that for “Indian”, which is a finger pointing to an imaginary spot in the middle of a forehead.
The signs have been declared off-limits by the makers of Vee-TV, Britain’s Channel 4 program for deaf people, for fear of being accused of racism and homophobia. Caroline O’Neill, a researcher at Vee-TV, explained: “We have a sign language monitor on the channel who checks that what we are doing is culturally appropriate.”

The decision sparked controversy:

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Gail Armstrong recounts a variety of interactions between authors and translators, ranging from open hostility to endless love. (The former, of course, makes for better reading.) She opens with this classic quote: “When told by a reader that his stories read better in French, James Thurber replied, ‘Yes, I tend to lose something in the original.'” I recommend the whole entry. And I have to say that if I, like Alan Bennett, were to receive these queries from my translator:

‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ This Proust quote, where?
Ivy-Compton-Burnett: who or what is that?

I would tell the publisher to find another translator.
My favorite anecdote from my own professional career is when I had to use all my powers of persuasion to change a proposed Spanish translation of Christmas disease as “enfermedad de Navidad.” (The disease was named for Stephen Christmas, who suffered from it.)