As much as I enjoy A.E. Housman’s serious poetry, if I could only save one item from his collected works I’m afraid it would be his hilarious parody of old-fashioned translations, “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.” It turns out the Russian critic and translator M.L. Gasparov has rendered it into Russian, which makes me very happy; go to Avva’s comment thread and scroll down to where it’s quoted (it begins “О ты, прекраснокожанообутая/ Глава пришельца!”)

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My frustrating reading of The Meaning of Everything has finally given me some pleasure. On page 205, Winchester describes how the recently coined word radium was omitted from the first edition of the OED and quotes a mock definition probably written by Frederick Sweatman (an editorial assistant) at the time:

Radium. [mod. L. radium (B. Balius Add. Lex. : not in DuCange). The orig. source is Preh.—Adami spadi, to dig;—Antediluv. randam (unconnected with PanArryan randan). Cognate with OH Has. mqdrq; Opj. rangtrum; MHGug. tsploshm; Mubr. dndrpq; Baby. daddums and N.Pol. rad are unconnected.] The unknown quantity. Math. Symbol x. Cf. Eureka.
Aristotle De. P.Q. LI.xx says it may be obtained by the excrement of a squint-eyed rat that has died of a broken heart buried 50 ft below the highest depths of the western ocean in a well-stopped tobacco tin, but Sir T. Browne says this is a vulgar error; he also refutes the story that it was dug in the air above Mt. Olympus by the ancients.
[Not in J., the Court Guide, or the Daily Mail Year Book before 1510.]
1669 Pepys Diary, 31 June, And so to bed. Found radium an excellent pick-me-up in the morning. 1873 Hymns A & M 2517 Thy walls are built of radium. 1600 Hakluyt’s Voy. IV.21 The kyng was attired simply in a hat of silke and radium-umbrella.

Not quite Flann O’Brien, but enjoyable tomfoolery.


I was glad to see this story (by Polly Curtis) from the Guardian:

A language is lost every two weeks, according to the head of a new centre for research into endangered languages, which is being launched today.
People are increasingly choosing to teach their children more commonly used languages in a bid to help them gain work in later life, their research says. As a result half of the 6,500 languages spoken around the world are anticipated to disappear in the next century – a rate of one every fortnight.
The new centre for research into endangered languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, which is backed by £20m grant, is being launched today by the Princess Royal.

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If your ears register /ba/ and your eyes a mouth saying /ga/, you’ll “hear” /da/. It’s called the McGurk effect:

The most striking demonstration of the combined (bimodal) nature of speech understanding appeared by accident. Harry McGurk, a senior developmental psychologist at the University of Surrey in England, and his research assistant John MacDonald were studying how infants perceive speech during different periods of development. For example, they placed a videotape of a mother talking in one location while the sound of her voice played in another. For some reason, they asked their recording technician to create a videotape with the audio syllable “ba” dubbed onto a visual “ga.” When they played the tape, McGurk and McDonald perceived “da.” Confusion reigned until they realized that “da” resulted from a quirk in human perception, not an error on the technician’s part. After testing children and adults with the dubbed tape, the psychologists reported this phenomenon in a 1976 paper humorously titled “Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices,” a landmark in the field of human sensory integration. This audio-visual illusion has become known as the McGurk effect or McGurk illusion.

Amazing. (Via Sally Thomason at Language Log.)


Who can resist specialized vocabulary? Not I. Absconding swarm, American foulbrood, Braula coeca, buff comb, Demaree (‘the method of swarm control that separates the queen from most of the brood within the same hive’), supersedure (‘a natural replacement of an established queen by a daughter in the same hive’)—it’s all here. (Via Incoming Signals.)
Update. Vernica at thinking while typing has a great list of bee-related links.


The Englisc List Website—A Forum for Composition in Old English is a treasure trove of material for people who want to use Old English, not just make their way through Beowulf with a glossary.

While some discussion is conducted in Old English, a lot of it is not; but activity on this list aims primarily to: 1) compose a message or an original text in Old English, 2) translate a modern or medieval text into Old English, 3) participate in ongoing projects devoted to the above, 4) comment on the contributions, 5) offer something new, 6) pose questions about grammar and vocabulary, 7) be tremendously entertaining while remaining relevant, or 8) just lurk and learn.

I particularly like the New Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, whose most recent entry reads:
[Anno MMIV Hreðmonað]
- xix d: Ymb þisne dæg ymb Wala ceastre in Suð-Waziristan provinciam in Pakistane Pakistanes fyrd fohte wið beorgweargum ond Bin Ladenes heafodþegne, ond neah in Afghnistane Americisce fuhton wið Talibaniscum.
(Via the effervescent and irreplaceable ElizaD in Wordorigins.)


My reading life is one of disappointments these days. Having been badly let down by The Greek War of Independence, I’m now grinding my teeth over Simon Winchester‘s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I got for Christmas and had been very much looking forward to reading. Mind you, I’ve only read the first chapter, so I haven’t even begun the story of the OED and can’t report on how well he tells it. But I can tell you the book is very poorly written.
This is particularly annoying because Winchester’s reviews are nearly unanimous in their praise of his style: “fluent, eloquent” (Michael Glover, Financial Times), “Winchester writes with his customary colour and verve” (Anne Wroe, Sunday Telegraph), “Winchester is an extraordinarily graceful writer” (Lev Grossman, Time), &c &c. RALPH (The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities) called this book “impeccably written.” So I expected that even if Winchester’s grasp of the study of language turned out to be lacking (as of course it did), I would be carried along by that fluent, eloquent, graceful style. Reader, I was not.
I am going to get quite detailed, because it’s the only way I can take my revenge for the ground teeth, so anyone with no appetite for dissection of sentences should stop now and wait for the next post.

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Paul Goyette of locussolus has an interesting post on Microsoft’s releasing Windows in Welsh and other languages:

The point here is that taking local cultural and political realities into account can be good business, and that’s what’s going on with Windows in Tamil or Welsh. When they put it in Lakota or Jaqaru, then we can talk about linguistic diversity…


One of the best art exhibitions I saw in the ’90s was The Glory of Byzantium at the Met (March 11 – July 6, 1997); I went back as often as I could, dragging everyone I knew. It covered the period from 843 to 1261, and they managed to get superb artworks from places that had never before allowed works to travel. Today they’ve opened the long-anticipated sequel, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557):

The importance of the era is primarily demonstrated through the arts created for the Orthodox church and for the churches of other East Christian states that aspired to be the heirs to the empire’s power. The impact of its culture on the Islamic world and the Latin-speaking West is also explored—especially the influence of the Christian East on the development of the Renaissance.
In connection with the exhibition, a major symposium on “Byzantium: Faith and Power” will be held at the Metropolitan Museum from Friday, April 16, to Sunday, April 18. The event will include scholarly presentations and a concluding performance. For more information, call 212-570-3710 or email lectures@metmuseum.org.

Read more about it in this NY Times story, and if you’re anywhere near the city in the next few months (it runs runs through July 4) you’ll want to make sure you don’t miss it.

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In an early LH post I trotted out my favorite example of coincidence in language:

…even though English and Persian are related languages, and even though Persian “bad” means the same thing as English “bad” and is pronounced almost identically, there is no historical connection whatever.

Imagine my joy at discovering an entire webpage of such coincidences, from Arabic/Mongolian akh ‘brother’ to Japanese yabanjin ‘person from the wilderness’/Turkish yabanci ‘person from the wilderness.’ For lagniappe there’s a table of “Yin/Yang reversals,” eg Catalan alt ‘high’/Turkish alt ‘low.’ I’m certainly not vouching for the accuracy of all the forms, but it’s a great idea, and I applaud Yahyá M for putting so much work into it! (If anybody notices any howlers, I’d appreciate hearing about them.)