Archives for March 2004


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.

The prologue begins with several pages about Derby Day of 1928 (“A great horse race on a sunny afternoon… All England, it is probably safe to say, languished that day in the careless blue-skies rapture of early summer, with little but pleasure… If these were rather carefree and prosperous times, for very many they were also cultured and learned times besides…”—you’d never know this was a period of intense class struggle in England, and Stanley Baldwin had crushed the miners’ union just the previous year, but let it go, this isn’t that kind of history) and continues with a rhapsody about the dinner held that evening at the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London: “It was a dinner for 150… each one of whom was monumentally distinguished in achievement and standing… a stellar gathering of intellect, rarely either assembled or able to be assembled since”—”either assembled or able to be assembled”? what? let it go—”There were two bishops, three vice-chancellors, a dozen peers of the realm (including the Earls of Birkenhead, Elgin, Harrowby, and Crawford & Balcarres, the Viscount Davenport, the Lords Aldenham, Blanesburgh, Cecil, Percy, Queenborough, Wargrave, and Warrington of Clyffe), 27 knights of the realm…”—my eyes began glazing over, but I thought “OK, this is a British book aimed at Brits, and Brits love aristoporn the way Yanks love movie gossip, let it go”—concluding with a lengthy excerpt from Baldwin’s speech celebrating the completion of the OED (“And all that was most suitably and appositely said by the Prime Minister…”). It all seemed like padding to me, but I reminded myself that people like a little scene-setting, and I turned to the first chapter with undiminished anticipation.

I zoomed through a few pages describing how the future England was settled by Celts, conquered by Romans, and invaded by Teutons, then was brought up short by the following footnote to the Old English word Englisc: “The -sc sound was pronounced as -sh.” I read it and reread it, and still could make no sense of it. “The -sc sound was pronounced as -sh“? And what were those hyphens doing there? My brow began to furrow, and I thought that at the very least the book could have used more editing. On the next page, in the course of a brief mention of futhorc runes, he says “with th—known as the thorn—being elided into a single symbol”; again I was puzzled—it’s the symbol that’s known as thorn, not whatever he means by the “th being elided.”

That was only an appetizer; it got worse. In discussing the many new words introduced during the Renaissance, he introduces a list with “sometimes the loveliness of the assemblages are just too beguiling to pass up”; aside from the failure in number accord (“the loveliness… are”), I have no idea what he thinks he means by “assemblages.” In a footnote to the list of borrowings he says “The distance between two caravanserais—a day’s travel, in other words—is known by the Turkish loanword menzil“; for one thing, the preferred spelling is manzil, for another it means not ‘the distance between two caravanserais’ but ‘a halting-place; the distance between two halting-places, a stage,’ and for a third it’s not from Turkish but Arabic—all this according to the OED itself!

I don’t want this to be any longer than it has to, and I respect the intelligence and literacy of my readers, so I will simply quote a series of sentences, putting in bold the bits that reveal bad style or plain idiocy and adding the occasional bracketed remark:

“Among those [Shakespeare] used, but he almost alone, were soilure, tortive, and vastidity, which mean, as one might expect, staining, twisted, and big.” [Those are some vastidity words!]

“A glance at any map will suggest hundreds upon hundreds of constructions and imports that we now know to be more a part of today’s English than they ever were of the native tongues where they were first born. Glasnost and perestroika, for example…”

[Talking about the fact that nobody had written an English dictionary before the seventeenth century:] “Nobody, it turned out, had ever bothered.”

[Talking about Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus:] “The tiresome making of this book once exasperated the ‘utterly profligate’ Mrs Cooper so much that she tossed the entire manuscript into the fire—prompting her imperturbable husband simply to sigh wearily and begin compiling his book all over again.” [Vas you dere, Sharlie?]

“But… neither Shakespeare, nor any of the other great writing minds of the day… had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that went by the name that was invented in 1538, a dictionary.” [Speak for yourself! And aside from that, the word dictionary is first attested in 1526 (“And so Peter Bercharius in his dictionary describeth it”), not 1538, and dictionarius or dictionarium had been used for centuries in Latin, so that the English word hardly needed to be “invented”; again, this information is right there in the OED.]

“He lists for their assistance words like bubulcitate, sacerdotall, archgrammacian, and attemptateall of them extravagances now mercifully gone the way of the doublet, the ruff, and the periwig.” [Sacerdotal is still a perfectly good word. Bubulcitate, by the way, is ‘to do the office of a Bubulcus or Cowheard,’ in case you were wondering.]

“The magisterially famous Dr Johnson…”

“The French have had their Académie Française, a body made up of the much-feared Forty Immortals…”

“On being accused, by a genteel society lady, of failing to include obscenities in [his dictionary, Dr Johnson] replied… ‘Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however, that you have been looking for them.” [The lady was not “accusing” him but complimenting him. This is a very famous anecdote.]

[On the success of Noah Webster’s dictionary:] “As a result the word Websterianmeaning ‘invested with lexical authority’—rapidly entered the language…” [OED: Websterian (wEb’stI@rI@n), a.1 Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Webster’s Dictionary (see prec.) or any of its later versions or abridgements.]

“[The Philological Society’s] first paper, which reportedly stimulated animated discussion among the members, was a classic of arcane enthusiasm: ‘The dialects of the Papuan or Negrito race, scattered through the Australian and other Asiatic islands.'” [In other words, it was a paper on what we would now call the Austronesian languages. Those wacky, arcane philologists!]

“In the very early days a most curious parallelism developed between philology and, rather curiously it would seem today, the science of geology…”

“There were papers also on the complexity of some foreign tongues—on ‘The Termination of the Numeral Eleven, Twelve and the equivalent forms in Lithuanian’, for example, and a spirited piece on the Tushi language, which is (or was) apparently well known in the Caucasian hill town of Tzowa, and which might be regarded today as a somewhat tricky tongue for beginners, given that the Tushi for the number 1,000 is the sonorously complex form of words sac tqauziqa icaiqa. In June 1857, while the members were gamely pausing to learn Tushi counting (cha, si, xo, ahew pxi, jetx …)…”

Ahahahaha! Those funny woggy languages with their silly, sonorous words for big numbers! Amazingly enough, we don’t have to wonder idly if “the Tushi language” is still spoken in “Tzowa” (or Tsova as it’s been transliterated for the last hundred years or so), this being the 21st century and not the 19th; the Ethnologue entry informs us that it’s spoken by 2,500 to 3,000 people [3,420 according to the new 15th edition] (and it’s known as Bats these days). And we don’t have to depend on crumbling old Society reports for lists of numbers, either, since Bats is on the Zompist list of “Numbers from 1 to 10 in Over 4500 Languages” in the Caucasian section, right under its fellow Nakh languages Chechen and Ingush; it turns out the first six numbers are ch=a, shi, qo, =’iw?, pxi, and jetx. Not that the differences in transliteration are particularly important, but checking the list against a modern reference might have saved him from omitting the comma between ‘four’ and ‘five,’ which makes “ahew pxi” look like a single number.

Picky, you say? Sure. But this is a book published by Oxford University Press about the OED; it celebrates the decades-long labors of some of the most dedicated and detail-oriented scholars ever assembled for one task. If it’s not worth being picky about that, what in heaven’s name is it worth being picky about?


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

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.)