Archives for June 2004


There’s a fascinating discussion going on at Crooked Timber about the proposal that Irish should be an official language of the EU. Maria‘s attitude in her post “What’s the Irish for boondoggle?” is clear from the title alone, and the opening paragraph nails it down further:

It’s not every day that Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and Sinn Fein agree on something. But they all say Irish should be an official language of the EU, and complain that the government (which the PDs are part of) hasn’t done enough to make this happen during the Irish presidency. Our presidency of the EU is at best a partial success because we haven’t managed to force the EU to spend an extra 50 million euro a year to translate speeches and documents into a language that no one actually needs them in. It’s the principle, you see.

I agree with her, despite my fondness for an Gaeilge, but a number of her commenters don’t, and the debate spills over onto Maltese as well while staying remarkably civil. (Via MetaFilter.)


Reading today’s NY Times, I ran across a sentence (in the story “Separatist Revives Movement in Quebec” by Clifford Krauss) whose ungrammaticality was even subtler than the one cited in my entry OF OF: “A government audit found that the federal government had furtively passed out tens of millions of dollars to friendly advertising companies involved in antiseparatist publicity efforts deeply offended Quebecers.” I’m betting the people who had to reread the Fernea sentence will have to parse this one even more carefully, while my fellow editors will grasp the problem right off the bat.


Frequent commenter Tatyana sent me a link to a Russian blog where there was a discussion of the Arabic word SiraaT ‘path’ (famously used in the first sura of the Qur’an, the Fatiha: Ihdina al-sirata al-mustaqima ‘Show us the straight path’), mentioning that it was from Latin stratum ‘path.’ Not having any way to determine whether this was true, I wrote to an Arabic scholar about it, asking also where one could go to look such things up. He confirmed the derivation and added “There is no Arabic etymological dictionary.” I found this shocking, and am hard put to explain it. I can understand why the cultural emphasis on the Arabic of the Qur’an as the perfected form of the language might have made native speakers less likely to look beyond it and work on its Semitic connections, but how could the avid European Orientalists of the Victorian era have omitted to produce such a thing? In an age obsessed with philology, when Edward William Lane was producing his monumental Arabic-English Lexicon and men like Theodor Nöldeke and Carl Brockelmann were doing groundbreaking work on Semitic, how could no one have done an etymological dictionary? And how could no one have done one since? Get cracking, people!


In the course of reading Elizabeth Fernea’s Guests of the Sheik (a lively account of a year in Iraq which anyone interested in life in the Shiite south should read), I came across the following sentence: “Probably it was a combination of particular circumstances, many of which I remained unaware, plus the fact that people were just becoming used to our presence.” I instantly noticed that there was one “of” too few in the clause beginning “many of which…,” but I wonder how many readers pass right over it? I suspect that my job as an editor may make me hypersensitive to the inner workings of syntax.


Avva says that Evan says that half of all Google searches are conducted in languages other than English, and Evan works for Google, so he should know. Avva says he would have thought the non-English searches only amounted to 20%; I would have guessed it was higher than that, but I’m surprised and pleased to discover it’s half and half. Let the world search!


Faithful correspondent Andrew Krug sent me a link to a BBC story by Oliver Conway claiming that:

The world’s most difficult word to translate has been identified as “ilunga” from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo.
It came top of a list drawn up in consultation with 1,000 linguists.
Ilunga means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.
It seems straightforward enough, but the 1,000 language experts identified it as the hardest word to translate.

[Read more…]


Or for persons with a great fondness for seal meat. Desbladet has a tasty report on a couple of books on Greenlandic. My favorite bit:

Now, Janssen’s phrasebook was prepared for Europeans in Greenland, hardly doctors. So it was probably also handy that when all these sicknesses were treated, there a consoling word to close with: “Have no fear, God and his help are always with you and will make you hale again.”
A section on groceries starts with Greenlandic food: “Are you in the habit of eating seal-meat?”, to which there are two (2) answers: “Yes, I often eat seal-meat” or “Since I’ve just eaten, no thanks”.


The Dico du Net is a collaborative French dictionary of words having some relation to the internet; its ambit includes:

des domaines aussi variés que : le référencement, la mesure d’audience, l’hébergement de sites, la création de sites web, le développement de logiciels, le moteur Google, DMOZ, les weblogs, les noms de domaine, les normes d’Internet, l’e-Marketing et l’e-Commerce…

For blog, for example, they have a brief definition (“A la base, un blog est un journal personnel ou un carnet de voyage disponible sur le web”), a longer description, several related entries ( Blogroll  –  Joueb  –  Permalink ), other sites on the subject, the author’s name, and commentary; they urge participation from readers. (Via La Grande Rousse.)


Minding my p’s & q’s” by Denny Johnson is a loving account of his career in typesetting, starting out as a printer’s devil back in the days when “upper case” meant a literal case:

The Job Case in our shop resembled a huge dark green wood bedroom dresser, built at that time, I supposed, certainly somewhere in California, maybe just after the Gold Rush. It stood five feet high, about a foot over my head. It was almost six feet wide, and stained with years of printer’s ink and chewing tobacco; it was sturdy and unmovable. Ever at its side on the floor — a mucky red Hills Brothers coffee can was the compositors’ constant companion — his spittoon.
Instead of three or four deep drawers for underwear, t-shirts and socks, there were sixteen drawers, eight down per side. All the drawers were labeled but their identification tags had long since been obliterated by ink smudged fingerprints. Each drawer was three inches deep by three-feet square and separated by small individual wood fences or dividers that allotted the drawer into special custom cubicles. Every drawer was designed to hold a different, complete font of hand-type from six to twelve point. This is twelve point; this is eight point; so it’s clear that not only did the compositor have to separate and put away each letter in their appropriate letter home, he needed to put the correct letters with their identical sized brethren in the proper drawer as well. If not, sentences would unquestionably suffer and the reader be put upon to wade through dissimilar sized letters and misspelled words, in a sort of alphabet soup that the proofreader would routinely mark: W/F (Wrong Font).

[Read more…]


Joel of Far Outliers has an interesting post called “Political Shibai or Kabuki?”:

The Japanese word shibai ‘performance, drama’, as in Okinawa shibai or Ikari ningyo shibai ‘Ikari puppet theatre’, now seems well established in at least one regional dialect of English as a way to denote an empty political performance.
It has been used for a long time in Hawai‘i political talk, and someone recently (after 1999) submitted the following entry to the OED.
political shibai – (Hawaiian, from the Japanese) political shamming…
The more common synonym elsewhere seems to be kabuki

(See his post for citations and further explanations.) I have never heard either phrase, but kabuki is reasonably familiar and I would think “political kabuki” might catch on; shibai is unlikely to expand beyond the circles in which it is already used, but that restricted use may be enough to win the favor of the OED (which, after all, includes a fair number of nonce words).