Archives for July 2004


A new (since June) linguistics blog, by Neal Whitman: Literal-minded. He has an interesting series of posts about his son’s early difficulties with the l sound. (He also guest-posts at The Volokh Conspiracy.) Via Tenser, said the Tensor.


The Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the McGill University Libraries maintains a website for their exhibition on Children’s Books of the Early Soviet Era:

The present exhibition in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the McGill University Libraries draws on an important collection of more than 350 Soviet children’s books published in the 1920s and 30s and which are remarkable for their original aesthetic quality, linguistic variety and thematic diversity. Dynamic constructivist typography utilized the expressive quality of the stocky, ‘architectural’ azbuka, the Russian alphabet. Diagonal layouts introduced a simultaneous representation of contents and often used photomontage as a succinct expression of the narrative text. The emblematic use of red and black as dominant colours linked the children’s material closely to the publishing output at large. Since more than 100 nationalities live within the fifteen former republics of the USSR, the variety of languages in which children’s books were published is nothing short of astonishing. While Russian was the official language of the Union, children’s books published in Ukrainian, Uzbek, Tartar, Kazakh, Azerbaidzhani, Armenian, Georgian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, lakutian, Nanaian and other languages are well represented in the McGill collection.

[Read more…]


The word saunter, like many others, can’t be traced back very far (AHD: Probably from Middle English santren, to muse), but of course that doesn’t stop people from trying, and this word has a particularly enjoyable pseudo-etymology, discussed in the following typically piquant passage from one of the stories in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Martians (a book I recommend to anyone who likes thoughtful, human-oriented science fiction):

Long walks around Odessa at the end of the day. Aimless, without destination, except perhaps for an evening rendezvous with Maya, down on the corniche. Sauntering through the streets and alleyways. Sax liked Thoreau’s explanation for the word saunter: from à la Saint[e] Terre, describing pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. There goes a Saint[e] Terrer, a saunterer, a Holy Lander. But it was a false etymology, apparently spread from a book called Country Words, by S. and E. Ray, 1691. Although since the origins of the word were obscure, it might in fact be the true story.

Sax would have liked to be sure about that, one way or the other. It made the word itself a problem to mull over. But as he sauntered Odessa thinking about it, he did not see how the matter could be investigated any further, the etymologists having been thorough. The past was resistant to research.

The second paragraph expresses quite well one of the reasons I got out of historical linguistics. The past is, indeed, resistant to research. After a century or two of philological hypotheses, there’s not much further you can go into the history of most words, and picking over the remaining obscurities is not as rewarding as it might be.

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In response to a commenter’s query on this thread, I googled my way to this page of Japanese learning resources (part of the Zozenawayone site); there are all sorts of goodies there, but the one that first struck me was this:

Into this void comes the Japanese-English Dictionary Server, an online database with kanji, kana, slang, names, technical jargon, and about eighty different ways to show the results. (This is important if your computer isn’t set up to display Japanese.) The dictionary even includes idiomatic phrases, though they’re run together with no spaces between the words (so hotoke no kao mo sando, “to try the patience of a saint,” appears as “hotokenokaomosando”). And to gild the lily, the site loads quickly and is rarely down.

And I’m glad the Zozenawayone author shares my fondness for the Living Language Common Usage Dictionary, which is indeed “surprisingly in-depth for a small dictionary.”


Hayden Carruth, as I’ve said before (hi, Moira!), is one of my favorite American poets; tonight I was reading my wife a poem of his called “Vermont” (1975, available in Collected Longer Poems) and came across these lines (towards the end), which I thought I’d share with y’all:

What is the difference, now at last, between
the contemporary and the archaic? I
say “drawed” for “drew” and “deef” for “deaf” and still
use “shall” and “shan’t” in ordinary conversation
like any good Vermonter, and sometimes too
I write “thou” for “you.” So am I therefore
dead? That will come soon enough. Meanwhile
my language is mine, I insist on it,
a living language as long as it is spoken
by living men and women naturally,
as long as it is used.

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A story by Peter Landesman in the July 11 NY Times Magazine begins:

On Dec. 14 of last year, just hours after being hauled out of a hole in the ground by American forces, Saddam Hussein received his first visitors as a prisoner of war: two Americans, L. Paul Bremer III, at the time the top United States administrator in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of American-led forces in Iraq; and four prominent Iraqis—Mowaffak al-Rubaie, then a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and now Iraq’s national security adviser; Adnan Pachachi, the foreign minister of Iraq before Hussein’s reign; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite representative; and Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress.

Aside from being about as far from a grab-you-by-the-lapels opener as can be imagined, this sentence is an object lesson in the problems of proper punctuation. Amid that forest of commas and semicolons, with a colon and a dash thrown in for good measure, one stands out as wrong.

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It’s Spooner’s Day! Grab your binoculars and let’s go word botching! (Via wood s lot.)


To quote aldiboronti, from whose Wordorigins thread I swiped this link:

Lovely page from Adobe on the historical development of the ampersand, from the ligature of ET or et to the & of today, with illustrations of various stages, the earliest being a ligature from Pompeian graffiti dated 79AD.

A wonderfully exhaustive treatment of this relic of ancient times.
Addendum. See the wide-ranging discussion of the use of ampersands in poetry going on at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa.


I’ve just discovered another language blog, Every Way but One, authored by Russell: “Student of linguistics. Student in Japan.” There’s a lot of good material about Japan and the Japanese language; I was particularly taken with the post English Readings for (Japanese) Chinese Characters, which describes a truly weird onomastic development:

The original name for [an army base in Miyazaki Prefecture] was pronounced shin-den-baru (new-paddy-field). But the current pronunciation is nyuu-ta-baru. That is, the first character, which means new, is now being pronounced with the (Japanese rendition of the) English word. (Oh, and for some other reason the second character now has a native Japanese reading instead of a Chinese reading…not sure why that is – generally the S[ino-]J[apanese] readings go just as fine with foreign words as they do with other SJ morphemes).


The Online Sanskrit Dictionary “cannot be a substitute for a good printed Sanskrit-English dictionary. However, we anticipate this to aid a student of Sanskrit in the on-line world.” I can’t vouch for its accuracy (and the quality of the English in the introduction doesn’t inspire confidence), but it’s a handy quick reference. (Via Incoming Signals.)