Archives for May 2005


A NY Times article by Craig S. Smith, “Académie Solemnly Mans the Barricades Against Impure French,” describes the sedate, not to say molasseslike, activities of the Académie Française, which “has been toiling for 70 years on the dictionary’s ninth edition and has reached only the letter P.” (The new edition is online up through the word NÉGATON ‘Particule élémentaire chargée d’électricité négative.’)

The eighth edition, published in 1935, has 35,000 words, but the current edition is already up to 50,000 and will probably reach 70,000 before the academy reaches the end of the letter Z. The pace is so slow that by the time the edition is done, the early letters of the lexicon will be largely out of date.
The academy, founded in 1635 under the sponsorship of Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, has been quietly engulfed by the slow collision of tradition and modernity that remains one of the central dynamics animating Western Europe today…

[Read more…]


It’s no fun going to one’s site and seeing the “bandwidth exceeded” message; I wouldn’t feel as bad about it if it were due entirely to actual visitors, but knowing that the bandwidth eaten by both spammers and the blacklist needed to control them is pushing the site over the limit fills me with rage and I want to kick the bandicoot. (No, we don’t have a bandicoot, I just like the sound of the word: bandicoot! It’s from Telugu bantikokku: banti ‘ball’ + kokku ‘long beak,’ just to get some linguistics into this entry.) The good folks at Insider Hosting have been wonderful about these problems, but yesterday was Labor Day, so nobody was manning the defibrillators. Anyway, we’re back—resume normal banter, and a curse on all who abuse the internet for filthy lucre.

[Read more…]


Anybody who loves the writing of Thomas Pynchon should hie them here and read what Gerald Howard has to say about Gravity’s Rainbow: the experience of falling on it with anticipation in 1973 (“clearly someone at that publishing house understood the impecunious nature of the Pynchon audience, I noted gratefully”—I felt the same way!) and finding it even better than expected, then the discoveries made on going to work as an assistant editor at Viking Penguin:

One Friday in summer 2004, I spent a memorable afternoon in the half-deserted offices of Viking Penguin going through the thick editorial file for Gravity’s Rainbow. There was in this experience the poignance of office technologies past (carbons, telegrams, memos typed on manual typewriters) and the names of the distinguished departed—from Malcolm Cowley, Viking’s longtime literary adviser, to other colleagues, mentors, and friends. But there was also the sheer fascination of peering behind the curtain like Dorothy to discover how the levers had been pulled to launch one of the most consequential novels of the twentieth century.

I envy the man, and I thank him for sharing his knowledge with us. I also thank the estimable Matt for bringing the piece to my attention. Now I know what I’m going to (re)read after Mason & Dixon


I knew that the word magnet was ultimately from Greek Magnētis (lithos) ‘Magnesian (stone),’ which the AHD says is “from Magnēsiā Magnesia, an ancient city of Asia Minor.” Merriam-Webster’s concurs: “stone of Magnesia, ancient city in Asia Minor.” But my problem, as I looked at my map of Asia Minor, was that there were two Magnesias: Magnesia ad Maeandrum (‘on the Meander River’), now in ruins, and Magnesia ad Sipylum (‘at the foot of Mt. Sipylus’) or ad Hermum (‘on the Hermus River’), now buried beneath the Turkish city of Manisa (whose name obviously derives from it). So I did some googling to try to find out which Magnesia we were talking about, and what did I find but my old friend, the Elementymology & Elements Multidict by Peter van der Krogt, whose magnesium entry says:

The names magnesia alba and magnesia nigra are derived from Magnesia, Μαγνησια, a prefecture in Thessaly (Greece)… Manganese and Magnesium were abundant in oxide and carbonate ores in this region, and they therefore became referred as Μαγνητις λιθος, or stones from Magnesia. The region also contained large amounts of iron oxides (magnetite, or lodestone, for example) so that the ores were magnetized. That explains why magnesium as well as magnet (and magnetism) are derived from Magnesia, while magnesium is not magnetic.

(Emphasis added.) He certainly sounds like he knows what he’s talking about… but could my two favorite American dictionaries both get it wrong? The OED records an ancient dispute and takes no sides:

[Read more…]


Jim Tyson, guest-blogging at Naked Translations, has an interesting discussion of the usefulness of linguistics for translators:

Most linguistic theories involve several levels of analysis of text (I use text here to include transcriptions of speech). For example texts can be analysed from the point of view of phonology – the organised system of sounds in a language. They can be analysed from the point of view of morphology – the way that words in a language can be analysed into meaningful units (or not, as the case may be). Then there’s syntax: the analysis of words organised into sentences; semantics – the analysis of the meaning of words and sentences; pragmatics – what people achieve by the use of sentences; and there’s discourse – the analysis of sentences organised into larger texts. One popular conception of the task of translation is the transfer of a structure in a source language to a structure in a target language. What are these structures that are transferred?

Lots of good examples (even though I wish he hadn’t mentioned Chomsky as the linguist par excellence).


This entry was sparked by a sentence in an excellent New Yorker piece by Thomas A. Bass called “The Spy Who Loved Us” (unfortunately not online, but you can get a summary here). It’s about Pham Xuan An, who served simultaneously as a Time correspondent in Saigon and a high-ranking North Vietnamese spy, and the sentence in question is this: “Dominating the far end of the room is an altar covered with flowers, bowls of fruit, and four hand-tinted photographs of Mai Chi Tho’s parents and his two famous brothers: Dinh Duc Thien, the two-star general who helped build the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Le Duc Tho, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who snookered Henry Kissinger at the Paris Peace Accords.”
Before I continue, I have to explain how Vietnamese names work. Fortunately, this site has done it for me, so all I have to do is quote:

[Read more…]


According to a story from the Sofia News Agency of Bulgaria (so, um, take it for what it’s worth), Europe’s Oldest Script Found in Bulgaria:

Ancient tablets found in South Bulgaria are written in the oldest European script found ever, German scientists say.
The tablets, unearthed near the Southern town of Kardzhali, are over 35-centuries old, and bear the ancient script of the Cretan (Minoan) civilization, according to scientists from the University of Heidelberg, who examined the foundings. This is the Cretan writing, also known as Linear A script, which dates back to XV-XIV century B.C.

The story goes on to quote a Bulgarian archeologist as saying the discovery “throws a completely different light on Bulgaria’s history.” Me, I’ll wait to hear it from more scientific sources, but it’s certainly intriguing if true. (Via Uncle Jazzbeau.)


Songs of the Russian People, by W. R. S. Ralston (1872):

This book, despite its title, is a treasure-trove of Slavic mythology, tradition, folklore and ethnography. There are plenty of songs, not only from Russia but every part of the Slavic region from Serbia to Siberia. The songs are used as a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion of pre-industrial Slavic peasant life, including weddings, funerals, witchcraft, demonology, games, riddles, and seasonal traditions. Also covered are the details of Russian pagan religion and mythology, with comparisons to related topics such as Vedic and Germanic mythology.
Lacking are samples or analysis of the songs in the original language (except for a very brief treatment in appendix B), and there are no musical transcriptions or descriptions of dance. However, the massive, well documented, and very entertaining collection of Slavic traditions in this book more than makes up for this deficiency.

(Via Plep.)


Once again, the vigilant wood s lot informs us of the anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s birth and quotes a fine poem, which I will pass on to you:

Letter to an Archaeologist
Citizen, enemy, mama’s boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked.
Yes, we have dwelt here: in this concrete, brick, wooden
rubble which you now arrive to sift.
All our wires were crossed, barbed, tangled, or interwoven.
Also: we didn’t love our women, but they conceived.
Sharp is the sound of pickax that hurts dead iron;
still, it’s gentler than what we’ve been told or have said ourselves.
Stranger! move carefully through our carrion:
what seems carrion to you is freedom to our cells.
Leave our names alone. Don’t reconstruct those vowels,
consonants, and so forth: they won’t resemble larks
but a demented bloodhound whose maw devours
its own traces, feces, and barks, and barks.

[Read more…]


I’ve recently begun reading Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (I suspect this won’t be the last post to emerge therefrom), and I have a question about the word lengkua in the following passage from page 82:

Tis then Mason and Dixon are most likely to be out rambling among all the Spices armies us’d to kill for, up in the Malay quarter, a protruded tongue of little streets askew to the Dutch grid, reaching to the base of Table Mountain. The abrupt evening descends, the charcoal fires come glowing one by one to life, dotting the hill-side, night slowly fills with cooking aromas,— shrimp paste, tamarinds, coriander and cumin, hot chilies, fish sauces, and fennel and fœnugreek, ginger and lengkua.

By dint of googling (only 9 hits for the word as printed) and my amazing linguistic truffle-hunting skills (I combined the “Malay” in the quoted passage with what appeared to be Malay text in some of the Google results and took out my Malay dictionary), I discovered that the word should be lengkuas, a Malay word for the spice whose Linnean name is Alpinia galanga.

[Read more…]