Archives for October 2005


Ben Zimmer of Language Log has a funny demolition of a Candace Murphy article decrying, yes, “abuses and misuses” of the English language. I’ll let you enjoy the silly stuff over there; here I want to highlight one paragraph about finding new words and usages on the internet:

That’s where [Oxford lexicographer Erin] McKean has found words like farb (not authentic, badly done), nomenklatura (non-literally; by analogy), drabble (a short story of 100 words or fewer), haxie (a hack for the Macintosh operating system) and swancho (a combination poncho/sweater).

Farb, drabble, haxie, and swancho were new to me, and their definitions plausible; nomenklatura was an old friend (being a Russian term for the Soviet system in which the Communist Party would make appointments to government posts), but I just couldn’t see how it could be used to mean ‘non-literally; by analogy’ or how it would get there. “I don’t mean that literally, I mean it nomenklatura, dude!” Nope, didn’t work for me. So I wrote Erin to get some clarification, and she explained that she had been talking about a nonliteral use of the word nomenklatura itself, “that is, one that referred to people that weren’t Russians, but were metaphorically similar to the Russian nomenklatura.” Ah, all was clear! But I fear readers of “Inside Bay Area” may be misled into trying to use it as an adverb, and it will all end in tears and Safire.


Last night my wife raised the question of how old brand names are (I guessed nineteenth-century, but if anyone has any good links on the subject, please share); in the course of looking up the word brand in the OED, I noticed the headword bratticing. When I told my wife it meant ‘the furnishing of the ramparts of a castle with temporary parapets or breastworks,’ she immediately said “Temporary breastworks? That would be a good word for a brassiere.” For the millionth time, I was glad I’d married her.
Today I looked at the definition again and saw the note “From the preceding illiterate Sc. spelling bertisene, Sir Walter Scott appears to have evolved the grandiose BARTIZAN, vaguely used by him for bretising or bratticing, and accepted by later writers as a genuine historical term”; sure enough, the etymology for bartizan is:

[In no dictionary before 1800; not in Todd 1818, nor Craig 1847. Apparently first used by Sir Walter Scott, and due to a misconception of a 17th c. illiterate Sc. spelling, bertisene, for bertising, i.e. bretising, BRATTICING, f. bretasce (BRATTICE), a. OF. bretesche, ‘battlemented parapet, originally of wood and temporary.’ Bartizan is thus merely a spurious ‘modern antique,’ which had no existence in the times to which it is attributed.]

Fie, Sir Walter! But at least his misunderstanding was less embarrassing than poor Browning’s.


Frequent commenter zaelic, whose intimate knowledge of all sorts of byways of Eastern European, Jewish, Romany, and musical lore is the envy of everyone who values such things, especially me, was kind enough to send me a kucsma (pronounced KOOCH-ma) he’d picked up at the Black Lake peasant fair in Romania from a family of Gypsies from Tirgu Mures. What is a kucsma, you ask? Zaelic defines it as a “big furry astrakhan winter hat,” adding “My favorite is the ‘oversized boy scout cap’ design favored by Ceausescu, Karzai, and half of Boro Park.” I asked him about the etymology of the word and he said:

My guess is that it may be from Old Turkish/Chuvah/Bulgar level of loan words from the 6th – 9th century, when the Magyars/Mogurs/Someday-we-will-be-Bashkirs were learning the horse culture from proto-Chuvash types south of the Kama river. The consonant cluster “chma” or “shma” gives it away.

But what I really want to talk about is the CD he included in the package, A Mazeldiker Yid, by his group Di Naye Kapelye, for which he plays violin, mandolin, koboz, cumbus, flutes, and Carpathian drum:

Di Naye Kapelye plays old time Jewish music the way we imagine it was played in eastern Europe both before and after the Holocaust. Learning from Jewish people still living in the region, and from Gypsy musicians who played for them, DNK carries on a living tradition of music.

I was blown away both by the music (my feet wouldn’t keep still) and by the learned and hilarious liner notes, which I’m happy to say you can read in their entirety here. I’m going to quote a bit (adding links) to illustrate the historical and geographical interest:

[Read more…]


Do you say “in the circumstances” or “under the circumstances”? Never mind, I wouldn’t believe you if you told me—people are notoriously bad at analyzing their own language use. Arnold Zwicky has been investigating the alternatives, and has posted his results, which are surprising and interesting:

In summary: the Google data suggest that “under” is preferred to “in”
with determiners “the” and “these”
(more strongly)
with determiner “which”
(very strongly)
with determiner “what”
(almost categorically)
with quantity determiner “no”
but that “in” is preferred to “under”
with quantity determiners “all” and “some”
with determiner “those” in general
with quantity determiner “many”
(almost categorically)
when “circumstances” means ‘personal situation’
(almost categorically)
with determiner “those” plus certain following relatives
(almost categorically)
with quantity determiner “a few”

See his post for the details (I’ve rearranged the results for clarity); it makes clear both the complexity of usage and the value of the internet for sifting it.


I was reading an H. Allen Orr New Yorker piece on evolution and genetics when I hit the sentence “Similarly, a gene that affects pigmentation in birds like the chicken and the bananaquit also affects pigmentation in mammals like the jaguar and you.” The word bananaquit struck me; I couldn’t find it in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or the American Heritage Dictionary, but it was in the New Oxford American Dictionary:

bananaquit /bəˈnanəˌkwit/ a small songbird with a curved bill, typically with a white stripe over the eye, a sooty gray back, and yellow underparts. It is common in the West Indies and Central and South America… See QUIT2.

The latter entry says “[in combination] used in names of various small songbirds found in the Caribbean area, e.g. bananaquit, grassquit” and adds that the word is “probably imitative.”
So I looked it up in the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage and found the pronuncation given as [ˈbʌna.nʌkwɪt] and the definition “a bird about 3 ins long, dark grey in color, with a yellow breast, a white streak over the eye, and known for its love of ripe bananas and grains of sugar, and in some places also for its warbling or making a ‘cheep-cheep’ sound”—gotta give them props for explaining the “banana” part. Other local names: beany bird (Jamaica), honey-creeper (St Vincent, US Virgin Is), see-see bird (Grenada), sikyé-bird (Trinidad), sugar-bird (Barbados, USVI), and yellow-breast (Antigua, Barbados, USVI). You can see some pictures here.


King Alfred, over at The Bitter Scroll, has posted a verse translation of something I didn’t know existed: a Tolkien poem in Gothic called “Bagme Bloma” [‘The Flower of the Trees’]. There’s also a webpage called The Annotated Bagme Bloma, which King Al used in doing the translation. (I have to say, the poem sounds a lot more like Tolkien than like early Germanic poetry to me.)


Forbes has a special section on “Communicating,” with pieces by Arthur C. Clarke (“Join The Planetary Conversation”), Scott Woolley (“The Next 4,000 Days”), David M. Ewalt (“How To Talk To Aliens”), and others, as well as interviews with Jane Goodall, Kurt Vonnegut, Desmond Morris, Steven Pinker, etc.; there’s even an interview with Uncle Noam. Check it out.

[Read more…]


I would like to join my colleague Geoff Pullum in celebrating Jan Freeman’s superb takedown of that mangiest of stuffed owls, Strunk and White’s inescapable The Elements of Style, which has just undergone its latest restuffing, this time with illustrations by Maira Kalman (it’s been taxidermized more often than Lenin’s corpse). A sample:

It was never a seamless creation, to be sure; the 1959 first edition merely sandwiched Strunk’s 1918 handbook for his Cornell students, lightly edited, between White’s introduction and his essay on prose style. But at least you knew Strunk was Strunk, vintage 1918, and White was White, circa 1958. Succeeding revisions, instead of blending the disparate parts, have left ”Elements” a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.
(The illustrated ”Elements” is essentially the 1999 edition, with a couple of small restorations from the 1918 original. Not quite a restoration, alas, in the case of Strunk’s introduction: The proofreaders overlooked one of his ”Words Often Misspelled,” so the opening sentence now promises ”to give in brief space the principle requirements of plain English style.”)
Scanning the recent editions, you sometimes wonder what could possibly have been cut, given the absurdity of what remains. Don’t use claim to mean ”assert”? Mark Twain did it in 1869, the year Strunk was born. Don’t contact anyone? It’s a ”vague and self-important” verb—or so people said in the 1920s, when it was new. Don’t use they to refer to ”a distributive subject” like everybody—unless you’re E.B. White: ”But somebody taught you, didn’t they?” says a character in ”Charlotte’s Web.”

Ouch. I know I can’t talk you Strunk-lovers out of your affection, but can you at least look on the damn book as an affectionate portrait of a crotchety former teacher and not as a guide to English, a task for which it is manifestly unsuited? Let it sit harmlessly on the mantelpiece and glare out at the unruly world with its glassy eyes.


Lameen Souag at Jabal al-Lughat has a post about a language hitherto unknown to me (and almost everyone):

A tantalizingly brief note of 1931 in the Gold Coast Review describes an ethnic group called the Mpre, found only in the village of Butie in central Ghana (8° 52′ N, 1° 15′ W) near the confluence of the White and Black Voltas, apart from a few emigrants in Debre. According to the author’s description, the Mpre people, once more widespread, were reduced to a single village in the course of comparatively recent wars with the Asante. Noting that their language was “different to that of the surrounding tribes”, he lists 106 words of Mpre. This short vocabulary appears to be the only existing record of the language, which is believed to be extinct. The gap is all the more unfortunate because Mpre turns out to be of some taxonomic significance. It is not closely related to any of its neighbors, and Heine and Nurse (2000) treat it as unclassified. A friend of mine’s paper dealing partly with this will be appearing sometime soonish, but I won’t spoil the surprise.
You might think, given all this, that it was impossible to retrieve any information on its grammar. However, you would be wrong! Fellow language geeks may find it an interesting exercise to try their hand at extracting grammar information from the wordlist, which Blench gives a copy of [actually he says they’re “available from the author at”], before reading on…

You can go to Lameen’s post for the details; Wikipedia has a brief article on Mpre, with citations.


A while back I asked if anyone could tell me who was responsible for “the change [in Russian punctuation] (deplorable, in my view) from an intuitive system of the kind Dostoyevsky used to the rule-based system familiar to all modern readers”; nobody answered, but I was reading about Aleksei Remizov in Georgii Adamovich’s smarmy but enlightening collection of biographical/critical essays Odinochestvo i svoboda [Solitude and freedom] when the answer leaped out at me: “…убедить, что наша школьная грамматика произвольна и неосновательно-тиранична, что мы сами себя обворовали, доверившись Гроту и другим лжезаконодателям…” Grot, that was it! (Not that far from my wild guesses: “Korff? Gets? Shtumpf?”) So I googled him and found a nice biography and a Russian Wikipedia article on punctuation, which I am memorializing here in case I want them again.