Archives for February 2006


A lively NY Times story by Marlise Simons, “Keeping a Moroccan Tradition Alive, One Tale at a Time,” describes the ancient Arab storytelling tradition still hanging on in Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakesh. (Its name is said to mean ‘assembly of the dead’ but it strikes me as deeply suspicious that there’s an Arabic word finā’ ‘courtyard; open space in front of or at either side of a house’; perhaps Lameen can enlighten us.) Simons says:

Mr. Jabiri, 71, is one of eight bards still performing publicly in the Marrakesh region of southern Morocco. But most, like him, fear that their generation may be the last in a line that is as old as this medieval city.
These men descend from the era — long before radio and television, movie theaters and telephones — when itinerant narrators brought news and entertainment to country fairs and village squares…
Juan Goytisolo is a rare European expatriate who speaks Morocco’s Arabic dialect and understands the storytellers. A prominent Spanish writer who has lived here since the 1970’s, he is devoted to Jemaa el Fna and its artists. They inspired his novel “Makbara,” he said.
In a cafe overlooking the square, he spoke admiringly about the “old masters” he has known, their improvisations and pranks, and the tricks they use to capture and hold their audience. Some may start a fake fight to attract listeners. He recalled that “Sarouh, a very strong man who is dead now, would lift a donkey up into the air. As it started braying, people would come running. ‘You fools,’ he would yell at the crowd. ‘When I speak about the Koran nobody listens, but all of you rush to listen to a donkey.'”…
Mr. Goytisolo has been the driving force behind a movement to protect the square, which he calls a “great and rich cultural space, that is in danger of being drowned by commerce, by the pressure to develop.” The group has in recent years managed to block projects like a tall glass tower and an underground garage. Cars have now been banned altogether.

(Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)
Anyone interested in such storytelling should find a copy of Bridget Connelly’s Arab Folk Epic and Identity, a wonderful book that starts off describing the general tradition and goes on to present a detailed account of one of the most widespread of the siyar (plural of sira ‘biography; hero story, epic folktale’), the epic of the Bani Hilal, complete with lengthy bilingual quotes, musical notation, and photographs. She places the Arab epic tradition firmly among the world’s classics, with astute remarks on why it hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves: “By and large, the literarily adept recoiled from anything that departed from the Classical canon. Ibn Khaldun, virtually alone among medieval Arab scholars, …defended ‘the poems of the Arab Bedouins’ as ‘true poetry,’ and denounced pedantic scholars and philologists who recoil from oral, vernacular poetry, disdaining it for its lack of case endings.”


There’s a great deal of useful information at the pronunciation page of Syd Allan’s Beowulf site, which itself looks quite valuable:

These pages present work done by translators of Old English, and Beowulf scholars. I am a Beowulf hobbyist (how nerdy can you get!) and not an expert on Anglo-Saxon literature or translation. But I do own about 140 books on Beowulf and related topics, and I have tried to present information that will help others to get started in their studying of the poem…
I currently have 93 translations of Beowulf, and links on this site to images of the book covers and information about each book. Forty percent of the translations have not been transcribed yet, but I have transcribed all version published before 1902, and after 1998, and almost half of the ones in between.

The pronunciation page quotes some basic information about the OE writing system and poetic meter, and links to much more. (Via No-sword.)


In a story in today’s NY Times sports section, “No Good-Conduct Medal for Ugly Americans” by Selena Roberts (which the Times is hiding behind its annoying TimesSelect pay-to-read screen), a description of the Olympic ideal (“The Olympics are the one event where the type of self-absorbed behavior that is tolerated and even celebrated in the mainstream is taboo…”) is followed by the sentence “But how can anyone demand Diva Interruptis?”
In the first place, there is no Latin word “interruptis” [or rather, none that fits in this grammatical slot; as commentator Justin points out, it is the plural dative-ablative form of interruptus]; what Roberts meant to write was interruptus. In the second place, interruptus is a masculine form and diva is feminine; the phrase, if you insisted on using what seems to me a construction too silly even for the sports page, would be diva interrupta. But this is not about the illiteracy of sports reporters (though there is much to be said on that topic); it would be unfair and certainly unrealistic to expect the average American, even the average American reporter, to know Latin adjectival declension or the proper spelling of Latin borrowings. That’s what editors are for, which is what this is about. The editing of even the front section has gotten sloppier and sloppier, but it’s as if they don’t consider the sports section worth bothering with at all. Sports reporters can babble whatever gibberish pops into their heads, and the staff on 43rd Street merrily tosses it into the paper as is. I can imagine some copyeditor glancing at “Diva Interruptis” and thinking “That’s not right, is it? But who cares—it’s just sports!” Meanwhile, Grantland Rice and Red Smith toss restlessly in their graves.


A wonderful quote, allegedly from the Mahabharata:

“Well,” Brahma said, “even after ten thousand explanations, a fool is no wiser, but an intelligent man requires only two thousand five hundred.”

I assume this is a modern witticism attributed to Ancient Wisdom for greater impact, but on the off chance that the attribution is correct, I’d love to have the Sanksrit if there are any Mahabharatists in the audience. (Via Avva.)
Totally unrelated, but did you know the English word for a person from Lisbon is Lisboan (liz-BO-an)? I didn’t.


Khaled Mattawa is a poet and translator who was born in Libya and moved to the U.S. in 1979. I have his collection Ismailia Eclipse (The Sheep Meadow Press, 1996), from which comes this prose poem:

DAYS OF 1959
Warm rain in Baghdad, the butchers calling it a day. They’ve wrapped their meat in burlap, sent their servants home. It’s been a month since the last coup and the wailing from funeral tents hasn’t stopped. On a boat docking at the river bank, a black boy practices on his nai. Oblivious of the struggle between captains and kings, he sees bodies swaying to his music in the city’s new night club. His voice is sweet, and lately he has made a living reciting verses at the new martyrs’ graves.
Nai: a reed flute.

He has a website that my browser won’t let me access for some reason (I click on the link and nothing happens), but Google cache allows me to read the poems there, and I liked this stanza from his “Samovar Love Compendium” (each stanza of which begins with the same line):

I love the word samovar and I love
hats, skull caps my mother brought
from Mecca, one I wore rising at dawn
to pray, a fedora a lover bought me
because my face matched the dreary green,
and the one you hid under all summer,
the times I needed to touch your hair
but tucked my hand in my pocket instead.
It’s hard to love your hiding, my hesitancy,
and the words that die unsaid.


A post on Wordorigins reminded me of the curious history of this word, which began as a perfectly ordinary phrase meaning ‘daring to do.’ The OED’s first citation, from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c.1374), exemplifies the usage:

v. 837 Troylus was neuere vn-to no wight.. in no degre secounde, In dorryng don [v. rr. duryng do, dorynge to do] þat longeth to a knyght.. His herte ay wiþ þe firste and wiþ þe beste Stod paregal, to dorre don [v. rr. durre to do, dore don] that hym leste.

The online edition (by Skeat) I linked to [Book] v above [N.b.: I have deleted the link because in 2018 it redirects to a payday loan site — LH.] gives the passage thus:

And certainly in storie it is y-founde,
That Troilus was never un-to no wight,
As in his tyme, in no degree secounde
In durring don that longeth to a knight. [longeth ‘is appropriate to’]
Al mighte a geaunt passen him of might,
His herte ay with the firste and with the beste
Stood paregal, to durre don that him leste.

[paregal ‘fully equal’; durre don that him leste ‘dare (to) do what he wanted’ (leste = list)]

In the next century, Lydgate in his Chronicle of Troy imitated Chaucer in the following passage:

1430 Lydg. Chron. Troy II. xvi. And parygal, of manhode and of dede, he [Troylus] was to any þat I can of rede, In dorryng [v. rr. doryng(e] do, this noble worþy wyght, Ffor to fulfille þat longeþ to a knyȝt, The secounde Ector.. he called was. [edd. 1513, 1555 In derrynge do, this noble worthy wyght.]

The misprint in the 1513 and 1555 editions seems to have been the crucial factor, obscuring the connection with the verb and enabling Spenser to mistake it for some sort of nominal construction, which he picked up for use in The shepheardes calender (1579):

Oct. 65 For ever who in derring doe were dreade, The loftie verse of hem was loved aye. [Gloss., In derring doe, in manhood and chevalrie.]

That later magpie Sir Walter Scott saw the usage in Spenser, liked it, and stuck it into Ivanhoe (1820):

xxix, Singular.. if there be two who can do a deed of such derring-do. [Note. Derring-do, desperate courage.]

And everybody read Scott, so “derring-do” entered the general vocabulary, to vaguely puzzle readers for centuries to come.


A friend sent me a link to this page entitled “Jewish Women’s Names in an Arab Context: Names from the Geniza of Cairo”; I had known, of course, that Jews, like other people, have tended to absorb names from the society around them, but it was still startling to see a list of names like Amat al-‘Aziz, Diya, and, uh, Sitt al-Qa’ida. Not sure what Esther is doing in there, though… (Thanks, Mike!)


I was flipping through Garner’s Modern American Usage when my eye caught on the surprisingly long entry on Hawaii. Along with sections on Sense (the state or the Big Island?) and Pronunciation (only people actually living there can get away with using a v), there is one called “Spelled Hawai’i” that features the Hawaiian diacritic called the okina (discussed here). His conclusion that “as a diacritical mark in an English context, the mark seems largely out of place” is unexceptionable; what bothers me is his explanation that the mark is “called an okina [/oh-kee-nə/], ‘u’ina [same pronunciation], or hamzah [/ham-zə/ or /hahm-zə/]).” Setting aside the odd use of the Arabic term hamzah in this context (Garner didn’t invent it, as you can tell by googling, but I fail to see how it clarifies anything for anybody) and the fact that the word okina should itself begin with an okina if you’re being accurate, can it possibly be the case that ‘u’ina is pronounced like okina? I want to say “No, that’s silly,” but Garner not only says so, he makes a point of it later (“look at ‘u’ina itself—most speakers would be at a loss how to say it”—speakers of English, I presume he means). Surely he didn’t simply make it up; could he have misunderstood something he read? I await enlightenment from Those Who Know.


I never thought I’d see a correction notice to match this one, but the Feb. 6 New Yorker (yes, I’m falling behind again) contains the following gem from the Guardian (of April 22, 2004, according to this site):

In our profile of Daniel Dennett (pages 20 to 23, Review, April 17), we said he was born in Beirut. In fact, he was born in Boston. His father died in 1947, not 1948. He married in 1962, not 1963. The seminar at which Stephen Jay Gould was rigorously questioned by Dennett’s students was Dennett’s seminar at Tufts, not Gould’s at Harvard. Dennett wrote Darwin’s Dangerous Idea before, not after, Gould called him a “Darwinian fundamentalist”. Only one chapter in the book, not four, is devoted to taking issue with Gould. The list of Dennett’s books omitted Elbow Room, 1984, and The Intentional Stance, 1987. The marble sculpture, recollected by a friend, that Dennett was working on in 1963 was not a mother and child. It was a man reading a book.

You’ve got to admire a publication that can correct itself with such panache.


I had no intention of writing about Safire again so soon, really I didn’t. I skimmed Sunday’s column with as little attentiveness as possible and moved on to the Ethicist. But two of my readers have drawn my attention to two different passages, and I guess I’ll saddle up and do battle once again.
He begins with his typical roundup of vaguely related terminology, in this case terms allegedly borrowed by bloggers from “the MSM — that’s the superannuated, archaic mainstream media.” These include genuine items like sidebar and spurious ones like this: “Even the reporter’s byline, that coveted assertion of journalistic authorship, has been snatched by the writers derogated as ‘guys in pajamas’ and changed to bye-line, an adios or similar farewell at the end of the blogger’s politely expressed opinion or angry screed.” (Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen or heard the latter term… I thought so. But somebody obviously thinks it’s clever.)
But what my correspondent took particular issue with was this:

A ping is not just the word for a sound anymore. It is also an acronym for “packet Internet gopher,” a program that tests whether a destination is online and can also be the gently noisy notification sent when a blog needs updating or has been updated.

She said:

In the latest “On Language”, Safire informs us that the Internet usage of “ping” is an acronym. It is not. You can read the gory details here [where the guy who created the term says “I named it after the sound that a sonar makes, inspired by the whole principle of echo-location”].

And if you go there, you will find various of his other misunderstandings mocked, which is a good thing; I can’t do all the mocking myself.

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