Archives for March 2006


Joel of Far Outliers has interrupted his appalling series on the sufferings of Indians trying to escape Japanese-occupied Burma in 1941-42 to favor us with a delightful triptych of stories about obscure Japanese words, phrases, and customs. I’ll quote the first:

塩盛り shiomori ‘salt pile’ – The other night, as we were leaving our favorite local fish restaurant in Ashikaga, my recently arrived Minnesota in-laws noticed what looked like a small pile of snow beside the door as we left. It turned out to be salt, and there was a matching salt pile on the other side of the entranceway, so I went back in and asked the very friendly and talkative sushi chef (who trained 3 years in San Francisco and 1 on Maui) what the story was. There were no customers at the sushi bar at that moment, so he came outside in the chilly wind and told us the story. The salt has two functions. The most commonly recognized one is to purify the premises by keeping evil spirits out. But the more interesting one is to attract customers in. The latter function apparently goes back to the days when goods traveled by oxcart. The idea was to tempt the oxen to stop and lick the salt, whereupon the traveler might also decide to stop for food or rest. The salt piles were called 塩盛り shiomori ‘salt helpings’, a term which is otherwise chiefly found in restaurant menus for assorted salty dishes.

Isn’t that great?


Yesterday’s wood s lot presents a poem by Wilfred Owen, a sonnet titled “1914”:

War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art’s ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love’s wine’s thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.
For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.

It fascinates me because it shows so clearly the exhaustion of the poetic language of the nineteenth century. Owen is capable of powerful writing, but trapped as he is in the need to fit his feelings into the ta-tump-tee-tump, ABBA mold of his chosen form, he selects worn-out words like “rending” and creaky formulations like “rich with all increase” and inversions like “Is over all the width of Europe whirled” and “Now begin famines.” In between you can hear the faint voice of something new trying to get out: “Verse wails,” and “Love’s wine’s thin.” But he couldn’t break out of the box the Victorians had bequeathed him. This poem shows as clearly as anything I can think of the vital necessity of Pound’s revolution in verse, that allowed him to write, in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

That’s how you write poetry about World War One.

[Read more…]


An interesting discussion by Linda Schenck, a Swedish-to-English translator, of some problems she encountered in trying to translate Ett oändligt äventyr [An Endless Adventure] by Sven-Eric Liedman. The book begins (in her translation):

In 1749, Carolus Linnaeus journeyed to study southern Sweden. He arrived at Vittskövle, in the eastern province of Skania, on the evening of May 26th. There, he noted, the sand pinks spread a lovely scent and “the nightingales performed all evening”.
Linnaeus spent two days in Vittskövle. May 28th was a Sunday. Before going to mass he made an excursion to the sandy fields that still open out toward the sea east of the village, known today as “the Mölle mound”. He made some remarkable discoveries there. The first and most astonishing was an Astragalus Arenarius, an herbaceous plant “no one has previously found in Sweden”. Here it grew abundantly “between the grove of firs and the dunes of sand”. Apparently it had already been identified in England, as he added: “How it was able to make its way from England to Vittskövle is extremely difficult to figure”.

Since the plant came from England (according to Linnaeus), she quite naturally wanted to know how you say sandvedel (modern Swedish for Astragalus arenarius) in English. The rest of the piece recounts the saga, and the surprising discovery, that ensued; she concludes:

This mini-adventure into the realms of knowledge took place between 26 and 29 January 2002, all thanks to the “information technology” that on other days and for other reasons is the bane of my existence. Twenty-five years ago this kind of correspondence and research might have taken weeks to accomplish. Difficult to say whether that would have made it more or less exciting, but I do feel extremely privileged to be party to these erudite exchanges on subjects a life without translation would never open up for me. There are also translations I take on today that I would have found too daunting from the research point of view in the days before the Internet. I suppose, too, there are books written because the research can be done much more expeditiously than ten years ago. Perhaps to some small extent those advantages balance the verbiage the information society generates. On my good days, I believe so.

I apologize in advance for the ugly white-on-brown graphics, but the story’s worth it. (Via wood s lot.)


I keep forgetting about this, but fortunately No-sword wrote about it and reminded me: this is well worth your attention. Yeah, yeah, Chaucer blogs, got the idea… but it’s really well done and funny as hell. Geoffrey gives advice:

Sir –
Ich wishe for ad[v]yce in the matter of fashion and armes. Ys it verrily a mistake to wear a lilyflour in my helm? (Ich have a shylde of golde.)
Mon Sire Thopas,
By seinte Jerome, finallye someone who kan spelle! Messire Thopas, yow seem a man fair and gent, and Y sholde muchel relish for to tellen yowre tale. Ich shalle have myne peple calle yowre peple. As for the lilye? It dependeth how whethir yow wolde ben ‘easte coaste’ or ‘weste coaste.’
Le Vostre G

Geoffrey on the Perle poete (and I do mean “on”):

O, thatte olde colde tyme on the montayne, when we ownede the worlde and nothynge semed wronge! Indede – the makere of Perle was “wyth” me…
Depe did we stepe ourselves in drinke. Thenne – and by the waye ich assume thou wilt kepe this knowledge from dere Philippa! – we dide thynges that wolde make Alanus of Lille his hede explode. We dide thynges that wolde make Peter Damyan spontaneouslie combuste. We dide thynges that are notte even listede in Burchard of Worms. Rim, ram, ruf!
At morwe-tyde, he sayde me, “Thou knowst I am not of the scole of Edwarde II.”
“Me neithere,” quod I “‘Tis nobodies privitee but oures.”

[Read more…]


An article by Jim Yardley in today’s NY Times reports on the Dongxiang, an Islamic population in China’s Gansu province whose isolation has preserved their culture and language, which is part of the Mongolian branch of the Altaic family. Yardley writes:

For years, many Chinese scholars assumed that the Dongxiang descended from the Mongol soldiers in Genghis Khan’s army who eventually settled in Gansu during the 13th century when the Mongols ruled China under the Yuan Dynasty. But their exact origins were never fully known, an uncertainty that fed an inferiority complex.
“A man once asked me, ‘Where do the Dongxiang come from?’ ” said Ma Zhiyong, a historian who grew up in the county but moved to the provincial capital, Lanzhou, as a teenager. “I was 18 or 19, and couldn’t answer the question. I was ashamed.”
Mr. Ma decided to look for an answer. Over several years, he scoured research libraries in Gansu, talked to other scholars and studied old maps. He found that some Dongxiang villages shared names with places in Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan.
He also found shared customs. He said peasants in Uzbekistan and Dongxiang both learn to cut a slaughtered chicken into 13 pieces. He found that Dongxiang people described themselves as sarta, a term that once referred to Muslim traders in Central Asia.

[Read more…]


My lovely wife sent me a NY Times story about a legally blind musher named Rachael Scdoris who finished the 1,100-mile Iditarod race early Saturday, asking the simple but deadly question “Whence the name Scdoris?” Damned if I know. I’ve scoured the internet and found others with that name (there were several of them in Nebraska in 1920), but nothing at all on the history of the name and family. Come on, this isn’t Smith or Jones; how come none of the news stories address this issue? I haven’t even got a clue as to what language it might be adapted from. But surely one of my far-flung readers will know. My thanks in advance for relieving my mind of this pressing concern.
Addendum. Ben of Positive Anymore (“American Dialects, Yiddish, New Yorker Cartoons, Pop Music – they all go together, right?”) has done yeoman work on this and discovered that Scdoris is a deformation of Sedoris (c is an easy mistake for e, but how did it stick?), and the latter is a transmogrification of the German surname Sartorius! This makes me very happy, both because I don’t have to lose sleep worrying about the origin of the strange-looking name and because it’s such an interesting derivation. Sartorius! Whoda thunkit? (Sartorius, incidentally, is Latin for ‘tailor,’ and I presume it was originally a fancified version of Schneider. It’s also the origin of the Faulknerian surname Sartoris.)


I’ve been reading about the American Civil War, and I think I’m finally getting a grasp of how it went, at least in the eastern theater—the interaction of strategy and politics and geography and personality that produced those battles whose names are so familiar to Americans: Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run… But there are onomastic problems here. The easiest is the existence of duplicate names; the South tended to name battles after nearby towns or railway junctions (Sharpsburg, Manassas, Leesburg) and the North after natural features of the landscape (respectively Antietam [Creek], Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff—there’s a convenient list here). That was no problem for me even as a child, familiar as I was with pairs like Tokyo/Edo, Bangkok/Krung Thep, and Thailand/Siam. (To this day I love alternate names for places.)
What really threw me for a loop was examining a series of battle maps and realizing that the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863) and the Battle of the Wilderness (May 1864) were fought over almost the same patch of ground (the later battle was a little to the west). Furthermore, the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and the Battle of Spotsylvania (May 1864) were fought just a few miles away; all four are part of the same national military park and all four involved the same strategy (the North trying to cross the Rappahannock and get within striking distance of the Confederate capital Richmond). It would make a lot more sense if the first two were called First and Second Wilderness (like First and Second Bull Run/Manassas). Similarly, Chickamauga (September 1863) and Chattanooga (November 1863) were just a few miles apart and part of the same series of events; they could perfectly well be called First and Second Chattanooga. But of course people don’t give things names with a view to the convenience of future students.
Still, you’d think they’d make the relations clearer in modern reference books. Battle maps tend to be either abstract (rectangles representing the opposing divisions, labeled with the names of commanding generals, and arrows showing the motion during a specified time frame) or lavishly pictorial (little blue and grey mannikins shown in action poses advancing or retreating across a lovingly rendered landscape); in both cases, there is usually no indication of wider context (what state are we in again? which direction is Washington?) and only the most cursory idea of what role the battle played in the larger scheme of the war. If I were making a Civil War atlas, I’d have plenty of “context pages” that showed the areas of battles on a wider grid, so you could see at a glance how Fredericksburg related to the Wilderness, and I’d create nice names for larger elements of the war that would allow you to make sense of the battles (the Rappahannock Campaign, the Push to Georgia, etc.).
And why “Chancellorsville,” anyway? As far as I know, there was no -ville at all, just an inn called the Chancellor House in the middle of the Wilderness. Questions, questions…


Via a MetaFilter thread I learned of the existence of Parkour:

Le Parkour (also called Parkour, PK, l’art du déplacement, free-running) is a physical discipline of French origin. It is an art form of human movement, focusing on uninterrupted, efficient forward motion over, under, around and through obstacles (both man-made and natural) in one’s environment. Such movement may come in the form of running, jumping, climbing and other more complex techniques.

It doesn’t interest me as an activity, but the word is notable in that it’s a borrowing from French in nonstandard spelling, something of a rarity. As a result, when you look at it in English it’s not clear how to pronounce it; if it had the standard spelling parcours that wouldn’t be a problem. (Frankly, I find this kind of respelling with k for c pretty ugly, but I guess that’s the point, or part of it. Epater le fuddy-duddy, you know.)
Incidentally, the same MeFi thread introduced me to the word thixotropic; see my first comment therein for more.


Pinyin News (“Most of what most people think they know about Chinese is wrong”) has a fascinating post on the centuries-old romanization of Taiwan’s aboriginal language Siraya (now extinct):

About 80 percent of the “Sinkang Manuscripts” (新港文書) have been deciphered in the ongoing collaboration project between Academia Sinica‘s Institute of Taiwan History and Institute of History and Philology. These documents, in the language of the Siraya people, were written in a romanization system devised by the Dutch colonists in Taiwan in the seventeenth century. Although the Dutch were forced out of Taiwan in the 1660s, writing in this system continued for at least 150 years.
The name Siraya, however, has been applied to the people of that group only since the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945). It was derived from the group’s pronunciation of the word for “I.” The documents get their name from Sinkang Sia, the largest Siraya settlement near the Dutch stronghold Fort Zeelandia.
Most of the documents are records of land contracts and business transactions. Some are bilingual: in Siraya and Dutch, or Siraya and Chinese. One long bilingual document is a translation by the Dutch of the Book of Matthew

THere are plenty of great links; check it out. (Via the always via-ble No-sword; as he says, “I wish the sample wasn’t one of the boring parts of the Bible, though. On the plus side I am now pretty confident that if a Siraya speaker ever asks me who begat someone, I will be able to answer in their native language.”)


A nice link catalogue (maintained by the University of Exeter) of sites having to do with German dialects; the coverage (links in the right and left margins) is pretty amazing, with everything from maps to obscure Low Saxon dialects to related languages like Yiddish and Lëtzebuergesch (though Sorbian would seem to be pushing it, since it’s not even Germanic). Thanks, as so often, to aldi at