Archives for April 2006


Tiago Tresoldi, a Brazilian blogger, is reposting entries from here and Language Log in Portuguese on his site Ars Rhetorica. I’d like to thank him for taking the trouble; may his efforts help jump-start a renaissance of linguistic understanding in the home of o jogo bonito! Here’s the start of his version of my Bakhtin post, Smoking your own:

Fumando tudo
Esta é uma história terrível com toques de humor negro em si. Mikhail Bakhtin passou os últimos anos da década de 1930 trabalhando naquilo que muitos consideram sua obra-prima, um estudo sobre o romance alemão do século XVIII (em especial, o Bildungsroman). Vou citar o restante da história a partir de dois livros publicados, já que há muito material impreciso rodando pela internet (por exemplo, algumas pessoas situam o fato durante o cerco a Leningrado, mas pelo que sei Bakhtin vivia nas cercanias de Moscou durante a guerra). O primeiro é a p. xiii da introdução de Michael Holquist à coleção de Bakhtin Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

As lagniappe, here’s a piquant bit from Beckett’s short monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, courtesy of wood s lot:

(reading from dictionary). State—or condition—of being—or remaining—a widow—or widower. (Looks up. Puzzled.) Being—or remaining?… (Pause. He peers again at dictionary. Reading.) “Deep weeds of viduity”… Also of an animal, especially a bird… the vidua or weaver bird… Black plumage of male… (He looks up. With relish.) The vidua-bird!


I recently bought Deez to Blues, the new album by the wonderful bassist Mario Pavone, and was struck by some of the song titles, in particular “Deez,” “Xapo,” and “Ocbo.” Google is no help with the first and last because of competing acronyms and hip respelling respectively, but xapo gets some good linguistic information… too much, in fact. It’s evidently a word in Basque, Uzbek, and Portuguese, though it’s not in my dictionaries, so I don’t know what it means in any of them. In Nahuatl it means ‘perforated, pierced.’ It’s part of a couple of compound verbs in Pirahã. In New Caledonia, u xapo means ‘spirit of him.’ It’s the name of a hill tribe in Vietnam. And it’s doubtless other things as well. But what it means to Mario Pavone, I have no idea. All I can tell you is that the album is a delight, a marriage of tradition and modernity, adventurous without ear assault, melodious without moldy-figgery. As Troy Collins says in a rave review for All About Jazz, “Deez to Blues is a high water mark in a consistently exceptional discography.”


There’s been a lot of talk about a new study that claims “European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar.” I’m not competent to evaluate it (and have an admitted prejudice against the whole talking-animal thing), so I’ll send you to Mark Liberman for a thorough discussion of the merits of the study. Me, I’m just going to quote Yreka Bakery in the highly respected Speculative Grammarian:

An apparently new speech disorder a linguistics department our correspondent visited was affected by has appeared. Those affected our correspondent a local grad student called could hardly understand apparently still speak fluently. The cause experts the LSA sent investigate remains elusive. Frighteningly, linguists linguists linguists sent examined are highly contagious. Physicians neurologists psychologists other linguists called for help called for help called for help didn’t help either. The disorder experts reporters SpecGram sent consulted investigated apparently is a case of pathological center embedding.

All I have to say is, starlings linguists language loggers readers follow commented on the work of studied are damn smart!


I just finished Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen, which considerably disappointed me: Elizabeth Stuart had a long and interesting life, intimately tied up with the maddeningly complex Thirty Years’ War (which began with her husband‘s election as King of Bohemia, making war with the Habsburgs inevitable, and one strand of which was the couple’s long struggle, from their Dutch exile, to recover the Palatinate), but the book (despite the promise of the title) focuses almost entirely on an invented character, a prince of the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo who after spending years as a slave in the Dutch East Indies is freed and sent to Leiden to study theology. The plot is absurd, but my main complaint is that by forcing together two utterly different histories and cultures, each complex and obscure enough to deserve (and require) its own book to establish its reality in the reader’s mind, the novel fails to do justice to either, tossing in a few facts about each more as exotic ornaments than as parts of a coherent pattern. (Contrast, say, Mary Renault, who brilliantly brings an alien time and culture to vivid life in her novels about Ancient Greece.) Furthermore, though this is a minor irritation, it’s written in standard Historical Novelese, with solemn avoidance of contractions and use of musty words and turns of phrase: “I cannot tell. Charles has no money to pay mercenaries and is not like to get any. I do not think that the war will go beyond the seas, since I cannot see that anyone will aid my brother. In any case, Parliament blockades the sea…”

However, I did learn some interesting words. For instance, did you know that spagyric is an old word meaning ‘alchemy,’ ‘alchemist,’ or ‘alchemical’? (1593 G. HARVEY Pierce’s Super. 29 Yet who such monarches for Phisique, Chirurgery, Spagirique,.. as some of these arrant impostors?; 1613 DRUMMOND OF HAWTHORNDEN Cypress Grove Wks. 127 Can the spagyrick by his art restore, for a Space, to the dry and withered Rose, the natural Purple and Blush; c1643 LD. HERBERT Autobiog. 49 As for the Chymic or Spagyric Medicines, I cannot commend them to the use of my posterity.) And in investigating the Palatinate I learned that “In the Golden Bull of 1356, the Palatinate was made one of the secular electorates, and given the hereditary offices of Archsteward (Erztruchseß) of the Empire and Imperial Vicar (Reichsverweser) of the western half of Germany. From this time forth, the Count Palatine of the Rhine was usually known as the Elector Palatine (Kurfürst von der Pfalz)”—I’m always on the lookout for impressive titles.

But what brought me up short was discovering that the word Yoruba is a recent creation; the page on Oyo linked above says it originated “during the nineteenth century, applied not by the Yoruba themselves but by outsiders to describe a series of city-states where variations of the same language were spoken.” Andrew Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages agrees: “Yoruba was originally an outsiders’ name for the language and people, but it has long been widely accepted.” The OED just says “Native name”; does anybody have any further information on the origin of the word?

By the way, if you have any interest in the most famous Yoruba writer, Wole Soyinka, please read the long and thoughtful comment by “St Antonym” in this Cassandra Pages thread.


Some amusement for your Wednesday.
1) From Anthony Lane’s “High and Low: Flying on the Really Cheap” in last week’s New Yorker:

At a recent lunch, I ment somebody who swore to the truth of a story from the nineteen-eighties. He was sitting in an Aeroflot plane at an Italian airport. In fact, he had been sitting there for four hours, on a warm day, with nothing to eat or drink. The plane, like many of its brothers and sisters in the Aeroflot fleet, was not in good shape, and any prospect of an imminent takeoff had long since receded. Finally, the man lost patience. He attracted the attention of the cabin staff and asked for a drink of water. Their reaction could not have been swifter. A sturdy Russian female flight attendant strode down the aisle and slapped him in the face.

I’ve flown Aeroflot, and I can tell you that if that isn’t true, it’s certainly plausible.
2) From molcha:
Если бы Пьера Менара не существовало, его надо было бы выдумать.
[If Pierre Menard didn’t exist, he would have had to be invented.]
(Via Avva.)


In the comments to my post on napoo, xiaolongnu mentioned the expression chin-chin, which I would have placed in the same WWI era and soldierly milieu (major raising glass of claret: “Chin-chin, old chap! Drink up, the Boche await!”); it turns out it goes back much farther than that. The Hobson-Jobson entry begins:

CHIN-CHIN. In the “pigeon English” of Chinese ports this signifies ‘salutation, compliments,’ or ‘to salute,’ and is much used by Englishmen as slang in such senses. It is a corruption of the Chinese phrase ts’ingts’ing, Pekingese ch’ing-ch’ing, a term of salutation answering to ‘thank-you,’ ‘adieu.’ In the same vulgar dialect chin-chin joss means religious worship of any kind (see JOSS). It is curious that the phrase occurs in a quaint story told to William of Rubruck by a Chinese priest whom he met at the Court of the Great Kaan (see below). And it is equally remarkable to find the same story related with singular closeness of correspondence out of “the Chinese books of Geography” by Francesco Carletti, 350 years later (in 1600).

The William of Rubruck citation takes the expression back to the thirteenth century:

1253.— “One day there sate by me a certain priest of Cathay, dressed in a red cloth of exquisite colour, and when I asked him whence they got such a dye, he told me how in the eastern parts of Cathay there were lofty cliffs on which dwelt certain creatures in all things partaking of human form, except that their knees did not bend. . . . The huntsmen go thither, taking very strong beer with them, and make holes in the rocks which they fill with this beer. . . . Then they hide themselves and these creatures come out of their holes and taste the liquor, and call out ‘Chin Chin.'”—Itinerarium, in Rec. de Voyages, &c., iv. 328.

The first evidence the OED finds for English is cited from Hobson-Jobson (I believe that’s what “Y.” means):
1795 M. SYMES Embassy to Ava 295 (Y.) We soon fixed them in their seats, both parties.. repeating Chin Chin, Chin Chin, the Chinese term of salutation.
And these illustrate characteristic twentieth-century use:
1929 J. B. PRIESTLEY Good Compan. II. vii. 439 Chin-chin, Effie my dear, and all the best for Xmas!
1938 HEMINGWAY Fifth Column (1939) I. ii, Downa hatch. Cherio. Chin chin.
1962 ‘M. INNES’ Connoisseur’s Case iii. 34 Going on your way, are you? Well, chin-chin!
1967 P. JONES Fifth Defector iv. 36 Two glasses appeared, with ice tinkling in the Scotch. Paul raised his, smiling. ‘Chin chin.’
For etymology, the OED says only “Chinese ts’ing ts’ing“; this is annoyingly vague both as to “dialect” and meaning—they should really add characters to at least the online edition. Does anyone have more detailed information about the Chinese use of this phrase?


The English word mocha (a kind of coffee) is pronounced “moka” and derives from the port in Yemen (Arabic المخا [al-Mukhā]). Ever since I learned that one of Melville’s sources for Moby Dick was a historical whale named Mocha Dick, I had assumed it was the same word, presumably from the sense ‘a dark chocolate-brown color,’ and pronounced it accordingly, but Chris Patterson at Wordorigins directed me to the Wikipedia article for Mocha Island (in Spanish Isla Mocha) off the coast of Chile, which informs me that “The waters off the island are also noted as the home to a famous 19th century sperm whale, Mocha Dick, the inspiration for the fictional whale Moby Dick”; clearly the name was pronounced just the way it’s spelled, with /ch/ rather than /k/. A small thing, but important to us pedants.


Conrad H. Roth, the learned and acerbic proprietor of Varieties of Unreligious Experience (and self-described “unmoored intellectual desperately seeking a thesis-topic”), has a post that brings to my attention an unusual slang term. After a discussion of “the old WW1 satirical journal, The Wipers Times” (Wipers being a jovial deformation of the name of the Belgian town Ypres), and quoting a nice quatrain by Gilbert Frankau, he concludes:

The Wipers texts, both prose and verse, are full of slang still vibrant and uncontained; a famous example is na poo or narpoo, from the French ‘il n’y a plus’, meaning ‘there’s none left’, or more generally, ‘no good’. Hence:

The privit to the sergeant said
“I wants my blooming rum.”
“Na poo,” the sergeant curtly said,
And sucked his jammy thumb.

Narpoo indeed. An example of a word dragging meaning into itself like a vortex, the finest moments of a popular vocabulary; compare ‘fuck’ now, or ‘quoz’ in the 1840s (for which see Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions, chapter 13).

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Companionway is one of those words I’ve seen from time to time and never bothered to look up; the general sense ‘something you walk along on a ship’ sufficed for my purposes. But in reading Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen (I’m on a 17th-century kick these days) I hit the line “she pointed him speechlessly towards the stairs, steep as a ship’s companionway” and realized I had a completely misleading, if vague, image of a companionway, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s (in Merriam-Webster’s words) ‘a ship’s stairway from one deck to another’; M-W says it’s from companion ‘a hood covering at the top of a companionway’ and derives that “by folk etymology from Dutch kampanje poop deck.” You mean it has nothing to do with the usual word companion? thought I—but it turns out it’s not that simple. Here’s the OED:

cf. Du. kompanje, now usually kampanje, ‘quarterdeck’ (i.e. above the cabin in the old ships of the line), … corresp. to OF. compagne ‘chambre du majordome d’une galère’ (Littré), It. compagna, more fully chambre de la compagne, camera della compagna, … from It. and med.L. compagna, … ‘vivres, provisions de bouche’ (Jal).
The (camera della) Compagna was thus originally the pantry or store-room of provisions in the mediæval galley, found already in 14th c. Pantero-Pantera, Armata Navale (Rome 1613) iv. 45, describes it as ‘la camera della Campagna, che serve come una dispensa, nella quale sta il vino, il companatico, cioè carne salata, il formaggio, l’oglio, l’aceto, i salumi, e l’altre robbe simili’ (Jal). The name has passed in Du. and Eng. to other structures erected on the deck. In Eng. corrupted by sailors into conformity with COMPANION1 (to which it is indeed related in origin).

So a Vulgar Latin word meaning ‘what one eats with bread’ (cum pane) becomes a Romance word for ‘provisions’ and thus (via a phrase ‘room for provisions, ship’s storeroom’) to a particular cabin and then the deck associated with it, but its Dutch form kompanje sounded enough like the word for ‘someone who shares your bread with you’ that English sailors pulled it back into that form. Lovely! (But why does M-W ignore this backstory and leave the word’s history at the Dutch phase?)


This Feb. 15 story by Jaime Ciavarra depresses me tremendously. It’s always sad when a bookstore goes out of business, but when the books are actually destroyed it’s horrible:

Thousands of books—torn, tattered, spines broken—were lumped into literary mountains on a Gaithersburg parking lot, men shoveling them into two green, 10-ton Dumpsters…
A Russian bookstore that has long been a haven for immigrants, researchers, and—some say—even spies and CIA agents during the Cold War, unexpectedly closed its doors last week when the owner was evicted.
Thousands of books, all in Russian and some still in plastic packaging, were taken to the trash transfer station at Shady Grove to be recycled.
Victor Kamkin Inc., one of the largest Russian book distributors in the United States, was nearly six months overdue in rent at the brick building at 220 Girard Street in Olde Towne, the property manager said.
Last week, when the store owner had not moved the books from the site, First Potomac Realty Trust began the eviction process, removing nearly 400,000 of the estimated 600,000 Russian books as customers watched, and tried to salvage some titles, in the bitter cold…

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