Archives for April 2006


Ben Zimmer of Language Log has a detailed discussion of the name of a newborn:

When Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes announced the birth of their daughter on Tuesday, celebrity-watchers were eager to find out what to call TomKat’s offspring (besides TomKitten, of course). The couple’s publicist revealed that the baby’s name is Suri, further explaining that the name means ‘princess’ in Hebrew and ‘red rose’ in Persian. Given the immense scrutiny the couple has gotten, it was no surprise that even this offhand comment stirred up some controversy…

I’ll let you read Ben’s analysis of the Hebrew-princess issue (to which I can only add that Suri looks to me like a dialect variant of the name Sarah, which I believe is Sore in standard Yiddish, rather than a product of Kabbalah); personally, I’m more interested in the (uncontroversial) Persian word سوری, short for گل سوری gol-e suri ‘red rose,’ where suri is an adjectival derivative of sur ‘red color.’ This is apparently a cousin of the normal Persian word for ‘red,’ sorkh, which is related to Avestan sukhra; if anybody knows the details of the phonological developments involved, I’d love to hear them. (Incidentally, Ben might want to fix his quote from the Encyclopedia Iranica, which—due presumably to his not having downloaded the necessary font—gives the word as “sorkò” rather than sorkh.)
Ben says “That hasn’t stopped journalists and bloggers from finding alternate meanings for the word in various languages: ‘pickpocket’ in Japanese (Times of London), ‘pointy nose’ in the southern Indian language of Todas (AP), an epithet for Lord Krishna (Gawker), a breed of alpaca (Tabloidbaby), and so on and so forth”; to add to the fun, I’ll contribute Hausa ‘anthill,’ Pushtu ‘large sack,’ and (more attractively) Hindi (from Sanskrit) ‘wise, learned.’ When she gets old enough, she can take her pick.


Chris Kern has an entry on “ghost characters”:

Proving once again that the Japanese writing system is supremely screwed up, there are apparently certain characters called 幽霊文字 (“ghost characters”) that have no readings, meanings, or examples of use. Even if you look them up in a dictionary you get definitions like 意義未詳 (reading and meaning unknown). Examples of these ghost characters are 暃 and 碵.
They all come from the JIS set, which is a set of characters that are standard for computer terminals to display. Apparently during the compliation of the JIS set, some characters that weren’t actually characters got onto the list accidentally—either because they were miswritten versions of actual characters or the compilers misread certain kanji.

Matt of No-sword, in his post on the subject, shows that some of the characters are real, if obscure, but adds “even the JIS bigwigs admit that 妛 and 椦 are indeed just mistakes.” Something of a parallel to ghost words in English.


Lots of reading coming in over the transom and not enough time, so I’m just going to throw some stuff into the pot and call it burgoo:
1) An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, by Alexander MacBain, via the indefatigable aldiboronti; it’s outdated (a reprint of the 1911 edition) but still useful if taken with a grain of salt.
2) I’m a big fan of Charles Reznikoff and quoted a brief description of his Testimony here; there’s a longer discussion by Edmund Hardy in the October issue of Jacket. (Via wood s lot, which also links to a nice review by Jenny Diski of Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go? by Michael Bywater, with plangent reflections on what it means to get older; I must, however, take issue with the title, “Who wears hats now?” The answer is, I do.)
3) A new blog, The Daily Growler, takes a break from its usual fare of over-the-top political commentary for a striking post called “From dust to dust” that begins with a hot Texas day suddenly turning cold (“The wind is now just flat-dab cold. And now the wind throws grains of what’s coming in my face and I breathe in and taste the first of what’s coming in my face and what’s coming in my face tastes like earth…”) and goes on to “one morning not so many years ago in New York City.” Yes, that’s what it was like.


A great AskMetaFilter question asks “What’s the new word for ‘cool’?”

As a Gen-Xer, I usually find myself pseudo-ironically using “rad” or “awesome” whenever I think something is totally killer. When a friend asked what word college students use now-a-days (he’s going to be teaching undergrads), I had to admit that I’m officially an out of touch old fogey. I know “cool” has spanned decades of continued usage, but what are the real generation-defining phrases of today’s 18-year-olds, in the same way that “cat’s pajamas” or “solid” are tied to an era?

There are plenty of answers from actual college and high-school students; executive summary (by the original poster; I’ve added italics for clarity):

Sweet, awesome, nice, hot, and to a lesser degree sick, through the miraculous preservative powers of irony, have managed to maintain their coolness from 80’s surf/skate culture. Bitchin’, gnarly and rad? Totally bogus.
Tight and dope have survived from 80’s hip-hop culture, while def, phat and fresh are not-so-fresh anymore.
Shiny, official, pimp as an adjective, and possibly clutch have definite potential, and I hope to see more of these brash newcomers.



A couple of years ago I reported on the MLA‘s interactive language map of the US; Ben Zimmer of Language Log now informs us that the site has added new features, including actual density of speakers (which means you can see the counties where, say, Spanish-speakers are a large proportion of the population, even if there aren’t a lot of them—see Ben’s post for a nice graphic demonstration of the difference it makes in Texas). “Not only does the new improved site generate percentage-based maps for different languages, it has a whole host of enhancements, including a Data Center with statistics for more than 300 languages searchable all the way down to the municipal level.” Day by day, in every way, the internet gets better and better…


An excerpt from The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war, by Antony Beevor, quoted today by Joel of Far Outliers (there’s a very interesting profile of him here):

Vova must have been frightened, bearing a German name [Knipper] at this moment of pitiless struggle [as the Wehrmacht closed in on Moscow]. Daily bulletins from Informburo were attached to trees and walls. On one of them he was shaken to see an excerpt from a letter taken off the body of a German soldier called Hans Knipper. And a schoolfriend of his, a Volga German about to be transported to Siberia, came to see them in despair. Vova’s father, Vladimir, advised him to volunteer for the army to save himself from an exile of forced labour which would be as bad as the Gulag, but Vova’s friend replied that the description ‘German’ was stamped on his papers and they would not accept him in the army. Those of German origin were implicitly categorized as potential enemies of the state. The NKVD had not wasted time assembling records on every Soviet citizen of German descent, some 1.5 million people. Local NKVD departments ‘from Leningrad to the Far East’ began a programme of arrests immediately after the Wehrmacht invasion. Yet no member of the Knipper family was touched [presumably because Vova’s cousin Lev Knipper worked for the NKVD].
Other Germans in Moscow were also in a strange position, but for different reasons. In the same building as the Knippers lived the family of Friedrich Wolf, the famous German Communist playwright, who had left Germany soon after Hitler came to power in 1933. They were part of the so-called ‘Moscow emigration’ of foreign Communists seeking sanctuary and would have faced instant execution at Nazi hands if the city fell. Vova used to act a roof-top fire-watcher, ready to deal with incendiary bombs, along with Wolf’s two sons, Markus and Koni. Markus later became the chief of East German intelligence and the original of Karla in John Le Carré’s novels, and his younger brother, Koni, became a film-maker, writer and the president of East Germany’s academy of arts. During air raids, Vladimir Knipper and Friedrich Wolf sat in the cellar, chatting together in German. ‘People sitting around us,’ wrote Vova, ‘turned to look at the two of them with anger and fear. There they were in the centre of Moscow arguing about something in the enemy’s language.’

One of the things that depresses me about humanity is the automatic lumping-together of people who speak different languages or have different physical features or share some other superficial category, so that if “we” are at war with Germany we must be nasty to those among us with German names or backgrounds (as happened in the U.S. during World War One as well).


Back at the start of the year, the OED temporarily allowed free access to the site (see here); now they’re doing it again in conjunction with a follow-up to the TV series Balderdash and Piffle. Look ’em up while they’re there! (Thanks for the tip, Pat.)


I recently ran across an excellent old insult, the word courtnoll: “A contemptuous or familiar name for a courtier” (OED). We don’t have much occasion to insult courtiers these days, but courtnoll is based on noll “The top or crown of the head; the head itself. In later use freq. with the epithet drunken.” A sample of citations with the freq. epithet:
1577 W. HARRISON Descr. Eng. II. vi. I. 161 He carrieth off a drie dronken noll to bed with him.
1600 P. HOLLAND tr. Livy Rom. Hist. XXXIII. xlviii. 851 When.. they awoke and roused themselues, with their drunken and drousie nols.
1626 N. BRETON Fantasticks in Wks. II. 14/2 The nappy Ale makes many a drunken Noll.
And a fine one without it:
1825 Blackwood’s Mag. Jan. 113 I’ll split thy pruriginious nowl.
I’ll leave the construction of suitable imprecations to the inventive reader.


A specialized subject to be sure, but if you’re interested in sources for Scots pronunciation in the eighteenth century you’ll definitely want to read Charles Jones’s “Sources for Scots pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century“—and even if the reconstruction of historical pronunciation isn’t your thing, you might be interested in the copious quotes from schoolbooks of the period:

Leonora was a little girl of quick parts and vivacity. At only six years old, she could both work and handle her scissars [sic] with much dexterity, and her mamma’s pincushions and huswifes were all of her making. She could read, with ease and readiness, any book that was put into her hand; She could also write very prettily, and she never put large letters in the middle of a word, nor scrawled all awry, from corner to corner of her paper. Neither were her strokes so sprawling, that five or six words would fill a whole sheet from the top to the bottom; as I have known to be the case with some other little girls of the same age.

And here’s a recommendation to cure nonstandard pronunciation at the earliest possible age:

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One of Languagehat’s favorite lexicographers, Erin McKean, has a delightful post at the PowellsBooks blog explaining how words get into dictionaries and what that means:

Lots of people (and by “lots” I mean roughly 99% of everyone I’ve ever spoken to) believe that the dictionary is a Who’s Who of words. That it’s like Ivy League college admissions. That only the really good words, the ones that have eaten all their spinach and who play the oboe and who get high scores on the SAT, make it into the dictionary. That the words that make it into the dictionary are somehow “realler” than the words that don’t.
Well, that’s not exactly true. It does take a bit of work to get a word into the dictionary, but inclusion in the dictionary is not an honor. The dictionary words are not more real than the words not in the dictionary. What they are is more USEFUL.
Think of the dictionary as less of a Social Register for words and more like a word general store. I am the manager of the word general store. Do I stock only words in my size? Only in the flavors I like? Only the words I wish people would use? No — I provide a wide selection of words for the use of all my customers. And because my customers are such a wide group (basically, all adult readers and writers) I have to make sure to include the words that will serve their needs.

As I said in the thread where I found the link, she has a real gift for explaining lexicography in ways that the ordinary person can understand. And she ends with some good advice:

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