Archives for May 2006


First off, an apology. I had meant to write about this Language Log post by Ben Zimmer a couple of months ago; it quotes a comment by “an anonymous professor of China studies” on this amazing and hilarious post explaining how the menu item “Hot and spicy garlic greens stir-fried with shredded dried tofu” got rendered as “Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk” in the English portion of a restaurant menu. (“Finally: gan si meaning shredded dried tofu, but literally translated as ‘dry silk.’ The problem here is that the word gan means both ‘to dry’ and ‘to do,’ and the latter meaning has come to mean ‘to fuck.'”) It slipped my mind at the time, but fortunately the Loggers have revisited the issue: Victor Mair discusses the ubiquitous translation of gan as “fuck” and says:

I am trying to make sense of how this phenomenon actually came about. It seems that the twenty or so different meanings of the three-stroke calendrical graph that is used to write GAN1/4 (a total of three distinct graphic forms in the traditional script — 乾, 幹, 干 — all reduced to one — 干 — in the simplified script) in Chinglish have all collapsed into the single meaning of “fuck”. Wherever that graph occurs, Chinglish speakers will translate it as “fuck”…
Who’s telling the menu-makers and sign-painters to write “fuck” for GAN1/4? They probably don’t even know English and probably don’t know much Chinglish either. How did this get started? (Perhaps somebody was being intentionally mischievous.) And how did it become such a common phenomenon? That’s the real mystery. How is this horrible mistranslation continuing to spread and not being caught by the tens of millions of Chinese who do speak good English? … You’d think that at least they’d write “do” everywhere, or that people who do know English would tell the proprietors to hurry up and change the offending word so as to avoid further embarrassment!

They don’t have comments at the Log, so share your theories here!


From my days as a Russian major I was familiar with the term субботник, borrowed into English as subbotnik (what do you mean, it’s not English? It’s in the OED!) in the meaning “the practice or an act of working voluntarily on a Saturday, for the benefit of the collective”—that’s how the OED defines it, anyway; for real-world truth substitute “without pay” for “voluntarily” and replace “for the benefit of the collective” with “at the insistence of the Communist Party.” (The Wikipedia article says “The tradition is continued in modern Russia”; can this be true?) I note that the OED also includes an anglicized equivalent Saturdaying that seems to have had some currency in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution:
1920 Manch. Guardian 5 Feb. 9/7 In Moscow it has been found worth while to set up a special bureau for ‘Saturdayings’.
1920 Contemp. Rev. Oct. 504 For members of the Bolshevik party, ‘Saturdaying’ had become compulsory.
In the course of reading The Icon and the Axe, James Billington’s superb (and perennially influential) “interpretive history of Russian culture,” I have run across an earlier sense of the word:

The idea of a new church unifying Christians and Jews was gaining grass roots support in the Orel-Voronezh region with the sudden appearance of the sabbatarian (subbotniki) sect. They added to the usual rejection of Orthodox forms of worship opposition to the doctrine of the trinity, celebration of Saturday as the sabbath, and the rite of circumcision. The sect made its first appearance in the second half of Alexander‘s reign [i.e., in the years around 1820].

It turns out the sect is not only still around, Bill Aldacushion (“a descendant of Subbotniki and Molokan parents in America”) has an admirably thorough website devoted to it.

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Matt of No-sword has posted about a website that purports to give lessons in the reconstructed Japanese of the Jōmon period (or Joumon, as Matt prefers to call it). Apparently there’s controversy over whether the Jomon people even spoke Japanese, but as Matt says, it’s “cool to hear this stuff spoken instead of just read it on a page.” The example sentence Matt gives is 私は赤い着物が好きです。 (aba akaki kOrOmObO kOnOmibumu, ‘I like red clothes’); you can hear it spoken here (mpg file). I expect those of my readers who know about this stuff to tell me about the linguistic issues involved.


Etymologies are usually staid affairs; whether they are long lists of preforms and cognates or simple statements that the origin is unknown, they are devoid of passion, humor, and exclamation marks. Not so that of the OED’s coil2 “Noisy disturbance, ‘row’; ‘tumult, turmoil, bustle, stir, hurry, confusion’”:

[First in 16th c.: of unknown origin. Prob. a word of colloquial or even slang character, which rose into literary use; many terms of similar meaning have had such an origin; cf. pother, row, rumpus, dirdum, shindy, hubbub, hurly-burly, etc.
The conjectures that coil may be ‘related’ to Gael. coileid (‘koletʃ) ‘stir, movement, noise’, or to goilim (‘golɪm) ‘I boil’, goileadh, ‘boiling’, or to goill (goλ) ‘shield, war, fight’, are mere random ‘shots’, without any justification, phonetic or historical. Coil is unknown in Scotland, and no evidence connects it with Ireland. Gaelic or Irish words do not enter English through the air, with phonetic change on the way!]

Somebody was feeling mighty frisky in the Scriptorium that day!

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A longstanding mystery has just been solved for me. Every time I look down a list of unicode characters (e.g., this one), I see something like “Latin Capital Letter S With Caron” (next to Š) and think “That’s not a ‘caron,’ that’s a haček.” I always meant to look it up and find out where they got “caron,” but never got around to it. Now John Cowan‘s post on the stability of standard names has brought to my attention Unicode Technical Note #27: Known Anomalies in Unicode Character Names, which is almost as much fun as a collection of newspaper corrections:

In this document we list all Unicode character names with known clerical errors in the spelling of their names at the time of its writing. In addition, we have compiled information on many misnamed characters, misleading character names, and characters with other known problems with their names.
Because Unicode Standard is a character encoding standard and not the Universal Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Character Identity, the stability and uniqueness of published character names is far more important than the correctness of the name… The authors therefore intend this Technical Note to serve as a convenient summary of the information about character name anomalies in the Unicode Standard at the time of its writing.

And alongside embarrassments like “LATIN SMALL LETTER OI” (“should have been called letter GHA”) and “TAMIL SIGN VISARGA” (“This character is the aaytham”), we find:

The “caron” should have been called hacek and combining hacek. The term “caron” is suspected by some to be an invention of some early standards body, but it has also been claimed by others to have been in use at Linotype before the days of digital typography. Its true origin may be lost in the mists of time.

How wonderful! Does anybody know anything more about this mysterious “word”?


Matt at No-sword has an intriguing post about the Japanese expression itadakimasu; I’ll let him explain it, since he does it so entertainingly:

Everyone who’s anyone knows that the Japanese word itadakimasu is a set phrase said before eating—in unison by all parties present, ideally—and means “[I] [will?] receive [+humility] [+politeness]”. But today I got to wondering if it’s an actual speech act (i.e. “I hereby humbly receive this meal [in toto, and having received it I shall begin at once to eat it]”) or just a statement about the near future (i.e. “I will [over the course of the next X minutes] humbly eat this meal”).
I didn’t reach a conclusion that satisfied me, but I did open up another fruitless line of internal inquiry: where did itadakimasu, as a set phrase said before eating, even come from? I know that people like to identify it with ancient Shinto, traditional Japanese respect for life, mists of time, &c., but can anyone point to an actual example of it (or even an equivalent phrase) being used in this way in a text written before, say, 1900?…
This is pure speculation, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if its genesis as a nationwide, prescribed, unchangeable thing was early this last century, when the government was using the schools to push three things which were necessary for their imperialist project: nationwide conformity of and obedience to behavioral norms, gratitude for whatever food was available, and shady revisionist Shinto.*
Having said all that, virtually this entire post could be shot down by an example or two of unambiguously non-conversational itadakimasu (or itadakisourou or whatever) from the 1800s or earlier. So does anyone have any?

Well? (And I always thought of it as a speech act, but that’s an interesting question too.)

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Over at Poetry London there’s a feature “Did Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound get it wrong? Four poets discuss the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry” in which John Weston, W.N. Herbert, Polly Clark, and Yang Lian respond to the subject of “the complex beauty of Chinese characters” and the ways Western writers have tried to make use of it in their translations, most notably Ezra Pound, who used as a jumping-off point Ernest Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (online here with Pound’s annotations). Last year I posted about Sarah Maguire’s excellent analysis of Pound’s Cathay; I think she’s exactly right when she says “By the time Fenollosa’s notebooks fell into his hands, Pound was steeped in Chinese art and profoundly curious about the radically different world it represented. What Ming Xie and other Chinese commentators point out is that, even by the time of Cathay, Pound grasped ‘the paradigmatic frame of an entire culture’.” In other words, Pound was not simply looking at characters through Fenollosa’s overheated description and making stuff up, he was using Fenollosa’s idea as a lens through which to focus what he already knew about Chinese culture and poetry. This, sadly, has not generally been the case with subsequent poets who saw what Pound achieved and wanted to smoke some of what he was having.
The discussants at Poetry London are aware of the trap, but they don’t always avoid falling into it. This, by Herbert, particularly bothered me:

When Yang Lian discussed how, for him, each character seems to exist in its own self-sufficient universe, almost without any need for tense or grammar, it seemed to me that a Chinese reader looking at a character can be described as gazing into both pictorial and conceptual space. An English reader, on the other hand, is looking at a language which continually reveals its etymological roots. They are therefore gazing into time.
Further, a Chinese reader will find all their referents — everything that makes up pictograms, ideograms and phonograms — within Chinese. It is an autonomous field of reference. An English reader, however, is looking at hundreds of years of borrowing from foreign sources — Latin, Greek, French, German etc. The language presents itself as naturally gregarious, acquisitive, absorbent…
I loved Yang Lian’s description, for instance, of the way the character for ‘fresh’ is built out of the combination of the characters for ‘fish’ and ‘lamb’; or Zhou Zan’s use of the characters for ‘accident’ at the end of one line, and her neat reversal of the same two characters to produce the combination for ‘story’ at the end of the next. I understood we were only scratching the surface of a complex field of study, but felt that the excitement of that surface encounter was easily akin to the huge complex of information and emotions that overwhelmed me in visiting the Forbidden City for the first time.

Why is there this craving to see Chinese as some sort of weird Forbidden City? It’s just a language, much like any other; it happens to be written with a more complicated set of graphs than most, but it’s as full of borrowings (pace Herbert’s “autonomous field of reference”) and has just as much grammar as any other. Chinese readers are not “gazing into both pictorial and conceptual space,” they’re reading, just like anybody else. Yes, a Chinese writer can choose to foreground the pictorial element of a character, just as an English writer can choose to foreground a word’s roots, but there’s no inherent philosophical chasm—you play with the elements you find around you, and English poets can also play with the pictorial aspect of words. In general, I find the idea of the “exotic” one of the most unfortunate of our built-in preconceptions; it can lead to enjoyable works of art, but it makes it impossible to see what’s actually going on, which has deleterious consequences in real life as well as literature.

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I’ve long been fascinated by Sana’a (صنعاء), the ancient capital of Yemen; its unique style of architecture is pleasing to my eye, and its Great Mosque is one of the oldest in the Islamic world. I just discovered an article, “The Secret Gardens of Sana’a,” by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who’s lived in Sana‘a for more than 20 years and whose Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land I definitely want to read. It’s interesting not only from an urban-history standpoint but because it discusses the local vocabulary of gardening in some depth:

Down on al-Zumur, one of the busiest market streets in the old city of Sana‘a, my neighbor Maryam the qashshamah sits behind a heap of greenery: deep green alfalfa, fodder for animals; gray-green ‘ansif (Astragalus abyssinicus) to give a zing to tea or to shafut, sorghum pancakes drenched in herby yogurt; parsley, rocket and fennel; and chives, lettuce and mint… All this I must climb over to get to my favorite breakfast place along the road, for Maryam’s shop is my doorstep. But the pile of vegetation—usually interspersed with small children—is a pleasing inconvenience. And in any case Maryam always disarms potential objections. “Here,” she says, holding out a bunch of basil and marigolds, “have a mushquri.”
You will look in vain for that word in the standard Arabic reference books. Its origin goes back further—to Sabaic, one of the ancient South Arabian languages. Shqr (the vowels are anyone’s guess) is the cresting on a building, and 2000 years of semantic vagaries have turned it to mean a posy to decorate your turban—a crest for the head. Similarly, qashshamah, Maryam’s job title, and that of her male equivalent, the qashsham, as well as miqshamah (plural: maqaashim), the garden where they grow their produce, all have an origin just as old but better preserved: qshmt, the Sabaic word for a vegetable plot…

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Fish names are a tangle, and bream is applied to all sorts of creatures, freshwater and marine, European and American and Australian. Fortunately, my concern here is purely with the word itself, and specifically its pronunciation. The OED gives only /bri:m/ (i.e., with the “long e” sound of seem); both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and the New Oxford American say /brim, brēm/ (giving preference to the short-e form prounounced like brim); and the Australian Oxford says /brim/ is used for “any of several Australian marine fish, valued for sport and eating” and “any of several Australian freshwater perch,” but the long-e form is used for “a similar marine and freshwater fish of Europe etc.” So my general question is: if you actually use this word in speech, how do you pronounce it? (Please say where you’re from as well.) And my question to Australian readers is: do you actually pronounce the word differently depending on whether it refers to Australian or European fish? That sounds unlikely to me, but when it comes to language just about anything is possible.


Claire of Anggarrgoon has put up her report on the Second European Workshop on Australian Languages, whose theme was “Narrative and Grammar”; there’s all sorts of good stuff about grammatical devices and discourse categories, and I’d love to know more about “the heterodoxy of Northern Australia,” but I confess what makes me unable to resist blogging it is the map she reproduces of the Eastern Mediterranean labeled in Burarra/Kriol. I think I’ll print it out and use it to perplex people (like myself) who think they can make a pretty good guess about such things; the disconnect between language and geography should make it very difficult for anyone but an Australianist to figure out. And even looking at it, I had to think a moment to realize “Boníchiya” was Phoenicia; I have no idea how Cyprus becomes Jayprach.