Archives for May 2006


There are three fairly obscure words reeve in English; I was familiar with the first two, a noun for various officials (ranging from ‘a local administrative agent of an Anglo-Saxon king’ to ‘the council president in some Canadian municipalities’) and a verb meaning ‘to pass (as a rope) through a hole or opening,’ but I just now discovered the third and most obscure, a noun meaning ‘the female of the ruff (sandpiper).’ All these definitions are from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which is where I found it, and what first struck me was the bracketed etymology “origin unknown.” On the face of it, it certainly looks related to ruff (itself pretty obscure, and I’m frankly not sure whether I knew the word or not), so I checked the OED, which says “Of obscure origin: the form REE n.2 is found earlier, but is less frequent.” Huh. I tried the American Heritage and found “reeve The female ruff. Probably alteration of ruff1.” Well, if the etymologists at AHD think that, how come the ones at Oxford and M-W don’t?
And perhaps even more pressing a question: why is this incredibly obscure and pretty much useless word for the female of Philomachus pugnax in all these general-purpose dictionaries in the first place?


A story by John Noble Wilford in the NY Times reports on recent discoveries that have pushed the story of Mayan civilization back a considerable ways:

On the sacred walls and inside the dark passageways of ancient ruins in Guatemala, archaeologists are making discoveries that open expanded vistas of the vibrant Maya civilization in its formative period, a time reaching back more than 1,000 years before its celebrated Classic epoch.
The intriguing finds, including art masterpieces and the earliest known Maya writing, are overturning old ideas of the Preclassic period. It was not a kind of dark age, as once thought, of a culture that emerged and bloomed in Classic times, at places like the spectacular royal ruin at Palenque beginning about A.D. 250 and extending to its mysterious collapse around 900…
Stephen Houston, of Brown, said, “We are entering a golden age of Preclassic study,” adding that the discipline of Maya research “will be marked by a time before the discovery of these paintings in the jungle of Guatemala, and a time thereafter.” Other experts have already focused new research on Preclassic ruins, some dating at least to 900 B.C., and are reinterpreting finds in light of the San Bartolo evidence.

The writing, however, still needs to be deciphered:

[Read more…]


I just stumbled upon a truly remarkable etymology. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Pushkin’s Капитанская дочка [Kapitanskaya dochka, “The Captain’s Daughter”], one of those all-time classics I should have read several decades ago, and I’ve reached the brigand song “Не шуми, мати зеленая дубровушка” in Chapter VIII (and if anyone can point me to an audio file of this or a similar choral song so I can get an idea of what it sounds like, I’ll be deeply grateful). When the song’s protagonist proudly answers back to the tsar that his comrades are the dark night and his knife, horse, and bow, the tsar begins his response Исполать тебе, детинушка крестьянский сын! ‘Hail to thee, young fellow, son of the peasantry!’ I was curious about the word Исполать [ispolát’] ‘hail!’; I’d never seen a more Slavic-looking word, but the derivation wasn’t immediately obvious. So I went to my trusty Vasmer, and discovered it was a 16th-century borrowing from Greek εις πολλά έτη [is pola eti] ‘[may you live] for many years,’ which in rapid speech would become /ispoláti/! I’ll bet that provides fertile ground for folk etymology.

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In last week’s New Yorker, Lawrence Wright writes about Syrian filmmakers in “Captured on Film.” The article isn’t online (though you can get a good summary, along with stills of the movies discussed, from the slide show with Wright’s voiceover linked at this page), but I wanted to share this striking passage:

In 1978, in conjunction with the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma, the club sponsored two weeks of “cinema and politics.” There were two screenings a day in a seven-hundred-seat theater rented for the occasion. “We sold out every performance,” [Omar] Amiralay recalled. The critics of Cahiers du Cinéma had chosen eighteen films, but the Syrian government banned more than half of them. Instead, the French critic Serge Daney sat on the stage and narrated detailed descriptions of them. “It was a screening without an image—an absolutely beautiful happening,” Amiralay said.

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A very funny observation by John Holbo:

First, I happened to quote something from Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind whose cover reads in toto: “being part three of the Encyclopaedia of The Philosophical Sciences (1830) translated by William Wallace together with the Zusätze in Boumann’s text (1845) translated by A.V. Miller, with Foreword by J.N. Findlay, F.B.A.” There’s a bunch of scrollwork, too. I see that the latest cover omits the scrollwork and the information about Findlay’s degree. This is all fine. But suppose, hypothetically, you wanted to know the author – Hegel’s – name; that is, his initials and/or at least one given name; as opposed to the translator’s initials or the introducer’s degree? Well, presumably you would look inside. Where you would … not find it. Nowhere does this book tell you anything more about the author than that he was named … Hegel. He’s, like, the Sting of philosophy.
This reminds me of a story. Someone – can’t remember who – was complaining about someone else – can’t remember who – giving Hegel lectures and presuming to call the subject ‘Georg Hegel’, or even just ‘Georg’. Apparently even Hegel’s wife didn’t call him ‘Georg’. The story goes: she called him ‘Professor Hegel’. But I still think it would be ok to include his initials on a cover.

I have to admit I don’t think I would have been able to come up with Hegel’s given name to save my life. Very strange. The only other examples that come to mind of famous writers known only by a surname are pseudonyms like Voltaire. (Via Avva, who wonders if his wife called him “Professor Hegel” even in bed.)


The remarkable Wengu site does a good job of explaining itself, so I’ll quote the welcome page:

This site allows you to read some Chinese classic texts in original language and with some translations. Your browser must display Chinese correctly. If you can’t or don’t want to get Chinese font, you can visit this site in No-Chinese mode. (A link at the foot brings you back to normal mode.) To help you reading these texts, each character is linked to a short on-line dictionary and a small pop-up appears if you stay a moment on a character. This site has a version française.
Now, see intro, general table of contents or go directly to the Book of the Odes (Shi Jing), the Analects of Confucius (Lunyu), the Book of Changes (Yi Jing, I Ching), the Book of the Way and its Power (Daode Jing, Tao-te King) attributed to Lao-tse or the 300 Tang Poems anthology.

When you go to one of the books, you have to click on a chapter number to get the text; here, for instance, is the start of the Analects. It’s really amazing to have not only the Chinese text but the mouseover to show you the reading and meanings of each character. (Via MetaFilter.)


Stanley Kunitz died Sunday at the age of 100. There’s a good selection of links at wood s lot; I’ll just provide this wonderful poem (nicely discussed by Loren Webster here):

The Thing That Eats the Heart
The thing that eats the heart comes wild with years.
It died last night, or was it wounds before,
But somehow crawls around, inflamed with need,
Jingling its medals at the fang-scratched door.
We were not unprepared: with lamp and book
We sought the wisdom of another age
Until we heard the action of the bolt.
A little wind investigates the page.
No use pretending to the pitch of sleep;
By turnings we are known, our times and dates
Examined in the courts of either/or
While armless griefs mount lewd and headless doubts.
It pounces in the dark, all pity-ripe,
An enemy as soft as tears or cancer,
In whose embrace we fall, as to a sickness
Whose toxins in our cells cry sin and danger.
Hero of crossroads, how shall we defend
This creature-lump whose charity is art
When its own self turns Christian-cannibal?
The thing that eats the heart is mostly heart.

[Read more…]


Lameen Souag of the always interesting Jabal al-Lughat has turned up the blog Awal_nu_Shawi about the language Tashawit (or Tachawit):

Tashawit is a variety of the Berber language (a branch of the Afro-Asiatic family). It is spoken by Ishawiyen, the Berbers of Eastern Algeria. Our aim is to provide a free platform for the discussion and dissemination of ideas related to Tashawit. We seek to expose the beauty of shawi words and explore their creative dimensions in poetry, prose and music. We believe that AWAL, the word is the gate of cultural heritage, and that writing is the key to its permanence.

It mainly posts song lyrics, occasionally with English translations, as in this lullaby:

sussem sussem a 3alla memmi
ennig a3law i babak
babak iroH iba3dek
yewwi TarumiT ijja yemmek
sussem sussem a 3alla memmi
ennig a3law du qachabi
babak iroH ijja lwali.
Hush hush 3alla, my son
Let us weave a burnous for your daddy
Your daddy who took off and left you
He left your mother for a French woman
Hush hush 3alla, my son
I am weaving a burnous and a qachabi
Your father abandoned his family.

But there’s also a longish discussion of case markers in Shawi Berber. I wonder if there are other Berber blogs out there?


I’ve developed a pretty high threshold of interest for the eggcorns they investigate so assidously over at the Log: once you realize how common it is for people to get phrases wrong (free reign for free rein being a classic example in writing, for all intensive purposes instead of for all intents and purposes in speech), you get jaded. But Jeanette Winterson has renewed my enthusiasm, in a wonderful essay for The Times, by taking note of the stories people invent to account for what they take to be the idiom. She starts off with a beautiful example:

The other day my elderly country neighbour asked for a bit of help to get his new washing machine into the kitchen. That generation never use “it”, always, “he” or “she”, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the washing machine called “he”, but I was surprised by what followed: “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.
“The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly . . . where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’.”

People are lousy at accurate reproduction, but they’re great at storytelling, and I could happily read an entire book of anecdotes like that. (Winterton herself “laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?”)

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Anyone interested in Old Russian literature owes a debt to John Bruno Hare, proprietor of the Internet Sacred Text Archive, who has put online the 1915 Leonard A. Magnus translation of the Слово о полку Игореве [Slovo o polku Igoreve], which can be and has been translated in various ways: the Lay of the Host of Igor, the Tale of Igor’s Army, or (as Nabokov has it) the Song of Igor’s Campaign. Don’t ask me why Magnus chose the word armament; yes, it once meant (in the OED’s words) “a force military or (more usually) naval, equipped for war,” but it hasn’t meant that for quite some time now, and it’s not “appropriate to the period” because it didn’t exist before the 17th century, so it seems pointlessly perverse. But never mind that, and never mind that Nabokov called this version “a bizarre blend of incredible blunders, fantastic emendations, erratic erudition and shrewd guesses.” Nabokov was hard on everyone, and besides, the Nabokov translation is both under copyright and out of print (hard as that is to believe), whereas the Magnus is free for the taking and now available to anyone with an internet connection. And it’s not just a translation: the bulk of the book consists of introductory material about the history of the MS, the history of Russia, the construction of the poem, the language and grammar, and so on (not to mention ten genealogical tables, which Nabokov admitted were extremely handy), and the text itself is presented in parallel columns with the original on the left, and not in modernized spelling either:

Не лѣпо ли ны бяшетъ, братие,
начяти старыми словесы
трудныхъ повѣстий о пълку
Игоревѣ, Игоря Сватъславлича?

Of course there are better texts available, but having the parallel translation there is extremely convenient. (Thanks for the link go to Plep.)