Archives for June 2006


NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” today features a conversation between Grant Barrett, Geoffrey Pullum, and Martha Barnette on “new words, new blogs and new usage”; if you’ve got a spare half-hour, it’s a real pleasure. Grant and Geoff are two of my favorite wordanistas, and it’s great to hear them provide genuinely informed discussion of topics usually gnawed endlessly by cliche-ridden ignoramuses (and it was a particular thrill to hear Geoff’s peculiar accent, the result of a remarkably checkered career: born in Irvine, Scotland; moved to West Wickham, in Kent, while still very young; moved to London; joined a rock band and worked in Germany in nightclub residencies and on American air bases; went to college in York; moved to the States…). I particularly liked the sympathetic and friendly way they dealt with a young woman who called in to complain about people who write till for until and thru for through (yes, they explained that till is the older form). Here‘s a link to the show’s webpage; click on Listen (you’ll get a choice between RealAudio and WindowsMedia) and enjoy it. (Via


I’m reading (finally—I bought it 15 years ago!) Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, and she mentions that in the 8th century the Chinese called the Arabs Ta-shih (or Dashi in pinyin). Anybody know the etymology?
While I’m at it, I’ll just complain about the absurd mix of toponyms in this passage:

This is understandable because, according to [Pegolotti’s] itinerary, it will take 25 days by ox-wagon to go from Tana to Astrakhan, another 20 days by camel to reach Organci, another 35-40 days by camel-wagon to reach Otrar, 45 days by pack-ass to Armalec, another 70 days with asses to reach Camexu on the Chinese frontier, 45 more days to the river that leads to Cassai (Kinsai or Hangchow), and then finally 30 days overland to Peking (Khanbalik).

To be consistent, the names should be Tana (Azov), Gintarchan (Astrakhan), Organci (Urgench), Oltrarre (Otrar), Armalec (?Kulja), Camexu (Ganchau), and Garnalec (Khanbalik, modern Peking). (Cassai is OK as is.) What a mess!


Everybody likes unusual words; that’s why books like They Have a Word for It sell so well (see my grumpy strictures here). I do too (as should be obvious by now), but I have the quirk of insisting that the words actually exist, which makes most such books an annoyance to me. (An exception: Erin McKean’s Weird and Wonderful Words and More Weird and Wonderful Words, whose entries are taken straight from the OED.) Now Grant Barrett, like Erin an actual lexicographer, has come out with The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English: A Crunk Omnibus for Thrillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age, and I’m delighted to report that not only are the entries impeccably sourced, they’re provided with full citations. If you want to see what it’s like, you have only to visit Grant’s blog Double-Tongued Word Wrester (which I discussed here), since the presentation is the same (and I presume many of the entries in the book are from the blog). Just flipping the pages will introduce you, as it has me, to all manner of hitherto unknown lexical items; on facing pages, for instance, are vogue ‘a tire,’ and (one of my favorites) vuzvuz ‘a derogatory name for an Ashkenazic Jew… This term is usually used within the religion, especially by Sephardic Jews.’ (How my friend Allan would have loved that!)

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Avva recently linked to an old post in which he quoted at length a C.S. Lewis essay on Gawin Douglas’s great 16th-century translation of the Aeneid into Scots (Avva translates the essay into Russian, but reproduces the original as well). I like the section on “quaintness” so much, and it resonates so strongly with my own feelings about the idea of the exotic in general, that I’m going to quote it here:

Poetically, the first impression which Douglas’s version makes on a modern English reader is one of quaintness. I am glad that the question of quaintness should cross our path so early in the book; let us get it out of the way once and for all. To the boor all that is alien to his own suburb and his ‘specious present’ (of about five years) is quaint. Until that reaction has been corrected all study of old books is unprofitable. To allow for that general quaintness which mere distance bestows and thus to be able to distinguish between authors who were really quaint in their own day and authors who seem quaint to us solely by the accident of our position—this is the very pons asinorum of literary history. An easy and obvious instance would be Milton’s ‘city or suburban’ in Paradise Regained. Everyone sees that Milton could not have foretold the associations that these words now have. In the same way, when Douglas speaks of the Salii ‘hoppand and siggand wonder merely’ in their ‘toppit hattis’ it is easy to remember that ‘top hats’, in our sense, were unknown to him. But it is not so easy to see aright the real qualities of his Scots language in general. Since his time it has become a patois, redolent (for those reared in Scotland) of the nursery and the kaleyard, and (for the rest of us) recalling Burns and the dialectal parts of the Waverley novels. Hence the laughter to which some readers will be moved when Douglas calls Leucaspis a ‘skippair’, or Priam ‘the auld gray’, or Vulcan the ‘gudeman’ of Venus; when comes becomes ‘trew marrow’, and Styx, like Yarrow, has ‘braes’, when the Trojans ‘kecklit all’ (risere) at the man thrown overboard in the boat race, or, newly landed in Latium, regaled themselves with ‘scones’. For we see the language that Douglas wrote ‘through the wrong end of the long telescope of time’. We forget that in his day it was a courtly and a literary language,

    not made for village churls
But for high dames and mightly earls

Until we have trained ourselves to feel that ‘gudeman’ is no more rustic or homely than ‘husband’ we are no judges of Douglas as a translator of Virgil. If we fail in the training, then it is we and not the poet who are provincials.

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According to a news story, the history of the Basque language has been pushed back centuries:

Archaeologists have unearthed inscriptions in the Basque language that could date from as early as the third century, a find Basque linguists hailed as extraordinarily important…
Until now, a text written by a monk in both Castillian Spanish and Basque had been the oldest written example of the language, dating from the year 1040.

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This extremely interesting post at bethemedia explains the uses and abuses of “predictive text messaging,” a phenomenon of which I was unaware. Sample and conclusion:

And kids (and Media Types from London) are telling me my blog is totally Book. WHAT? Here’s the great new thing. Because ‘Book’ comes up before the word ‘Cool’ on T9, effectively kids are now re-associating the ‘Signified’ – our perfect Platonic notion of ‘Cool’ – with a signifier that shares no traditional meaning derived from existing language, but jumps to another (almost) randomly associated signifier – simply because of T9 associating them through structural similarities.
Language is set to evolve a new way – around technology, and with marvellous effects. And random association and correct spelling look like they will be preserved in the process.

Thanks for the link, Ben!


It’s been a rough day, people. Oh, nothing serious, just the usual detritus of life. I woke up to find we couldn’t get onto the internet; that sometimes happens, but usually it goes away in an hour or two. This time it didn’t. I could edit my Word files, but I was going to have to e-mail them on deadline. I called Time Warner and went through the usual round of menus and getting passed from one helpful but helpless human to another. They said they’d send somebody. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law was anxious, my wife was having a difficult time at work, and the World Cup games weren’t going well. By the time a genial fellow showed up and got us back online (it was a router problem), hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of spam comments had accumulated on my poor blog—I’ve never had such a heavy attack. I think perhaps “tamilu” hit every single thread that hadn’t been closed; I’m still deleting them by the score, but I’m taking time out to post, because I’ve got to get back to work and god knows how long it will take me to clear out all the kudzu. Oh, and while I was waiting for each batch of spam to be dealt with I read the New Yorker “Life During Wartime” double issue that’s been sitting around for a few weeks now (you can get an idea of the contents from MoorishGirl) and got more and more depressed. (Here are two quotes that pretty much put war in a nutshell. From “Ivory Coast, 2000” by Tony D’Souza: “Donatien said, ‘This is where the Dioula used to live.’ The Dioula were Muslim people from the north whom I’d soon be sent to serve. ‘What happened to them?’ I asked. Donatien stared at the foundations as though he were searching his memory. Then he said ‘The price of cocoa fell, times became hard. We told the Dioula to go, but they refused.’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘We came in the night and killed them.'” And from the journal of Second Lieutenant Brian Humphreys, with the U.S. army in Iraq: “We are fighting a rival gang for the same turf, while the neighborhood residents cower and wait to see whose side they should come out on.”) I have a couple of books to tell you about, but I haven’t got time or energy at the moment. Instead I’ll leave you with a couple of tidbits I’ve happened on recently:
1) While trying to discover the origin of the name Lunacharsky (which isn’t in Unbegaun, annoyingly), I saw that the name Lundyshev is derived from an obsolete Russian word lundysh ‘cloth’ which comes (via Polish and German) from London. Etymology is such fun!
2) While distracting myself with one of my few rare books, Jacob Rodde’s Russische Sprachlehre (Riga: Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, 1778, 4th ed. 1789—a “teach yourself Russian” book for the use of Baltic Germans in the time of Catherine the Great), I discovered that one of the домашные разговоры/Gespräche von Haussachen ‘household conversations’ included the sentence:
Господинъ Розе прислалъ сказать, что онъ будетъ и съ женою своею.
Herr Rose hat sagen lassen, dass er mit seiner Liebsten kommen wird.
‘Mr. Rose sent word that he would be coming with his wife[?].’
Now, жена means ‘wife,’ but in modern German that would be Frau, while Liebste means ‘sweetheart.’ You’d have to know a lot more than I do about 18th-century usage and customs to know who Herr Rose is going to show up with.

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A comment by Alexei in response to my previous post led me to investigate a woman I’d never heard of, Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva, and her life was so extraordinary and touched so many aspects of the early twentieth century that I thought I’d share it here. She was born Elizaveta (Liza) Yurevna Pilenko on Dec. 8, 1891 in Riga, where her father, Yuri Dmitrievich Pilenko, was a lawyer. When his father Dmitri, an army general from a Cossack family, died in 1895, the family moved south to Anapa, a Black Sea port Dmitri had helped establish, and Yuri became a successful agronomist and vintner. In 1905 he was named director of the Nikitsky Botanical Garden and the family moved to Yalta, but the next year he died suddenly and unexpectedly (still in his fifties) and his widow Sofiya (born 1862, died 1962!) took Liza to Saint Petersburg to live.

Liza hated Petersburg. After the South it was cold and dank; in her reminiscences she says “На улицах рыжий туман. Падает рыжий снег. Никогда, никогда нет солнца.” [There was red-brown fog in the streets. Red-brown snow fell. There was never, never any sun.] The death of her beloved father destroyed her belief in God and made it impossible for her to concentrate on her studies; she wandered the streets and thought bitter thoughts. Then, the next year, her cousin took her to a poetry reading where she saw and heard Alexander Blok and (like so many others) fell under his spell; she felt that here at last was someone who could understand her grief and disillusionment. She found out his address and visited him at home, where the 27-year-old poet took the 15-year-old girl seriously and talked with her for hours; after she left he wrote two poems, Когда вы стоите на моем пути and Она пришла с мороза (both, most unusually, in free verse), the first of which he sent her along with a letter that enraged her for what she felt was its condescension. She gave up on him as a mentor/friend, but began writing seriously herself and frequenting Petersburg’s literary and artistic circles; after a brief romance with Nikolai Gumilev (who addressed to her the poem Это было не раз, это будет не раз) she met and quickly married (in early 1910) Dmitri Vladimirovich Kuzmin-Karavaev, son of a liberal politician who had an estate in the northeast of Tver province adjoining Slepnyovo, the family dacha of Gumilev, where he brought his new bride Anna Akhmatova in 1911—there’s a photo of Liza standing next to Anna at Slepnyovo in 1912, the year her first volume of poetry, Скифские черепки [Scythian potsherds], was published.

The marriage didn’t last long; she left Dmitri and moved with her mother and her lover back to Anapa, where in December 1913 her daughter Gayana was born. Her lover was killed in WWI; she was elected mayor of Anapa in February 1918, then was arrested and threatened with death [I had the politics wrong here—see Tatyana’s comment below for details]. A member of the government of the Kuban region, Daniil Skobtsov, took an interest in her case, and after she was freed they were married and left Russia via Georgia, Constantinople, and Belgrade, ending up (like so many Russian exiles) in Paris.

They had two children, but that marriage also broke up, and in 1932 she took monastic vows and became the Orthodox nun Mother Maria. (Oddly, her former husband Kuzmin-Karavaev converted to Catholicism and eventually became a cardinal.) In that capacity she worked to help poor emigrants, and when WWII came she joined the Resistance and helped Jews escape by providing them false papers and other assistance. Betrayed by a fellow emigré, she was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, where she died in 1945 (perhaps volunteering to take the place of another inmate, though there’s no proof).

There’s a Russian site dedicated to her, with writings by and about her, and more here and here; in English there’s a paragraph here, underneath a gorgeous watercolor she did in Paris. She’s one of those people I wish I’d been lucky enough to know.
[Note: I added the name by which she’s known in the first sentence to avoid confusion; I’ve already found one site that links to this and calls her “the poet Liza Pilenko.” Sorry, my sloppy. (That nominalized adjective is for Mark Liberman.) Also, here‘s another good Russian link about her, with lots of good pictures.]


Looking up Vyacheslav Ivanov—who a century ago ran an influential St. Petersburg literary salon in his turreted house, called the Tower—in Solomon Volkov’s gossipy and irresistible St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, I found this:

The Tower was imbued with an intensely intellectual atmosphere. As a woman poet who participated in the meetings recalled,

We quoted the Greeks by heart, took delight in the French Symbolists, considered Scandinavian literature our own, knew philosophy and theology, poetry and history of the whole world. In that sense we were citizens of the universe, bearers of the great cultural museum of humanity. It was Rome at the time of the fall. We did not live, but rather contemplated the most refined that there was in life. We were not afraid of any words. We were cynical and unchaste in spirit, wan and inert in life. In a certain sense we were, of course, the revolution before the revolution—so profoundly, ruthlessly, and fatally did we destroy the old tradition and build bold bridges into the future. But our depth and daring were intertwined with a lingering sense of decay, the spirit of dying, ghostliness, ephemerality. We were the last act of a tragedy.”

Great quote, right? But… “a woman poet”? What the hell, are they interchangeable? The footnote is no help: “Aleksandr Blok v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov (Alexander Blok in the Reminiscences of Contemporaries), vol. 2 (Moscow, 1980), pp. 62-63.” So if anyone has that book or happens to know whose words are being quoted, please be so kind as to inform me. Until then, I sit in darkness.
Update. It turns out she’s Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva, and I wound up doing a post about her. Thanks, Alexei!


Some time back I discovered the poetry of Gennady Aygi, a Chuvash who (at the suggestion of Boris Pasternak) began writing in Russian in the late 1950s. His poetry is very strange, not Russian-seeming at all; it was only when I realized that he was more of a French poet who happened to write in Russian (as he says in this excellent interview, when asked if he is a European, “Да, я европеец и – так по судьбе вышло – француз” [Yes, I’m a European and – as fate would have it – a Frenchman]) that I began to get a handle on him. His combination of simple, everyday words into mysterious, allusive stanzas reminds me of one of my favorites, Yves Bonnefoy. So I sent off for a bilingual collection, Selected Poems 1954-94, and today it finally arrived from Amazon. And when I started googling up links for this post, I discovered that he’d died in February; here‘s the Guardian obituary by his friend and translator Peter France:

His friendship with Pasternak, at that time being harassed by the authorities, and his own innovative poetics made him persona non grata in Chuvashia. Even so, the fields and forests of his native land permeate his work, and he remained deeply attached to his ancestral culture, striving to give it a place among the cultures of the world. He translated poetry from many languages into Chuvash and produced an Anthology of Chuvash Poetry (published in English by Forest Books in 1991). Eventually, after the perestroika of the late 1980s, his work was acclaimed in his homeland and he became the Chuvash national poet.
His main home, however, was in Moscow, where in the 1960s he found a much-needed support system among “underground” writers, artists and musicians, who together were discovering the forbidden fruits of western culture. For 10 years he worked at the Mayakovsky Museum, acquiring a deep knowledge of the Russian avant garde of the early 20th century. Modern French poetry (above all Baudelaire) was another essential influence…

I’d love to read that Chuvash anthology; Chuvash is the most divergent of the Turkic languages, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot available on it (though there is a 17-volume Словарь чувашского языка = Thesaurus linguae tchuvaschorum [1928-50] by N. I. Ashmarin, not to mention a Chuvash Wikipedia).
At any rate, I agree with Aygi that (pace his translator) he doesn’t write free verse; he says “То, что я делаю, – не верлибр и не свободная поэзия. Она просто без рифм, и поэтому вопрос ритма становится необычайно важным” [What I do isn’t vers libre and it isn’t free poetry. It’s simply unrhymed, and therefore the question of rhythm becomes unusually important]; as Eliot said, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” Here‘s a long and interesting interview in English (“The city is a book itself. Not every city, I mean. I went to Paris a while ago. It is a really big book…”), here are a lot of his poems in Russian, and here are eight poems translated by France. I’ll quote a tiny poem from 1994:

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