Archives for December 2006


I know no better quote for the turn of the year than the Robert Louis Stevenson one I posted two years ago, so here it is again:

To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose: and how often we have been cowardly and hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness;—it may seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a certain consolation resides. Life is not designed to minister to a man’s vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of rewards and pleasures as it is—so that to see the day break or the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys—this world is yet for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails, weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly process of detachment. When the time comes that he should go, there need be few illusions left about himself. Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much:—surely that may be his epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field: defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius!—but if there is still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured. The faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones; there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and the dust and the ecstasy—there goes another Faithful Failure!

And once again I wish you all the very best of years. May 2007 bring us more joy than sorrow and more wisdom than forgetfulness.


Aaron Haspel of God of the Machine is on a quest, and I’m here to hold his coat, cheer him on, and offer the services of my variegated readership. His latest post begins:

“Sentence first — verdict afterwards,” says the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland; and the trial of the Knave of Hearts has justly remained the literary standard for injustice, since the book’s publication in 1869.
Being an idiot, I thought the expression originated with Lewis Carroll, until last night. I was reading Macaulay 1830 essay on Lord Byron, and ran across the following passage, on Byron’s failed marriage: “True Jedwood justice was dealt out to him. First came the execution, then the investigation, and last of all, or rather not at all, the accusation.” The term “Jedwood justice,” also new to me, implied that the concept is proverbial, and led to a slightly earlier citation, in 1828, from Walter Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth: “Jedwood justice — hang in haste and try at leisure.”

He traces it back, in the form of “Lydford Law,” to “the early 17th century poet William Browne“:

I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after:
At first I wondered at it much;
But since, I find the reason such,
As it deserves no laughter…

But there the trail runs cold: “My patchy scholarship, abetted by some desultory Googling, can take me no further. Can my readers supply earlier citations, in English or another language?” Aaron and I await any enlightenment you can provide.


I got a number of presents of linguistic interest, including foreign movies (La Meglio gioventù and Akarui mirai—thanks, Eric!) and Russian opera DVDs (Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, The Gamblers, and War and Peace, and Shostakovich’s The Nose—thanks, Elias!), but certainly the two most directly connected with the concerns of this blog are Тень русской ветки: Набоковская Выра [Shade of a Russian branch: Nabokov’s Vyra], by Aleksandr Alexandrovich Semochkin (apparently there’s an English edition, Nabokov’s Paradise Lost: The Family Estates in Russia, whose description applies equally well to my Russian 2002 second edition: “This album consists of photographs from the family archive of the Nabokovs, as well as pictures of the family estates near St. Petersburg where Vladimir Nabokov spent the summers of his boyhood and youth. Together with the quotations from his works, they make a fascinating background to the novels based on his early experiences: Speak, Memory, The Defense, and The Gift”)—thanks, Tatyana!—and Anthology of Old Russian Literature by Adolf Stender-Petersen, which I owe to the generosity of Songdog and his lovely wife (and of course their excellent son, who at two years eight months may not have had much intellectual input into the choice of gift but whose affection is clearly attached to it); the Life of Archpriest Avvakum alone (excerpts here, in three languages) should give me hours of pleasure. And I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the LH readers who sent cards and other holiday communications, books, and (in one case) actual money—your words of encouragement and tokens of esteem mean more to me than I can say. If it weren’t for the enthusiasm and responsiveness of my readership, I’d have given up the blog long ago.


In a 1997 essay, Joe Amato compares one of my favorite poets with one of my favorite novelists:

In what follows, I compare the work of a (very much alive) novelist with that of a (very much dead) poet. Specifically, I compare a recent (long) novel to a not-so-recent (long) poem. In doing so, I read what some will call “content” across two distinct literary genres. My reason for reading Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations over and against Louis Zukofsky’s “A” is to help bring into clearer focus why we might do well to turn more of our critical and creative attention to perhaps the most neglected literary form of this century in North America — the long poem (and I am not the first to make this observation). At the same time, I hope to give some indication of why we might do well to continue to turn our critical and creative attention to the ways in which the literary constitutes a valuable site through which to understand our works and days.
Richard Powers is an accomplished novelist whose five (soon to be six [nine as of 2006—LH] novels plumb the controversies, latent and teeming, inherent to our highly technological milieu. I daresay that, for most of my readers, Louis Zukofsky, though an equally accomplished poet, will be a somewhat less recognizable, and more inaccessible, figure. I hope to show why both authors warrant continued scrutiny, why the work of literature, and of reviewing literature as I propose, may be vital to sustaining our social ecologies…

There’s a certain amount of jargon, but it’s worth it for the quotes and insights, and I like the idea of breaking down the wall between criticism of prose and poetry. (Via wood s lot.)


Every once in a while I run across some linguistic usage so bizarre that I have to poll my readership to see 1) if it’s used by more than the one person who brought it up, and 2) if so, whether anybody knows its history. Today I present to you elvissinatra in AskMetaFilter:

Anybody else grow up calling a pacifier, a “goots”? I’m not sure if I’m spelling it correctly, but that’s how it sounds (rhymes with boots). I’m not Jewish, but that word sounds Yiddish to me. Now I’ve got a kid of my own, and everybody thinks I’m crazy because I call it a goots. Is it a name brand? West Michigan Polish/Italian slang? Or what?

The Yiddish idea has been shot down in the comment thread (though I suppose it could be a dialect word); other terms mentioned are nookie, binkie, dummy, zooba, padiddle, geegee, bubble, and perhaps ish (if that person was serious). All suggestions, other words, thoughts, and jokes are, as always, welcome. Me, I’ve never called it anything but a pacifier.


I’m using the spelling of the holiday given in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, but there are many, many more—Mark Liberman says “a new survey by Language Log labs has found that Hanukkah is second only to Muammar al-Gaddafi in public spelling uncertainty”; if you want to know the horrifying details (and the entropy of the distribution), visit his Language Log post on the subject. And I hope those of my readers who celebrate it are having the best of Christmases.


Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever used the phrase on all fours except in its literal sense of ‘on hands and knees,’ but I was vaguely aware that it had a technical/metaphorical meaning, which Orin Kerr explains as follows in a post on the history of the phrase: “One of the legal profession’s stranger expressions is that a case is ‘on all fours’ with another case. It means that the former case raises the same facts and legal principles as the latter and is therefore highly relevant as a precedent.” He cites Michael Quinion’s explanation that “presumably the image is of two animals standing together, both on all four legs, hence in closely similar situations,” but he himself suggests “the visual image is more an animal running alongside the observer than two animals standing next to each other. If an animal is running on all four legs beside you, the thinking might be, it means that it remains close to you and goes where you go.” For much more on the subject, including copious citations, see Mark Liberman’s recent Language Log post, which is where I learned all I know about it.


I have to return the Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution to the library soon, so I was looking through the section “Nationality and Regional Questions,” which I hadn’t yet investigated, and decided to read Martha Brill Olcott’s chapter on “The Revolution in Central Asia” and compare it with the account in my copy of Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance, edited by Edward Allworth. I immediately hit a snag. The Companion uses Russianized forms of the names of the locals: Muhammad Tynyshpaev, Halel Dos Muhammedov, Ali Khan Bukeikhanov, Ahmed Baitursunov, Mir Jakup Dulatov. Hélène Carrère d’Encausse (who wrote the relevant chapters in the Allworth book) uses forms that I presume are closer to the local-language versions: Muhamedjan Tanishbay-uli, Qalel Dosmahambet-uli, Aliqan Bokeyqan-uli, Aqmet Baytursin-uli, and Mir Jaqib Duwlat-uli, respectively. I can understand both choices, but it’s a shame that people already so marginalized by history are rendered even harder to investigate by such discrepant transliterations.


Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat has an intriguing post about “a Mauritanian Arabic-based pidgin recorded by the medieval geographer Al-Bakri” that he says “may well be the earliest attested passage in a pidgin, and certainly the earliest Arabic-based pidgin reported.”

The near-absence of morphology, the apparent presence of tense particles, and the simplification of the phonology are all suggestive of a pidgin, and a pidgin is exactly what one would expect given the nature of the trans-Sahara trade. Phonetically, the substitution of ‘ for qāf is characteristic of lower Egypt and the Levant, but also of several city dialects in the Maghreb and of Maltese; the substitution of d for j is widespread in upper Egypt, but I know of no modern dialect that has both features.

See his post for the passage in Arabic, in Lameen’s suggested transcription, and in Thomason and Elgibali’s tentative translation (it’s a variation on the old joke about the man and his son trying to ride a camel with the least amount of flak from passersby), and for the frustrating facts of its publication. I hope the manuscript source turns up someday!


A CNN story informs us that Georgia’s Department of Transportation has issued a new official map that’s been sadly simplified:

Poetry Tulip has vanished. So have Due West and Po Biddy Crossroads. Cloudland and Roosterville are gone, too…
Gone are such places as Dewy Rose, Hemp, Experiment, Retreat, Wooster, Sharp Top and Chattoogaville, a spot in far northwestern Georgia that consists of little more than a two-truck volunteer fire department, a few farmhouses and a country store where locals fill up their gas tanks.
“We’re not under obligation to show every single community,” department spokeswoman Karlene Barron said. “While we want to, there’s a balancing act. And the map was getting illegible.”

What you call illegible, I call a linguistic feast, dammit!