Archives for January 2007


Tom, the correspondent who sent me the Romani links posted earlier today, has a question to which I do not know the answer, and I am hoping some of my readers do:

Today the name of the Russian language in Russian is russkii, but the name of the country is Rossiia. I realize that it was Peter the Great who changed the name of his realm from Muscovy (Moskovskoe Tsarstvo) to the Russian Empire (Rossiiskaia Imperia) in 1721. In doing so he fell on the Greek translation of the Slavic name Rus, that is, Rosia. In line with Peter’s choice, Lomonosov wrote about the Russian language as rossiiski, not russkii. But at the turn of the 19th century, the latter form had almost completely replaced the former. (The Latin translation of Rus was Ruthenia, which was preferred to the Greek version in Catholic and Protestant states west of Russia.)
I wonder why it happened and when exactly some official decision was taken to this effect.
The only inexact and vague hypothesis on the change I have drawn from books by the French Slavicist Danie Beavouis. Between 1772 and 1795, Austria, Prussia and Russia partitioned Poland-Lithuania. Russia got the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whose law was based on the 16th-century Lithuanian Statute. The statute was composed in Cyrillic-based Ruthenian (ruski), which was the official language in the Duchy then. Ruthenian was based on the local Slavic dialects of the Orthodox population, who dubbed themselves ruski (Ruthenian), an adjective derived from the name of the medieval polity of Rus. This written vernacular of Ruthenian came in two varieties shaped by the two ducal chanceries in Vilnius and Kyiv. In turn, Ruthenian influenced the development of the still heavily Church Slavonicized Muscovian chancery language, before the latter spawned Russian as we know it.

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Correspondent Tomasz Kamusella sent me a great collection of links relating to the Romani (“Gypsy”) language and culture, which I hereby pass along to you all:
Цыгане России (Romani of Russia; in Russian)
Лилоро (dedicated to Romani language, culture, history, and literature; in Russian)
Romani muzika
Romano Vodi online journal (mainly Romani)
Dženo Association online bulletin (trilingual edition; for Romani click on Romani flag)
Rrommedia Network (in Romani)
Romano Centro magazine (in Romani)
Roma Rights Quarterly (in Romani)
TV Sutel Romani-language programme, Macedonia
Radio Multikulti Romanes (Romani-language broadcasts)
Romnet Romani-language news, Hungary
Radio rota Romani-language online radio, Czech Republic
Radio Romano/Cafe Romano Romani-language Radio online, from Sweden
BBC Kent’s Romany Roots
Roma Decade Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015
Radio Romano Centro (Vienna)
Romani (language site)
The Patrin Web Journal: Romani Culture and History
Unión Romaní (Spain)
European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC)
The Dream (A photographic essay among the Chergari Gypsies in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)
Rroma (organisations, culture, and history)
Roma in the Czech Republic
RomNews Society
Finally, from the Wikipedia in Romani I learn that Romanes now has a Devanagari standard written form as well!


Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —
Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.
   Emily Dickinson
(via wood s lot, and I’m glad it’s finally started snowing here in the Berkshires)


Robert Roy Britt discusses the “nomenclature wars” of astronomy at

You might be surprised to learn that the outskirts of the solar system are loaded with Plutinos, Centaurs, cubewanos and EKOs. Astronomers didn’t even know this a decade ago. In fact until 1992 they hadn’t even invented three of the terms.
Now it seems they don’t have enough of these crazy names.
During the past decade, hundreds of objects have been discovered in a bewildering range of locations and orbital configurations beyond Jupiter. During that same time, astronomers have invented a puzzling set of designations — some straightforward, some creative, some downright amusing — to describe their findings.
The result is a charming lexicon that unfortunately does not properly describe what’s out there, according to some experts. More names are needed, one group of astronomers argues.

It’s a longish article, and there wouldn’t be much point trying to summarize it, so I’ll let you examine the proposed words and classifications for yourself, but I can’t resist quoting my favorite:

Objects near Plutinos that are not attracted into resonances with Neptune are called cubewanos. These make up the “classical” Kuiper Belt, a relatively thin region of space that corresponds to the same plane in which most of the planets orbit, Parker explained.
The origin of the word “cubewano” is perhaps the most extreme example of nomenclative amusement among astronomers.
The first KBO found was initially designated 1992 QB1, Parker explains. Its a name that denotes the year, month and order of discovery and is typical for newfound objects whose orbits are not pinned down. It was later learned that 1992 QB1 was a “main belt” KBO, not a Plutino, and so astronomers just began sounding out “QB1” and a new term was born.

My only complaint is that “cubewano” is a misleading spelling; the etymology implies it should be pronounced “cue-bee-wahn-oh” (Q-B-1-O), but it’s hard to look at “cube” and not pronounce it as a monosyllable (“kyoob-wahn-oh”). A tip of the Languagehat hat to aldiboronti at for the link.


A correspondent writes:

In a recent discussion on a economics and culture blog to which I contribute, a commentator noted:
> The Amish example is the “one-gallus Schwenkfelders”, the sect that broke off from the orthodox Schwenkfelders because two overall straps were considered to be unneeded to hold the overalls up and therefore “vain ornamentation”.
Would anyone amongst your readers and contributors know what the Pennsilfaanisch-Deitsch phraseology would be for “vain ornamentation”?

I’m sure one of you learned folks knows the answer; share the info and James, my correspondent, will be grateful. Me, I’m grateful to him, for bringing the Schwenkfelders and their founder, Kaspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig, to my attention. He and they will go up there with Lodowicke Muggleton and the Muggletonians in my personal pantheon of pleasing religious eponyms.


I mentioned a while back that I was reading Proust to my wife in the evenings (in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation), and I’ve come across a word so obscure and entrancing that I had to tell you about it. As Swann is ascending the staircase to the Marquise de Saint-Euverte’s party (in the “Swann in Love” section, on p. 354 of my edition), he is followed by “a servant with a pallid countenance and a small pigtail clubbed at the back of his head, like a Goya sacristan or a tabellion in an old play.” Tabellion is taken straight from the French (“comme un sacristain de Goya ou un tabellion du répertoire”), but it turns out to be English as well; the OED says:

[ad. L. tabellio, -ōnem, one who draws up written instruments, a notary, scrivener, f. tabella tablet, letter, etc.]
A scrivener, a kind of subordinate notary; esp. in the Roman Empire, and in France till the Revolution, an official scribe having some of the functions of a notary. In 17-18th c. used as a recognized designation of a vocation in England and New England.

The citations go back to the fifteenth century; you can see the New England use in a 1735 quote from C. Hazard, Life T. Hazard (1893): “I Joseph Marion Notary and Tabellion Publick Dwelling in Boston in New England” (all the citations are quoted here). What a fine thing, to be a tabellion!
A couple of pages previously, Swann is examining “the scattered pack of tall, magnificent, idle footmen” in the entrance hall:

One of them, of a particularly ferocious aspect, and not unlike the headsman in certain Renaissance pictures which represent executions, tortures, and the like, advanced upon him with an implacable air to take his “things.” But the harshness of his steely glare was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so effectively that, as he approached Swann, he seemed to be exhibiting at once an utter contempt for his person and the most tender regard for his hat.

(For those who think there aren’t enough hats in this blog.)


A very nice site called Moroccan Vocabulary (new this month) lives up to its subtitle, “Moroccan Word a Day.” Monday’s word was zrbiyya ‘carpet’; there’s grammatical information (the undefined feminine plural is zrâbi, for instance), a sample sentence, and a picture. The author says “I am simply a Moroccan, trying to share the beauty of my dialect and culture,” and he or she is certainly doing a good job. Many thanks to Liosliath of Morocco Time for the link!


A Guardian essay by Zadie Smith called “Fail Better” considers what writers try to do when they write and what readers should be doing in response. She says “somewhere between a critic’s necessary superficiality and a writer’s natural dishonesty, the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost,” and she tries to remedy the loss. You probably won’t agree with everything she says, but if you’re at all interested in the subject you should find it a fascinating read, and it makes me (as it does Anatoly, from whom I got the link) want to read some of her fiction. (The title of the essay, by the way, is from Beckett.)


Osip Mandelstam (I can never decide whether to write Mandelstam or Mandelshtam in English, so I do it both ways) is featured at wood s lot today, and one of the links is to an essay by Adam Kirsch that begins by focusing on M’s relationship with his Jewishness (a vexed subject), then moves on to the difficulty of translating him. (Here’s Auden, who should have known better: “I don’t see why Mandelstam is considered a great poet. The translations that I’ve seen don’t convince me at all.”) Kirsch welcomes the republication of the 1974 Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown, then says:

But are they faithful reflections of what Mandelstam wrote? Joseph Brodsky, a formidable authority, insisted that they were not. In his essay on Mandelstam, “The Child of Civilization”…, Brodsky took aim at translators who turn Mandelstam’s rigorously formal poems into free verse. “Calls for the use of ‘an instrument of poetry in our own time,'” Brodsky insisted, mean stripping Mandelstam of his extremely dense verbal music; the result is “a sort of common denominator of modern verbal art.” “The cavalier treatment” of meter and rhyme, Brodsky wrote hyperbolically, “is at best a sacrilege, at worst a mutilation or a murder.” The Merwin-Brown translation is one of the sacrileges he had in mind…

Now, I yield to no one in my admiration of Brodsky as a poet, but as a theorist of translation he was as bad as Nabokov, and with worse results, since he controlled the (generally mediocre) English translations of his work so closely. (Daniel Weissbort’s From Russian with love: Joseph Brodsky in English is devoted in large part to accounts of his unavailing attempts to convince Brodsky he didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to English translations.) English is not constructed like Russian, its poetic traditions are different, and it makes no sense to try to reproduce Brodsky’s rhyme and meter, as can be seen by the hideous example Woods quotes that begins:

The falling is the constant mate of fear,
And feel of emptiness is the feel of fright.
Who throws us the stones from the height —
And stones here refuse the dust to bear?

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Joel of Far Outliers has a typically detailed and interesting post sparked by a viewing of Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙); it’s part of his “Wordcatcher Tales” series, in which he analyzes unusual Japanese words or expressions. He discusses the “Iwo” in the island’s name, actually 硫黄 iou ‘sulphur, brimstone’ (the -w- hasn’t been pronounced in quite a while, though I’d be curious to know just when it disappeared); 閣下 kakka ‘(Your/His[/Her]) Excellency,’ the form of address for the commanding general (reminiscent of tsarist forms like ваше благородие vashe blagorodie, abbreviated by the men in the trenches to vashbrod’ or the like), which leads to a discussion of Japanese ranks as compared with American ones; and 貴様ら kisamara, an insulting way to address a group (kisama ‘you [derog.]’ + -ra [impolite pl.]), which leads to a discussion of Japanese pronouns and an extremely useful link to the Yale Anime Society glossary, David Soler’s list (last revised in 1999) of “the 100 words which I deem to be most common and/or essential in anime” followed by a discussion of personal pronouns. Some of the words are of particular relevance to movies (“nigeru to flee. Often used in the imperative form, Nigete! or Nigero!, in which case it’s best translated as ‘Run!’ or ‘Get away!'”), but many are just common words and expressions I well remember from my years in Japan as a kid (e.g., “baka an all-purpose insult denigrating the subject’s intelligence”).