Archives for February 2007


This is the kind of picky detail most people don’t even notice, but that drives editors (and those with editorial brains) crazy. I just noticed that the LibraryThing page for Hilary Ballon’s The Paris of Henri IV: Architecture and Urbanism gave the king’s name as “Henry IV.” (It doesn’t now, because I changed the entry for my copy, and I’m the only one at LT who owns the book.) That’s odd, I thought, why would the book spell a French king’s name à l’anglaise? I walked the three feet or so to the history shelf and found the book: sure enough, it said Henri—not only on the cover, but throughout. But has it as Henry (which is why LT had it that way, I presumed). Bad! But wait: it seems the publisher’s page for the book also has Henry! What’s going on here? How on earth has such a blatant error stuck around since 1991 (when the first edition came out)?
Update. A self-described “loyal MIT alum” wrote me to say he’d notified MIT Press of the problem and they’ve now corrected the website (as of Feb. 27). We’ll see if follows suit.


Probably everyone who’s ever taken a course equivalent to History of Civilization has read (or at least been assigned) a book by H.D.F. Kitto, probably The Greeks. I was looking at the latter entry in LibraryThing when it suddenly struck me: what the heck kind of name is Kitto? It looked vaguely Hungarian, but I suddenly needed to know. So I looked it up, and to my surprise it’s Gaelic, from ciotóg ‘left-handed person.’ Or at least so my reference books tell me; his Wikipedia entry says he was of Cornish ancestry, and I find online sites (like this) that imply it’s a Cornish name. Anybody know further details? (Fun fact: Mancini is from an Italian word meaning ‘left-handed.’)


If you’re at all familiar with pinyin, this is a nice little game:

OK, here are 30 Western writers:
(1) Camus. (2) D.H. Lawrence. (3) Bunyan. (4) Trollope. (5) Pushkin. (6) Edgar Allen Poe. (7) Donne. (8) Rousseau. (9) Yeats. (10) Cervantes. (11) George Bernard Shaw. (12) Wells. (13) Dante. (14) Chaucer. (15) Dostoyevsky. (16) Kipling. (17) Goethe. (18) Kafka. (19) Dos Passos. (20) James. (21) Fitzgerald. (22) Keats. (23) Aristophanes. (24) Gogol. (25) Hardy. (26) Charlotte Brontë. (27) Johnson. (28) Thackeray. (29) Flaubert. (30) Shelley.
Now here, in a different order, are the pinyin transcriptions of their Chinese names.
(a) Guogeli. (b) Xiaobona. (c) Alisituofen. (d) Saiwantisi. (e) Zhanmeisi. (f) Gede. (g) Danding. (h) Yuehansheng. (i) Puxijin. (j) Qiaosou. (k) Duosi-Pasuosi. (l) Jiamiao. (m) Tangen. (n) Tuosituoyefusiji. (o) Yezhi. (p) Fuloubai. (q) Feicijielade. (r) Xialuoti-Bolangte. (s) Jici. (t) Kafuka. (u) Sakelei. (v) Jibulin. (w) Ailun-Po. (x) Xuelai. (y) Teluoluopu. (z) Hadai. (aa) Lusuo. (bb) Banyang. (cc) Weiersi. (dd) Laolunsi.
Your task is to match off the second list with the first. You have five minutes to do this, starting� now.

I got them all, but managed Tangen only by process of elimination, and I’m still not sure how it works. (Via Odious and Peculiar, who got it from John Derbyshire.)
Warning: Don’t go into the comment thread if you’re still working on the puzzle; the first commenter posted the answers!


An interesting Language Log discussion focuses on the word diaper and its tendency to be used in the plural:

Viewed historically, diaper and nappy were originally construed as singular, but plurally marked diapers and nappies in singular contexts became more frequent by the mid-20th century. An example from 1960 appears in the OED draft entry for mess, taken from A.S. Neill’s Summerhill (a popular account of Neill’s pioneering Summerhill School). The quote voices a boy’s thoughts about his younger brother: “If I am like him and mess my trousers the way he dirties his diapers, Mommy will love me again.” (That’s from the U.S. edition — the U.K. edition, reprinted here, has nappies instead of diapers.) The parallel structure here is telling: “mess my trousers” vs. “dirties his diapers/nappies.” The plurally marked diapers and nappies appear to be influenced by pants and trousers — words that almost always appear in the plural, or pluralia tantum as they’re technically known…
Even though diapers and nappies have gone a long way to joining the pants family, they remain something of a special case since they’ll never be pluralia tantum. When it’s not worn, a diaper is just a diaper: a piece of fabric with no leg-holes. Only when it’s worn and transformed into something “pants-like” can all of those –s forms exert their analogical influence, leading to a preference for diapers over diaper. But it remains only a preference, since even when worn a diaper can still be construed singularly.

There is further discussion of U.K. and Australian usage, and of distinctions between cloth diapers and disposable diapers and between infant diapers and “pullup” diapers, not to mention diaper covers. Anyone who has had occasion to discuss diapers is welcome to weigh in with their own usage.


Another amazingly detailed post from Polyglot Vegetarian: everything you could want to know about k3mwtt and other Egyptian words for wheat and similar grains, complete with excursuses into Wallis Budge, Unicode, and Afro-Asiatic cognates. I am in awe of this man, and hope I get to eat his cooking someday.


David Parker, Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Northwest Georgia, writes another history blog, which is well worth reading if you’re interested in American history. Of linguistic interest is his post from last Christmas on the meaning, spelling, and history of that great American pronoun y’all (discussed here and here on LH). The OED’s first citation is from 1909; he antedated that by over half a century:

I came across a citation to the Southern Literary Messenger from 1858. The piece was written by “Mozis Addums,” penname of George William Bagby, one of the humorists of the mid-nineteenth century who thought spelling everything phonetically was funny. Mozis described the crowded conditions in the boarding house where he was living: “Packin uv pork in a meet house, which you should be keerful it don’t git hot at the bone, and prizin uv tobakker, which y’all’s Winstun nose how to do it, givs you a parshil idee, but only parshil.”

There’s a lot more (in his words, “More than y’all wanted to know about ‘y’all'”), so y’all head on over and enjoy!


From an e-mail I sent yesterday: “[I] had to stay in the hotel while everyone else… sightsaw? sightseed? sheesh, what is the past tense?… Merriam-Webster says ‘sightsaw,’ but that sounds awful to me…” My correspondent agreed it sounded wrong, and said he’d say “went sightseeing,” which I realized immediately was the past tense people actually use. But what an odd verb! Does anybody find sightsaw normal and use it naturally? And does anybody know if there are other verbs whose regular past tense is on the fringe of acceptability?


I’m still working my way through the Jan. 22 New Yorker, and I just finished “Digging for Dodos,” by Ian Parker (not online). It’s fairly interesting (though presumably more so if you care more than I do about dodos), but the linguistically significant bit was this, from p. 66:

On later visits, the Dutch came to refer to the birds as dodaersen—fat-asses. In English, “dodo” was in use by the sixteen-twenties, perhaps through a simple process of linguistic evolution; but [Julian] Hume [a British paleontologist and dodo authority] likes the idea that the coinage was inspired, or at least reinforced, by the bird’s call.

I have two problems with this. In the first place, dood does not mean ‘fat’ in Dutch, it means ‘dead’ or ‘death’ (‘fat’ is dik or vet). More importantly, every other etymology I’ve seen for dodo (for example, Merriam-Webster’s) derives it from Portuguese doudo ‘silly, stupid.’ My default assumption here is that the author listened to somebody who didn’t know what he was talking about (presumably one of the Dutch scientists he traveled around with) and that the magazine, as sadly often these days, fell down on fact-checking, but if anyone knows differently, please speak up.


A MetaFilter post by the consistently interesting Kári Tulinius, aka Kattullus, alerted me to Writers on America, an online book sponsored by the U.S. State Department with essays by “American poets, novelists, critics, and historians what it means to be an American writer.” Some are better than others, of course, but I was particularly struck by Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, which nicely brings together two recent LH posts, on Chabon and on street names, not to mention my love for maps. Chabon grew up in a planned community, Columbia, Maryland:

The power of maps to fire the imagination is well known. And, as Joseph Conrad’s Marlow observed, there is no map so seductive as the one, like the flag-colored schoolroom map of Africa that doomed him to his forlorn quest, marked by doubts and conjectures, by the romantic blank of unexplored territory. The map of Columbia I took home from that first visit was like that. The Plan dictated that the Town be divided into sub-units to be called Villages, each Village in turn divided into Neighborhoods. These Villages had all been laid out and named, and were present on and defined by the map. Many of the Neighborhoods, too, had been drawn in, along with streets and the network of bicycle paths that knit the town together. But there were large areas of the map that, apart from the Village name, were entirely empty, conjectural — nonexistent, in fact.
The names of Columbia! That many, if not most of them, were bizarre, unlikely, and even occasionally ridiculous, was a regular subject of discussion among Columbians and outsiders alike. In the Neighborhood called Phelps Luck, you could find streets with names that were anglo-whimsical and alliterative (Drystraw Drive, Margrave Mews, Luckpenny Lane); elliptical and puzzling, shorn of their suffixes, Zen (Blue Pool, Red Lake, Spiral Cut); or truly odd (Cloudleap Court, Roll Right Court, Newgrange Garth). It was rumored that the naming of Columbia’s one thousand streets had been done by a single harried employee of the Rouse Company who, barred by some kind of arcane agreement from duplicating any of the street names in use in the surrounding counties of Baltimore and Anne Arundel, had turned in desperation from the exhausted lodes of flowers, trees, and U.S. presidents to the works of American writers and poets. The genius loci of Phelps Luck — did you guess? — was Robinson Jeffers.

The combination of the last two quoted sentences seems to imply that “Phelps Luck” is from the work of Jeffers, but apparently it’s just near Jeffers Hill; this site says “‘Phelps Luck’ is a modification of the original land grant, ‘Phelps His Luck’, a 238-acre plantation patented by Walter Phelps on December 10, 1695.”
I also recommend Bharati Mukherjee’s On Being an American Writer; I’m still working my way through the others.


I’m still reading Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 by Mark Mazower (and liking it more and more), and I reached a section on street names that pushed my buttons and that I want to share here. This is from the section “Naming the Mahala,” which starts on p. 227:

The old streets within the walls were tortuous, narrow, and mostly unnamed. There were no maps and navigation was difficult for strangers… Residents were classified by Ottoman officials, and identified themselves, by their neighborhood (mahala) whose nicknames made no sense to outsiders. Kaldigroç was a corruption of the Judeo-Spanish Kal de los Gregos, the Street of the Greeks; Bedaron, an abbreviation of the synagogue Beth Aron. There was the “Quarter of the Three Eggs”—named after a decorated marble slab on the façade of an old house—”At the Fire” (after an especially bad one) and “Defterdar,” because a treasurer of the province had once lived there. Other neighbourhoods were known after local places of worship and their nicknames. There was the “Red Mosque,” the “Mosque of the Clocktower” and the “Burned Monastery” district, from the destruction caused by a Venetian bombardment two centuries earlier. The Ashkenazic synagogue was known as “Russia” or “Moscow,” Poulia as Macarron, from its members’ supposed fondness for pasta; the salt-farmers’ synagogue, Shalom, was called Gamello, after the camels who carried the salt (but also local slang for a dullard or idiot)…
Places thus acquired names according to an entirely locally generated logic. Many small alleys and cul-de-sacs were nameless, or known by such helpful terms as “Rocky Place,” or “Behind the Square of the Graveyard.” Larger streets changed name several times as they wound their way past mosques and shrines…
But at the very end of the nineteenth century, this localized way of naming space was challenged by new conceptions of what place-names should do… The municipality eventually issued the first street names [i.e., official markers] in May 1898, although their usefulness for strangers was initially limited by their being written only in Turkish. A more fundamental problem was that those choosing the new names had not properly understood the logic which was supposed to lie behind them. It was as well they had only been in Turkish—for what would Europeans have made of the “Street that Leads to Miltiades’ Coffeeshop,” or the “Street of the Greengrocer Constantine”? Local journalists tried to explain to the authorities the error of their ways:

We know that in Europe streets are given names of celebrated men whose memory it is wished to honour or those of noble citizens who have rendered useful service to their country. But we do not see how the said Constantine with his plums and his bad coffee, or M. Miltiadis, pouring out his raki, can raise the prestige of the city so far as to be honoured by the municipal scribe.
In Europe, squares and wide avenues carry as an honorific title the dates of national triumphs, the names of cities where the national army covered itself in glory, or where great generals are illustrated: the Boulevard Magenta and the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris, the Strada Manin in Venice, Trafalgar Square in London, are monuments which speak to the hearts of patriots. Each crossroads is a lesson and History is written on the walls. And is the history of our dear country so lacking in these glorious occasions? [“Les noms de Rues,” Journal de Salonique, 26 May 1898]

One conception of the past—the past which linked the city dweller’s pride in his country to that in his city—was coming to impose itself on another—the past as local memory. No longer was it thought appropriate to commemorate random fires, the Old Horsemarket, the Old Quarantine, the Pasha’s Baths or the Old Telegraph Station. Emperors, notable officials and elevated political values would be written over the plane trees, the bath-towel makers and the religious benefactors of the past who had made the city their own. These names were stamped with the authority of the new municipal bodies and conformed to European norms. Ironically, although they were more transparent than those they replaced, they proved far less durable. In the twentieth century, wars, revolutions and sudden changes of regime led names to be discarded and replaced with ever-increasing frequency. The civil servants and bureaucrats were kept busy, but the city’s inhabitants were left little if any better off than they had been before.

How I hate those modern names, the Street of the 37th of Octember, the Avenue of Marshal X, the Boulevard of Our Glorious National Uprising! If countries can’t inspire loyalty without that kind of propaganda, they don’t deserve it. Better cities should commemorate the long-gone inns, horse markets, and residents who made them what they are than try to keep up with the twists and turns of politics. Long live the Quarter of the Three Eggs!