Archives for April 2007


When I saw Anatoly’s post (in Russian) about some amazing finds on Google Books, notably the first edition (1800) of the Slovo o polku Igoreve (the classic Old East Slavic epic poem known in English as The Tale of Igor’s Campaign or The Lay of the Host of Igor) and the first Russian novel, Fedor Emin’s Nepostoyannaya fortuna [‘Inconstant fortune’] (1763), I knew I was going to blog it. But it was when I started investigating the latter that I really got hooked. In the first place, it surprised me that I’d never heard of Emin. I looked him up in my Russian biographical dictionary, but he wasn’t there—the author of the first Russian novel didn’t merit an entry? Then I went to D. S. Mirsky’s superb A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 and found only this brief mention: “The first Russian novelist was Fëdor Emin (c. 1735-70), who wrote didactic and philosophical romances of adventure in a florid and prolix literary prose.” The first Russian novelist disposed of in one sentence, without even a mention of the name of the first Russian novel? (This in a book that devotes a long paragraph to Vasily Narezhny, 1780-1825, before concluding “He was in fact little read, and his influence on the development of the Russian novel is almost negligible.”) What’s going on here?

Fortunately, Brockhaus and Efron (published a century ago and still as invaluable as the 1911 Britannica) has a good article (in Russian) on Emin, which answered some of my questions and told a fascinating tale. It seems Emin (whose name and patronymic are given as Fedor Aleksandrovich) was not Russian at all, and little is known of his life before he arrived in Russia in his mid-twenties. B&E surmise that he may have been of South Slavic origin and mention that he spent eight years wandering in Austria, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Portugal, and France, perhaps visiting Algiers and Tunis. In Turkey he converted to Islam and became a janissary. In 1761 he turned up in London at the doorstep of Prince Golitsyn, the Russian ambassador, converted to Orthodoxy (!), and was sent to Russia, where he quickly learned Russian and became first a teacher at the Corps des Pages (where the nobility were trained to be officers) and then a translator in the Foreign Ministry. He also became a prolific littérateur, turning out “satirical works,” novels both translated and original, and “an interesting Description of the Ottoman Porte,” edited the satirical journal Adskaya pochta [‘The Infernal Post’], and finally produced “the patriotic but strange Rossiiskaya istoriya [‘Russian History’] in three volumes, in which he referred to nonexistent books and evidence” (!!), as well as “a book of theological-philosophical content, Put’ ko spaseniyu [‘The Path to Salvation’], which continued to be reprinted until recently.”

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Continuing my Alexandrian sojourn with D. J. Enright’s Academic Year, set in the late 1940s, I was stopped in the first paragraph of Chapter 4 (page 70 in my Oxford paperback) by the italicized word in the following sentence: “It was the precise kind of weather, Packet grumbled, for which the city had not been intended, neither the malayas of the women, whipping against their sad splashed legs, nor the windows of his flat, which let in draughts at every joint.” It clearly referred to some kind of garment, but there was no entry in either the OED or Webster’s Third International—except, of course, for the similarly spelled name of a former part of what is now Malaysia, from which I assumed it must derive. The similarity made for difficult googling, but I was able to separate out the term I wanted (which occurs, on the internet anyway, mainly in conjunction with belly dancing), which turns out to be more properly spelled milaya and has nothing to do with Southeast Asia: it is the Egyptian form of Arabic mula’a (from the root ملأ ‘to fill’) and means ‘long black cloak or shawl traditionally worn by Egyptian women’ (a longer form is “malaya-leff” from milaya laffmilaya wrapping’). This entry is brought to you by the Languagehat Department of Disambiguation.
While I’m at it, this quote from further down the page puzzled me for different reasons: “A couple at the next table were wrangling desultorily in a debased English. Neither was exactly English, but possibly both belonged to that outcast category which the English abroad were scrupulous to avoid, the British. The woman, little with small malevolent features and intensely black hair and eyes, might have been Maltese…” I had always thought “British” referred to inhabitants of the British Isles, but apparently there was, in the days of the Empire, a wider sense referring to anyone holding a U.K. passport.


Well, I learned something today. Mark Liberman has an extended discussion at Language Log about the word conclusory as used by lawyers, discovering that it means “asserting conclusions without evidence.” (This came up in connection with Sen. Arlen Specter’s skeptical assessment of what Alberto Gonzales has said about the firings of the U.S. Attorneys: “Those statements are very conclusory.”) I’m happy to say I don’t spend a lot of time reading material written by lawyers, but it’s always good to learn something about another dialect.

Addendum. Donald Kochan writes to tell me about his article on this subject, “While Effusive, ‘Conclusory’ is Still Quite Elusive: The Story of a Word, Iqbal, and a Perplexing Lexical Inquiry of Supreme Importance,” University of Pittsburgh Law Review 73 (2011 [actually appeared in print in March 2013]); here‘s the abstract, and you can download the paper from there.


A Sunday Times article by Jonathan Bate explains how he investigated word use for his new edition of Shakespeare:

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: everyone knows the phrase. And most people know where it’s from: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles . . .”
What does it actually mean? Something about being buffeted by bad luck and worldly troubles, obviously. But the image is curious. Fortune, who dishes out our luck, is traditionally personified as a woman. If she has arrows, shouldn’t she have a bow rather than a sling? Why didn’t Shakespeare write: “The bow and arrow of outrageous fortune”? Or for that matter, “The slings and stones of outrageous fortune”?

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A while back Mark Liberman had a series of Language Log posts quoting excerpts from J. Milton Cowan’s “American Linguistics in Peace and at War” about how linguists were mobilized for language instruction in World War II (1, 2); the third post, The Burmese story, had a highly amusing description of how William S. Cornyn, Leonard Bloomfield, and Cowan scoured New York City looking for possible Burmese speakers and found one called Alamon who was willing to come to Yale but needed a higher salary than envisioned because “he had been running a little numbers racket in lower Manhattan,” ending with this tantalizing zinger: “Alamon’s successor, the other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster, gave rise to an embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University which was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved. But enough for Burmese.” As Mark says, “No, I’m sorry, that’s NOT enough for Burmese — we need to know more about the ’embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University’ than that it ‘was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved’! I mean, like, what happened?” I suppose it may be too much to hope that anyone will have the answer after 65 years, but hope springs eternal. Maybe a telltale bit of graffiti still lingers in the dusty back rooms of Sterling Memorial Library?


The dismissive exclamation meh has been cropping up all over recently (see Ben Zimmer’s Language Log post); it was popularized by The Simpsons, but it goes back before that, and Nathan Bierma has done a Chicago Tribune column on it (here‘s an American Dialect Society Mailing List posting of the column in case the first link is inaccessible for any reason). Here’s the heart of it, as far as etymology is concerned:

The Simpsons get credit for helping “meh” go mainstream, but they didn’t invent the word; the show just brought it out from some hidden corner of the culture. As early as 1992, “meh” shows up on a fan discussion board for the show “Melrose Place.” “Is [he] cute?” one fan asks about a character. Another writes back: “Meh .. far too Ken-doll for me.”
That’s one of the earliest available written examples of “meh,” but the word probably existed in speech long before. How long? That stumps etymologists.

But Nathan writes me that after the column appeared, he got an e-mail from a correspondent who said it sounded to him like a variant of the Yiddish “mnyeh,” to which Leo Rosten apparently devoted considerable space in Hooray for Yiddish (which I don’t own), and googling tells me that the suggestion was made over two years ago in this IRC log from 2/28/2005:

21:17:32 <sbp>
21:17:39 <sbp> via
21:17:44 <sbp> but again, not easy to use*
21:17:59 <jcowan> Looks like an anglicized form of “mnyeh”.

I think that’s extremely plausible, and I look forward to seeing the results of serious etymological research (which should certainly involve trawling fifty-year-old issues of Mad, where I’m pretty sure I learned about “mnyeh” as a goyish youth).


My recent immersion in multinational Alexandria has turned up some interesting sources; I’ll link to a couple of them here.
Racheline Barda’s “Egyptian Jewry in modern times” (.doc file, HTML cache) begins with a description of the varied origins of the community:

The face of the small indigenous Jewish community of 5-7,000 at the beginning of the 18th century, was therefore dramatically altered by the newcomers’ diverse ethnic backgrounds and was gradually transformed into a multicultural and multilingual mosaic. As a matter of fact, the Jews of Egypt’s main characteristic was their diversity, diversity in culture, ethnic origins, nationalities, rituals and languages.
Thus, on the eve of the 1948 war with Israel, the Jewish community was made up grosso modo of three different ethnic groups, each with their own customs, language and rituals:
1) A core of indigenous Jews with a Judeo-Arabic culture, divided by two different religious traditions, the Rabbanites and the Karaites, belonging mostly to the lower socio-economic strata, apart from a small privileged elite. Their mother tongue was Egyptian Arabic whereas immigrants from the other Arab countries (Syria, Morocco, Irak, Lybia) spoke their own Arabic dialect…
2) The second and largest group: the Sefardim (literally from Spain), included different ethnic clusters. They initially spoke Ladino but were also familiar with French, Italian, Turkish, and Greek depending on which part of the old Ottoman Empire they came from…
3) The third group was the Ashkenazim (about 6000 in the interwar period) originally from Eastern Europe plus a small cluster who came from Germany just before WWII. Spoke Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German…
Apart from these three categories, there were other smaller categories – not strictly Sephardim or Ashkenazim – such as:
* The Italian Jews (8 to 10,000), originally from Leghorn sometimes via Lybia. Spoke Italian. Felt very close to the mother country until Mussolini enacted the Racial Laws in 1938. They were well established in business and financial sector and belonged to the upper and middle class. Some of them had no Ladino or Sephardi tradition. My husband’s family for instance could trace its origins back to Livorno in Tuscany in the early 1800s and had been in Egypt for four generations, and still maintained the use of Italian at home.
* A small group of Greek Jews or Romaniot, who strictly speaking, were not Sephardi. They came from mainland Greece or from the old Ottoman Empire, still maintained the use of Greek. They are believed to be the descendants of Hellenised Jews.
* The Corfiote Jews (from the Greek island of Corfu), who spoke a Ven[e]tian dialect (Corfu had been under Venetian domination for centuries before passing onto French and then British and then Greek domination)…
All these different ethnic groups were mostly educated in French, English or Italian private schools (secular and religious). Those who could not afford private schools sent their children to the Jewish communal schools where the main language of tuition was French apart from Arabic and Hebrew.

So Aciman is, if anything, downplaying the diversity in his memoir, with his references to the different nationalities found in his family!

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Dragan Todorovic is a Serbian journalist and editor who emigrated in 1995 from Yugoslavia to Canada, where he wrote in English and did multimedia work, winning various awards. His latest piece is “In My Language I am Smart (The Immigrant Song),” which is linked from this page of his website; it’s an audio clip a few minutes long consisting of him talking about having to communicate in a new language, mixed with various sounds. It’s very effective; I particularly liked this bit, addressed to a woman he’s trying to make time with: “If we spoke in my language, you would have fallen in love with me three hours ago. Can you just love me now and understand me later?” Oh, and “HMS Concise Oxford comes to my rescue.”
Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to listen to the clip at the moment, read the Notes a bit further down the page:

…Language is acquired with its sound, and the sounds I had picked from records and movies were harsh, aggressive, and presented me in a very different light from who I was and am. Suddenly I realized that somewhere in the process of acquiring the tone of modern English I had lost my identity. It was painful to realize that in my language I was smart, but I sounded stupid in English. Example: while walking with my Canadian friend one day by a church, he started talking about the architecture of that particular building, and while I wanted to say a few things about how I liked the Gothic details on the arch at the entrance, and how I admired the intelligent choice of stones, all I could squeeze out was, “Yeah, it’s cool”.
Acquired meaning is superficial. Sound puts word into context, but the deeper shades of expression are not learned. I responded the way that Clint Eastwood, or some other action hero, would in one of their roles. Back in Serbian language I was connoisseur of arts; in my newly acquired language I was a cop…

(Via wood s lot.)


It’s time once again for me to renew my genuflection before the wonder that is Polyglot Vegetarian. MMcM doesn’t post often, but considering that each post is the length of a small book and packed with detailed and recondite information, that’s entirely understandable. In the last month he’s made two posts, but each is on a topic so basic to any food lover, treated with such loving attention to history, geography, and relevant literature, that to read the first two paragraphs visible on the main page is automatically to click on the “Read More.” The first is on garlic, and it goes into leek, clove, allium, and many other words from many other languages, not to mention quotes from Horace, Byron, Herodotus, Pliny, and Bram Stoker, along with less famous sources; you can see words in Ancient Egyptian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Nepali, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Badaga, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese, to name only languages in non-Latin scripts that my browser will display. He finishes up with Dracula and nosferatu.

The second is on chili; it begins with the earliest OED citation, from 1662, continues through quotes from Columbus, Alvarez Chanca, de Las Casas, Peter Martyr, Bernardino de Sahagún (in Nahuatl and English), and many others, with a side reference to the Three Stooges, and finishes up with a 1604 antedate the OED will presumably incorporate. I won’t even try to hint at the varied riches therein; I’ll just say nostalgically that I remember the ají de gallina I had at a long-vanished Peruvian restaurant on Houston Street in Manhattan as if it were yesterday.


No, it’s not a microcosmic tragedy, it’s a Language Log post by Geoff Nunberg about how Merriam-Webster dictionaries wound up with a definition of suicide that includes the phrase “especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind,” which is (as Geoff says) plainly wrong. It’s a fascinating account, written with the usual Nunberg clarity and elegance, of how incautious editing and condensation can create blatant error.