Archives for June 2007


The origin of the phrase the whole nine yards (meaning ‘the whole thing’) has been endlessly disputed (you can get a summary of the leading theories at For a long time the earliest citation was from a 1967 book about Air Force pilots serving in Vietnam; now Sam Clements has turned up a use in an April 25, 1964 article in the Tucson Daily Citizen about slang in the US space program: “‘Give ‘em the whole nine yards’ means an item-by-item report on any project.” See Benjamin Zimmer’s Language Log post for more context and links. You never know what you’ll turn up reading old newspapers!

Update (2018). This issue has basically been resolved, and all the theories are wrong; see this post.


A correspondent sent me a link to a language blog I’d somehow missed, The Chocolate Interrobang (“where we savor discussions about language & grammar & syntax, and sometimes reminisce about diagramming sentences…”). There’s a fair amount of tedious pop-grammatical blather (like a post ranting about “very unique”), but the latest post, by Jeff W (it’s a group blog, with half a dozen authors), is a nice discussion of translation. He starts with the Fourth Casio Cup Translation Contest:

Organized by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, the goal of the contest is to translate a given English source text into Chinese. The text this time is “Reservoir Frogs (Or Places Called Mama’s),” a 1996 New Yorker piece by Salman Rushdie, on what Rushdie calls “the fine art of meaningless naming.”

This leads him to translation of Harry Potter books:

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No, not the kind you’re thinking of, but the much rarer kind with four identical letters (or, if one cheats a bit, a repetition of a two-letter combination, like chch) in a row. Mark Liberman at Language Log quotes Benjamin Monreal quoting George Starbuck‘s poem, “Verses to exhaust my stock of four-letter words”:

From the ocean floors, where the necrovores
Of the zoöoögenous mud
Fight for their share, to the Andes where
Bullllamas thunder and thud,
And even thence to the heavens, whence
Archchurchmen appear to receive
The shortwave stations of rival nations
Of angels: “Believe! Believe!”
They battle, they battle—poor put-upon cattle,
Each waging, reluctantly,
That punitive war on the disagreeor
Which falls to the disagreeee.


Ian Brown has a long piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail that discusses the importance or otherwise of a well-stocked vocabulary. He starts off with a striking anecdote:

In Chicago, in a downtown courtroom, lawyer Edward Greenspan won’t let Conrad Black take the stand.
The problem is Mr. Black’s fondness for whacking big words: tricoteuses (knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective “braying”), planturous (fleshy), poltroon (a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined (lame), dubiety (doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading (blustering) and velleities (distant hopes), to list just a few of his verbal smatterings. Mr. Greenspan fears the Lord’s lingualism will turn off the jury.

He continues with a professor who says “One has to tell students in journalism school to express themselves simply, because they have been taught in high school to use big words in an effort to impress their professors” and another who says kids who don’t have a good vocabulary are at “considerable risk of continued low achievement.” Then comes a section about how the Educational Testing Service has been de-emphasizing vocabulary on the SATs, contrasted with the new National Vocabulary Contest to honor kids who know lots of words.
All this is fine, and written in an engaging style (“The Hit Parade of the top 50 words on the SAT… includes easy passes such as exculpate (to free from blame or guilt) but also yataghan, a guardless sword used in Muslim countries. It does not include yegg (a travelling burglar or safecracker) or yapp (a form of bookbinding), words your correspondent found while he was looking up yataghan“); alas, Mr. Brown then succumbs to the universal journalistic disease of setting up straw men to create an artificial battle of the sort beloved by hacks the world over, and when the subject is vocabulary, you just know one of the straw men is going to be those nasty linguists:

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Today’s NY Times has an obituary (by Margalit Fox) of a man whose name was vaguely familiar to me; after I read the first sentence I wanted to know more: “Israel Shenker, a scholar trapped in a newsman’s body who was known to readers of The New York Times for his vast erudition and sly, subversive wit, died on June 9 at Kibbutz Shoval in southern Israel.” It continues:

From 1968 to 1979, Mr. Shenker was a reporter on the metropolitan staff of The Times. But from the start, his portfolio ranged far beyond the city. Among the notable figures he interviewed over the years were Jorge Luis Borges, Noam Chomsky, M. C. Escher, John Kenneth Galbraith, Marcel Marceau (who spoke), Groucho Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, S. J. Perelman, Picasso and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

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The word of the day is scacchic (pronounced SKAK-ik), discovered by Bill Poser at Language Log in the adverbial form scacchically. As he says, “it took only a moment to realize what it meant,” but that’s if you recognize the root from its source language. When I read his post I thought it might be a nonce creation, but no, the OED tells me it has a pedigree dating back to 1860 (D. Willard Fiske, “Stern old fellows were these scacchic sages!”). If it’s unfamiliar to you, you might want to ponder it for a bit before clicking on the Log link and finding out what it means.
Fiske was an interesting guy:

When very young he disclosed an uncommon aptitude for the acquisition of languages, and a precocious interest in both literature and politics. He pursued his school education at Cazenovia seminary and at Hamilton College, but left that institution in his sophomore year to go abroad and study the Scandinavian languages. At Copenhagen he enjoyed the friendship of Professor Rafn, the distinguished Danish archaeologist. With little aid except some occasional correspondence with the New York “Tribune,” he sustained himself during 1849-52, passing two years in the University of Upsala, giving lessons in English and lecturing on American literature, and speaking Swedish so well that he commonly passed with the students for a Swede. In 1852 he returned to New York and took a place in the Astor library, where he remained as assistant until 1859, still pursuing his studies in languages, and in making a collection of Icelandic books, which soon became the most considerable in this country. So enthusiastically had he directed his attention to that enlightened Island that it was said that few natives were more familiar with its geography, history, politics, and literature than he.
In 1859-60 he was general secretary of the American geographical society. In 1861-2 he was again abroad, and attached to the American legation at Vienna under Minister John Lothrop Motley. Returning, he was editor of the daily “Journal” of Syracuse, New York, in 1864-6, and through 1867 had charge of the Hartford, Connecticut, “Courant,” from which he was called in 1868, after another extensive tour abroad, which embraced Egypt and Palestine, to the professorship of the north European languages, and the place of chief librarian, at Cornell University. To his unremitting labors for years in the classroom, as librarian, and as director of the University press, no inconsiderable degree of the success of the institution is due. During this time he took a deep interest in the reform of the civil service, and was a most influential writer and lecturer in its behalf. In 1879 he was again abroad for five months, and visited Iceland. He had been a principal promoter in this country of the contribution of a library on the celebration of the National millennium, and upon his arrival he was the guest of the nation and accorded honors seldom if ever given before by one nation to a private citizen of another. His health failing from his severe application to College duties, he went abroad again in 1880. In that year, in Berlin, he married Miss Jennie McGraw, of Ithaca, New York, who died in September 1881. In 1881 he resigned his offices at Cornell and took up his permanent residence in Florence, Italy. Although his chief work has been that of a scholar and bibliopole, he has been a voluminous contributor to various Swedish, Icelandic, and German journals, and to the American press.

This decorous account does not mention the fact that his wife’s death set off an unseemly episode known as the Great Will Case, in which Fiske and Cornell battled over his wife’s estate, Fiske eventually winning; you can read a brief description here and a full account in Chapter XIII of Morris Bishop’s A History of Cornell (1962).


My wife and I are contemplating yet another move (after relocating from NYC to Peekskill and from Peekskill to Pittsfield, all within the last few years), this time an hour east to what’s called the Pioneer Valley along the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts. There are various personal reasons for the move that I won’t burden you with, but one reason I’m looking forward to it (setting aside the agony of the actual move) is cultural. There is not a single bookstore in Pittsfield; the Valley, with five colleges within a few minutes’ drive of each other, is lousy with them. This article by Andrew Varnon from the Valley Advocate should give you some idea of the riches to be found, and these are just the ones along one stretch of Route 10. The pictures alone have me salivating, as does this quote:

Angell said the Valley was a pretty good place to be a book hound. “There’s probably more bookstores per capita in the Valley than anywhere else in the country,” he said.

(Thanks for the link, Leslie!)


I’ve been wanting to write about a book Columbia University Press sent me a while back, but every time I pick it up I get immersed in it and forget about blogging it. I was familiar with Seth Lerer’s name because of his book Error and the Academic Self (discussed here), so I was looking forward to the new one, Inventing English. (The publisher’s page has the table of contents along with links to various interviews, including a surprisingly non-stupid television one on KRON in San Francisco.) And I wasn’t disappointed.
It’s not that he’s right about everything—he makes the common error of thinking Shakespeare invented all those words that first occur in print in his works, and his strange terminology in this sentence irritated me: “Thus, the modern Celtic languages have survived on the edges of Britain: Gaelic in Ireland, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall, Erse in Scotland, and Manx on the Isle of Man. Some of these Celtic languages are flourishing (Welsh and Gaelic); some are dead (Manx, Cornish, Erse).” In the first place, “Gaelic” is usually used to refer to Scots Gaelic, the Irish variety being called Irish. In the second place, what the hell does he mean by “Erse”? The OED says “Applied by Sc. Lowlanders to the Gaelic dialect of the Highlands (which is in fact of Irish origin), to the people speaking that dialect, to their customs, etc. Hence in 18th c. Erse was used in literary Eng. as the ordinary designation of the Gaelic of Scotland, and occasionally extended to the Irish Gaelic; at present some writers apply it to the Irish alone. Now nearly Obs.” Mind you, the “now” there is the late 19th century; it’s been thoroughly obsolete for a long time now—I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used in a contemporary book to refer to a language. And Scots Gaelic is not dead.
But never mind the nitpicking: this is a wonderful book. It’s not hard to find well-informed books about the history of the English language, and it’s not hard to find good critical accounts of English literature, but to have the two intertwined in one book is remarkable. Lerer goes through the various periods of Old, Middle, and Modern English, explaining the changes the language undergoes and analyzing the literature of the time accordingly, and the results are consistently enlightening. He starts off his first chapter, “Caedmon Learns to Sing: Old English and the Origins of Poetry,” by quoting the less familiar Northumbrian version of Caedmon’s Hymn: “Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes Uard,/ Metudaes maecti end his modgidanc…” After explaining how English developed out of Germanic and saying Caedmon “took the traditional Germanic habits of word formation, the grammar, and the sound of his own Old English and used them as the basis for translating Christian concepts into the Anglo-Saxon vernacular,” he points out that beginning in the eighth century the north of England was devastated by Viking raids and “by the last decades of the ninth century, power was moving to the south,” which explains why the version we know from Bede is in the West Saxon dialect: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard,/ Meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc…” The forms in that version look more recognizable to us because modern English descends from the southern dialects of Old English. Lerer goes on to discuss the Anglo-Saxon Riddles:

The riddles take vernacular literacy as their theme, as they illustrate how a knowledge of the word leads to a knowledge of the world, and in turn, how the world itself remains a book legible to the learned. One of these riddles, for example, is about a book. Told in the first person, it begins by recounting how a thief ripped off flesh and left skin, treated the skin in water, dried it in the sun, and then scraped it with a metal blade. Fingers folded it, the joy of the bird (that is, the feather) was dipped in the woodstain from a horn (that is, the ink in an inkwell), and left tracks on the body. Wooden boards enclose it, laced with gold wire. “Frige hwæt ic hatte,” ask what I am called, it concludes. It is a book, but no mere volume. It is made up, sequentially, of all other parts of creation. The natural world and human artifice come together here to reveal the book as a kind of cosmos, and in turn, to demonstrate that the book contains all knowledge.

Then he quotes a riddle on the bookworm and says:

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1) Strč prst skrz krk (thanks, Songdog!). (“Strč prst skrz krk is a Czech and Slovak tongue-twister meaning ‘stick finger through throat’.”)
2) bad grammar makes me [sic] (thanks, dame!).


A while back I posted about what was said to be the world’s last handwritten newspaper (in Chennai/Madras). I am happy to report that this does not seem to be the case; this post at Iqag Notes says:

This is just flat-out wrong. The vast majority of “printed” Urdu works are hand written. That includes books, newspapers, magazines, posters, and so on. It’s true that there is at the moment an incredibly fast pace of change towards computerization amongst the major newspapers, and a slower pace for books, but this has been only over the last five years. In fact, one of the only things which are almost always computer composed are wedding invitations, because it’s cost effective for these small batches, and because the consumer bears the higher labor costs of DTP vs. caligraphy. If that sound backwards, think about this: hand copying of manuscripts at the Salar Jung library is cheaper per page than photocopies from those archives which will let you copy (which SJ won’t.)

There’s much more, including a history of Urdu typesetting. Thanks to Bill Poser of Language Log for linking to it.