Archives for September 2007


Here’s another bit from the Second Act of Bykov’s Orfografiya (see this post for an earlier sample); it illustrates the fascination and frustration of reading the book:

Bookseller’s Row in the Haymarket was a grotesque sight—like almost all sights then: destitution and wretchedness were carried to such absurd lengths that they ceased to provoke tears but only decrepit, wise laughter such as the last Romans must have aimed at themselves and the Gauls. Somewhere in the hidden, half-legendary Petersburg cellars precious manuscripts were still being exchanged for equally fabulous, apocryphal things—a pound of butter, a ham; but in the Haymarket they dealt mainly in the literature of the Russian Golden Age, naive literary almanacs in which vulgar quarrels were carried on, with opponents caught in misprints and hidden peccadillos hinted at—so-and-so lost everything at gambling, or had informed on someone, or was a kept man… The public was most picturesque and ill-assorted: here was the beginning of the disintegration of the Petersburg School—zaumniks, “ushkuiniks,” pustoglots, nothingists, metaphorists, columbines, going-to-the-peoplists, and the completely enigmatic quasists. Here stood the gnomelike graybeard Trufanov with a bundle of “northern antiquities” transcribed in a decorative style and said to have been collected at the time of the Arkhangelsk rites—in fact they had been taken from a collection of byliny and worked up into a state of complete incomprehensibility; he was seen with his group singing the bawdy songs of Nesein [No-sow] (“My name is because we are not simple peasants: we do not sow nor reap, we are peasants not by calling but by willing”).

(The Russian is below the cut.)
The “disintegration of the Petersburg School” section drives me nuts: “zaumniks” I know, they were practitioners of Zaum, but what’s the status of the rest? Ushkuiniks were medieval Novgorodian pirates, and there was a literary almanac called Ushkuiniki published in Petersburg in 1922 and later a 1927 self-published poetry book of that name by Aleksandr Tufanov, a now-forgotten futurist, zaumist, and “sound poet” (note the apperance of a character called “Trufanov” immediately below in the passage—Bykov consistently renames characters based on real people, so that Shklovsky turns up as “Lgovsky” and Gorky as “Khlamida,” an early pseudonym); was there any group of “Ushkuiniki” in 1918, or is it pure invention? “Pustoglots” [pustogloty] has the Russian prefix for ’empty’ and the Greek suffix for ‘tongue, language’ (as in polyglot), and the Russian word gets a few Google hits as an insult; “nothingist” [nichevoshnik] is a rare word defined by Dahl as ‘someone for whom everything is nothing’; columbines [akvilegi] is, as far as I can make out, simply the name of a flower; lyudokhod isn’t an actual word but has a prefix meaning ‘people’ and a suffix meaning ‘going,’ and it’s used as a caption for this photo; kvazer seems to sometimes be used for kvazar ‘quasar’ and sometimes in ways I don’t understand [these words are explained in the comments below]. What’s a poor translator supposed to do with this farrago? But it sure is fun.
Addendum. A correspondent points out to me that “Nesein” is a “very transparent to a Russian reader allusion to the peasant-poet Sergei Esenin,” something that was obvious as soon as she mentioned it but that hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks, Evgenia!

[Read more…]


The NY Times has an article by John Noble Wilford beginning “Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and likely to disappear in this century.” I know what you’re thinking: “So what else is new?” But there’s a news hook:

New research, reported yesterday, has found the five regions where languages are disappearing most rapidly: northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. All have indigenous people speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.
The study was based on field research and data analysis supported by the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. The findings are described in the October issue of National Geographic and at

Interesting tidbit: “a group known as the Kallawaya use Spanish or Quechua in daily life, but also have a secret tongue mainly for preserving knowledge of medicinal plants, some previously unknown to science. ‘How and why this language has survived for more than 400 years, while being spoken by very few, is a mystery,’ Dr. Harrison said in a news release.” Thanks for the link, Bonnie!
Update. Informed (and unenthusiastic) commentary from Claire Bowern, who actually knows what she’s talking about, here.


An article by Amrit Dhillon in the Telegraph (which, it suddenly occurs to me, is an odd name for a 21st-century newspaper) brings to my attention (thanks for the link, Marja-Leena!) a new book called Entry from Backside Only: Hazaar Fundas of Indian-English:

Its title, Entry From Backside Only, refers to a phrase commonly used on signposts to indicate the rear entrance of a building. Binoo John, the author, said young Indians had embraced the variant of the language as a charming offspring of the mingling of English and Hindi, rather than an embarrassing mongrel.
“Economic prosperity has changed attitudes towards Indian English,” said Mr John. “Having jobs and incomes, and being noticed by the rest of the world, have made Indians confident – and the same confidence has attached itself to their English.”…
The columnist Anjali Puri said pride in Indian English also stemmed from the success of writers such as Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie: “These writers have used English to portray Indian reality and it has given people the confidence to try out new words and play around with the language without being scared about whether they are correct.”

This is an excellent development, and it sounds like a fun book; you can read piquant examples of local usage in the review. And by googling the title I got to this post, which tells me that Dick & Garlick (“Notes on Indian English, Hinglish, slang & pop culture”) is back in business after nine months’ hiatus, which is superb news indeed—welcome back, R Devraj!


I saw the mail truck stop at our box and instead of Mo putting something in and driving on down the block, she got out, walked around to the back, opened it, and rummaged around for a while. I watched her with fascination—I’ve set up my office in the front of the house, what used to be the living room before they built the addition on the back (I’ve walled it off with bookcases back to back sticking out from the interior wall towards the front wall, but I’ve got half the books sitting on the floor until I can get around to putting a couple of screwjacks in the cellar to hold up the office floor, which was never built to take that kind of concentrated load), so I see everything that goes on in the street. After a while she walked down the driveway and over to the front door, carrying a catalog and a large package. When she handed it over to me, I realized it was amazingly light and wondered what on earth it could be. I got the boxcutter, opened it up, and found a gorgeous, pristine white hat, something like this but with the crown slanted down sharply towards the front and deeply indented. It was made in Mexico and bore the label D’Avila Hats on one side of the band and “La Providencia” and a phone number on the other. It fit perfectly.

It turned out to be from my old buddy the Growling Wolf, who’d found a good deal on eBay and gotten one for each of us; in an e-mail responding to my thank-you, he said “the guy told me these hats were made in only certain parts of Mexico — and they are made from a special grass and they are made by women who go into caves and weave these hats so the straw doesn’t dry out — they have to keep it soft and evidently the air in these caves is perfect for this… You can smell the straw in these babies.” My wife calls me Don Magnifico when I wear it.

As it happens, the Growler is in the midst of a long saga called One Spring Morning Off Spring Street, that starts with being rudely awakened on “a spring morning when I lived on Greenwich Street in a 2nd-floor loft in a building that had been, and I loved the fact, a butter and egg wholesale house” and continues via many a commodious vicus of recirculation to an epic attempt to use a weekend pass to get from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to East Lansing, Michigan, and back before Monday morning formation at 6 o’clock. If you had no problem with my mildly discursive first paragraph, you might try riding the bucking bronco of the Growler’s wild-eyed, intoxicatory prose style; the saga starts at 1 (with a history of the Ear Inn) and continues with 2 (“being awakened by an earthquake that turned out to be Bobby Fuller’s ‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’ being played by such a wild uneven unthoughtout racous almost jackhammer-bothersome in its incessant bad drumming whingding POW on the 2 and 4”), 3 (mafficking at the Ear Inn—warning, Not Safe For Work or delicate sensibilities), 4 (the formation of a great blues band, with more raunch), 5 (writing, lusting after Tuesday Weld, getting beat out by Joyce Carol Oates), 6 (the epic journey begins: “The first time I was in Detroit…OK, I start swimming back into some murkier waters of my past times, those times when I was in the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, outside the town of Rollo, Missouri…”), 7 (“So the Chicagoans and Big Bad John and I got on the military bus to the post main gate and there we caught the Trailways into Saint Louis, where we were gonna book on the Rock Island or the Burlington or the Illinois Central, one of those railroads and then head up to Chicago a couple’a hundred miles north and then after that–whatever, we had a horrible schedule to beat…”), and 8 (stewardesses and Lake Michigan, plus a joyous yawp about the Yankees—the Growler is a serious Yankee fan). If you like it, there’s more to come.


An outcropping of jargon occurred while my back was turned, and frequent commenter Noetica has called my attention to it in this thread:

I have been trying to sort it out for several years, now. All OED has for modulo is this:

With respect to a modulus of. Also attrib., = modular.

What does it mean though, exactly, in the sentence above? From the Wikipedia article, after its mention of the first meaning in mathematics:

Ever since however, “modulo” has gained many meanings, some exact and some imprecise.

Tell me about it!

What he doesn’t know is that the OED entry was revised in March 2003, and after the literal definition he quotes there is now the following:

[Read more…]


Apparently there is a rhetorical term anthimeria meaning the use of a word as a different part of speech than its normal one, as in Calvin’s “Verbing weirds language.” (Hobbes’s response: “Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.”) This came up in a thread (which I already posted about here); a commenter (mis)used the term, other people discussed it, and I eventually produced this cranky outburst:

What the devil is this alleged word “anthimeria,” anyway? It’s not in any dictionary, and a website I found by googling it gives this stupid derivation:

from Gk. anti- “instead of” and mereia “a part”

Do you see an -h- in there? I don’t either. If you’re going to combine anti- and mereia, what you’ll get is “antimereia” or (if you want to Latinize it) “antimeria.” And what’s the point? I’m not about to go trawling through the long, long lists of rhetorical terminology, but there’s a category for everything, and I’m sure there’s one that would cover this. And if there’s not, why go to the trouble of creating a fake-classical one that anybody with any classical education will sneer at? […] I reject this preposterous balderdash!

Then another commenter provided the etymology “(Gk anthos, ‘flower’ + meros, ‘part’),” giving this (A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, by J. A. Cuddon, p. 41) as a reference. I wrote: “I don’t know on what authority Cuddon gives that etymology—it could be his wild-ass guess—but it would explain the -h-. Still a malformed word, though, because now there’s no explanation for the -i- (anthos + mer– should give anthomer-; cf. anthology).”
So I’m convinced the word exists, but I’m puzzled about who created it, why it has the form it does, and why it isn’t in the OED (which generally has pretty good coverage of rhetorical terms). Anybody know anything?


I used the verb maffick (OED: “To celebrate uproariously, rejoice extravagantly”) last night, and my wife asked where it was from. I said “That’s one of my favorite etymologies,” and when I told her she agreed it was pretty damn good. So I’m sharing it with you, in case you don’t already know it.

The Boer War ended with the absorption of the independent Boer republics into the British Empire, but it began with the British on the receiving end of a terrible shock: their invincible troops were unable to prevent the insurgent Boers from invading Cape Colony and Natal Colony in late 1899 and successfully besieging the towns of Mafeking (now Mafikeng) and Kimberley. Food became very scarce, and attempted relief expeditions were wiped out in a series of terrible British defeats. It wasn’t until May 17 of the following year that Mafeking (defended, incidentally, by troops under the command of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell—yes, the same Baden-Powell, pronounced BAY-d’n POE-‘l, who later founded the Boy Scouts) was successfully relieved, and when the news reached London the next evening the city erupted in wild celebration which went on for days. The similarity in sound between the name of the town and an English present participle was irresistible, and soon the celebration was called “mafficking” (the first citation in the OED is from the Pall Mall Gazette of 21 May: “We trust Cape Town.. will ‘maffick’ to-day, if we may coin a word, as we at home did on Friday and Saturday”). The earlier edition of the OED said “The words appear to be confined to journalistic use,” but they’ve withdrawn that statement in the March 2000 draft revision of the entry, and with good reason: the word is so much fun that people have kept using it long after the siege has faded into the farther reaches of historical memory.


A few years ago I reported on my purchase of Dmitrii Bykov’s novel Orfografiya [Orthography], and exactly a year ago I promised to get around to reading it; now I’m over halfway through it and enjoying it immensely (I’d love to translate it if I had the time and a publisher had the interest). This self-contained snippet from the Second Act represents a basic divide in humanity. The protagonist, Yat, is remembering an amusing episode from a few years back:

…when was it? Oh yes, that’s right, in ’13: “Birzhevka” [Birzhevye vedomosti, the Stock-Exchange Gazette] suddenly started publishing on the last page—framed by a dotted line, so interested parties could clip it out—a list about which nobody could say anything for sure. It was simply called “List,” without any further clarification. There were thirty-nine family names, fairly neutral, some of which he knew—Mizerov, Foskin—but with different initials. What if he found his own there? Whether it was the list of members of some secret organization (doubtless for terrorists of a certain stripe it would be especially stylish to publish it under the nose of the government, on the principle of “hiding a leaf in the forest”) or an innocent register of founders of a joint-stock corporation which didn’t have enough money to publish its excessively lengthy company name in full, Yat never could figure out. Once he discussed the story with [his imaginative friend] Grem.

“That was a list of actioners [д е й с т в о в а т е л е й],” said Grem with his usual emphasis, not wasting even three seconds in coming up with a new story.

“Go on, go on,” Yat encouraged him.

“Actioners are people destined to change the world. In that configuration [в этом составе: ‘with that makeup’?] they are capable of acting with maximum results, like a bullet sent to its goal at the proper angle.”

“But who determines that maximum?”

“Not the Birzhevka, of course. Once a week a secretive man in a red-brown overcoat—definitely red-brown—shows up. He hands over the list, and an envelope with money in it. The compositor sets it in type, but each time he changes one name, thinking that that way he’s disrupting the devilish plot. One fine day they find the compositor dead. But it’s too late—everything’s gone wrong, and as a result we’re living in this very world we’re living in. That would be good, you know, to burn it at both ends [жечь с двух концов: can anybody explain how this idiom works here?]: first the secret list, then the murder of the compositor.”

“But you don’t want to help me figure out what the list is all about?”

“No, of course not!” Grem stared at Yat with horror. “Why would I want to know how it is if I know how it must be?”

That last line (Зачем мне знать, как е с т ь, если я знаю, как н а д о?) expresses perfectly the mind of the storyteller. I envy such people and their unstoppable flights of fancy, but I have an equally powerful drive to know how it is.


One of the highlights of each season for me is the quarterly unveiling of a new range of updated entries in the OED. As of tomorrow they are putting online The curious vocabulary of English between proter and purposive; the essay I just linked begins with the antedating of psychosomatic with a Coleridge citation (1830 S. T. Coleridge Shorter Wks. & Fragm. (1995) II. ii. 1444 Hope and Fear.. have slipt out their collars, and no longer run in couples.. from the Kennel of my Psycho-somatic Ology) and a fascinating excursus on Coleridge (“credited with the first use of over 600 words, often of a rather scholarly or rarefied character”) and Beckett, who “is still credited by the OED with the first recorded use of several other words (athambia, nucleant, panpygoptosis, plutolater, plutomanic, prostisciutto, pugnozzle, vermigrade, wantum, wardee, and zeep).” Also, there’s the exciting news (which I apparently overlooked last time around) that they’re now incorporating changes suggested by users into already updated entries; I’ve never understood their approach of treating online entries as set in stone (which seems to contradict the very nature of the internet), and I’m glad they’re changing their approach. Forward… into the past!


Dwight Garner has a NY Times blog entry on the joys of reading while you eat. Here’s the best part:

Eating and reading is almost (if not more) enjoyable in restaurants than it is at home – thank god for restaurant bars, and tables for one. Who hasn’t, on occasion, while stuck at a table with someone you had nothing to say to, gazed with envy at the guy sitting alone at a restaurant bar, happily stuffing his face and getting sauce on his new issue of The Economist?
Some restaurants are better – in terms of reading and the solo eater – than others. I’ll never forget the time, back in the mid-90s, when I was traveling for a story and ate dinner alone at a good, small restaurant in Savannah, Ga.
I don’t remember what I ordered. But I do recall that the headwaiter, when he saw I was by myself, brought over a tray of magazines – The New Yorker, Business Week, The Atlantic Monthly – and asked if I’d like to read one while I ate.
Yes, I said. Yes, I would.
I’ve never seen this act of grace and kindness repeated in any other restaurant – although these days I’m not foolish enough to enter one alone without something to read.

That’s my kind of restaurant. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)