Archives for October 2007


I can’t believe I haven’t linked this yet, but I guess I ran across it before I started the blog. Anyway, Jeff Miller’s A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia is your one-stop shop for, well, word oddities and trivia. Want to know which seven-letter words can be played on a musical instrument? The world’s longest acronym? Some common words which change from one to three syllables upon the addition of just one letter? Sixteen spellings for Hanukkah? Those and many more are on page 1, and there are 19 pages (three of them containing “long words”). The level of obsessiveness can be judged by this bracketed note on page 11:

[Note: To be precisely correct, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is the longest vocabulary entry in any English-language dictionary. Stuart Kidd points out that a longer word actually appears in the OED2, although only as part of a quoted citation for a different word. It is a 75-letter chemical name with numerous hyphens, and it is described on page 13 of this web site. Several other citations in the OED2 include multiple words that are “run together” with or without hyphens, forming “words” of more than 45 letters.]

And these are long pages. Abandon all hope of getting anything productive done in the near future, ye who enter there!

[Read more…]


The Daily Growler reminds us that today is the anniversary of the birth of Ezra Pound, one of my favorite poets ever since I came across “Ancient Music” (“Winter is icummen in,” quoted in the Growler’s post) in college. You can read perhaps the best of his short poems, “The Spring,” here; today I’ll quote “The Gypsy,” which for some reason has stuck in my head for almost 40 years:

        THE GYPSY
“Est-ce que vous avez vu des autres—des camarades—avec des singes ou des ours?”
               A Stray Gipsy—A.D. 1912
That was the top of the walk, when he said:
“Have you seen any others, any of our lot,
“With apes or bears?”
        — A brown upstanding fellow
Not like the half-castes,
        up on the wet road near Clermont.
The wind came, and the rain,
And mist clotted about the trees in the valley,
And I’d the long ways behind me,
        gray Arles and Biaucaire,
And he said, “Have you seen any of our lot?”
I’d seen a lot of his lot …
        ever since Rhodez,
Coming down from the fair
        of St. John,
With caravans, but never an ape or a bear.


Andrei Bely was famous as a poet as well as a novelist, but while I love his novel Petersburg and am reading his earlier The Silver Dove (set aside to read Orfografiya, which I finally finished Saturday night), I’ve read very little of his poetry. His supreme achievement as a poet is generally considered to be his long poem of 1921, Pervoe svidanie, available in a very nice bilingual edition with copious notes called The First Encounter, translated and introduced by Gerald Janeček and with notes and comments by Nina Berberova (who knew Bely personally). I recently saw a copy at a bookstore for around $14 (which is what it’s available for online), but reluctantly decided I couldn’t afford it. Then I saw on Amazon Marketplace that Wallace Books (well, the Amazon seller wallacebooks—I don’t know where they are or if they have a website) had it for three dollars! I was excited, I ordered it, and today I got it, in beautiful condition. God bless the internet.
And now for something completely different. The Style section of Sunday’s NY Times had an article by Stephanie Rosenbloom on the word vajayjay:

[Read more…]


Trying to get some books unpacked (yes, we’ve been here almost three months and some of the books are still in boxes), I pulled out my ancient Sophocles for the use of schools, Vol. II: Explanatory notes, by Lewis Campbell, and looking at the inscription “Alice Leslie Walker 1905, Vassar 1906” I thought (being easily distractible) I might as well google her and see if there was any information. I soon found out she’d gotten her BA in ’06 and her MA in ’08, then a PhD from the University of California in 1917, and had done archeological work in Greece, particularly at Corinth. Then I hit the mother lode: “Alice Leslie Walker (1885-1954),” by John C. Lavezzi (pdf, Google cache). Turns out the woman known to her friends as “Mopsie” had quite a life, with lots of activity, lots of frustration, and not much (of a public nature) to show for it—a fatal combination of excessive perfectionism (a common scholarly trait all too well known to me from my time in grad school) and academic politics (she was part of the losing faction at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens) meant that she was never able to get most of her Corinth work published. A bout of malaria with typhoid-like symptoms in 1920 left her very overweight and nearly deaf, which made her the butt of unkind jokes; nevertheless, she married Georgios A. Kosmopoulos in 1924 and they seem to have had a happy marriage, moving to Santa Barbara, California (for many years my family home) sometime around WWII—Lavezzi says “it may be (evidence is deficient) that she never was able to return to her beloved Greece.” I got my copy of her Sophocles text in July 2000, at Bart’s Books in Ojai (well worth a visit if you’re in Southern California), and I hereby pay tribute to her memory. (She had a nice bookplate, too, with a view of a mountainous landscape and the legend LEVABO OCVLOS ‘I will lift up mine eyes [unto the hills],” from Psalm 121.)


I just discovered that canola was coined as late as 1978 the 1970s and is derived from Canadian oil, low acid. If I’d had to guess, I’d have picked an Italian origin; I certainly wouldn’t have pegged it for a recent semi-acronym. That’s what I call a successful bit of word-creation. (It used to be rapeseed, but for some reason that name was felt to be a detriment from a marketing standpoint.)


I was debating whether to get rid of a little book of “Chinese Sayings” (i.e., four-character expressions) when I looked in the back and saw with a pang of nostalgia the label of Caves Book Co., where I bought so many cheap (mostly pirated) books thirty years ago. On a whim I googled [“Caves Book” taipei], and the first hit was this, a long page that has the exact label I was looking at (the green one, about a quarter of the way down). It turns out Greg Kindall’s Seven Roads has a Gallery of Book Trade Labels that I could happily lose myself in for days. I suspect anyone who loves books as physical objects has a soft spot for what Greg calls “these small and sometimes beautiful labels pasted more or less discreetly into the endpapers.” Aside from the alphabetical index, you can navigate the collection geographically here; I’m sorry to see that his scanty Argentine collection doesn’t include the librería Pygmalion in Buenos Aires where I spent so many happy hours in the mid-’60s (alas, never running into Borges, who frequented the place during the same period)—maybe I’ll scan one and send it in.
The Seven Roads site also has a sporadically updated blog and various arcana like a Complete Serial List of Everyman’s Library Titles and De Ludis et Hortis: A translation into Latin of R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses; I highly recommend it to your attention.


I don’t like The Office (I got enough office nastiness in actual offices, thanks), but it’s certainly well written, and Ed Cormany of Descriptively Adequate has a superb analysis of a scene in which a bunch of people argue about the proper use of whomever. You don’t have to know the characters to enjoy it, and a YouTube video of the scene is right there so you can watch it before reading the discussion. As Ed says, “since the writers weren’t actually taking sides on the issue, but instead doing their best to represent its contentiousness, they were able to successfully portray several points of view and the way that such debates inevitably degrade into snarkiness.”
I got to Ed’s post via Ben Zimmer at Language Log; in the Update to that post you will find two diametrically opposed views from Log readers about the moribundity of the word: “whom is disappearing, but I hear whomever all the time” versus “‘Whom’ may be on its last legs, but it’s still out there, used by at least a significant minority of speakers, and everyone is aware of its existence. ‘Whomever’ … has been completely eradicated from most dialects of standard English (even in the formal register).” It would be interesting to see the results of a study of where and how it’s used.


A Haaretz story by Benny Ziffer:

The audience at “Sephardic Jews and Ladino,” a conference held Wednesday at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim, was no less interesting than the academics and distinguished figures on the dais…
Researchers and their fans and the few remaining speakers of a language that for centuries served the Jews of Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East have not given up. They continue to fight to preserve Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, which apparently has achieved “museum” status. The National Authority for Ladino Language and Culture, which is headed by former President Yitzhak Navon, Wednesday gloried in what was billed as the first public conference on Ladino literature.
The question is whether there is anything on which to confer. About a year ago I was invited to Yad Ben Zvi in Jerusalem. Dr. Yaron Ben-Naeh, an expert in Jewish history during the Ottoman Empire, ushered me into the holy of holies of the institution’s library the rare books wing. Books in Ladino take up less than a wall and a half of shelf space. Apparently that is nearly all there is, according to Ladino literature researcher Dov Hacohen of Bar Ilan University and Yad Ben Zvi. It’s not much in comparison to the endless treasures of Yiddish, Ladino’s rival since the creation of the state.
Still, participants insisted on speaking of “Ladino literature,” even when the material was in fact advertising, aimed at getting readers to contribute to some yeshiva. Hacohen, who spoke on Ladino publications in Jerusalem since 1500, was a crowd-pleaser with his presentation of these rare documents. In one, consisting of Ladino mixed with Arabic, the Jewish target audience is warned against sitting in kahwe houses or enjoying the merriments of the Gentiles. But is it literature?
Literature was a luxury for Ladino speakers. The novels and poetry written in the language are on such a primitive, basic level as to evoke pity.

That’s a pretty negative take on it, but if all of Ladino literature takes “up less than a wall and a half of shelf space,” I guess it’s hard to be too positive. (Thanks, Kobi!)


A nice Washington Post story by Monica Bhide about teaching her son another language:

As a very young child, my son Jai had an unaccountable aversion to learning any language other than English. Yet, I was determined to teach him Hindi, my mother tongue, to ensure he did not miss out on a culture and heritage for lack of simple knowledge of its language.
I would point to his clothes, toys and books and encourage him to respond with their Hindi names. Eventually, he spoke a few words — he could point to a chair and call it kursi and say the numbers from 1 to 10 in Hindi. But he did not know simple phrases such as “How are you?” or “My name is Jai.” He could not have a conversation in Hindi.
That all changed during a trip to India when Jai was 4. I was sitting with my mother on the floor, shelling peas. As we were laughing and talking, Jai wandered over, picked up a pea pod with great curiosity and asked what it was. It is mattar, my mother told him. Peas? he wondered. Inside this? He loved the fact that he could open the pod and find a treasure. He opened one, then another and another. He sat still, which in itself was an achievement. He began to listen to us, to ask questions.
Some mothers like to color with their young children, some read books, some watch television. I could never have imagined our time together would be used to shell peas.
Once we were back in the States, I searched supermarkets and farmers’ markets for peas in pods. I rinsed them, patted them dry and waited for 3 o’clock so I could pick up Jai from school and we could shell peas. When pea pods were hard to find, I cheated, more than once passing off edamame as peas. Rarely were we able to eat the peas for dinner; by the time Jai’s tiny fingers got them out of the pods, they were too squished or had gone straight into his mouth. I didn’t care as long as we sat and shelled and talked…

It’s a touching account that helps me understand how stories and languages get passed on. Maybe my mother would have learned her parents’ native Norwegian if instead of offering a penny for each word learned they’d sat around the kitchen telling stories and preparing food. (Via Taccuino di traduzione.)


Some Russian-related items:
1) I’m nearing the end of Bykov’s Orfografiya (discussed here, here, and here), and in a section where a bunch of people were getting drunk and quoting poetry, I was delighted to find that after a bunch of Blok the narrator says “Then some young people read poetry Yat’ didn’t know at all”—and it turns out (upon googling) to be by Yunna Morits, a fine poet I’ve only recently discovered! She was born in 1937 and became well known in the ’60s, but anachronism is rampant in this operatic novel set in early 1918. (The poem quoted in the novel is “Читая греческий кувшин,” which is available in this thread; this page has a selection of poems in English and Russian.)
2) Via Avva, a remarkable new site, Электронные публикации Института русской литературы (Пушкинского Дома) РАН. As Anatoly says:

Там есть немало хорошего, но особенно выделяется отличная сетевая версия Библиотеки литературы Древней Руси. Там просто очень много замечательного – далеко не только стандартные тексты, такие, как “Слово о полку Игореве” или “Повесть временных лет” – хотя они тоже конечно есть. Например, там есть очень интересное Хождение Игумена Даниила – о паломничестве в Палестину в начале 12-го века. Или текст множества новгородских берестяных грамот – тоже захватывает. И еще и еще. Притом все тексты есть в оригинале, в переводе на современный русский язык, или в паралелльном показе и того и другого.

3) I neglected to mention on Saturday that I’d gone to the Troubadour Books sale I wrote about here; I got a bunch of books, among them Stalin’s last crime: the plot against the Jewish doctors, 1948-1953 by Jonathan Brent, Tsvetaeva by Viktoria Schweitzer, Proust: The later years by George D. Painter, Vekhi: sbornik statei o russkoi intelligentsii by Nikolai Berdiaev et al., Russia under the old regime by Richard Pipes, Autobiography: My childhood, In the world, My universities by Maxim Gorky, Snow by Orhan Pamuk, and Nabokov’s Dar as well as its English translation The Gift, but the ones I want to single out for mention are Metkoe moskovskoe slovo [‘The accurate/pointed/apt Moscow word’] by Evgenii Platonovich Ivanov and Russkaia literatura XX veka: dooktyabr’skii period [‘Russian literature of the 20th century: prerevolutionary period’] by N. A. Trifonov.
The first is a collection of articles written almost a century ago by Ivanov, who was born in Nizhnii Novgorod in 1884 but fell in love with Moscow and its inhabitants, and spent his time hobnobbing with tradesmen and others, noting their peculiarities of their speech: chapters are titled “Booksellers,” “Antiquarians,” “Cries of street vendors,” “Trickery,” “Curious street signs,” “Cabbies,” “Tailors,” “Innkeepers,” and so on. The editors say many of the words are in no other dictionary, even Dahl. And many of the entries consist of noted-down scraps of dialog, giving a vivid feel for Moscow street life in the prerevolutionary period.
The Trifonov anthology is a double time capsule, the texts collected from the first years of the 20th century but seen through the lens of a later era, 1971 to be precise (the very year I visited the late USSR); I was amazed to see that already Nikolai Gumilev (shot in 1921) and Osip Mandelstam (died in the Gulag in 1938) were being reprinted and studied in schools, alongside the recently rehabilitated Akhmatova and the exiles Andrei Bely, Ivan Bunin, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and Zinaida Gippius. Of course all of them had to be sanitized by a preliminary 100-page section of Revolutionary Proletarian Literature (led off by the mandatory Lenin article), but still, it sheds new light on what I had thought of as the frozen Brezhnev regime. This was, after all, just a few years after the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of Dubček.

[Read more…]