Archives for November 2007


A kind reader in Slovakia took advantage of the Amazon link in the margin to send me a copy of Language Myths, by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (thanks very much, Ján!). Someone recently asked me to recommend a few books that would give a basic idea of language as seen by linguists for the nonspecialist; as soon as I looked through this, I wrote him back and added it to the ones I’d already mentioned (Jim Quinn’s American Tongue and Cheek and Robert A. Hall, Jr.’s Linguistics and Your Language, a revised edition of Leave Your Language Alone!). The format is simple and brilliant: have a bunch of linguists take a bunch of popular myths about language and deconstruct them, explaining why linguists look at the issue differently and what the facts of the matter are. Some of the myths discussed are “the meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change,” “some languages are just not good enough,” “women talk too much,” “some languages are harder than others,” “some languages have no grammar,” “double negatives are illogical,” and “Aborigines speak a primitive language.” Obviously some sections are better written than others, but anyone who reads the whole book will have not a grounding in linguistic science but something more important for the average citizen: a basic grasp of how linguists think about language, and an understanding of why the silly ideas that irritate linguists so much are silly. If enough people achieved that, conversations about language would be as coherent as those about (say) sports, and a whole generation of linguists could stop worrying about their blood pressure so much.


My wife was remarking on our cat Pushkin’s excessive fondness for dairy products when I realized I didn’t know the etymology of the word dairy. Not being one to accept such a state of affairs, I dashed off to consult the OED, and discovered that just as a nunnery is a place where nuns live, a dairy (originally deierie) is (or was) a place where deys work. And what is a dey, you ask? Why, it’s “A woman having charge of a dairy and things pertaining to it; in early use, also, with the more general sense, female servant, maid-servant.” The etymology is as follows:

[OE. dæȝe, corresp. to ON. deigja, maid, female servant, house-keeper (whence Sw. deja dairy-maid):—OTeut. *daigjôn, from ablaut-stem of the vb. (in Gothic) deigan, daig, dig-un, digan-, to knead; whence Goth. daigs, OE. dáȝ, dáh, dough.
The primitive meaning ‘kneader’, ‘maker of bread’, appears in OE. in the first quotation; in ON. and in early ME. we find the wider sense of ‘female servant’, ‘woman employed in a house or farm’. Cf. also ON. bú-deigja (, house, household) and mod. Norw. bu-deia, sæter-deia, agtar-deia. The same word, or a cognate derivative of the same root, is understood to form the second element in OE. hlæfdíȝe, hlæfdiȝe now LADY. See also DAIRY.]

So dough is ‘that which is kneaded,’ a dey was originally the woman who kneads it (whence ‘female servant’ and then specifically ‘woman who works in a dairy’), and a lady was a loaf-kneader. Isn’t that interesting?

[Read more…]


I always admired books like the Ultimate Visual Dictionary in stores, but never bought one. Now Merriam-Webster has created a Visual Dictionary Online: “Search the themes to quickly locate words, or find the meaning of a word by viewing the image it represents.” Pretty nifty. (Via MetaFilter.)


I happened on this odd word (from Latin redarguo ‘refute’) because it’s the guide word at the top left of p. 1042 of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th edition), which defines it as ‘confute, disprove,’ calling it archaic; the OED has more to say: “1. To blame, reprove (a person or persons, an action, etc.). Also const. of, for. Obs. 2. To confute (a person) by argument. (In later use only Sc.; cf. next sense.) 3. To refute or disprove (an argument, statement, etc.). (Since c1700 only Sc., chiefly Law.) 4. absol. or intr. To reprove or refute; to employ argument for the purpose of refuting.” (A few citations: 1877 BLACKIEWise Men 327 All these Love’s vouchers stand, beyond the craft Of sophist to redargue. 1885 Law Rep. 10 App. Cases 383 note, This fact afforded a degree of real evidence which no parole testimony could redargue. 1641 J. JACKSON True Evang. T. I. 55 Men love truth when it shines, but not when it redargues). Next time you present someone with a triumphant conclusion, you can top it off by saying (in a thick Scottish burr, if you like) “Redargue that!”


As I wrote in a previous post, I have a stack of books I’ve been wanting to talk about for months; having been derailed by moving, work, and various other trivia, I’m finally getting back to them, and the one I most want to talk about is Michael Erard’s Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Erard got a master’s degree in linguistics before going into journalism, and it shows; he’s one of the few reporters who consistently gets linguistic stuff right (I’ve quoted him a number of times, e.g. here and here). He writes knowledgeably and with verve, packing in fascinating bits of information on each page, which is one reason I’ve been sitting on it for so long—I keep putting it down to think about and investigate the things he brings up.
He starts off by talking about one of the most famous blunderers, Reverend Spooner, pointing out that “he didn’t make as many verbal blunders as are attributed to him” and of those he did make “very few were ‘true’ spoonerisms.” He goes on to a much more important topic, Freud and the “Freudian slip.” He provides a detailed dissection of one of Freud’s most famous examples, the case of the young man who tried to quote Vergil’s line “Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor” (‘May someone rise, an avenger, from my bones’) but said “ex nostris” and omitted the word aliquis—for Freud, an extremely significant slip that stemmed from the man’s fear that his lover was pregnant. Erard then cites an Italian critic of Freud, the philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro, who points out that omitting a less important word like aliquis ‘someone’ is a perfectly normal speech error, that an error in a foreign language can hardly be analyzed as if it were in one’s native tongue, and that if you take the Freudian attitude you could provide “insightful” interpretations no matter which word was left out. This warmed my anti-Freudian heart. He then brings up Rudolf Meringer, another philologist, who was “one of the first scientists to show that speech errors are worth collecting and classifying” and the first to use slips “to get a handle on language”; he made a habit of copying slips made by fellow professors at dinner gatherings, eventually collecting 8,800 of them and classifying them as “anticipations,” “perseverations,” and so on. Modern linguists, including Rulon Wells and R.J. Simonini, Jr., started studying slips in the 1950s.
In Chapter 5 he gives “A Brief History of ‘Um’,” explaining that he started by assuming that the condemnation of “filler words” went all the way back to the ancients but found that it didn’t really begin until the 19th century (Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Don’t strew the pathway with those dreadful urs” in 1846) and didn’t become popular until the 20th; as he says in this interview, “one of the important aspects of the radio performance was to remove the ‘uhs’ and the ‘ums’—I think because it didn’t sound right somehow. But there was also the fact that the radio broadcasts were commercial. They were selling things, selling advertising on the radio, and the ‘uhs’ or the ‘ums’ would take up valuable time that you could use to sell pet food and mattresses and whatever other sorts of sponsorships.”
I could go on indefinitely, but I’ll conclude with his admirable repudiation of the use of nonstandard speech to bash those you don’t like: “Liberals shouldn’t talk about speaking this way—it contradicts how they work to include everybody and make sure that everyone has equal opportunity.” Amen. And if you’re looking for a present for someone who loves language, I can recommend this one with complete confidence.


A lot of American science fiction fans tend to think that Hugo Gernsback invented sf when he started Amazing Stories in 1926, although of course Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are back there somewhere in the dim prehistory of the field. Actually, science-fictional ideas were very much in the air a century ago (in Russia, “mainstream” writers like Alexander Kuprin, Valerii Bryusov, and Alexei Tolstoi were writing about computerized cities, ecological catastrophe, and trips to outer space, and Kuprin even wrote a parody—in 1913!—of pulp sf, complete with mad scientist and super-weapons), and I was amused to come across a reflection of this in Proust’s The Captive. From pp. 259-60 of my edition:

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything that we saw in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage of discovery, the only really rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is…

And later on the same page, musing about music:

And, just as certain creatures are the last surviving testimony to a form of life which nature has discarded, I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been—if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened—the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language.

A nice break from gossip and genealogy!


I’m finally starting to read Zamyatin’s famous novel Мы (We), which I bought almost forty years ago as a beginning Russian student and long-time science fiction fan (I’d already read it in English). This prescient book, from which Huxley and Orwell swiped shamelessly for their own dystopias, was written in 1920 but not allowed to appear in the USSR; after it was published in English in 1924 and excerpts were published in the emigré journal Volya Rossii in 1927, the author got into a great deal of trouble, and the book didn’t appear in its entirety in Russian until its 1952 publication in America (it was not published in the USSR until 1988).

Before plunging in, I wanted to read the chapter on Zamyatin in Yuri Annenkov’s brilliant and moving memoirs, Dnevnik moikh vstrech [‘Diary of my meetings’], and I was pleased to see that Annenkov, when his good friend Zamyatin showed him a section of the work in progress, asked him about the very thing that puzzled me when I looked through it. He quotes a bit near the start that begins: “Мерными рядами, по четыре, восторженно отбивая такт, шли нумера…” (‘In measured rows, four by four, triumphantly beating time, walked the numbers [numera]…’), writes that he disliked the word numer used for ‘number’ rather than the usual nomer—it sounded vulgar and un-Russian to him—and asked: Почему – нумер, а не номер? (‘Why numer and not nomer?’). Zamyatin says it’s not a Russian word, adducing Latin numerus, Italian numero, French numéro, English number, and German Nummer, and asks “Where’s the O?” He then opens a dictionary and starts going through the A’s, saying “Let’s see where the Russian roots are”: “абажур, аббат, аберрация, абзац, абонемент, аборт, абракадабра, абрикос, абсолютизм, абсурд, авангард, аванпост, авансцена, авантюра, авария, август, августейший… Стоп! Я наткнулся: авось! Дальше: аврора, автобиография, автограф, автократия, автомат, автомобиль, автопортрет, автор, авторитет, агитатор, агент, агония, адепт, адвокат, адрес, академия, акварель, аккомпанемент, акробат, аксиома, акт, актер, актриса… Стоп! наткнулся на акулу!.. Дальше: аккуратность, акустика, акушерка, акцент, акция, алгебра, алебастр, алкоголь, аллегория, аллея… Стоп: алмаз… Дальше: алфавит, алхимия…”
All these words are obviously of non-Russian origin except the few where he says “Stop!” and names an exception: авось [avos’] ‘perhaps,’ акула [akula] ‘shark,’ and алмаз [almaz] ‘uncut diamond.’ The funny thing is that the last two are also borrowed, akula from Old Norse hákall and almaz from Turkic. I would have thought at least the latter would have worn its foreign origin clearly on its sleeve; it occurs to me, however, that Annenkov, reconstructing the conversation many years later, probably remembered the general idea but not the exact words Zamyatin stopped at.

Towards the end of the piece, after mentioning Zamyatin’s remark that his books were his children, Annenkov quotes Viktor Shklovsky (whom I mentioned here and here), from a 1959 article “On the use of private libraries”:

Надо накапливать книги, знакомясь с человеческим опытом, – пускай они лежат вокруг твоей мысли, становясь твоими – кольцо за кольцом, так, как растет дерево, пускай они подымаются со дна, как коралловые острова.

Если от книг становится тесно и некуда поставить кровать, то лучше заменить кровать раскладушкой.

[You have to store up books, becoming acquainted with human experience; let them lie around your thoughts, becoming yours—ring upon ring, as a tree grows, let them rise up from the depths like coral islands.

If it gets crowded with all the books and there’s nowhere to put your bed, it’s better to exchange it for a folding bed.]

Words to live by.


Thanksgiving (which we are celebrating today in the U.S.) has always struck me as a strange word. In the United States it pretty much refers only to the holiday, though I suppose Catholics have masses of thanksgiving, and since the holiday is celebrated only in the U.S. and Canada (where it is the second Monday of October) the name can’t really be translated. If you look it up in a bilingual dictionary it will give something that translates back to “day of giving thanks,” but that doesn’t really work, because the etymological sense of thanksgiving very much takes a back seat to what is for practical senses its meaning: “day when you stuff yourself with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie and (if you’re so inclined) watch football until your eyeballs bleed.” Sure, newspapers run pieces on What We Are Grateful For, and I’m sure there are people who truly do give thanks for the good things in their life, but it is very far from being (as a foreigner with nothing but dictionary descriptions might think) a pious day when we all sit around counting our blessings.
Also, this story by Craig Wilson discusses Robyn Gioia, a Florida woman who claims that the “REAL First Thanksgiving” was in St. Augustine and the holiday should commemorate “a Spanish explorer who landed here on Sept. 8, 1565, and celebrated a feast of thanksgiving with Timucua Indians” (who “dined on bean soup”). Now, what could this mean? As Robert Makin, a local tour guide, says, “I also don’t think they called it Thanksgiving. You can’t even call it Thanksgiving if it’s not even English. Thanksgiving is an English word.” Surely there were lots of occasions when early settlers sat down with the locals for an amicable dinner; the holiday commemorates a particular such occasion at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, and I don’t see what sense it makes to try to antedate it.
In any event, happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!
Update. I can now report dinner was superb (we had the turkey butterflied, which cuts way down on the roasting time and gets everything equally cooked), and if anyone wants wine recommendations, I’ve done a lot of experimentation over the years and am very happy with rosé and zin. We had a bottle of each (a 2006 Belleruche Côtes du Rhône from M. Chapoutier, and a 2005 Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel) and finished up with pumpkin pie, cherry pie, and good strong coffee.
Also, Mark Liberman has a good discussion of the word thanksgiving over at the Log (followup here), and I hereby offer my congratulations on his being elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (see Arnold Zwicky’s post, in which he correctly says that “it’s confusing that the word fellow gets used for two different kinds of academic awards”).


Artur Janc’s lingro is a very nifty piece of software that provides clickable word definitions for any webpage. The About page says:

lingro was conceived in August 2005, when Artur decided to practice his Spanish by reading Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal. As a competent but non-expert speaker, he found that looking up new vocabulary took much more time than the reading itself. Frustrated with the how slow existing online dictionaries were, he wrote a program to help him translate and learn words in their original context.

You just enter the URL of the website you want to read in the box, click, and presto, you can get the meaning of any word that’s in the built-in dictionary. So far it translates between English, Spanish,
German, French, Italian, and Polish; Artur says “All of the dictionaries are based on open content sources (such as Wiktionary) and are community-editable, so we’re hoping to keep increasing the size and quality of the dictionaries through user contributions.”


Correspondent Christophe Strobbe alerts me to this post by Neal Whitman of Literal-Minded, about constructions like “others were attempted to be killed” with “its passive marking on both the matrix verb (was attempted) and the embedded infinitive (to be killed)—something that makes less sense the more you try to parse it like any other passive, but which sounds pretty natural if you just go with it.” He quotes a bunch of examples he’s found online (“I am attempted to be hacked,” “payment must be received before the item is begun to be made,” “If any terms or conditions are failed to be followed,” and so on) and says “I’ve gotten so used to reading double passives by now that the above examples all sound pretty good to me.” In a follow-up post he quotes the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

You may sometimes find it desirable to conjoin a passive verb form with a passive infinitive, as in The building is scheduled to be demolished next week and The piece was originally intended to be played on the harpsichord. These sentences are perfectly acceptable. But it’s easy for things to go wrong in these double passive constructions…. [D]ouble passives often sound ungrammatical, as this example shows: The fall in the value of the Yen was attempted to be stopped by the Central Bank. How can you tell an acceptable double passive from an unacceptable one? If you can change the first verb into an active one, making the original subject its object, while keeping the passive infinitive, the original sentence is acceptable. Thus you can say The city has scheduled the building to be demolished next week and The composer originally intended the piece to be played on the harpsichord. But you cannot make similar changes in the other sentence. You cannot say The Central Bank attempted the fall in the value of the Yen to be stopped.

He has a draft paper (pdf) on the subject; I haven’t had time to read it, but the conclusion begins: “Though scarcely analyzed in the linguistics literature, the English double passive double passive is well attested, has existed since at least the late 1700s, and is the most succinct option for allowing the patient of an embedded infinitive to be used as the main subject in a sentence.” This is interesting stuff, and I’m surprised Language Log hasn’t discussed it (unless I’ve missed it).
Christophe adds: “I found examples in French, but not (yet) in German, and only one in my native language, Dutch. I wonder if you are familiar with this construction. I’m sure you and your readers could find examples in other languages where it exists.” Any takers?