Archives for November 2007


Grant Barrett wrote to alert me to this NY Times story by Corey Kilgannon, which enraged me to the point of incoherence. I’m not mad at Daniel Cassidy—he’s a genial amateur who got a crackpot book published, no better or worse than the zillions of crackpot books that get published every year, and it’s not his fault he knows nothing about language and its history, it’s the fault of the educational system, for which linguistics and its results do not exist. No, I’m mad at the Times, which accords his nonsense the kind of respect they wouldn’t give theories about how space aliens killed Kennedy or how you can produce nuclear energy at home with knitting needles and walnuts. Here, see for yourself:

…Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having “unknown origin.”
“Glom” seemed to come from the Irish word “glam,” meaning to grab or to snatch. He found the word “balbhán,” meaning a silent person, and he surmised that it was why his quiet grandfather was called the similarly pronounced Boliver.
He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. The word “gimmick” seemed to come from “camag,” meaning trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick.
Could “scam” have derived from the expression “’S cam é,” meaning a trick or a deception? Similarly, “slum” seemed similar to an expression meaning “It is poverty.” “Dork” resembled “dorc,” which Mr. Cassidy’s dictionary called “a small lumpish person.” As for “twerp,” the Irish word for dwarf is “duirb.”
Mr. Cassidy, 63, began compiling a lexicon of hundreds of Irish-inspired slang words and recently published them in a book called “How the Irish Invented Slang,” which last month won the 2007 American Book Award for nonfiction, and which he is in New York this week promoting.

And I’m mad at the American Book Award (to be distinguished from the much more prestigious National Book Award), which rewarded this tripe. After a couple of days of fighting computer problems and worrying about a work deadline, I’m in no shape to do the kind of thoughtful debunking this should get; fortunately, Grant has done it himself. Go here and read his demolition job, and join me in wishing the Times and other news sources would treat language as seriously as they do, say, football.


I heard that word pronounced “nego-see-ation” for the millionth time today (this time by an NPR newsreader) and I finally cracked. Yes, my descriptivist faith tells me if so many people say it it’s not “wrong,” it’s just an alternate pronunciation (in fact, I just checked Merriam-Webster’s latest Collegiate and I see it’s listed as an alternate), but I’ve hated it all my life and I just have to post about it and get it off my chest. I used to think it revealed a prissy fear of sounding colloquial by using the /sh/ sound, but now I’m wondering if it’s good old dissimilation, the -sh…sh- sequence producing -s…sh-. If so, I guess I’m slightly reconciled.
This has been the Languagehat Venting Hour, or rather Minute. Our regular programming will resume tomorrow. Thank you for your attention.


In the ongoing process of unboxing books, I just ran across one I hadn’t looked at in ages: Philip J. Davis‘s The Thread. Davis is a mathematician known (says Wikipedia) “for his work in numerical analysis and approximation theory,” and in 1963 he published a book, Interpolation and Approximation, which (again according to Wikipedia) is “still an important reference in this area.” The Thread begins with the publication of that book (after much travail, including a printers’ strike and the purchase of the publisher by a bigger publisher) and, after a few years, the receipt of a letter from a Scottish mathematician who praised the book but said:

“…your presentation is flawed by your insistence on spelling Chebyshev‘s name as ‘Tschebyscheff.’ This barbaric, Teutonic, non-standard orthography will gain you no friends. I sincerely hope that when you come to prepare the second edition of your book you will alter this incorrect and irritating spelling. Yours faithfully, John Begg, Professor of Mathematics.”

The rest of the book is a madly digressive attempt to explain why his impulse was to tell the man “to go fry his fish elsewhere”; this involves a brief history of mathematics in general and Russian mathematics in particular, an explanation of how the Cyrillic alphabet came to be and why the name in question “appears in six different spellings,” the Coptic origin of the name Pafnuty, and many other things. If whimsical digression gives you pleasure and you can bear nontechnical discussion of mathematics, you should definitely investigate this little (124-page) book, whose bibliography includes Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, O. R. Kuehene’s A Study of the Thaïs Legend, I. V. Kuznetsova’s Lyudi Russkoi Nauki, Thomas R. Hazard’s The Jonny-Cake Papers, René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz’s Oracles and Demons of Tibet, and the Erinnerungsblätter der Mathematischen Gesellschaft zu Jena (Jena, 1859-1877), inter alia.
Oh, and a fact he never mentions: the name is pronounced che-bi-SHOF. Ah, Russian!


That’s Finnish for Linguistic Association of Finland, and its initials are SKY, and the SKY Journal of Linguistics is “a refereed general linguistic journal published on an annual basis. It contains articles, short essays or so-called ‘squibs’ and book reviews… The languages of publication are English, French, and German.” And it’s all online. Just at random, I see Anna Fenyvesi and Gyula Zsigri’s “The Role of Perception in Loanword Adaptation: The Fate of Initial Unstressed Syllables in American Finnish and American Hungarian” (pdf) .Lots of linguistic goodness; enjoy!


The Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés (in Hungarian order, Illyés Gyula) was widely considered one of the greatest living Hungarian poets before his death in 1983, and his 1950 poem Egy mondat a zsarnokságról (“A Sentence About Tyranny”), immediately suppressed, was passed around in a Hungarian version of samizdat, as Mátyás Domokos explains:

…the “non-existent” censorship of “existing socialism” made it impossible for the poem to be republished, whether in a newspaper or a review, or in Illyés’s own books, including various editions of “collected” poems. Indeed, anyone purveying the poem in any form or through any channel could expect the police to take action against them, especially in the aftermath of the revolution. In the meantime, the poem acquired a historic patina and a place in the public mind on a par with Sándor Petőfi’s “National Song”, a poem that had played an inflammatory role in the 1848 Hungarian revolution and subsequent war of independence. It was copied in different versions and passed from hand to hand in secret.
Two years after the poet’s death, on 31 October 1985, in the small village of Ozora, where he had spent part of his childhood, a newly built school was named after him. The school was opened with an address given by György Aczél, a member of the Political Committee of the HSWP, and the Party’s cultural overlord. It was in this address that, for the first time, someone representing the official political line claimed in public that the poem was in fact about “the indisputable historical calling of socialism—the fight for the totality of freedom and against all kinds of dictatorship” and it was not up to Illyés, nor the poem, that in 1956 it “had become a weapon in the hands of those triggering and inciting violent emotions and of harbingers of hopelessness.”
This strange story, with its morbid and grotesque turns and spanning thirty years, is nothing else than that of a show trial that had been initiated against a poem…

You can read George Szirtes’s translation of the poem here, and listen to the author read it in Hungarian at this YouTube post. (Via wood s lot.)


That’s the subtitle of an article by Anthony Grafton in the latest New Yorker on the business of putting books and other written material online. Grafton begins with the wonderful writer Alfred Kazin and his encomium to the New York Public Library (“Anything I had heard of and wanted to see, the blessed place owned…”) and goes on to Google Books and its mission to “build a comprehensive index of all the books in the world” and the wild-eyed “millenarian prophecies” it has spawned (“Last year, Kevin Kelly… predicted, in a piece in the Times, that ‘all the books in the world’ would ‘become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas'”), continuing with a compendious history of libraries, cross-referencing, and abridgment that includes such tidbits as Jacques Cujas’s “rotating barber’s chair and movable bookstand that enabled him to keep many open books in view at the same time.” Then he gets back to Google, Microsoft, and other players in the digitization game, and explains why “The supposed universal library… will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money.” My main complaint is that the piece isn’t longer; at four pages, it’s a mere appetizer. Fortunately, the online version of the magazine has a sidebar that “points to some favorite archives and historical resources,” and among the links to be found there is one that addresses my subsidiary complaint, that he doesn’t complain enough about the wretched failures of Google Books, Robert B. Townsend’s AHA blog post Google Books: What’s Not to Like? Townsend lets them have it:

Over the past three months I spent a fair amount of time on the site as part of a research project on the early history of the profession, and from a researcher’s point of view I have to say the results were deeply disconcerting. Yes, the site offers up a number of hard-to-find works from the early 20th century with instant access to the text. And yes, for some books it offers a useful keyword search function for finding a reference that might not be in the index. But my experience suggests the project is falling far short of its central promise of exposing the literature of the world, and is instead piling mistake upon mistake with little evidence of basic quality control.

He details all these failings, except for my particular bugbear, which is addressed in the first comment on his post:

You didn’t mention my pet peeve. In my work, I need to basically fact-check some historical info. The snippet view for copyrighted works would be, if not ideal, then sufficient for my objectives. That is, if the snippet actually included the search terms requested with a little surrounding text. However, more often than not some text other than what one asked for is highlighted, but one can’t, of course, scroll up or down in the snippet to see adjacent passages. So one is left wondering: now what? This is now more than just incidental. I’ve reported it to Google and they respond that it’s still beta so be patient.
— Jim Roan

You tell ’em, Jim! That “snippet view,” more than any other single thing, makes me dislike Google, and for years I never thought I would have any reason to dislike Google. Shape up, guys—make sure your snippets at least include the searched-for material and provide full view for the out-of-copyright stuff, and we’ll love you with that unreserved love you’ve gotten used to; keep pushing these defective goods and someone else will come along and do it better.

[Read more…]


I’m not a basketball fan (and it’s a long way to spring training, alas), but as a public service I present this post from

German Racecar is hot, and he’s working hard to get his team to the playoffs. Meanwhile Little Emperor lords over the East and his team just clinched a postseason spot.
Hold on, hold on, what are you talking about? Who is German Racecar? Little Emperor? Well, let us explain: those are NBA players’ nicknames in China.
“German Racecar” is Dirk Nowitzki, his ability to roll on court like a racecar, and he is, of course, from Germany. Meanwhile, China’s Little Emperor is our “King James.” For instance, do you want to know why Tim Duncan is called Stone Buddha? Scroll down.

They even give the characters for each nickname. Nicely done. (Via MetaFilter.)


Ben Zimmer has another splendid post at OUPBlog, this one on the sad results of relying uncritically on spellchecking software. Here’s a set of examples:

Foreign words and phrases are easy prey for the Cupertino effect, as when a California lawyer submitted a brief in which the Latin phrase sua sponte (‘of one’s own accord’) had unfortunately been changed to sea sponge, or when Reuters referred to Pakistan’s Muttahida Quami Movement as the Muttonhead Quail Movement. Unusual proper names are also potential pitfalls. The New York Times once changed the first name of football player DeMeco Ryans to Demerol, while the Rocky Mountain News rendered Leucadia National Corp. as La-De-Da. And the New Scientist recently reported on a spellchecker fiasco in a Contemporary Sociology review article: contributors’ last names were changed from Gareis to Agrees, Beavais to Beavers, Gerstel to Gretel, and Sarkisian to Sardinian.

The title of my post comes from the end of his:

It’s best to heed the warning given by the Denver Post after it was embarrassed by an errant spellchecker:
One sympathetic journalism expert said yesterday that spellcheck can be an editor’s enemy, “as Voldemort is to Harry Potter.” Or as our spellchecker would have it, “as Voltmeter is to Harry Potter.”