Archives for December 2007


We’ve been out spending New Year’s Eve with the kids and grandkids, and I’m too replete and tuckered out to do any fancy posting, so I’ll just point you towards Mark Liberman’s roundup of the history of Urdu (word and language) and wish you all a very happy 2008!


Mina Loy is being featured at wood s lot, and among the links is a long essay by Marjorie Perloff about her autobiographical poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” (first published 1923-25). It’s an informative and interesting piece; what I want to highlight here is a remarkable quote from an essay this English-born poet who was seen as American even when she’d only spent a year in the country wrote about the American language:

It was inevitable that the renaissance of poetry should proceed out of America, where latterly a thousand languages have been born, and each one, for purposes of communication at least, English — English enriched and variegated with the grammatical structure and voice-inflection of many races . . . Out of the welter of this unclassifiable speech, while professors of Harvard and Oxford labored to preserve “God’s English,” the muse of modern literature arose, and her tongue had been loosened in the melting pot.
—Mina Loy, “Modern Poetry,” Charm 3, April 1925

I’m not a big fan of her poetry, which is too unmusical for my ear, but I like the quote a lot. (If you’re curious about her poetry, you can read her 1923 book Lunar Baedecker [sic] here.)
Incidentally, her name was originally the Austro-Hungarian-Jewish Löwy, which I presume was pronounced LOW-ee in Victorian London; she changed it when she moved to Paris at the age of 20 in 1903. Other onomastic oddities: her first husband’s family name, Hawies, is pronounced HAW-iss and is apparently from a Norman female personal name, Haueis (from Germanic Haduwidis: hadu ‘strife, contention’ + widi ‘wide’—I take this information from the entry on Hawes in Patrick Hanks’s Dictionary of American Family Names); her second husband (and the great love of her life) Arthur Cravan, who disappeared off the coast of Mexico in 1918, was born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd (the Lloyd/Loy similarity was important to the poet), and (in the words of Wikipedia) “changed his name to Cravan in 1912 in honour of his fiancée Renée Bouchet, who was born in the small village of Cravans in the department of Charente-Maritime in western France. Why he chose the name Arthur remains unclear.” I have no idea if this invented name was pronounced KRAV-ən or krə-VAN (or some other way) by him and those who knew him; I’m also not sure how to pronounce the poet’s given name. I always said MY-nə, which seemed the obvious Victorian English pronunciation, but Carolyn Burke’s remark (in the introduction to her biography of Loy) that “in some moods she announced contrarily that it was pronounced ‘miner,’ British style” implies that it was normally pronounced MEE-nə. (Burke also says “Rexroth, who knew both women, told me that the actress [Myrna Loy], née Williams, named herself after the poet, but efforts to have this story confirmed went unrewarded.”)


Being immersed in classic Russian literature, thanks to Jim (see my Christmas post—and another box came today, with Batyushkov, Kuprin, Akhmatova, and lots and lots of Turgenev!), I’ve branched out from the books actually on hand and investigated other early poets, like Gnedich, author of the classic Russian translation of the Iliad. As soon as I read the opening few lines, I was hooked; it creates a poetic force worthy of the original while remaining admirably true to the meaning:

Гнев, богиня, воспой Ахиллеса, Пелеева сына,
Грозный, который ахеянам тысячи бедствий соделал:
Многие души могучие славных героев низринул
В мрачный Аид и самих распростер их в корысть плотоядным
Птицам окрестным и псам (совершалася Зевсова воля)…

(I note, incidentally, that the Грозный [grozny] that opens the second line translates the Greek οὐλομένην ‘destructive,’ which suggests that the often-repeated warnings that the same adjective in Иван Грозный [Ivan Grozny] ‘Ivan the Terrible’ really means ‘awe-inspiring’ or the like are overstated.)
The amazing thing about this translation, aside from the quality, is that Gnedich spent years composing an entirely different one, in alexandrines. In 1813, when Gnedich had already completed eleven books, Uvarov, an unpleasant reactionary but a sound classical scholar, convinced him that only hexameters (hardly used until then in Russian verse) could properly represent Homer. Gnedich destroyed everything he’d written over the previous six years and spent another decade and a half rewriting it; the whole translation finally came out in 1829. Now, that’s dedication to your art.

[Read more…]


If you’ve read much Nabokov, you’ve undoubtedly run across the Russian word poshlost’—or “poshlust,” as that incorrigible punster Vladimir Vladimirovich liked to render it. He called it “smug philistinism” and wrote an entire essay, “Philistines and Philistinism,” about it (which you can read here): “Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust.” It’s a useful and appealing word, and it’s been picked up by others, some of whom are to be found in the Wikipedia article.

But it’s more complicated than that. Poshlost’ (пошлость) is the abstract noun from the adjective poshlyi (пошлый), which has a long and winding history, nicely summarized by Michele Berdy in this column:

The original sense was something that had “come into existence,” something customary, the way of doing things. In time it came to mean something “ancient” or “usual.” When Peter the Great was cutting short beards and kaftans, what was customary (пошлый) became negative. For a while it meant “low quality” (in other words, what’s old is no good). And then it came to mean something “devoid of meaning” or “trivial”: meaningless custom observed by habit.

(In Old Russian it was пошьлъ /poshĭlŭ/, derived from the verb ‘to go’ and virtually identical with the modern verb пошел /poshol/ ‘went.’) If you read Russian, there’s a good discussion of the history by V.V. Vinogradov here.

So the Nabokovian meaning is relatively recent, probably not much older than Nabokov himself. In the mid-nineteenth century it meant ‘common, banal, trivial,’ without the implication of philistinism that became attached to it later. When Baratynsky says, in his poem Осень (1836-37), “Глас, пошлый глас, вещатель общих дум” (‘Voice, poshlyi voice, prophesier of common thoughts’), he is using the older meaning, and so are Gogol, Pushkin, and other writers of the day. I fear that the prevalence of the Nabokovian meaning in the modern mind makes it easy to misread earlier writers.

Update. See this 2011 followup.


Kerim Friedman was curious about Emperor Hirohito’s famous remark, while announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” (in the usual translation). So he asked Matt of No-sword to explicate, and the results are enlightening:

…since the speech was in court Japanese (obscure even in 1945), exactly how to interpret this line is not clear. Some modern commentators do accept the “understatement” reading that Krugman uses. Some people claim that that passage…’means “things have definitely not gone well for us” (usage of 必ずしも, the key word corresponding to “not necessarily” in Krugman’s version, has changed slightly over the years), some say it means “[despite everyone’s efforts] things will not necessarily improve for us”.
I lean towards the latter interpretation myself. By the time Hirohito delivered this speech (via a recording broadcast over the radio), central Tokyo had already been burned to the ground; I don’t think that even the Japanese leadership of the time could seriously have written a speech that could call this “not necessarily to [our] advantage”. Implicitly admitting that things are going badly, and then adding “and, contrary to expectations, they are not likely to improve” seems much more likely.
I also seem to recall hearing that the original version of this line was something like “the war situation gets worse every day”, so it could just be the tortured result of a fierce edit war within the bureaucracy.

He also points out that “most Japanese in 1945 would have found the Emperor’s announcement very difficult to understand in the first place.”


My wife left me in Amherst Books recently while she got a haircut, and when she came to pick me up she found me drooling over Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape (Google Books, Princeton UP page, introduction), by Julie A. Buckler. I looked up dazedly and said “This book could have been written especially for me. This is why I need to visit actual bookstores; the internet is a wonderful thing, but it didn’t tell me this book existed.” She plucked it from my hands and announced that I had just solved the problem of what to get me; yesterday I unwrapped it, and I look forward to devouring it. I will report back when I have done so.
The other present of Languagehat relevance is a box of books that arrived on the 21st from my pal Jim Salant (author of Leaving Dirty Jersey, which I highly recommend if you don’t mind graphic descriptions of sex, violence, and obsessive drug use—it’s that rara avis, a drug memoir that’s neither tough-guy fake nor weepily repentant, told in straightforward, no-bullshit style and ending exactly where it should). Jim’s grandmother was getting rid of a bunch of Russian books, and he had told me to take my pick; this was the first installment, and it contained poetry collections by Delvig, Baratynsky, Tyutchev, and Sologub, Dostoevsky’s Zapiski iz mertvogo doma (Notes from the House of the Dead), a collection of stories and essays by Ilf and Petrov, a volume of Saltykov-Schedrin containing Istoriia odnogo goroda, Gospoda Golovlevy, and Skazki, a set of Leskov, a Kharms collection… And there’s more to come! I’ve already started acquainting myself with Delvig and Baratynsky, companions of Pushkin who were just names to me; now I’ve matched Delvig with one of my favorite obscure English poets, Walter Savage Landor—both are classically inspired poets who wrote unfashionably dry, impersonal lyrics with impeccable technique (I once wrote a pastiche of Landor beginning “Alas, Ianthe, thou that wast so fair…”).
I also got wine, food, an incredibly warm shirt, and from my excessively generous brother Eric a bunch of DVDs (four Almodóvars and The Motorcycle Diaries) and CDs, among other things. Oh, and we got a gift certificate to, a wonderful site that lets you provide microloans ($25) to small businesses in developing countries: “By choosing a business on, you can ‘sponsor a business’ and help the world’s working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates from the business you’ve sponsored. As loans are repaid, you get your loan money back.” And then you can loan it to someone else. Let me tell you, it feels great to hit that button and know that you’re helping someone make their way out of poverty. Give it a try!


Over at Language Log, Arnold Zwicky wondered about the history of the expression be that as it may/will, the will variant being stigmatized in his newly acquired 1915 usage guide Faulty Diction. Mark Liberman does the research and discovers that the will variant was more common in the early 18th century, but at midcentury may started catching up, around 1775 their graphs cross, and the 19th century sees a remarkable spike in the use of may (presumably accounting for the book’s confident pronouncement). By century’s end, both have sunk into the desuetude in which they languish to this day. The ability to easily do this kind of historical legwork is one of the blessings of our own century.


Heidi Harley says she is “not the kind of linguist who is heavy into antedating and sourcing,” but she happened to run into a citation for eggnog that beat the OED’s 1825 date and posted on Language Log about it: a poem by 18th-century clergyman and philologist Jonathan Boucher contained the lines

Fog-drams i’ th’ morn, or (better still) egg-nogg,
At night hot-suppings, and at mid-day, grogg,
My palate can regale:

The poem seems to have been written around 1774, but as Joel S. Berson points out in this guest post at the Log, the OED would use the date of publication, 1807, rather than the apparent (but unprovable) date of the poem. Not to worry, however, because Joel found a nice citation from the Oct. 16, 1788 issue of the Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia):

Rummaging now the brain, many conceits may be found, much truth of all kinds, whole store rooms of curses and unmentionable damns, with devils of all shapes and colours, thousands of encomiums on oysters, hot suppers, and devilish fine wines; and there are so many different qualities and dispositions that intestine wars are never over; when wine and beer, punch and eggnog meet, instantly ensues a quarrel, and it is raised so high, that the brains boil like mush in a pot with heat, and was it not for the holes I before mentioned, which let out the steam, the skull must be cracked.

Now, the odd thing is that the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate gives the date of eggnog as “ca. 1775.” Are they also working from the Boucher poem, or do they have an early citation they’re keeping to themselves?
Utterly unrelated, but I have to share something I ran across in the OED while perusing the latest list of new additions (PURPRESS to QUIT SHILLING). They give the etymology of Q-tip as “the initial letter of QUALITY n. + TIP n.” and then add in small type: “The product was app. invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang, a Polish-born American, who initially named them Baby Gays. In 1926 the name was changed to Q-tips Baby Gays, and later shortened to Q-tips.” I’ll bet they thank their lucky stars every day that Gerstenzang decided to change the name.


I’ve used the phrase “playing fast and loose” all my life without ever knowing what its history was; now, thanks to, I know, and it’s very interesting:

The proximate origin is the name of a con game, along the lines of three-card monte (in spirit, not in actual structure of the game). From George Whetstone’s 1578 The Right Excellent Historye of Promos and Cassandra:

At fast or loose, with my Giptian, I meane to haue a cast.

The game is undoubtedly somewhat older than this, as the metaphorical sense predates this citation by some decades. From Tottel’s Miscellany of 1557:

Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or loose.

The game is described in this quote from James O. Halliwell’s 1847 A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century:

Fast-and-loose, a cheating game played with a stick and a belt or string, so arranged that a spectator would think he could make the latter fast by placing a stick through its intricate folds, whereas the operator could detach it at once.

Who’da thunkit?


Here’s a pledge encouraged by the American Speech Committee that made the rounds back in 1918, an astonishing medley of patriotism and linguistic purism:

I love the United States of America. I love my country’s flag. I love my country’s language. I promise:
1. That I will not dishonor my country’s speech by leaving off the last syllable of words.
2. That I will say a good American “yes” and “no” in place of an Indian grunt “um-hum” and “nup-um” or a foreign “ya” or “yeh” and “nope.”
3. That I will do my best to improve American speech by avoiding loud, rough tones, by enunciating distinctly, and by speaking pleasantly, clearly and sincerely.
4. That I will learn to articulate correctly as many words as possible during the year.

Courtesy of Geoff Nunberg’s Quotes page, where you will find many more fine citations (e.g., “We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them.” Middlemarch, Ch. LIV).