Archives for December 2007


Rex Sorgatz of Fimoculous (“Feeding on itself”—the name is a play on the rare word fimicolous ‘inhabiting or growing on dung’) has posted his list of the “Best Blogs of 2007 That You (Maybe) Aren’t Reading”; one entry is:

6) Snowclones
A snowclone — says Wikipedia, cuz it outta know — is “a type of formula-based cliche that uses an old idiom in a new context.” The best example is the rampant usage of “X is the new Y.” But there are so many others, such as “Don’t hate me because I’m X,” “In X, no one can hear you Y,” “Not rest for the X,” “To X or not to X,” “Xgate,” “Xcore,” “Got X?” — and many more. The site is so diligent in its pursuit of the cliche and the trite that you might fall stricken with a loss of words, gasping “This is not your daddy’s snowclone.” (See also: Language Hat and Away With Words.)

I was delighted to see Erin O’Connor‘s Snowclones Database get the recognition, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t equally pleased to see LH keeping it company. Thanks, Rex! (And Nancy Friedman’s Away With Words is well worth checking out as well.)


A language-learning site, Digital Dialects, “contains free to use interactive activities for learning languages and links to study resources.” The word games they offer to make use of the vocabulary and phrases are fun but on the simple-minded side, and I probably wouldn’t blog it if it were just the usual French/German/Spanish, but it has Basque, Cantonese, Cebuano, Mongolian, Maltese, all sorts of uncommon languages. Check out the list and see if any of them appeal to you. (Thanks, Trevor!)


I just ran across the name of the late historian Kenneth Cmiel, and of course wanted to know how to pronounce it. A little googling turned up this page, which shows that the Polish pronunciation is (more or less) “chm(y)el,” though I don’t know how he pronounced it. But what struck me is that “it comes from the noun trzmiel, which means ‘bumblebee.'” Aha, said I, and that’s the same word as Russian шмель [shmel’], which means that Cmiel is etymologically the same name as Шмелев (Shmelev or Shmelyov), as in the unjustly neglected writer Ivan Shmelyov.
This goes into my mental list of pairs like Calvinist/chauvinist and Soraya/Subaru (the Persian and Japanese names, respectively, for the Pleiades [not etymologically connected, of course!]), along with one I just discovered the other day: the Russian city Chelyabinsk takes its name from a fortress called Chelebi, from a Turkish personal name meaning ‘prince,’ itself borrowed from Arabic and identical to the Iraqi Arabic name Chalabi. (There’s a saying “Halabi—chalabi,” meaning ‘a person from Aleppo is a gentleman.’) Isn’t etymology fun?
Update. (July 2008) The historian’s sister wrote me to say “We pronounce the name like the first name Camille, but my grandparents’ name was Cmielewski.” Thanks, Carol!


I was going to wait until the US edition came out before doing this, but Grant Barrett writes me that he read about the Australian edition of the book (published by Allen & Unwin) in a column by Dianne Bardsley of The Dominion Post, and within the hour Slavomír Čéplö (who was an extremely helpful informant) wrote me that he’d actually seen a copy in a Bratislava bookstore (unfortunately it’s the UK edition, which doesn’t have my name on it except in tiny type on the copyright page), and I figured I might as well let it all hang out. So:
My name is Steve Dodson, and I’ve coauthored a book of “insults, put-downs and curses from around the world” called Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit which was packaged by Elwin Press in England; you can see their page for the book here. The US edition will feature my lively introduction, in which I quote Pushkin, Mark Liberman, and my nonagenarian mother-in-law; the editions available now carry an introduction by my coauthor, Robert Vanderplank. I will, of course, make an announcement when the US edition comes out, but for now I will leave you with a couple of choice tidbits from the book:
This satisfying word came over from England as a mere name for an ant, but Americans made it a contemptuous epithet for an “insignificant, contemptible, or irritating person”. From H.L. Davis’s 1935 novel Honey in the Rock, about pioneer Oregon: “Anybody who called owning horses disorderly conduct was a liar and a pissant.”
prumphænsn (PRUHMP-hine-s’n)
This delightful insult literally means ‘fartchicken’.
And a Slovak one they cut from the manuscript:
Pojebali kone voz! (POH-yeh-buh-lee KOH-nyeh VOHZ) (Slovak)
This lively expression, ‘May the horses fuck the carriage,’ illustrates the fact that Slovak cursing makes greater use of sexual terms than that of the Czechs.
If you’re in Australia or New Zealand, look for it at your local bookstore; if you’re in the US… hey, if I can restrain my impatience, so can you!


Libraries of Timbuktu is “maintained by Alida Jay Boye at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo as part of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project financed by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD)”; it’s got a Visit the Libraries section with great photos, a bibliography of “books and articles about the city of Timbuktu and the area adjacent to it,” links to resources and websites, and much more. Thanks, Paul! (I had to double-check to make sure this wasn’t a third repost of Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, but it’s not, so if you’re interested you should visit that as well.)
Totally unrelated but fun: a music video celebrating the many spellings of the recently ended holiday of (C)Hanuk(k)ah. Thanks, Songdog!


You’ve all seen the Cortina Method language courses, right? Cortina’s [Language Name] in 20 Lessons, Intended for Self-Study and for Use in Schools? Did you ever wonder who Cortina was? I just tried to find out, and was amazed to discover that the only biographical information I can find online beyond his name (Rafael Díez de la Cortina) is this Spanish Wikipedia article, which doesn’t even have a death date! I realize the guy didn’t get a Nobel prize or anything, but he founded a very successful series of language courses; how could he have disappeared without trace? If anybody knows anything about his fate, please share; I’d like to do at least a skeletal English Wikipedia article, but I’m damned if I’m going to produce one without a date of death. (For that matter, there doesn’t seem to be anything online about the publishing company, either; googling “Cortina Method” just gets individual books, and the Wikipedia disambiguation page has nothing relevant.)


I’ve been enjoying these, and I thought I should pass them along:
Greater Blogazonia is subtitled “Language and Society in Greater Amazonia”; its creator, Lev Michael, says “My research focuses on Amazonian languages, and I am particularly interested in the strategic use of grammatical resources in interaction, language documentation and revitalization, and language politics.” He has long, meaty posts like Genetics meets Voodoo Historical Linguistics: Genetic Variation and Population Structure in Native Americans, discussing a study that “that sought to use information on genetic variation in Native American populations to develop and test hypotheses about the question of prehistoric migration in the Americas” but used some very dubious linguistic theories (with interesting comments by David Marjanović, who frequently shows up around here); the latest post is about a movie, The Linguists (trailer here), which “follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, scientists racing to document languages on the verge of extinction.” It’s been accepted for Sundance; I certainly hope I get to see it some day!
bradshaw of the future focuses on the history of words—mainly those derived from Indo-European, though the latest post features orange, which can be traced back only as far as Sanskrit नारङ्ग nāraṅga ‘orange tree’ (“The trail ends there, altho the AHD says ‘possibly of Dravidian origin'”). If you like etymology, you’ll want to bookmark it.


My latest Russian history reading is Richard Pipes’ Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, which features Pipes’ usual mixture of annoying generalizations and enlightening details, and I just ran into this passage on a figure I’d never heard of, who had influence in two very different directions:

One of the more eccentric members of Proletkult was Aleksei Gastev, a metalworker turned poet and theorist. An early follower of Bogdanov, in the first years of the Bolshevik regime he wrote verse and came to be known as the “singer of steel and machines.” After 1920 he concentrated on applying Frederick Taylor‘s “time-motion” methods of industrial productivity to improving efficiency of everyday life. Members of his “Time League,” which had branches in every major city, were required to carry watches and to keep “chronocards,” on which they recorded the exact use they made of every minute of the day. Ideally, he would have had everyone go to sleep and rise at the same hour. To economize on time he proposed to “mechanize speech” by replacing the long expressions customary in Russian with shorter ones, and by resorting to acronyms, for the widespread use of which in Soviet Russia he bore much responsibility.

In moments of visionary exaltation, Gastev proposed to mechanize man and his activities in accord with the time-motion experiments carried out at his Central Institute of Labor (Tsentralnyi Institut Truda). He had visions of a future in which people would be reduced to automatons known by ciphers instead of names, devoid of personal ideas and feelings, whose individuality would dissolve tracelessly in collective work:

The psychology of the proletariat is strikingly standardized by the mechanization not only of motions, but also of everyday thinking. . . . This quality lends the proletarian psychology its striking anonymity, which makes it possible to designate the separate proletarian entity as A, B, C, or as 325, 075, and 0, et cetera. . . . This signifies that in the proletarian psychology, from one end of the world to the other, there flow powerful psychological currents, for which, as it were, there exists no longer a million heads but a single global head. In the future this tendency will, imperceptibly, render impossible individual thinking.

This nightmare, in which one Western historian perceives a “vision of hope,” provided material for Evgenii Zamiatin’s anti-utopian novel, We, and Karel Capek’s R.U.R., a play that popularized the word “robot.” By a strange inversion, a flaw Communism attributed to capitalism, namely the dehumanization of the worker, became for some Communists an ideal.

Oh those awful abbreviations! Just a few pages earlier I’d run across a hideous one new to me, Uchraspred [Учраспред], which a helpful Glossary of Russian Abbreviations and Acronyms expands to Учетно-распределительный отдел ‘registration and distribution section’ (Pipes says they were “responsible for assigning party functionaries”). I don’t know whether to dislike Gastev for encouraging them or thank him for inspiring Zamyatin’s We (discussed here), with its Taylorized society and its protagonists D-503 and I-330. I guess I can do both.

Addendum. Dmitri Minaev, at his blog De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis, has added a post on Gastev, providing more information (Lenin had one of his reference cards pinned on the wall; Gorky said “I can see now why you have left literature”) and translations of two of his immortal poems; here’s one:

[Read more…]


The AP story Merriam-Webster’s Word of ’07: ‘W00t’ brings us this welcome news:

”W00t,” a hybrid of letters and numbers used by gamers as an exclamation of happiness, topped all other terms in the Springfield dictionary publisher’s online poll for the word that best sums up 2007.
Merriam-Webster’s president, John Morse, said ”w00t” was an ideal choice because it blends whimsy and new technology.
”It shows a really interesting thing that’s going on in language. It’s a term that’s arrived only because we’re now communicating electronically with each other,” Morse said.

There’s a lot of “l33t speak” I don’t care for, but I’ve always liked w00t; there’s something primally yawpish about it, and I’m glad to see it get this recognition. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


We recently discussed the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace; Sam Sacks has alerted me to a review (in Open Letters, of which he is the Fiction Editor) by the puckish Steve Donoghue (who claims he “served as an Assistant Government General in Mandalay following the Third Anglo-Burmese War“; he is in reality the Nonfiction Editor of the journal). The review is pretty negative, though largely, as far as I can tell, on the odd grounds that the translation retains the French: “nobody can read French anymore (except possibly the French).” There are some useful comparisons of passages in three translations, but the most interesting feature to me was this discussion of the history of the text, which has “no definitive form of its own”:

Tolstoy serialized the first few sections of the novel for a Russian periodical in 1865 and 1866. He then brought out the whole work in 1868 and 1869, with emendations and revisions. Then in 1873 the entire work was published again, but in a substantially different form than those previous, with a very large and very invasive set of textual changes by the author (the French passages, for instance, were removed, and most of the philosophical and expository arias were hacked out of the main body of the text and annexed to appendices).
A fourth edition reprinted this one. A fifth edition appeared in 1886 under the direction of Tolstoy’s wife (Tolstoy himself had by this point come to hate his magnum opus, calling it rubbish and washing his hands of it, which was certainly not a helpful thing to do, like the enthusiastic organizer of a 20-person hayrack ride who five minutes in withdraws in a pout over some trifle and leaves everybody else to jolt awkwardly along, singing half-hearted jingles and picking spiders out of their pants), and this edition ignored all the textual changes Tolstoy made in the third edition, choosing instead to adhere to the second, 1868-69 edition, only not quite, since some of the textual changes Tolstoy made for that edition were ignored for this edition. The Count was still no help, hunkered down in his family estate of Yasnaya Polyana teaching his serfs to find God while everyone else in the world, quite probably including God Himself, was grappling with this bizarre drinking-game of a textual history he’d left behind him.
Translators must therefore not only grapple with the oddities of Tolstoy’s prose, they must perforce become textual scholars as well as orthographical sleuths (or perhaps psychics), since Tolstoy’s handwriting was very nearly indecipherable – a fact that comes into play not only with his wife, who copied out his day’s work each evening (making who knows how many innocent but perhaps telling mistakes), but with his publishers, who had to deal with that handwriting in the form of endless line-edits.

If I ever knew any of that, I’d forgotten it.