Archives for January 2008


[Update. I’m giving the update its own post because it considerably changes the situation reported below, and it’s only fair to make it prominent considering the hyperbolic outrage of the initial post. I hereby retract the excessive frothing and accusations below, though I continue to regret the low value the Times places on linguistic accuracy as compared to making sure they have the exact words of whatever celebrity they’re quoting.]
Every time I think I’m inured to the idiocies of the press, even what are allegedly its finest representatives, something comes along to get me frothing in rage again. The latest comes via Bill Poser at Language Log, who writes:

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In this post I reported on how I acquired Julie A. Buckler’s Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape; now that I’ve finished it, I’m happy to report it’s as good as I thought it would be. It probably shouldn’t be your only book about the city, since she assumes a basic acquaintance with its history and explicitly presents her study as a counterpoint to the traditional analysis in terms of high and low, “palaces and slums” (as she puts it on the first page), but there is a fine general history, W. Bruce Lincoln’s Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia, to give you a basic orientation (as well as the delightfully gossipy St Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov and the scholarly Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution by Katerina Clark—the city has been lucky in its chroniclers).
Butler’s basic approach is to present an alternative both to the abovementioned dichotomies and to what she calls “the myth of Petersburg’s uniqueness”: “Where the Petersburg mythology asserts remarkable unity, I seek pluralism; where this mythology asserts Petersburg’s essential difference, I emphasize the city’s more ordinary qualities.” She gives a quick précis of the book:

This study attempts to remap the Russian imperial capital, but not simply by providing a reverse image of the literary tradition with Pushkin and Dostoevsky at the margins. Instead, I propose a new integration in terms of architectural and literary eclecticism (chapters 1 and 2); literature that travels around the city (chapter 3); spaces of interchange between oral and print literature (chapter 4); the ambiguous relationship between urban center and margins (chapter 5); shared experience as meeting ground in a city to which so many came from elsewhere (chapter 6); and the city as collective textual and memorial repository (chapter 7).

(These quotes are from her introduction, which you can read here; I warn you in advance that it hauls in the usual suspects—Bakhtin, Yuri Lotman, Julia Kristeva, “social materialist Henri Lefebvre,” “neo-Kantian sociologist Georg Simmel”—and in a single paragraph refers to cultural paradigms, cognitive patterns, paradigm shift, and “an autonomous determinant of social relations,” but she pretty much gets the requisite academic obeisances and jargon clusters out of the way there; the rest of the book is blessedly straightforward.)
The first thing that struck me was the maps (from 1700, 1721, 1830, 1853, 1914, and 1950) and illustrations (many photos of the architecture she discusses); the second was how much research she did—not only has she read all the secondary sources, she seems to have worked her way through every memoir, travel guide, and long-forgotten novella that ever described the imperial capital. I kept putting arrows in the end notes and bibliography, reminding myself of things I wanted to look at myself (fortunately I live within a few minutes of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture).
To give an example of how much fun the book can be, Chapter Four is called “Stories in Common: Urban Legends in St. Petersburg,” and she investigates several such legends that are attested in more than one source:

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One of the gaps in my knowledge of Russian literature has long been Tyutchev, universally considered one of the three great Russian poets of the Romantic generation (alongside Pushkin and Lermontov). Now that I have a collection of his poetry (thanks, Jim!) I’m trying to remedy that, and to get some background I turned to my favorite source for the nineteenth century, D. S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature. There, after a description of his unusual career (joined the foreign service at 18; spent most of the next 22 years in Munich, which he considered his home; married two Bavarian women in succession; returned to Russia and became a reactionary polemicist), I found this astonishing paragraph:

From the linguistic point of view Tyutchev is a curious phenomenon. In private and public life he spoke and wrote nothing but French. All his letters, all his political writings, are in that language, as well as all his reported witticisms. Neither his first nor his second wife spoke Russian. He does not seem to have used Russian except for poetical purposes. His few French poems, on the other hand, though interesting, are for the most part trifles and give no hint of the great poet he was in Russian.

I know of no other case of a great poet who used the language of his poetry only for that purpose.


Adriana V. Lopez has a nice interview with translator Edith Grossman on; I was hooked right away by the photo of her standing in front of several of the “ubiquitous wooden bookshelves, tall and short” that line the rooms of her Upper West Side apartment. Here’s how she got started:

[Editor Ronald] Christ asked Grossman to translate Argentine writer Macedonio Fernández’s short story “The Surgery of Psychic Removal,” about erasing memory. Grossman was hesitant. “I said ‘Ronald, I’m not a translator, I’m a critic.’ And he said, ‘Call yourself whatever you want. Try this.’” Grossman recalls loving the work. Other projects followed, including a novel by Peruvian writer Manuel Scorza published by Harper & Row in 1977. Then came the García Márquez offer. She recalls that an agent who lived in her building called her and flat out asked, “Edie, you interested in translating García Márquez?” Grossman rolls her eyes and puffs her mouth out reliving the day and says she replied, “What? Of course I’m interested.” Grossman submitted a twenty-page sample translation of Love in the Time of Cholera to Knopf and was chosen. “I knew this Colombian writer was eccentric when he wrote me saying that he doesn’t use adverbs ending with –mente in Spanish and would like to avoid adverbs ending in -ly in English.” She remembers thinking, what do you say in English except slowly? “Well, I came up with all types of things, like without haste.”

I like the ending too:

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JBooks has an online magazine, Secular Culture and Ideas, which is featuring essays on Sephardic Judaism. Vanessa Hidary writes “My Jewish Grandmother spoke Arabic,” Pamela Dorn Sezgin writes about Dario Moreno and Sephardic Cosmopolitanism (“The Turkish Army served as a springboard to Moreno’s career. He became adept as a polyglot singer in Turkish, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish”), Bernard Horn talks with the great novelist A.B. Yehoshua (“Mr. Mani is saturated with Jerusalem, the real historical and living Jerusalem, not the Jerusalem of nationalist fantasy, nor the Jerusalem of fundamentalist frenzy, but rather a dense, lived-in, fascinating city—like Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague”), and Eyal Ginio has an essay on Jews in the Ottoman Empire:

The most striking cultural change for Ottoman Jewry was the absorption of French culture, especially French language, into everyday life. Interestingly, and in the colonial spirit, it was mainly Jews from Western Europe who enthusiastically took upon themselves the mission of “improving” the situation of the Ottoman Jews. The school system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle was chiefly responsible for this. Established in France in 1860, the Alliance aimed at raising the standing of the “Eastern” Jews by means of secular French culture. They assumed that French “progressive” Jewish education would enable Ottoman Jews to modernize and become contributing citizens.
The intimate knowledge of French language and culture brought about many changes for the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman state. Rather than totally abandon their traditional Jewish language, Ladino, the Ottoman Jews transformed their language and used it as a vehicle of secularization….

Having been introduced to the fascinating subject of Sephardic culture by Ammiel Alcalay (I, II), I’m glad to have this opportunity to explore it further.


Andrew Malcovsky has started Fables and Understories, in which he’s translating Karel Čapek’s Bajky a podpovídky (1946), “a posthumous collection of the author’s short pieces.” He says:

Please feel free to get in touch with me—mercilessly (if politely!) targeting my weaknesses can only, in fact, make me stronger. I may have tossed some stuff up here without a third or fourth pass, and the more eyes the merrier!

So if you know Czech, help him out; if you don’t, just relax and enjoy the Čapek! (He’s the guy who wrote the play, R.U.R., in which the word robot was first used, though he didn’t invent it.)


Grant Barrett has a column in The Star (of Malaysia) called “Welcome to Slang City” that features terms originating in New York City, that hotbed of linguistic innovation. Some of them are fairly boring, like (taxi) medallion and gridlock (though I was astonished, on looking them up in the OED, to find that the former is not attested before 1960 and the latter before 1980), but others are wonderful:

A term you will still see occasionally is highbinder, which in the early 1800s meant a violent criminal or thug. The word was taken from the name of the High-binders, an Irish gang.
Highbinder was later used to refer to a member of a secret Chinese criminal gang, especially an assassin. By 1890 it referred to a slimy – disreputable or untrustworthy – politician….
A word that thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s in New York City but now appears to have completely fallen out of the language is lobbygow.
In a well-known murder trial in 1914, one of the witnesses described a lobbygow as “a pal and a friend willing to do almost anything he is told”. Early police literature describes lobbygows as white men who run errands for the powerful Chinese underworld bosses.
By the 1930s, a lobbygow was a person who would lead tourists on slumming tours of Chinatown. The middle and upper classes could get a first-hand look at how the lower class lived. Lobbygows were believed to be as likely to lead someone to a planned mugging as they were to show them opium dens.



Michael Ryan’s review of Stuart Bennett’s Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660–1800 passes on this tidbit, which I pass on to you: contrary to what has long been thought, people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not routinely buy books in sheets and have them bound afterwards.

“We” had long assumed that those rows of leather bindings, many humble and unadorned, in our stacks were the results of negotiations between book buyers and bookbinders. The more ornate and embellished the binding, the more assured its bespoke creation. We had long assumed that, for a variety of reasons, books were shipped and sold in sheets, especially books headed from Britain to North America in the eighteenth century. Whether overland or by sea, sending books in sheets seemed a better business plan than sending them bound. But all of these were only assumptions, assumptions that had no real evidence to justify them. Bennett has now set the record straight, and in doing so has opened some new portals for curators and historians of the book alike.
When we think of publishers’ bindings or trade bindings, we think of large runs of uniformly bound copies of the same book, the model that came into practice in the earlier nineteenth century and persists to the present. However, that is only one model of trade bindings. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had another, more interesting, more variegated model that could fill booksellers’ shops with arrays of bound volumes designed to appeal to the economic and aesthetic range of their client base. British book buyers may well have customized their bindings, but they did so like Samuel Pepys: after they had bought the volume bound from their local merchant. Often books would be bound by publishers or by syndicates of booksellers with copyrights; sometimes they would be bound or customized by the bookseller functioning only as retailer and responding to local tastes and requirements. Either way, British book buyers in the eighteenth century had long since grown accustomed to acquiring their tomes “ready to use” since the sixteenth, if not the fifteenth, century, according to Bennett. The varieties and generic similarities across these bindings reflect both the economics of publishing and the evolving tastes of the times. Binders were at the bottom of the food chain, and the publishers and booksellers who controlled the ebb and flow of their work made sure that wages remained low throughout the period.

I always enjoy having my preconceptions overturned. (Via Pepys Diary.)


OK, I realize this is obscure even for me, but I have to share it anyway: the Comparative Nenets-Nganasan Dictionary “contains ca. 1.000 most frequent Nenets words with Nganasan parallels and Russian and English translations.” The introduction shows you where the languages are spoken (in northern Siberia, Nenets in a large area to the west, Nganasan on the Taimyr Peninsula to the east) and explains their histories and relations to the other Samoyedic languages. The great thing is that you can hear a recording of each word, a feature that could theoretically make it possible to have an online dictionary better than any print one could possibly be, since even the most accurate phonetic transcription is a poor substitute for actually hearing how the word sounds. (Via


I realize it’s been too long (as usual) since I’ve posted anything to justify the “hat” portion of the blog’s title, but this should make up for it: Diana Crane’s The Social Meanings of Hats and T-shirts (excerpted from her book Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing). I’ve long wanted this kind of succinct description of the history of various kinds of hats:

The top hat, which appeared in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was worn first by the middle and upper classes. During the century, it spread downward, possibly because it was adopted by coachmen in the 1820s and for policemen’s uniforms in the same period…. In the 1840s and 1850s, unskilled laborers and fishermen were photographed wearing these hats …. At mid-century, they were being worn by all social classes…
The bowler was invented in England in 1850 as an occupational hat for gamekeepers and hunters but was rapidly adopted by the upper class for sports…. Within a decade it had spread to the city, where it was widely adopted by the middle and lower-middle classes … and by members of the working class, particularly in cities. … The working-class man’s attempt to blur class boundaries by wearing the bowler was satirized in the early films of Charlie Chaplin. Eventually, the bowler became an icon of the bourgeoisie, as immortalized in Magritte’s famous painting of a middle-class man wearing a bowler … and, after the Second World War, was worn mainly by middle-class businessmen.
The cap with visor, which, like the top hat, appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was first worn by military officers …. By mid-century, the peaked cap was identified with the working class; it was “the most usual head covering for the working man” …. At the beginning of the twentieth century, cloth caps, without visors, were mainly worn by the working class and particularly by younger workers …, while members of the middle and upper classes wore peaked or cloth caps only for sports or in the countryside …. When worn by politicians, cloth caps were thought to indicate “radical tendencies”….

I love this stuff, and there’s much more of it at the link (including comparisons between France and the U.S.). Oh, and there’s a section on T-shirts, too.
Addendum. The Growling Wolf was inspired by this post to put up a whole gallery of photos of people lookin’ good in hats. Don’t miss it.