Archives for February 2008


This time in Syria, according to a story in The Economist:

In the past few months, across the country, owners have been told to Arabise the names of their shops and cafés and advertisers have been urged to use classical Arabic rather than the local Syrian dialect. “La Noisette restaurant is now called al-Bunduqa,” Arabic for hazelnut, says Ibrahim Hamidi, who has written on the subject for al-Hayat, an Arabic-language newspaper published in London. “It sounds funny to us.”
A law from the 1950s was revived by decree a year ago with the formation of a Committee for Improving the Arabic Language. It may mark a new effort to polish Syria’s Arab credentials and end the country’s isolation of recent years.

And some people think English is in need of such a Committee! (Thanks for the link, Kobi.)


Remember my curses and insults book? It still hasn’t come out in the States, but last month the “international radio news magazine” The World did an interview with me about it that will be broadcast today. The show is created by WGBH in Boston; on my local station it’s on at 3 PM. If you’re not in the US, or if your local public radio station doesn’t carry the show, or if you just don’t feel like being glued to the radio for an hour, as of 5 PM Eastern time it will be available on their website (and they are kind enough to link to individual segments, so you don’t have to listen to the whole show).
I did not use any English obscenities, but I mentioned some in other languages, one of which was Greek maláka ‘jerk, dumbass’ (or, more literally, ‘wanker,’ to use the handy British insult); my wife was listening in the anteroom (I was connected to GBH via the studio of my local station, WFCR, where everyone was exceedingly nice), and she tells me a guy who happened to be in the room smiled when he heard it and said that he once worked in a Greek-run pizza place and that was the first word he learned.
Addendum. On the subject of “bad language,” Avva posted the results of a Google search for “enbreasties.” Take a look at the results and see how long it takes you to figure out why this non-word occurs so often (e.g., “President Bush identified eight enbreasties operating in North Korea, Iran, and Syria…”). I’ll post the answer below the cut.

[Read more…]


Another language-related blog has come to my attention: Michael Sheehan’s Wordmall. Sheehan is a retired English professor who has a radio show called “Words to the Wise,” which “covers the joys and vicissitudes of the English language,” and he covers similar material in his blog. His latest post, Bruschetta, not only covers the etymology (“The name comes from an Italian word that meant ‘to roast over coals.’ In turn, that came from a 13th century verb that meant ‘to pass a flame over the keel of a boat in order to melt the pitch and improve waterproofing'”), it has a mouth-watering picture and links to some recipes from Mario Batali. The only thing it doesn’t address is the pronunciation; I have had to force myself to get used to the near-universal American broo-SHET-uh, since my awareness of the Italian broo-SKET-tah causes me to cringe when I hear it.
A previous post, That’ll Be Three Bucks, Please, discusses the history of buck ‘dollar’ and adduces the Journal of Conrad Weiser, Esq., whose entry for September 17, 1748, after talking about sending down “Skins by the Traders to buy Rum,” says “Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town” and mentions a man who “has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks.” I would want to see a reasonably clear link between this use as ‘medium of trade’ and the much later ‘dollar’ sense, but it’s certainly suggestive. (By the way, the OED has eleven separate noun entries for buck; I wonder what the record is?)


I wouldn’t accord the cockamamie notion of “National Grammar Day” any attention except that it inspired a lively column by Nathan Bierma, who says he is “one of those people who cares about the difference between a gerund and a participle, between a restrictive and non-restrictive relative clause” but has come to realize that “most of the time — when we’re among friends, family, or anyone we feel comfortable with — we should simply let our hair down and allow our unpolished emissions of language to burst out of us in all their untidy splendor.”

So I can’t join the witch hunt of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (which goes by the unappetizing acronym of SPOGG), which is sponsoring National Grammar Day as a chance to flag any violation of standard English usage in any situation.
“If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to the storekeeper,” urges SPOGG at “If your local newscaster says ‘Between you and I,’ set him straight with a friendly e-mail.” Such corrections are seldom friendly, welcome or necessary. They are usually self-righteous, irritating and misinformed.
The policewoman behind National Grammar Day and SPOGG is Martha Brockenbrough, who serves as grammar guru for Microsoft’s Encarta Web site (, where she writes a column called “Grumpy Martha’s Guide to Grammar and Usage.”
There she urges readers to avoid using an adverb with a word like “unique” (too bad for our founding fathers, who dreamed of “a more perfect union”), and to avoid saying “decimate” unless you mean “reduce by one tenth” (if 10 percent of educated English speakers know and care about that distinction, I’ll give Grumpy Martha one tenth of my candy bar).
Brockenbrough reprimands pop stars for grammar gaffes in song lyrics, including Bryan Adams for singing “if she ever found out about you and I” (it should be “you and me,” she says) — even though that’s the best way to rhyme with the line before it: “She says her love for me could never die.” And she takes Elvis to task — is no one sacred? — for singing “I’m all shook up” instead of the proper “all shaken up.”
Raise your hand if you prefer this correction. That’s what I thought.

He goes easier on the malign stupidity of this kind of thing than I would (“self-righteous, irritating and misinformed” is a mere slap on the wrist), but I heartily applaud his attitude.

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I’m pretty sure that as far back as I can remember—certainly in my college days in the late ’60s—the plural guys has been used to address groups including women, or even (usually, I think, by women) groups exclusively composed of women. There is an interesting “Dear Abby” column today addressing the issue; it opens with the following letter from “Jacki in Wilbraham”:

I had to write regarding the letter from “Disgruntled in Lompoc, Calif.” (Dec. 28), whose pet peeve is waitstaff (in particular) referring to her and her lady friends as “guys.”
Well, 3,000 miles away, I, too, am sick to death of being called a guy. When it happens to me, I tell my server that “the last time I looked, I was NOT a guy!” Sometimes they get it — sometimes not.
I notice that on some of the TV shows I watch, even women refer to a group of people as “guys.” I hate it — and would ask you, with your worldwide influence, to bring the issue forward. We are NOT “guys,” we are “people” or “folks” or “ladies and gentlemen”! Or else, Merriam-Webster will have to change its definition of “guys.” Thanks for letting me vent.

The interesting thing is that “Abby” (Jeanne Phillips) does not simply agree, though she says she too “would prefer to have my femininity acknowledged rather than to be called a guy”—she actually looks in the dictionary, and lo and behold:

And, as to Merriam-Webster’s definition of a “guy,” — my 11th Edition says in black and white that “guy” can refer to “any person” when used colloquially. Frankly, I found it so surprising that I looked in the American Heritage College Dictionary to see if there was agreement, and it also states: “Informal (ital.): Persons of either sex.”

She then presents a selection of other letters on the topic, one agreeing with the original outrage (“My solution is to smile sweetly and ask, ‘Honey, do I LOOK like a guy to you? Because if I do, you need your eyes checked'”) but most either neutral or positive (“As I have told my ESL students, ‘guys’ is acceptable colloquial English”; “It’s not meant to be disrespectful. It’s a regional colloquialism”). It’s nice to see such an open-minded approach to usage on the part of one of the keepers of the flame of mainstream ideas of right and wrong. (Incidentally, my wife agrees that the use in question is perfectly OK.)


OK, that may be too apocalyptic a question, but I’m astonished by the results of a study conducted by Dalila Ayoun of the University of Arizona and reported on by Heidi Harley at Language Log: “Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed [on] only 1 of them. Some of the words had been anecdotally identified as tricky cases, but others were plain old common nouns.”

There’s an even more interesting twist in Ayoun’s native-speaker results. Her native speakers fell into two groups: 14 adult speakers and 42 teenage speakers. On most grammatical tasks, for all intents and purposes, teenagers’ native-language abilities are identical to adults’ abilities. But when she broke down the gender-assignment task results by age, she found that teenagers showed considerably more variation than the adults. On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, ‘target’. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them, while all adults and teenagers agreed on only 17 (of 93!!)

Heidi reproduces one of Ayoun’s tables “illustrating significant differences in the rates at which adults and teenagers agreed on the gender of 10 feminine nouns”; it’s well worth the look. I wouldn’t have known that primeur ‘early fruits and vegetables’ (often used metaphorically: avoir la primeur d’une nouvelle ‘to be the first to hear a piece of news’) was feminine without looking it up, but that only one of the French teenagers did is amazing. Mme Ruegg (my high school French teacher) would be wielding her ruler vigorously and/or emptying the bottle of booze she kept in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet.


Rikker Dockum’s blog Thai 101 covers “Thoughts on Thai language, media, and culture,” and his latest post is on “Simplifed Thai spelling during World War II.” I hadn’t known anything about it, and it’s not mentioned in the (admittedly short) books I own on the country, but thanks to Rikker—and Matt of No-sword, who sent me the link—now I do:

I understand that it was mandated by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram [who was known as “Marshal Pibun” when I was living there in the late ’50s—LH], and even people’s names had to be respelled under this system. One remnant legacy of this is that famous name in dictionaries, So Sethaputra, whose last name is spelled เสถบุตร to this day. The original spelling of his last name is เศรษฐบุตร, but since his name became famous along with his first dictionary under its revised spelling, he was one of the few that didn’t revert the spelling after Field Marshal Plaek was ousted.

Rikker reproduces some passages from a 1944 “Thai Language Textbook” with the simplified spellings in red; it should be fascinating to those who can read Thai, an ability which, alas, almost half a century has deprived me of, to the limited extent I ever had it. (I assume the spelling reform wasn’t well done, since it was abandoned after the war.)
Incidentally, So Sethaputra sounds like an interesting guy, who started compiling his dictionary while serving time as a political prisoner in the ’30s; unfortunately, all I can find online about his life is this review of a biography, which annoyingly doesn’t even mention his birth and death dates (though it does say that his wife, the author of the book, died in 2000).


The Times (U.K.) reports on an unusual new museum:

The English language might be abused and misused, as well as celebrated, but it is the means by which two billion people communicate as a first or second language. Now its story is to be told in the world’s first museum dedicated to a language.
The English Project — which is due to open in 2012, as part of the Olympics cultural programme, with support from the British Library and the BBC among others — will aim to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the richness of the English language.
It will trace its development from the mixed tongue of three tribes — the Jutes, Saxons and Angles who crossed the North Sea to make their homes in Britannia in the 5th century — to the global lingua franca of today.
The museum will be built in Winchester — the city of King Alfred, who promoted Old English as a language of learning, literature and law. The city was also a unifying factor for the disparate English, or Anglo-Saxons, at a time when they were threatened by the Viking onslaught.
A campaign is planning to raise up to £25 million from public bodies, individual donors, trusts and foundations. The museum will be announced on March 5 by, among others, David Crystal, an expert on the history of the English language, who will analyse the state of English today.

I’m not sure what it has to do with the Olympics, but Crystal is indeed an expert; who knows, maybe it will be worthwhile. Here‘s the Winchester city website, and here‘s the university’s announcement. Thanks for another interesting link, Paul!


The University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences has created the website Sound Comparisons “to provide an overview of the variety of the sounds of the English language on various levels: in time, with our transcriptions of historical ancestor forms of English, from present-day back to Late Modern English, Early Modern, Middle and Old English, as far back even as Proto-Germanic; over geographical space; by sociolinguistic context.” More details can be found at their Information page; of the historical element, they say:

Obviously, we cannot provide recordings of the various historical stages in the development of English, but linguistic analyses do make it possible to work out what the likely pronunciations were to a reasonable degree of accuracy. With each step further into the past, however, the more and more we ‘reconstruct’, the more linguists’ confidence in the real phonetic accuracy of our transcriptions necessarily reduces. All our transcriptions for historical varieties are therefore always to be taken with this caveat in mind.

An interesting site; thanks, Paul!


Occasionally I dive into Nabokov’s insanely detailed commentary on Eugene Onegin for a bracing refresher, and recently my attention was caught by his perverse insistence (pp. 70-71) that the correct way to translate Russian shinel’ ‘greatcoat’ is “carrick”—he goes so far as to render the title of Gogol’s famous story as “The Carrick.” It is, of course, absurd to use in translation a word that not more than a handful of readers will understand, but that’s the kind of absurdity that makes Vladimir Vladimirovich such a lovable crank, and hey, it was a new word to add to my vocabulary.
So I went to the OED… and it wasn’t there! I found it hard to believe that such a word, from the early 19th century, wouldn’t have been scooped up by the OED’s famed readers, so I considered the possibility (unlikely but not unheard of) that VV was simply mistaken. A little googling, however, convinced me that there was indeed such a word: a fashion timeline (placing it under “Directoire/Empire 1795-1815”), an ad, a Dictionary of Costume (“carrick a gentleman’s greatcoat for driving. Of heavy fawn-colored cloth, double-breasted and with deep collar.”), and Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging (“Carrick/ use GREATCOAT”) were a convincing bunch of sources. So I followed up Nabokov’s hint that the word came from France and checked the Dictionnaire de l’Académie francaise, where I found “CARRICK n. m. XIXe siècle. Emploi métonymique de l’anglais carrick, « sorte de cabriolet ». Sorte d’ample redingote qui a plusieurs collets ou un collet très long. Un carrick de cocher.”
But now we have a further problem: the Académie claims that the French word is borrowed from English carrick ‘sort of cabriolet‘—and that isn’t in the OED either! I give up.
Update (March 2009). Alexander Dolinin in his article “Pushkinian Subtexts in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading” (translated by Jeff Edmunds) has an excursus on carricks:

The clothing worn by the doll-like Pushkin was chosen with equal care by Nabokov. The mention of the “fur carrick” should be seen as a reference to very important testimonies included in Veresaev’s book. First, a carrick (bekesh’) occupies a central place in a fragment from the recollections of N.M. Kolmakov: “Amidst the public strolling along the Nevsky it was often possible to glimpse A.S. Pushkin, but he, arresting and attracting the attention of each and everyone, was not startling because of his dress, on the contrary, his hat was far from being distinguished by its newness, and his long carrick was also old-fashioned. I will not be sinning against posterity if I say that his carrick was missing a button on the waist at the back. The absence of this button embarrassed me every time I met A. S-ch and saw it.”
[Footnote 33:] V. Veresaev, op. cit. [i.e., Pushkin v zhizni: sistematicheskii svod podlinnykh svidetel’stv sovremennikov, 6-e izd., znachitel’no dopolnennoe (Moskva: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1936), T. 2], p. 251. Gavriel Shapiro groundlessly traces the image of Pushkin in a fur carrick to a well-known drawing by Pushkin, in which he depicts himself and Evgenii Onegin on the embankment of the Neva (see G. Shapiro, op. cit. [i.e., Delicate Markers: Subtexts in Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (New York: Peter Lang, 1998)], pp. 132-133). Shapiro’s assertion notwithstanding, both figures in the drawing, illustrating stanzas XLVII-XLVIII of the novel’s first chapter, are not in fur carricks, but in frock-coats, which is entirely natural given the “summer-tide” being described by Pushkin.