A correspondent wrote to ask me about the Farsi term “Farārood” which is given in Wikipedia as the Persian name for Transoxiana. When I saw the odd spelling (it should be transliterated Farārud) and the [citation needed], and especially when I was unable to locate it in any of my dictionaries or in Steingass, I was ready to delete it from the Wikipedia article, until I had the bright idea of checking the Farsi version, which to my astonishment was indeed headed فرارود (Farārud). Investigating further, I found (via Google Books) that it was used for a river in western Afghanistan, the official name of which is Farāh Rud = Farāh River. I don’t know what all this adds up to, or why the Iranians now call Transoxania that instead of the traditional name ماوَراء النَّهْر Māvarā-onnahr (from Arabic, literally ‘what is beyond the river’), so I’m throwing it out there to see what the Learned Readership might know.
Update. Ian (of Beyond the River) explains in the comments that farā “is an antiquated word meaning ‘beyond, behind’, and ‘rud’ is ‘river.’ So it’s just a Persian calque of ‘ma wara’ an-nahr.’ Fara is almost certainly derived from wara’.” Thus nothing to do with the Afghan river. He adds that “Tajiks especially like to use the word (there’s a news agency named Varorud) prob because of the general tilt away from Arabic during the Soviet period.” Thanks, Ian! So is there free variation between f- and v-?


Another interesting etymology: trade winds have nothing to do with trade in the sense of ‘commerce,’ though as the OED says “the importance of those winds to navigation led 18th c. etymologists (and perhaps even navigators) so to understand the term”; it originates in the phrase to blow trade, meaning ‘in a constant course or way; steadily in the same direction.’ Now, trade, when it was borrowed from Low German in the 14th century, meant ‘course, way, path’ (it’s historically the same word as the native tread, which originally meant ‘footprint’); it developed the sense ‘course, way, or manner of life; course of action,’ whence ‘regular or habitual course of action’ and (of winds) ‘in a regular or habitual course.’ The sense we’re familiar with is a later development: ‘the practice of some occupation, business, or profession habitually carried on.’ The trade winds tread in their habitual paths as we tread in ours.


A while back I got M.J. Harper’s The Secret History of the English Language in the mail from Melville House, its publisher. I didn’t have time to read it, but I flipped through it and noted that it purported to be claiming that Middle English never existed and that English was the ancestor of the Romance languages, among other things so silly I assumed it couldn’t be serious. I was cheered by the blurb “The best rewriting of history since 1066 and All That” (from the Fortean Times); I thought “1066 and All That is a damn funny book, and I could use a good laugh,” so I looked forward to reading it when I got the chance.
Well, I learn from Sally Thomason at Language Log (and the follow-up by Mark Liberman) that it’s not a joke at all: Harper is serious about all that nonsense. The blurb at Amazon.com, presumably written by the author, reads:

In a hugely enjoyable read, not to mention gloriously corrosive prose, M.J. Harper slashes and burns through the whole of accepted academic thought about the history of the English language. According to Harper: The English language does not derive from an Anglo-Saxon language. French, Italian, and Spanish did not descend from Latin. Middle English is a wholly imaginary language created by well-meaning but deluded academics. Most of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary are wrong. And that’s just the beginning. Part revisionist history, part treatise on the origins of the English language, and part impassioned argument against academia, The Secret History of the English Language is essential reading for language lovers, history buffs, Anglophiles, and anyone who has ever thought twice about what they’ve learned in school.

Now, I have nothing against crackpots; throughout history they’ve provided harmless amusement for the rest of us. I don’t even blame the publishers who put out the stuff without a proper warning label—they’re just trying to make a buck, putting it all on the market and seeing if anyone will buy it. No, I blame the professional reviewers who take the nonsense seriously. The New Statesman, for example, says:

Unusual, funny and provocative, Harper wears his learning lightly, but has a serious point to make. While admitting that his own theories about the early Brits “may or may not be acceptable”, he warns that historical anomalies are routinely ignored by the academics we rely on to explain our past. Whatever your stance on the Anglo-Saxons (and Harper’s suggestions are rather seductive), this fascinating book is a useful investigation into the ways in which history is constructed and the dangers of “unassailable” academic truths.

If the book were claiming that Queen Elizabeth was the illegitimate son of Rasputin, or that mixing salt and sugar provides an inexhaustible source of energy that will replace oil and gas, no one would take it seriously; if it were reviewed at all, it would be as an example of how absolutely anything can get published. But equivalent nonsense about language is reviewed respectfully, and it makes me despair. Sally Thomason takes consolation from the fact that good books are also being published (and I certainly look forward to David Crystal’s The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left), but such books have been published for many years, and they don’t seem to make much of a dent. People just don’t want to think sensibly about language.


Today’s etymology: tender ‘a boat for communication or transportation between shore and a larger ship; a car attached to a steam locomotive for carrying a supply of fuel and water’ is short for attender: it’s a boat or train car that attends another one. (OED citation: 1825 MACLAREN Railways 32 note, A small waggon bearing water and coals follows close behind the engine, and is called the Tender, i.e. the ‘Attender’.) Simple and obvious once you know it, but I hadn’t known it.
Another t word: tee (the thing you hit the golf ball off of) was teaz in 17th-century Scotland (1673 Wedderburn’s Vocab. 37, 38 (Jam.) Baculus, Pila clavaria, a goulfe-ball. Statumen, the Teaz), so it was presumably reanalyzed like pease > pea, but nobody knows where teaz came from.


I don’t know how I’ve missed Paleoglot until now, but I’m glad I’ve found it. Glen Gordon says:

Growing up on gyros, roti and chow mein, I learned to appreciate the beauty of world cultures at an early age. I spend any spare time I have avidly studying comparative linguistics. My current research interests relate specifically to Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Aegean (aka Proto-Tyrrhenian) linguistics involving languages like Etruscan and Lemnian, however I’ve explored a multitude of other languages and protolanguages, from Sino-Tibetan to Abkhaz-Adyghe as well. My blog “Paleoglot” will largely focus on the reconstruction of Indo-European or ancient Aegean-derived languages but sometimes I will throw in a bone about whatever ancient language, culture or civilization inspires me that day.

Talk of things like “Proto-Aegean” makes me nervous, but this guy is no pushover for sloppy comparisons and hand-waving correspondences; his rant about How NOT to reconstruct a protolanguage warmed my heart with its demolishing of Starostin’s Tower of Babel project. He says “In case anyone was confused, my blog isn’t a mouthpiece for proto-world rhetoric and I’m an ardent defender of mainstream linguistics despite my moderate interest in long-range linguistics,” and that makes me want to hear him out about the long-range stuff he finds plausible.


Yesterday’s wood s lot is even fuller than usual of excellence; busy working against deadline, I can only point to Forrest Gander on “The Power and Politics of Translation,” the announcement that The Atlantic “is dropping its subscriber registration requirement and making the site free to all visitors. Now, in addition to such offerings as blogs, author dispatches, slideshows, interviews, and videos, readers can also browse issues going back to 1995, along with hundreds of articles dating as far back as 1857, the year The Atlantic was founded,” and particularly the selections from Rachel Blau DuPlessis, a remarkable poet whose site links to many poems and essays, among which is a long and thoughtful piece on Zukofsky. Thanks for the goodies, Mark, and a belated happy birthday to your mom!


A while back I got a package in the mail that turned out to be a gift from my pal pf (long-time readers may remember his adventures in Siberia): a copy of the NYRB reprint of G. B. Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Edwards was born on Guernsey in 1899 and lived there until 1917, when he joined the army; he lived in England from the 1920s on and never returned to Guernsey, but in his mind he never left, and in his last years he was working on this amazing novel. It has no real plot, it’s just an old man rambling on about his life in an English strongly influenced by the Guernésiais (Guernsey Norman French, or “patois”) he grew up speaking, but the writing is so effective I find myself reading half the sentences aloud, and the stories he tells about his relatives and neighbors add up to a complex and often moving chronicle of island life in the days before modernization (which the narrator, and presumably the author, dislikes intensely). It actually reminds me quite a bit of Proust, except with fewer aristocrats and more farm animals (and if anybody’s wondering, in our bedtime reading—as mentioned in the thread that would not die—my wife and I have gotten to the last volume, and we’ll be looking for new reading material next month). It’s taken me longer to get around to it than it would have because my wife picked it up, started reading it, and refused to give it up. At first she said it was the strangest book she’d ever read, and then she said she didn’t want to finish reading it. But finally she did, and I got my chance at it.
The reason I’m impelled to write about it today is that I just hit a passage that I’m going to incorporate into my anthology of Good Attitudes to Language:

There was one thing [Raymond] was ashamed of his mother for, and that was the way she spoke English. He was everlastingly teasing her for saying ‘tree’ for ‘three’ and ‘true’ for ‘through’ and for not sounding her aitches and all the rest of it. I didn’t like him for that. It was partly Hetty’s own fault, because she had never let him speak in patois, from the days he went to the Misses Cohu’s School. She wanted him to grow up to speak English like the gentry. Well, he did speak good English; but he had a gift for words and I think would have spoken well in any language he set his mind to learn. I didn’t mind him being particular about the words he used himself, but he was fussy about the way other people spoke. I said, ‘It’s what a person say that matter. It isn’t how he say it.’

Of course, it is how he say it as well, but being well said isn’t the same thing as being said “correctly.”


One reason I love words and their histories is that there are too many of them to ever master; no matter how much I know, there’s always plenty more I don’t. You know the phrase truck farming? I always assumed it had something to do with carrying produce in trucks. Not so! There are two different nouns truck, one from French troc ‘barter’ which came to mean “‘Traffic’, intercourse, communication, dealings. Now usu. in negative contexts: to have no truck with (a person or thing), etc.” and “Commodities for barter” (1688 CLAYTON in Phil. Trans. XVII. 792 They must carry all sort of Truck that trade thither, having one Commodity to pass off another), whence U.S. “Market-garden produce; hence as a general term for culinary vegetables” (1784 Maryland Jrnl. 14 Dec., Advt. (Thornton), A large Room.. for his Customers to lodge in, and deposit their Market-truck) and truck farm (1866 N. & Q. 3rd Ser. IX. 323/1 A truck garden, a truck farm, is a market-garden or farm).
Truck “A wheeled vehicle for carrying heavy weights,” on the other hand, first meant “A small solid wooden wheel or roller” and comes either from Latin trochus = Greek τροχός ‘hoop’ or from truckle ‘small wheel,’ ultimately from the same root.


The last of the Six Significant Landscapes by Wallace Stevens:

Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses—
As for example, the ellipse of the half-moon—
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

Early Stevens is irresistible.


Joel at Far Outliers has a post about the German dialect he encountered on his recent visit to Alsace:

My first introduction to Elsässisch (Alsatian German) came in the form of bilingual street signs in Strasbourg, where the main street through Grand Île in the heart of the old city is named both Grand’Rue and Lang Stross. (A street of the same name in Pfalzgrafenweiler on the German side of the border was labeled only in High German, Lange Strasse, even though the locals speak an Alemannic dialect similar to Alsatian.)
Later I found a useful little Werterbüechel Elsässisch–Hochditsch / Wörterbüchlein Hochdeutsch–Elsässisch, by Serge Kornmann (Yoran Embanner, 2005). So I thought I’d share a few gleanings from that tiny source, focusing on how to get from High German to Alsatian, since the former is likely to be more familiar to most readers.

For some reason I tend to like German dialects more than the official language, and this is no exception. How can you not love a word like Schnuffelrutsch (lit. ‘sniff-slide’) ‘mouth organ’?