Archives for May 2008


Another bout of idle wondering led me to look up the etymology of stamina; I suddenly realized it looked like the plural of stamen, but thought “that can’t be right.” As it turns out, it is, in an unexpected way. Before stamen meant “The male or fertilizing organ of a flowering plant,” it meant ‘the warp in an upright loom’ (the Latin word stāmen is from the Proto-Indo-European root *stā- ‘stand’), and from there it came to mean (in the OED’s words) “The thread spun by the Fates at a person’s birth, on the length of which the duration of his life was suppose[d] to depend. Hence, in popular physiology, the measure of vital impulse or capacity which it was supposed that each person possessed at birth, and on which the length of his life, unless cut short by violence or disease, was supposed to depend.” (1709 Tatler No. 15.1 “All, who enter into human life, have a certain date or Stamen given to their being, which they only who die of age may be said to have arrived at”; 1753 L. M. Accompl. Woman I. 246 “Bad example hath not less influence upon education than a bad stamen upon the constitution.”) Hence the plural stamina meant “The congenital vital capacities of a person or animal, on which (other things being equal) the duration of life was supposed to depend; natural constitution as affecting the duration of life or the power of resisting debilitating influences” (1701 C. WOLLEY Jrnl. New York 60 “Such as have the natural Stamina of a consumptive propagation in them”; 1823 GILLIES Aristotle’s Rhet. I. v. 180 “If the stamina are not sound, disease will soon ensue”), and finally the modern sense “Vigour of bodily constitution; power of sustaining fatigue or privation, of recovery from illness, and of resistance to debilitating influences; staying power” (1726 SWIFT Let. Sheridan 27 July Wks. 1841 II. 588/1, “I indeed think her stamina could not last much longer when I saw she could take no nourishment”). This was originally construed as a plural, but by the nineteenth century careless writers were using it as a singular (1834 M. SCOTT Cruise Midge viii, “Why, Sir Oliver, the man is exceedingly willing,.. but his stamina is gone entirely”), and this rapidly became standard. Heretofore, when encountering people who insist that data should take a plural verb, I have said “I presume, then, you feel the same about agenda“; I will now add stamina to my arsenal.


My wife and I have finished Speak, Memory and moved on to Middlemarch in our nighttime reading, and the other day I was baffled by this, in a discussion of social mobility in Chapter 11: “Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirates, gained wealth…” What on earth does it mean to “deny aspirates”? I looked up aspirate in the OED, thinking it might have some obscure sense that would explain the phrase, but no such luck.
Today it occurred to me to use GoogleBooks, and the fourth hit was page 209 of Our Corner, by Annie Besant:

While we praise concision, it is well to remember that it is sometimes carried to excess, brevity being attained by obscuring the sense. Thus we find George Eliot saying: “Persons denied aspirates, gained wealth;” a phrase which for a moment creates bewilderment by reason of the “denied” appearing to be in the active voice.

A light bulb went on: “denied” is passive! Persons who were denied aspirates [i.e., dropped their aitches, i.e., were lower class] gained wealth! Bless you, Annie Besant, and bless you, internet!

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A comment by Arthur Crown in this post led me to an excellent lecture by Dr. John B. Corbett preserved, with all its hesitations and fillers, at the SCOTS Project (which I blogged about here and here), about Thomas Urquhart and his place in the history of Scottish literature. It’s so full of tidbits and insights I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing; instead, I’ll quote and mention enough to give you a taste for it.
He starts by placing him in context (I’m normalizing the text by deleting the “erm”s and [inhale]s and superfluous commas):

Urquhart is a mid-seventeenth century writer, writing around about 1650. So I want to try to put him into context. Last week if you remember, we looked at the way Scots prose evolved in the sixteenth century, developing out of a native tradition of loosely connected Old English sentences in a kind of spoken style. And we contrasted that with the continental style, based on Latin, of long, elaborate sentences. … In the sixteenth century you don’t really have literary prose; you have administrative prose, you have historiographical prose; the writers of the histories are probably getting closest to a literary style, of the prose writers of that period. And the writers of histories tended to move towards the elaborate, continental style, which became … associated with the Catholic cause in Scotland, whereas the Protestant writers gravitated more towards the kind of loose colloquial style based on speech. The native style. Some writers, and I was arguing like John Knox at his best, modulated between the two styles and used the expressive range in a very rhetorical and purposeful way.
But today, in concentrating on one writer from the mid-seventeenth century, Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, we look at somebody who basically took the continental style to its mad, absurd extreme. He was the last of the great … baroque writers in the Scottish tradition. He writes in, if you like, the Latin-based, the continental style. Urquhart is often dismissed as one of the great but … difficult eccentrics of the Scottish literary tradition. Now what I’m going to argue today is that he’s in some ways a transitional figure. He’s the end of an era, in one respect. He’s the last great exponent of the continental style in Scottish prose. But, in other respects, he’s a foretaste of Scottish prose, fictional prose, to come. He does things for the first time that are taken up by later Scottish writers, and in some respects you could argue that wittingly or unwittingly, all modern Scottish prose fictional writers are his children…

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Having learned from a correspondent that there is still no complete translation of Proust in Greek, I decided to find out when the full novel became available in Russian, and was surprised to discover it was not until 1999. I learned this from this 2002 article by Andrei Mikhailov, who starts off quoting the critic Georgii Adamovich (discussed here) as saying, in the mid-1920s, that Proust “will probably be loved in Russia” and goes on to explain why it took three-quarters of a century for that prophecy to be realized. It’s a sad story. The first volume was translated at the end of the 1920s by A. A. Frankovskii (1888-1942; biography in Russian), and Mikhailov says “There existed and still exists a fixed opinion that Frankovskii’s translation exactly and deeply renders all the stylistic peculiarities of Proust’s prose” and to compete with him “is to doom yourself to inevitable defeat” (adding that although he was a great translator, he was working from inadequate French editions and much has been understood since his day). Alas, Frankovskii died in the blockade of Leningrad, and by then Proust had been deemed “the height of literary decadence” and “a classic of bourgeois parasitism” by the Soviet literary establishment, so the four volumes that had appeared by the late ’30s (by various hands) were all that were available for decades.

Then, in the 1960s, another experienced and prolific translator, Nikolai Lyubimov (1912-1992), decided to try his hand. He was deeply immersed in both Russian and French literature and had translated Rabelais, Molière, Beaumarchais, Mérimée, Flaubert, Maupassant, de Coster, Anatole France, and Maeterlinck, so he was a good man for the job. One might wish that he had started with the later volumes, returning to the first if and when he had time, but he decided to start from the beginning, and his first volume came out in 1973, followed in fairly rapid succession by the second (1976) and third (1980). But his Sodome et Gomorrhe was held up by the censors until 1987 (even then being published with puritanical cuts); the following volume was published in 1990 and shows signs of haste and carelessness. He spent the rest of his life trying to finish La Captive:

But now he worked slowly and with difficulty, no longer flying through the text as in earlier years but gradually slogging through the intricate prose with indifference and even hostility. He complained of dizziness, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, and blamed Proust for it all. The doctors insisted he stop working. In October of 1992 he did, leaving the end untranslated and large gaps missing elsewhere. Two months later, on December 22, he died.

His widow refused to allow the publisher to emend his text, so it was issued gaps, errors, and all, just as he had left it (though an appendix provided translations of the missing pieces by another translator). Finally, in 1999, the final volume appeared in a translation by Alla Smirnova.

One of the guilty pleasures of reading about translations is the inevitable dissection of the inevitable gaffes; I’ll pass along a few of the more piquant. Towards the end of the “Swann in Love” section of the first volume, Proust says that Swann “était persuadé qu’une «Toilette de Diane» qui avait été achetée par le Mauritshuis à la vente Goldschmidt comme un Nicolas Maes était en réalité de Ver Meer” [“was convinced that a ‘Toilet of Diana’ which had been acquired by the Mauritshuis at the Goldschmidt sale as a Nicholas Maes was in reality a Vermeer”]. Mikhailov says “the notes explain what the painting was and when the sale took place, but not who this mysterious Морисюи [Morisyui] might be: a collector, a dealer, an incidental person? Lyubimov didn’t know (and neither did Frankovskii); the reference is actually to the well-known Mauritshuis museum in the Hague, which Proust himself visited.”

Lyubimov never went abroad, including Paris (such was our life back then), and there were many local realia unknown to him. So he has Odette walking along “аллеям Булонского леса” [the allées of the Bois de Boulogne] rather than the avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now avenue Foch), a broad street leading from the Arc de Triomphe to the Bois, which was a place where fashionable people strolled. The translator was also unfamiliar with the structure of Parisian cafés, not suspecting that several customers unknown to one another cannot sit at the same little table. Lyubimov was capable of taking “Luxembourg” (that is the Luxembourg Palace, where there was a museum) for the name of the tiny European state, and the name of the 18th-century portraitist Nattier for that of a profession (“braider”).

But I disagree with Mikhailov in his censure of Lyubimov’s rendering of the passage in which Charlus seizes on a question by Marcel to savage the Marquise de Sainte-Euverte: “Croyez-vous que cet impertinent jeune homme… vient de me demander, sans le moindre souci qu’on doit avoir de cacher ces sortes de besoins, si j’allais chez Mme de Saint-Euverte, c’est-à-dire, je pense, si j’avais la colique. Je tâcherais en tout cas de m’en soulager dans un endroit plus confortable…” [“Would you believe it, this impertinent young man… asked me just now, without the slightest concern for the proper reticence in regard to such needs, whether I was going to Mme de Saint-Euverte’s, in other words, I suppose, whether I was suffering from diarrhoea. I should endeavour in any case to relieve myself in some more comfortable place…”] Lyubimov writes: “Этот неделикатный молодой человек осмелился задать мне вопрос, поеду ли я к маркизе де Сент-Эверт. Нет, слуга покорный, я в ее сент-эвертеп не ходок. Уж больно она сент-эвертлява […] Мне эта сент-эвертунья, сент-эвертушка, сент-эвертихвостка не по нутру…” The passage is full of untranslatable puns on the name Sainte-Euverte, like сент-эвертеп [sent-evertep] “Sainte-Euverte-den,” where вертеп [vertep] is ‘den.’ Mikhailov thinks this is going too far and betraying the text; I say you have to allow great translators their occasional excesses. What would Urquhart‘s Rabelais be without his Urquhartisms?


Reading wood s lot this morning, I was struck by two poems quoted in the same entry, not far apart. The first:

Italian Hours
Katherine E. Young
All travel’s exile, the shedding
of self, a losing and finding,
the possessing of new things. Past
is present — in gondola rides
through fetid canals, light, water,
air shared with Campanile loons
proclaiming “Republic!” too late,
or too soon — in encounters with
selves left standing at the crossroads,
with ghosts asking after Dante
in accents unknown to the shades
who frequent the Baptistery….

The second:

The Reckoning
Theodore Roethke
All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.
We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.
What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.

Now, leaving aside the quality of the poems, what struck me (especially forcibly because of the similarity of the opening lines: “All travel’s exile, the shedding/ of self, a losing and finding” and “All profits disappear: the gain/Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum”) was that the first simply doesn’t sound like poetry to me. I appreciate the imagery and choice of words, but the lack of any coherent rhythm means that it sounds to me like prose divided into lines. The Roethke, on the other hand, immediately establishes itself as a poem in a formal sense—not a slavish imitation of earlier formulas, but a vigorous exploration of them. It reminds me of the jolt of joy I felt the first time I read a Roethke poem, and it makes me sad that so few contemporary poets seem to feel the urge to work in that tradition. I’m not saying contemporary poetry is no good, just that much of it doesn’t appeal to me on a basic level; I can appreciate it intellectually, but, well, as a great American said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I think that’s why I read so much Russian poetry these days: the Russians have never taken to free verse, and the age-old tradition of poetic form is still very much alive.


The other day I ran into a wonderful word I hadn’t been familiar with, chunter: “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain” (OED). It’s been around since the 16th century and has some great 20th-century citations:
1921 D. H. LAWRENCE Sea & Sardinia iv. 135 A thin old woman.. was chuntering her head off because it was her seat.
1949 C. FRY Lady’s not for Burning 27 You.. fog-blathering, Chin-chuntering, liturgical,.. base old man!
1957 ‘N. SHUTE’ On Beach i. 2 The baby stirred, and started chuntering and making little whimpering noises.
1965 Spectator 5 Mar. 295/3 An old man.. chunters a bit of folk tune which the solo horn dreamily perpetuates.
And in Nabokov’s Pushkin commentary I ran into yet another of his annoying archaisms dredged up to delight himself and perplex everyone else: pedee “A serving boy, a groom, a lackey” (sample cite: 1779 B. BENDO Matrimonial Museum 53 And lo! the pedee dare not speak, for fear He should the trollop’s mind displease). What exactly is the problem with serving boy, groom, or lackey, Vladimir Vladimirovich? (I would probably still find it irritating if I encountered it in one of his novels, but in a novel you’re entitled to play with language however you like; in a reference work designed to help the ordinary reader of English appreciate Pushkin, there’s no excuse for it.)


From the preface to May Sarton’s The Fur Person:

Before Judy and I moved to 14 Wright St. in Cambridge,
we lived for a few years in the early 1950s in a
rented house at 9 Maynard Place. When Judy had a
sabbatical leave, we sublet to Vladimir Nabokov and
his beautiful wife, Vera, and they were delighted to
accept Tom Jones as a cherished paying guest during
their stay. What a bonanza for a gentleman cat to be
taken into such a notable family with kind Vera and
Felidae-lover Vladimir! And to hear cat language
translated into Russian.
My study at Maynard Place was at the top of the house;
a small, sunny room, one wall lined with books, and on
the windowed side a long trestle table and a straight
chair. Nabokov removed this austere object and
replaced it with a huge overstuffed armchair where he
could write half lying down. Tom Jones soon learned
that he was welcome to install himself at the very
heart of genius on Nabokov’s chest, there to make
starfish paws, purr ecstatically, and sometimes —
rather painfully for the object of his pleasure —
knead. I like to imagine that Lolita was being dreamed
that year and that Tom Jones’ presence may have had
something to do with the creation of that sensuous
world. At any rate, for him it was a year of grandiose
meals and subtle passions.


According to a BBC News story:

Portugal’s parliament has voted to introduce contentious changes to the Portuguese language in order to spell hundreds of words the Brazilian way.
The agreement standardises numerous spellings and adds three letters – k, w and y – to the alphabet…
The agreement will standardise spelling by removing silent consonants in order for words to be spelt more phonetically, turning, for example “optimo” (great) into “otimo”.

Needless to say, petitions of protest are being signed by laudatores temporis acti, but this is a nice example of national pride being set aside in the interests of international understanding and good sense (Brazil has over 180,000,000 speakers, versus Portugal’s 10,000,000). Thanks to peacay for the heads-up!


Jennifer Howard’s discussion in The Chronicle of Higher Education of the new translation of the Aeneid by Sarah Ruden (found via Avva) is thought-provoking on the fact that so few women have tried translating the classic epics; at least from the snippet from Book 2 she chooses for comparison, Ruden’s version is head and shoulders above other recent attempts, with its combination of concision and poetic force. Here is Vergil’s Latin:

        …dextrae se parvus Iulus
implicuit sequiturque patrem non passibus aequis;
pone subit coniunx. ferimur per opaca locorum,
et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque adverso glomerati ex agmine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.

The translations are below the fold.

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Joel of Far Outliers has a post that begins with his student years:

During my dissertation fieldwork in Papua New Guinea over thirty years ago, I discovered that a bunch of Austronesian languages in Morobe Province mark their relative clauses in a manner that is pretty rare from a typological point of view: they mark both the beginning and the end of the clauses. An English equivalent would go something like, “The language [that they were speaking that] sounded vaguely familiar,” or “The language [which they were speaking such] sounded vaguely familiar.”
The only other place where I could find languages that did the same was in Central Africa, and my dissertation cited a 1976 article by the great French linguist Claude Hagège which mentioned by name two Nilo-Saharan languages, Moru and Mangbetu, and two Niger-Congo languages, Mbum and M’baka. Over the years, I lost track of anything pertaining to those languages except their names.

But recently his interest revived and he thought to ask his brother, who “had spent years working in the (at that time) Central African Empire for the US Peace Corps and USAID while I was writing my dissertation in linguistics,” and his brother asked “his linguist friend Raymond Boyd at CNRS whether he could think of Adamawa-Ubangi languages that used such markers for relative clauses,” and Boyd responded “Right off, I can’t think of one that DOESN’T.” Read Joel’s post for examples of this interesting phenomenon.