Archives for May 2008


The latest post at Joel’s Far Outliers links to interesting posts at Khanya and No-sword about insider/outsider terminology; all of it is worth reading and thinking about, but what particularly caught my Languagehat eye was the South African term makwerekwere, meaning according to one blogger simply ‘foreigners’ and to another “Black immigrants from the rest of Africa, especially Nigerians.” The ubiquity of the human need to have derogatory terms for the Other is endlessly depressing, but like Joel, I have a specific question: which language does makwerekwere come from? Steve of Khanya responded “Sorry, I don’t know the origin. It’s a piece of interlinguistic slang, as far as I am aware.” I’ve looked it up in my Zulu and Xhosa dictionaries, with no result. So: anybody know?


In this post, I mentioned that “V.N. Volóshinov’s seminal books Freudianism: A Critical Sketch (1927) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) have recently been said to be the work of his mentor Bakhtin”; this controversy (along with the parallel one of The Formal Method in Literary Criticism, attributed to Pavel Medvedev) is thoroughly discussed in Matt Steinglass’s International Man of Mystery: The Battle over Mikhail Bakhtin, written for the late lamented Lingua Franca a decade ago. I first read about the Steinglass article on Philip Dangler’s Mikhail Bakhtin Manuscript Smoking Page, where it is said to be “(no longer online),” and I’d like to apologize to Philip now for calling his Bakhtin page “excitable” in this post—it was meant as friendly ribbing, but seems to have bothered him. (He quotes it twice, in the end saying “Minor changes to this excitable page made in January, 2008. Not intended as an authoritative source; written by a 21-year-old.”) Thanks to frequent commenter Kári for the link!


A Bill Poser post at the Log shows a nice color photograph of “a pot used for collecting toddy (palm sap, modern Tamil கள்ளு) made about 1800 years ago” and links to an article from The Hindu:

The writing on the pot is in Tamil Brahmi, a writing system that only fairly recently has come to be well understood. It says: n̪a:kan uɾal, Old Tamil for “Naakan’s (pot with) toddy-sap”. In modern Tamil writing this would be: நாகன் உறல். As the article points out, the fact that a poor toddy-tapper would write his name on a pot is indicative of mass literacy at the time.

As Doc Rock points out in the comments, the pot does not prove mass literacy, but it’s certainly indicative of it, and it makes me curious to learn more about the society. Other interesting points: the article “is not by reporters; it is right from the horse’s mouth. The authors are S. Rajagopal, retired senior archaeologist with the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology and Iravatham Mahadevan, an eminent student of early Indian writing and leading authority on Tamil Brahmi… This is like having a newspaper article on physics written by Stephen Hawking.” And one of the commenters in the thread is a native speaker of Tamil; not quite as unusual as the speaker of Circassian/Kabardian who turned up in my Chakobsa thread, but an indication of the worldwide reach of the internet.


A post at Linguism links to a useful-looking site that “tracks the distribution of family names in Great Britain in 1881 and 1998”:

This gives the absolute frequency of a name, and also its relative frequency (occurrences per million of the population) and ranking (where its frequency stands in relation to all other family names). There is also a map which shows the areas where the name appears most frequently.

Graham uses it to show that Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges (whose books on name origins are a pillar of my reference shelf) are mistaken about the origin of the surname Pointon.
Update (November 2012): The site linked above is dead, but here is a site providing similar information.


My wife suggested I take a break from the depressing reading I’ve been doing (Andrew Meier’s excellent but bleak Black Earth), so I pulled Flashman off my shelves. It was recommended to me many years ago by my friend Dave, and it seemed just the sort of rollicking nonsense to lighten my mood. Not only is the plot fun (although larded with the casual misogyny of an earlier day), but the dialogue is full of delightful archaic words. The first that struck me came on page 44: “‘Deloped, by God!’ roared Forest. ‘He’s deloped!'” The OED explains that to delope is “Of a duellist: to fire into the air, deliberately missing one’s opponent.” A very useful word back when duels were a common occurrence. Once the (anti)hero gets to India, there are plenty of words straight out of Hobson-Jobson: rissaldar “A native captain in an Indian cavalry regiment” (from Persian risāla ‘troop of horse’), huzoor “An Indian potentate; often used as a title of respect” (from Arabic ḥuḍūr ‘presence (employed as a title)’), and the like. And while we’re on the subject of loanwords from Arabic, I ran across a surprising one the other day: Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, means ‘little horseshoe’ and is a diminutive of nal, Turkic ‘horseshoe,’ itself from Arabic نعل na’l.


Those of you who have read Frank Herbert’s Dune will remember the Fremen language Chakobsa, described by Wikipedia as “a mixture of Roma (or gypsy) language…, one sentence in Serbo-Croat and various Arabic terms.” Imagine my surprise when I was reading Lesley Blanch’s absorbing if overheated The Sabres of Paradise (1960), about the Russian-Chechen conflicts of the nineteenth century, and hit this on page 21: “They laughed derisively, speaking among themselves in that mysterious tongue, Chakobsa, ‘the Hunting Language’, which the rulers and Princes used when they wished to converse in secret, and of which no more than a few words have been discovered.” I found a further allusion to it in Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus by “Essad Bey” (one of the pseudonyms used by the remarkable Lev Nussimbaum, whom I discussed in this post), first published in 1930 as Zwölf Geheimnisse im Kaukasus (my quote is from page 16 of the first translated edition, Viking 1931, which has been newly republished with a preface by Tom Reiss):

So the princes have a special language of their own, a language that is understood only by the prince and his peers. This is the famous hunting language. It was contrived by the inhabitants of the knights’ citadels, the princely palaces, and the robbers’ strongholds. The secret of it is strictly guarded, and no outsider has hitherto succeeded in becoming familiar with it though it is current throughout the whole of the mountains and among all the members of the caste. It is said to be the language of an extinct line of knights; but only within the last few decades has it come to be known about at all, so secretive were the princes. All important business is discussed in this language, secrets that no man must hear, and enterprises which affect the fate of the mountain people. Only five words of it are known to science, and they resemble no single word of any other known language. Shapaka—a horse, amafa—blood, ami—water, asaz—a gun, and ashopshka—a coward. The name of the language itself is Chakobsa.

(You will note that Nussimbaum/Essad is even more overheated than Mrs. Blanch, and I have no idea how much of that is to be taken seriously, including the “five words known to science.”)

As you can imagine, the Frank Herbert hits swamp the Google results, but I was able to turn up one precious find from Google Books (a damnable “snippet view,” but one of those rare ones where you can actually see the bit you need), from page 75 of George Thomas’s 1977 The Languages and Literatures of the Non-Russian Peoples of the Soviet Union: “Presumably the Circassian Hunting language, also called Chakobsa or Sikowschir (Reineggs 1796, 248), (Bzhedukh /šhə-k’oa-bza/” (the snippet cuts off there). Reineggs is Jacob Reineggs (1744-1793), who went from serving Erekle II of eastern Georgia to being Russian Resident in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and wrote an Allgemeine historisch-topographische Beschreibung des Kaukasus that was published posthumously in 1796. Bzhedukh is a dialect of Adyghe. “Sikowschir” gets only four Google hits, all from nineteenth-century German sources, three of them books by Friedrich von Adelung and one an article by one of the great monosyllabic linguists of that century, A. F. Pott. While Adelung simply reproduces the word as found in Reineggs, Pott writes: “Die beiden [geheime Sprachen] gewöhnlichsten heissen Schakobsché und nicht, wie Reineggs schreibt, Sikowschir, und Farschipsé. Die erste derselben scheint eine ganz besondere zu sein, weil ihre Worte mit der gewöhnlichen Tscherkessischen Sprache keine Aehnlichkeit haben.” (‘Both [secret languages] are most commonly called Schakobsché and not, as Reineggs writes, Sikowschir, and Farschipsé. The first seems to be quite exceptional, since its words have no resemblance to the common Circassian language.’)

I’m guessing Herbert got it from Blanch, since he was working on Dune in the early ’60s, when her book was published (and, I gather, popular); I wonder if anyone has noticed before that it wasn’t original with him? At any rate, the Circassian secret language should be rechristened something like Shekabza or Shekobza [or, to take into account the labialization, Shekwabza] (my attempts to provide a readable English equivalent of the Bzhedukh form cited by Thomas), since the Reineggs/Nussimbaum/Blanch version has been firmly appropriated by the Fremen.


A recent Ask MetaFilter question asks “Do you call your grandfather Bumpy?”

I’ve known a couple people in my time who called their grandfathers by the title Bumpy [lastname]… I assumed that it was Southern (or maybe Texan) and that it was uncommon, but not completely unheard of. A short office conversation now has me wondering if it’s just some weird thing that a couple of the people I know have in common.
1. Do/did you call your grandfather Bumpy?
2. If so, where did you grow up?

As a grandfather myself (though one who goes by the boringly standard “Grandpa”), I am curious about this. So: are you familiar with this usage? If so, where are you from (or where is the user from)?


Lexicographer Ben Zimmer (now of Visual Thesaurus) has a new Slate article on procrastination:

The promise of “another day” is the key to the word’s origin. It derives from the Latin verb procrastinare, combining the prefix pro– “forward” with crastinus “of tomorrow”—hence, moving something forward from one day until the next. Even in ancient Roman times, procrastination was disparaged: The great statesman Cicero, in one of his Philippics attacking his rival Mark Antony, declaimed that “in the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination are hateful” (in rebus gerendis tarditas et procrastinatio odiosa est).

(Shouldn’t that be “tarditas et procrastinatio odiosae sunt”?) He discusses the (to me repugnant) concept “never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” and its analogues in various languages (“‘Morgen, Morgen, nur nicht heute,’ sagen alle faulen Leute”), pointing out that though the concept is ubiquitous, the word is not. And he mentions this wonderful feature of Egyptian:

Adherents to this view point to the evenhanded approach of the ancient Egyptian language, which had two verbs corresponding to procrastinate. One verb referred to the useful avoidance of unnecessary or impulsive efforts, and the other to the harmful shirking of tasks needed for subsistence, such as tilling the soil at just the right time during the Nile’s annual flood cycle.

Anybody know the actual word for “the useful avoidance of unnecessary or impulsive efforts”? Because that is the kind of procrastination I practice. Actually, though, I don’t so much procrastinate as perendinate, a wonderful word I learned from Ben’s article meaning “to put something off until the day after tomorrow.”


A remarkable etymology has been brought to my attention by the indefatigable aldiboronti at “the word surly is no more than an alteration of sirly, which meant lordly, haughty, imperious, acting like a sir in fact.” A couple of citations for the original form:
1579 SPENSER Sheph. Cal. July 203 Sike syrlye shepheards han we none, They keepen all the path.
1600 HOLLAND Livy XXXV. xxxviii. 911 Syrly lords (say they) were the Macedonians, and rigorous.
Here’s Pope with the old sense of the new form:
1726 POPE Odyss. XXIII. 50 Stern as the surly lion o’er his prey.
And the first cite for the newer, less lordly sense nicely exemplifies the transition, from a lion to a dog:
1670 RAY Prov. 208 As surly as a butchers dog.


The Dalkey Archive Press’s CONTEXT magazine “was started to create a context for reading modern and contemporary literature and addressing cultural issues,” according to an interview with the founder:

It is founded upon the rather perverse idea—perverse in terms of how books are treated in our culture—that books do not grow old. That is, they are forever being read by someone for the first time, or even the second or third time. But our culture tends to treat literature as though it is “timely” and therefore books are usually written about only when first published, or later when—at least some of them—get written about in scholarly ways, or what passes for scholarship. It’s also the case these days that individual writers do not get written about by critics. For instance, twenty-five years ago a serious writer who had, let’s say, three or four novels out, would already have a body of criticism written about the work, several articles and a book. That doesn’t happen any longer, partially as a result of what has gone on in academia. So it is even harder now than it was twenty-five years ago to find criticism about contemporary writers. CONTEXT is also concerned with a certain kind of literature and with establishing the historical context and tradition for this literature. When you read reviews in such places as the New York Times, there is a sense that this is the first novel that the reviewer has ever read, and inevitably the basis for liking the book and recommending it to readers is whether it has a good plot, likable characters, and tells us something that will be useful in our everyday lives. There is no sense that this particular novel has its place among—and should be evaluated against—a whole history of other novels.

The first article I clicked on was Dmitry Golynko-Volfson’s Letter from Russia, which gave me an informed discussion of recent novels by Pelevin, Sorokin, Limonov, and some writers I had never heard of, Alexander Goldstein, Mikhail Shishkin, the team of Linor Goralik and Stanislav Lvovskii, Sergei Nosov, the team of Aleksandar Garros and Alexei Evdokimov, and Zakhar Prilepin. I look forward to ransacking the rest of the archives.