Archives for June 2008


I looked up scape ‘plant stalk’ (a word my wife and I learned at the Food Bank Farm, where they had garlic scapes), thinking it might have an interesting etymology; it didn’t particularly (it’s from Latin scapus ‘shaft, stalk’), but right below it there was a word with a really great etymology, scapegoat. I’ll quote the OED:

App[arently] invented by Tindale (1530) to express what he believed to be the literal meaning of Heb. ‘azāzel, occurring only in Lev. xvi. 8, 10, 26. (In verse 10 he renders: ‘The goote on which the lotte fell to scape’.) The same interpretation is expressed by the Vulgate caper emissarius (whence the Fr. bouc émissaire), and by Coverdale’s (1535) rendering ‘the fre goate’, but is now regarded as untenable. The word does not appear in the Revised Version of 1884, which has ‘Azazel’ (as a proper name) in the text, and ‘dismissal’ in the margin as an alternative rendering.

Merriam-Webster provides the useful information “as if ʽēz ‘ōzēl goat that departs.”
I must have known that at some point, but my memory has jettisoned enough material over the years that it came as a fresh surprise. (I occasionally “learn” things by reading over my old LH posts, sad to say.)


Via MetaFilter, I discovered Greg Ross’s excellent website, Futility Closet, self-described as “An idler’s miscellany of compendious amusements.” It has a language category full of such gems as Roll Call:

A pangrammatic anagrammatic verse composed by Edwin Fitzpatrick — each line contains each of the 20 consonants once and each of the six vowels twice:
Why jog exquisite bulk, fond crazy vamp,
Daft buxom jonquil, zephyr’s gawky vice?
Guy fed by work, quiz Jove’s xanthic lamp –
Zow! Qualms by deja vu gyp fox-kin thrice.
And it rhymes!

Enjoy rummaging through the closet.


A great story of dialect pronunciation at Linguism:

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Winkle. Don’t laugh – this is a relatively common name in the Potteries, and presumably originates in the place name Wincle, which is a village in Cheshire. …
When I started researching this part of my family history, I spent a cold afternoon in a church vestry copying out all the relevant birth marriage and death entries in the Registers, and noted that some of the entries had the spelling “Wintle”. I was interested, but not surprised, because a feature of the Potteries dialect is the merging of the consonant clusters /tl/ and /kl/ as /tl/. (It is common, for instance, to hear people talking about “pittled onions”.) I assumed, therefore, that the vicar, not being a native of the Potteries, was hearing “Wintle” and spelling the name accordingly, despite the regular local spelling being “Winkle”. I continued to collect references to the Winkle families of the district for some years, including all the entries in the censuses from 1841 to 1881. I noticed, however, that ‘my’ family appeared not to be listed before 1881, even though my great grandfather was already 45 at that time. The light began to dawn with the discovery in the 1881 census that my great grandfather was born in the Forest of Dean. Down in Gloucestershire, the name that is common is Wintle, and I now found that he had moved to the Potteries some time after 1851, when he was 15. He married, as Wintle, in 1859. He and his growing family are all listed in the censuses of 1861 and 1871 as Wintle.
My assumption about the dialectal confusion had been correct, but the wrong way round: by the time of my grandmother’s birth in 1877, the registrar had heard my great grandfather say “Wintle”, but had assumed that this was his dialectal way of saying “Winkle”, and registered my grandmother under that spelling. The whole family became “Winkle” by 1881, and when my great grandparents died, within two weeks of each other in 1924 – after 65 years of marriage, made even more remarkable by the fact that my great grandfather had been a coalminer – they were both buried as “Winkle”.

A fascinating discovery, admirably explained.


Except when it’s a piece of metal. We had a minor household crisis recently that involved breaking into our own house in broad daylight through a window and the replacement of a doorknob, and in the course of the latter process we found that the instruction sheet referred to “the rose.” Rose? Why yes, as the OED says (s.v. rose 14.):
f. Building. A circular, sometimes ornamental mounting through which the shaft of a door-handle may pass.
The next definition, equally surprising to me, was:
g. A circular mounting on a ceiling through which the wiring of an electric light passes; = ceiling rose s.v.
So now I know what to call two common household items of whose names I was heretofore, all unknowing, unaware.


Dear Abby ventures into the realm of language today, something that rarely goes well:

DEAR ABBY: Does a house “burn up” or “burn down”?

DEAR “HOT”: It does both, depending upon where the fire starts. According to the Beverly Hills Fire Department, if a fire starts in the attic, it burns down — and if it starts on the first floor, it burns up.

Who do you turn to when you need linguistic information? Why, a fireman, of course! I have no idea whether whoever picked up the phone at the Beverly Hills Fire Department made that up on the spot because it sounded plausible or actually differentiates the phrases in that way, and if the latter whether it’s personal, institutional, or professional use (do other firemen make the distinction?), but I do know that it’s not general usage. In current English, burn up and burn down are essentially synonymous when used literally (though of course burn up has a metaphorical sense of ‘irritate, annoy’). Back in 1888, when the Bra-Byzen fascicle of the OED saw the light of publication, things were different; to burn down was “to burn until it becomes feeble from want of fuel,” whereas to burn up was “to take strong hold of the combustible material, get fairly alight.” I can’t find such a distinction in my modern dictionaries, however, and I’m pretty sure it has long passed out of use. I’m not saying the two phrases are used identically, mind you—that’s always a perilous assumption to make—just that the distinction claimed by Dear Abby is incorrect.

And now, with the thin excuse that my late mother loved reading Dear Abby, I present a song she used to sing, which she doubtless got from her mother (in 1920s Iowa); since I can’t find any trace of it on the internet, I want to put it out there so it won’t vanish from human memory:

Washing dishes, washing dishes,
That is all I do, it seems;
Washing dishes, making wishes,
And my head is full of dreams…
Light the fire, and scrub the floor;
Put the ashes out the door,
And after all my other chores,
Then I go back to washing dishes!
(Needless to say, if you’re familiar with this or a variant, I’d love to hear about it.)

Update (Nov. 2015). Thanks to Gordon’s comment (over seven years after the post), I now know the song is from the 1929 musical The Sunbonnet Girl (the lyrics are quoted here). Thanks, Gordon!


An e-mail from Jerome M. Eisenberg, Editor-in-Chief of Minerva, The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology, alerts me to his article in the July/August issue claiming that the Phaistos Disc is “a clever forgery.” His press release says:

Dr Jerome M. Eisenberg, Editor-in-Chief and founder of the magazine in 1990, presents his spectacular findings based on scrupulous and painstaking research initiated nearly four decades ago. His aesthetic and technical analyses convincingly demonstrate that the disk was created by a master forger shortly before its ‘discovery’. He also suggests that the disk was created specifically to boost the reputation of Dr Pernier who was anxious to match the successful finds of his colleagues Federico Halbherr at Gortyna and Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos… A conference on the Phaistos Disk sponsored by Minerva will be held at the Society of Antiquaries in London on Friday 31 October and Saturday 1 November.

I’m not competent to judge, but I’m curious to see the reaction of those who are.


A new book called The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense sounds like a lot of fun; amardeep of Sepia Mutiny says in his post “The book is a collection of nonsensical poems and short stories from all over India, most of them translated into English. It’s one of those rare Penguin India titles that ended up getting distributed in the U.S.” and quotes some samples, of which my favorite is:

Idli lost its fiddli
Dosa lost its crown
Wada lost its violin
And let the whole band down.

The primary editor, Michael Heyman, has a very enjoyable blog to promote the book (“Like the phoenix from the ashes, like the peanuts from Natchez; like paneer from the curd, like Subir the Goatherd (whose fear of paneer is absurd), The Tenth Rasa rises again! The official (really, official, this time) launch of The Tenth Rasa in the USA will take place in the new year!”) as well as an essay at about the creation of the book. Thanks for the link, Matt!


As I mentioned last month, my wife and I are reading Middlemarch, which has epigraphs for each chapter, and the one for Chapter 30 defeated me. It’s in French, a language I allegedly speak, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it:
Qui veut délasser hors de propos, lasse. —PASCAL.
I think I was mixing up délasser and lasser with délaisser and laisser. At any rate, the internet came to my rescue, I found a translation of the pensée in question, and as a public service for others (like Roger Sutton) who have stumbled over this fragment, I present a translation: “whoever tries to divert us at the wrong time tires us out,” a thought extremely relevant to poor mythology-obsessed Mr. Casaubon being told by his doctor “to be satisfied with moderate work, and to seek variety of relaxation.”
I include below the entire pensée in the original and in a musty online translation:

[Read more…]


From Lawrence Downes at the NY Times, a lament for the passing of the newspaper copy editor. Downes visits the Newseum and discovers it has “nothing about the lowly yet exalted copy editor”:

Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. Their goal is to make sure that the day’s work of a newspaper staff becomes an object of lasting beauty and excellence once it hits the presses…
As newspapers lose money and readers, they have been shedding great swaths of expensive expertise. They have been forced to shrink or eliminate the multiply redundant levels of editing that distinguish their kind of journalism from what you find on TV, radio and much of the Web. Copy editors are being bought out or forced out; they are dying and not being replaced.
Webby doesn’t necessarily mean sloppy, of course, and online news operations will shine with all the brilliance that the journalists who create them can bring. But in that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly — old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.

He ends by saying “if newspaper copy editors vanish from the earth, no one is going to notice.” Maybe no one else will, but I will, dammit. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


I’ve completely succumbed to the Troyat biography discussed in this post (and Yana Weinstein convinced me I was wrong to make fun of the word “sibilant”), and today it taught me a fairly useless but interesting word, gabion. Young Lieutenant Tolstoy, having gotten bored with swanning around the general staff HQ well behind the front lines near the Danube during the Crimean War, asks to be sent to where the action is, in the Crimea, and winds up in Sebastopol: “Assigned to the 3rd light battery of the 14th Artillery Brigade, he found to his annoyance that he was quartered in the city itself, far from the fortifications and outworks.” Troyat describes the “strange mixture of ‘camp life’ and ‘town life'” in the city, then says:

Closer to the fortifications, the town assumed a more tragic aspect. Houses in ruins, roadways transformed into pitted dumps, bombs half-buried in the mud, the smell of carrion and cannon powder. Stooping over, soldiers crept along the maze of trenches. At the back of a casemate non-commissioned officers played cards by candlelight; sailors picked lice off each other on an esplanade surrounded by gabions; near a cannon a lieutenant rolled a cigarette in yellow paper. Balls whistled. Bombs crashed. The sentinels called out, “Ca-a-non!” or “Mortar!” to give warning.

I was, of course, struck by the word “gabion,” and the context gave no clue as to what it might be, so I went to the OED and found:

gabion [a. F. gabion, ad. It. gabbione augmentative of gabbia cage:—L. cavea. Cf. It. gaggia = F. cage:—cavea: see CAGE.] 1. A wicker basket, of cylindrical form, usually open at both ends, intended to be filled with earth, for use in fortification and engineering.

(You can see a picture of some medieval gabions here.) But it was the second definition that impelled me to post:

2. Used fig. (with allusion to quots. 1638) by Scott.
1638 ADAMSON Muses Threnodie (note), The ornaments of his Cabin, which by a Catachrestic name, he usually calleth Gabions. Ibid. (title of piece), Inventarie of the Gabions, in M. George his Cabinet. a1832 SCOTT in Harper’s Mag. LXXVIII. (1889) 779 [Gabions are] curiosities of small intrinsic value, whether rare books, antiquities, or small articles of the fine or of the useful arts. 1837 LOCKHART Scott (1838) VII. 218 Sir Walter.. began.. to dictate of Laidlaw what he designed to publish in the usual novel shape, under the title of ‘Reliquiæ Trottcosienses, or the Gabions of Jonathan Oldbuck’.

Well, that was intriguing! But my attempts to investigate this Muses Threnodie were foiled; the only texts available online are brief excerpts, like the one linked in the Wikipedia article on the author. If you do a Google Books search, you find that all copies of this book—published in 1638!—are “No preview available.” What the devil, Google?