Archives for July 2008


I am astonished to discover that six years have gone by since the first LH post. I wish I had time to mull that over and produce some wise ruminations, or at least count the new countries I’ve had visits from (Tonga! Dominica! Lesotho!), but I’m in full deadline-panic mode on the book I’m copyediting, so all I can do is note the fact, murmur about tempus fuguing, and offer my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has commented and sent me e-mails; without the feedback (and suggestions for post ideas) I’d have given up years ago.
Addendum. The Daily Growler, whose proprietor is an old friend and mentor (and the only boss I’ve ever had who kept my respect and affection), has a flattering post reminiscing about how we met and started working together (along with the usual unstoppable flow of memories and ruminations); I’ll excerpt these bits on hats and computers:

And L Hat wore his copyrighted Panama straws in the summer, from Ecuador, where real Panama hats come from, and his copyrighted grey Borsolino felt skypiece in the winter! He also wore a Greek fisherman’s hat, too, when he was being a wanderer–standard apparel for wandering individualists in those days–and boy did my staff have fun for several years–several lusty years…
And when computers came along, L Hat and I began discovering the Hog Heaven aspects of them–and then when we got hooked up to the Internet, forget about it! We’d found a library within a teevee set that we could access in nanosecond speeds…

As I said in my comment to his post, “the internet was made for the likes of us. Every day I shake my head in amazement at my luck in living to make use of it.”


I had no intention of writing about the new search engine Cuil, pronounced “cool” (a quick visit did not impress me), but the name was taken from Irish, which is catnip to this erstwhile Indo-Europeanist with a deep attachment to the Gaelic. The company says: “Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge. For knowledge, ask Cuil.” I trust no one will be unduly shocked when I say that there is in fact no Irish (either “old” or Old) word cuil meaning ‘knowledge’; what is a little surprising is that they’re only slightly off. The word is actually coll, with genitive cuill; it means ‘hazel,’ and hazel trees are associated with wisdom in Celtic myth, so Bob’s your uncle. There’s a discussion over at Language Log, which led me to the Wikipedia talk page, where there is a sad/funny debate over whether it’s “original research” (and thus forbidden) to look words up in the dictionary.
By the way, when I looked up the word in my battered copy of Thurneysen’s Grammar of Old Irish, I found my shocked marginal annotation in the index pointing out that the indexer had lumped together coll ‘violation’ and coll ‘hazelwood.’ And that was back in 1946, when they were supposed to get things right!


This week’s “On Language” in the NY Times, a guest column by Fred Shapiro, is basically a bit of publicity for Shapiro’s Yale Book of Quotations, but that’s OK, it’s worth plugging. Shapiro takes seriously the need to track down authentic citations and isn’t afraid to topple accepted attributions, with results like:

Surely some of our cherished political-quotation stories must be accurate. What about Vice President Thomas R. Marshall’s immortal crack, “What this country really needs is a good 5-cent cigar”? The usual story goes that Marshall, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Senate, was enduring a tedious debate on the needs of the country. He then interjected the one-liner about cigars. Quotation dictionaries typically date this incident precisely to reports in newspapers of Jan. 4, 1920. The Marshall attribution, though, is blown out of the water by another electronically derived newspaper citation. The Hartford Daily Courant, on Sept. 22, 1875, printed “What this country really needs is a good 5-cent cigar” with a notation that the original source was The New York Mail.
The Yale Book of Quotations disproves many other accepted origins. The next time you hear a commentator credit “All politics is local” to Tip O’Neill, impress your friends by mentioning that the line appeared in The Frederick (Md.) News, July 1, 1932, when the future speaker of the House was only a teenage proto-pol. When a candidate refers to Otto von Bismarck’s famous maxim about “laws and sausages,” grin knowingly, point out that the Iron Chancellor was not associated with that quip until the 1930s and cite The Daily Cleveland Herald, Mar. 29, 1869, quoting the lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.

I do love a good debunking.


I finally remembered to share this tidbit from Middlemarch (we’re over two-thirds of the way through the novel, and will soon have to start thinking about what to follow it with for our nightly readings); it’s from Chapter 48:

But Mr Casaubon’s theory of the elements which made the seed of all tradition was not likely to bruise itself unawares against discoveries: it floated among flexible conjectures no more solid than those etymologies which seemed strong because of likeness in sound, until it was shown that likeness in sound made them impossible: it was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.

The section I have bolded shows a grasp of the (then brand-new, and revolutionary) theory of the regularity of sound change that is still rare today. I am coming more and more to think that if I could have dinner with a novelist from the past, it would be Ms. Evans. (Forget Tolstoy: I can get harangued by overexcited hypocrites in my own time.)


I love Daniel Jones’ Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary for many reasons, foremost among them its scrupulous care in distinguishing the various contexts in which the word might be found (“Note.—Earl Waldegrave is ‘wɔ:lgreiv [‘wɔl-]. Some others with this name pronounce ‘wɔ:ldǝgreiv [‘wɔl-], In Waldegrave Hall the pronunciation is ‘wɔ:ldǝgreiv [‘wɔl-].”) and especially its cheerfully verbose guides to local usage. S.v. Waltham:

Note.—The traditional local pronunciation at Great Waltham and Little Waltham in Essex is ‘wɔ:ltǝm, and this is the pronunciation used by those who have lived there for a long time. Some new residents pronounce -lθǝm. In telephoning to these places from a distance it is advisable to pronounce -lθǝm; otherwise the caller is liable to be given Walton(-on-the-Naze), which is in the same county.

No mention, of course, of the pronunciation used in the Massachusetts town, which is ‘wɔlθæm; in the words of the Wikipedia article, “The second vowel is pronounced properly (“Wall-tham”, to rhyme with tall-ham, IPA: /ˈwɔlθæm/), and not elided into a schwa (“Wall-thumb”, IPA /ˈwɔlθəm/) as might be expected in American English.”
N.b.: I have the 13th edition, 1967 (photo here for the time being); I regret to report that the current edition has brutally cropped the entries, eliminating all the personal tidbits that make mine so delightful.


The Wikipedia entry for kamikaze says flatly that it was not the Japanese term:

The Japanese themselves did not use the word Kamikaze to refer to these World War II attacks. The official Japanese term was tokubetsu kōgeki tai (特別攻撃隊 “Special Attack Units”). The word Shinpū (also meaning “divine wind”; just another reading of the same kanji for kamikaze) was also used informally for suicide units. U.S. translators erroneously used the Japanese word Kamikaze, which has a similar original meaning of “divine wind” (see Kamikaze typhoon).

Later it explains that “The word kamikaze originated as the name of major typhoons in 1274 and 1281, which dispersed Mongolian invasion fleets,” which I had known. But the business about the two readings (compare hara-kiri/seppuku) intrigued me. Unfortunately, when I investigated further, things got murky; this site says

The two Japanese characters (kanji) for “kamikaze” (meaning “divine wind”) can be read in two ways: “kamikaze” or “shinpu.” Nagatsuka speculates that nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) in the U.S. military were the first to use the pronunciation “kamikaze” to describe the special attack suicide squads because “they did not know how to read Japanese correctly and so pronounced the two Japanese characters for Divine Wind in a more vernacular way [kamikaze]” (p. 142). He cites no support for such an assertion. Although Shinpu was the official name given to the first unit formed in the Philippines in October 1944, people in Japan both during and after the war frequently read the two kanji as “kamikaze.”

I added a [citation needed] tag, but being too impatient to wait for some Wikipedian to notice and respond, I thought I’d ask you all: anybody know whether ordinary Japanese used the term kamikaze during the war or whether it was imported from ignorant Yanks afterwards?


The Yale Alumni Magazine has an article by Angus Trumble in the latest issue called “Old hat: The evolution of your mortarboard,” which despite its focus on the mortarboard (a descendant, it turns out, of the pileus quadratus, the hot new fashion item of the early 16th century) has much to say about the history of hats in general; I particularly recommend the family tree, with its fetching portraits of everyone from popes to bellhops wearing the illustrated items. (Depending on your browser window, you may have to scroll a bit to the right to see the vertical line representing the crown, which—like the papal miter on the left—does not interact with the rest of the tree.)


Mark Liberman at the Log discusses Merja Kytö’s “Be/have + past participle: The choice of the auxiliary with intransitives from Late Middle to Modern English,” which “explains very clearly how English changed from be to have as the marker of perfect aspect in intransitive verbs. … Based on tracking the use of be/have + past participle in a corpus of about 2.7 million words spanning the period from 1350 to 1990, Kytö demonstrates that ‘in the late Middle English period, the use of have increases gradually, gains in momentum in the late 1700s and supersedes the use of be in the early 1800s’.” Mark says:

What puzzles me is why this process seems to have escaped the notice of prescriptive grammarians. Here’s a change that ‘[gained] in momentum in the late 1700s’, just when the likes of Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray were in bloom. Did anyone stand up against the rising tide of have for marking the perfect in intransitives? If so, their delaying action was ineffective and quickly forgotten.

Which is a good question, and I hope one of the people who froth about misused apostrophes will take up the cudgels for a return to the good old King James way of “the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea.” At any rate, it’s nice to have the chronology pinned down; I’m all for more facts and less hand-waving when it comes to talking about language.


An announcement from the Jewish Institute of Religion:

Yiddish. Ladino. Judeo-Arabic. Jews throughout history have spoken distinctively Jewish languages. What about American Jews? Two researchers from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion want to find out. Linguist Sarah Bunin Benor and Sociologist Steven M. Cohen are conducting a large-scale survey of Jews and non-Jews in the United States to determine just who uses Hebrew and Yiddish words and other distinctive language.
“This study has been several years in the making,” says Dr. Benor, who has published several papers on the Yiddish-influenced English speech of Orthodox Jews. “Some people say that the only American Jews who speak distinctly are Orthodox, but among non-Orthodox Jews I know who are highly engaged in religious life, I’ve heard sentences that have more Hebrew and Yiddish words than English ones.” An example she gives is:
“At my /shul/, /balabatim/ /daven/ /musaf/ on /Yom Kippur/.” “We want to know how widespread this phenomenon is.”
Benor adds, “Three, four, and even five generations after their Yiddish-speaking ancestors immigrated to the U.S., some Ashkenazic American Jews still use Yiddishisms, like ‘I need that like I need a hole in the head’ and ‘Money, shmoney.’ Do Jews use these more than non-Jews? Do they use them only in certain situations? This survey will help us answer questions like these.” They are also curious to what extent Americans of Sephardi and Mizrahi background have incorporated Yiddishisms into their speech and how they pronounce Hebrew words. They even include a few words common in Judeo-Arabic and Ladino.

Here‘s a direct link to the survey; if you give them an e-mail address, they’ll send you the results when they have them. (Via MetaFilter, where several commenters pointed out they should have asked about childhood acquaintance with Mad magazine.)
While I’m at it, Clint Schmidt of is “seeking someone with high-caliber academic credentials and passion for linguistics to work with Livemocha on a summer project to improve our learning experience. There are many variables within our language learning experience that we want to assess and improve, and I think there’s value in getting an unbiased expert perspective.” This is a paid consulting position; if you’re interested, write clint -at- livemocha dot com.


I’m beat from trying to copyedit and spend time with my four-year-old grandson all in the same day, so I’ll just toss a couple of links out there to distract you while I catch up on my rest:

A Northwest Pronunciation Guide. I love obscure local pronunciations (see here and here), and this is a treasure trove of them. For some reason the Pacific Northwest has a particular concentration of weird spelling/pronunciation matches like Champoeg sham-POO-ee, Puyallup pyoo-AL-up, and Kalalach CLAY-lock (not to mention geoduck GOO-ey-duck, one of the weirdest in the language). Thanks, mrzarquon!

Hiphop Lx:

Hiphop LX (linguistics) In Hiphop the WORD is the message. Language is a system of sounds and symbols and communication in any language is based on how to use that system. If you know the system, you have power over ideas and imagination. You can build, change, plan, play and destroy. Many words and expressions in hiphop represent regions, neighborhoods and cities. Hiphop Lx is dedicated to representing the words and expressions that represent and serve as a symbol for a region and area. It explores the language system of hiphop and how the word came into being, meanings and the overall development of the word and expression. It challenges everyone to represent their region with true bona fide words and present them to be researched, examined, challenged and celebrated.

Thanks, Kári!