Archives for July 2008


I’m going to quote the first sentence of Jenny Turner’s review of Lorrie Moore’s The Collected Stories: “Once upon a time, as Lorrie Moore begins, ‘there was a not terribly prolific American short-story writer who, caught ten years between books with things she called Life and others called Excuses, was asked to write an introduction to her own Collected Stories.'” I want you to mull the sentence over for a moment before continuing to the next paragraph, in which I discuss its possible ambiguity.
When I first read it, I interpreted “things she called Life and others called Excuses” as identifying two different classes of things: things the writer called Life and other things called (by persons unnamed) Excuses. But something bothered me, perhaps the lack of parallelism between the active “she called” and the passive “called,” and I read it over, at which point I realized that that wasn’t how Moore meant it at all: she was talking about a single class of things, things that she called Life but that others—other people—called Excuses. Which is a good, funny line, but my question is: is my initial reading a possible one, or simply a careless misreading? In other words, is the sentence ambiguous or not?


Conrad ran across this pleasing item on Google Books and promptly sent it on to me, knowing I’d enjoy it, and I similarly pass it along to you: O full true un pertikler okeawnt o wat me un maw mistris seede un yerd wi’ gooin to th’ Greyte Eggshibishun e’ Lundun, e’ eyghtene hundurth un sixty two … by O Felley from Rachde (Rachde, 1864). It took some googling to discover, via this helpful page [about an earlier and more famous Exhibition], that “Rachde” is Rochdale:

A humorous account of a visit to the Great Exhibition. Ormerod wrote under the pseudonym “O Felley from Rachde” (as on the title-page) or “A Rachde Felley” (in the frontispiece and on the front board), both of them dialect versions of “A Rochdale Fellow.” Indeed, the whole book is written in the Rochdale, Lancashire, dialect, which is really much easier to understand than first appears—it is heavily obscured by Ormerod’s method of phonetic rendering.
Beyond his intent to amuse, Ormerod is recording a dialect of a specific place and time, and appends a “Dikshunayre” of words like kowd = cold (phonetic spelling for the local pronunciation), brass = money (slang, used widely in the north of England), and feffnecute = hypocrite (feffnecute apparently not existing outside this dialect).

I particularly like the word feffnecute, for which Google suggests the more common spelling fefnicute; I say it’s worth putting back into circulation as a good all-purpose insult.


Once more I turn to you, o Varied and Learned Readers, in my perplexity. For years I’ve been reading about Mahathir bin Mohamad, longtime prime minister of Malaysia. Without giving it any special thought, I mentally pronounced Mahathir something like [maˈha.θir] (ma-HAH-theer, with voiceless th). But when I visited his Wikipedia article, I noticed the pronunciation given was [maˈhɑ.ðe] (ma-HAH-they, with voiced th). Now, the voiced th makes sense, because the Arabic spelling (which I had never looked up) is محضير… but why is there a final r in the romanized version, and is the final r pronounced or not? Googling mahathir pronounced got me “Mahathir (pronounced mah-hot-te, btw — don’t ask me why),” “pronounced ma-hah-TEER,” “pronounced Mahat’hir,” and the presumably jocular “pronounced as Mad-hat-tail,” leaving me no wiser than before. I know, I know, you can’t trust Wikipedia, but I can’t help but think somebody who went to the trouble of correctly formatting and using the IPA symbols probably knew what they were talking about. But (in the immortal words of The Troggs) I wanna know for sure. So: anybody familiar with how Malaysians actually pronounce this name? (Bonus points for explanations of the phonemics involved.)
Update. In the comments, pavel says [ma’ha.te(r)] is a more accurate transcription, and he seems to know. Thanks for all the thoughtful and informative answers!


Apologies for a second post about lexographical trivia, but sometimes trawling through dictionaries is too much fun not to share. This time the word my eye lit on was lespedeza, “a genus … of herbaceous or shrubby plants of the legume family,” and what struck me was the etymology: “New Latin, irregular from V. M. de Zespedes fl1785 Spanish governor of East Florida.” Irregular indeed! So I turned to the OED to see if it could shed any further light, and found:

[mod.L. …, blunderingly (by a misreading of the surname) f. the name of V. M. de Céspedez (fl. 1785), Spanish governor of East Florida.]

The word “blunderingly” seemed a trifle snide, especially when you consider that the OED seems to have gotten the spelling wrong itself. (Googling tells me that historians use the Z- spelling, e.g. Zéspedes in East Florida, 1784-1790.)


I was looking up something else in Webster’s when my eye fell on indagate:

Etymology: Latin indagatus, past participle of indagare, from indago ring of hunters encircling game, act of searching, from Old Latin indu in + Latin agere to drive — more at end-, agent
Date: circa 1623
: to search into : investigate

An intriguing word, but it bothered me that I’d never run into it. So I checked the OED, and the first thing I noticed was the second line of the entry: “? Obs.” If the OED was suggesting it was obsolete in 1900, why on earth is it not marked as such in the 2004 edition of Webster’s? Just to make sure, I googled, and indeed all the hits were from lexicographical sites. To make doubly sure, I googled “indagate the“; at first I thought it was still fitfully in use, because in one of the hits the authors “aim to present and indagate the fundamentals and practice of Plasma Arc Welding,” but clicking on the link showed me that it was (badly) translated from Portuguese. Indeed, indagar ‘investigate, inquire into’ is in current use in Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan, and I assume essentially all the uses on the internet are from people translating from those languages and assuming, understandably, that since English has the same word, it’s a good translation. I suggest that Merriam-Webster either delete it from their next edition or mark it “obs,” which it most certainly is.
It doesn’t seem ever to have been in wide use; here are the OED citations, a meager crop for three centuries (and note that of the five cites, one is a dictionary definition and two employ a synonym with it):

[Read more…]


Margaret Jull Costa. a translator from Portuguese and Spanish, has an essay on translating Pessoa that includes an exercise with a short text in Portuguese followed by a translation with pull-down menus offering choices of various English words and phrases at various points. An ingenious method that seems like a natural for the internet. Thanks, Jeremy!


I learn from Arnold Zwicky’s Language Log post that the online Dictionary of the Scots Language (which I wrote about here) is facing a crisis:

DSL consists of the Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue and the Scottish National Dictionary, together making 22 volumes in print (plus a 2005 supplement). These amazing resources are now available on-line, providing searchable electronic versions of the fruits of scholarship on the Scots language. For free, no strings, available to anyone with web access….
Now, the bad news. I reproduce here (with slight revisions) a posting of 12 July by Grant Barrett to ADS-L:

The Scottish Language Dictionaries program has had its funding withdrawn by the Scottish Arts Council.
SLD, a charity, is responsible for the Dictionary of the Scots Language online, the Concise Scots Dictionary, the Essential Scots Dictionary, and other reference works.
As a regular user of DSL, I write this email in order to encourage my colleagues to support SLD in any way they can.
To ensure that they stay in operation, SLD is holding a fundraiser by auctioning celebrity-related items on eBay…
The auction is described here, and there’s a story in the Scotsman about the funding and fundraiser here.

I know things are tough all over, but I find it appalling that the Scottish Arts Council has so little appreciation of the importance of a language to the people who use it, and the importance of lexicography to keeping a language flourishing. If anyone is in a position to help, I hope they will do so.


I’ve been reading one of my birthday gifts, Heath W. Lowry’s The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (thanks, Jim!), a brilliant reanalysis of the early Ottomans that proves (to my satisfaction, anyway) that far from being fearsome warriors for Islam who presented conquered people with the famous “convert or die” choice, they were highly pragmatic rulers who allowed those they conquered to keep both their faith and in many cases their arms and former positions, which makes it easy to see why their rule spread so quickly among people crushed by late Byzantine taxes and misgovernment.
But on page 100 I hit one of those linguistic misjudgments that make me grind my teeth and reach for the Languagehat soapbox. Lowry is talking about a study he did of “a series of surviving Tahrir Defters, or Ottoman tax registers, from the Aegean island of Lemnos (Limnos), dating from the years 1490-1520″:

That members of the island’s late-Byzantine aristocracy were likewise performing military duties on Limnos is inferable from the fact that the peasant auxiliaries were serving under the command of their own officers, some of whom even appear in the 1490 tahrir with their former Byzantine military titles, for example, Kondostavlo, or, the “Count of the Stables.” From the Latin comes stabuli, or “count of the stable,” this was adopted by the Byzantines as the military title Konostaulos in the late thirteenth century.

Now, this is confused in more than one way; to take one obvious point, which was the title, Konostaulos or Kondostavlo? Apparently the former; compare The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453 by Mark C. Bartusis, p. 28:

The increasing importance of Latin mercenaries during the reign of John Vatatzes [1221-1254] was symbolized by the creation of the office of megas konostaulos (“grand constable”), the “chief of the Frankish mercenaries.” The fact that the first megas konostaulos, Michael Palaiologos, became emperor is not without a certain significance.

Note that Bartusis translates konostaulos as “constable,” and this is correct, because the late medieval Byzantines obviously got the word from those Latin mercenaries; compare Old French conestable, which gives both the English word and modern French connétable. The OED says: “The early development of the sense, whereby the comes stabuli, from being the head groom of the stable, became the principal officer of the household of the Frankish kings, and of the great feudatories, and the field-marshal or commander-general of the army, had taken place before the word came into English; the development was parallel to that of marshal.” It’s just silly to suppose that comes stabuli would have been borrowed, with its original sense ‘officer of the stable,’ by Byzantines who hadn’t used Latin for centuries. (I suppose it’s possible that the phrase had been preserved in moth-eaten official registers since the fifth century, when Latin was still used in Constantinople, and readopted in its Frenchified form when the barbarians from the West showed up, but I’m not sure how far one could talk about continuity in such a case. I am not a Byzantinist, however, and will gladly defer to those who know more about such things.)

[Read more…]


Ah, coincidence! First it was the name-days; in my ongoing reading of Eugene Onegin and War and Peace, the other night I hit both the name-day celebration of Tatyana in the first and that of Natasha in the second, with parallel descriptions of long tables, the seating of guests, wines drunk, and lively conversation (though only one leads to a duel). Then it was the bastardy. I had just gotten to the discussion of Pierre’s illegitimacy and how it would affect his inheritance from his father, Count Bezukhov, when I got an e-mail from historian Cherie Woodworth, with whom I’ve been corresponding, mentioning an interesting question she’s been investigating for a paper: why is bastardy a nonexistent concept in pre-Petrine Russia? As she puts it:

…[B]astards do not play the prominent political and social role in medieval and early modern Russia that they do in Europe at the same time. In fact, they seem to play no role at all; they are invisible. They are not mentioned in the chronicles; they are not noted in the genealogies; the nickname or epithet “bastard” (vybliadok) does not appear in any variant among the princes’ names. …[T]hey do appear in the law code, though not until the Sudebnik of 1589, and it referred to the common people, not the princes or boyars.

She says “I am trying to pin down the first use of the word ‘bastard’ in Russia, in the literal meaning of a child (usually male) who has no legal rights as an heir because his parents were not legally married.” Anybody know?


I have written before about Abdelrahman Munif and his untranslated masterpiece Ard Al-Sawad, about early nineteenth-century Iraq, and I recently came across an entire issue (pdf) of the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies devoted to Munif. It includes, among many other pieces, an extensive article by Sabry Hafez called “An Arabian Master” that discusses in detail his life and works and one by Ferial Ghazoul specifically on Ard Al-Sawad. It’s annoying that it’s only available as a 217-page pdf—you’d think they could at least provide each article separately—but hey, it’s free, and anyone interested in Munif will find it worth the minor trouble involved.