Archives for September 2008

-WARE WORDS.

A post at separated by a common language (a blog focusing on differences between U.S. and U.K. English) points out that stemware, flatware, and silverware seem to be specifically American words, the cousins across the sea using wine glasses for the first and cutlery for the other two. To which my reaction was “I’ll be darned.” I presume silverware is at least occasionally used in the U.K. for items made of actual silver, but do non-Yanks find it odd that we refer to all the cheap metal stuff we cut our food with that way? (I must admit I myself have a hard time thinking of plastic knives and forks as “silverware,” so apparently the prefix does carry residual weight in my Sprachgefühl.)
Addendum. Reading the comments, I realize I should have mentioned that although silverware is a perfectly ordinary word used by everyone, stemware and flatware are specialized words used in the trade but not by most speakers.

SOLOGUB AND SOLLOGUB.

I didn’t post yesterday because I was too wrapped up in creating a much expanded Wikipedia entry for Fyodor Sologub, a fine writer who is often ignored in literary histories, since he fell between stools: his major work was published after 1900, so he’s not in histories of classic Russian literature; he was opposed to the Bolsheviks, so he was ignored by Soviet literary history (and by Western scholars who, shamefully, largely accepted Soviet valuations, though adding “dissident” writers); and he stayed in Russia, thus not benefiting from the recent upsurge in attention paid to the exiles. And for some reason he’s ignored even in cultural histories like Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes and St. Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov (which mentions him only twice, in lists of Symbolist writers, despite the fact that he spent his entire adult life in St. Petersburg and knew almost everybody). I discovered months ago, when I read The Petty Demon, that the Wikipedia entry was insultingly short and badly written, but I knew it would take a long time to do a proper job, so I put it off until I had no books to edit and could devote myself to it without guilt. So yesterday I plunged in; fortunately, there was a long and well done Russian entry (though it was full of bad or pointless links, which took me some time to fix or remove), and I found a very useful timeline, but it still took me hours and hours. And then the side issue of his pseudonym (he was born Teternikov, which his pal Minsky thought sounded unpoetic) involved me in more labor; as I write in the Sologub entry, “the aristocratic name Sollogub was decided on, but one of the ls was removed in an attempt (unavailing, as it turned out) to avoid confusion with Count Vladimir Sollogub,” and there was no entry at all for the dilettantish but reasonably important count, so I had to create one from scratch. It’s nice to feel I’m contributing to the sum of human (or English-speaking, at any rate) knowledge in this way.
To provide a linguistic hook for this post: the name Sollogub is not in Unbegaun’s magisterial Russian Surnames (of which I own a Russian translation); Sologub is there, but only in a list of pseudonyms, where it is called “Ukrainian” without further explanation (with the casual remark that it is “also the name of the writer V. A. Sologub” [sic]!). V. A. apparently got it from his Polish grandfather, but unfortunately, although Google Books lets me know it’s in Onomastica: pismo poświęcone nazewnictwu geograficznemu i osobowemu (Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1988), it won’t show me any pages or even snippets. So: anybody know anything about this Polish and/or Ukrainian family name?

PUSHKIN, SNAPPISH.

Eugene Onegin, like most long works in the nineteenth century, came out in installments, and the seventh chapter did not get good reviews, even from some of the people who had been excited by the earlier ones. As J. Douglas Clayton writes in the first chapter (“The Repainted Icon: Criticism of Eugene Onegin” [pdf]) of his Ice and Flame: Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:

This wave [of praise] was to crest and break spectacularly with the appearance of Chapter Seven, which was greeted with a chorus of disappointed—or even malicious—criticism… The most severe blow was dealt Pushkin by F.V. Bulgarin in Severnaia pchela [the Northern Bee, a reactionary journal]. Bulgarin, whose 1826 review of Chapter Two had been tentative, but not negative, now launched a vitriolic attack upon Chapter Seven: ‘This Chapter… is blotched with such verse, such tomfoolery that in comparison with it even Evgenii Vel’skii [a bad imitation] seems something like a business-like work. Not a single thought, not a single emotion, not a single scene worthy of attention! A complete fall, chute complete!’

Pushkin, in his response, quoted Bulgarin’s sarcastic verse summary of the chapter:

Ну как рассеять горе Тани?
Вот как: посадят деву в сани
И повезут из милых мест
В Москву на ярманку невест!
Мать плачется, скучает дочка:
Конец седьмой главе — и точка!
[‘Well, how to allay Tania’s grief? Here’s how: put the girl on a sleigh and ship her from her beloved places to the Moscow bride market. The mother weeps, the daughter is bored; the end of the seventh chapter: period!’]

He then said: “Стихи эти очень хороши, но в них заключающаяся критика неосновательна. Самый ничтожный предмет может быть избран стихотворцем; критике нет нужды разбирать, что стихотворец описывает, но как описывает.” [‘These verses are very good, but the criticism they contain is unfounded. The most insignificant subject can be chosen by a poet; the critic’s job is not to analyze what the poet describes, but how he describes it.’] This is of course unimpeachable, and to vindicate him against his impatient critics and what I called in an earlier Pushkin post “the kind of person who reads for plot” (and I warn anyone who agrees with a commenter on that post that “detailed analyses of language and translation that pore over each individual feature seem to excite more interest among the author than the reader” that the rest of this long post will consist of just such analysis), I will analyze a couple of stanzas from Chapter Seven (the linked web page has Russian and English en face). The unhappy Tatyana (Tanya for short) has, as Bulgarin says, been dragged off to Moscow by her family, and after a sardonic description of her older relatives we are introduced to the young cousins:

[Read more…]

ANGLO-NORMAN DICTIONARY.

The Anglo-Norman Dictionary was announced in the late 1940s and began publishing in 1979, the last fascicle coming out in 1994; Glanville Price in his review for The Modern Language Review said it “is likely to have a major impact on our understanding of the lexical history both of French and of English.” Now the whole thing is online; like the OED, they’re updating letters as they go, starting with F. “In December 2006 and September 2007, these were joined by the entries for AND2 letters G and H respectively. AND2 letters I to M will follow during the period 2008-12. These AND2 entries from letter F onwards have not been published in print (nor are there at present any plans to do so) and can be consulted only on this site.” There’s a brief introduction to the language (“Anglo-Norman is the name conventionally given to the variety of French which arrived in England with the Norman conquest in 1066. Possibly it is something of a misnomer…”); the main Introduction has a long and detailed discussion of the history of the language and changing perceptions of it, and describes the impact the availability of the lexical material can have on English lexicography:

In the authoritative dictionaries of English, even in cases where the contribution of French to the lexis of modern English has been recognised, any mention of a French etymology for a word usually refers to the continental variety. The proportion of words said to derive from Anglo-French has up to the present been very small. Now that the new Anglo-Norman Dictionary is becoming not only available, but its contents electronically searchable on-line, many of the current etymologies given in the dictionaries of English will need to be altered to show a derivation from insular French. This is more than merely a change of label: it means that the Anglicist will be able to follow the history of many English words through the French used on both sides of the Channel and note any changes of meaning that came about in the process. It will be possible to show either a semantic continuity or a semantic divergence.

A necessary caveat reminds us of an important difference from the OED:

[Read more…]

IF SCHOOL KEEPS.

A Wordorigins.org thread started by aldiboronti asked about a line from a book that puzzled him: “I don’t care if school keeps or not.” It turns out it’s an old Americanism I was unfamiliar with:

keep, v.
38. b. Of a school: to be held. U.S.
1845 Knickerbocker XXVI. 277 One afternoon, when ‘school didn’t keep’, some one got into the house. 1867 ‘T. LACKLAND’ Homespun I. 123 The District School has not ‘kept’ since the week began. 1908 M. E. FREEMAN Shoulders of Atlas 68 School ain’t going to keep today.

Another commenter says it seems to exist now mainly “in a set phrase… ‘I don’t care if school keeps or not’, ‘I don’t give a damn if school keeps or not’, ‘whether school keeps or not’ etc. which is used in situations where no actual school is involved to mean something like ‘come hell or high water’.” Does anyone out there know/use this phrase? If so, where are you from?

ONE MORE YEAR.

Every once in a while I get an e-mail from a publisher asking if I’m interested in a copy of a book (obviously hoping I’ll write about it); I usually say “thanks, but no thanks,” because the books are often not that interesting to me and I have plenty to read already. But when a marketing person from Spiegel & Grau asked me if I’d like a copy of One More Year, a collection of short stories by Sana Krasikov, and I read that her protagonists were “largely Russian and Georgian immigrants who have settled on the East Coast,” I knew the book was right down my alley and said “sure.”
I’m happy to report that the book is everything I hoped for. Krasikov (she was born in Ukraine and grew up in Georgia) has the essential gift of her calling: she tells compelling stories about people who seem as real as the ones you see on the street. Her prose is efficient and graceful, and—what is much rarer—she sees people with a moral clarity that makes no excuses and passes no judgments. In that she reminds me of Chekhov, and in many ways she fits into the Russian tradition, with its emphasis on the elements in life beyond the daily grind. There’s plenty of daily grind here—her characters inhabit unfashionable neighborhoods and have shaky living arrangements, often made shakier by their own bad decisions—but the overriding question they keep implicitly asking, and making us ask, is “What is important in life?” Specifically, how can our need for love be woven into the fabric of the rest of our life without tearing it apart? Whether the stories are set in New York, Moscow, or Tashkent (each vividly realized), these questions create a pressure that impels the narrative and lend a grandeur to even the most regrettable folly.
On a lower level, but still impressive in these slapdash days, the book is impeccably produced (the only error I noticed was “Boystovskaya” Street for Boytsovaya on p. 181, and I don’t know if that’s a misprint or a mistake that got into the manuscript somehow), and the fact that the author’s English is not native is rarely apparent (from the same page: “those absconding the homeland”). Also impressive, in terms of pure synchronicity, is the fact that Krasikov managed to touch on two issues that have recently hit the headlines. From “Maya in Yonkers,” in a passage describing a smuggling route from Russia to Georgia: “Another $200 for a driver to take the crate across the mountains to South Ossetia, where Luisa’s husband would pick it up and bring it to Dusheti.” And from “The Repatriates” (which appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year), this passage on the activities of one of the titular characters gave me a chill:

He was staying in Moscow to look for financiers for a business idea that would do for the Russian market what mortgage traders had done on Wall Street since the eighties: pool and repackage loans for investors in one massive turbine of debt and capital. He would build not only wealth for himself but a better life for the doctors and schoolteachers in distant provinces, still living in run-down, vermin-infested apartments and dreaming of raising their kids in solid houses, if only Russia could grow a robust mortgage industry.

That’s what I call having your finger on the Zeitgeist.

WORDMAN, SPARE THAT WORD!

This is a blatant publicity stunt, but what the hell, it’s the kind of publicity stunt I can get behind. Jack Malvern, in The Times, reports:

Dictionary compilers at Collins have decided that the word list for the forthcoming edition of its largest volume is embrangled with words so obscure that they are linguistic recrement. Such words, they say, must be exuviated abstergently to make room for modern additions that will act as a roborant for the book.
Readers who vilipend the compilers’ decision and vaticinate that society will be poorer without little-used words have been offered a chance to save them from the endangered list. Collins, which is owned by News Corporation, parent company of The Times, has agreed that words will be granted a reprieve if evidence of their popularity emerges before February, when the word list is finalised.

Needless to say, the bolded words are among the candidates for deletion; the full list, with definitions, is at the bottom of the linked article. As I said on MetaFilter, where I found the link, “I’m really surprised apodeictic and mansuetude are on the list; I’ve seen both of them used often enough I would have thought they’d be uncontroversial inclusions.” But, as I also said, it’s all in the OED anyway, so who cares whether Collins includes it?

GOOD THINGS FROM DOWN UNDER.

Australian poet Peter Nicholson sent me a link to Blesok, a bilingual online literary magazine from Macedonia (I assume the title is the Macedonian equivalent of Serbo-Croatian bl(ij)esak ‘flash of light’); if you click on the македонски link at the upper right, you get the journal in Macedonian. And among the many writings on his site I found a reference to Gwen Harwood, of whom, despite the fact that (according to Wikipedia) she “is regarded as one of Australia’s finest poets” and “her work is commonly studied in schools and university courses,” with typical Yank ignorance of the Australian poetic scene I knew nothing. There doesn’t seem to be much by her online, but I found “Barn Owl,” which I like a lot:

Daybreak: the household slept.
I rose, blessed by the sun.
A horny fiend, I crept
out with my father’s gun.
Let him dream of a child
obedient, angel-mind-
old no-sayer, robbed of power
by sleep. I knew my prize
who swooped home at this hour
with day-light riddled eyes
to his place on a high beam
in our old stables, to dream
light’s useless time away…

Its music reminds me of Theodore Roethke, a poet I’ve never lost my fondness for. (Compare the start of Roethke’s “The Voice”: “One feather is a bird,/ I claim, one tree, a wood;/ In her low voice I heard/ More than a mortal should;/ And so I stood apart,/ Hidden in my own heart.”)

PRONOUN TROUBLE.

To quote the MetaFilter post from which I got the link, “56 years ago today, Rabbit Seasoning hit movie theaters for the first time. This cartoon classic is the work of Mike Maltese (whose centennial birthday was celebrated earlier this year) a cartoon writer whose work is arguably far more well known than his name…” The MeFi post links other great Maltese collaborations with Chuck Jones; I’m posting this one because of its linguistic interest, exemplified by the quote I’ve used as a post title.
Oh hell, who am I kidding, I’m posting it because it’s a hilarious cartoon classic I wanted to share, but at least the pronoun angle gives me cover when the Relevance Police come to call.

DICTIONARIES, MOSTLY RUSSIAN.

In googling around to try to satisfy Christopher Culver’s curiosity about the “two antiquated dictionaries” that are all you can usually find for sale in Russia (“The first is by one V. K. Müller, the second by one M.A. O’Bri[e]n. I’ve had the darndest time finding out when either of these was first published, since the reprintings themselves never tell.”), I ran across this interesting page by a Russian listing his favorite dictionaries; he starts off with a hearty recommendation (which I heartily second) for Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, and after discussing a few other English dictionaries he moves on to Russian ones (both mono- and bilingual), including some I wasn’t aware of.
Incidentally, the earliest edition I can find of the Müller is from 1930 (it’s mentioned in the linked Russian page), and of the O’Brien from 1931, though I can’t tell if either is the first edition. And, as I said in my comment at Culver’s site, nobody seems to know who O’Brien was: “they just give initials and ‘fl. 1930-‘ (no birth date). Another lexicographical mystery!”