Archives for September 2008


Everyone knows about Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives, and the more persnickety among us know that her surname is properly pronounced Bullen, but I did not know until today that it is from the name of the French city Boulogne. As the Surname Database puts it:

Boulogne has long been a major trading port between England and France, and has supplied many of its citizens to Britain, although in so doing the name spelling has received some considerable transposition in most cases. … There are estimated to be literally hundreds of ‘English’ spellings of this famous name and these include Bullen, Bulleyn, Bullion, Bullon, Bullin, Boleyn, Bollen, Boullin, Boullen, Bullan, Bullant, Bullene and Bullent. Early examples of recordings include the marriage of Thomas Bullen and Hanna Prince on February 2nd 1626, at St. Dunstan’s, Stepney, and that of John Boleyn who appears in the Hearth Tax rolls of Suffolk in 1524. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Helias de Bolonia, which was dated 1121 – 1148, in “Feudal Documents from the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds”, Suffolk.

I like the traditional English pronunciations of foreign places, LYE-unz for Lyon and MYE-lun for Milan and Callus for Calais, but nowadays they survive only in the names of backwater American towns; I suppose one day people will feel obliged to say pah-REE for Paris, and I will grumble and shake my cane. (Via aldiboronti at


Like Ben Zimmer, I’ve complained more than once (e.g., here) about the glaring deficiencies of Google Books; now I learn from his latest post at the Log that

…the Hathi Trust has been established by the thirteen university libraries that make up the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. This includes the University of Michigan, which has contributed a major portion of Google’s scanned material thus far. The Hathi Trust is not nearly as wary as Google in providing page images and fully searchable text for public domain materials. What this means is that if you find something on GBS that only gives you “snippet view,” “limited preview,” or “no preview available,” you may be able to find the full page images by going to a CIC library site. The University of Michigan has already implemented this as part of its Mirlyn Library Catalog, with links to public domain material provided under the name “HathiTrust Digital Library.” (Roy Tennant of Library Journal has also mocked up a prototype search service, but it still needs some work.)

Go to his post for an example of how he used Hathi to antedate “an old bit of British comedy”; frankly, I’m very disappointed that Google has shown so little interest in remedying the problems with its book search, but it’s great that the Hathi Trust is doing so.


I imagine many of you have heard of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the glories of medieval Welsh prose; they’ve been famous in English since Lady Charlotte Guest‘s translation (1838-1849). I read the first branch, Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet (‘Pwyll Prince of Dyfed’), in my Middle Welsh class in grad school, and the first line (“Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet a oed yn arglwyd ar seith cantref Dyuet” [PPD was the lord of the seven cantrefs of Dyfed]) is embedded almost as deep in my brain as “asid raja Nalo nama” (‘there was a king named Nala,’ the opening of the Nala and Damayanti story from the Mahabharata, the first thing Sanskrit students read in my day).
Well, it turns out there’s a fifth branch! The discovery of a medieval Welsh manuscript might not mean much to the man on the Clapham omnibus, but it’s pretty damned surprising to me, and in this wonderful era of the internet it’s online. I quote from its editor, Mark Williams:

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi – Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math – are the greatest works of medieval Welsh prose. They are based on a rich vein of orally-transmitted folklore and mythological material, but were synthesised in the early 12th century by a redactor of genius. They take the form of four roughly chronological and interlinked short-stories, termed ‘branches’, which are set in a pre-Christian, pre-Roman Britain which resembles an idealised version of the redactor’s own high medieval era. His humane, sober style contrasts fascinatingly with the violence and shape-shifting which loom so large in the four tales…
But the existence of the ‘fifth branch of the Mabinogi’, Amaethon uab Don, was unsuspected until very recently, when a hitherto-unknown medieval Welsh manuscript was discovered in the library of Judas College, Oxford… It seems very likely that the tale is the work of the same redactor or author who penned the familiar Four Branches of the Mabinogi, or at least of a close associate. The language does not seem to be any earlier or later than the PKM, and the existence of numerous verbal echoes and parallels of incident suggests that Amaethon uab Don is the final part of the Mabinogi as a consciously-composed and unitary work dating to the end of the 11th or early 12th century…
As with the other branches, fragments of lore and onomastic tales are woven into the texture of the narrative. Indeed Amaethon furnishes us with two hitherto-unknown triads – the ‘Three Unfrequented Graves’ and the ‘Three Chief Warrior-Women of the Island of Britain’. The last of these is a remarkable piece of evidence that Buddug/Byddug (Boudica) was the subject of a body of Welsh narrative tradition, in which she sacked Rome (!) in revenge for Julius Caesar’s abduction of Fflur from Caswallawn fab Beli. Similarly unexpected is the occurrence of a teichoscopia, a topos of heroic narratives throughout the Indo-European world, in which the heroes of an opposing army are pointed out one by one from the walls or ramparts of a besieged city. Examples occur in the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Iliad, and the Ramayana, and with our text a further Celtic instance of the topos can be added to this distinguished list of epic comparanda.

I can’t tell you how much I’d love to read a Welsh account of Boudica’s sack of Rome; in its absence, this will do nicely, and the first line of the text gave me a thrill of recognition: “Amathaon uab Don a oed arglwyd ar y seith cantref Dyuet…” Thanks for the link, Trevor!
Addendum. As Daniel Nolan says in the comments:

“Judas College” is a famous, but entirely fictional, Oxford college – made famous by Beerbohm’s comic masterpiece Zuleika Dobson. This “fifth branch” is presumably then not a medieval survival – it’s an apparently very entertaining piece written in the style of the Mabinogi, probably by its “editor” Mark Williams. So lots of kudos to Williams for a fun document, but let’s not rewrite our understanding of medieval Welsh prose just yet.


Most language-related internet fads I’m not crazy about. I can’t stand smileys and their relations; some of the abbreviations (e.g., WTF) are efficient and useful, even if they don’t inspire enthusiasm; catchphrases (All Your Base) quickly wear out their welcome. But there’s one recent innovation (at least, I think it’s recent—see below) that I absolutely love. For, oh, the past year or so I’ve been noticing, and when appropriate using, a delightful… what to call it? It’s not an exclamation, because it’s determinedly low-key; it’s not really an interjection, because it’s not interjected, it’s a standalone response. And I wasn’t sure how to find an example, because it’s impossible to search for (see below). But I trusted to serendipity, which rarely fails me, and sure enough fate provided one. My wife and I were listening to This American Life, and the second part of the episode involved the insufficient response of the chairman of the SEC to the current financial meltdown (which is an odd subject for TAL, but never mind that). The host, Ira Glass, started out by explaining the recondite (to most of us) concept of the naked short. Short selling is a familiar enough concept if you know anything about the stock market; you think a stock is going to go down, so you borrow a bunch of shares, sell them, then buy them back (at a lower price, if you’ve guessed correctly) just before you have to return them, having made a bundle. Naked short selling, Ira said, is just the same, except you don’t borrow the stocks first. To which I could think of only one response:
This is not a “What!” of outrage, or a “What?” of inquiry. Unlike those standard forms, it does not represent a spoken version; it is a purely written (and, so far as I know, online) phenomenon. It uses and distorts the conventions of writing to produce the equivalent of a slack-jawed stare of bafflement; it is always written just as it is above, lower-case, no punctuation, on a line of its own. It is a response to something so out of left field, so incomprehensible, that nothing coherent can be said about it. I find it hilarious and addictive, and I am not the only one. I would love to know where it came from and when it was created and by whom.
But how can you investigate it? It’s one of the commonest words in English, there’s no distinctive context, and there’s no way to search for its features (as far as I know). If lexical invention were against the law, this would be the perfect crime; like an ice dagger that melts in the victim’s body, it leaves nothing for the detective to work with. I leave it as a challenge for the clever folks at the Log; if anyone can figure out a way to get a handle on it, they can.


A correspondent reminded me of a site I keep running across but for some reason have never blogged about: the Medieval Names Archive. The first line on the main page is “This collection of articles on medieval and renaissance names is intended to help historical re-creators to choose authentic names,” and if you think that portends some sort of amateurish silliness on a par with “what to name your baby” sites, you don’t know historical re-creators. These people take accuracy with a seriousness that would shame a nineteenth-century German philologist, and the essays collected on the site have a level of detail that will sate all but the thirstiest seeker after onomastic information. Under the rubric “What’s New” we find, inter alia: Place-Names in Landnámabók, Basque Onomastics of the Eighth to Sixteenth Centuries, Jewish Names in Ottoman Court Records, and Greek Names with Scytho-Sarmatian Roots. Then comes a little essay on “Choosing a Medieval Name”:

…Few history books reproduce names in the exact forms that were recorded in period documents. Most of the names are modernized and anglicized, both in spelling and form. Depending on just how authentic you want your name to be, you may or may not decide to worry about these details; this collection of articles assumes that you want your name to be as authentic as possible.
It’s also easy to get led astray by bad sources. There are a lot of books and lists of names that are useless, misleading, or erroneous. We’ve put together some guidelines to help you identify good sources…
Some names that many people think of as common to the Middle Ages or Renaissance are either purely modern or otherwise problematic. For example, some names which were used in one medieval culture are now mistakenly believed to have been used in others. Other medieval names are mispronounced, or thought to be feminine names when they were only masculine…

And below that is the meat of the site, Personal Names in Specific Cultures. You can find out more than you ever thought you’d want to know about English, Old English, and Anglo-Norman Names; Scandinavian Names; Names from the Low Countries; Frankish and French Names; Welsh, Cornish, and Breton Names; Classical and Byzantine Greek Names; Slavic and Baltic Names; and many more. Just to give a sample from the Slavic section, there are essays on “Grammar of Period Russian Names” (followed by “A Dictionary of Period Russian Names”), “A Chicken Is Not A Bird: Feminine Personal Names in Medieval Russia,” “Locative Bynames in Medieval Russia,” “Occupational Bynames in Medieval Russia,” and “Russian Personal Names: Name Frequency in the Novgorod Birch-Bark Letters,” among others. You see the wide coverage, and if you visit the essays you’ll see the depth. It’s a mind-boggling resource. Thanks for the reminder, Trevor!


I just heard Maurice Sendak interviewed on Fresh Air (the occasion being a celebration of his 80th birthday); everything he said was interesting, but one thing that particularly got my attention was a poem he was talking about. I had missed the lead-in, so I assumed it was a contemporary riff on the nursery-rhyme form, because it sounded so strange and morbid:

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are trumps
The kittens have gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls.

But no, it turns out it’s a genuine nursery rhyme (I’m sure some of my readers are shaking their heads and saying “What, you don’t know it?!”), and Sendak combined it with an equally strange one (“Jack and Guy/ Went out in the rye/ And they found a little boy/ With one black eye…”) to produce what is apparently his least popular book, We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, described (with an illustration) in this post by Max Sparber, who makes it sound so strange and nightmarish I really want to see the whole thing.


A reader who apparently felt my blood pressure needed raising sent me a link to this egregious piece of idiocy by The Washington Post‘s reviewer Jonathan Yardley, who has apparently carried around a battered first edition of The Elements of Style since 1959 and uses it to attack writers for what he calls “sloppy habits” but what the rest of us consider normal use of the English language. A devotion to Strunk & White is a sure sign of proud ignorance; I lambasted it a few years ago, quoting the wonderful Jan Freeman in extenso (take that, Yardley and your Strunkian “Avoid foreign languages”!), and I am pleased to be able to refer to her again on this occasion, since she has written a response called “Return of the living dead” that explains a few of the problems with both the “little book” and Yardley’s misunderstandings, ending up by saying, quite correctly, that “treating Elements as a bible of good usage is literally laughable.” And since laughter is the best medicine, I will try to laugh rather than rend my hair the next time I encounter a paean to the malign little compendium of bad advice.


Thanks to a question at AskMetaFilter, I learned something I should have known years ago: the ISO country code for South Africa is .za because it’s from the Dutch Zuid-Afrika. The Wikipedia entry explains:

This is a legacy of when Dutch was an official language in South Africa, before being replaced by Afrikaans, in which the name of the country is Suid-Afrika. Afrikaans joined English and Dutch as an official language of the South Africa in 1925, and in the South African Constitution of 1961 Dutch was removed as an official language altogether, decades before .za was introduced. However, the .sa domain is used by Saudi Arabia and ZAR is also the ISO 4217 currency code for the South African Rand.

I had vaguely assumed it was based on some name comparable to Zaire and Zambia.


This is probably one of those things I once knew but then forgot: porter “A dark-brown or black bitter beer, brewed from malt partly charred or browned by drying at a high temperature” is (according to the OED) “App[arently] short for porter’s ale … The beer was app. orig. either made for or chiefly drunk by porters and the lower class of labourers: compare the early quots. It probably arose as a popular descriptive term.” The first cite for porter’s ale is from Pope, A Further Account of the most Deplorable Condition of Mr. Edmund Curll (1716): “Nurs’d upon Grey Peas, Bullocks Liver, and Porter’s Ale”; that for porter just five years later, from Nicholas Amherst’s Terræ filius: or the secret history of the university of Oxford 1721–22 (27-30 May 1721): “We had rather dine at a Cook’s Shop upon Beef, Cabbage and Porter, than tug at an Oar, or rot in a dark, stinking Dungeon.”
I decided to see if I could find Pope’s A Further Account online, and sure enough, Google Books has it, so I am able to provide a fuller context for the citation. Pope is mocking the unfortunate Mr. Curll, to whom he has administered an emetic in revenge for behavior that displeased him, and he imagines Curll as saying:

Now G―d damn all folios, quartos, octavos, and duodecimos! ungrateful varlets that you are, who have so long taken up my house without paying for your lodging! Are you not the beggarly brood of fumbling journeymen! born in garrets among lice and cobwebs, nursed up on grey peas, bullocks liver, and porters ale?――Was not the first light you saw, the farthing candle I paid for? Did you not come before your time into dirty sheets of brown paper?――And have not I clothed you in double royal, lodged you handsomely on decent shelves, laced your backs with gold, equipped you with splendid titles, and sent you into the world with the names of persons of quality? Must I be always plagued with you? Why flutter ye your leaves and flap your covers at me? Damn ye all, ye wolves in sheep’s clothing; rags ye were, and to rags ye shall return.

Pope had an impressive facility with invective, and you didn’t want to get on his bad side if you could help it.


A half-minute snippet of Samuel Beckett talking about the German television production of What Where is a precious document, since he never wanted to be recorded. Trevor, who sent it to me (many thanks!), says what surprised him is Beckett’s rural Irish accent. How I’d love to have a recording of him reading one of his monodramas!