Archives for October 2008


From Ben Zimmer comes news of a neat offshoot of his Visual Thesaurus:

When we launched the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee this past summer, we knew there was a built-in interest, but the response was still surprising. So far there have been 15,000 players who have tried their hand at spelling a grand total of 500,000 words. It’s clearly habit-forming, with many repeat visitors. The reason why it’s so addictive is that it’s been designed to be adaptive, so the more words that are spelled correctly, the more difficult the words become. And conversely, if you’re not a great speller, the words will get easier and easier. That way a player will always be quizzed at the appropriate skill level — from the orthographically challenged to the most expert spellers.
As more and more players try the Bee, the game has steadily improved based on data collected on how words are spelled. Words are being continuously reanalyzed for difficulty based on how spellers fare. Every five minutes, words are rescored for difficulty taking into account the latest data from the Bee spellers. That means there’s an increasingly better fit to different skill levels. …
For each word, a graph is generated to plot the distribution of right and wrong answers across different skill levels. Then a curve is drawn to fit the data. If that curve rises very steeply, then the word is a good “discriminator”: it’s an accurate way to separate the good spellers from the bad spellers.

I’ll give you a word of warning so you don’t stumble the way I did: be sure to read the definition on the lower right before trying to spell it.


“The Reanimation Library is a small, independent library based in Brooklyn. It is a collection of books that have fallen out of mainstream circulation. Outdated and discarded, they have been culled from thrift stores, stoop sales, and throw-away piles across the country and given new life as resource material for artists, writers, and other cultural archeologists.” Their mission, their FAQ, and a personal history of the library. I’m sure there are “books are your friends” fundamentalists who find the reuse of books for unintended purposes distasteful, but as long as they aren’t rarities, I don’t have a problem with it. (Of course, I’m a proud owner of one of the editions of Tom Phillips’s A Humument, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)


I wrote about the online journal Linguistic Discovery, “dedicated to the description and analysis of primary linguistic data,” a few years ago; as Claire, from whom I picked this up, said, it seemed to be “dormant for a while,” but it’s still chugging along at the rate of an issue a year, and the latest (2007) issue has articles by James N. Stanford on adjective intensifiers in Sui (“an indigenous minority language of southwest China”) and by Gary F. Simons, Kenneth S. Olson and Paul S. Frank about the digital archiving of a 204-item wordlist in Ngbugu (“an Ubangian language spoken in Central African Republic”). Check out the archive; articles are available in both pdf and HTML formats.


I’m cautiously optimistic about this:

Google will pay $125 million to resolve claims by authors and publishers and to pay legal fees, as well as create a Book Rights Registry where copyright holders can register works to get a cut of Internet ad revenue and online book sales.
The agreement will also make many in-copyright, out-of-print books available for readers in the U.S. to search, preview and buy online. And instead of small snippets, copyright protected books will now have 20 percent of the content available for preview.
“What makes this settlement so powerful is that in addition to being able to find and preview books more easily, users will also be able to read them,” writes David Drummond, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development, and Chief Legal Officer of Google. “If a reader in the U.S. finds an in-copyright book through Google Book Search, he or she will be able to pay to see the entire book online.”

I’m perfectly prepared for it to make no difference in practice, but if it does—if I notice a substantial decrease in the number of times I hit the thrice-damned “snippet search” or, even worse, “No preview available”—it will be very good news indeed. (Via MetaFilter.)


Some years ago I posted about Ian Frazier’s Atlantic piece on Martin Tytell, king of the typewriter repairmen; now I regretfully report that he has passed on, via The Economist‘s lyrical obituary (“Martin Tytell, a man who loved typewriters, died on September 11th, aged 94”):

Everything about a manual was sensual and tactile, from the careful placing of paper round the platen (which might be plump and soft or hard and dry, and was, Mr Tytell said, a typewriter’s heart) to the clicking whirr of the winding knob, the slight high conferred by a new, wet, Mylar ribbon and the feeding of it, with inkier and inkier fingers, through the twin black guides by the spool. Typewriters asked for effort and energy. They repaid it, on a good day, with the triumphant repeated ping! of the carriage return and the blithe sweep of the lever that inched the paper upwards.
Typewriters knew things. Long before the word-processor actually stored information, many writers felt that their Remingtons, or Smith-Coronas, or Adlers contained the sum of their knowledge of eastern Europe, or the plot of their novel. A typewriter was a friend and collaborator whose sickness was catastrophe. To Mr Tytell, their last and most famous doctor and psychiatrist, typewriters also confessed their own histories. A notice on his door offered “Psychoanalysis for your typewriter, whether it’s frustrated, inhibited, schizoid, or what have you,” and he was as good as his word. He could draw from them, after a brief while of blue-eyed peering with screwdriver in hand, when they had left the factory, how they had been treated and with exactly what pressure their owner had hit the keys. He talked to them; and as, in his white coat, he visited the patients that lay in various states of dismemberment on the benches of his chock-full upstairs shop on Fulton Street, in Lower Manhattan, he was sure they chattered back…

Thanks for the link, Paul!


A couple of years ago I wrote about the fact that the American moose is the same as the European elk (the American “elk” being an entirely different creature), citing Mallory and Adams’ The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (which I really must read now that it’s been published). Now Bill Poser at the Log has posted on the topic, with both English and French etymologies:

English and French have less elaborate terminology for moose [than does Carrier], but interestingly, in both languages, the term used in North America is different from the term used in Europe. The term moose used in North American English is a loan from Eastern Abenaki moz, cognate to the Plains Cree word more familiar here in Western Canada, mōswa. In British English, moose are called elk, a word that goes back to Proto-Indo-European. The animal called elk in North American English is a different species, Cervus canadensis….
The Canadian French term for moose is orignal, which comes from Basque oreina “deer” via orignac, the form that the Basque word took on in the Basque-Micmac pidgin used by the Micmac and visiting Basque fishermen and whalers. The European French term, élan,is a loan from Middle High German elend, which is ultimately related to the English word elk.
The scientific name for moose, Alces alces, contains the Latin term for moose, which is a loan from some Western Germanic language. Moose are not found in Italy, so the Romans only encountered them when their conquests led them well to the North.

There is considerably more information about moose (as well as a dig at the “drunken morons hunters” who confuse them with cows) at Bill’s post, but the squeamish should be warned that there are photos of the innards of a moose being butchered.

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MMcM’s Polyglot Vegetarian, which is consistently both nutritious and delicious, has a post presenting all the epigraphs to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age, of which the authors wrote: “Our quotations are set in a vast number of tongues; this is done for the reason that very few foreign nations among whom the book will circulate can read in any language but their own; whereas we do not write for a particular class or sect or nation, but to take in the whole world.” MMcM says, “I thought it would be fun to actually transcribe these mottoes, which appear at the head of each chapter, into LT. And, since so many 19th century books have been digitized, it is easy to find many of the sources and check them.” Now, that’s my kind of fun! This is the kind of thing that might have occurred to me to do if I were reading the novel (which I now, of course, want to do), but I would probably not have had the patience to actually follow through—there are a lot of chapters, and many have more than one epigraph. (I add, with awe and reverence, that when MMcM couldn’t find a quoted text online, if at all possible he got the source from the library and scanned the relevant page.) Just about every obvious language is represented, plus all sorts of unexpected ones (Quiché, Syriac, Cantonese, Cornish…); I warn you that if you have any leaning towards this sort of thing, just reading the post (and clicking on all those links, which must have taken an unimaginable amount of time to assemble) will eat up much of your day, but you won’t regret it.
Incidentally, something leaped out at me when I read the Russian epigraph to Chapter XLIX: Солнце заблистало, но не надолго: блеснуло и скрылось (“The sun began to shine, but not for a long time; it shone for a moment and disappeared”). A tip of the hat to the first reader who reproduces my trivial insight (which, I might add, has nothing to do with the grammar or meaning of the sentence).
A couple of typos MMcM might want to correct (I would have left a comment on the post, but couldn’t manage to sign in correctly): “Erewon” should be Erewhon, and “le al de l’action” should be “le mal de l’action.”
And those of you familiar with 19th-century Japanese can help him out with this one:

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Arnold Zwicky at the Log posts an amusing Doug Savage cartoon that I should try to get the publisher to incorporate into the U.S. edition of my book (which should be out in not much over a year, or so they tell me).
Totally unrelated, but not worth a post of its own: I was mildly annoyed today when in one of the “dictionary game” segments of the radio show “Says You” the word whose definition was to be guessed was kis. The OED says:
Obs. rare—1.
[a. Gr. κίς.]
A weevil.
1658 ROWLAND Moufet’s Theat. Ins. 1086 The English call the Wheat-worm Kis, Pope, Bowde, Weevil, and Wibil.
I’m sorry, but a borrowing from Greek that some guy in the seventeenth century claimed was used by “the English” (a couple of Oxford dons, perhaps?) and that occurs nowhere else is not a suitable candidate for the game, if you ask me. There should be at least a sporting chance that someone might know the word.


There’s a post at Néojaponisme about “outlander Japanese”: the ways in which non-native speakers try to fit into a Japanese-speaking environment. Do you consciously strive to speak “just like a Japanese,” or do you preserve some foreignisms to show you’re aware you’ll never actually be Japanese or (if you’re female, as some commenters point out) to give yourself more room for maneuver and be taken more seriously? Do you pronounce borrowed words as the Japanese do? (Universal answer: yes!) What first-person pronoun do you use? The post consists of an exchange between David, who thinks foreigners should aim for bog-standard Japanese and not try to “show off,” and Matt (of No-sword), who talks about “fitting in as opposed to blending in” and doesn’t want “to play the role of an interchangeable, personality-free cog.” He emphasizes the need for “performance and display”: “If you were always perfectly clear and unambiguous, you would by definition be incapable of telling a joke. You would also probably find it hard to get much of an emotional reaction from people in general.” I’m on Matt’s side here, but it’s an important subject that doesn’t get talked about enough, and the many comments on the thread are almost uniformly thoughtful and interesting, with a minimum of one-upmanship (something that is all too common among foreigners discussing the language they’ve all learned, as I know from my time in Taiwan). I urge anyone interested in the topic to pop over there and (if they’re so inclined) join the discussion. (I might add, with gratitude, that almost all the Japanese is transliterated, so the rest of us can follow along.)


A recent New York Times Magazine focused on food, and one of the stories is “Kosher Wars,” by Samantha M. Shapiro. It starts out talking about Andy Kastner, a rabbinical student who has been “studying how to slaughter animals according to Jewish law.” Shapiro explains the words shechita, ‘ritual slaughter,’ and shochtim, ‘ritual slaughterers’ (the singular, which she uses later without italics or explanation, is shochet). A couple of paragraphs later, she writes: “He has been trying to set up a grass-fed-kosher-meat co-op in his neighborhood; he says he hopes to travel to a local farm and shecht the animals himself.”
I was quite startled by this, since shecht is not an English verb except in the variant of the language used by Orthodox Jews familiar with Yiddish, in which ‘to slaughter’ is shekhtn. (A Google search on “to shecht” will illustrate the point; the first hit is “If Nick wanted to shecht a creature having all the proper simanim, what should his chalaf not have?”) What startled me more, when I looked the words up in my trusty Weinreich, was to find that the nouns are written with the letter khes, whereas the fricative in the verb shekhtn is written with khof (the fricative variant of kof). What this means is that the nouns and verb are of different origin, and a moment’s reflection reminded me that the German verb ‘to slaughter’ is schlachten (which is of course cognate with slaughter; both are from extensions of the Proto-Germanic root *slah- that gives slay as well); I presume the Germanic verb lost its l under the influence of the Hebrew words, so similar in meaning. While not as startling as the fact that Hebrew ish איש ‘man’ and isha אשה ‘woman’ are unrelated (via Anatoly), I thought it was interesting enough to share.