Archives for November 2008


A NY Times Magazine article by Heidi Julavits describes a problem I have run across a few times: incorrect foreign-language equivalents.

The New Year’s Eve dinner party in question has since gone down in our family annals as the Night of the Great Spelt Screw-Up. We were making, or intending to make, farro, an ancient wheat variety that can be cooked risotto-style with broth, butter and Parmesan. Unfortunately there was no farro to be found at the nearby Whole Foods. Blinded by a flash of substitution brilliance, I bought two pounds of spelt from the dry-goods aisle, recalling that I’d heard somewhere that farro was the fancy Italian word for the far-less-fancy-sounding “spelt.”
Spelt, to my eye, didn’t look like farro, and from a stovetop behavioral standpoint, it quickly distinguished itself. In a panic I called my personal farro expert, Jennifer DeVore, explaining I couldn’t find farro so instead I bought. . . . “Oh, no,” she interrupted. “You didn’t buy spelt.” Farro cooks in about 45 minutes; we cooked our spelt for four hours, and even then the result was extremely al dente. We threw in multiple sticks of butter, gallons of stock and $13 worth of grated Parmesan, but the spelt remained stoically flavor-impervious. We served it anyway. Contrary to the claims of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century spelt enthusiast, our guests did not find that eating it “makes the spirit of man light and cheerful.”
Mocked for my farro-equals-spelt assumption, I tried to exonerate myself by proving just how widespread is this misperception. Google “farro (spelt),” and you’ll get 2,100 hits, many for recipes that claim the grains can be used interchangeably. Even my family’s cookbook hero, Suzanne Goin, makes this claim in “Sunday Suppers at Lucques”: “Farro, also known as spelt, is probably my all-time favorite grain.” She cooks hers simply, in parsley and butter, or bulks it up with kabocha squash and cavolo nero. Farro is also wonderful in soups, like the hearty farro-and-kale soup in Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox’s new cookbook, “Olives & Oranges.” (It’s clearly gaining ground. Recently, 2 of the 17 contestants on “Top Chef” offered dishes containing farro.) But Harold McGee, in “On Food and Cooking,” clarifies that farro is the Italian word for emmer wheat; of spelt, which he calls “remarkable” for its high protein content, he says, “Often confused with emmer (farro).”

Sure enough, the Wikipedia article on emmer says “also known as farro especially in Italy.” Alas, my Garzanti dictionary defines farro as “spelt.”


A couple of years ago I wrote about the discovery of “inscriptions in the Basque language that could date from as early as the third century”; at the time I said “I’m afraid my first response is skepticism,” and that skepticism turns out to be well founded. Giles Tremlett in the Guardian reports:

Now a committee of experts has revealed those jewels to be fakes. “They are either a joke or a fraud,” said Martín Almagro, a professor in prehistory from Madrid. “How has something like this been taken seriously for so long?” The hunt is on for an archeological fraudster who defaced fragments of third century pottery with fake graffiti.
The fraudster seems either to have buried the pieces or planted them in a laboratory where experts sifted through finds. The fakes left the first people to see them swooning…
The words in Euskera, if genuine, would have predated by 700 years the previous earliest known written form of the language. The hieroglyphics caused speculation about the existence of third century Egyptologists who might have created the inscriptions to teach children.
Now experts who have studied the pieces in depth say the fakes, some of which used modern glue, should have rung warning bells immediately. References were found to non-existent gods, 19th-century names and even to the 17th-century philosopher Descartes.
Words in Euskara used impossible spellings. The hieroglyphs included references to Queen Nefertiti which would have been almost impossible to make prior to the 19th century.
The Calvary scene, meanwhile, included the inscription “RIP”. “It is a formula that can only be applied to people who are dead,” Almagro told El Correo newspaper. “To say that Jesus Christ is dead would be a heresy. I haven’t seen anything quite so funny in the whole history of Christianity.”

Hat tip to Glossographia.


Looking up something else online (the Russian craze a century ago for Nat Pinkerton novels and stories, which enterprising Russians started writing themselves—there’s almost nothing online about Pinkerton, surprisingly, and the best thing I found was under 1907 here: “For almost two decades Pinkerton is one of the most famous detectives in the world, seeming to be active in every country in Europe and the Americas as well as China, Japan, and several in Africa and the Middle East…”), I ran into an amazing site run by Chris Lovett, who has not only translated Konstantin Vaginov‘s best-known work, the novel Kozlinaya Pesn’, but put his translation online with a long, informative afterword about Vaginov’s life and work and a detailed set of notes (which is where the Pinkerton reference turns up). I look forward to making use of it (and, of course, the Russian text) when I get around to the literature of the ’20s. The one thing I can’t figure out is why Lovett called his translation “Satyr Chorus” when the Russian title straightforwardly means “goat song,” and refers (as he himself acknowledges in his afterword) to the original (or at least apparent) meaning of tragedy (Greek tragos ‘goat’ + ōdē ‘song’). “Goat Song” would be a great, punchy title; “Satyr Chorus” is flabby as well as inaccurate. But hey, gift horses and mouths.
Incidentally, the name Vaginov has initial stress (VAH-ghee-nuff); it was changed from the excessively Teutonic Wagenheim (or rather Вагенгейм) when WWI broke out. I presume if the family had been English they would have made it Wagoner.


Language Log has been awarded the 2009 Linguistics, Language and the Public Award, given by the Linguistic Society of America “for a body of work that has had a demonstrable impact on the public awareness of language and/or linguistics.”

Language Log will be recognized at the LSA’s business meeting on January 10, 2009, in San Francisco, California. The award will be accepted on behalf of the Language Log team by two of its members: University of Pennsylvania professor of phonetics Mark Y. Liberman (who founded Language Log in 2003 along with Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is now at the University of Edinburgh) and Stanford professor of linguistics Arnold M. Zwicky (who has been a prolific and prominent contributor since shortly after the blog was started).

Congratulations to Mark and the other Loggers for a richly deserved honor!


This is one of those things that I hesitate to post because I figure anyone who can use it probably already knows about it, but I usually turn out to be wrong about that, so here it is (thanks to tellurian): the Chinese Text Project. “The Chinese Text Project is a web-based e-text system designed to present ancient Chinese texts, particularly those relating to Chinese philosophy, in a well-structured and properly cross-referenced manner, making the most of the electronic medium to aid in the study and understanding of these texts.” Read more about it here, and check out the list of texts here (hey, etymology!). Sticking my toe in, I discover that to the left of each line of text is a symbol that takes you to a page where each character of the line is given a full dictionary entry. It looks very useful, so if you are one of those who can use it and don’t already have it bookmarked, here it is!


Back in the green youth of Languagehat, when it was still on Blogspot, I did a post on English second-person pronouns with comparisons to other languages, and the first comment (the first remaining, anyway—comments tended to vanish inexplicably in those days), by Mark, discussed Hungarian: “The story is that Count Szechenyi, their impatient and energetic reforming nobleman of the late 18th century, early 19th, was personally responsible for cutting the number of respect-related forms of address down from five to three (as it still is now) in his lifetime.” Now Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes (pronounced SEAR-tesh) elucidates the situation in a couple of posts on his blog (1, 2): “In Hungarian, I know of four forms and some twenty or so years ago had some problems with them….” There are some great anecdotes:

The great Hungarian poet, Ágnes Nemes Nagy, who died in 1993 at the age of 71, told me quite clearly on our first meeting in 1985, that she wanted me to to address her as maga and that she would address me in the same way. So it continued over the years. One day when I was visiting her (I always brought flowers), her ex-husband, the literary critic Balázs Lengyel called, and we were all in the room together. I addressed him as maga and he immediately told me to use te, because we were colleagues in the same field of work. Immediately, there were two relationships going on at the same time, and despite the fact that I had seen Nemes Nagy regularly and had never before met Lengyel, the relationship with her remained formal, with him they immediately relaxed.

Thanks, Pat!


Thanks to a comment from Aldiboronti in this Wordorigins thread, I learned an interesting fact: the word truce is essentially just the plural of true. As the OED puts it:

[ME. trewe and triewe, mostly in pl. form trewes and triewes:—OE. tréow n. masc. (fem. pl. tréwa), ‘truth or fidelity to a promise, good faith, assurance of faith or truth, promise, engagement, covenant, league’, = OEFris. tríuwe, OWFris. and MDu. trouwe (Du. trouw), OS. treuwa, tríuwa, OHG. tríuwa (MHG. triuwe, Ger. treue):—WGer. *trewwa, Goth. triggwa ‘covenant’ (whence late L. and Romanic tregua, treuga, F. trève); also, in ablaut form, OE. trúwa n. masc. and pl. –an; = ON. trúa, trú, Norw. trū, Sw. trōa: see TRUE a. Already in OE. the pl. tréwa was often used in the sense of the sing.; this became still more frequent with the ME. pl. trewes, triues, triwes, trues, and finally this, as trews, trewse, truse, truce, became the received sing. (app. in reference to the pledges or engagements given by both parties), with a new pl. truses, truces, when required. Cf. cherries, pease. See also trève from French, and the rare treuges after MLat. treugas.]

But what I want to know is: if it’s originally a plural, why doesn’t it have a voiced final consonant? In other words, why isn’t it trewes or trues?


Reading Leah Price’s LRB review of William Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, I hit this sentence: “Sherman puts the digits back in the digital age, arguing that its verbal and visual metaphors derive from the long tradition of hands that mark books and the manicules marked in them.” Manicules? It wasn’t in the dictionaries, even in the OED (where the letter M was recently revised), so I googled, and discovered this enlightening essay by the very same William Sherman, in which he explains that “the textual hand-with-pointing-finger symbol” has (very oddly) never had an agreed-on name: the book trade has variously used “fist,” “hand,” “index cut,” “director”…

I have now found 15 other names for what I prefer to follow the manuscript specialists in calling the manicule: hand, pointing hand, hand director, pointer, digit, fist, mutton fist, bishop’s fist, index, indicationum, indicator, indicule, maniple, and pilcrow. The last three terms are outright mistakes: indicule and maniple are mishearings, misrememberings, or conflations of similar words. … Pilcrow, finally, properly designates the backwards p symbol used to mark new paragraphs (¶—many of us still use the symbol in editing texts but, again, few of us could recognize or recall the technical term for it). But the rest of the names have all been ‘correct’ at some point in the history of texts, and most of them can still be found in recent literature. The only way a single name could be established is if librarians can agree upon a standardized terminology for marks like this one and then achieve universal dissemination among their staff and readers…
For my part, I have settled on “manicule” because it seems like the most general and most neutral description of the symbol: it derives from the Latin manicula, simply meaning “little hand,” and that really captures what it is without getting into the messy business of what it does. Another thing that “manicule” has going for it is that it applies equally to little hands in all kinds of texts, and to those produced by readers as well as for them, whereas “fist” has its origins in printers’ slang and should properly be restricted to the products of the printing press. The biggest problem with “manicule”—aside from the fact that people will keep mixing it up with manciples, manacles, and manicures—is that it is not (yet) an English word. It is apparently the standard term for the symbol in modern romance languages and it is belatedly being imported into English, but it’s not yet in the OED or any other dictionary of current usage, and my spell-checker certainly doesn’t like it.

I agree with him that it would be very useful to have a single, unambiguous term for the thing (you can see a few samples here), and I hereby urge everyone to start calling it “manicule” and lobby the OED to include it. (Aside from terminological issues, by the way, Sherman’s essay is very interesting on the symbol’s history and uses.)
Update. Here‘s a nice set of images—thanks, Nathan!


Via a NY Times “Lede” post (thanks, Bonnie!), I learned about the Atlas of True Names:

The Atlas of True Names reveals the etymological roots, or original meanings, of the familiar terms on today’s maps of the World and Europe. For instance, where you would normally expect to see the Sahara indicated, the Atlas gives you “Sea of Sand”, derived from Arab. es-sahra “desert, sea of sand”. The ‘True Names’ of 1500 cities, countries, rivers, oceans and mountain ranges are displayed on these two fascinating maps, each of which includes a comprehensive index of derivations.
Etymology, (OGr. etymon “true sense” and logos “speech, oration, discourse, word”) is the study of the origin and history of words. For the first time, the Atlas of True Names uses etymology to give us an unusual insight into familiar geographical names – with intriguing results……

The linked webpage shows closeups of a couple of areas of the map, North America and Britain/Ireland, and it looks like a lot of fun: Florida becomes “Blossoming Land,” Chicago “Stink Onion,” and so on. And when the names are unchanged, like Oakland, you find yourself contemplating the literal meaning of the name for the first time, perhaps, since you were a kid.
Now, it goes without saying that not all the etymologies are cast-iron, and some are pretty dubious (“I Don’t Understand You!” for Yucatan); much is made of this in the Language Log post about the map, but this is nitpicking. Anyone who gets seriously interested can find more authoritative references. Furthermore, a couple of commenters there complain that giving deep etymological origins of toponyms derived from other toponyms is misleading: “Even if York means “Wild Boar Village”, the people who named New York (a) didn’t know, (b) didn’t care…” But the idea is not to provide an analysis of the history of the name but to give the earliest available meaning for the name. It’s a thought experiment and mind-joggler, not an awe-inspiring work of reference, and for what it is, it seems to be very well done (they provide a list of all the etymologies they used). Intelligent, well-constructed fun is a good thing.


For me, the explosion of artistic innovation in Russia in the first two decades of the twentieth century is one of the most underappreciated cultural flowerings in history. The very name by which it is generally known, the “Silver Age,” implicitly devalues it by comparison with the “Golden Age” of Pushkin & Co. a century earlier—Omry Ronen wrote an entire book protesting the name, in his conclusion quoting Roman Jakobson as hesitating between the terms “Second Golden Age” and “Platinum Age,” either of which would certainly be preferable. (And how I would love to sit in on Prof. Ronen’s University of Michigan course Russian 478, “Vladimir Nabokov and World Literature I: The Russian Years”!)
At any rate, you can get a nice taste of one aspect of the period, Russian Futurism, from the exhibition “Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910–1917”; the site shows sample illustrated books through which you can leaf electronically, and you can even hear the poetry read with enjoyable vigor. The Curator’s Essay by Nancy Perloff, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute, provides a brief introduction explaining the origin of the movement and its essential differences from the more famous Italian Futurism, and of course if you’re lucky enough to be at the Getty between now and next April 19 you can see the exhibit for yourself.
Addendum. The name of the exhibit comes from the title of a poem by Vasily Kamensky, one of the major Futurists; having discovered he didn’t have a Wikipedia entry, I spent most of the day creating one.