Archives for December 2008


Recently my brother sent me a copy of Deep Survival (website), by Laurence Gonzales, telling me it was one of the best books he’d read recently. Since I respect his opinion, I put it on the mental pile of “books I intend to get around to sometime in the foreseeable future” and went back to Tolstoy. But then during a phone call he asked me if I’d started it yet, assuring me that I’d really like it, and I said “OK, I’ll read it, I’ll read it,” and with a dutiful sigh I picked it up… and found it (with apologies for the cliche) impossible to put down. It’s not at all the kind of macho “I’m tougher than you can possibly imagine, and if you follow my training program you too can kill alligators with your bare hands” kind of book I took it for; he tells a lot of hair-raising stories (a seventeen-year-old girl fell out of an airplane into the Peruvian rain forest… and survived!) and passes on fascinating facts (did you know that one of the demographic groups most likely to survive in the wilderness is children six and under?), but his focus is always on the habits of mind necessary for survival in tough circumstances, and even this bookworm who avoids anything more strenuous and perilous than hiking and cross-country skiing in well-marked areas, finds it riveting and educational.
But what I wanted to pass along was a particular passage on pp. 189-90, where he’s describing a survival course he took in Vermont:

As we hiked through trailless forest, Morey stopped every 20 or 30 yards to point out something, and we’d examine and discuss what we found. After we’d followed him deep into the woods, he asked us to close our eyes and point the way home. It is a humbling experience to find that you can’t. I’d been following him, which is never a good idea. I had not walked my own walk, and as a result, I was lost.
Morey directed our attention to the last place we’d stopped to talk. We could still see it from where we stood. “Remember, we talked about the bittersweet vine there?” We’d taken a sample from a vine that’s good for making cordage. So we hiked back to that spot. Then he pointed to another spot, where he’d shown me ways of seeing and walking that were used by Native American trackers and other Aboriginal peoples. He called it “Owl Eyes and the Fox Walk,” that full-body alertness I’d seen when he listened to the birds. It can put you in an altered state of perception, he said. We returned to that spot. From there, we could see the place where we thought we’d found the hoof print of a deer, but it turned out to be the entrance to a vole tunnel. We had squatted there to discuss the difference between voles, moles, and mice.
Thus, hopping from one conversation to the next, we were able to retrace our steps exactly and to remember in great detail not only where we’d been but what we’d said and done at each spot. In what seemed to be a featureless and homogenous forest, Morey had given us tangible cues, like road signs, which we could easily follow home. He had discovered an effortless way to embed a reliable mental map in our brains.

At this point I was thinking “songlines!” The very next paragraph read:

“It’s called song lines,” he said. “And it’s an ancient navigational technique used by Australian Aboriginals.”

Somehow it never occurred to me that you could apply songline techniques in another part of the world, but of course you can. It’s just a matter of being attentive to your surroundings.


Anggarrgoon says:

AUSTLANG is now public. It’s an absolutely fabulous resource for Australian languages and there should be a huge round of applause for Kazuko Obata at AIATSIS who did most of the legwork.
So what is Austlang anyway? It’s a web database of information about Australian languages. It includes summaries of speaker estimates, genealogical classification in a variety of publications, an estimate of degree of document, and there’s a nice interface with google maps.

I have nothing to add except: what a great thing, and bless the internet that allows us to use it!


I had known that J. B. Van Helmont (1577-1644) invented the word gas based on Greek χάος ‘chaos’—it makes sense if you know that in Dutch, the letter g is pronounced kh—but I had no idea he also created blas for “a supposed ‘flatus’ or influence of the stars, producing changes of weather” (OED). You can read all about it, with a funny quote from Richard Franck’s Northern Memoirs, Calculated for the Meridian of Scotland; To Which is Added, The Contemplative and Practical Angler. Writ in the Year 1658, at Mark Liberman’s post at the Log, and the comment thread there brings up the question of the family name Degas, originally De Gas: Ray Girvan points out that “Degas’ paternal grandfather, Rene-Hilaire De Gas, was a baker from Orléans” and the commune Gas “is very close to Orléans.” To which Bryn LaFollette adds:

Well, that leads to the question of where the commune Gas gets its name. There is surprisingly little information on either the French or English Wikipedia pages, nor on any of the easily found pages on les communes de France.

Of course, it may be that there is no known etymology for the name of such an obscure commune, but I’ll bet Brichot would have a theory.


Some students at MIT have created an online edition of Ezra Pound’s famous 1914 anthology Des Imagistes. (The linked Wikipedia article has a great Richard Aldington quote about the title: “What Ezra thought that meant remains a mystery, unless the word ‘Anthologie’ was assumed to precede it. Amy’s anthologies were called Some Imagist Poets, so she may have supposed that Ezra thought ‘Des Imagistes’ meant ‘Quelques Imagistes.’ But why a French title for a collection of poems by a bunch of young American and English authors? Search me. Ezra liked foreign titles.”) Unfortunately, it’s a somewhat careless job—Joyce’s poem “I hear an army charging upon the land” is pretty much spoiled by the typo “My heart, have you no wisdom thus to dispair?”—but fortunately there’s a pdf of the anthology that allows you to read from the book itself, and a beautiful thing it is. (Via MetaFilter, where I wrote “It’s pretty funny to see poor Amy Lowell facing W.C. Williams across the gutter, and if you turn the page you’re confronted by Joyce and Pound—those were the days!”)


A Caleb Crain review (in The Nation) of a couple of new slang dictionaries (Stone the Crows: Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, edited by John Ayto and John Simpson, and The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell) has some interesting things to say about slang in general, and makes this nice point about the impossibility of pinning it down:

To a lexicographer, slang’s abundance may present an even greater challenge than its definition. Although humans coin words as prolifically as bees make honey, dictionaries of standard English only include lexemes that have become a stable currency among strangers. Slang is not confined by this useful limit. My boyfriend and I refer to going online as checking our bids, in memory of a bygone fascination with eBay. Because we once elaborated the no-chicken label on a box of vegetarian broth into a fowl-friendly warning—”No, no, chicken! Keep away from the boiling water!”—we now always call the broth no-no chicken. The glossy young rich who crowd us out of our favorite restaurants are known to us as kittenheads, on account of a bus-side ad I once saw that juxtaposed an enormous fluffy white feline head, a crystal goblet full of glistening diced organ meats and the slogan “Next Stop, Uptown.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of our private slang, and we’re only two people. Multiply our sample by all the groups, large and small, who improvise with the English language for their own convenience and pleasure, and you see the problem. Slang is virtually infinite.

Thanks, Paul!


This USA Arts interview with Nabokov was filmed, I believe, in early 1965, since he says he’s still working on the Russian translation of Lolita, which he’d finished by March of that year; its 25 or so minutes are broken up into four parts. He starts off talking about how difficult it is for him to speak extemporaneously, making a comparison to the “beautiful, limpid” speech of his father, “with an aphorism here and a metaphor there … I can’t do it! … I have to write it down laboriously; I don’t think like that.” He complains about the “crude, medieval” Freud; then, after the titles and a quick summary of his biography (the announcer claims he learned English before Russian, which is of course untrue; he once claimed to have learned to read English first, but I’m not sure that can be taken literally either) he reads the start of Lolita in English and then in Russian, and from there on it’s completely absorbing if you care about Nabokov. (We also get to hear him chatting in French with the proprietor of a kiosk.) It ends with him playing chess with his wife (and laughing heartily, as he had earlier when talking about throwing out the index cards he wrote his novels on when they became too overwritten) and comparing writing to composing chess problems, with deception being part of the pleasure in each case. Thanks for the link go to Anatoly (whose commenters point out the oddity of Nabokov’s having such a strong accent in English, considering that he learned it as a child, attended Cambridge, and had spent twenty years in America).


I’m still reading David A. Bell’s The First Total War, and in explaining his theory of how, paradoxically, the new concept that war was an aberration that could and should be eliminated led to the modern type of “total war” ushered in by the Napoleonic Wars, Bell traces the popularity of the idea back to François Fénelon, who had been nothing but a name to me, dimly recalled from high-school French classes with the severe Mme Ruegg. In 1699, Fénelon published a novel, Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus), that “more than anything else… saved him from the thickets of scholars’ footnotes and made him a sizable figure in European history and literature”; a sequel to the Odyssey, it “caused an immediate sensation, going through fifteen French editions in 1699 alone and at least sixty more over the course of the eighteenth century. Translated into every major language, it had particular success in English, where it appeared in at least fifty separate editions before 1800. Today, it is exasperatingly difficult to see why….” (Google Books has an 1857 American edition here, if you want to investigate for yourself.) And “in each of its eighteen long sections, Fenelon insistently put forth the claims of conscience, denounced war, and urged Christian pacifism on Christian rulers.”

Now, throughout the novel “Telemachus has by his side the drearily wise counselor Mentor, who ensures that his pupil’s slightest surrender to temptation meets with quick and loquacious correction,” and on p. 64, Bell writes “The word ‘mentor,’ which we owe to Fenelon, remains a telling sign of its appeal.” I regarded this claim skeptically, having always assumed the word was taken from Homer, but lo and behold, when I went to the OED I discovered that the entry for mentor, revised just this last June, says:

[< French mentor (1735 in sense 2 in a book title, 1749 in sense ‘guide, adviser’) < Mentor, the name of a character in F. de S. de la Mothe-Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699), after ancient Greek Μέντωρ, the name of a character in the Odyssey, in whose likeness Athena appears to Telemachus and acts as his guide and adviser. Compare German Mentor (1725 in sense ‘court tutor, adviser’ in a book title), Italian mentore (a1789), Spanish mentor (1785 in a book title).
  N.E.D. (1906) notes that the emphasis Fénelon places on the role of Mentor as a counsellor is key to the currency of this word in English and French. Fénelon’s work was one of the most popular political novels of its time, and had been translated into English by 1699-1700, German by 1700, and Italian by 1719: numerous English adaptations in prose, verse, and drama appeared in the course of the 18th cent., including a translation by Smollett.
  The ancient Greek name is recorded as a historical personal name in the 4th cent. It may be cognate with MIND n.

(The original OED etymology just said it was “a. F. mentor, appellative use of the proper name Mentor, Gr. Μέντωρ.”) You never know what you’re going to learn from a history book.


Leafing through Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, I happened on the word standish “a stand for writing materials : inkstand.” Well, that’s an odd word, thought I, and turned to the OED, where I found it qualified as “Obs. exc. Hist. or arch.” with the etymology “Commonly believed to be f. STAND v. + DISH n.; but evidence is wanting for such a use of dish as would account for the assumed combination.” The latest citation is from 1864 (Athenæum 11 June 801 “When the veteran,.. is about to lay his pen to rest in the standish”), and given the way the world has turned since then, it is unlikely to experience a resurgence in popularity. What on earth is it doing in M-W at all, let alone unattended by an “obsolete” sticker?
The frighteningly literate Conrad pointed me to the revision of the OED’s entry for paparazzo. The former etymology read, in its entirety, “[It.],” and the first cite was from 1968; the revision (from last December) takes it back to 1961 (two quotes, both from Time) and adds a much fuller etymology:

[< Italian paparazzo (1961) < the name of the character Paparazzo, a society photographer in F. Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960). See also PAPARAZZI n.
  The selection of the name Paparazzo (which occurs as a surname in Italy) for the character in Fellini’s film has been variously explained. According to Fellini himself, the name was taken from an opera libretto; the comment is also attributed to him that the word ‘suggests.. a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. It is also used as the name of a character by G. Gissing in By the Ionian Sea (1909), which appeared in Italian translation in 1957 and has been cited as an inspiration by E. Flaiano, who contributed to the film’s scenario. (For further possible expressive connotations of the name, it has also been noted that in the Italian dialect of Abruzzi, where Flaiano came from, paparazzo occurs as a word for a clam, which could be taken as suggesting a metaphor for the opening and closing of a camera lens; the Italian suffix –azzo (variant of –accio < classical Latin -āceus: see -ACEOUS suffix) also has pejorative connotations.)]

Finally, I’ve just started a well-reviewed history of war in the Napoleonic period, David A. Bell’s The First Total War, and on p. 26 he says the young Napoleon “not only read obsessively through the great works of the Enlightenment but also took copious notes and even kept a file of obscure expressions to sprinkle ostentatiously through his own writings (rhizophage, cacique, tomogun).” Now, rhizophage and cacique were child’s play, but what on earth was tomogun? It wasn’t in my dictionaries, so I hit Google, with not much success except that it seemed to be from Voltaire—in his Essai sur les Moeurs, he writes:

[Read more…]


Almost a year ago I announced the publication of the U.K. edition of the book of curses and insults I coauthored, Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit; next year the U.S. edition should be coming out, and the publisher has asked me to make some changes to the section on American English. Specifically, the Dr. Dre line I was so fond of has to go because quoting song lyrics is a problem, but they also feel the selection is a little lackluster in general, and I have to agree. The thing is, when I signed on to the original project, I wasn’t given much time to provide a whole bunch of material, so I was pretty much grabbing at whatever I could turn up, and I was disappointed in my U.S. section. I know my native country has been a world leader in invective and cursing, and I want better evidence! So if you know of a good, punchy line from a story, novel, or other nonmusical item that shows off the vulgar inventiveness of these United States, or a word that arose here (besides pissant, which is already included), please add a comment or drop me a line. If it winds up in the book, you may wind up in the acknowledgments! (Needless to say, if you own the U.K. or Australian edition and have noticed errors, by all means mention those.)
The entries that could stand to be replaced (besides the Dr. Dre line) are the fairly boring ones I’ve reproduced below the cut.

[Read more…]


I don’t normally update you all on the latest bells and whistles introduced by Google, but this is a huge addition to the material available for searching, and their announcement starts with an etymology, so how could I resist?

The word “magazine” is derived from the Arabic word “makhazin,” meaning storehouse. Since Daniel Defoe published the world’s first English magazine back in 1704, millions of magazines catering to nearly every imaginable taste have been created and consumed, passed from person to person in cafes, barber shops, libraries, and homes around the world. If you’re wondering what cars people drove in the eighties or what was in fashion thirty years ago, there’s a good chance that you’ll find that answer in a magazine. Yet few magazine archives are currently available online.
Today, we’re announcing an initiative to help bring more magazine archives and current magazines online, partnering with publishers to begin digitizing millions of articles from titles as diverse as New York Magazine, Popular Mechanics, and Ebony
Explore other publications, like Popular Science, New York Magazine, or (for you physics enthusiasts) the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, to rediscover historical interviews, do-it-yourself articles, and even a piece on canine eyewear…. You can search for magazines through Google Book Search. … Magazine articles are tagged with the keyword “Magazine” on the search snippet.

Via stavrosthewonderchicken at MetaFilter, where I note with sadness but no surprise the following comment: “There are a number of missing issues of several of the magazines.”