Archives for January 2009


My wife asked me, out of the blue, why we refer to old jokes and stories as “chestnuts.” The short answer is, nobody knows. The OED says: “Origin unknown: said to have arisen in U.S. The newspapers of 1886-7 contain numerous circumstantial explanations palpably invented for the purpose. A plausible account is given in the place cited in quot. 1888”; that account is the one you can find in many places, for instance here:

In a play called ‘The Broken Sword’, by William Dimond, produced at Covent Garden in 1816, a character called Captain Xavier is always repeating unlikely stories about his exploits. On one occasion, talking to a character called Pablo, he mentions a cork-tree. Pablo corrects Xavier, saying that the tree was a chestnut, and ‘I ought to know, for haven’t I heard you tell this story twenty-seven times?’
The play was soon forgotten, but many years later in America, an actor named William Warren Jr recalled this episode at an actors’ dinner, where another speaker had told a stale old joke. The actors who were present picked the phrase up, and ‘an old chestnut’ became a synonym for ‘an old joke’.

That’s probably as good as we’re going to do. Eric Partridge in Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English‎ says it “prob comes from roasted chestnuts eaten at the gossipy fireside,” which is the kind of vague guess I expect of that genial old soul. The Dictionary of American Regional English doesn’t venture an explanation but does show it as being chiefly in the Northeast and North Midlands. For me it’s part of core vocabulary; I wonder if younger people use it?


I learn from Geert Jan van Gelder’s TLS review that there is a new, three-volume “complete” edition of the Arabian Nights (subtitled “Tales of 1001 nights,” thus covering all bases) published by Penguin and translated by Malcolm C. Lyons. The review has a useful summary of the history of the collection in Arabic (“It was anonymous, its language was not sufficiently polished, and it was too obviously fictional and fantastic in parts, all of which precluded its acceptance in highbrow circles. At the same time it was never as truly popular, in the sense of widespread among and beloved by the illiterate, as the monstrously lengthy and equally anonymous epic tales such as Sirat Antar or Sirat Bani Hilal.”) and in its European avatar, sparked off by Antoine Galland’s French translation:

Galland did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form; as a result the Nights are as much a part of Western literature as of Arabic. To Western readers, the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad belong to the core of the Nights and are among the best-known tales; but they did not belong to the Arabic text until Galland added them. There is, in fact, no known Arabic text of the Aladdin and Ali Baba stories that predates Galland, and elements in the story of Aladdin suggest that it may have been a European fairy tale rather than an Arabic one.

The reviewer thinks very highly of the translation, but he notes a couple of things at the end of the review that bother me more than they apparently do him. First off, Lyons does not render Arabic obscenities with English ones, either substituting formal words (“vagina”) or simply transliterating the Arabic (he refers to the porter’s “zubb”); as van Gelder says, “Some readers will be delighted to learn some naughty Arabic, but surely English has a profusion of equally vulgar words for the sexual organs.” Not a big deal, especially since there are apparently few obscene words in the original, but irritating. But the fact that there are no indications of vowel length really annoys me:

Already I imagine, with horror, how the name of the beautiful Badi’ al-Jamal will be pronounced by future readers as if she had something to do with a camel (jamal, different from jamâl, “beauty”), or how the name of the slave girl Hubub would sound like “hubbub”: it should be stressed on the second syllable and rhyme with “boob”, and I believe the correct reading would actually be Habub. The general reading public is supposedly averse to diacritical signs, but I have personally never met a “general reader” who abhorred macrons or circumflexes, and “Habûb” cannot look too off-putting.

And there is a minimum of annotation; again, I agree with the reviewer: “When, for instance, someone walks in one of the streets of al-Hira, the reader may want to know where that place is, but neither the maps nor the glossary will help. A reference to the ‘Abjad-Hawwaz alphabet’ may suggest a secret or cryptic script; a note could have explained that it is the ordinary Arabic alphabet in the old ‘Semitic’ order, as still used in Hebrew.” If you’re going to produce a massive, presumably definitive version of such an important work (and charge £125 for it), it seems to me foolish and counterproductive to skimp in such ways.
(Incidentally, I didn’t realize the TLS was online until jamessal mentioned it; I’d looked years ago, not found a web presence, and given up on it. Thanks, Jim!)


Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf has started her promised blogging of her fourth (!) reading of War and Peace; she’s reading it in Russian, but her discussion so far isn’t language-specific and should be interesting to anyone who’s read the novel (or wants to start and read along with her). Here‘s her first post, on the opening soirée (when she said “don’t panic if you don’t love the soirée scenes: I never have, either,” I was reminded of the endless such scenes in Proust), and here is a page with all posts she’s tagged “War and Peace”—you can visit it any time to see where she’s gotten to. Myself, I’m almost finished with the first half (I’m at the scene where Natasha goes to the opera and “sees through” its “artificiality”—I must say, I’ve never found it as effective as so many critics do, because it seems to me a case where Tolstoy is blatantly pushing his own point of view using a character as his mouthpiece, and frankly the whole Salingeresque “people are such hypocrites, man” approach to life palled on me once I graduated from adolescence); I would have been farther along by now except that I keep taking breaks when I find myself too put off by the bad behavior of some of the characters. Really, old Prince Nikolai (father of gloomy Andrei and poor unattractive Marya) is a complete bastard!

Incidentally, long-time LH readers will know that I read books to my wife at night; I’ve discussed our experiences with Doughty and Proust, and some of you may have idly wondered what we’ve been reading since last April. The answer is the Cairo Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz. I had been looking forward to reading it (having owned it for years and years); alas, we were both very disappointed. You can read a highly favorable discussion at The Complete Review (they give it an A-), and Mahfouz got the Nobel presumably to a large extent for the trilogy, so obviously a lot of people like it better than we did, but we found the translation unbearably clunky (nobody uses English the way these people are made to) and the novelistic technique run-of-the-mill family saga, without anything much in the way of insight into humanity. We kept going to find out what would happen to the characters, and it was interesting to learn about Egyptian society in the period he describes (1917 through WWII), but as a novel I’m afraid it didn’t impress us.

We finished it the other night, and to follow it up my wife, on the spur of the moment, pulled off the shelf Georges Perec‘s Life: A User’s Manual. The translator, David Bellos, produces a lively English that is a pleasure to read, and although we don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on yet (he’s describing various rooms in an apartment building), we’re enjoying it. (By the way, Perec is the Polish spelling of the name usually anglicized as Peretz; Wikipedia says “He was a distant relative of the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz.” But of course once the family moved to France it became /perek/.)


In a thread from the other day, L. Fregimus posted a very useful limited Google search for the word притин, which led me to this poem (about Grigory Skovoroda) by Arseny Tarkovsky (a wonderful poet probably best known as the father of the director Andrei Tarkovsky), whose ninth and tenth lines are “Есть в природе притин своеволью:/ Степь течет оксамитом под ноги” (‘There is in nature a confine for willfulness: the steppe flows like oksamit underfoot’). Oksamit? Off to the dictionaries; it turned out to be a variant of aksamit, an old word for a kind of velvet, and Vasmer said it was from Greek ἑξάμιτος [hexámitos], literally ‘six-thread,’ which also gave rise to German Samt. Wait a minute, thought I, that rings a bell… Sure enough, English samite (OED: “A rich silk fabric worn in the Middle Ages, sometimes interwoven with gold”) is from the same source (“The med. Gr. name, lit. ‘six-threaded’, has been variously explained. Usually it has been supposed that the original ‘samite’ was woven of thread composed of six strands of silk; but according to Middleton in Encycl. Brit. XXIII. 210/1 it ‘was so called because the weft threads were only caught and looped at every sixth thread of the warp, lying loosely on the intermediate part'”). In English it has indelible associations with King Arthur (1470-85 MALORY Arthur I. xxv. 73 “In the myddes of the lake Arthur was ware of an arme clothed in whyte samyte”); in Russian I know it occurs in the Tale of Igor’s Campaign («…помчаша красныя дѣвкы половецкыя, а съ ними злато, и паволокы, и драгыя оксамиты», “They seized the fair maidens of the Pólovtsy, and with them gold and cloths and costly samite”), but I don’t know what if any associations it has for a modern reader.


I’m sure you all know by now that John Updike has died; I grew impatient in recent years with his ubiquitous, endlessly fluent and charming reviews and essays that said nothing much in particular, but at his best he was a superb writer of novels and short stories, and quite a decent poet as well. Here’s a poem from Americana:

        A Rescue
Today I wrote some words that will see print.
Maybe they will last “forever” in that
someone will read them, their ink making
a light scratch on his mind, or hers.
I think back with greater satisfaction
upon a yellow bird—a goldfinch?—
that had flown into the garden shed
and could not get out,
battering its wings on the deceptive light
of the dusty, warped-shut window.
Without much reflection for once, I stepped
to where its panicked heart
was making commotion, the flared wings drumming,
and with clumsy soft hands
pinned it against a pane, held loosely cupped
this agitated essence of the air,
and through the open door released it,
like a self-flung ball,
to all that lovely, perishing outdoors.

(Thanks, Eric!)


Anatoly mentions what he calls “the funniest sentence in the Russian language,” “Коза закричала нечеловеческим голосом” (‘the goat cried out in an inhuman voice’). I googled it and discovered it’s from the notebooks of Sergei Dovlatov, a wonderful writer I discovered for myself back when I was wandering the Russian shelves of the late lamented Donnell Library pulling out books at random. Dovlatov attributes the sentence to “писателя Уксусова” (‘the writer Uksusov’); this story by Mikhail Okun repeats Dovlatov’s quote but attributes it to one Ivan Muskusov, “one of the most ancient members of the Union of Writers,” whose only remembered work was the two-volume Наш великий век (Our great century/age), from which he claims the quote is taken… but “Не исключено, впрочем, что Сергей Донатович мог придумать это сам. Но не перечитывать же теперь весь Наш великий век для установления окончательной истины!” (‘It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Sergei Donatovich thought it up himself. But who’s going to reread the entirety of Our great century to determine the definitive truth?’). Since I can’t find any other trace of the existence of either Uksusov or Muskusov, I’m guessing they’re inventions of Dovlatov and Okun respectively. In any case, it certainly is a funny sentence.


Back to Russian, and I’m afraid this is rather specialized, but when I gotta know, I gotta know. So: in Mandelstam’s poem “Чуть мерцает призрачная сцена,” he writes “Из блаженного, певучего притина/ К нам летит бессмертная весна” [Iz blazhennogo, pevuchego pritina/ K nam letit bessmertnaya vesna] “From [the/its] blessed, singing pritín, immortal spring flies to us.” Now, pritin is apparently an obsolete word and isn’t in most bilingual dictionaries. Dahl defines it as “a place to which one is attached or confined, limit of one’s movement”; you can say a tree has a pritin, meaning it’s taken root, or an animal doesn’t have a pritin, meaning it’s wild or free, and “the sun’s pritin” is an obsolete phrase meaning ‘zenith.’ In military use, it refers to a sentry post.
So my questions to Russian speakers are: 1) are you familiar with this word, and if so do you consider it obsolete or just unusual? and 2) what do you think it means in this context? Steven Broyde, who’s usually very accurate, translates it as “cozy shelter,” which seems like overinterpretation to me, but what do I know?
The only other place Mandelstam used it is in his translation (“Мой шаг звучит поутру рано,” not online) of this wretched poem by Max Barthel, a “proletarian poet” of Germany whose 1920 book Arbeiterseele Mandelstam was presumably assigned to translate to keep him occupied and out of trouble in the mid-’20s (when he became unable to write poetry of his own). Barthel writes “Ein Stern strahlt noch,/ In sich verloren,” “A star shines still, lost in itself” (whatever that’s supposed to mean); Mandelstam renders it (pleasing himself, if not the author, who had spent time in Russia and might actually have seen the translation) “Еще дрожит/ Звезда в притине,” “A star still shivers v pritine,” which I guess is “in its confines” or “at its post.” Incidentally, Barthel, like Phil Jutzi, made an indecently hasty transition from Communism to Nazism as soon as the weather changed in 1933. He managed to stay out of the Soviet zone after the war and lived until 1975. I have no idea how his work is regarded, if anyone still reads it.


Continuing our focus on the lighter side of language, we bring you Mark Liberman’s report on the “Top 10 translation fails of 2008″; the most entertaining to me is a more general fail, the frequent use of “bowels” as a translation of Russian недра [nedra], ‘depths (of the earth),’ obviously via a dictionary translation “bowels of the earth.” For example, “The Summary of the Energy Strategy of Russia for the Period of Up to 2020” (a 2003 document, online as a pdf here) has a section “Bowels’ Use and Management of the State Bowels’ Fund,” which includes sentences like “The main task of the public energy policy in this sphere is the reproduction of the mineral-raw base of hydrocarbon and other fuel-energy resources and rational use of Russian bowels for providing the stable economic development of the country.” I can’t resist reproducing Mark’s final zinger: “I note that this offers a new linguistic perspective on the recent Russian gas crisis.”


I’ve been posting a lot of Deep Thoughts lately, so I’m glad to take the opportunity to turn to the lighter side of language with a NY Times article by Sarah Lyall called “No Snickering: That Road Sign Means Something Else,” about “embarrassing place names” in Britain: “These include Crotch Crescent, Oxford; Titty Ho, Northamptonshire; Wetwang, East Yorkshire; Slutshole Lane, Norfolk; and Thong, Kent.” An anecdote:

Mr. Bailey, who grew up on Tumbledown Dick Road in Oxfordshire, and Mr. Hurst got the idea for the books when they read about a couple who bought a house on Butt Hole Road, in South Yorkshire.
The name most likely has to do with the spot’s historic function as a source of water, a water butt being a container for collecting water. But it proved to be prohibitively hilarious.
“If they ordered a pizza, the pizza company wouldn’t deliver it, because they thought it was a made-up name,” Mr. Hurst said. “People would stand in front of the sign, pull down their trousers and take pictures of each other’s naked buttocks.”
The couple moved away.

(Thanks, Bonnie!)


Some years ago I did one of my more bravura posts on the image of the black sun in Mandelstam, and now that I’m delving more deeply into Mandelstam and reading a shelf of books on him, I’m accumulating more background on the image. If you’re interested, go read the earlier post first, because this one is basically going to be an infodump without any attempt at connection or context.
Clarence Brown, in Chapter 11 of Mandelstam, discusses Mandelstam’s Phaedra poems, including the first poem in Tristia (Brown’s translation, followed by commentary, here; inadequate Burton Raffel translation here); the poem uses the phrase солнце черное ‘black sun’ twice (including the last line), and the center of the poem is Phaedra’s amazing line “Любовью черною я солнце запятнала,” “with my black love I have besmirched the sun.” At the end of the chapter (p. 218), Brown says:

In any case, the point is that the black sun furnishes us (line 13) with ‘guilty love,’ put literally, after Racine, as ‘black flame.’ After the refrain this has become, in line 15, a funeral torch. The black sun in ancient usage was the opposite of the sun of day, i.e. it was the night. And that is what Phèdre herself becomes in line 18: she is the night, and immediately says: ‘With my black love I have soiled the sun.’
Night ‘falls’ in Russian as it does in English, and to ‘fall upon’ is to attack. The night, the black sun, that has overcome Hippolytus, falls also upon Theseus, the hapless mourner of two deaths at the end of the tragedy. The black sun that arose in the first choral speech, gleamed darkly amid the broad daylight of the second, now lights the funeral of the last. In the final line, it is extinguished. The Russian verb uniat’, meaning ‘to calm, cool, assuage,’ has seldom had so sinister a meaning as here, where it refers to the death of Phèdre by her own hand, the final ‘cooling’ of her hot passion, for in this transformation of imagery, she has become the black sun, the night.

Omry Ronen, in a long essay at the end of my one-volume edition of Mandelstam (an expanded Russian translation of his essay in European Writers, The Twentieth Century, ed. George Stade, Vol 10, NY, 1990, 1619-1651, which I haven’t seen), has a short but intriguing discussion of the image (my translation):

The eschatological image in this poem [“Эта ночь непоправима” “Nothing can be done for this night“], undoubtedly, goes back to “Temnyi lik” [‘Dark face’] (1911), by Vasily Rozanov, the heretic-philosopher and brilliant writer who had studied the mutual links between Judaism, Christianity, sex, and human sacrifice. Asceticism in Russian Orthodoxy, he wrote, was a black light “around the Black Sun… It is this Black Sun, great Death in the world [великой мировой Смерти], metaphysical death, that is worshiped by the monks who by their very garments are called ‘black robes.'” (If anyone has access to the original English of this passage, I’d love to see it, because I’m not sure I’m interpreting it correctly.)

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