Archives for February 2009


Once again, I find what looks like a simple error in the New Yorker—and in a piece that’s not very well written anyway, Ariel Levy’s “Lesbian Nation” (subscribers only)—but as before, I wonder whether it might be a nonstandard usage that’s bubbling up from below. So here’s the sentence: “The feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson went so far as to claim that her brand of celibate ‘political lesbianism’ was morally superior to the sexually active version practiced in her midst.”
I think we can take it for granted that most people’s reaction will be to wonder what on earth is going on inside that woman, but I’m wondering whether there are English speakers for whom “in (one’s) midst” is an even marginally acceptable substitute for “in (one’s) milieu” (which is the phrase I would have substituted).


Says kapahel: If Bourbaki did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. But I say: The Bourbaki which can be spoken of is not the true Bourbaki. (Via Бурбаки.)


Zadie Smith has an article in the NYRB (based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008) in which she discusses Eliza Doolittle, Barack Obama, Shakespeare, and herself, among other many-voiced people. Here she is on being British:

Voice adaptation is still the original British sin. Monitoring and exposing such citizens is a national pastime, as popular as sex scandals and libel cases. If you lean toward the Atlantic with your high-rising terminals you’re a sell-out; if you pronounce borrowed European words in their original style—even if you try something as innocent as parmigiano for “parmesan”—you’re a fraud. If you go (metaphorically speaking) down the British class scale, you’ve gone from Cockney to “mockney,” and can expect a public tar and feathering; to go the other way is to perform an unforgivable act of class betrayal. Voices are meant to be unchanging and singular. There’s no quicker way to insult an ex-pat Scotsman in London than to tell him he’s lost his accent. We feel that our voices are who we are, and that to have more than one, or to use different versions of a voice for different occasions, represents, at best, a Janus-faced duplicity, and at worst, the loss of our very souls.

And here she is on Cary Grant and Obama:

What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? “The Man from Dream City.” When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened in his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man—we see in them whatever we want to see. “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” said Cary Grant. “Even I want to be Cary Grant.” It’s not hard to imagine Obama having that same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.

(My father reminded me of Cary Grant, perhaps in part because he had lost his native Ozark accent, retained by my aunts and uncles, and adopted a regionless American speech appropriate to the diplomatic community in which fate placed him.) Every time I read something by Zadie Smith, I think “I should read more Zadie Smith.”

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A very interesting post by science fiction writer Charles Stross (you can read his account of his background here, and here‘s the requisite Wikipedia article) about why the length of a typical novel has doubled since the ’60s. Here’s the heart of the explanation he got from one of his editors:

Until the early 1990s, mass market SF/F paperbacks in the US were primarily sold via grocery store racks, supplied by local distributors (400+ of them). The standard wire rack held books face-out, either against a wall or on a rotating stand. And that’s where the short form factor novel became established. Thinner books meant you could shove more of them into a rack that was, say, three inches deep. Go over half an inch thick, and you could no longer fit six paperbacks in a 3″ rack. And there was only so much rack space to go around.
During the inflationary 1970s and early 1980s, prices of just about everything soared. The publishers needed to increase their cover prices to compensate. But the grocery wholesalers who sold the books insisted “the product’s gotta weigh more if you want to charge more”. They weren’t in the book business, after all, so just as buffalo tomatoes got bigger, so did paperbacks. (Even though this meant there was less room to go round in the wire racks.) You can only get so much milage by using thicker paper and a bigger typeface; so they began looking for longer novels.

(Via MetaFilter; there’s much more detail, and discussion of why mystery novels haven’t similarly ballooned, at Charlie’s post.) How I hate that kind of economic pressure that has nothing to do with the quality of the work! And how fondly I remember those wire racks!


The Russian equivalent of the story of the Gingerbread Man is Kolobok (Колобок). Literally, a kolobók is a small, round loaf of bread, but it’s indelibly associated with the story in which a fresh-baked kolobok runs away, evades a rabbit, wolf, and bear, but falls prey to a clever fox (you can see an illustrated version here). Mandelstam uses it as a symbol for the poetic word in his remarkable 1922 poem “Как растет хлебов опара.” I don’t understand the poem well enough to try discussing the whole thing (a literal translation is below the cut), but I wanted to point to the complex imagery of the third stanza, which centers on two bread-related words, припек [pripyok], which I translated “surplus” as a shortcut but which means ‘the excess weight of a baked loaf over the weight of the flour used to make it,’ and kolobok, the loaf that ran away. I’m not sure why time is a regal herdsboy or who the stale stepson of the ages is, but the image of the word as a baked cathedral with a magical surplus that has to be chased down is pretty amazing.

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I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand’s done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To bear on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
‘Twould start them—
We—could tremble—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—
Therefore—we do life’s labor—
Though life’s Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—
      —Emily Dickinson

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Back in 2007 I mentioned a movie, The Linguists, which “follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, scientists racing to document languages on the verge of extinction.” I said then “I certainly hope I get to see it some day,” and that day is almost here, because it’s going to be on PBS this Thursday. You can read about it at this Language Log post by Eric Bakovic, who just reminded everyone to Set your recorders now! (If, of course, you live in the U.S.)


In the course of my Orphic studies, I had occasion to look up the origin of the word mystery, and on checking the OED discovered to my surprise (though I think I used to be aware of this, many years ago) that there are two words thus spelled, the usual one (from classical Latin mystērium ‘secret,’ pl. ‘secret rites,’ in post-classical Latin also ‘mystical or religious truth,’ pl. ‘Christian rites,’ from ancient Greek μυστήριον ‘mystery, secret,’ pl. ‘secret rites, implements used in such rites’) and a now obsolete one with the following senses (I give the most recent citation for each):

1. Ministry, office; service, occupation. Obs.
  a1533 LD. BERNERS tr. A. de Guevara Golden Bk. M. Aurelius K vii b, None should be taken from the misterie and office that he occupied.
2. a. Craft, art; a trade, profession, calling. Now arch.   1957 Listener 25 July 141/1 We usually start with some sort of prejudice against the verse-writer who is better known as a writer of prose: there is a (very proper) feeling that the two are different mysteries.
b. Skill, expert technique. Obs.
  1726 SWIFT Gulliver II. IV. vi. 87 Because I had some Skill in the Faculty, I would.. let him know the whole Mystery and Method by which they proceed.
c. art and mystery n. (also science and mystery and variants) the art and craft of a trade; also in extended use.
  1934 A. G. STREET Endless Furrow xv. 254 Talk about old Nicholas Crawford’s art and mystery in grocerin’, why, that’s an open book compared to farmin’.
3. A trade guild or company. Now arch. and hist.
  1964 Welsh Hist. Rev. 2 307 The shoemakers, who later formed their own mistery, were already numerous enough in the lordship in 1400.

The etymology says it’s from “post-classical Latin misterium duty, office, service (from 11th cent. in British sources), occupation, trade (from 13th cent. in British sources), guild (from 14th cent. in British sources), altered form of classical Latin ministerium MINISTRY n. by confusion with mystērium MYSTERY n.” and adds “In senses 2 and 3 the word may well have been influenced by or confused with MASTERY n.” I love this sort of confusion, which is so irritating to purists!


Mandelstam is leading me into uncharted waters; thanks to Victor Terras’s “The Black Sun: Orphic Imagery in the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam” (see my Further Addenda to this post for details and quotes), I learn that Orphic imagery was floating around in early-20th-century Russia and used by Mandelstam, so—being utterly ignorant of Orphism (in fact, basically unaware of its existence, although I’m sure I’ve seen the word)—I went to my standard references on Greek thought, The Presocratic Philosophers by Kirk and Raven and Greek Religion by Walter Burkert. The early evidence is scanty and disputed; Kirk and Raven come to the conclusion that “there was no exclusively Orphic body of belief in the archaic period” and “the corpus of individual sectarian literature… cannot for the most part be traced back earlier than the Hellenistic period,” while Burkert seems to think it goes back considerably earlier, referring to “the books of Orpheus” that were honored in the time of Euripides (who refers to them). But what struck me was the following paragraph (Burkert, p. 297):

The characteristic appeal to books is indicative of a revolution: with the Orphica literacy takes hold in a field that had previously been dominated by the immediacy of ritual and the spoken word of myth. The new form of transmission introduces a new form of authority to which the individual, provided that he can read, has direct access without collective mediation. The emancipation of the individual and the appearance of books go together in religion as elsewhere.

Probably old hat to those who study the historical effects of literacy, but not something I’d thought about.


Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat has an eloquent post on why the painstaking work of “unraveling the details of a given language family’s history” is worth it:

Well, for one thing, you end up showing interesting things about the history of the relevant part of the world, often things it would be hard or impossible to show any other way – that Madagascar was settled by people from Borneo, for example, or that Ijo slaves from Nigeria ended up on the Berbice River in Guyana, or that Persians and Swedes (along with a lot of other people!) ultimately both got their language from a common source. But that depends on your being interested in a particular region; why would a person working on the historical linguistics of (say) the Sahara care about the historical linguistics of New Guinea, or Alaska, or even Europe?
It’s because people are pretty similar everywhere – we all have roughly the same mouths and the same brains, and as a result we all tend to make roughly the same kinds of changes. Looking at changes in the languages of Europe, and at which direction they went, turns out to give you a pretty good idea of what kind of changes to expect in New Guinea – and vice versa… That means that all these individual small-scale studies are so many pieces fitting together to form a map of how language works.

Of course, as bulbul points out in the comment thread, the real reason is “Because it’s there and it’s fun”!
(While you’re over at the Mountain of Languages, check out Lameen’s latest post, on the idea that in the Arabic-speaking world “Fusha acts to insulate the majority of the population from the debates of intellectuals, keeping the powers that be safer from ideologically-inspired opposition and the intellectuals themselves safer (in the short term!) from popular reactions to their speculations.”)