Archives for February 2009


From BBC News:

He had been wanted from counties Cork to Cavan after racking up scores of speeding tickets and parking fines.
However, each time the serial offender was stopped he managed to evade justice by giving a different address.
But then his cover was blown.
It was discovered that the man every member of the Irish police’s rank and file had been looking for – a Mr Prawo Jazdy – wasn’t exactly the sort of prized villain whose apprehension leads to an officer winning an award.
In fact he wasn’t even human.
Prawo Jazdy is actually the Polish for driving licence and not the first and surname on the licence,” read a letter from June 2007 from an officer working within the Garda‘s traffic division.

You can see a picture of such a license at the BBC link; as Roger Shuy points out at the Log post where I found the story, it shows the value of knowing foreign languages.


In the comment thread for this post, Grumbly Stu wrote: “I just discovered that for my entire life I have mistaken the meaning of ‘scatty’. I meant disorganized / disheveled.” (Scatty is British slang for ‘crazy.’) I just ran across a remarkable example of this common phenomenon; in her diary entry for Jan. 27, 1941, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote:

I’m 48 years old, and I’ve been writing for 40 years, even 41, if not forty-two (honestly), and of course I am by nature an outstanding philologist, and just now, in a tiny little dictionary, in fact in three of them, I find that ПАЖИТЬ [pázhit’] is pacage [French for ‘pasture’], пастбище [pástbishche, Russian for ‘pasture’], and not at all ‘field’ […] So all my life I have thought (and, oh horror, perhaps written) пажить when I meant ‘field,’ and it’s really луг, луговина [‘meadow’]. But in spite of three dictionaries (unrelated: one French and old, another Soviet, the third German), I still don’t believe it. Пажить sounds like жать [zhat’, ‘to reap, cut, mow’], жатва [zhátva, ‘reaping, harvest(ing)’; in fact, пажить is related not to жать ‘reap’ but to жить ‘live.’].

(The original Russian is below the cut.)
So the next time we discover we have been mistaken about a word, we should remind ourselves that one of the great poets of the twentieth century, who considered herself philologically inclined, went through the same thing. And I love the fact that she grumpily refuses to entirely believe the fact she’s just discovered, because it just doesn’t sound right to her.

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Who wrote the first American dictionary? No, it wasn’t Noah Webster, though if you google “first American dictionary” you’ll get a lot of hits claiming otherwise. It was—and this is one of those useless but delightful historical tidbits—Samuel Johnson Jr. (no relation to the great English lexicographer!) in 1798, beating Webster by eight years. The New York Times wrote a centennial article in 1898, beginning: “The first dictionary by an American author published in this country was Samuel Johnson, Jr.’s, ‘School Dictionary; Being a Compendium of the Latest and Most Improved Dictionaries,’ printed in New Haven in 1798 by Edward O’Brien. The British Museum has a copy presumably perfect; Yale College Library has the Brinley copy, which lacks pages 157-168 out of 198, the total number. No other copies seem to be known.” (Google Books has it, but, infuriatingly, will not let you see even a snippet view.) There’s a nice OUPblog entry about it by Ammon Shea (author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, which I wrote about here) that ends:

I’m not trying to sound a clarion call about how poor Samuel Johnson Jr. has been cheated of his just rewards and fame, nor am I interested in seeing Noah Webster’s memory excoriated any more than it already has been. But I do find it fascinating to observe the different ways that an error may be grown.
Many of the authors who make the claim that Noah Webster wrote the first American dictionary were likely aware of the fact that there may have been earlier ones, but for some reason choose to believe that Webster’s was the first one that was a ‘real’ American work, either because it appeared to have more patriotic orthography, or a greater deal of piety. Some others appear to have just relied on some sort of common knowledge which informed them that Webster must have been the first American lexicographer – why else would we hear so much about him?
I used to allow myself a great deal of umbrage when I found errors like this. Why I felt the need to do so is not quite clear to me – after all, I hadn’t made any great discovery myself; I’ve just managed to read one author who has a better grip on the facts than some others. Now I always find it interesting to discover commonly held beliefs that are just wrong – and it helps remind me that I have my own cherished and muddle-headed collection of things that I ‘just know’. And the more that time passes, the more I am convinced that ‘things that I just know’ is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘mistakes’.

You and me both, Ammon.


Trey of Speculative Grammarian, in a comment on this post, linked to this wonderful piece from Volume CLII, Number γ (December 2006) of SpecGram. In it, Sir Edmund C. Gladstone-Chamberlain, Professor Emeritus of Linguistic Science, Department of Lexicology and Glottometrics,Devonshire-upon-Glencullen University, Southampton, describes his youthful encounter with a very strange language spoken by a remote tribe deep in the Amazon Basin and his discovery of how the language worked and, eventually, of the unfortunate history behind it. I won’t spoil the reader’s enjoyment, but I will say how much I loved the footnotes; a selection:
3 By “very preliminary”, I mean, of course, stupidly, foolishly premature. But I wasn’t much of a linguist then, and I wasn’t yet taking the whole matter very seriously.
4 By “concision”, I mean, of course, the ability to say anything of interest in, say, a number of words, syllables, or morphemes less than or equal to the equivalent in English or Spanish.
5 By “I don’t really know”, I mean, of course, that I have never been bothered to look it up.
7 By “mastered Spanish”, I mean, of course, that his mastery of Spanish had overtaken my own, which had grown even rustier.
8 By “merit a study of its own”, I mean, of course, that now that I am retired I do not have the energy to pursue such a study, but would love to see someone else take up the cause.


In reading Life: A User’s Manual, my wife and I have found that the reward for making your way through Part One’s bewildering descriptions and brief references to the lives of the inhabitants of the apartment building which is the focus of the book is that in Part Two you start getting longer and more involving stories; one of these is about Marcel Appenzzell, a young would-be anthropologist who studied with Malinowski and “resolved to share the life of the tribe he would study so completely as to merge himself into it.” He goes to Sumatra in search of “a mysterious people whom the Malays called the Anadalams, or Orang-Kubus, or just Kubus.” After many travails he manages to spend some time with these people, and later reports on their language, which is linguistically implausible to the point of impossibility but has a Borgesian flair:

As for their language, it was quite close to the coastal tongues, and Appenzzell could understand it without major difficulty. What struck him especially was that they used a very restricted vocabulary, no larger than a few dozen words, and he wondered if the Kubus, in the image of their distant neighbours the Papuans, didn’t voluntarily impoverish their vocabulary, deleting words each time a death occurred in the village. One consequence of this demise was that the same word came to refer to an ever-increasing number of objects. Thus the Malay word for “hunting”, Pekee, meant indifferently to hunt, to walk, to carry, spear, gazelle, antelope, peccary, my’am — a type of very hot spice used lavishly in meat dishes — as well as forest, tomorrow, dawn, etc. Similarly Sinuya, a word which Appenzzell put alongside the Malay usi, “banana”, and nuya, “coconut”, meant to eat, meal, soup, gourd, spatula, plait, evening, house, pot, fire, silex (the Kubus made fire by rubbing two flints), fibula, comb, hair, hoja’ (a hair-dye made from coconut milk mixed with various soils and plants), etc. Of all the characteristics of the Kubus, these linguistic habits are the best known, because Appenzzell described them in detail in a long letter to the Swedish philologist Hambo Taskerson, whom he’d known in Vienna, and who was working at that time in Copenhagen, with Hjelmslev and Brøndal. He pointed out in an aside that these characteristics could perfectly well apply to a Western carpenter using tools with precise names — gauge, tonguing plane, moulding plane, jointer, mortise, jack plane, rabbet, etc. — but asking his apprentice to pass them to him by saying just: “Gimme the thingummy”.

“Hjelmslev and Brøndal” are the well-known linguists Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1965) and Viggo Brøndal (1887-1942), but Hambo Taskerson seems to be an invention. There is a Kubu people, but I have no idea to what extent Perec’s description matches what they were like 70 years ago. I’m not going to go to the trouble of transcribing the original French of the passage, but you can see it here (the blockquoted paragraph at the bottom of p. 112); the final “Gimme the thingummy” is “passe-moi le machin.”


This satisfyingly consonant-laden word has been in my vocabulary for years—it refers to a fowl prepared by splitting and grilling—and it was a surprise to me, when I was asked where it came from, not to find it in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. Alan Davidson’s wonderful Penguin Companion to Food (which I wrote about here) shed some light, calling it a culinary term “met in cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries, and revived towards the end of the 20th century”; apparently M-W has not caught up with the revival yet. The OED used to approve of Grose‘s delightful etymology: “abbreviation of a dispatch cock, an Irish dish upon any sudden occasion. It is a hen just killed from the roost, or yard, and immediately skinned, split, and broiled.” But The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1996), disappointingly, rejects this for “of unkn. orig.; cf. spitchcock (XVI) eel cut into short pieces, dressed, and cooked,” and the American Heritage concurs: “Perhaps alteration of spitchcock, a way of cooking an eel.” Spoilsports!


My wife was reading John McPhee’s New Yorker article about fact checking (not online, but here‘s the abstract) when she asked me what I thought about this sentence: “One technician who slipped up and used the ‘R’ word was called to an office and chewed.” “Chewed?” I said. “Not ‘chewed out’?” She confirmed the reading. I said it must be a typo. But aside from the irony of having a flagrant typo in an article about fact checking, it occurs to me that I can no longer depend on my intuitions about English, since it has been changing faster than I can adapt or even notice, so I turn to the Varied Reader: if your native language is English, have you ever said, or heard anyone else say, “chew” rather than “chew out” for “reprimand”?
(If you’re curious about “the ‘R’ word,” it was “radiation”; the context was the word-substitution enjoined by the extreme secrecy enforced at the Hanford Engineer Works during WWII. You were supposed to say “activity” instead.)
Update. As the excellent MMcM points out, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Vol. 1 has this usage under “chew”: “v. 3 Esp. Mil. chew out.” Case closed, and we’ve all learned something!


Teju Cole has produced, under various noms de guerre, some of the finest writing on the internet for a number of years now (and some of it was turned into the novel Every Day is for the Thief, which I praised here); he is writing newspaper columns under the rubric “Words Follow Me” (today’s column), and they are collected here. I was particularly taken with “an english of our own,” in which he makes the case for Nigerian English (for which I provided a couple of online resources here):

What then of Nigerian English? The stage has surely been set for it, from the deceptively simple sentences of Things Fall Apart, to the compressed ritual rhetoric of Death and the King’s Horseman. A specifically Nigerian cadence and rhythm has been brought to the world’s ears. That early labour has found new strength in books like Everything Good Will Come, Half of a Yellow Sun and Waiting for an Angel.
These are not merely Nigerian stories; they are told in the Nigerian language of English…
Some examples: the word “sorry” in Nigeria is not restricted to apology, since it is also frequently used to express commiseration. You lose your house in a fire, and a Nigerian says sorry—don’t take it as an admission of guilt. When we say, “how is your side?” we are not making an anatomical inquiry. “At all!” actually means “no.” “Okada” and “danfo” can’t be more pithily described other than with those words, and “madam,” as an honorific, is far broader in its Nigerian use than elsewhere.
To our ears, “trafficator” doesn’t sound archaic (as it would to a Brit) or incomprehensible (as it would to an American): it is simply a signalling device in a car. This English bears many traces of the vernaculars around it, absorbing structural elements and modes of thought from them. Without a grasp of Nigerian English, Nollywood films would be mystifying.
Now I can already hear those who will say that the English language in Nigeria is an unstable thing, that it is all the time being transmuted and is changing before our very eyes: how can we know what is correct? But all languages in all places are being transmuted. Language never sits still. This is why I am a descriptivist and not a prescriptivist: how a language is used in the present is much more interesting than how it should be “properly” used.

To which I say: Correct correct!


Or, in this case, not translating them. Matt of No-sword has a typically irresistible essay in Néojaponisme, discussing the bizarre haiku translations of Harold J. Isaacson, who rather than trying to render the kireji (meaningless words that “supply structural support to the verse”) in English simply leaves them there, little lumps of undigested material, to baffle and alienate the reader. Sure, he explains them in his introduction and provides footnotes for other undigested words (“water is poured out to/ the fukujusō*”), but as Matt puts it, “This style of translating is almost passive-aggressive in its demands on the reader. Shiki is serious business, it says. If you want to read him, there will be homework.” I’m all in favor of a little ostranenie, but this is ridiculous.


I’m usually pretty good at parsing headlines, but this one (via Geoff Pullum at the Log; it’s from a U.K. free paper called the Metro) completely baffled me:

Dentist fear girl
starved to death

Meditate on that for a while. (No, the answer isn’t that an -s was left off “Dentist.”) It makes perfect sense, but you have to know the story behind it, which isn’t easy to guess. Answer below the cut.

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