Archives for March 2009


That’s the Dictionary of American Regional English (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4), and after decades of work, it’s almost finished, according to an AP story by Ryan J. Foley:

The dictionary team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is nearing completion of the final volume, covering “S” to “Z.” A new federal grant will help the volume get published next year, joining the first four volumes already in print.
“It will be a huge milestone,” said editor Joan Houston Hall.
The dictionary chronicles words and phrases used in distinct regions. Maps show where a subway sandwich might be called a hero or grinder, or where a potluck — as in a potluck dinner or supper — might be called a pitch-in (Indiana) or a scramble (northern Illinois).
It’s how Americans do talk, not how they should talk….
After the final volume is published, the next phase of the project will be to put the dictionary online. Hall envisions an online edition that will be updated constantly.
Hall said her all-time favorite word is bobbasheely, used in Gulf Coast states as a noun meaning a good friend or a verb to hang around with a friend. It comes from the language of the Choctaw tribes.
Two people interviewed in Texas and Alabama in the 1960s used the word. Further digging revealed that Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner had once used it in a novel, and it was used in the early 19th century by a colleague of former vice president and duelist Aaron Burr.

I have to say, bobbasheely is indeed a great word. It’s from Choctaw itibapishili ‘sibling’ [literally ‘one who was nursed together with (someone)’]; the first noun cite is from 1829, the first verb cite from 1932, and the Faulkner quote is from his last novel, The Reivers (1962): “You and Sweet Thing bobbasheely on back to the hotel now, and me and Uncle Remus and Lord Fauntleroy will mosey along.” (Via MetaFilter.)


After an early dinner I’ll be heading off to South Deerfield for a reading at Schoen Books; as their page about it says, it’s “A series of short readings, featuring Polina Barskova, The Corresponding Society, and the first ever Four Poets in Four Minutes.” Barskova (here‘s her Russian Wikipedia page) “is widely considered one of the best Russian poets under the age of 40”; she came to the US in 1999 and now teaches at Hampshire College, just a spit and a holler from here. I don’t know her work except for this poem I googled up, but I like it a lot and look forward to hearing her read. As for The Corresponding Society, one of its members is Greg Afinogenov, who “will be presenting a selection of translated Russian poems from the early twentieth century, including work never before published in English”; he is the proprietor of the always thought-provoking blog Slawkenbergius’s Tales and posts comments here under the monicker slawkenbergius, and it is he who invited me, so how could I refuse? I will report further when I get back.
Update. I’m glad I went; my wife and I had a great time, and it was fun to finally meet Greg—we yakked about Blok (overrated?), Trotsky (a bad man but a good writer), and all sorts of other things, including the exhausting tour The Corresponding Society has been on (hopefully they’re back home in Brooklyn by now). As for the poetry, it was a mixed bag; some of the readers had a lamentable lack of confidence in their own words, but Greg’s translations were as good as I expected, and the woman who read before him, Adrian Shirk, was very impressive: she knew what a poem was and how to read it, and I kept getting bits of her lines lodged in my memory, always a good sign. I predict we’ll hear more about her.
As for the headliner, Polina Barskova, she lived up to her billing. Not only did she have an effective stage presentation (jokey but earnest) and a strong reading manner, her poems were damn good. I especially liked the first one, which she read in Russian as well as English (she distributed a handout with the texts of four poems in both languages, but read the others only in English); it’s online here for those of you who read Russian (and there are a bunch more of hers at that site). Unfortunately, I didn’t think the translations were very good (standard-issue free verse that conveyed nothing of the formal power of her Russian), and I’m thinking of trying to do better myself.
Oh, and the bookstore (specializing in Judaica) is quirky and charming (as is the owner); if you’re in the area you should visit their site to find out about talks and readings or just drop by and check out the stock.


Continuing my exhilarated exploration of The Oxford History of English Lexicography, I would like to report on chapter 9, “Major American Dictionaries” by Sidney I. Landau. I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the subject, but I had barely heard of Joseph Worcester (1784–1865), Webster’s chief competitor and one of Landau’s heroes:

Worcester has included [in his Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language (1846)] a number of lengthy usage notes of considerable interest. For example, under rather he includes an extended discussion of rather and sooner, and discusses alternative pronunciations of the former in a most sensitive way, linking a given pronunciation or stress pattern with a particular meaning in a particular social situation. Again, he observes that in Southern states, to raise is to bring up, as ‘The place in which he was raised’, citing Jefferson. Thus Worcester demonstrates a high degree of sophistication in discussing regionally restricted usages as well as usages dependent on social contexts at a time when such information was hardly provided in American dictionaries….

[In his Dictionary of the English Language (1860)] Worcester disputes Horne Tooke’s argument that each word has but one meaning and cites a number of common verbs such as get and turn to show the impracticability of such an argument. ‘The original or etymological meaning of many words has become obsolete, and they have assumed a new or more modern meaning; many which retain their etymological meaning have other meanings annexed to them; many have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning, and many both a common and a technical meaning,—all which need explanation’ (pp. iv-v). Such an analysis of how meanings change could hardly be improved on today….

Worcester never produced another dictionary and died in 1865. Like Webster, he was extraordinarily productive, not only editing the dictionaries described here but compiling many other valuable reference works in geography and biography, most of them for students. He is a major figure in American lexicography and in any just appraisal of lexicographical quality must be reckoned Webster’s equal. The only arena in which he proved deficient was in commercial success.

There is an extended discussion of the Century Dictionary, a famous landmark in lexicography, beginning “In the history of American lexicography, The Century Dictionary is a dictionary sui generis. There had been nothing like it before and there has been nothing like it since.” Landau identifies its outstanding features as “the extraordinary care taken to produce a well-crafted, handsome set of books,” “the lavish attention and space given over to etymologies, which were the responsibility of Charles P.G. Scott,” and “the coverage given to encyclopedic material, particularly in the sciences and technology.” (The Century Dictionary is available online, I am happy to say.) On the second count, he says:

Some of the etymologies in the Century are immensely long. For example, the etymology for man is fifty-eight column lines long. After the proximate etyma (comparatively recent forms from which the current word was derived) are given, the note speculates about the ultimate origin of the word as relating to the meaning of ‘thinker’, but then dismisses the idea of primitive men as thinkers as ‘quite incredible’. It then goes on to consider other theories. Even relatively uncommon words receive detailed and lengthy etymologies. The etymology for akimbo runs to thirty-three column lines, whereas the rest of the entry devotes about half as much space (seventeen lines) to its definitions and illustrative quotations.

Landau sums up as follows:

The critical reception given the Century was overwhelmingly positive, and it was even compared favorably with the Oxford dictionary then in progress [i.e., the OED]. Yet the high cost of the Century kept it from being accessible to a wider public… [It] failed to sustain a continuing programme of research and revision…, and it could not compete effectively against the new series of unabridged dictionaries of Funk & Wagnalls and G. & C. Merriam…. Yet its comparative neglect is regrettable, as it is a superb dictionary in many respects and still has much to offer to those interested in the vocabulary of its period. It was from the beginning a quixotic venture (as many new dictionaries are), and it occupies a singular place in American lexicography… But as a dictionary that would endure to make a lasting mark on American intellectual life, it cannot be said to have succeeded. The unforgiving demands of the commercial marketplace led dictionary publishers in another direction: towards the creation of ever-larger, single-volume or two-volume unabridged dictionaries that could be sold at an affordable price.

Isaac Funk of Funk & Wagnalls (Adam Wagnalls “was involved purely as the principal investor and never played an editorial role”) broke with “the English tradition begun by Johnson and continued with various modifications by Webster and Worcester”:

First, Funk decreed that the commonest meaning, not the earliest in historical terms, should come first in the sequence of definitions… Next, and at the opposite pole from Whitney, Funk deemed etymology of lesser importance and placed it after the definition at the end of the dictionary entry rather than before the definition… The etymology for man, which occupied fifty-eight lines in the Century, cconsists of ‘< AS. man‘ in the Standard.

During the first third of the 20th century,

the Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries were widely considered on a par with the Webster dictionaries, and the competition between the two companies was just as fierce as the rivalry of an earlier time had been between Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester and their supporters… Gradually, after the publication of the Webster Second Edition in 1934, when there was no response from Funk & Wagnalls in the form of a new edition of its unabridged, the Webster dictionary began to have the field to itself, and, in spite of the publication of a number of new smaller dictionaries in the 1950s and 1960s, the Funk & Wagnalls Company never recovered and indeed struggled to survive as a dictionary publisher.

Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!


Australian ABC Radio has an excellent site, called “Holding our tongues,” about “the long and painful task of reviving Aboriginal languages… There are many different places on the net where people can find out about language revival and maintenance. The Holding our tongues site will be an ongoing project, aiming to bring as many of these resources as possible together in one place.” There’s a map you can click on, a page of links to websites and “Other publications,” and a radio show of about 23 minutes you can download or listen to via this page (which also has a transcript)—you can hear a lot of Aboriginal speech and some fairly in-depth discussion of languages like Kaurna (name sounds like GAH-na), Dharug, and Awabakal. There’s even some detailed morphological analysis, with examples. Thanks, Bathrobe!


It has come to my attention that there were Jews in Kiev before there were Slavs. Kiev was either founded by the Khazars or started flourishing under them around the eighth century, and as Herman Rosenthal writes in his article Kiev, “it is likely that Jews from the Byzantine empire, the Crimea, Persia, and the Caucasus settled there with the Chazars about the same time…. Malishevski… says that Jews from the Orient (776) and from the Caucasus emigrated to Chazaria, and thence to Kiev, where they found a community of Crimean Jews…. In the eleventh century Jews from Germany settled in Kiev.” My question is: what language did they speak? Anybody know if there has been scholarly speculation on this? (After the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, of course, that Jewish population would have been dispersed.)


A few years ago I posted a link to Denis Lepage’s Avibase, an amazingly comprehensive bird site (“containing over 4.5 million records about 10,000 species and 22,000 subspecies of birds, including distribution information, taxonomy, synonyms in several languages and more”), but Arthur Smith’s Bird Dictionary, an idiosyncratic potpourri of information dumped onto a single huge page (and for some reason hosted on the site of an antibiotics lab), is well worth bookmarking as well (if, of course, you’re into bird names):

English names for birds are many and varied due to this language being widely spoken throughout many countries of the world and names have differed even from region to region within those countries. This not only provides a wealth of names but also confusion. This author has attempted to collect and identify these names with the relevant scientific names together with some of the legends, collective nouns, etymology, classification and interesting facts for certain species where these are unusual. No attempt has been made to the record the distribution of the various species, and for this the reader is referred to the work of Sibley & Munroe.
Linnaeus started to bring order to the naming of flora and fauna with his scientific naming of the plant and animal kingdoms, but the impact on the layman is negligible; vernacular names are (or were) created spontaneously, sometimes in isolated communities. Currently there is a movement to bring rationality to the English names. When this is achieved the abundant variety will be lost and in time, inevitably, forgotten. It therefore appeared desirable that there be a record made. This is this work’s raison d`etre.

I like the spunky attitude and linguistic focus, and although it doesn’t have equivalents in other languages, it does have etymologies, which Avibase lacks. (Thanks, Greg!)


A correspondent wrote: “One of my friends asked me why we say something has a ‘fifty mile’ radius instead of saying it has a ‘fifty miles’ radius. Do you know why we drop the ‘s’ in that situation?” I responded:

The example you give is an adjective formation, and in that context the singular is always used in English, whether it’s a unit of measure or not: a three-country pact, a ten-gallon hat, a six-man crew, etc. I’m not sure what the accepted historical analysis is, but it occurs to me that it might be a generalization from the situation with units of measure, in which people used to use what looked like a singular in all contexts: “It’s five mile to the next town,” “The water level is eight foot down,” etc. Now, in that context it’s a remnant of the Old English genitive plural. For instance, the plural of fōt ‘foot’ was fēt, which became feet, but the genitive plural (‘of feet’) was fōta, which became foot just like the singular. My guess is that in adjectival constructions, the apparent singular was generalized to all nouns, perhaps partly because it’s easier to say without the plural –s, but otherwise the plural was generalized (though there are still people who say “eight foot down” and so on).

Rather than actually do some research to try to find out what the accepted explanation is, I had the bright idea of tossing the question out there for you knowledgeable readers to deal with. Anybody know?


1) Joel of Far Outliers usually posts extended excerpts from his reading (usually historical/cultural, and always interesting), but occasionally he favors us with glimpses into the Austronesian languages of his academic studies, and he’s now doing a three-part series (the first two are up already) [3/20/09: Part 3 is up] about “Causative Makeovers in New Guinea Oceanic Languages”:

In contrast to Austronesian languages almost everywhere else, the Oceanic languages on the north coast of the Papua New Guinea mainland show an unusual disinclination to make use of the morphological causative inherited from Proto-Oceanic and Proto-Austronesian. Innovative causatives derived from causative serial constructions appear to have supplanted to varying degrees the inherited prefix *pa(ka)-. Part 1 summarizes the dethroning of the inherited prefix. Part 2 outlines the replacement pattern of serial causatives. Part 3 suggests reasons for preferring the serial causatives.

If this is the sort of thing you like, you will like it!
2) Eric Jager has a nice piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Lost in the Archives,” a response to those who ask “why anyone needs to go to the archives at all, since everything is now on the Internet”:

Actually there’s a lot that isn’t on the Internet. …
As you wait for your documents to arrive at the desk, or to be delivered to your table from a metal cart rolled noisily through the room, you hope and pray that the precious records are available and that the curatorial staff can find them. If so, you have been liberated — or doomed — to spend days or even weeks copying faded, nearly illegible texts and deciphering them from medieval Latin, French, or the like. Many archives forbid photography, and you often have only ambient light, so a magnifying glass comes in handy. It’s time-consuming, eye-straining detective work, punctuated by the occasional thrill of an unanticipated revelation.

3) If you’ve run across the Russian term картавить, defined in the Oxford dictionary as “to burr,” and you’re curious to hear what it sounds like, Anatoly Vorobey has put up a podcast in which you can hear him doing it. In a followup thread he asks readers to report on any accent they might hear, and one said that he pronounced his r’s in a French way (I myself had thought it was the effect of living in Israel for many years, since many Israelis have a French-style “r grasseyé”), but he responded “Просто картавлю с детства.”
4) And for heaven’s sake, don’t miss Teju Cole (see here and here) over at Beth’s Cassandra Pages; his Angels in Winter (with his own photos) inspires a desire to visit Rome, a city I’ve never had much interest in, and makes me glad the internet affords me the ability to experience what I called in my comment there “the sensibility of one who sees, thinks, and feels so well.”


Mbristow has been doing research on minority language communities and started to wonder how people maintain their language, so she’s collecting personal stories of language learning, loss and use at a new site she’s started, languageaccount. If you have stories you’d like to share, you might pay it a visit.
(Sorry about the lack of posting lately; it was a triple whammy of editing deadline, heavy dose of grandson-sitting, and then the access problems, which apparently had to do with something called “php” and which were resolved by the excellent songdog, without whom this blog would never have existed in the first place and who has guided it through too many minicrises of this sort. Thanks, songdog!)


Over at the Log, Victor Mair’s post WU2WEI2: Do Nothing opens with a gorgeous photo of the throne room of the Forbidden City (n.b.: “wu” is on the right, “wei” on the left) and proceeds to a description of the Chinese phrase and related terms:

The grammarians argue over whether this is an injunction (“do nothing”) or a negative declarative sentence (“there is no action”). It is normally rendered in English as a noun. Regardless of the part of speech, WU2WEI2 has had an enormous impact on Chinese thought for the past two millennia and more.
In the Afterword to my Bantam translation of the Tao Te Ching / Dao De Jing, I pointed out a number of Sanskrit terms (e.g., AKRTA [non-action], AKARMA [inaction], NAISKARMYA [freedom from action or actionlessness], KARMANAM ANARAMBHAN [noncommencement of action] — diacriticals omitted here), especially numerous in the Bhagavad Gita, that mean essentially the same thing as WU2WEI2. The Indian notions, while equally subtle and elusive, are quite different in their moral implications. Whereas the Taoist concept is both ethical and socio-political, the Hindu complex of ideas is metaphysical and existential.

The comment thread has quotes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and much discussion. Highly recommended.