Archives for April 2009


In the comments to this post, linguist and frequent commenter marie-lucie quoted an OED etymology that mentioned “Mongolian manūl, formerly ‘watchman’, now ‘bird-scarer’” and said “I had never seen or heard ‘bird-scarer’. Wouldn’t “scarecrow” be the idiomatic word?” That seemed like an excellent question, so I checked (what else?) the OED, and found:
  One who or something which scares; spec. (usu. as bird-scarer) a person or thing (other than a traditional scarecrow) for frightening birds away from crops.
  1740 RICHARDSON Pamela I. Introd. 30 Till the Ghost of Lady Davers, drawing open the Curtains, scares the Scarer. 1820 Examiner No. 621. 154/1 Like a scarer away of birds from the grapes. 1865 DICKENS Mut. Fr. I. v, To a old bird like myself these are scarers. 1879 ESCOTT England I. 299 When he commences life as an agricultural labourer, it will probably be, not in the capacity of scarer—bird-scaring is now generally done by inanimate scarecrows. 1930 H. H. THOMAS Pop. Gardening Ann. 24 A good cheap scarer on the market is obtainable in the shape of a black cat’s head. 1953 R. GODDEN Kingfishers catch Fire xiii. 157 The bird-scarers had come to watch over the cherry crop. 1961 Times 7 Jan. 8/6, I could not make out whether the contents were a bird-scarer or a child’s rattle. 1971 Country Life 16 Sept. 682/1 We were much troubled by an explosive bird-scarer in a field of barley adjoining our house.
So a “bird-scarer” is anything that scares birds other than a scarecrow. (I hope that the “black cat’s head” in the 1930 quote was artificial!) I can see how that could be a useful word; are you familiar with it?


Having finished the Ronen book, I’m trying to get through Nancy Pollak’s Mandelstam the Reader before Wednesday, when I have to return them both; it’s hard, because I keep investigating the detours she sends me off on (she studied with Ronen and has the same densely packed style of investigating webs of lexical reminiscences). I just ran across a coincidence that pleases me, and must have pleased Mandelstam much more; Pollak has been talking about the importance of the eighteenth-century German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who did his most important work in Russia, for Mandelstam’s writing of the 1930s (I’m quoting from pp. 20-21):

In the “autobiographical confession” of Conversation about Dante, where he admits to having “consulted” with stones in conceiving that prose, Mandelstam identifies the conjunction of spheres, taking stone, which chronicles atmospheric change, as an analogue to Dante’s revolutionary construction of time. The mineral form he calls a “diary of the weather,” disclosing the “synchronism of events sundered by the ages,” is another version of the layers of time turned up by the plow of poetry. Mandelstam represents Dante’s “union of what cannot be united” in terms of quartz: “The interior of quartz, the Aladdin’s space [prostranstvo] concealed in it, the luminescence, the incandescence, the chandelier’s suspension of the fish rooms heaped in it — is the best of keys to the comprehension of the Comedy’s coloration.”…
The stone discovered is substantially like the subject who finds it. In his Russian Travels, Pallas refers to mineral formations resembling the one Mandelstam describes as the traveler’s find in “Around the Naturalists” and consults in Conversation about Dante: he observes “globular pieces [of sandstone] of various sizes, which, on breaking them, were partly hollow, and contained sand not unlike regular geodites”; elsewhere he mentions “amygdalite” formations. The mineralogist A. E. Fersman, another source Mandelstam would have consulted, identifies similar formations in his comprehensive catalogue of stones found in Russia, calling them by various names: zheoda, mindal’nye porody, mindal’nyi kamen’, mindalina, mandel’stein. Brokgauz-Efron has an entry for mindal’nyi kamen’, alternatively mandel’shtein:

Porous varieties of ancient rocks in which the pores are filled with new mineral formations. These fillings of pores and empty places often have the form of almonds [mindalin] (and also of spheres, cylinders), whence their name. They appear especially often in the family of agate porphyries and melaphyres.

The geode, like the eye that discovers it, functions metonymically, its unprepossessing shell containing a crystalline treasure. It is one of Mandelstam’s “oxymoronic images of inner wealth and outer poverty.” As mindalina, which has the second meaning “almond,” the geode is linked to a fruit of which the antithetical varieties (bitter and sweet, hard-shelled and soft-shelled) originate in a single species (cf. Mandelstam’s treatment of the oxymoronic almond in the drafts to the fifth chapter of Journey to Armenia). Discovered by Mandelstam, who takes Pallas’s cat‘s eye (the eye of Felis manul) as the prototypical organ of vision, mandel’shtein is the poet’s name, his first word, and thus, as Mandelstam suggests in discussing the naturalist’s eye, itself an organ of vision: the poet’s way of cognizing and describing the universe.

For a poet named Mandelstam, ‘almond tree,’ who since the beginning of his career has used the stone as an important image for his poetry (his first collection was called Kamen’, ‘stone’) and who has lately been immersed in natural history and the geological record as an encoding of time, to have discovered that one of the “varieties of ancient rocks in which the pores are filled with new mineral formations” (an analogue of what he thought literary creation should be like) was called mandel’shtein ‘almond stone’ must have been tremendous.

[Read more…]


We all know the mean-spirited children’s rhyme about Adam and Eve and PinchMe; well, I just discovered (via one of the many detours in Omry Ronen’s An Approach to Mandelstam, which I hope to finish today) that there’s a Russian equivalent, or at least was back in the days when Trotsky was still a non-unperson in the Soviet Union and Chapaev was at the height of his fame (some time in the ’20s?): Ленин, Троцкий и Чапай/ Ехали на лодке./ Ленин, Троцкий утонул,/ Кто остался в лодке? [Lenin, Trotsky, and Chapai/ went out in a boat./ Lenin and Trotsky drowned;/ who was left in the boat?] When the victim says “Chapai,” he gets pinched, because чапай [chapái] (besides being a dialectal form meaning ‘grab!’) sounds very like щипай [shchipái] ‘pinch!’ (Grammatically, I think the verb in the third line should be the plural утонули, which is what Ronen has, but both versions I found in a Google search have the singular утонул.)
Another children’s rhyme Ronen cites (in connection with this poem by Mandelstam, which refers to tram lines “А” and “Б,” the Russian equivalents of A and B) is А и Б сидели на трубе, А упало, Б пропало, что осталось на трубе? [A and B sat on the chimney; A fell off, B disappeared, who was left on the chimney?], the answer to the riddle being и [i] ‘and’—which seems innocuous enough, especially compared with Mandelstam’s grim 1931 poem (“You and I will take the A and B/ to see who will die first”), but googling turned up a variant from 1955 (cited in this book): «А и Б сидели на трубе. А упало, Б пропало, И работал в КГБ» [A and B sat on the chimney; A fell off, B disappeared, I (‘and’) worked for the KGB].


Don’t miss Victor Mair’s latest post at the Log, which reproduces and translates a poster that “is circulating among students from Shanghai, both inside and outside of China”; it encourages the use of Shanghainese among those who speak it natively. An innocuous idea, you might think, but it goes against the policy of the Communist Party, which encourages everyone to use Standard Mandarin. Good for the students, say I, and down with imposed uniformity!


In the comments to this post, I referred to “my favorite Nikolai Gumilev poem, one of those rare foreign works that modifies your sense of a word in your own language—I can never think of giraffes without smiling because of that poem,” and the good AJP took me (gently) to task for linking to a poem unintelligible to the Slavonically challenged and asked me to provide a translation. So I’ve tossed one together; warning: it was a quick job and I am in the throes of a bad cold that fills my head more with mucus than inspiration, so please do Gumilev the courtesy of assuming that all infelicities, banalities, and other wrongnesses are exclusively the fault of the translator. (Those who can read the original will realize that I have bent the sense here and there; I can only respond that English has lamentably few rhymes for “giraffe.”)


Today I can see that your look is especially sad
And your arms are especially fragile, as if made of chaff.
Listen, my dear: far away, by the shores of Lake Chad,
Roams the exquisite giraffe.

It was granted the gift of proportion, voluptuous grace,
And its skin is adorned with a pattern remarkably fine:
Only the moon, smashed to pieces, descended from space
To rock in lake water, could dare try to match its design.

From afar it resembles a caravel’s colorful sail,
And its gait is as smooth as the frigatebird’s radiant flight.
I know the world sees many wonders in all their detail
When it takes to a grotto of marble for refuge at night.

I know all those stories of maidens who’ve never been kissed
And of passionate princes who rule a mysterious plain,
But you have inhaled for too long the lugubrious mist,
You no longer desire to believe anything but the rain.

And how can I tell you of faraway creatures that pad
Among tropical palms, among flowers too fragrant by half…
You’re crying? But listen: far off, by the shores of Lake Chad,
Roams the exquisite giraffe.

    —Nikolai Gumilev (tr. Stephen Dodson)


David Liss, like many authors who feel themselves wronged by a review, has written a letter to complain about it; the whole thing is pretty convincing (I remember reading the review and thinking it was tendentious), but the last paragraph is especially devastating:

Though I do my best to keep my language true to the period, like any historical novelist, I will make some concessions to current style. Nowhere do I claim to be a historian, and all novelists, historical or otherwise, take liberties with their material to serve their own ends. Olson’s ”gotcha” criticism of what he claims are historical inaccuracies is petty in the extreme. This pettiness is evident when he writes that he knows that people in the 1790s ”didn’t boast of reading Macaulay, as does the heroine, since that historian wasn’t born until 1800.” If the character in question were referring to T. B. Macaulay, as the reviewer presumes, then surely this would be an anachronism, but she is speaking of Catharine Macaulay. Born in 1731, she published her celebrated eight-volume history of England between 1763 and 1783. Anyone conversant with the history of ideas in the 18th-century Anglo-American world will be familiar with Catharine Macaulay, even if Olson is not.


I’ve finished the longest section of Ronen’s An Approach to Mandelstam (discussed here), about Mandelstam’s “A Slate Ode,” and am starting the section on “January 1, 1924“; the discussion of line 6, “Два сонных яблока больших” [‘two large sleepy yablokos’] begins: “The prominent antanaclasis based on the multiple meaning of the word jabloko, which is repeated in the poem five times, involves gradual semantic shifting.” (Russian яблоко can mean ‘apple,’ ‘eyeball,’ and ‘regal orb.’) I looked up antanaclasis in Webster’s Third New International and came up empty, but the OED didn’t disappoint: “A figure of speech, ‘when the same word is repeated in a different, if not in a contrary signification; as In thy youth learn some craft, that in thy old age thou mayest get thy living without craft.’ J[ohnson].” However, they classified it as “? Obs[olete]” and their latest citation was from 1711, so I thought I’d google it and find out if it was still in use (other than by the sesquipedalian Ronen). Apparently it is, because there were almost 20,000 hits, the first of which is this entry from The Forest of Rhetoric. The definition there is “The repetition of a word or phrase whose meaning changes in the second instance,” and a splendid example is provided in which “antanaclasis occurs with an entire phrase whose meaning alters upon repetition”: “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.” —Vince Lombardi


Another contribution from jamessal: the NYRB has a podcast page, featuring interviews with some of their authors. Now, I’m not a huge podcast fan—I prefer getting my information visually—but the first one on the page was with Orlando Figes, author of Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, and I was fascinated by his discussion of the process of gathering information for his latest book (NYRB review)—and appalled by the description of the government raid on Memorial, seizing the digital archive they had spent two decades collecting. But what really shocked me was the pronunciation of his name. I’m not even going to tell you how I’ve been pronouncing it all these years, because I don’t want to put the mistake in your head as well, but it turns out it’s [faɪdʒiz] (FYE-jeez).


Frequent commenter jamessal sent me this poem, which I liked so much I thought I’d pass it along; it’s from Mark Ford‘s book Soft Sift (if you click “Features” you get the texts of a bunch of the poems):

Jack Rabbit
Will I ever catch up, or will I be easily
Caught first? It was assumed I’d branch out
With the heretics, commit a few crimes, then
Suffer the decreed punishment: instead, I paused
Near the knoll where the vociferous and well-
Groomed gather to consider their options. I yearned
To wade through buttercups and clover towards
The sinister squadron of an embattled
Bourgeoisie. Vivid mottoes – One Size Fits
Nearly All!, No Grammar, No Furniture!, Le Temps
– still adorn the half-built walls. Prodigal
Sons and daughters stream forth in search
Of business, clutching their coats, bewildered by doubts
And strange aches; a thin layer of soot powders the buildings
They pass, and the cracked bark of the peeling plane-trees.
So I reckoned to get quicker, leaner, braver, more
Self-effacing; I’d pick my way between
The mounds of junk cast off by warring factions, cleverly
Disguised and idly humming. I swam mid-stream
With the freshwater boys, and lounged on rocks
At evening. Meanwhile the air slowly thickened
With intrigue. Blueprints and memoranda
Began to circulate like the seasons, melting
The obdurate, blossoming where least expected:
We were to police ourselves, produce
Solemn recommendations, fall on our own
Swords. Wishes were transfigured into parables
And omens. Neither threats nor Chinese burns
Demolished my cloudy strategies, though a tow-haired
Bullyboy still slouches at the edge of sight, killing time.


I was just reading Carol Palmer’s translation (pdf, Google cache) of Vladimir Lakshin’s courageous 1968 Novy Mir article “Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita” (which not only treated the novel, banned until only a year earlier, as a masterpiece, but mocked the “professors of literature” who resisted its reinstatement), and I hit the following description of the book’s wild variety of characters:

People in contemporary jackets and ancient tunics, in caps and in golden helmets with plumes, people with briefcases under their arms and with lances atilt, people of various epochs and ages, professions and circumstances: a writer, a bookkeeper, a house manager, the Procurator of Judea, a high priest, a centurion, the Variety Theater’s barman, a master of ceremonies, a railway conductor, a literary critic, Roman soldiers, robbers, martyrs, civil servants, actors, administrators, doctors, waiters, housewives, detectives, cab drivers, ticket takers, policemen, vendors of carbonated water, members of the management of a housing cooperative, editors, nurses, firemen—it is hardly possible to name them all. And yet the main characters have not been mentioned here, nor those whom one hesitates to call dramatis personae—the Devil and his retinue, witches, corpses, water nymphs, demons of all aspects and of every stripe, and finally an enormous talking car with a cavalry mustache.

If you haven’t read the novel, I imagine you’d hardly raise your eyebrows at the final item in the list; if the devil and witches and water nymphs, why not a talking, mustachioed car? But if you have, you know “car” is a mistake for “cat.” (Astonishingly, the mistake has not been fixed in the online version; has no one noticed it in the last 30-odd years? The original of the section following the final em dash is “дьявол и его свита, ведьмы, покойники, русалки, демоны и черти всех видов и мастей и, наконец, огромный говорящий кот с кавалерийскими усами.”)