Archives for May 2009


A couple of years ago I posted about an antedating of “the whole nine yards” to April 25, 1964. Now Fred R. Shapiro, in a Yale Alumni Magazine column, after summarizing the history of what he calls “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” reports on two further antedatings:

Your staff of testers cannot fairly and equitably appraise the Chevrolet Impala sedan, with all nine yards of goodies, against the Plymouth Savoy which has straight shift and none of the mechanical conveniences which are quite common now.
Car Life, December 1962
Then the dog would catch on and go ki-yi-yi-ing from one to the other of the shouting pyjama clad participants mad, mad, mad, the consequence of house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came by the house was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards.
— Robert E. Wegner, “Man on the Thresh-Hold,” Michigan’s Voices: A Literary Quarterly Magazine, Fall 1962

Shapiro’s conclusion: “Their context does not relate to the military, nor to the realms of cloth, concrete, or football. They are sufficiently removed from World War II to raise serious doubts about how a term from that war could have attained currency in the 1960s yet left no trace of prior usage. We don’t yet have answers, but the questions are moving in new directions as the fog of speculation gives way to the light of fact.” The first reader response is from a guy who thinks the military explanation is correct because he read it in a Len Deighton book. As Shapiro begins by saying, “Etymology is the –ology that gets no respect.”
Addendum. Ben Zimmer has a fuller report, with actual images of the cited texts, here.
Update (2012). Bonnie Taylor-Blake has antedated it to the July 1956 issue of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, where Ron Rhody used it in hyphenated form (“So that’s the whole nine-yards”). Rhody used it again in the January 1957 issue, without a hyphen (“These guys go the whole nine yards — no halfway stuff for them”); remarkably, “he’s still around and even has a blog. Rhody told Taylor-Blake that he thought it was a common expression in Kentucky at the time but didn’t have any particular insights about its origins.” I quote from Ben Zimmer’s Visual Thesaurus column, where you will find more details (and an image of the 1956 occurrence).


Having finished Beckwith, I was in the mood for another fresh look at early history, so I’m reading Robin Lane Fox‘s new book about the Mediterranean in the eighth century B.C., Travelling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer. I haven’t gotten far enough into it to make any judgments, but he’s already taught me a new word, which always pleases me. In footnote 23 to chapter 4, discussing the possible ancient names for the site now known as Lefkandi (Λευκαντί), he says “We do not know (though Lefkandiots afforced the (new?) Eretria c. 850–800, to the east of them).” My first thought was that “afforced” might be a typo, but I couldn’t think what it should be, so I looked it up, and it turns out to be a perfectly good and useful word. OED: “To add force to; to strengthen, fortify, reinforce; Eng. Const. Hist. To reinforce or strengthen a deliberative body by the addition of new members; as a jury by skilled assessors, or persons acquainted with the facts.” You could, of course, say “reinforce,” but to my mind that has military implications that make it less suitable; the best paraphrase would be something like “added their population to the strength of,” which is intolerably verbose by comparison.


It occurs to me that we are living in a golden age of language books. It took a while for me to realize this, because plenty of dumb and silly language books get published each year, just as they always have. But now, more and more, there are good books aimed at the general public and written by real linguists, something that used to be almost nonexistent. When I was growing up, the only such author was Robert A. Hall, Jr., whose Linguistics and Your Language (the 1960 Anchor Books second edition of the 1950 self-published Leave Your Language Alone!) was for many years alone in the field as a sterling example of how to present the findings of linguistics to the common reader (“Once we realize that all languages are equal in merit, we are in a position to stop treating language differences as something to worry about”). But lately, it seems that people professionally trained in linguistics are getting contracts to write books for the general public, and they’re doing a good job of it.

What brought this so strongly to my mind was reading In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent (whose given name is apparently pronounced just like Erica). When the publisher sent it to me, I thought it looked interesting, but frankly I’ve never had much interest in artificial languages, and I figured I’d read a few pages here and there and see if it was worth reporting on. Instead, I wound up devouring the entire thing this weekend, and I now have much more interest in the languages and respect for the people who create and study them. Okrent writes well and tells a great story, but she also has a PhD in linguistics (as her bio says, “She flitted from language to language in school, wondering why she couldn’t just settle down and commit to one, until she finally discovered a field that would support and encourage her scandalous behavior: Linguistics”), which makes all the difference; any good journalist could spin a lively tale out of some of this material (people who spend their lives creating and trying to publicize languages tend to be pretty colorful), but it takes a linguist to see what’s going on with the languages and be able to point out where they succeed and where they fail. She not only studied John Wilkins‘s Philosophical Language (1668) in detail, she translated a Borges passage into it (“I hereby present you with, as far as I know, the first sentences to be written in Wilkins’s language in over three hundred years”). She not only describes how Charles Bliss got the inspiration for his Blissymbolics from Chinese characters (which he studied as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai during WWII), she explains why he (along with many others) was mistaken about characters being an international medium of communication (“when a Japanese speaker sees a Mandarin newspaper, he may indeed be able to recognize a number of the characters, but that doesn’t mean he will be able to form anything more than a fuzzy guess as to what it all means”).

But don’t get me wrong: her expertise isn’t why you should read the book—it’s just the reason you can trust what you read. You should read the book because it’s a gripping account of some amazing people and some fascinating changes in the European cultural environment (artificial languages being primarily a European thing, though she mentions Balaibalan, an Arabic-Persian-Turkish mix “designed sometime between 1400 and 1700 (the documents can’t be reliably dated)”). She starts with the early attempts to create languages that would “directly represent concepts,” the poster boy being Wilkins, who lost the first (600-page) draft of his manuscript in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and had to rewrite it from scratch. The second section is on the late-19th-century craze for languages intended to bring peace to all mankind (the idea, a very silly one, being that war is caused because people can’t understand each other’s languages); the first to catch on was Volapük (in 1889 “the third international Volapük conference was held in Paris, and the proceedings were entirely in Volapük”), but after excessive squabbling among its partisans, resulting in schisms and a bewildering variety of “improved” versions (Nal Bino, Bopal, Spelin…), L. L. Zamenhof picked up the disaffected customers with his invention, Esperanto, still the only true success story among artificial language—not only does it have far more users than any other, it actually has native speakers (including Danish rocker Kim Henriksen). The final section is on the efflorescence of invented languages in recent decades (the most successful of which, of course, is Klingon, which Okrent learned in the course of working on the book), created in the main not for reasons of scientific or social benefit but for fun, for the joy of playing with the possibilities; this paragraph beautifully summarizes the attitude:

[Read more…]


Two readers have sent me reports of the death on April 24 of Margaret Gelling, doyenne of English toponymists. The Economist‘s obituary does a splendid job of conveying what she did:

Mrs Gelling worked for the English Place-Name Society, formally and informally, from 1946. From 1986 to 1998 she was its president. She never held an academic post, but lectured widely, wrote a dozen books and produced three of the county surveys of place names. She was devoted to the proposition that names drawn from the landscape were not trivial or accidental, but original and important. All her passion for argument was employed to prove that hamm, a piece of land almost enclosed by water, was as vital a suffix as ham, a man-made enclosure; that an ending in –den might come from denu, a long and sinuous valley, rather than denn, a woodland pig-pasture; and that the hall in Coggeshall came from halh, a nook or a hollow, not some grand building. Cogg’s nook, a little recess tucked into the 150-foot contour line, was perhaps the best place where he could put his hut. With Mrs Gelling, topography always came first.
No subtlety escaped her. The suffix fyrhth was not simply wood, but “scrubland at the edge of the forest”. The word wæss was not just swamp, but—she was particularly proud of this—“land by a meandering river which floods and drains quickly”. She had observed this herself at Buildwas, on the winding Severn in Shropshire, where between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the flooding river drained from the land “as if a plug had been pulled out”. A feld was not necessarily ground broken for arable, but any open country in the almost all-covering fifth-century forest. And an ærn was not merely a house, but a place where something was stored in bulk and worked on: so that Brewerne, in Cambridgeshire, acquired a smell of beer, and Colerne, in Wiltshire, a dusting of charcoal.

Now I want to read her book Signposts to the Past: English Place Names .


Geoff Pullum made a post over at the Log based on a mistaken idea that the new Star Trek movie (which I just saw last night—tremendous fun!) had a “chemistry blooper.” Turns out it didn’t, but the thread turned into a discussion of the movie’s positive view of linguists, the realism or otherwise of a reference to “all three dialects of Romulan,” and particularly “Chekov’s inability to say Victor with a V instead of a W,” which inspired an astonishing amount of nitpicking; as I said there:

I find it hard to believe all this discussion over the v/w thing. As Pavel Iosad said in the sixth comment, it’s an homage to the original; the actor himself (who was born in Leningrad) said: “With Chekhov, it was fun to capture the comedic aspects. Naturally, he’s kind of funny sometimes. I adjusted it, but I wanted to be close to the [original version]. Certain things I took: the v’s to the w’s. [Walter Koenig] says wessels. He doesn’t say the v, which is an odd choice. It’s the kind of choice that they made 40 years ago when he was this Cold War stereotype. But it’s fine. It’s great.” Yes, it’s a linguistic element, but it has nothing to do with how real Russians actually speak. Otherwise, his accent was spot-on (not surprisingly), and at one point he lets loose with a perfect “ё-моё” (closer to “Fuck me!” than “Holy moly,” pace the linked webpage).

(Thanks for the interview link, Eric!)


I’m trying to understand the phrase va banque, which the OED defines as “In baccarat and chemin-de-fer, a bet against the whole of the banker’s stake.” (Their first cite is 1946 A. J. P. TAYLOR Course of German Hist. ii. 38: “Both dynasties desired the defeat of Napoleon; but the Hohenzollerns, having nothing more to lose, were ready to bid va banque—the Habsburgs were not.”) An apparently synonymous exclamation is “Banco,” which goes back considerably farther (1789 J. MOORE Zeluco I. viii. 38: “As he shook the box, being about to throw, the Hussar officer cried, Banco; and the others took up what they had staked.”) I gather it’s an all-or-nothing bet, but I don’t grasp how it works in the card game. Can anyone explain in simple terms, suitable to someone who has never played baccarat, what goes on when you make such a bet?


Maximilian Voloshin (the stress is on the second syllable: vah-LOSH-in) may not have been as great a poet as the famous “Silver Age” Russians (Blok, Mandelstam, Pasternak & Co.), but he was a very fine one, and his famous house at Koktebel in the Crimea served as a refuge for both Reds and Whites during the Civil War (and how, with his integrity and refusal to take sides, he not only survived the war but lived in peace until his death in 1932 is a mystery). At any rate, Greg Afinogenov (aka slawkenbergius) has translated his long and moving poem Дом Поэта as “The Poet’s House” (with the original Russian en face, a much-appreciated courtesy), and I commend it to your attention. You may be puzzled, as I was, by the reference to “Queen Taiakh”; I asked Greg about it, and he pointed me in the direction of this piece by Boris Grigoriev suggesting that the name Taiakh, which Voloshin gave to a reproduction of an Egyptian statue he acquired in Germany and installed in Koktebel, is the Arabic word حياة ḥaya(t) ‘life’ spelled backward. Se non è vero, è ben trovato!


Oxford UP was kind enough to send me a copy of Slang: The People’s Poetry, by Michael Adams, and if you’re interested in the subject, you’ll want to read it. The author is an actual lexicographer and historian of English, but he’s comfortable with popular culture—he’s also the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon. But most importantly, he thinks clearly and writes vividly. Here he is on the distinction between slang and jargon:

But the social circumstances that provoke jargon are different from those that provoke slang: in jargon, there’s something at stake beyond positioning oneself in the social circumstance. Jargon may be stylish, but it is not, as Eble suggests of slang, analogous to fashion: jargon has to roll up its sleeves and do real work. There is nothing playful about on a wait, triple-sat, or four-top; these are all shorthand for things that folks working in restaurants don’t have time to say at length. For instance, when a server returns from a break, another says, in passing, “We’re on a wait,” not “We have more patrons than we can serve at one time.” The second server is passing because she has just been triple-sat and she doesn’t have time to explain, or she’ll be weeded. Note that “I’m weeded” takes less time to say than “I am in the weeds.”
In slang, clipping’s cazh [casual], but in jargon it’s efficient. When a server behind you quietly says Backs, there’s nothing casual in the message: it’s a warning that said server is carrying a full tray and that no one within distance of a stage whisper should move. … In this situation, if you don’t understand restaurant jargon, if you don’t respond to it as a member of the guild, the results will be catastrophic. …
So jargon is practical: it’s brisk and unambiguous, and it helps busy people do their jobs efficiently. But its use is also social: social relations within the restaurant depend on it, and efficient work for the common goal depends on cerain social relations. When restaurant jargon is slangy—full of fun, invention, and irreverence—it reinforces the restaurant in-group’s camaraderie and alleviates the tedium of its shared labor.

Later he makes the point that jargon tends to be homogeneous: “servers in California use terms familiar in Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey.” And he discusses edge cases: “At Winchester, one of England’s great public schools, students have spoken a peculiar slang over so many centuries that it looks surprisingly like jargon. An item of Winchester slang is called a Notion, a term that is itself a Notion.”
After the initial section on definitions, he has chapters on the social, aesthetic, and cognitive aspects of slang, ending with a section titled “Toward a Poetics of Slang,” which begins, charmingly, “It should be clear by now that I’m more inclined to complicate matters than to get to the bottom of things” and ends by saying slang “cannot be understood without considering its relation to every relevant aspect of language, the slight but irreducible area of a spandrel amid the lines and arcs and space of the grand design of language…” And each chapter ends with a full bibliography. A fine job.


Christian Bök has a rather odd project, The Xenotext Experiment:

I have conceived of The Xenotext Experiment, a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu, doing so in order to make literal the renowned aphorism of William S Burroughs, who declared “the word is now a virus.” In this experiment, I propose to address some of the sociological implications of biotechnology by manufacturing a “xenotext” – a beautiful, anomalous poem, whose “alien words” might subsist, like a harmless parasite, inside the cell of another life-form….
I propose to encode a short verse into a sequence of DNA in order to implant it into a bacterium, after which I plan to document the progress of this experiment for publication. I also plan to make related artwork for subsequent exhibition.
I plan to compose my own text in such a way that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein – a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another text. I hope, in effect, to engineer a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem.

While I appreciate the intellectual panache of the idea, I’m not sure it’s actually a good one to put into practice. (Thanks, Trevor)


One of the forgotten byways of history is brought to our attention by Leah Price in the LRB:

By the time David Copperfield appeared in 1849, the days and nights that Dickens spent studying an 1824 reprint of a 1750 manual must have felt doubly galling thanks to the publication, in 1837, of Isaac Pitman’s new method, Stenographic Soundhand. Like Esperanto a generation later, shorthand spread through a counter-culture of early adopters – spirit-rappers, teetotallers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, anti-tobacconists. Pitman himself associated shorthand with ‘the dawn of religious freedom’ and ‘the dawn of political freedom’ (verbatim transcription, he claimed, prevented parliamentary reporters from privileging favourites). His empire grew with the British postal system. In 1840, he condensed his method into a ‘Penny Plate’ the right size for sending through the new penny post. A network of ‘gratuitous correctors’ (Pitman’s language veered between pedantry and hucksterism) encouraged autodidacts in the provinces to send one another their shorthand exercises to be marked; later, chain letters called ‘ever-circulators’, composed in shorthand, were sent through the imperial mail. …
Pen pals in Africa and Australia found one another through the classified pages of shorthand magazines that juxtaposed new material with reprints of published fiction: Robinson Crusoe, Around the World in Eighty Days, all the Sherlock Holmes stories and even an unabridged run of the Strand Magazine. The depositories of copyright libraries are littered with Victorian shorthand editions of A Christmas Carol, Aesop’s fables, English-Welsh and English-Hindi dictionaries, the Old and New Testaments, and biographies of Calvin and Galileo. Pitman’s Shorthand Weekly (later called the Phonetic Journal) featured ‘serials and short stories by well-known authors; miscellaneous articles; illustrated jokes and anecdotes; and prize competitions’. On 17 August 1901, it offered a prize for the best biography of Isaac Pitman by a colonial subscriber. Submissions, naturally, were accepted only in shorthand. You can still read every syllable from the first International Shorthand Congress and Jubilee of Phonography, thanks to transcripts produced by ‘an army of phonographers . . . not at all concerned with the economic rewards of shorthand, important as these are, but only with the service – personal, social – even professional – which one Pitmanite can render another in any part of the world.’ One delegate described shorthand as a ‘bond of brotherhood’. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.
And then everything changed….

Fascinating stuff, and “gratuitous correctors” is a good name for those of us who work on Wikipedia articles today. (Thanks, Paul!)