Archives for June 2009


The OED has put online “the prefatory material that was published with the 125 fascicles, and the cumulated sections, parts, and volumes, in which the OED was originally issued between 1884 and 1928. These were collected in 1987 by Darrell R. Raymond of the University of Waterloo, and republished as Dispatches from the Front.” Raymond’s own preface says:

The Prefaces contain a wealth of historical and lexicographical information about the OED. Each Preface lists the editors, drafters, proofreaders, contributors, and scholars who participated in the fascicle’s production or the investigation of its sources. The magnitude of their labours is well illustrated by tables of statistical data comparing the fascicle to the corresponding sections of other dictionaries, including Johnson’s, Cassell’s, the Century, and Funk’s. Each Preface recounts the difficult or interesting problems that were solved, and outlines the general etymological character of words in that part of the alphabet. As well, the Prefaces contain a number of additions and corrections to the entries as they appear in the fascicles; these emendations were subsequently incorporated in the Supplement.
As in everything else, Murray’s Prefaces set the standard for the OED. While the other editors followed the general format he established, Murray’s Prefaces are always distinguishable. More than any other editor, Murray indulges in extended discussion of etymological and lexicographical curiosities, as for example with BE-, CROSS, ODD, PENNY and TAKE, and his explanation of why American was included while African was excluded (Vol. I). Too, Murray does not hesitate to remind us of the value of the historical method (H–HOD), the conjectures, errors and spurious words in existing works (CLO–CONSIGNER, PENNAGE–PLAT), or the hours that might be spent on the etymology of a word, with the only result being the notation ‘derivation unknown’ (Vol. I).

When I used to frequent a library that had the original fascicles, I took pleasure in browsing through the prefaces, and I am pleased that everyone can now do so easily online. (Via wood s lot, which today also links to a delightful translation of Ilpo Tiihonen’s poem “Kesäillan kevyt käsitteellisyys,” which plays with Finnish grammatical endings: “Ah summer evening, and its eveningness,/ its prodigious wonders and their bridgefulness/ when the nightunited seamlessness/ steals into one’s heart with restfulness…”)


John Wesley of sent me their Master List of Free Language Learning Resources, and it looks like something that might be interesting to people out there, so I’m passing it along. It’s got podcasts, online courses, iPhone/iPod applications, and general language learning sites, and includes languages from Abenaki to Xhosa. Check it out if it seems up your alley.
Addendum. Michael Farris points us to So you want to learn a language, which he says “is especially useful for lots of lesser studied languages.” I see, for instance, that they have Javanese, which isn’t on the list at the other site.


My wife and I are now reading Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety in the evenings; I’ve been a fan of hers ever since reading Eight Months on Ghazzah Street some years ago, and this fat historical novel about the French Revolution and three of the men who made it is every bit as good as I had hoped. And since I can never read a novel without wanting to learn more about the time and place it describes, I am also reading a book the excellent Noetica sent me a while back, The Making of Revolutionary Paris, by David Garrioch, which the author wrote because he looked for a general history of eighteenth-century Paris, found there wasn’t one, and thought there should be.
It’s an excellent work, tying together all sorts of recent developments in historical research, and I’m devouring it greedily (aided and abetted by my collection of historical maps, and it’s a good thing I have them, because the book only has one map of Paris, and that completely illegible—I wag my finger in annoyance at U. of California Press). But I have a minor lexical quibble that I bring to your attention because, hey, it’s what I do.
Garrioch has frequent occasion to mention the various tradesmen of the city, and on page 67 he says “At the peak of the pyramid were the great merchant guilds known as the Six Corps: the drapers, grocer-apothecaries, furriers, silk merchants, goldsmiths, and mercers.” What, you may ask (if you’re American), is a mercer? I think I had run across the word before, and even looked it up, but because it corresponds to nothing in my daily life it went right out of my head. Merriam-Webster says “British: a dealer in usually expensive fabrics”; AHD says “Chiefly British: a dealer in textiles, especially silks.” All well and good, except that of course these merchants were not British but French, and they were not mercers but merciers, and that pair happens to be a pair of faux amis. A mercier is what Americans call a “notions dealer” (and Brits, I believe, a “haberdasher,” which in America is a dealer in men’s clothing), selling needles, thread, buttons, and the like. Garrioch explains the term somewhat obliquely a couple of pages later: “The mercers were the largest of all, their numbers rising to over 3,000 in the 1770s — though that included both the sellers of objets d’art and the humble retailers of ribbons and baubles who trudged the streets with their wares on a tray suspended in front of them.” Very far, in other words, from dealers in silk, and however tempting the similar-sounding English word, he should have left mercier in the original French. (I am at least relieved he didn’t use “haberdasher,” which would have confused American readers no end.)


Greg, who sent me Geonames, followed up with another discovery: KNAB, the Place Names Database of EKI. What is EKI, you ask? Why, Eesti Keele Instituut, of course: the Institute of the Estonian Language. With this knowledge, you will understand that the coverage of the database is especially strong for Estonia and some other regions of the former Soviet Union; you can read about the database here and search it (for non-Estonian placenames) here, and there’s a convenient page of links to other geographical names databases (one of my favorites being Luistxo Fernandez’s GeoNative, a Basque/English website). Enjoy!


The Nieman Journalism Lab has an interesting report by Zachary M. Seward on the words that NY Times readers look up:

As you may know, highlighting a word or passage on the Times website calls up a question mark that users can click for a definition and other reference material. (Though the feature was recently improved, it remains a mild annoyance for myself and many others who nervously click and highlight text on webpages.) Anyway, it turns out the Times tracks usage of that feature, and yesterday, deputy news editor Philip Corbett, who oversees the Times style manual, offered reporters a fascinating glimpse into the 50 most frequently looked-up words on in 2009. We obtained the memo and accompanying chart, which offer a nice lesson in how news sites can improve their journalism by studying user behavior…
The most confusing to readers, with 7,645 look-ups through May 26, is sui generis, the Latin term roughly meaning “unique” that’s frequently used in legal contexts. The most ironic word is laconic (#4), which means “concise.” The most curious is louche (#3), which means “dubious” or “shady” and, as Corbett observes in his memo, inexplicably found its way into the paper 27 times over 5 months.

Not so inexplicable: Maureen Dowd loves the word. Anyway, a nice glimpse into the world of journalistic lexicography, and you can see the entire list at the link. (Via MetaFilter.)


Another site I can’t believe I haven’t discovered and posted about before: Geonames. The front page is pretty badly designed; the image of the earth at night is pleasant, but gives no indication of what the site is, and you have to scroll down past an endless series of translations of a brief description (English: “The countries of the world in their own languages and scripts; with official names, capitals, flags, coats of arms, administrative divisions, national anthems, and translations of the countries and capitals into many languages”) to get to the meat of the site, a collection of links to various pages: Days, Months, Planets, Mountains, etc.; a huge list of languages with each name given in the original (with transliteration where appropriate); various other random items (including a small set of famous people: it’s fun to see the varying forms of Charlemagne); an Alphabets section; and finally a set of Glossaries, with a few hundred English words translated into, well, everything (divided into manageable sets: Albanian|Greek|Armenian, American|Polynesian, Asian, Balto-Slavic, Basque|Caucasus, Celtic, Constructed, etc.). Greg says “A lot of work has gone into something that is interesting but only marginally useful”; I say: Useful? What is this “useful” you speak of? I could spend hours and hours splashing around in there! A random fact of the sort I love: Cairo in Lao is ເລີແກ (Lœ̄kǣ), obviously from le Caire. (Thanks, mission civilisatrice!) And I learned about a language new to me; I saw the abbreviation “kap” was for the language Bezhta, and looking that up I discovered Bezhta (or Bezheta) is a North Caucasian language also known as Kapucha. (Wikipedia says it is “spoken by about 10,000 people in southern Dagestan”; the Ethnologue page they link to says 3,000. The discrepancy may have something to do with the fact that since the 1926 census, the Bezhtas have been counted as Avars for official purposes.) Thanks, Greg!


The Poetry Archive is an online collection of recordings of poets reading their work. From their About us page:

The Poetry Archive exists to help make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to a wide audience. It came into being as a result of a meeting, in a recording studio, between Andrew Motion, soon after he became U.K. Poet Laureate in 1999, and the recording producer, Richard Carrington. They agreed about how enjoyable and illuminating it is to hear poets reading their work and about how regrettable it was that, even in the recent past, many important poets had not been properly recorded.
Poetry was an oral art form before it became textual. Homer’s work lived through the spoken word long before any markings were made on a page. Hearing a poet reading his or her work remains uniquely illuminating. It helps us to understand the work as well as helping us to enjoy it. When a poet dies without making a recording, a precious resource is lost for ever and as time goes by that loss is felt more and more keenly. What would we not give to be able to hear Keats and Byron reading their work? And, if recording had been possible in the early nineteenth century, how inexplicable it would seem now if no-one had recorded their voices. Yet in the twentieth century, when recording technology became universal, there was no systematic attempt to record all significant poets for posterity and even some major poets – Thomas Hardy and A. E. Housman (as far as we know. Please tell us if you have a recording of Hardy or Housman reading his poetry!), for example – died without having been recorded at all. The Poetry Archive has, therefore, been created to make sure that such omissions never happen again and that everyone has a chance to hear major poets reading their work.

I can’t believe I haven’t linked to it before, but now I’ve remedied that omission. Thanks, Grumbly!


I have no particular interest in manga and related phenomena—I don’t dislike them or disapprove of them, and I’ve seen some interesting examples, but life is too short to delve into everything—so I hadn’t been familiar with the term tsundere until I read a MetaFilter comment by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (the username is a reference to a Japanese song whose original title is 魔理沙は大変なものを盗んでいきました Marisa wa taihen na mono o nusunde ikimashita); the comment explains:

In the older sense, “tsundere” was a character who appeared to be cold, aloof even arrogant, but over time developed a softer, more caring side. In the newer sense, it’s been used to mean a character who appears to be cold, aloof and arrogant on the outside but is actually, on the inside, filled with feelings of love and affection, usually for the character they’re coldest with.

You can learn more at the Wikipedia entry (which explains that the word “is a combination of the two words tsuntsun (ツンツン), and deredere (デレデレ)”); at any rate, the reason I bring it up is that MSTPT also linked to a video in which “Minoru from Lucky Star explains it quite well,” and it’s one of the best examples of word rage I’ve seen—at about the 1:20 mark, after discussing the change in meaning, he loses it: “I declare here, this is plainly a mistake! We must bring back the true meaning of tsundere and restore this depraved nation! Rise up, citizens!” Prescriptivism knows no national or generational bounds.


Well, not me, and probably not you. But just about everybody in the Indian state of Kerala reads the state’s official language, Malayalam, and Mridula Koshy‘s article “Kerala: mad about books” in Le Monde diplomatique is a fascinating look at the consequences:

Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.
Paul Zacharia, one of the best-known contemporary writers in Malayalam, says: “In the Indian picture, Kerala’s book readers are a record. They are the product both of the literacy movement and the earlier library movement spearheaded by a one-man army called PN Paniker [the founding father of the literacy movement in Kerala]. A whole world of grassroots readers keep emerging from the villages.”…
According to Paul Zacharia, the Malayalam reader is well read in every sense, including in world literature. DC Books’ website offers the reader translations of Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and his The Death of Artemio Cruz. There is Alex Haley’s Malcolm X and Amoz Oz’s Fima. Che Guevara, Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens are all available, as are Junichiro Tanizaki and George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, JM Coetzee and JMG Le Clézio – all of them in Malayalam. (Paul Coelho for some reason is available only in English.) And among the million books on display at the week-long DC book fair, the bestsellers included not only examples of contemporary Malayalam literature, like V Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihasam and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham, but also popular English titles such as Adiga’s The White Tiger.
Writers in Kerala locate themselves in the great confluence of world literature. They are powerfully influenced by both Malayalam and world literature. Zacharia, for instance, says of himself: “I have been bilingual in my formative reading”. But he adds that once they write, “authors are almost entirely focused on the Malayali audience and not on the world”. In the author’s note prefacing his book The Reflections of a Hen in Her Last Hour, Zacharia thanks these readers “who keep a stern eye on writers’ performance and put the fear of God into them”.

I’m heartened to know about this, and I hope other languages that are not thought of as “major” can somehow reach a similar level of achievement. (Thanks for the link, Kári!)


I just got quite a shock. I went to the American Heritage Dictionary link in my sidebar and got the generic front page. Thinking there must be some mistake, I went to the IE roots link: same thing. I googled to see if anyone was talking about this, but there’s nothing I can find, so I’m guessing it’s very recent. Does anybody know what’s going on? I’m hoping it’s some temporary glitch, so I’m not deleting the links from the sidebar yet, but I fear that is more of a fantasy than a hope, and if the superb AHD and its IE and Semitic appendices are no longer online, I want to know who to curse!