Archives for July 2009


In this thread, frequent commenter (and infrequent blogger) MMcM linked to an interesting Bostonia article by Art Jahnke called “Lost Language,” about the Arabic-based orthographies called “Ajami” (Arabic for ‘non-Arabic, foreign’) used to write various African languages. I had been aware of the phenomenon but hadn’t known much about it, so it was good to get some additional background; it was irritating to see the script referred to as a “language” (“it became, in the twentieth century, the chosen language of anticolonial nationalist resistance”; “the language used to disseminate the teachings of the Koran and other texts was Ajami”), but as journalistic sins go, that’s fairly minor. I did wonder what was meant by “Without Ajami … Africa would be very different; you would probably have a lot more ani­mism and more religions similar to those of Native Americans”; if Ajami is a vehicle for “black African culture,” surely it helped preserve animism against the incursions of Islam and Christianity? Anyway, it’s well worth a read, and if you want more, PanAfriL10n (“African localisation wiki”) has a page on it, from which I gleaned the most surprising thing I’ve learned today: Afrikaans was written in Ajami! “‘From about 1815 Afrikaans started to replace Malay as the language of instruction in Muslim schools in South Africa. At that time it was written with the Arabic alphabet.’ (Omniglot).”


This feels like a dumb question, but I can’t come up with an answer, so: does anybody know why Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin is known as Saltykov-Shchedrin? His real name was Saltykov and he wrote under the pseudonym Shchedrin, but we don’t talk about “Gorenko-Akhmatova” or “Bugaev-Bely.”


Another tidbit from George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (p. 58):

Also two brothers named Newce came there [to Virginia] to make a plantation. Once before, in Ireland, they had founded a town, naming it Newcetown, where it still stands. So now to their second settlement they gave the name New, and since it had an anchorage, they called it Port, and it became New Port Newce. The brothers were unfortunate, and men forgot them soon; but men remembered Captain Newport, who had done much to found Virginia. So they began to think and write Newport’s Newce, perhaps even to confuse the second part with Neuse River. Then in trying to make sense they wrote Newport News, and so it remained. Thus with men and names, as with fishes in the sea, the greater often swallow up the smaller.

According to the Wikipedia article, the etymology is disputed, but with what brio Stewart tells the story!
Addendum. A query by AJP in the comment thread prompted me to check the endnotes done for the 1958 edition, where I find an extended discussion which I reproduce below:

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I just finished When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917, by Jeffrey Brooks, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Russian cultural history. It describes the kind of thing people without much education liked to read in the final decades of tsarist Russia and the production and distribution networks that got it to them, and besides resurrecting many long-forgotten writers, publishers, and stories (Brooks must have done a tremendous amount of reading for this project, and clearly enjoyed it judging by the brio with which he summarizes the tales of knights, maidens, ambitious peasants, and wicked foreigners) he brings to light a whole world that’s been forgotten in the canonization of High Culture. What I particularly like, besides the information itself, is his democratic take on it; he dislikes as much as I do those nanny types who want to control what the “little people” read and think, and is forthright in his belief that people should be able to have the kind of cultural input they prefer. I’ll quote a passage from his Epilogue:

The existence of cheap popular reading material was a prerequisite for the spread of literacy in Russia. Such material had to be of a sort that the newly literate were eager and able to read. In the Russian case, the market proved an effective means for identifying and satisfying the demand of the common reader. Ordinary people showed their preference for commercial popular literature by spending their hard-earned and very few rubles to obtain it. What was extraordinary about Russian popular commercial literature in contrast to Western European and American was its peasant character. Written for peasants and former peasants by people who were close to their world and concerns, it served these often first-generation readers with information and ideas they could readily absorb as they sought to make sense of the changing world around them. To create such a literature, popular writers had to develop a new language for ordinary people, with a shared if limited vocabulary and a common stock of clichés, symbols, and ideas. The establishment of this language of popular communication meant that many ordinary people were able to receive and exchange information through the printed word for the first time. The popular commercial materials in particular contained a fund of shared information that ordinary people could seek out as they needed it. To peasants and former peasants with new expectations and unfamiliar problems to solve, reading about fanciful characters and situations was a crude but simple way of acquiring useful ideas and symbols.

In her 1972 Russian Journalism and Politics, 1861-1881: The Career of Aleksei S. Suvorin, Effie Ambler (who never seems to have written anything else) writes “One must bear in mind that most present-day studies of the mid-19th century press commence from a conceptual framework derived from the views of the radical publicists of the time”; after Brooks’s work, one cannot commence from that conceptual framework without ostentatiously putting on blinders.


My wife and I are still reading Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, a fat and satisfying novel about the French Revolution, and I thought I’d pass on this paragraph from page 400 of my Penguin paperback (the narrator is Danton):

I looked at his [Robespierre’s] books. Jean-Jacques Rousseau by the yard; few other modern authors. Cicero, Tacitus, the usual: all well-thumbed. I wonder — if we go to war with England, will I have to hide my books of Shakespeare, and my Adam Smith? I guess that Robespierre reads no modern language but his own, which seems a pity. Camille, by the way, thinks modern languages beneath his notice; he is studying Hebrew, and looking for someone to teach him Sanskrit.

A few sentences about books and languages say something interesting about three of the main figures of the Revolution (making a dry joke about Desmoulins in the process) and provide a quick meditation on what happens to international cultural relations in time of war. A good writer, Mantel is.


Last year I mentioned Greg Ross’s excellent miscellany-blog Futility Closet; now John Cowan points me to a recent post called “Calendar Trouble,” presenting five pairs of mismatched Slavic month names, the first two being:

In Macedonian, Listopad means October.
In Polish and Slovenian, Listopad means November.
In Czech, Srpen means August.
In Croatian, Srpanj means July.

Anybody know anything about the history of these names?
Addendum. Thanks to Laura Gibbs in the comment thread, here‘s a nice comparison chart (annoying horizontal scrolling; explanatory text in French).


Mark Oppenheimer has a piece in double X in which he discusses flogging his daughters.
OK, not really. What he says is that “parents can still insist on a certain vernacular in the household, which we’re free to enforce with, you know, repeated floggings with copies of Strunk & White.” He’s, you know, joking. Except that he really does want to insist on “a certain vernacular,” and by “vernacular” he means the opposite of a vernacular, which (per Merriam-Webster) is “a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language,” “the normal spoken form of a language.” He wants to enforce a form of the language that nobody actually speaks but that he thinks it vital to pretend to his daughters is the real thing. He starts off by saying “when Rebekah, who is now 2 and a half, started parroting our language back to us, we discovered a concern that had never before occurred to us: our grammar”:

I started to worry that if I didn’t get my “whom”s and my “who”s lined up right, Rebekah would spend a lifetime running afoul of her English teachers, or at least of the ghost of my late grandmother Rebekah, her namesake, who never forgave her home state of Pennsylvania for the ungrammatical legend on its license plate, you’ve got a friend in pennsylvania. “It should be you have a friend in pennsylvania,” she wrote to her state senator…. What if I bequeathed to my daughter the habit of saying “a whole nother topic of conversation,” instead of saying, simply, “a whole other”?
Worst of all, what if she inherited my generation’s habit of saying “like” all the time? I long ago made peace with my own inability to de-like-ify my speech, but I have always taken some comfort in the existence of older people, parents and grandparents and aging teachers, who do not speak that way. They uphold the dignity of the language so that I don’t have to. But my grandparents are dead and gone, and here I am, raising two impressionable girls (Rebekah has a baby sister), and teaching the occasional college class. I was not, I had to admit, being the role model I ought to be. I said to myself, ”I’d better start speaking like a grown-up.”

He goes on to admit that it’s a faulty assumption that “how grown-ups speak determines how their children speak” and that “there is nothing moral about ‘good’ grammar for its own sake, just as there is nothing morally repugnant about trendy vernacular habits, like the rising inflection, common among adolescent girls, called up-speak…. English usage is a matter of convention, and it changes with time; it was not ordained by God, nor by language prisses who think they are God…. To demand that my children adhere to particular linguistic rules, on the supposition that rules I was taught are fixed like the stars, would be nonsensical, and a bit tyrannical.”
So it would, so it would. End of story, one might think; but no, he continues thus:

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Apologies in advance: this is one of those posts of interest only to those as obsessed as I am by the obscurer byways of Russian lexicography, and in particular by Tolstoy’s vocabulary. I’m still working my way through War and Peace, but I’m on Book Four and the home stretch is in sight. I’m actually well into Part III, but I’ve just gotten around to investigating a question I had back in Part I, Chapter 4, in which Nikolai has been sent off to get horses in Voronezh and is visiting a landowner who has a stud farm. The landowner is described as “старый кавалерист, холостяк, лошадиный знаток, владетель коверной, столетней запеканки, старого венгерского и чудных лошадей”: ‘an old cavalryman, a bachelor, a connoisseur of horses, the owner of a kovyornaya, of hundred-year-old spiced brandy, old Hungarian wine, and wonderful horses.” So what’s a kovyornaya (or, depending on your preferences in transliteration, kovernaya)? Well, it’s the feminine form of kovyorny, an adjective from kovyor ‘rug, carpet,’ but that doesn’t help much. Feminine adjectives used as nouns often have komnata ‘room’ understood, e.g. stolovaya ‘dining room’ (from stol ‘table’), so it’s probably a room having something to do with rugs, but that’s not much better. Translators picture a room strewn with rugs: Ann Dunnigan has “den,” Aylmer and Louise Maude “smoking-room,” and Pevear and Volokhonsky “carpet room” (with a footnote explaining that this is “a room in a manor house decorated with carpets in the Oriental style”). But my finely honed googling has turned up Nataliya Grot’s memoir Изъ семейной хроники (‘From a family chronicle’), whose first chapter describes her father’s estate as having “кухня, баня, кладовая, столярная, коверная (гдѣ ткали ковры)…”: ‘a cookhouse, a bathhouse, a pantry, a joinery, a kovyornaya (where carpets were woven)…’ (my emphasis). So it is not a room with carpets in it (which would be utterly unremarkable in a country estate) but a place where carpets are made, a valuable addition worth mentioning alongside fine horses and wine. I note this for the benefit of future translators as well as readers.
I am particularly curious about the Pevear/Volokhonsky annotation. Maybe they found a different source that explains the word thus; maybe there were two different sorts of kovyornayas to be found on such estates. But maybe they were just guessing like everyone else, and decided to ornament their guess with a footnote to make it look more official. If I knew that to be the case, I would have harsh words for it, but I don’t, so I merely note the possibility.


I am not referring to this kind of muffin (for a time I had apple-oat-bran muffins for breakfast every day, but that was another life) but to the nineteenth-century term meaning a poor baseball player, one who frequently muffs (misplays) the ball. I had been familiar with it for many years (being an aficionado of baseball history), but had not realized that the spread of professionalism in the late 1860s (culminating in the all-pro Cincinnati Red Stockings, who played the entire 1869 season without being defeated) was accompanied by a reaction in the form of “muffin teams” made up of people who just wanted to have fun and disliked the emphasis on skill and winning that had taken over the game. I learned about them from the best book I’ve read on baseball in years, Peter Morris’s But Didn’t We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870. It doesn’t have much to say about the prehistory of baseball—for that, you’ll want David Block’s magisterial Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game (Amazon, book website)—and it doesn’t focus on the details of games, leagues, and competitions (for which you should try to dig up a copy of Preston D. Orem’s 1961 self-published labor of love, Baseball 1845-1881 From the Newspaper Accounts); what it does, better than anything else I’ve read, is give a sense of how the game developed from the early days of the Knickerbockers (he makes a convincing case for which of their famous rules were truly “revolutionary”) to the coming of professionalism, seeing the points of view of all parties and not (as do most historians) siding implicitly with those that won out in the end. He makes you feel what it was like to be a young man getting involved with the game in the 1840s, or a middle-aged one resenting the changes twenty years later, and he ties the history of the game in with what was happening in the country at large (demolishing the usual simplistic assertions about the effect of the Civil War on the game). I heartily recommend it to anyone with any interest in the period.
But I’m getting carried away. I came here to bring you the following pseudo-etymology of the word muffin, from an undated committee report presented before a muffin game in Connecticut, found in the Chadwick Scrapbooks:

Your committee to whom was referred the inquiry as to the origin and definition of the word “muffin” beg leave to report: That from a careful examination I find the origin somewhat obscure, but am satisfied that it had a very early origin, from the fact that I find it compounded with the word “rag” as far back as the Crusades, when the appellation was esteemed highly honorable, indicating valor, virtue and perseverance; indeed, virtue has often been found clothed in rags. The definition of the word is less obscure, though some lexicographers have given it a very simple definition as “a spongy cake”; but it is evident that the error has arisen from a lack of knowledge of our illustrious order. The word Muffin is derived from the Latin Muggins, the French Mufti (high priest), and the German Bumm, and is a clear compound of Muff and fin. These words are then conjointly conjoined from their close proximity, indicating, among other things, comfort and grace, two conditions clearly assigned to our order. There are several other words I find belonging to the same family, e.g. puffing and bumming, and into the latter of these the Muffin generally merges. The definition of the word Muffin I have given in my earlier writings, where it can be found elaborately elaborated…

Well, it’s nineteenth-century Yankee humor, a little heavy, perhaps, but still tasty if you have a taste for it.


Philologie im Netz (PhiN) “is a journal for linguistics, literary, and cultural studies. It publishes articles and reviews within an interdisciplinary framework.” The articles are in various languages, but they have abstracts in English; this one, for instance, is in Spanish but the abstract explains that it “examines the distinctive importance of the grammatical feature ‘colloquiality’ when comparing Spanish and German verbal tense.”
Via wood s lot, which linked to Paul A. Harris’s “Fictions of Globalization: Narrative in the Age of Electronic Media.”