Archives for August 2009


A very nice NY Times obit by Margalit Fox of a remarkable man who lived to a remarkable age:

Edward Rondthaler, Foenetic Speler, Dies at 104
Edward Rondthaler was one of the 20th century’s foremost men of letters — actual, physical, audible letters. As an outspoken advocate of spelling reform, he spent decades trying to impose order on his 26 lawless charges. As a noted typographer who first plied his trade 99 years ago, he helped bring the art of typesetting from the age of hot metal into the modern era.
From the early 1960s on, Mr. Rondthaler was known publicly for his energetic campaign to respell English, a cause that over the centuries has been the quixotic mission of an impassioned few. To spell the language as it sounds, he argued, would vanquish orthographic hobgoblins, promote literacy and make accessible to foreign readers English classics like Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” — or, more properly, “Oed to a Nietingael” — whose opening lines appear on this page….

Read the rest of the obit for an explanation of his contributions to phototypesetting and his involvement with simplified spelling; while I think the latter is a pretty silly cause, I admire his willingness to stand up for his views against inevitable derision. Warning: the end of the obit may choke you up a bit if you have a sentimental streak. (Thanks, Eric and Anne!)


John McIntyre of You Don’t Say wants to start a collection of the historical representations of peevology. He provides some samples:

In 1962 — 1962, one of the last of the Good Years, which the echoes of the Fifties sounded in all ears — Dwight Macdonald published Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture. My crumbling paperback copy includes “Updating the Bible,” a jeremiad about the Revised Standard Version of the English Bible of 1952; “The String Untuned,” an examination of the descriptivist wickedness of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged); and “The Decline and Fall of English,” a fusillade at the wanton perversity of linguists and pedagogues.
Not on the shelves but in the garage with the other books from my former office at The Sun, is The State of the Language, an anthology edited thirty or so years ago by Christopher Ricks. You may recall some of the menaces of the Seventies — hopefully used as a sentence adverb, and the Episcopal Church’s carelessness in revising the Book of Common Prayer into texts comprehensible to worshipers.
All of these works grow increasingly quaint with the passage of time. More to the point, all illustrate components of the peevologist personality, a subject to which I plan to return in a future post. For now, as it occurs to you what exhibits you would like to see displayed in the museé, by all means suggest them.

I remember that Ricks book, which at the time (so young and foolish was I) I actually wanted to own. And I look forward to the future post.


The publisher kindly (thanks, Jason!) sent me a copy of Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, and I have finally gotten around to reading it (taking a break from Russian history). It’s a very enjoyable read, and anyone who’s interested in the subject (which I have been since reading Midnight’s Children many years ago) should get hold of it—the author has read a great many sources from every point of view (and this is a topic that inspires fiery partisanship) and produced an impartial and engaging account. She hooked me from the opening paragraph:

In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.

And there are linguistically interesting sidelights; when she mentions Indira Nehru’s marriage to Feroze Gandhy, for example, she provides a footnote on his change of spelling to Gandhi: “Gandhi with an i means ‘grocer’ and is commonly found in Gujarati Hindus of the Modh Bania caste, such as MKG. The Parsi surname has a different root and is usually spelled Gandhy or Ghandy. Feroze’s sister, Tehmina Gandhy, continued to use the original spelling.”
But it’s certainly not the only book you’d want to read on the subject. The author’s focus is divided between the historical events and the personalities involved, in the first place Lord and Lady Mountbatten and just behind them Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. (The only one who comes out of it well is Edwina Mountbatten, who exhibited what can only be called heroism under the stress of tragic events; the others all leave a very bad impression, especially Gandhi.) This makes sense not only from a marketing perspective but from a historical one, since this is one of those historical turning points heavily determined by the personalities involved, but the all-important balance is tilted more heavily toward the personalities than I would prefer, and the attention given to frivolities like fancy dress and the details of people’s weddings means that far more important matters are occasionally swept under the rug. The most serious problem, in my view, is the downplaying of the mass violence that occurred before the famous horrors of Partition. There is not a word, for instance, about the massacres in Bihar in the first week of November 1946, in which thousands of Muslims were killed. For the view from below, the level on which the millions of people whose lives were disrupted by the machinations and follies of the powerful, you will need to consult other books. (I haven’t seen them, but it looks like the books reviewed by Siddhartha Deb in the January 1 LRB would be excellent reading along those lines; unfortunately, only a teaser paragraph is available at that link, but at least the titles and authors are there and can be investigated elsewhere.)


For dinner tonight, my wife made a delicious beef stew (served over noodles) and followed it up with a peach tart so sublime I murmured the last line of this poem by Sydney Smith; since I’m not sure it’s as well known as it used to be and as it should be, I’ll quote it in full here, and wish you all bon appétit:

Recipe for a Salad
To make this condiment, your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard-boil’d eggs;
Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give.
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, half-suspected, animate the whole.
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault
To add a double quantity of salt;
Four times the spoon with oil of Lucca crown,
And twice with vinegar procur’d from town;
And lastly, o’er the flavour’d compound toss
A magic soupçon of anchovy sauce.
Oh, green and glorious! Oh, herbaceous treat!
‘Twould tempt the dying anchorite to eat:
Back to the world he’d turn his fleeting soul,
And plunge his fingers in the salad-bowl!
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
“Fate cannot harm me, I have dined today.”


I discovered (via wood s lot, as I discover so many things) that the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis has a poem by John Ashbery inscribed across the upper lintel. Here‘s Edward Byrne’s post about it at One Poet’s Notes; he links to a very nice slide show of photos of the successive bits of the (untitled) poem on the bridge and quotes the whole thing:

And now I cannot remember how I would
have had it. It is not a conduit (confluence?) but a place.
The place, of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement is new.
Driving us to say what we are thinking.
It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand
and think of going no further.
And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up and
places you where you always wanted to be.
This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea
and lucky for us.
And then it got very cool.

It’s not a great poem, but it must be a wonderful thing to experience as you walk across the bridge—something that at one point, according to a comment at Byrne’s post, Siah Armajani, the designer of the bridge, didn’t want people to be able to do: “I remember reading once that Siah had originally conceived of the bridge as only the span portion, with no stairs or ramp to ascend and cross it. He was interested, as the article I read quoted him, in ‘the concept of a bridge,’ rather than an actual functional bridge. According to the account, the local neighborhood association pressed the city to require that the bridge be crossable, not merely ornamental.” I hope it’s not true; I hate that kind of pseudo-artistic arrogance, the “Tilted Arc” controversy being the locus classicus of this sort of thing: “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people,” eh? It better be when you’re blocking people’s way to work with it, bucko.


A BBC News story from last week alerts us to the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, Manx is not extinct:

The global cultural body UNESCO has agreed to change its classification of the Manx Gaelic language as “extinct” following protests from the island….
Chief Minister Tony Brown wrote to UNESCO claiming the language was still flourishing on the island.
The classification will now be changed to ‘critically endangered’.
Government minister Phil Gawne, who is a fluent Manx speaker, added that as well as Mr Brown’s letter there were many others sent by Manx speakers.
Several letters were sent from children who attend the Bunscoill (Manx language school) in St Johns.
The children asked: “If our language is extinct then what language are we writing in?”

What indeed? I know there are those who pooh-pooh the significance of the revival of “minor” languages, but it warms the cockles of my retrograde heart. (Thanx for the Manx, Maureen!)


My wife and I don’t get AMC (and hardly use the TV anyway), so we don’t watch Mad Men, but if we did I’m sure I would have caught the goof Ben Zimmer writes about in this Word Routes post. As Ben says, they should have used the Shorter.

Addendum (July 2018). Since I have learned from bitter experience to allow for linkrot, I’d better say explicitly that the goof is that the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (shown in an episode) did not exist in 1963.


A couple of books that have been sitting around patiently waiting for me to write about them:

Charles Hodgson, who runs the etymology site podictionary, sent me his new book History of Wine Words: An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology and Word Histories of Wine, Vine, and Grape from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle, whose title and subtitle tell you just what’s in the bottle. Hodgson did a good job on this; he doesn’t settle for folk etymologies or vintners’ myths, he gets the facts if they’re available, and discusses the possibilities if there’s no clear answer. He says, for instance, that the most likely origin of Beaune is “Latin Belena Castro, meaning ‘fortress of Belenos'” (adding that “Belenos was a Gaulish-Celtic god who has been likened to Apollo”), and traces grenache back to the same origin as Vernaccia (probably from Latin vernaculus ‘native, indigenous’). I had at one time thought of doing a book like this myself, but lazy as I am, I much prefer to have someone else do it for me.

Patricia O’Conner, a frequent perpetrator of pop grammar books and proprietor of, has come out with Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (cowritten with Stewart Kellerman and sent me by the publisher, Random House). The good news is that she’s learned that (as she says in her introduction) “English is all about change,” and she’s much more flexible than your standard fuddy-duddy maven. She has an admirable discussion of ain’t (complete with a lively account of the verbal delights of Dizzy Dean) and explains that the much-maligned “nucular” for nuclear “will one day be considered just another standard pronunciation.” If she retains a whiff of disapproval, that may help her get past the defenses of the disapproving masses. And I learned a good deal of lexical history from her discussion of call a spade a spade—did you know that the “spade” got in there via Erasmus’s mistranslation of Greek skaphē ‘trough’? That’s my idea of fun.


The wonderful Boston Globe language columnist, Jan Freeman, is filling in for Safire this week at the NY Times, and her column, “Bierce’s Bugbears,” is a very enjoyable list of odd prohibitions plucked from Bierce’s 1909 book Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. A sample:

“I am afraid it will rain.” Wrong, said Bierce: the proper expression was, “I fear it will rain.” He gave no reason, but the rule appeared at least half a century earlier, in Walton Burgess’s “Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing and Writing the English Language, Corrected.” And Burgess did have a reason: he explained that fear was the correct verb, because “afraid expresses terror; fear may mean only anxiety.” Unfortunately, that was simply false. Afraid did not imply terror for Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen: “When you have seen more of this country, I am afraid you will think you have overrated Hartfield,” Austen’s Emma tells Mrs. Elton. Though several other usage mavens repeated Burgess’s and Bierce’s advice, there’s no sign that it ever made an impression on the wider public.

She’s doing an update of Bierce subtitled “The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers”—look for it at your bookstore in a few months!
Totally unrelated, but does anybody know the history of Clarice Lispector‘s family name? She came from a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Podolia (now in Ukraine), but “Lispector” certainly doesn’t sound Yiddish, or indeed anything but odd and beautiful (like the writer herself, who I got interested in thanks to this review by Fernanda Eberstadt of a new biography).


Paul Ford at ftrain has created (for his first post since February!) a very enjoyable Unicode table “for people who like looking at characters; you can click on the number below each character to visit its Wikipedia page. Surprisingly many symbols have their own pages.” Just move the sliders (x100 x1,000 x10,000) at the top to access whatever part of the system you want. Enjoy!