Archives for September 2009


That’s the original Japanese title (元禄忠臣蔵) of the 1941 Kenji Mizoguchi film known in English as The 47 Ronin; I finally watched it (it’s hard to fit a four-hour slot of time into one’s day) and enjoyed it greatly. I’ve long loved the 1748 puppet play by Takeda Izumo et al. (which I have in this translation), which changes the historical names and dates because it was too close to the incidents of 1701-03 (the Tokugawa shogunate, like many governments, was made nervous by topical art), while the Mizoguchi film reverts to the original ones, but the basic story is the same, simple and effective: a rash young noble is ordered to commit suicide after attacking an older one, and his faithful retainers (now masterless samurai, or ronin), after going their ways and waiting over a year to dispel suspicion, rejoin and avenge their master. I enjoyed the film a great deal, though I was taken aback when after three hours and what I thought was the climax it went on to explore a completely unexpected and rather kinky romantic subplot. But I’m left with a couple of language-related questions.
1) The title means ‘the Chūshingura (treasury of loyal retainers) of the Genroku era,” but what does “Genroku” mean? The Random House Dictionary says it’s from “M[iddle]Chin[ese], equiv. to Chin yuán original, first + good fortune,” but A dictionary of Japanese loanwords (1997) by Toshie M. Evans says it’s “gen big + roku fortune”: is the first element ‘original’ or ‘big’? Or is there no way of knowing what they meant by it back in 1688?
2) The suicides involved are by seppuku, and that is the word used almost all through the movie—but when the ronin gather before their master’s grave, they start using the word harakiri, which surprised me, as I always thought it was a vulgar term (used by ignorant Westerners). Is this a case of warriors letting their hair down once they’ve achieved their goal, or is something else going on? As always, I will be grateful to those willing to share their knowledge.


My wife and I have been watching the new Ken Burns series on the national parks (nice images to take to bed), and tonight’s episode had quite a bit about Mount Desert Island. Half the time they pronounced it DE-sert and the other half de-SERT, so I went to Wikipedia and found this:

Some natives stress the second syllable (de-ZERT), in the French fashion, although many others pronounce it in a fashion similar to the English name of a landscape devoid of vegetation (DEH-zert). French explorer Champlain’s observation that the summits of the island’s mountains were free of vegetation as seen from the sea led him to call the island “Isles des Monts Desert”, or Island of the bare mountains.

Dammit, people, get your story straight! Seriously, though, I don’t know of many place names that locals pronounce two different ways.


I recently mentioned mimes (probably, I fear, in a disparaging way) and my wife said “Isn’t that supposed to be /mimz/ [i.e., as if written meems]?” I was astonished and said I’d never heard or imagined such a pronunciation, and of course ran to research it. Daniel Jones’s Pronouncing Dictionary, my guide to Received Pronunciation, has only /maym/ (i.e., the usual pronunciation, the way it looks), but Merriam-Webster has “\ˈmīm also ˈmēm\.” So I turn to you, Varied Reader: are you familiar with this frenchified “meem” pronunciation? Do you use it yourself?


My wife just told me that William Safire has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79, and I was shocked and saddened by the news. Long-time readers may be surprised by the elegiac tone of this post, because in the early years of LH I used to take great and unholy glee in ripping apart his language columns in the NY Times; it still annoys me that the Newspaper of Record handed such a potentially powerful educational tool over to someone with no qualifications other than a love of language and writing, who frequently made the kind of obvious errors that set my teeth on edge. But I came to realize that it was not, after all, his fault that he didn’t have the appropriate background; he did, after all, have a strong love of language and writing; and despite it all he did dig up plenty of interesting information. More importantly, from my own selfish perspective, two years ago Oxford University Press had me copyedit the latest edition of his Political Dictionary, and it was one of the best editing experiences I’ve had. He fully appreciated my pickiness about details and had no hesitation making changes I recommended, even occasionally adding chunks of text I provided; what’s more, he credited me by name in those entries and added this heartwarming text to the acknowledgments: “For this fifth edition, Stephen Dodson provided the kind of creative copy-editing and a lust for historical accuracy and semantic precision that a political slanguist expects in dealing with the Oxford University Press, world’s greatest lexicographic organization.” He took to calling me up and we were soon on a “Bill” and “Steve” basis, and the last time we talked he promised to buy me a beer if we were ever both in New York at the same time. I’m sorry we won’t get the chance to have that beer, Bill, and especially that we won’t get to work together on another book.
The NY Times obit is by one of my favorite Times reporters, Robert D. McFadden, who’s been with the paper since 1961 and covers disasters like nobody else; I winced, of course, at the phrase “a talented linguist,” but appreciated writing like this:

He was hardly the image of a buttoned-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.

And I was delighted to learn that he was born Safir: “The ‘e’ was added to clarify pronunciation.” Goodbye, and thanks for the fun of both bashing you and editing you.


I had never heard of the poet Trumbull Stickney, which is not surprising, since he died in 1904 at the age of thirty having published only one volume of verse (Dramatic Verses, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902). I discovered him, as I discover many good things, at wood s lot, where you can find two of his poems in today’s post (the sonnet “The melancholy year is dead with rain” and “Mnemosyne”); they are as good as anything Pound wrote before he discovered his true voice in Cathay, and what might Stickney’s true voice have turned out to be like once he’d shaken off the clinging tendrils of the nineteenth century? Fruitless speculation, of course, but one late fragment raises the hair on my neck in the way only true poetry can:

Sir, say no more.
Within me ‘t is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind’s poor birds.


Maud Newton had a post back in May in which she quoted some of the pungent phrases her Texan granny used to use; most of them are familiar (He cleans up real nice, Ain’t neither one of them got a lick a sense, I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire, He’s meaner than a junkyard dog), but there are some new to me (including the alarming He’s rich enough to burn a wet dog). Now she’s added some more in a follow-up post; again, some are well known (She couldn’t find her butt with both hands, He’s all hat and no cattle), but some are quite striking: You sound like a dying cow in a hailstorm (said to a whining child), Don’t that just take the rag off the bush? (isn’t it appalling?), Don’t just sit there looking like a tree full of owls (don’t look so surprised; said to a group). This is the kind of thing that makes lovers of vigorous speech mourn the homogenization of language.


One of the good things about doggedly investigating all references in the books I read is that I get introduced to some obscure byways of Russian culture. In Notes from the Dead House one of the convicts says contemptuously (addressing the aristocratic narrator, in the last line of this section) “Под девятую сваю, где Антипка беспятый живет!” (“[Go] under the ninth pile, where heel-less [bespyaty] Antipka lives!”) The first part, about the ninth pile, occurs only here as far as I can tell, but it’s on the model of a number of Russian expressions indicating a far-off place and is presumably a quaint phrase Dostoevsky heard from someone in his own Siberian prison. It’s the second part that interests me here—who might “heel-less Antipka” be? (I’m assuming беспятый is from пятка ‘heel’; if I’m wrong, please let me know.) Well, it turns out he’s the devil, and an online excerpt (pdf) from the Иллюстрированная мифологическая энциклопедия [Illustrated mythological encyclopedia] explains the odd modifier:

Прибавка же “беспятый” характеризовала одну из существенных деталей в облике черта. Крестьяне повсеместно верили, что черт, хотя и прикидывается иногда человеком, всегда “неполон” и обладает какими-то нечеловеческими признаками, например, лапами животного или птицы.
[The added “heel-less” characterized one of the essential details in the devil’s appearance. Peasants everywhere believed that the devil, even though he sometimes pretends to be a person, is always “incomplete” and has some inhuman signs, for example the paws of an animal or bird.]

I’m curious as to whether modern Russians recognize the allusion here, or has Antipka (the name is modeled on Antichrist) been completely forgotten?


A few years ago Lameen had a post on Ibn Hazm, “comparative linguist of the 11th century” (I wrote about it here); now he follows up with Ibn Hazm again, and Cypriot Arabic, whose first paragraph links to “a full translation online of the fifth chapter of Ibn Hazm’s … Iħkām fī Uṣūl al-Aħkām, …a chapter remarkable for anticipating the ideas of a language instinct and of conlanging, and for clearly stating the relationship between Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac” and whose second describes a remarkable Cypriot variety of Arabic (Ethnologue’s Arabic, Cypriot Spoken—I regret to report they misspell the village where it is spoken as “Kormatiki” rather than Kormakiti), which he says “is far more incomprehensible to me than any mainstream Arabic dialect I’ve ever heard, including the Levantine Arabic from which it presumably derives – a remarkable case study in how much isolation from related varieties speeds up language differentiation.” He links to a YouTube program called Sanna (لساننا – our language) where you can hear it spoken. In case anyone isn’t already aware of Lameen’s blog, it’s well worth bookmarking.


The amazing Sejarah Melayu (Malay History) Library “is perhaps the largest public on-line collection of books and other documents on the history of the Malay archipelago and its surrounding region. Consisting of over 700 books and academic papers in electronic PDF format, the library is divided into seven broad sections”—General, Histories, Travelogue, and so on. The one of most immediate interest to me, of course, is Language; they have PDFs of A Dictionary of the Malay Language, A grammar of the Maguindanao tongue, A lexilogus of the English, Malay, and Chinese languages, A Vocabulary of the English, Bugis and Malay Languages, and dozens of other books. Via Macvaysia, and I second Jordan’s conclusion: “Do check out this fascinating (and free) resource if you’re interested.”


I have always loved the humorous reference to the Guardian as the “Grauniad” (and have used it on LH from time to time), and I always believed the explanation that it arose from the paper’s unique propensity for typos. Not so, as I learn from Wikipedia:

In fact, the paper was not more prone than other papers to misprints but because the paper was printed in Manchester, Londoners saw the first edition printed each night. National papers in Britain at this time contained large numbers of “typos” which they removed progressively as the night wore on and they were noticed. Thus a paper like The Times would have as many mistakes in the North of England as The Guardian did in London. However, because media opinion was set in London, only The Guardian got a bad reputation.

Sure, [citation needed] as they say, but it makes sense, and it made my day.