Archives for December 2009


I love coffee, I’m not ashamed to admit it, and as a result I love good music featuring the love of coffee. I often sing Bach’s Coffee Cantata around the house: “Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee süße!” Now I’ve discovered a Korean song that is just as catchy: “Love Is Coffee.” Enjoy either or both, depending on your musical tastes.


I’ve finished reading Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (see this recent post), and I’m already looking forward to rereading it in a few years—it’s one of those books you keep going back to as you accumulate more knowledge and understanding. It makes me interested in Goethe’s Faust in a way I’ve never been before (and now I can’t find my copy, which I dragged around for years despite being sure I’d never get around to reading it), gives me new insights into Dostoevsky (and makes it clear how Notes from Underground is in some respects a response to Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, in particular the Crystal Palace rant), and confronts Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in new and interesting ways, among many, many other things. I won’t even try to summarize his argument; instead, I’ll quote a brief bit about language from the Baudelaire chapter:

Consider a phrase like la fange du macadam, “the mire of the macadam.” La fange in French is not only a literal word for mud; it is also a figurative word for mire, filth, vileness, corruption, degradation, all that is foul and loathsome. In classical oratorical and poetic diction, it is a “high” way of describing something “low.” As such, it entails a whole cosmic hierarchy, a structure of norms and values not only aesthetic but metaphysical, ethical, political. La fange might be the nadir of the moral universe whose summit is signified by l’auréole [‘the halo’: Baudelaire’s prose poem “Loss of a Halo” centers on a poet whose halo “slipped off my head and fell into the mire of the macadam”]. The irony here is that, so long as the poet’s halo falls into “la fange,” it can never be wholly lost, because, so long as such an image still has meaning and power—as it clearly has for Baudelaire—the old hierarchical cosmos is still present on some plane of the modern world. But it is present precariously. The meaning of macadam is as radically destructive to la fange as to l’auréole: it paves over high and low alike.
We can go deeper into the macadam: we will notice that the word isn’t French. In fact, the word is derived from John McAdam of Glasgow, the eighteenth-century inventor of modern paving surface. It may be the first word in that language that twentieth-century Frenchmen have satirically named Franglais: it paves the way for le parking, le shopping, le weekend, le drugstore, le mobile-home, and far more. This language is so vital and compelling because it is the international language of modernization. Its new words are powerful vehicles of new modes of life and motion. The words may sound dissonant and jarring, but it is as futile to resist them as to resist the momentum of modernization itself.

And in a footnote on the same page, he mentions the Brooklyn Dodgers as an exemplar of modernism: “The name expresses the way in which urban survival skills—specifically, skill at dodging traffic (they were at first called the Trolley Dodgers)—can transcend utility and take on new modes of meaning and value, in sport as in art. Baudelaire would have loved this symbolism, as many of his twentieth-century successors (ee cummings, Marianne Moore) did.” I love this guy, and I thank Noetica again for the book.

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One of the major Nabokov scholars these days is Gennady Barabtarlo, Professor of Russian at the University of Missouri, who studied Russian literature at Moscow University, got a PhD at the University of Illinois (his dissertation was on Pnin, which he has since translated into Russian), and has published poems and short stories alongside his articles on Nabokov; most recently, he has translated the posthumous semi-demi-novel The Original of Laura into Russian, in connection with which he was interviewed by Dmitri Bavilsky for Chastny Korrespondent. The most immediately striking thing about the interview (which was linked by Anatoly) is that Barabtarlo’s portion of it is in the old, prerevolutionary orthography (see this LH post, and note that the reform was actually promulgated by the Provisional Government in the summer of 1917, not by the Bolsheviks, which makes Barabtarlo’s position even odder than it would be anyway); he explains it thus (Russian below the cut):

It would help the rebirth not only of writing but of Russian civilization in general if there were an unconditional and decisive mass recoiling from everything produced by Soviet power, as people recoil with disgust from corruption [porcha] or infection, and this applies in the first place to speech in all its forms, including its written form (literary language is the last and least concern).

He has much more to say about translating in general and translating Nabokov, and I was greatly interested in his answer to the question “Which is closer to you, the Berlin Sirin [who wrote in Russian] or the American Nabokov, who wrote in English?” He begins by saying he doesn’t know any Russian emigrant—including Nabokov’s sister Elena, who knew English very well—who wouldn’t prefer the Russian Nabokov, “which is natural enough,” but goes on to say he himself believes the American Nabokov went farther artistically.
However, what concerns me at the moment is the name Barabtarlo: what is it from, and how is it pronounced? I say to myself /barab’tarlo/ (bah-rahb-TAR-low), but with very little confidence. The only thing I’ve found online is this brief Q&A, which says “On, Barabtarlo turns up in listings as ‘Bessarabia (now Moldova).’ Many of them are identified as Jews.” My wild guess would be that it is derived from a Hebrew abbreviation, as the family name Barabash is from Ben Rabbi-Bunim Shmul, but I’d love to have something besides a wild guess to go on.

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Joel of Far Outliers has helpfully compiled all of his posts about his daughter’s early language development into one post, taking her from 8 months (“Also this week, she finally came up with her first honest-to-goodness consonant, /b/”) to 47 months (“She is rapidly expanding her vocabulary, stopping to ask us the meaning of any word she doesn’t know yet”); she is now a 24-year-old teacher. Anyone with any interest in how we learn to talk (and deal with multiple languages—the Outlier family was in China during her first years) will find the series of great interest.


The Telegraph obit leads off with the basic story: “Stanley Ellis, who has died aged 83, was Britain’s best-known dialectologist and phonetician, and pioneered the forensic analysis of voice recordings, among them the hoax tape that derailed the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry.” If you’re interested in the forensic stuff, there’s lots of it there; me, I liked the dialect bits:

In his series Talk of the Town, Talk of the Country, Ellis illustrated his theme with examples, explaining the derivation of Yorkshire dialect words such as “fraunge” (to stroll about); “femmer” (young or tender); and “fettle” (the old word for a strap, which came to mean “get, make, prepare, put right”).
He discovered that a runt – the weakest in a litter of piglets – was a “crit” in Northumberland, a “wreckling” in Lincolnshire, a “nizgul” in Herefordshire and a “nestle-tripe” in Dorset.
He also found that north country people were more inclined to cling to dialect than those in the south, who regarded such speech as “non-U”; men, he found, were more likely to stick to the old words than their womenfolk.
Among thousands of regional variations, Ellis noted 88 different words for left-handed, ranging from “gibble-fisted” to “squivver-handed”; while someone silly might be “hatchy”, “dibby”, “dummy”, “half-sharp” or “daft as a dicky-docket”.

Once again, I deplore the all too widespread idea that language should be made uniform; how can anyone resist terms like “gibble-fisted” and “daft as a dicky-docket”? (Thanks, Paul!)


Looking up something else in my Merriam-Webster, I ran across ridley, the name of two varieties of sea turtle. What struck me was the conjunction of the etymology and the date, respectively “unknown” and 1926. There are lots of words with unknown etymologies, of course, but you’d think that recent a word would not be a total mystery. Wikipedia, in its Kemp’s Ridley article, says:

These turtles are called Kemp’s Ridley because Richard Kemp (of Key West) was the first to send in a specimen of the species to Samuel Garman at Harvard. However, the etymology of the name “Ridley” itself is still in question. Prior to the term being popularly used (for both species in the genus), L. kempii at least was known as the “bastard turtle”.

I wonder if the OED will turn up anything more when it gets to this word in its ongoing revision?


At the wedding reception in The Godfather, while Marlon Brando is making someone an offer he can’t refuse, the guests are singing a catchy (and salacious, if you know Italian) song that begins “C’è ‘na luna mezzo mare” [There’s a moon in the middle of the sea]. There’s quite a backstory to the song, which you can read here:

Paolo Citorello was a Sicilian seaman who would pass the time on long voyages by playing and singing folk songs from his native land. Paolo didn’t read music, so he strummed his guitar by ear, singing what he could remember and improvising the rest. After one memorable ocean trip, in the late 1920s, he returned with what he viewed as his own composition of one of those songs: “Luna Mezzo Mare”…

It goes back to Rossini and forward to Rudy Vallee (who recorded it as “Oh! Ma-Ma! (The Butcher Boy)”), the Andrews Sisters (who added a surprise ending), Lou Monte (in 1958 as “Lazy Mary”), and CBGB (in 2001, “when the group Collider decided to end ‘a decades long draught of Italian wedding music in the New York underground rock scene'”). Furthermore, there’s a careful transcription and analysis of Lou Monte’s lyrics, along with a discussion of Italian dialects, a biography of Monte, and various audio links, here, and YouTube has the Monte hit, with onscreen transcription but no translation. Thanks, LobsterMitten!


Yaniv Fox has a History Compass post called “The Digitization of the Cairo Genizah,” about the Genizah Project, “which aims to digitize the entire corpus of finds included in the Cairo Genizah”:

The Cairo Genizah is a staggering amount of fragments of documents (some 250,000 in total), quires and books found in a locked synagogue room toward the end of the 19th century in Egypt. Most of the documents, ranging in date of production from the 9th to the 16th century, were taken from Egypt to England by Professor Schechter of Cambridge, and are still kept there today. The remainder was eventually dispersed throughout the world… The fragments range in topic from Rabbinical to liturgical, biblical and Talmudic works, on a variety of subjects, and are in a generally deteriorated state, due to the conditions in which they were stored….
So far, the team has managed to scan some 85,000 pictures, and have now begun scanning the largest repository of fragments, found in Cambridge, at a rate of 10,000 per month.
The second stage of the project is perhaps even more ambitious. The Friedberg Genizah team intends to add a second layer of information to the existing scans. This layer will include, when complete, an identification, transcription and translation of the fragment. Since there are so many of these fragments, there arose a need for an identification system, in order to catalog the pieces by their various attributes, but also as part of an attempt to match separate pieces which once belonged to a single, original manuscript… The second layer also contains a collection of all the research literature ever published on the subject of the Cairo Genizah, as well as software designed to navigate through it.

Things like this help me remember that the twenty-first century has its good points. Thanks for the links, Jonathan!


Another fantastic post from Dan at The Language of Food; he takes us from “a dish of sweet and sour stewed beef called sikbāj, from sik, Persian for ‘vinegar’, and ‘broth’,” which “must have been amazingly delicious, because it was a favorite of kings and concubines for at least 300 years” (I want some!), through escabeche—and the perhaps cognate ceviche—and the Sephardim, who brought their pescado frito with them when they returned to England after a centuries-long ban, to the English adoption of “Fried Fish, Jewish Fashion” and the fish and chips we know today. A great read, and I love his conclusion:

I’d like to think that the lesson here is that we are all immigrants, that no culture is an island, that beauty is created at the confusing and painful boundaries between cultures and peoples and religions… I guess we can only look forward to the day when the battles we fight are about nothing more significant than where to go for tacos.



I just got a package from Amazon that turned out to contain a gorgeous paperback copy of Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (the cover is this one, not the gray one shown at the Amazon page), a book I’ve been wanting to read for almost three decades now. What’s more, it arrives at the perfect moment, since its longest chapter (over a hundred pages) is on Saint Petersburg, and a section of that chapter is on Bely’s Petersburg, the very novel I’m now reading in Russian. There was no indication of who was kind enough to send it; I offer my fervent thanks to the anonymous donor, and assure them that the book will warm and brighten this dark, cold month!
Update. It turns out the book was a gift from Noetica, who writes to inform me of the fact and suggests that I tell people “that this silent southerner still exists” and (excellent news) that he will be “back soon!” So I can now direct my thanks to him in particular, and I look forward to his reappearance in the Languagehat Café.