Archives for January 2010


I know I blog about Russian stuff a lot, doubtless too much for some readers, and I apologize in advance for the nature of this post, since unless you actually know Russian it won’t be of interest, but it’s such a surprising and satisfying etymology to me I can’t resist passing it on. I’m getting toward the end of the penultimate chapter of Bely’s Peterburg (the novel known in English as Petersburg), and I just got around to checking out a word I’d noted earlier in the chapter—it looked like a misprint (my copy is riddled with them), but I wasn’t sure. Well, it turns out it wasn’t a misprint, just an unusual word. In the course of one of the lyrical passages sprinkled throughout the book, the свистопляска (svistoplyaska ‘pandemonium,’ literally ‘whistle-dance’) sweeping over Russia is said to “надмеваться оскаленной цифрою,” ‘nadmevat’sya like a numeral baring its teeth.’ Now, nadmevat’sya looks like it should consist of the prefix nad- plus a verb mevat’sya, but there is no such verb (in fact, no word in Russian starts with the letters mev). I finally looked up nadmevat’sya in Dahl, where I found that the prefix was not nad- but na-, and the root verb was дмить (dmit’) ‘to blow,’ first person дму (dmu); furthermore, it was from this verb that the common adjective надменный (nadmenny) ‘haughty, arrogant’ is derived! Again, I’d always assumed the adjective contained the nad- prefix, meaning ‘over,’ but no, the obsolete na-dmit’, like the related and still common na-dut’, means ‘to blow up, puff up,’ and nadmenny is etymologically ‘puffed up,’ which makes perfect sense. And the phrase from Bely that started me off means ‘to be puffed up like a numeral baring its teeth,’ or (in the here overinterpreted and misleading but generally serviceable translation of David McDuff) “to lord it like a grinning cipher.”


Another in the “live and learn” series: I ran across the phase sola topee today and vaguely thought “Shouldn’t that be solar topee?” After all, it’s a pith helmet worn for protection from the sun. But when I looked it up, I discovered that it is in fact sola, a word for an Indian plant, Aeschynomene aspera, whose pith is used for such helmets and whose Hindi name is śolā.
Here’s an enthusiastic description of the hat from Thomas W. Knox in “The English in India” (Harper’s, 1879, p. 570):

The rarest of these things is the sola topee, or ventilating hat — an excellent device to protect the head from the effect of the tropical sun. It is worn almost exclusively by Europeans, is made of pith, covered with white cloth, and is so contrived that the air may freely circulate around the cranium of the wearer. Many of these hats have found their way to America, and it would be well if they should come into fashion for summer use. With the sola topee a sun-stroke is next to impossible — at least so say the sojourners in the East.


I’m always interested in finding words that can’t be succinctly translated, and I ran across one such today. Georg von der Gabelentz, in his Die Sprachwissenschaft (1891), uses metaphors to express semantic change. First he says that when new words were created from old, “frischere neue Farben deckten die verblichenen alten” (‘fresher new colors covered the faded old ones’). Then he writes: “Nun ist bei alledem zweierlei möglich: entweder das Alte wird durch das Neue bis zur Spurlosigkeit verdrängt, oder es führt daneben noch ein mehr oder minder verkümmertes Dasein, — rückt auf den Altentheil.” The part before the dash is easy to translate: “Now there are two possibilities here: either the old is displaced by the new without a trace, or it continues to lead a more or less atrophied existence alongside it.” But then he brings in a new image: “shoved off to the Altenteil” (to use the modern spelling). An Altenteil is (or was) a cottage or part of a farm reserved for the farmer when he hands over the estate to his son. Because that custom did not exist in England, there is no English word for it, but since sich aufs Altenteil setzen is used to mean “to retire from public life,” I guess “—rückt auf den Altentheil” could be rendered “—hustled off into retirement.”


In the southern part of Moscow, in a district known as Tsaritsyno, “the tsarina’s,” after its centerpiece, Tsaritsino park (formerly owned by Catherine the Great), there is a former resort settlement in the form of two concentric circular streets with a dozen or so “spokes.” On one of these, Pyataya Radialnaya (‘Fifth Radial’), was a house with quite a past. Sergei Muromtsev, president of the first Duma in 1906, owned it in the early years of the last century, and Ivan Bunin met his future wife Vera, Muromtsev’s niece, there. After the Revolution it became a school and then a house for teachers; in the ’60s it became a research institute and in the ’70s an unofficial cultural center. In this period one of my favorite modern Russian writers, Venedikt Erofeev, spent time there and wrote two of his lamentably few works, and eventually the house became a Yerofeev Memorial Museum.
After 1989 the house passed to a new and mysterious owner that was apparently determined to do away with it; after years of legal maneuvers, the building burned down at the start of this month, and demolition was only staved off by the determined action of ordinary people who flocked there to stand in the way of the bulldozers. I don’t have the heart to detail this sad recent history; you can read all about it, and see stunning photographs, at the Río Wang post where I learned about it. I hope the house can survive and eventually be restored, but considering the state of things in Russia, I would be surprised if it turned out that way.


The Czech Literature Portal “is intended mainly for the promotion of Czech literature abroad.” You can read more about it at a Prague Post story by Stephan Delbos:

Started by the Culture Ministry in 2005, the site was recently handed over to the Arts and Theatre Institute (Institut umění-Divadelní ústav) and two young institute experts, Viktor Debnár and Jaroslav Balvín, who were responsible for translating and launching an English-language version of the site in recent weeks…
The portal reads as a virtual survey of Czech literature, with an illustrated database of literary links and bibliographies. Perhaps more importantly, however, the site offers English-language readers an introduction to many contemporary Czech writers, whose work might otherwise be lost in translation. A lack of this type of cultural and linguistic cross-pollination is one of the largest shortcomings of the relatively diverse literary scene in Prague, where translators of Czech literature into English are still relatively rare, Balvín said.

Thanks for the link, peacay!


I knew the symbol properly used for a foot (measurement of length), as in 5′, was called a “prime,” and I occasionally vaguely wondered why, but it’s one of those things I never got around to investigating. Now I have, and here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

The name “prime” is something of a misnomer. Through the early part of the 20th century, the notation x′ was read as “x prime” not because it was an x followed by a “prime symbol”, but because it was the first in the series that continued with x″ (“x second”) and x‴ (“x third”). It was only later, in the 1950s and 1960s, that the term “prime” began to be applied to the apostrophe-like symbol itself. Although it is now more common to pronounce x″ and x‴ as “x double prime” and “x triple prime”, these are still sometimes pronounced in the old manner as “x second” and “x third”.

Mind you, this is followed by “[citation needed],” but it’s plausible enough I’m willing to accept it provisionally. If anyone knows of a more dependable resource on the subject, by all means speak up. And remember, it’s not 5’10” (with apostrophes or end quotes), it’s 5′10″!


A section of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is called “Colon” (pages 91 to 103 of my Ballantine paperback); here is a small segment from near the end:

This is all one colon:
Here at the center is a creature: it would be our business to show how through every instant of every day of every year of his existence alive he is from all sides streamed inward upon … by that enormous sleeting of all objects forms and ghosts how great how small no matter, which surround and whom his senses take: in as great and perfect and exact particularity as we can name them:

I confess I’ve never really warmed to Agee’s overheated style, which strives for Faulknerian High Modernism but too often achieves merely bombast, but he is certainly worth a close reading, and Ashley Makar (“a writer who wanders genres while deep in Yale Divinity School, where she studies religion, literature and whatever metaphorical theology she can get her hands on”) gives him a colonocentric one in “This Is All One Colon,” which begins: “It is that clarity of mystery, that precision of blank—gesturing to certain immensities—that astounds me about James Agee’s peculiar use of colons.” She reawakens my interest in him, but I still can’t get through more than a few pages of Famous Men at a go. (Thanks, Paul!)


Christopher Culver has a post exploring the relationship between the words for ‘kopek’ and ‘squirrel’ in languages of the Volga region: “As Ähmät’jänov’s etymological dictionary explains, ‘борынгы заманнарда тиен тиресе вак акча функциясен үтәгән [in ancient times squirrel hides functioned as a low-value monetary unit]’.” Culver adds, “Chuvash doesn’t connect its term for the kopek to ‘squirrel’. However, Cv. pus ‘kopek’ is, according to Fedotov’s etymological dictionary, derived from Persian پوست post ‘animal skin’, though used purely in the sense of currency.” He concludes with what sound to me like convincing deductions about historical sequence, and a commenter points out that “Russian belka ‘squirrel’ also had a meaning ‘kopek, monetary unit’ in the northern dialects.” I love the fact that someone is out there who can use Turkic sources to investigate these fairly obscure languages and is posting the results for all the rest of us.
While I’m at it, his previous post, “Turkic-Slavic bilingualism in Kyiv Rus,” is also interesting, though I suspect that Olzhas Suleymenov’s arguments will turn out to be based more on nationalistic fervor than convincing evidence. Of course, I may be influenced by my intense dislike for his idea (quoted here) that “some censorship… is not an entirely bad thing as it eliminates from public discussion some things that should not be discussed and forces writers to search for new ways of expressing themselves, a process that can be useful.”


The farther I read in Chukovsky’s diary, the more at a loss I am to understand on what basis they abridged the English version. They entirely omit the Nov. 20, 1919, entry, which describes the opening and setup of the House of Arts (Дом искусств), one of the most important Russian cultural institutions of the early 1920s, which fed and housed Viktor Shklovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Alexander Grin, and Vladislav Khodasevich, among many others, during a period of war and deprivation that they might not otherwise have survived. I will translate the entry here; the Russian is below.

[Read more…]


The latest post at Slawkenbergius’ Tales is a thoughtful take on John Cheever that sent me back to his 1962 story “A Vision of the World”; I’ll let slawk handle Cheever’s worldview while I focus on a linguistically interesting element of the story he doesn’t mention. As the story draws to its end, the narrator has a dream in which a priest or bishop, walking on the beach, raises his hand and calls to the narrator at his window: “Porpozec ciebie nie prosze dorzanin albo zyolpocz ciwego.” This mysterious sentence recurs twice more in the final page of the story, once in a dream and once in the reality of the story. My question is: how did he come up with it? It looks very much like Polish, so I mentally pronounce it as if it were Polish (“por-PO-zets TSYEH-byeh…”), but it’s not even close to being actual Polish; did he ask a Polish speaker he knew to come up with a nonsense sentence he could use? Surely he didn’t actually dream it…

[Read more…]