Archives for March 2010


Anne O. Fisher has done a translation of Ilf and Petrov’s Zolotoi telyonok called The Little Golden Calf, and she was kind enough to send me a copy (even though I tried to dissuade her, telling her I was too busy reading other things!). I’ve been reading it to my wife in the evenings, and we’re enjoying it terrifically; the story is great, the translation is fluent and accurate, and best of all (from my admittedly peculiar point of view) it’s got all the apparatus you could want: over 300 endnotes explaining cultural references, an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, Fisher’s own foreword, a bibliography, an appendix explaining characters’ names, and (mirabile dictu) a bilingual appendix of phrases from the novel that have become popular among Russians. You can, of course, skip all that (I’m not burdening my wife with footnotes), but if you want to understand the book in its full cultural and historical context, this is an ideal version. Fisher is a scholar of Ilf and Petrov, and she is in the middle of working on a translation of I&P’s Dvenadtsat stulev (The twelve chairs), which should be equally good.
There’s a blog post by Anna Clark in which she reproduces a long and interesting letter from Fisher, and if you like tempests in teapots you can read the dustup between Fisher’s publishers Russian Life Books (1, 2) and Chad W. Post, who published a rival translation by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson almost simultaneously at Open Letter Books (hopping-mad response). The more translations, the better, of course; I’m just glad to see the masters of Soviet satire getting something of their due.


A clever ad from Dorling Kindersley Books. Via Dave Wilton at
Addendum. Today is the seventh anniversary of The Cassandra Pages. Congratulations, Beth, and keep staving off the end of publishing!


I was recently looking at an old post and ran across a link to Laudator Temporis Acti, and when I clicked it I was very pleased to see that Michael Gilleland is still at the same old stand, posting on Greek scholarship, portraits of readers, word histories, and all manner of other things likely to appeal to LH readers. And he’ll frequently quote a piquant sentence from his current reading, such as this from Oliver Rackham’s The History of the Countryside: “Furze is an important and widely-used fuel; it produces a quick hot blaze suitable for heating ovens, getting up a fire in the morning, or burning heretics.” In fact, one of his first posts presented this quote from Jasper Griffin’s Homer on Life and Death: “Heroes do not, in general, turn into anteaters, or make themselves buttocks out of mashed potatoes…” He calls it “one of the strangest sentences ever to appear in a scholarly work,” and I can’t disagree.


The March/April 2010 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine is particularly rich in LH-related items. First comes a nice writeup of William Dwight Whitney, “who served for four decades as the University Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology at Yale”:

Whitney had been one of the early students at Yale’s Graduate School (then called the Department of Philosophy and the Arts) and became a great teacher of a variety of ancient and modern languages. Nineteenth-century Americans, who wrote to him from all over the country with their questions about language, knew him as the foremost U.S. philologist, an expert grammarian, and the lexicographer who took up Noah Webster’s torch to edit the multi-volume Century Dictionary….
Whitney went on to publish 360 books and articles, including Sanskrit Grammar—still in print—and German and English editions of the Atharva Veda, one of the four principal sacred texts of Hinduism. As a teacher, said Yale president Timothy Dwight, he “had unusual gifts and a singular ability” to help students develop their talents. Whitney also served for three decades on the governing board of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, and he became a major force in transforming Yale into a modern and internationally known university. (His siblings shared his extraordinary gifts. Josiah Dwight ’39, the Harvard geologist for whom Mount Whitney is named, headed the 1860s survey of California. James Lyman ’56 and Henry Mitchell ’64 became leaders in the library profession. Maria held the first professorship of modern languages at Smith College.)

Maria Whitney was a friend of Emily Dickinson’s and (according to Martha Dickinson Bianchi) “keen, scientific, agnostic, schooled in German criticism, a cool thinker… rational, calm, true as steel to friend or conviction…”; one would like to know more about her.
Then there’s a feature on bookplates from Yale University Library’s Arts of the Book Collection; you can click the first link here to see a slideshow. And finally, Fred R. Shapiro, who writes a regular column on quotes for the magazine, discusses two discoveries by Barry Popik, “the restless genius of American etymology”: the term hot dog, long thought to have been invented by cartoonist “Tad” Dorgan around 1900, in fact goes back to at least 1893 (Popik found a September cite from the Knoxville Journal, and Shapiro a May mention in the Daily Times of New Brunswick, New Jersey), and the first use of the name Yankees for the new American League team in New York was a headline in the New York Evening Journal of April 7, 1904 (YANKEES WILL START HOME FROM SOUTH TO-DAY):

[Read more…]


Another interesting etymology (this is the kind of thing that catches my attention when I’m copyediting a dictionary): crew originally meant ‘reinforcement(s)’ in the military sense, as can be seen from the first citation in the OED, “1455 Rolls of Parl. 34 Hen. VI, c. 46 The wages of ccc men ordeigned to be with him for a Crue over the ordinary charge abovesaid.” It quickly started being used for any “body of soldiers organized for a particular purpose” (which would doubtless have upset sixteenth-century prescriptivists, had there been any) and then for any gathering or grouping of persons, especially one “engaged upon a particular piece of work.” It’s from Old French creue ‘augmentation, increase,’ the feminine past participle of croistre ‘grow,’ from Latin crescere. (Note that it’s not from the Latin past participle, cretum, which left no descendants in French, but was reformed on the basis of other verbs with past participles in –u.) This means that it’s historically the same word (except for gender) as cru ‘vineyard’—a word which, however familiar to wine buffs, hasn’t made it into Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate.


I always liked counterpane, an old word for a bedspread, but I never knew its etymology, which is quite unexpected: it’s an alteration of earlier counterpoint (due to an association with obsolete pane ‘cloth’), but that counterpoint is an entirely different word from the one you’re thinking of—it’s from Old French contrepointe, which is an alteration of coultepointe, from Medieval Latin culcit(r)a puncta ‘pricked (i.e., quilted) mattress.’ That word culcit(r)a is the etymon of quilt, so counterpane should really be quiltpoint…. and the OED tells me that in fact that form did exist (“1386 Will in T. Madox Formul. Anglic. 428 Item lego … 1. lectum rubeum quiltpoint cum i. testro de eâdem settâ.”).
Entirely unrelated, to either quilts or the basic mission of LH, but too good not to share: the Telegraph‘s obituary for the Dowager Duchess of St Albans. The Brits do obits better than anyone. One tidbit: “The writer Graham Greene, in search of material for a film, reduced the future duchess to giggles with his anecdotes, but it was left to Beauclerk to introduce him to the Sewer Police, thereby handing him the seeds of a plot for The Third Man.” Thanks, Nick!


This week’s NYT “On Language” column is by Ammon Shea, an enjoyable but scattershot writer who takes on the issue of vocabulary size: not, this time, “what language has the most words?” but another perennial favorite, “does a bigger vocabulary make you a better person?” The discussion is fairly predictable and the conclusion unexceptionable (you should learn new words because they give you “something pleasant to think about”), but I was quite taken with one of his examples, groak, which he defines as “staring silently at someone while they eat”; my wife and I realized immediately that we should have named our cat Pushkin “Groak” instead. Of course, I checked to make sure there actually was such a word; it’s not in the OED, but it is in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang: “groak n. also growk [20C+] (Ulster) a child who sits watching others eating, in the hope of being asked to join them. [synon. Scot. groak].” It’s also in the Dictionary of the Scots Language:

GROWK, v., n. Also grook, grouk, groak, groke, groach. [grʌuk, gro:k] I. v. 1. To look at someone with a watchful or suspicious eye; to look longingly at something, esp. of a child or dog begging for food … †By extension: to come thoroughly awake after a sleep, sc. by focussing the eyes on surrounding objects (Dmf. 1825 Jam.).
  *Ags. 1808 Jam.:
  Grouk is often used, as denoting the watchfulness of a very niggardly person, who is still afraid that any of his property be given away or carried off.
  *Gall. a.1813 A. Murray Hist. Eur. Langs. (1823) I. 393:
  To groke, in Scotish, is to stretch for meat like a dog.
  *Ags. 1894 J. B. Salmond My Man Sandy (1899) xviii.:
  Nathan was stanin’ at the table as uswal, growk-growkin’ awa’ for a bit o’ my tea biskit. “I dinna like growkin’ bairns,” I says to Nathan.
  *Per. 1900 E.D.D.:
  There’s the gamekeeper groakin’ aboot.
  2. To look intently or wistfully so as to attract attention.
  *Rs. 1944 C. M. Maclean Farewell to Tharrus 79:
  She grooked a little, and tried to lick my chin. “Where’s Laddie?” I whispered to her. She whined and ran off.
  II. n. 1. “A child who waits about at meal-times in the expectation of getting something to eat” (Ant. 1892 Ballymena Obs. (E.D.D.)).
  2. “A mute, wistful look by a child on any article greatly desired” (Ags.4 1920).

Also, if I were writing a sentence beginning “In 1664 an anonymously written pamphlet, ‘Vindex Anglicus,’…” it would continue “…urged that the window of English be wiped clean of absurd Latinate words.”


Over the years I’ve had occasion to investigate various of the Russian writers known collectively as the Serapion Brothers (the most prominent of whom were Mikhail Zoshchenko and Victor Shklovsky), and I kept coming across the name Hongor Oulanoff, which always gave me a smile—there was something so incongruous about the combination of the Russian-sounding Oulanoff (Ulanov) and the very un-Russian Hongor. He turned up because he had written the first book-length study of the group, The Serapion Brothers: Theory and Practice (Mouton, 1966), and contributed several articles to the Handbook of Russian Literature (Yale University Press, 1990) edited by Victor Terras, a book I frequently use in my research.
Today, reading the front section of the NY Times, I found his death notice, from which I learned that he was an ethnic Kalmyk, a western Mongolian people (hence the name Hongor), and that he was born in Prague and studied in Paris before moving to the U.S. and teaching Russian literature at Vanderbilt and Ohio State. The notice says:

In the 1950s he helped his father Badma Badmanovich successfully petition the Eisenhower Administration to accept the Kalmyk refugees living in Western Europe, a people who had been purged and deported to Siberia under the Stalin era. As a result, many of the Kalmyks settled in the New York and New Jersey area. In 1990 Professor Oulanoff was honored at the 550th Year of Djangar Commemorative Festival in Elista, capital of the Autonomous Republik of Kalmykia, in Russia. There he presented the University in Elista with his compiled work of B. Kotvich’s linguistic study of the Kalmyk language, the only existing study at the time.

“B. Kotvich” is Władysław Kotwicz (Russian Vladislav Kotvich), whose book on Kalmyk grammar was published in Petrograd in 1915 (2nd ed. Řevnice, Czechoslovakia, 1929—the same year Oulanoff was born).
At any rate, Oulanoff seems to have been a good man as well as a good scholar; my condolences to his family.


Last month I posted a link to a review of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed; here‘s her list of “four Russian modern classics that you’ve probably missed,” and it makes me even more interested in her. The woman has taste: Shklovsky (Zoo), Platonov (Soul), Mandelstam (The Noise of Time), and Kharms are unimpeachable choices and not as well known as they should be, and I like her statement “Zoo is at once incredibly funny and incredibly sad, like all my favorite books.”
I got the link from Lizok, who also reports on the death last Friday of the poet Elena Shvarts (whose Wikipedia page, oddly, is under the spelling “Schwarz,” which I’ve never seen used for her). Shvarts is much anthologized and widely respected, but her poetry has never done that much for me—too much flayed skin and bloody sacrifice and demonic rage (“И новых демонов семья в голодной злобе/ Учуяла меня. Все та же мука” [“And a family of new demons in hungry rage/ Caught my scent. Still the same torment.”]), not enough… whatever it is I’m looking for in a poem. Still, царство ей небесное (RIP).


It’s rare for me to discover that I’ve been completely wrong about the meaning of a reasonably common word or phrase, so I was shell-shocked just now when I read this definition of the verb compound: “Law forbear from prosecuting (a felony) in exchange for money or other consideration.” But… but… I always had a vague idea that it meant ‘worsen, aggravate’! So I googled around and discovered that I was so far from being alone in my misapprehension that the definition I just quoted seems to be out of date. Bryan A. Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, defines it as “to forbear from prosecuting for consideration, or to cause (a prosecutor) so to forbear” and says:

The word has been sloppily extended because “nonlawyers have misapprehended the meaning of to compound a felony …. [The word] is now widely abused to mean: to make worse, aggravate, multiply, increase.” Philip Howard, New Words for Old 19 (1977). Examples of this looseness of diction abound now even in legal writing. […] It is not quite true, then, at least in the US, that “to write ‘he compounded the offence’ (when what is meant is that he did something to aggravate the offence) is to vex every lawyer who reads the sentence, and to provoke numbers of them to litigious correspondence in defence of their jargon.” Philip Howard, New Words for Old 20 (1977). Nevertheless, we may justifiably lament the fact that generations of young lawyers will not understand the phrase to compound a felony when they see it in the older lawbooks.

So I ask the Varied Reader: were you aware of this? And if you are a lawyer, or familiar with legal usage, how widespread is the new (“sloppy”) extension of meaning—sporadic, frequent, or general?