Archives for April 2010


The New York Times recently had a symposium headlined “Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?” For the most part it’s fairly predictable thumbsucking on the part of a bunch of intelligent people (John McWhorter, Deborah Tannen, Tony McEnery, Lee Siegel, Ilya Somin, and Timothy Jay) who don’t really have anything interesting to say about the topic (“swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way”—well, duh), but McEnery, who wrote the classic Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present, has a nice summary of some of his findings:

Purity of speech has been associated for so long with power in public life in the English speaking world that it is almost inconceivable that it could ever have been different. Yet it was — a powerful example of this comes from James I’s participation in an ecclesiastical debate in the early 17th century. When he said that he did not give a “turd” for the argument of a leading cleric, James did not attract opprobrium. He attracted praise — those present were impressed by his debating skills, not appalled at his choice of words. This is unimaginable now. How did the change come about?
Starting in the late 17th century a movement swept the English speaking world which firmly linked purity of speech with power. Groups like the Society for the Reformation of Manners in the British Isles and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in the colonies began to fight against sin in all of its forms by preaching and prosecution. A main target for them was bad language….
The hypocrisy of public purity but private impurity also has deep roots. Eighteenth-century campaigners gave up on any attempt to regulate behavior in the private sphere, quickly accepting that people could use whatever language they wished in private as long as their public speech was pure. It is to such campaigners that we can ascribe examples such as Richard Nixon, who simultaneously managed to crusade for an improvement in public morals while revealing himself on the White House tapes to have a full command of bad language.
The campaigns of the late 17th and early 18th century that linked bad language with moral degeneracy, low education and general brutishness were incredibly successful in forming views of bad language that endure in the English language to this day. They were also successful at establishing the nascent middle classes of the English speaking world as a locus of purity and hence a locus of power….

(I stole from McEnery shamelessly in the introduction to the English section of my own curses book.)


I’ve read a fair amount about the Google Book settlement, but I haven’t seen a more helpful explanation than Annalee Newitz’s “5 Ways The Google Book Settlement Will Change The Future of Reading.” After a history of how the settlement came about, she discusses it under the following headings:
1. It may become harder to get information online about books from writers you love.
2. You will find yourself reading free books online, by authors who have disappeared. And Google will make money when you do.
3. Google will be competing with Apple and Amazon and everybody else to be your favorite online bookseller.
4. Libraries and bookstores will be the same thing.
5. Pulp science fiction will make a comeback in ways you might not expect.
Her conclusion:

We can once again have access to weird, unusual stories that are both awesome and not sustainable under publishing’s current blockbuster model. Writers of small and midlist SF books could start making money on their writing again. This is a good thing for authors and readers who love imaginative fiction.
I want to live in a future where I can find the lesbian alien “Journey To My Tentacle Cave” series on the shelves next to Stephenie Meyer’s latest celebration of vampire celibacy – and one click away from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That is a future of economically-sustainable openness in the stacks. And I think, with careful regulation, the GBS could be the first shaky step on the road that will take us there.

I’m sure some of you know a lot more about this than I do and have thought more about it; I’ll be glad to hear your reactions.


The Language Portal of Canada “is a Web site that showcases Canadian expertise in the area of language.” According to the About page, it offers:

* free access to language tools online;
* articles and writing tips, word games and exercises (the Well Written, Well Said section);
* a collection of links to language-related works and sites (the Discover section);
* Canadian writing tools and content produced by governments, universities, and others;
* language-related articles signed by our contributors;
* information in English and French, and in some Aboriginal languages;
* and much more.

The French equivalent is Le Portail linguistique du Canada. I don’t have time to investigate it thoroughly now, but it’s clearly packed with goodies. Thanks, Paul!


Admit it, you have no idea how to say Eyjafjallajökull. That’s OK, neither do I and neither do the announcers who are so valiantly trying to report the news of its eruption and consequent disruption of air travel while inwardly wishing it were named something more like Vesuvius. Well, now we can at least hear it said properly, even if we have a hard time reproducing it (for values of “we” that do not include actual Icelanders, of course), thanks to Mark Liberman at the Log.
Addendum. It turns out the Russians write Эйяфьядлайёкюдль [Eiyaf’yadlayokyudl’], which enables them at least to get the -dl- thing right.


One of the best books of the last decade is in danger of going out of print, which, aside from being a crying shame in its own right, would make it harder for its author, Helen DeWitt, to get another book into the marketplace. But it doesn’t have to happen. As her latest post says:

Suppose one reader in each state and province persuades a non-bookselling outlet to stock 5 copies of The Last Samurai. Maybe you go to the same café every day, maybe you work in one; maybe you have a yarn shop, or a hardware store, or a motel; maybe you’re a vet or a dentist or a hairdresser with a waiting room and captive audience; maybe you’re an academic with helpful students; maybe you know of a Kurosawa festival, or a screening of Seven Samurai; or maybe you fall in none of these categories but you have persuadable friends or family who do. A couple of hundred or so books leave the warehouse. Paperpools publishes the details of the locations; we set up a Google Map; more copies are out in the world.
That may not sound like much. In the great scheme of Nelsen Bookscan (if you don’t know, you don’t want to) it isn’t much. But it does, obviously, represent a change of direction from steadily decreasing sales it puts the book in places where it can be recommended by people who like it; it would be a big help.

So if you’d like to help out an author who’s had more than her share of bad luck and could use a break, as well as make it more likely that we’ll all get a chance to read more of her work, give it a try; she says “The people to call are Customer Services, 1-800-242-7737.” (And if you know of a good agent, she could use one.)


Victor Mair has a Log post going into great detail about the many uses of the symbol Q in Chinese. I had been familiar with it only from the title of Lu Xun‘s famous “The True Story of Ah Q” (阿Q正傳), but it has many other uses:

If anyone should try to outlaw Q from all Chinese writing, then there would be no way to talk about the most famous work of modern Chinese fiction or the best-selling Chinese mini-car, and one would not be able to describe the texture of mochi, gummy bears, and lots of other delectables, nor would one be able to ask one’s friend to Q him on QQ, and you’d never be able to get out of Warcraft II.

And it is used for a basic Cantonese swear word: “the Q is read as [lan2] (‘vulgar morphosyllable for male sex organ’). Since lan2 does not sound at all like Q, the Q is not being used for phonetic purposes, but may perhaps be graphically suggestive.”


I have more than once had occasion to use the online Encyclopædia Iranica; I have been grateful for its amazing compilation of information, but frustrated by the user interface and the problems with scanning and character reproduction. Now peacay (of the superb Bibliodyssey) informs me that it has relaunched with much improved functionality, or as their about page puts it: “This digital version was developed in 2009-2010, in collaboration with the web design company Electric Pulp, to provide a more user-friendly interface for accessing the Encyclopædia‘s online content.” To give you an idea of the riches it contains, here are a few paragraphs from (more or less at random) the DĀḠESTĀN article:

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I’m slowly making my way through Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited by Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally, and I’m now on Ronald LeBlanc’s “A la recherche du genre perdu: Fielding, Gogol, and Bakhtin’s Genre Memory.” One of LeBlanc’s points is that the undoubted influence of Fielding on Gogol was mediated by translations, and he has some eye-opening things to say about the translations that would have been available to Gogol (and the other Russian writers of his day, none of whom read English easily, if at all):

…Gogol, like other readers in early nineteenth-century Russia, was likely to have been acquainted not with Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749), but rather with counterfeit versions: La Place’s Histoire de Tom Jones, ou L’Enfant trouvé (1750), or even Kharlamov’s Povest’ o Tomase Ionese, ili Naidenyshe (1770).
I use the word “counterfeit” to characterize La Place’s translation because even a cursory textual analysis reveals that the French version of Tom Jones (and Kharlamov’s later Russian version, patterned with scrupulous fidelity on that French translation)48 inflicts serious damage — both stylistically and thematically — upon Fielding’s original text. Although the extreme distortions that were authorized by the liberal translation theory regnant in eighteenth-century France have been examined elsewhere, we should recall briefly the extreme liberties that were regularly committed during this period. These liberties were largely authorized by the neoclassicist theory of bienséance, an aesthetic notion that allowed translations into French to become, in essence, adaptations, as its governing principle was to preserve the proprieties of artistic decorum. In order to spare highly civilized French readers the need to expose themselves to the literary “barbarism” perpetrated by “vulgar” novels imported from Spain and England, translators in eighteenth-century France felt justified in adapting foreign works to suit the sophisticated tastes and refined sensibilities of their native reading audience. … The process of modifying Spanish and English works in order to have them please Gallic literary palates generally entailed two main operations: first, a foreshortening of the work, by eliminating unnecessary digressions, lengthy descriptions, or moral commentaries; and, second, its refinement, by expurgating vulgar imagery, unsavory details, or inelegant language. The eighteenth-century practice of bienséance resulted in bowdlerized French editions of such seminal works of modern European literature as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Fielding’s Tom Jones, foreign novels that were considered too virile and too primitive to be read in France in their original form.

That footnote 48 is quite striking in its own right:

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When I copyedit dictionaries, I find lots of material for LH. When, as now, I edit a collection of historiographical articles, it’s slim pickings, but I did run across an interesting term that was new to me. In one article, the author used the word “postdictive”; I was all set to write a query suggesting an actual word be used instead, but Google informed me it is in fact a word, though not a common one. As this Wikipedia article explains, retrodiction or postdiction “is the act of making a ‘prediction’ about the past. … One speculates about uncertain events in the more distant past so that the theory would have predicted a known event in the less distant past. … Postdiction, in a slightly different sense, is used to evaluate speculative theories such as those formulated by theoretical physicists. In this case it refers to predicting known (but not necessarily past) events.” An awkward term for a useful concept.
Addendum. See this 2011 post for a nice use of postdiction.


Helen’s Steakhouse—sorry, I mean Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος—is one of those blogs whose irregular schedule of publication always throws me for a loop. It’ll go for days and days without change, and I’ll get tired of clicking on it and ignore it for a week or so, and then I’ll go back and discover a spate of (invariably fascinating) posts, and I’ll have to drop everything and catch up. This is one of those times, and I really didn’t have the time to read all that, because I’m working against a tight deadline on a massive editing job, but it was such irresistible material that, well, I couldn’t resist. It’s actually a good thing that I let them pile up, because if I’d read them one at a time I’d have wanted to blog each one, and LH would have turned into a reprint service. As it is, all I can do is point you to them and tell you to go read the posts and the conversations that develop in the comment threads. So, in chronological order, here they are:
Soviet Orthography of Greek, about the spelling reform that took place in the USSR in 1925.
Demotic in the Soviet Union, about the two major groups of ethnic Greeks in the USSR—the Pontians who migrated to Russia and the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Mariupolitans, who originally lived in the Crimea—and the debate over what form of Greek to use as the official language of the Soviet Greek nationality.
Shevchenko in Mariupolitan and Urum, which presents translations of a famous Ukrainian poem into Mariupolitan Greek and Urum Greco-Tatar.
The status of Urum: “How it came to pass that a group of Christians spoke Tatar and followed Greek-speakers to the Ukraine is a question we’re not equipped to answer.” The question is, why didn’t they become a separate nationality during the Springtime of the Nationalities, which “was all about splittism, raising new national consciousness where there was none before”?
Mariupolitan transcribed through Russian ears, a rather technical post about the phonemes of that variety of Greek.
I won’t try to quote enticing bits from each, because I’d wind up reproducing reams of Nick’s prose; instead I’ll just tell you that if you’re at all interested in this stuff, you need to go over there and stay a while. The one bit I will quote is a question for which I too would like an answer:

Agtzidis’ article ends with a question: Soviet language policy was eager to split ethnicities within the USSR from their kin outside: Moldavian differentiated from Rumanian, Buryat from Mongolian. Why then did Moscow affirm Demotic in 1934, instead of encouraging local norms of Pontic and Mariupolitan—which would inevitably have separated the local Greeks from the Downlanders? I don’t know, and I’m curious if readers that know about the politics of the time have any opinion.

And I’ll pass along a passage from a powerfully written post, Greeks speaking the wrong language, from his other blog, opɯdʒɯlɯklɑr:

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