Archives for June 2010


Months ago, I was following a Google path I no longer remember and Google Books showed me a book that had the “Hail Mary” in Russian. Not a Russian religious book, mind you, but a sort of textbook in English that (as a quick look revealed) had all sorts of odd things in Russian: games, arithmetic, mushrooms… It was The Russian’s World: Life and Language, by Genevra Gerhart. The Amazon page included snippets of professional reviews like “…irreplaceable resource for the non-native scholar … invitation into the culture … author deserves the title ‘Hero(ine) of Scholastic Labor’…” (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages) and “a treasure trove … what all Russians know just by being Russian, and what all students of Russian should know…” (Slavic and East European Journal), and reader reviews like “It cannot be easy to describe an entire country, its People, its culture and its customs, in 400-odd pages. Nonetheless, that is exactly what Ms. Gerhart has done here. She covers not only the basics, the ‘everything you want to know about Russia’ — she delights her readers by covering several things they may not have realized they wanted to know,” “It’s simply awesome! It gives a unique insight into the customs of Russian people as related to their history, their land, and their language,” and “Having lived in Russia for the last two years, and dealt with Russians and Russian life daily, I believe the author has accurately summarized everything you should know prior to arriving or doing business here” (all five-star reviews). Needless to say, I wanted a copy. There was a more recent edition, but it cost more than I felt like paying, and I figured the second edition, from 1994 (after the fall of the USSR), would be up-to-date enough for my purposes, so I ordered it, and I’ve been working my way through it since then.
Having finally finished it—even the appendices on Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks, how to read chemical formulas, Morse code, Braille, and common Russian birds—I’m here to tell you that it’s every bit as good as those reviews made it sound. If it had been around back when I was a Russian major, I might have continued in Russian rather than switching to linguistics; I’ve never seen a book that so effectively immersed you in a culture and showed you what it was like to live in it. Opening the book at random, the Names section has six pages of a Table of Names, giving full name, patronymic form, regular diminutive, and “endearing forms”; then it describes how different forms are used as one grows up:

Small children hear their endearing name form (from the table’s third column) so often that they might think it their official name.[…] The boy will hear Юрочка throughout his life, first from his mother and later, though less frequently, from his wife (who will usually call him Юра). When he is old enough to socialize, his mother will introduce him to new friends as Юра (from the second column). He will address those other children in like manner until he considers them good friends, at which point he and they will often switch to the usually derogatory name: To his friends and siblings he will be Юрка. The derogatory -ка endings are actually used in several ways: they can be used among children to say “You’re my pal”; among adult friends who might be saying something like, “You’re crazy, but I like you anyway”; and by adults toward particularly offensive children. The neighborhood brat would probably be so referred to by almost everyone. […] In class, Yuri’s teacher will often refer to him by his last name alone, or sometimes as Юрий or Юра. The younger he is, the more familiar the teacher will be. Out of class the teacher might call him Юрий, Юра, or Юрочка depending on the situation — Юрий or Юра if emotion is not involved, and Юрочка if he has been hurt, for instance. He will always address his teacher and adults who are not in his family by their full name and patronymic.
At puberty many things change, not the least the boy’s name. Now his friends call him Юра or Юрий most of the time; Юрочка and Юрка remain for special rather than normal use. He comes into his own when he starts work; then he will normally be addressed by his full name and patronymic: Юрий Иванович. Only his relatives and good friends have the privilege of using the diminutive forms of his name.

There follows a section on names before the Revolution (distinguishing educated from peasant names) and after (“In the 1920s it was not uncommon to name one’s child after revolutionary events, leaders, and ideals”). And this is just one section; the book goes into similar detail on clothing (contemporary and folk), housing (apartments both self-contained and communal, peasant houses from various parts of Russia, all with illustrations), food, transportation, education, nature… pretty much any aspect of being Russian is described and analyzed, including mat (Russian cursing), about which Ms. Gerhart is squeamish (“Never, ever use these words. They are not cute or funny, nor will you be if you say them”) but of which she gives a good account, including the occasional pungent saying (Хоть сци в глаза, всё Божья роса, “Pee in their eyes and they still say it’s God’s dew”). She tells you how to talk to animals, she tells you which fish are especially valued, she has illustrations of horse collars and street signs, she explains the rules of gorodki and why bottles of vodka were traditionally drunk by three people (“one could buy half a liter for 2.60 rubles, with 40 kopecks left for a little food to go with it—three people with a ruble each could get together and have a party”). You get the picture. If you’re interested in Russian life and have a minimum acquaintance with the language, I really don’t know how you can do without this book. (I wonder if similar books are available for other languages and cultures?)


I have added to my blogroll the wonderful Sentence first (“An Irishman’s blog about the English language”). It is written by Stan Carey, an occasional LH commenter who says on his About page:

I’m a scientist and writer turned editor and swivel-chair linguist. Sentence first is my blog about the English language: its usage, grammar, styles, literature, history, and quirks. There will also be stories, photos, and miscellany. I live in the west of Ireland, but thanks to modern technology you can read my blog (almost) anywhere. Its title is from a line spoken by the Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.”
I am interested in how people communicate. Words are powerful tools and deserve careful use, but language usage changes constantly. For formal writing and editing I like the plain style, and I am contrarily fascinated by gobbledegook. But because I have had love affairs with various kinds of writing, from science writing and travel writing to fiction and poetry, I am interested in all styles and in the countless ways we express our ideas.

He is clearly a man after my own heart (I am always glad to meet fellow descriptivists, but when they are also professional editors it brings an extra burst of joy), and I particularly commend to your attention his latest post, on snuck as the past tense of sneak. He smacks around a hissy fit thrown by someone at some website called The Awl over the Paris Review’s use of the form (which in a comment to Stan’s post I called “a wonderful word, short, snappy, and vivid”) and provides a detailed account of its history and increasing acceptance, ending with the admirably concise “In conclusion, then, The Awl and Jennifer Garner were wrong, and the Paris Review and Conan O’Brien were right.” (Via Mark Liberman at the Log.)


I wrote about the issue of cannot versus can not way back in 2003; as I said there, “The only context in which can not, two words, occurs is as an emphatic alternative: ‘You can do it, or you can not do it.'” Today ESPN provided a perfect illustration of why the negative must always (except in that rare circumstance) be spelled as one word, cannot. In a graphic at the top of the screen during the disastrous first half against Slovenia (the 2-0 score looked so bad that my brother turned off the TV and took a nap, having gotten up at 3:30 AM to watch the first game of the day), they ran the following announcement:


Now, what that unambiguously says, and the way I first read it, is: “The U.S. team can either fail to advance or be eliminated as a result of today’s games.” That doesn’t make any sense, of course, because if they fail to advance, they’re eliminated, but that’s what it says. A moment’s thought showed that what they meant was not CAN NOT but CANNOT: “It is not possible for the U.S. team to either advance or be eliminated as a result of today’s games.” People make fun of style rules as the hobgoblin of little minds, but this is a good example of why clarity demands them.
Here‘s the NY Times report on the game, which was a thriller. This is not a sports blog and I do not usually say this kind of thing, but the U.S. was robbed by some of the worst refereeing I have ever seen. There was no reason to call back the goal that would have made it 3-2 in the final minutes except blindness or worse. Fie, I say! Fie!


This Slate article by Rosecrans Baldwin is both the funniest and the most intriguing thing I’ve read in a while. He starts off by observing that “Novelists can’t resist including a dog barking in the distance,” and hits you with enough examples, from all levels of literature, that you accept the phenomenon as valid. But what does it mean? He says:

Trains whistle, breezes blow, dogs bark. You’re thinking, “So what if novels are full of barking dogs? The world is full of them, too.” But I don’t find it curious when actual dogs turn up in novels. Dogs that authors bother to describe, or turn into characters, don’t pull me out of my reading trance. The thing is, these so-called dogs are nameless and faceless, and frankly I doubt them; it’s the curious incident when one actually does come into view. Really, are there so many out-of-sight, noisy dogs in the world? Listen: My bet is you’ll hear a highway, an A/C unit, or another human before a dog starts yelping.
Most authors, however, employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time; since the bark is hollow, a reader can read anything into it, or nothing at all. Charlaine Harris, queen of the vampire authors, in Dead as a Doornail: “The entire parking lot was empty, except for Jan’s car. The glare of the security lights made the shadows deeper. I heard a dog bark way off in the distance.” The chief of Scandinavian crime writers, Henning Mankell: “She begins to tell him. The curtain in the kitchen window flutters gently, and a dog barks in the distance” (The Eye of the Leopard). And “genre” books aren’t the only guilty category. Take 2666, Robert Bolaño’s magnum opus: “The window looked out over the garden, which was still lit. A scent of flowers and wet grass drifted into the room. In the distance he heard a dog bark.” For all we know, these dogs are off-camera sound machines set to woof.
Martin Amis says, “All writing is a campaign against cliché.” Well, what if these dogs aren’t just cliché, but something more? What if they’re a meme? Perhaps distant dogs are a way for novelists to wink at one another, at their extraordinary luck for being allowed into the publishing club. When an author incorporates a faceless barking dog into his novel, he’s like an amateur at Harlem’s Apollo Theater rubbing the Tree of Hope—he does it because so many others have done it before him, and it might just bring him some luck.

The ending is hilarious; I won’t spoil it for you, but I hope you will visit the link and read it for yourself. (Hat tip to Dave Wilton at
Addendum. A nice addition to the corpus (thanks, Rick!): “Nayland Smith walked to a window, and looked out across the sloping lawn to where the shadows of the shrubbery lay. A dog was howling dismally somewhere.” (The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Ch. 7)


I ran across the participle stymieing, and it looked wrong, so I looked it up (for that matter, it still does—I just looked it up again to make sure). Of course, while I was at it I checked the etymology, and got quite a surprise: the familiar verb meaning ‘stand in the way of, be an obstacle to’ was originally a Scottish golf term meaning ‘obstruct a golf shot by interposing your ball,’ or in the words of the OED “To put (one’s opponent or oneself) into the position of having to negotiate a stymie; also intr. (of a ball) to intervene as a stymie.” As you can see from this, the verb comes from an earlier noun (of obscure origin): “An opponent’s ball which lies on the putting green in a line between the ball of the player and the hole he is playing for, if the distance between the balls is not less than six inches; also, the occurrence of this; often in the phrase to lay a stymie.” The first citation is:
1834 Rules of Musselburgh Golf Club in C. B. Clapcott Rules of Golf of 10 Oldest Golf Clubs (1935) 66 With regard to Stimies the ball nearest the hole if within six inches shall be lifted.
Is anybody familiar with this golf usage? The latest citation in the OED is from 1901.


Lane Greene of The Economist writes to tell me about their new language blog, Johnson. It won my heart in the first entry I looked at, Wild pigs versus cucumber troops, when I saw the following sentence: “The Etymologisches Wö[r]terbuch der deutschen Sprache notes that Gurke is a loan word from Polish (ogurek or ogorek), which in turn comes from the Middle Greek agovros, meaning ‘unripe’ or ‘immature’.” That could have come straight out of LH, and any blog that quotes the Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache is jake with me. Furthermore, in their first post, after explaining that the blog is a revival of a monthly column on the English language written in the ’90s by Stephen Hugh-Jones (available here), they say “this blog is not to be primarily about peeves—’we simply can’t stand it when someone says thus-and-such,” which of course was music to my ears (and has proven to be true). In their second post, they mocked the absurd Queen’s English Society (also mocked by Mark Liberman at the Log and by John McIntyre at You Don’t Say, e.g., here). And they’ve already taken a couple of whacks at the NY Times for their prudery (“We learn from Jeffrey Goldberg that the Times will not even print the Yiddishism ‘tuchus’. Oy.”). All in all, I feel confident in giving Johnson the coveted Languagehat Seal of Approval.
And I have to pass on their hilarious post about their name:

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I’m back in body (after a more or less sleepless night and a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride), but my spirit is weak, so for the moment I’ll just pass along this enjoyable word dug out of the recesses of the OED by aldiboronti at

twiffler, n.
Now Hist.
[ad. Du. twijfelaar something intermediate between two types (also as below), f. twijfelen be unsure, vacillate.]
A plate or shallow dish intermediate in size between a dessert plate and a dinner plate.

It is, of course, related to German Zweifel ‘doubt’ and has as its root the number twij twee, zwei, two.
And for lagniappe: Referees Brush Up on Curses in 17 Languages (for the World Cup).


I’m off to Rhode Island, the home of the cabinet, for the weekend. I’ll be staying with an old friend who delighted me with the explanation she had come up with for the odd name: carbonate, in the odd dialect of Vode Island, sounds pretty much exactly like cabinet. The Wikipedia entry calls this “unsubstantiated,” but it works for me. Have a good weekend; I’ll be back at my desk Sunday evening.


I was thunderstruck (well, surprised anyway, but I’m feeling a little weak-brained this morning, so it hit me strongly) to discover from this post of Anatoly’s that the Russian words “меч” and “шпага” are felt by Russians to be completely different things. Because they are both defined as “sword” in bilingual dictionaries, I assumed they were synonyms. It seems, however, that меч [mech] is the kind of sword you go into battle with, whereas шпага [shpaga] is the kind of sword you fence with. Anatoly can’t quite see how a language can mix up two such obviously distinct objects; as I say in his comment thread, I can sort of see the distinction, and I suppose as I read Russian with it in mind it will become clearer, but the two concepts will never be as distinct for me as they are for a Russian-speaker. Without diving into the Swamp of Sapir-Whorf, this is a clear example of the kind of effect language has on thought.
It is interesting, however, that the Wikipedia articles Шпага and Меч have the identical illustration, in the latter labeled “Изображение двенадцати разных мечей” [twelve different meches] and in the former “ново-прусские шпаги” [new-Prussian shpagas].


I’ve always vaguely wondered about the phrase past master—was there or wasn’t there also a passed master, and did the one come from the other?—and I’ve finally looked it up in the OED. The earliest form is
pass, v. 40. b. intr. To reach the required standard in an examination, course, etc. Formerly freq. with complement (esp. in to pass master): to graduate as, to become qualified as; (occas.) trans., to approve (a person) as. First cite: ?1566-7 G. BUCHANAN Opinion Reformation Univ. St. Andros in Vernacular Writings 13 Ane of profession of medicine passit maister, and ane regent in humanite.
From there we get passed master as a noun phrase meaning “A person who is especially adept or expert in a specified subject or activity”; first cite: 1882 H. C. MERIVALE Faucit of Balliol I. vi. 96 Faucit was a passed master as a guide to the classics.
But then there’s the more familiar past master, which (it turns out) is originally from the Freemasons:

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