Archives for September 2010


I was taught in school, half a century or so ago, that you had to use a possessive with a gerund (or “verbal noun”): I resented his saying that, not I resented him saying that. I never gave it much thought, but Mark Liberman has, and he posted about it a few days ago. He quotes the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage to the effect that both forms have been used for quite some time, occasionally by the same person in the same document (Ian Ballantine, in a letter dated Aug. 5, 1939, wrote both “in spite of the book being out of print for many years” and “in spite of the company’s not having any intention of issuing a new edition”). In typically pithy fashion, MWDEU says:

From the middle of the 18th century to the present time, […] grammarians and other commentators have been baffled by the construction. They cannot parse it, they cannot explain it, they cannot decide whether the possessive is correct or not.

So Mark did one of his Breakfast Experiments, checking several corpuses and presenting the results in a striking graph. His conclusions:

* The difference between writing and speech is very large.
* Since about 1950, writing has apparently been moving in the direction of speech.
* There’s some indication that spoken norms may also be changing, in the same anti-genitive direction.
* It’s possible that there was a change in the anti-genitive direction in the late 19th century, perhaps held up by prescriptive forces (?).

He has continued the investigation here, and I look forward to reading more about it; in any event, I’m glad to have been able to shed yet another unconsidered shibboleth from grammar-school days. Use the possessive or not; it’s all good!


Via a John Cowan comment to this post at Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa, I found this essay, “Don’t Proliferate; Transliterate!” by Nick Nicholas, aka opoudjis (of Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος). It’s a fascinating look at what Unicode takes account of and what it doesn’t, what kinds of script will probably never be included (Akkadian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic) and why (“standardisation for such scripts is hard, and the people who would do the standardisation don’t need it”), how Greek epichoric scripts have been handled traditionally in various contexts (“Epichoric is Greek for ‘local’ (ἐπιχώριος), and the fact that epigraphers call local alphabets epichoric instead of local is the kind of turf practice you might expect from the industry”), and finally the issue of target transliteration script:

The choice of script to transliterate-not-proliferate into for Western scholarship was dictated by two principles: patrimony and accessibility. If you were a Slavonicist writing for other Slavonicists, or an Arabists writing for other Arabists, you would be expected to leave your Cyrillic and Arabic (or Syriac or Hebrew) untransliterated: that was the patrimony you were discussing, after all. Your target audience would be sure to already know Cyrillic and Arabic….
If on the other hand you were discussing material in a script which did not make it to print, but was present only in the original sources (accessible to the scholarly republic only with difficulty), then it was your business to transliterate it out of the original script, into a script you deemed accessible—and which corresponded to your notion of the script’s patrimony. Gothic was deemed part of the Germanic patrimony; so it was transliterated out of the long extinct and unfamiliar, Greek-like Gothic script, into the same alphabet used for Old English and Old Norse (with an addition or two). Slavicists rejected Glagolitic in favor of Cyrillic, as Glagolitic was not regarded as accessible enough, being restricted in printed use to a corner of Dalmatia….
In the late 20th century, the abandonment of Classical education means that you cannot expect a general linguist to have any fluency in reading Greek, and Greek is universally transliterated in generalist contexts (outside of traditional historical linguistics).

It’s fascinating stuff, and I urge anyone intrigued by the excerpts to go read the whole thing.


Fred R. Shapiro’s regular “You Can Quote Them” feature for the Yale Alumni Magazine is always a pleasure, and this month’s column has a spectacularly unexpected explanation for a familiar phrase:

Searchable collections of historical texts can lead to discoveries that transform our understanding of the provenance of certain words, phrases, and quotations. So it is with the term lunatic fringe.
In the Yale Book of Quotations, I gave the standard sourcing for this political/social expression:

[Of an international exhibition of modern art:] The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.
—Theodore Roosevelt, Outlook, March 29, 1913

More recently, I searched for lunatic fringe in historical databases. To my surprise, I found many uses from before 1913—all in a very different sense from Roosevelt’s. Here are a few:

“The girls!” exclaimed Miss Lizzie, lifting her eyebrows till they met the “lunatic fringe” of hair which straggled uncurled down her forehead.
Oliver Optic’s Magazine, February 1874
“LUNATIC Fringe” is the name given to the fashion of cropping the hair and letting the ends hang down over the forehead.
Wheeling Daily Register, July 24, 1875
The “lunatic fringe” is still the mode in New York hair-dressing.
Chicago Inter Ocean, May 24, 1876

It appears, then, that Teddy Roosevelt was playing on an existing phrase. His usage was a metaphorical extension of an expression previously applied to bangs—evidently, bangs that were considered outré. Fringe is still used in Britain for bangs, but the usage has been abandoned for so long in the United States that lexicographers were completely unaware of the coiffure-related prehistory of lunatic fringe.

And so a clever pun became a boring cliché of political discourse.


The Russian word белок [belók] means a number of things, including ‘egg white’ and ‘white of the eye’ (it’s based on the adjective белый [bélyi] ‘white’), but the sense that concerns us here is ‘albumen; protein.’ The Russian Academy of Sciences has an institute devoted to studying protein, called, reasonably enough, Институт белка [institút belká], with белок in the genitive case: ‘Institute of protein.’ Now, it so happens that there is another word белка in Russian, though this one has the stress on the first syllable, and it is the nominative of the word for ‘squirrel.’ The Institute has unwisely allowed the English version of their web page to be done by automatic translation, and you can see the result here. (Via Anatoly.)
Update. It’s been fixed now, but you can see a screenshot here.


A couple of minor word issues:
1) My wife made a delicious peach cobbler and asked me why such things were called “cobblers.” Once I’d finished off my portion, I dashed to the OED and discovered that it cravenly included it as sense 4 under “One whose business it is to mend shoes” and didn’t even try to justify the semantic development. The AHD sensibly separated the words, but had “Origin unknown” for the etymology. Even Wikipedia didn’t venture a guess. The only attempt I’ve found is here: “Cobbler is made with fruit and chunks of dough, sort of a lazy-man’s pie, and those chunks of dough, forming the top crust of the dessert, might be see[n] to resemble the rounded surface of a cobbled road.” Well, OK, that makes sense. I guess it’ll do for now.
2) Reading Anthony Lane’s review of Neil Marshall’s new movie Centurion, I hit the sentence “Marshall offers his characters no such room for conversation, requiring them, instead, to gouge, behead, and hack anything remotely Pictish that hoves into view” and stopped dead. This from a writer who obviously prides himself on his style and a magazine that once gloried in its impeccancy! Hove is an archaic past tense, maintained in nautical usage, of the verb heave; we say “he heaved it up,” but “the ship hove into view.” As a staunch descriptivist, I shouldn’t allow myself to say such things, but hoves strikes me as completely illiterate. As always, though, I am willing to be corrected; if any readers say it sounds fine to them, I will sigh and chalk my reaction up to old-fartism.


I am absolutely delighted to learn that Geoff Pullum’s coinage eggcorn (which I wrote about back in 2004) has made it to the official word-hoard of the English language. There is now a draft entry (Sept. 2010) for eggcorn, n., 1. = ACORN n., 2. An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word. In allusion to sense 1, which is an example of such an alteration. Here are the citations:

2003 M. LIBERMAN Egg Corns: Folk Etymol., Malapropism, Mondegreen? (Update) in (Weblog) 30 Sept. (O.E.D. Archive), Geoff Pullum suggests that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them ‘egg corns’, in the metonymic tradition of ‘mondegreen’. 2004 Boston Globe (Nexis) 12 Dec. K5 Shakespeare’s Hamlet said he was ‘to the manner born’, but the eggcorn ‘to the manor born’ has wide currency. 2006 New Scientist 26 Aug. 52/2 Eggcorns often involve replacing an unfamiliar or archaic word with a more common one, such as ‘old-timer’s’ disease for Alzheimer’s. 2010 K. DENHAM & A. LOBECK Linguistics for Everyone i. 13 Crucially, eggcorns make sense, often more than the original words.

I got the good news from Ben Zimmer’s post at the Log.


I quoted a brief poem by Charles Reznikoff back in 2003; I thought I’d provide a larger sampling, a couple of sections from his 1969 poem “Jews in Babylonia”:


Plough, sow and reap,
thresh and winnow
in the season of the wind;
a woman is grinding wheat
or baking bread.
In the third watch of the night
the child sucks from the breast of its mother
and the woman talks with her husband.
Plough, sow and reap,
bind the sheaves, thresh and winnow;
shear the sheep,
wash the wool,
comb it and weave it.
Wheat and barley,
straw and stubble;
the cock crows, the horse neighs, and the ass brays;
an ox is grazing in a meadow or straying on the road
or rubbing itself against a wall
(a black ox for its hide,
a red one for its flesh,
and a white one for ploughing);
plough, sow, cut, bind, thresh, winnow, and set up a stack.

[Read more…]


“The Rohonc Codex (pronounced [ˈrohont͡s] in Hungarian) is a set of writings in an unknown writing system.” I take that description from the start of the linked Wikipedia article, which goes on to provide a thorough discussion of the history and features of the codex and attempts to translate it (pretty fruitless, since no one knows what language, if any, it’s written in). I ran across this gem of obscure mystery in Shii’s Best of Wikipedia page, where you will find many other interesting things in his Almanac of Wonders.


The fearsomely learned Conrad has sent me an excellent OED find, the long-forgotten word bridelope:

[late OE. brýdlóp, either:—*brýdhléap, or ad. ON. brúðhlaup, brullaup (Sw. bröllopp, Da. bryllup) wedding; cf. OHG. brûthlauft, -louft, MHG. brûtlouf, Ger. (arch.) brautlauf; f. OTeut. brûđi- BRIDE + hlaup- run, LEAP.]
The oldest known Teutonic name for ‘Wedding’: lit. ‘the bridal run’, or ‘gallop’, in conducting the bride to her new home. See Grimm, Brautlauf: and cf. BROOSE [“A race on horseback, or on foot, by the young men present at country weddings in the north”]. ? Only in OE.

Unfortunately, Robin, the bride at the wedding I just got back from, was in too much back pain to do any running or galloping, but she was a real trouper, and I suspect the joy of the occasion more than made up for the discomfort. And Jim, known around these parts as jamessal, had a goofy smile on his face the entire time I was there and was clearly thrilled to be marrying her, as well he might be. The two of them are now off on their honeymoon, and I’m sure they carry the best wishes of the entire LH crowd with them.
I felt a little trepidation setting out on a journey that required essentially sitting on buses for two complete days and spending the intervening days as an outsider in a vortex of family wedding preparation (I was staying with Jim’s parents, Nathan and Lydia), but everyone was so genuinely welcoming I never felt a moment’s awkwardness and was able to fully enjoy the food, drink, and good company. The food was amazing, especially the rehearsal dinner at Elements (an extensive tasting menu that left some diners defeated and asking for doggie bags, but of which I ate every bite); the drink was provided by Mattias Hagglund, the bartender at Elements and a friend of Jim’s, who created concoctions for the wedding reception called Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Blue (I had the last-named, a mixture of Blue Goose vodka, curacao, and peach liqueur served in a martini glass, and it was so delicious it was only with the sternest self-discipline, and the memory of the effects of the previous night’s alcoholic consumption, that I denied myself a second glass); and the company was so exhilarating I wish I could have spent much more time in it: Jim’s uncle Ken Robbins (who was also staying in the house, and who turned out to be one of the few people I can enjoy talking with when hung over), Jim Haba and his wife Erica (an artist who works in tiles so vivid they made me wish for much more color in the built world around us), Kathryn Levy (whose excitement at finding a fellow Lorine Niedecker fan was such that she dropped her glass)… I know I’m forgetting other names, but the point is, it was a wonderful crowd well worth staying up till 2 AM for. Don’t worry, I’m not about to turn LH into a social calendar, but it’s not often I get to do things like this, and I wanted to record it. Oh, and there’s even a language book involved: Ken gave me a copy of Wordly Wise, by James McDonald (a mathematician who loves word history), which I look forward to immersing myself in.
Totally not LH-related, but wedding-related and a lot of fun: Vanessa’s Wedding Surprise. Warning: schmaltz!


But I wound up taking a later bus than expected and will have to defer a real post until tomorrow. I just wanted to reassure everyone that the wedding went off splendidly and I enjoyed myself thoroughly, I met interesting people and had a number of good conversations about poetry, language, and other exciting topics, and I was sent back home with new books and a bottle of scotch. And so to bed.