Archives for November 2010


An opinion piece by Jane Gardam in today’s NY Times is pretty badly written, in my view (one paragraph begins “A single glove. The glove of a king. A 14th-century king. Chaucer’s king”), but that (sadly) is not particularly surprising. What astonished me was the following sentence, about Richard II’s glove:

The scrap of glove (How odd to wear gloves in your coffin. One wonders if everyone did.) was pushed into the cigarette box and has lain beneath the pavement round St. Martin in the Fields for all these years.

One can cram all sorts of things into parentheses, and I often do (as witness the first one above), but this immediately struck me as being beyond the pale; it consists of two extraneous sentences tossed in, and both the initial capital and the final period seem… not even wrong, I believe the phrase goes. (I myself, if I were to keep the wording, would punctuate it “The scrap of glove—how odd to wear gloves in your coffin; one wonders if everyone did—was pushed into the cigarette box.”) But, as always, I suspect myself of fuddy-duddyism and/or parochialism, so I ask the Varied Reader: does this sort of parenthesis seem acceptable to you? And are you aware of other published examples? It’s not the sort of thing you can easily google for.


Mark Liberman at the Log writes about a Kyiv Post article by Paul Goble that begins: “A statement by a Kazakhstan minister that his country will eventually shift from a Cyrillic-based alphabet to a Latin-based script and reports that some scholars in Dushanbe are considering dropping another four Russian letters from the Tajik alphabet suggest that a new battle of the alphabets may again be shaping up in Central Asia.” It’s well worth reading, far better informed than most journalistic attempts to deal with linguistic matters, and contains interesting links. And it gives me a chance to plug some of my favorite Log posts of all time, those dealing with Central Asian alphabets: How alphabetic is the nature of molecules, Birlashdirilmish yangi Turk alifbesi, and Vaslav Tchitcherine, call your office—not to mention my own Language in Central Asia. As I said there, be grateful you weren’t trying to become literate in that part of the world in the 1930s.


One of the things (besides poetic genius) that has always made Pushkin stand out from the Russian literary crowd is his African ancestry; his mother’s grandfather Abram Gannibal was taken as a boy from somewhere in Africa to the court of the Ottoman Sultan as a hostage, from whence he was ransomed by the deputy of the Russian ambassador, baptized in Vilna (now Vilnius), sent to Paris for an education (while there he fought with the French army, rose to the rank of captain, and adopted his surname in honor of Hannibal), and brought to Russia, where he became prominent at Elizabeth‘s court and retired in 1762 a major-general and a rich man. It has never been clear where exactly he came from; Nabokov devoted a longish appendix to his four-volume Eugene Onegin to him (published separately as half of this book) and considers several possibilities, ending by saying “I am inclined to assume that it was situated in the general region of Northern Abyssinia, where we have been following, through the bibliographic dust, the mules and camels of several adventurous caravans.” (It is in the course of this discussion that he makes the following astonishing declaration in a footnote: “This writer fervently hopes that the Cyrillic alphabet, together with the even more absurd characters of Asiatic languages, will be completely scrapped some near day.”)
However, in the mid-1990s Dieudonné Gnammankou, a historian and Slavist from Benin, published a book claiming that the mysterious “Lagon(e)” that Gannibal mentioned as his birthplace was actually the sultanate of Logone-Birni, now in the extreme north of Cameroon; the theory, at first controversial, has apparently won some acceptance in Russia itself, and has been given official recognition on a plaque recently affixed to a wall of the barracks of the former royal artillery academy at La Fère, France. You can read all about it in Serge Schmemann’s New York Times article, which I found linked in a post at Jamie Olson’s The Flaxen Wave.


I’ve been rolling my eyes over the nonsense that’s been making the rounds lately about Jane Austen and her alleged editor (example: “How Jane Austen failed at spelling: Study shows author wrote in a ‘regional accent’ and used poor punctuation”) but have been too lazy to write about it; fortunately, Language Log and Fresh Air stalwart Geoff Nunberg has saved me the trouble. Executive summary: “I concluded that the whole business was meretricious nonsense”; there’s much more detail at that LLog post (which quotes his Fresh Air segment in extenso).


I am delighted to discover, via that unfailing source of goodness wood s lot, a blog called Idiotic Hat (run by Mike, a university librarian in Southampton, U.K.), and via this IdioHat post to learn that… well, I’ll let Mike tell it:

Readers of this blog will already know that I am a fan of the eminent British artist, Tom Phillips[…]. Tom’s long-standing (44 year) project to mine aleatory significance from that most unlikely but almost preposterously fruitful I-Ching — the Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, chosen at random from a second-hand bookshop — is already the stuff of legend. If you don’t own a copy of at least one edition of A Humument, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.
Now, incredibly, Tom has made A Humument available as an iPad app.

Like Mike, I neither have nor am likely to have an iPad, but I encourage anything that spreads awareness of this wonderful work (I have the 1982 Thames and Hudson edition); the book has its own website, where you can read about it and see samples. It would take a stern purist indeed to object to this form of defacing a book.


You’d think I’d be familiar with the etymologies of the basic English vocabulary words, but I keep running into surprises. This one comes courtesy of aldiboronti at wanton has the only survival in modern English of a formerly common prefix, wan-, about which the OED says:

a prefix expressing privation or negation (approximately equivalent to UN-1 or MIS-), repr. OE. wan-, won-, corresponding to OFris. wan-, won-, OS. wan- (only in wanskefti misfortune = OE. wansceaft), MLG., MDu. wan- (mod.Du. in many new formations, esp. in the sense ‘wrong’, ‘mis-’, as in wanbestuur misgovernment, wanluid discordant sound), OHG. wan-, wana (only in wanwâfan unarmed, wanaheil unhealthy, infirm, wanawizzi lacking wit, insane), MHG. wan- (only in wanwitze inherited from OHG.), mod.G. wahn- (in wahnwitz, wahnsinn insanity, commonly apprehended as compounds of wahn n., delusion; also in some dialect words, chiefly adopted from LG.); ON., Sw., Da. van- (in many old formations, to which mod.Sw. and Da. have added many more, chiefly adopted from LG.). The prefix is in origin identical with WANE a.
  In OE. the number of words formed with the prefix is considerable, but none of them has survived into modern English, and only one (wanspéd, ill-success) into ME. Of the many new formations that arose in ME., only wantoȝen, undisciplined, WANTON, still survives in use (with no consciousness of its etymological meaning)…

And here all these years I just assumed Wahnsinn was from Wahn. This wan- is probably related to Latin vānus ’empty, idle, vain.’ As for the second part, toȝen is the past participle of téon ‘to discipline, train,’ a strong verb (past téah, tuȝon) related to German ziehen, zog, gezogen, Goth. tiuhan, táuh, tauhum, tauhans, and Latin dūcere ‘to lead, draw,’ as well as to English tow ‘to draw, pull.’ So now you know.


Voice Recognition Elevator is a hilarious three-and-a-half minutes of YouTube (from Burnistoun, a BBC show set in a fictional Scottish town). Language Log, where I found it, will tell you that it’s unfair (“the expected word error rate these days for isolated number-words, whatever the accent, is a few tenths of a percent”); I am happy to admit that I don’t give a damn about fairness where humor is concerned. And I do love Scottish English.


Following up this post:
Adonis to Zorro: Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion, by Andrew Delahunty and Sheila Dignen, is the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (1st ed. 2001). It’s very nicely produced and laid out, with each phrase provided with both an explanation and one or more citations; thus “cupboard was bare” has the “Old Mother Hubbard” rhyme and includes a quotation from BusinessWeek Magazine 2004 (“We were barely breaking even, and the cupboard was bare”). I did not know that the phrase “naughty but nice” comes from an 1871 music hall song “It’s Naughty but It’s Nice.” The problem with such books is that they’ve largely been superseded by the internet, and yet that last bit of information is not easily found by googling (cf. the unhelpful Wikipedia page). So maybe there’s a place for such a book after all.

[Read more…]


Julian Barnes has a wonderful review of Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary in the LRB (hat-tip to Kári for the link). The nub of it: “Davis’s Madame Bovary is a linguistically careful version, in the modern style, rendered into an unobtrusively American English.[…] If you want a freer translation, Steegmuller is best; for a tighter one, go to Wall.” But as you would expect from Barnes, all the fun is in the details. I quote a representative passage:

The authentic rendering of every last nuance of meaning cannot be the sole purpose of translation. Because if it becomes so, it leads to the act of eccentric defiance that is Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin. In his 1955 poem ‘On Translating Eugene Onegin’, Nabokov, addressing Pushkin, writes of turning ‘Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,/Into my honest roadside prose –/All thorn, but cousin to your rose.’ When Nabokov’s version of the poem came out in 1964, it was prose laid out in stanza form, and more woody stalk than thorn. Readers of the poem in English are best advised to have the two volumes of Nabokov’s headmasterly commentary to hand while apprehending the poem’s dance and flow through, say, Charles Johnston’s version. An even weirder example of fidelity leading to perversity is Dillwyn Knox’s 1929 translation of Herodas for the Loeb Classical Library. Knox’s brilliant niece Penelope Fitzgerald describes the outcome in The Knox Brothers with a sympathetic glee:

The language of the Mimes is precious, with unpleasant affected archaisms, and an honest translation, it seemed to Dilly, must be the same. Cloistered in his study . . . Dilly worked out his English equivalent to Herodas. ‘La no reke hath she of what I say, but standeth goggling at me more agape than a crab’ is a typical sentence, while ‘Why can’t you tell me what they cost?’ comes out as ‘Why mumblest ne freetongued descryest the price?’ Satisfied, Dilly corrected his proofs; he read the reviews, all of which praised the accuracy of the text but considered the translation a complete failure, with indifference. ‘If I am unintelligible,’ he wrote, ‘it is because Herodas was.’

I was struck to read that in her introduction, Davis writes she told the Times: “So what I’m trying to do is what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French.” What a thing to say! Does she think that isn’t what every other translator is trying to do? It’s an understandable feeling, but one of those that is best kept to oneself.


If you’re in London, or plan to be there in the next few months, you might want to visit the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library: “In this ground-breaking exhibition, the roots of Old English, slang dictionaries, medieval manuscripts, advertisements and newspapers from around the world come together – alongside everyday texts and dialect sound recordings. Follow the social, cultural and historical influences on the English language… and see how it’s still evolving today.” It opens today and lasts until April 3 of next year. A tip of the hat to Glyn, who wrote to tell me about it and added “Many thanks to the Americans who sponsored it!”