Archives for December 2010


I was looking up something else in Brewer’s (“devil’s delight,” which is how one of my dictionaries quaintly translates Russian столпотворение—it wasn’t there, oddly, but Farmer and Henley have it: “Devil’s-Delight. To kick up the devil’s delight, verbal phr. (common). — To make a disturbance”) and ran across the phrase “the devil to pay and no pitch hot,” defined as “There will be serious trouble arising from this,” with the explanation: “The ‘devil’ was the seam between the outboard plank and the waterways of a ship and very awkward of access. It also needed more pitch when caulking and paying, hence ‘the devil’.” This is of course nonsense (the expression “the devil to pay” comes from stories of making a pact with the devil; see this excellent discussion for details), but it led me to the fact that there is a verb pay meaning “To smear or cover (a wooden surface or join, esp. the seams of a ship) with pitch, tar, or other substance, so as to make watertight or resistant to damage,” which comes from Middle French poier (in Old French from Normandy as peier), from Latin picāre ‘to smear with pitch’ (Latin pix ‘pitch’). The latest OED citation is from 1985: Verbatim Summer 9/2 “Oakum is first driven into the seam with a caulking iron.‥ The seam is then sealed by ‘paying’ it—pouring hot pitch over the oakum from a funnel.”


A Wordorigins post quoted the online OED’s etymology of monkey-business:

[< MONKEY n. + BUSINESS n., probably after Bengali bā̃drāmi. Compare modern Sanskrit vānara-karman (< vānara monkey + karman action, work, employment), Hindi vānara-karma.]

This is interesting enough on its own, but what leads me to post about it is this extremely informative comment from Aniruddha Sen:

Being a native Asian, south Asian and a Bengali-speaking native from India at that, I can vouch that bandrami connotes different shades of mischievousness that are not conveyed by monkey business. (a) Children are often accused of bandrami when they climb trees or tall structures dangerously, or tease a mate with unseemly gestures, or do several naughty things that no self-respecting monkey ever does; (b) adults commit bandrami when they do mischievous things not befitting their age; (c) when a male of the species homo sapiens sapiens tries to draw the attention of a female with unbecoming gestures. There are other shades of that ilk. (a) and (b) have mischievousness in common; and (a) and (c) share monkey-like gestures and postures as seen by a detached observer. That much fall legitimately within the monkey business ambit. The other shades of the Bengali meaning can only be understood when one considers that bandar itself is a swear word: it means (1) ugly, (2) irreverent, (3) mischievous, (4) clannish and (5) someone with aggressive posture.
The Bengali tongue is full of contradictions ill-understood by others. Elderly Bengalis often use the word bandar lovingly to refer to youngsters whom they like.

Mr. Sen then made a separate post to discuss his theory that “the commonest pan-Indian swear-word” s(h)ala, literally ‘brother-in-law’ (from Sanskrit shyalaka), which “became a swear-word perhaps because of the I-sleep-with-your-sister connotation,” is actually a borrowing from Insha’llah, since according to his research “the swear-word starts appearing about a century after Islamic occupation”; sounds dubious to me, but I thought I’d put it out there for comment.


In this thread, Sili kindly shared this BBC Radio 3 link which has (six minutes in, after the end of a new oboe concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie) a twenty-minute talk by translator Robert Chandler on the life and work of Platonov (see this post and this post for background). It’s pleasant to hear his voice, and he has some fine quotes. And after the intermission talk, there’s a performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6, which if you’re as fond of Prokoviev as I am is an additional inducement to listen. (Available for the next five days.)


A longish Observer story by Tim Adams about Google Translate has some interesting discussion and quotes, but in my current befuddled state (brought about by excessive copyediting), what I most enjoyed was this (probably apocryphal) anecdote:

The impetus for Google’s translation machine can be traced, corporate legend has it, to a particular meeting at the company’s California headquarters in 2004. One of the search engine’s founders, Sergey Brin, had received a fan letter from a user in South Korea. He understood that the message was in praise of the innovative scope of his company, but when Brin ran it through the machine translation service that Google had then licensed it read: “The sliced raw fish shoes it wishes. Google green onion thing!”

I was, however, annoyed by the final quote from the much-hyped Douglas Hofstadter, who “has been among the most trenchant critics of the hype around Google Translate. He argues that the ability to exist within language and move between languages, to understand tone and cultural resonance, and jokes and wordplay and idiom are the things that makes us most human, and most individual…” Yes, yes, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t help me when I’m staring at a passage in Turkish or Korean or some other language that is a complete mystery to me. Google Translate does. Even Hofstadter gets around to admitting “I suppose that we will all bow to the pressures to use it at some level, but it will never get the flavour of phrases.” Don’t be so goddamn grudging, man. Google isn’t going to put you out of business.


I’m about halfway through Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, a must-read for anyone interested in what life was like for Russians during the thirties, with informative asides on everything from party secrecy (a Communist who violated the secrecy rules in a speech to a factory meeting could be accused of “betraying the party to the working class”) to the campaign for kulturnost’ (a Krokodil cartoon was captioned “How cultured Ivan Stepanovich has become! Now when he curses people out he uses only the polite form [vy]”). But the proofreading isn’t ideal (the Cheliuskin, whose sinking in 1934 inspired a famous rescue effort, is consistently called the “Cheliushkin”), and on page 93 there occurs one of my favorite typos ever:

One of the signs of the times was the revival of Moscow restaurant life in 1934. This followed a four-year hiatus during which restaurants had been open only to foreigners, payment was in hard currency, and the OGPU regarded any Soviet citizens who went there with deep suspicion. Now, all those who could afford it could go to the Metropole Hotel, where “wonderful live starlets swam in a pool right in the centre of the restaurant hall”…

The intended word was sterlets, a sterlet being a small sturgeon that is the source of the finest caviar (and thus has been hunted almost to extinction in Russia). I personally find it ridiculous to use the word sterlet, utterly obscure in English, when in almost all cases (as here) sturgeon will do as well and be immediately comprehensible, but I’m glad it provided the opportunity for this wonderful image.
Update. I’ve just run across “Chelyushkin” (for Chelyuskin) in Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror (page 326 of my 1990 paperback edition). I don’t know if he was the originator of the error, but it’s possible that Fitzgerald picked it up from him.

[Read more…]


An n-gram is “a subsequence of n items from a given sequence.” Google has come up with what it calls an Ngram Viewer that allows you to compare the frequencies of words in printed books over any span of time since the invention of printing. (It’s case-sensitive, so you can discover, as Shaun Nichols did, that people stopped capitalizing “Socialism” around 1945.) You can read about it in this SciAm article by Katherine Harmon:

The researchers behind the Books Ngram Viewer admit it will not likely replace tried-and-true techniques of close reading…. Despite the program’s capacity to churn out neatly organized analytics at the click of a button (labeled, cheekily, “search lots of books”), Aiden maintains that “we certainly don’t view this tool as an answer machine.” But certainly the program can work as a question generator.
For example, the evolution of the frequency of “evolution” … reveals some unexpected nuances. It was on a general upswing until the mid-1920s, then declined gradually until around 1945 (from about .0035 percent of words in the measured data that year to about .0025 percent). Why the dip—and is it significant? The researchers were unsure and offer this as an example of a lead in for further research, Michel notes.
The Books Ngram Viewer also can shed some light on the popularity of various people, revealing, for instance, a marked dearth of references to Jewish artist Marc Chagall in books published in Nazi Germany, suggesting widespread censorship, the researchers concluded in their paper. (For those more keen on following scientists, the frequency of “Albert Einstein” mentions surpasses those of “Charles Darwin” in the late 1960s, but both enjoy a rise in popularity from about 1975 to 2005, according to a recent search—and the researchers found that Freud ranks higher over time than Einstein or Darwin.)

The first thing I did with it was to check linguistics versus philology; the graphs cross just before I was born.
Addendum. See Geoff Nunberg’s post at the Log for more detail and some interesting commentary.


Mark Liberman’s latest Log post sent me back to my 2008 post about the vexed issue of why Southern Californians use the definite article when referring to freeways (e.g., “the 405”), and the remark there that U.S. 101 used to be known as Ventura Boulevard made me wonder about the name Ventura—I’ve driven through there a million times and never thought to ask why it was called that (ventura is Spanish for ‘fortune, chance, happiness’). So I reached for my trusty California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (one of the best such books ever done, and beautifully printed as well), and discovered that it used to be San Buenaventura; a mission of that name (dedicated to Saint Bonaventure) was founded in 1782, the town that grew up around it was incorporated as the City of San Buenaventura in 1866, and a county was created (from part of Santa Barbara County) in 1872.
The county, however, was given the abbreviated name of Ventura, and the town soon followed suit:

In 1891, on petition of the residents, the Post Office Dept. changed the post office name to Ventura: “Much mail and express matter designed for this office found its way to San Bernardino, and vice versa. Then the name was too long to write and too difficult for strangers to pronounce”… The new name was generally accepted, although the Southern Pacific did not change the name of the station until 1900. In 1905 Z. S. Eldredge wrote the following obituary to the old name in his campaign to restore Spanish names: “And now comes the Post Office Dept., which is the most potent destroyer of all. I have spoken before of the injury done the people of San Buenaventura. They cling to that name and use it among themselves. But they are doomed. Mapmakers, from the Director of the Geological Survey to the publisher of a pocket guide following the lead of the post office, call the place Ventura, and the historic name will be lost (San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 10, 1905).

And now that I’ve written all that, in the course of googling the last quote I discover I have in fact written about this before (though much more briefly), back in 2003. So consider this a blast from the past, and a warning as to what will become of your memory as you pass gracefully through your fifties.


The internet helps fulfill a medieval will at HARAMBAM:

The Bodleian Libraries are the proud custodian of Maimonides’ authorized manuscript copy of his major halachic work, the Mishneh Torah, a code meant to collect disparate rulings and to present them “succinctly and clearly, so that all the Oral Torah will be easily accessible to all.” … A later owner of the copy, a certain Eleazar, son of Perahya, stipulated in his will that this and the other volumes of the Code (now lost) should remain in the public domain for consultation….
In line with the will of Eleazar ben Perahya the Bodleian Libraries have always granted access to this precious document of Jewish Law. Conservation concerns and practical considerations, however, have thus far limited the possibility of consulting this authorized version of the Code. Modern technology once and for all has overcome these limitations and enables the Bodleian Libraries in an unexpected way to perform the religious duty (mizvah) of fulfilling the words of the deceased by giving universal access to the Mishneh Torah, authorized and approved by Maimonides.

Click on “Read the Manuscript” and you get a beautiful, zoomable reproduction of each page. (Thanks, Paul!)


No, that’s not a typo, it’s a convention:

When punctuation geeks assembled earlier this month at Punctuacon, our annual convention, we spent the usual two or three hours whining about the pathetic size of our gathering, compared to Comic-Con International in San Diego, Dragon*Con in Atlanta or any of those tiresome Star Trek conventions that draw multitudes to worship at the shrine of William Shatner.
We have no heroes like Shatner, just ourselves and our proud tradition of judging and promoting the images and ideograms of language — and our totally imaginary convention.
That should be enough, but a love for punctuation, signage and graphic symbols remains a lonely passion. It’s hard not to be bitter.
Why can’t the rest of the world understand that a well-designed semicolon or an expertly made STOP sign is every bit as enthralling as a mint Batman first edition, an early sketch of the Jedi, or a photograph signed by Margot Kidder herself? Why can’t they care about the tragically missing apostrophe on the logo of a certain coffee-shop chain?
Still, Punctuacon was happier this year than usual, mostly because we could forget about what had become at previous conventions the most melancholy issue on the agenda: Who will save the octothorpe?

Read all about the octothorpe, its obscure origin and recent revival, at Robert Fulford’s National Post story “What we have here is one of the great comeback stories in the history of competitive punctuation.” (Thanks, Paul!)


This is not a food blog, but how can I resist Rishidev Chaudhuri’s post “Some notes on the grammar of the curry” at 3 Quarks Daily when it includes rhetoric like this?

But how to explain this fetishism of particular signifiers, this combinatorial generation of a menu from {chicken, lamb, shrimp} and some handful of sauces, these ungrammatical and unpoetic culinary utterances? How to explain the same sauce applied, with minor variations, to produce aborted versions of the same dish under many different names. What drives such promiscuous corruption of the understanding? Whence such systemic violence?
Even the most materialistic among us must realize that if we have no hope of seizing the means of production, we can still hope to educate. The following curry is as an example, not an essential exemplar or generative grammar. All of these principles are violated somewhere; still, they are a glimpse into the overlapping set of rules and resemblances that make up the cuisines of South Asia, whose grandeur and allusive depth is matched only by those of the French and of the Japanese.

Also, curry is an enticing thought as winter approaches (we’re supposed to get snow tonight here in the Valley). And let me take the occasion to wish Robin, jamessal’s bride, a speedy return to well-being and the leisure to resume her wonderful blog.