Archives for July 2011


A couple of interesting posts at the Log:
1) Victor Mair tells you everything you could possibly want to know about gongfu, starting with Kung-fu Tea (“Should it be gōngfu chá 工夫茶 or gōngfu chá 功夫茶? And does the name mean ‘tea that requires a lot of effort and skill to prepare’ or ‘martial arts tea’?”) and going into truly impressive detail about the history of all the words, characters, and ideas involved. I’ll present his paragraph summarizing the basic facts (aside from the issue of tea):

To summarize: gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 both started out around the 3rd c. AD referring to laborers, corvée or otherwise. During the ensuing centuries, they acquired increasingly abstract meanings: effort, time expended at work, skill, knack, mental discipline, job. As they evolved, their second syllable lost its overt tonality, becoming neutral. For the most part — up to the late 20th century — gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 were basically (but not entirely) interchangeable, though with gōngfu 工夫 being used more for mental or abstract phenomena and gōngfu 功夫 stressing physical aspects. It was only late in the life of gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 that the latter took on the meaning of “martial art,” apparently beginning in the region of Canton. Following on the coattails of the Bruce Lee Kung-fu craze and the public infatuation with martial arts novels, the notion of gōngfu 功夫 as a designation for martial arts explosively spread outward from the Cantonese-speaking regions of China to envelop the whole nation. This is by no means to assert that there were no martial arts in China before gōngfu 功夫 acquired this meaning. Quite the contrary, martial arts have a long and distinguished history in China, but they went by other names (this already overly long blog is not the place to embark upon a consideration of their history or nomenclature).

But if you have any interest in any of this, you’ll want to read the whole thing; it’s a real tour de force of philological investigation.
2) Today Geoff Pullum has a post making the simple and indisputable point that the OED’s categorization of qua as an English adverb is completely loony. Which inspires me to follow up this lively 2007 thread by repeating its question: if you use this slightly obnoxious Latinism, how do you say it? KWAH or KWAY? (I, an inveterate Anglicizer, use the latter, but I expect the LH readership to show an overwhelming preference for the former, as they did for PAH-chay versus my own PAY-see.)

[Read more…]


I was trying to determine whether there was an English word “titulature” (it seems to exist on the very margins of the vocabulary as an equivalent of Latin intitulatio—it is not in any of my dictionaries, but the OED recognizes a word “intitulation,” and some authors use both at apparent random: “The Uigur Qaγans, except Bügü Qaγan, are known only through their official titulature. In official titles the intitulation can be dropped off…”) when my eye fell on one of the most unexpected entries I’ve seen in Webster’s Third New International:

tityre-tu \ʹtid-ərēʹt(y)ü\ n -s usu cap 1st T [fr. L Tityre tu (patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi) Tityrus, thou reclining beneath the shelter of the spreading beech tree, opening line of the 1st Eclogue of Vergil; fr. their being regarded as wealthy and idle]: one of a gang of roistering brawling young blades in 17th century London similar to the Mohocks

In the first place, what an etymology! In the second place, could this conceivably have been regarded as a useful entry for an American dictionary in the year 1961? I think the editors just couldn’t say no to it, and I can certainly understand. (Oddly, having swiped that entry from the OED, they didn’t take the following one: “Tityrus… a fictitious monster supposed to be bred between a sheep and a goat.” Why this prejudice against fictitious monsters and in favor of roistering rowdies?)
As far as the Vergil quote is concerned, M. Owen Lee, on p. 49 of Death and Rebirth in Virgil’s Arcadia (SUNY Press, 1989), says it is “almost surely intended to call to mind and ear the hády ti tó of Theocritus’ opening” [Ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα, the first line of Idyll 1], for what that’s worth.


I’m reading Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn, which is not in and of itself LH material (though a fascinating look at the rough world of late-nineteenth-century baseball), but the end of a paragraph about the city of Providence on p. 175 introduced an amusing word:

But the Bowery was not the only neighborhood contributing to Providence’s reputation as a haven for lawlessness and illicit enjoyments. Far smaller than New York and Boston, Rhode Island’s capital functioned as a jumping-off place for railroad travelers between the bigger cities. Because of that, one contemporary newspaper correspondent noted, the city served as a “rendezvous of the wayward,” including men and women who were not exactly married to each other. … As the reporter observed: “You may go to New York, Boston or Philadelphia, but if you wish to see full fledged, simon pure dudes and dudines you must come to the edge of the Narragansett.”

It turns out “dudine” was a fairly common word in the 1880s and ’90s, to judge by the examples given here; it’s interesting that a century later, when the need was again felt for a feminine equivalent of “dude,” American youth turned instead to “dudette.”
This bit from p. 183 is more of a dumb joke than a language-related tidbit, but it gave me a chuckle, so I pass it along:

[Read more…]


A nice quote from Alexander Kushner (one of my favorite lyric poets), taken from a 2010 interview on Radio Liberty and translated by Jamie Olson for his blog The Flaxen Wave (Russian below the cut):

And the Russian language is arranged in such a wonderful way—it’s like a kind of soft clay that was created especially for poems: we’ve got shifting stresses, we’ve got wonderful suffixes. … It’s a very soft language. Take grammatical cases alone, or free word order within sentences: in our language, the subject can come at the very end, which doesn’t exist anywhere else. And it’s a shame that we’re moving over to vers libre, to free verse, and giving up on rhyme. I hope that it doesn’t actually happen.

I hope so too. (The idea that the subject’s ability to come at the end “doesn’t exist anywhere else” is the sort of charmingly naive assumption people are prone to make about their native languages.)

[Read more…]


From my latest reading, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953, I learned a wonderful Russian word. On the bottom of p. 107, the authors say that Stalin called one of his vile minions, Mikhail Ryumin, “a shibsdik (pygmy).” This word шибздик (which to an English-speaker sounds irresistibly like “sheep’s-dick”; Vasmer says it’s from бздеть [bzdet’], one of the words for ‘fart’ I wrote about here) is better translated “half-pint” or “pipsqueak”; it’s a slang term for an unusually small person. The third (1903–1910) edition of Dahl’s dictionary, revised by Baudouin de Courtenay, includes it as a dialectal term from the regions of Pskov and Tver; its first literary use seems to have been in Kuprin‘s notorious 1915 novel Yama (The Pit), with its lurid description of the life of prostitutes, about which Nina Berberova wrote in her memoirs:

This book had a stunning impression on me. No other book has had such an effect on me. I told Aleksandr Kuprin this when once, as a guest at Prince V.V. Baryatinsky’s in Paris in 1929, I was left alone with him in the living room after all the others had gone into the dining room. Kuprin was like an old Tatar in those years, in some ways reminiscent of my grandfather of Tver. With his head swaying and his hands drooping, he seemed decrepit and sleepy. He heard me out, slowly picked a cherry from a vase and asked me to take it in my mouth by the stem. The cherry hung on my chin. He moved over towards me and carefully took the cherry in his mouth, hardly touching me. When he had spat out the pit, he said:
‘This is my last phase.’
I was terribly sorry for him but said nothing.

The word has only been used a dozen times in the literature available in the Russian National Corpus, but those uses include works by Zoshchenko, Platonov, the Strugatskys, and Viktor Astafyev. My question for Russian speakers: is this word still in use?


An enjoyable and useful vocabulary test (via Anatoly) that gives you a bunch of words, asks you to check whether you know them (“Don’t check boxes for words you know you’ve seen before, but whose meaning you aren’t exactly sure of”), and extrapolates your total vocabulary size. The About page says: is part of an American-Brazilian research project to measure vocabulary sizes according to age and education, and particularly to compare native learning rates with foreign language classroom learning rates. … The site provides accurate results for virtually everyone, from very small children (with answers inputted by parents) to professional linguists. It can calculate vocabulary sizes from less than 100 words to more than 40,000 words. For those interested in exactly how it works, please see the nitty-gritty details page.

I’m a sucker for these things even when they’re done in a haphazard fashion by untrained people, but this is for Science! So give it a try and (if you feel like it) pass it on; they say: “We especially need participation from children and teenagers, where the biggest vocabulary growth occurs, so families are key.”


I am, in general, allergic to theoretical discussions of socialism and dialectic, but the theoretical discussions of Platonov (see here and here for his novels) aren’t like anybody else’s. Here are two brief excerpts from his brief 1934 “On The First Socialist Tragedy,” translated at New Left Review with an introduction placing it in context:

One should keep one’s head down and not revel in life: our time is better and more serious than blissful enjoyment. Anyone who revels in it will certainly be caught and perish, like a mouse that has crawled into a mousetrap to ‘revel in’ a piece of lard on the bait pedal. Around us there is a lot of lard, but every piece is bait. One should stand with the ordinary people in their patient socialist work, and that’s all. …
In sociology, in love, in the depths of man the dialectic functions just as invariably. A man who had a ten-year-old son left him with the boy’s mother, and married a beauty. The child began to miss his father, and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of enjoyment at one end was counterbalanced by a tonne of grave soil at the other. The father removed the rope from the child’s neck and soon followed in his wake, into the grave. He wanted to revel in the innocent beauty, he wanted to bear his love not as a duty shared with one woman, but as a pleasure. Do not revel—or die.

Is it any wonder he had a hard time getting published amid the enforced optimism of the ’30s? (Via wood s lot.)
Addendum. The TLS has published Robert Chandler’s translation of the same text; it makes for an interesting comparison, and Chandler’s introduction is illuminating. (Hat-tip to Oliver Ready for alerting me.)


I’ve only begun dipping into The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, but I have to pass along this bit from the first chapter, “The Study of Writing Systems” (by Daniels):

One of the most influential scholars in the early nineteenth century, whose name is now absent from the histories of philology—perhaps he has been forgotten because he was a generalist—is Ulrich Friedrich Kopp. His Bilder und Schriften der Vorzeit (1821) is a very rare book, but it includes pioneering investigations in many fields, including European and Semitic antiquities. His work would well repay careful study, though no single modern scholar would be competent to evaluate it in its entirety.

I have two things to say about this (other than that he sounds like an interesting guy):
1. When The World’s Writing Systems came out, in 1996, if you were intrigued by the “very rare book” and wanted to consult it, you would have had to travel to a major research library (in my case, the nearest that has it is apparently Sterling Memorial Library, where I spent so many happy hours in grad school). Now, it’s accessible to everyone via Google Books (Vol. 1, Vol. 2).
2. We have another name to add to the already impressive group of Pott, Bopp, Rask, Fick, and Grimm (not to mention Grot). What was it about the nineteenth century and monosyllabic philologists?
(He’s not quite forgotten, by the way, according to today’s standard measure: he has Wikipedia pages, but only in French—a mere stub—and Russian, only slightly fuller. Come on, German speakers, step up to the plate and support your philological traditions!)


Anyone who has studied Soviet history or read Soviet literature is familiar with the idea of the kommunalka, the communal apartment, but I at least did not have a clear mental picture to go with the idea. Now, thanks to Studiolum’s latest post at Poemas del río Wang, I can practically smell them. Here’s his introductory explanation:

The коммунальная квартира, the communal flat was a fruit of the revolution of 1917, called to life by the new collective vision of the future shorn of private property on the one hand, and by the pressure of the huge masses of population flowing from the countryside to the cities during the artificially induced urbanization on the other. Between the first and the last years of the Soviet Union the proportion of 20:80% between urban and rural population turned almost exactly to the reverse, but the mass construction of housing estates – the so-called khrushchevki, or even khrushchoby, “Khrushchev-slums” – started only in the 1960s. As a solution of the urgent housing problem, the former large bourgeois flats were divided into several – five to ten – one-room apartments, each for one family, while hallways, kitchen, bathroom and telephone were shared among all the residents.

Alongside the evocative pictures, he has well-chosen quotes from novels and other literary sources; I’d particularly like to single out the second one, from Daniil Harms‘s “Myshin’s Victory” (Победа Мышина), a typically appalling and hilarious little story/anecdote from one of the greatest writers ever to die in a prison. Myshin’s “Не встану” (“I won’t get up”) is a good match for Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to,” but shorter and bitterer, as befits the time and place. You can hear the Russian text read here.
There’s no point making a whole post of this, because it becomes tedious rehashing the whole debate about postmodernism, but I was delighted to read Anatoly’s post describing at length how much effort he expended over the course of years to try and understand Deleuze, Kristeva, Paul de Man, and the rest of the usual suspects—reading books, taking courses, attending lectures, the whole bit. His reluctant conclusion: of all of them, only Derrida rose above the level of nonsense and obscurantism (белиберды и обскурантизма), and his ideas, while occasionally interesting, were not worth the effort it took to uncover and assimilate them. I had come to the same conclusion after far less time and effort, and I am glad to be reassured that it was not just a matter of laziness—even if I’d cracked my brains for years, I wouldn’t have broken through to a land of wonderful insights. (Yes, I know, he and I may both be too stodgy and/or limited to understand. I can live with that possibility.)


It’s too hot for me to think up anything, so I’m glad a reader sent me this wonderful quote I can pass along:

Sooner or later, every nook and corner will be filled with books, every window will be more or less darkened, and added shelves must be devised. He may find it hard to achieve just the arrangement he wants, but he will find it hardest of all to meet squarely that inevitable inquiry of the puzzled carpenter, as he looks about him, “Have you really read all these books?” The expected answer is, “To be sure, how can you doubt it?” Yet if you asked him in turn, “Have you actually used every tool in your tool-chest?” you would very likely be told, “Not one half as yet, at least this season ; I have the others by me, to use as I need them.” Now if this reply can be fairly made in a simple, well-defined, distinctly limited occupation like that of a joiner, how much more inevitable it is in a pursuit which covers the whole range of thought and all the facts in the universe. The library is the author’s tool-chest. He must at least learn, as he grows older, to take what he wants and to leave the rest.

It’s from the opening paragraph of “Books Unread,” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson; you can read the rest of it here, and I wouldn’t discourage you from doing so—it’s full of tidbits like the exchange with the custodian of the library at Blenheim. Thanks, Rick!