Archives for October 2011


You never know what you’re going to find when you visit the eudæmonist; today’s post reproduce a couple of Boswellian quotations about Dr. Johnson’s working methods, of which this is the first:

The words, partly taken from other dictionaries, and partly supplied by himself, having been first written down with spaces left between them, he delivered in writing their etymologies, definitions, and various significations. The authorities were copied from the books themselves, in which he had marked the passages with a black-lead pencil, the traces of which could easily be effaced. I have seen several of them, in which that trouble had not been taken; so that they were just as when used by the copyists.

The second has italics in it, which I’m feeling too lazy to reproduce (long day), so you can go on over there if you want to read it.


The multifarious aldiboronti, in this Wordorigins thread, posted a quote from Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds that I enjoyed so much I can’t resist passing it on:

What a shocking bad hat!” was the phrase that was next in vogue. No sooner had it become universal, than thousands of idle but sharp eyes were on the watch for the passenger whose hat shewed any signs, however slight, of ancient service. Immediately the cry arose, and, like the war-whoop of the Indians, was repeated by a hundred discordant throats. He was a wise man who, finding himself under these circumstances “the observed of all observers,” bore his honours meekly. He who shewed symptoms of ill-feeling at the imputations cast upon his hat, only brought upon himself redoubled notice. The mob soon perceive whether a man is irritable, and, if of their own class, they love to make sport of him. When such a man, and with such a hat, passed in those days through a crowded neighbourhood, he might think himself fortunate if his annoyances were confined to the shouts and cries of the populace. The obnoxious hat was often snatched from his head and thrown into the gutter by some practical joker, and then raised, covered with mud, upon the end of a stick, for the admiration of the spectators, who held their sides with laughter, and exclaimed in the pauses of their mirth, “Oh! what a shocking bad hat!” “What a shocking bad hat!” Many a nervous, poor man, whose purse could but ill spare the outlay, doubtless purchased a new hat before the time, in order to avoid exposure in this manner.
The origin of this singular saying, which made fun for the metropolis for months, is not involved in the same obscurity as that which shrouds the origin of Quoz and some others. There had been a hotly-contested election for the borough of Southwark, and one of the candidates was an eminent hatter. This gentleman, in canvassing the electors, adopted a somewhat professional mode of conciliating their good-will, and of bribing them without letting them perceive that they were bribed. Whenever he called upon or met a voter whose hat was not of the best material, or, being so, had seen its best days, he invariably said, “What a shocking bad hat you have got; call at my warehouse, and you shall have a new one!” Upon the day of election this circumstance was remembered, and his opponents made the most of it, by inciting the crowd to keep up an incessant cry of “What a shocking bad hat!” all the time the honourable candidate was addressing them. From Southwark the phrase spread over all London, and reigned for a time the supreme slang of the season.

(I have restored Mackay’s spelling, punctuation, and italics from an 1856 edition on Google Books.)


Alissa Stern of saw this LH post on digitizing Balinese and wrote to tell me about her organization’s project “to develop the first interactive, multimedia material to teach conversational Balinese and Balinese script…. We are particularly excited about this project because it brings together Balinese linguists, videographers, and animators along with Balinese focused anthropologists and historians in addition to linguists and language software specialists… We’re happy to hear from anyone working on similar initiatives and would welcome any support.” Sounds very worthwhile, and I thought I’d pass along her recommendations for Balinese language materials:
Kersten SVD, J. Bahasa Bali. Ende, Flores: Penerbit Nusa Indah, 1984.
Singaraja, Balai Penelitian Bahasa. Kamus Indonesia-Bali. Jakarta: Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1975.
Spitzing, Gunter. Practical Balinese: A Communication Guide. Hong Kong: Eric M. Oey.
Sutjaja, I Gusti Made. Concise Balinese Dictionary. Hong Kong: Tuttle Publishing, 2009.
Sutjaja, I Gusti Made. Everyday Balinese. Hong Kong: Tuttle Publishing, 2009.


The Morgan Library has a blog post by Carolyn Vega showing a charter signed by King John and dated March 5, 1205, that “conferred land holdings or privileges on the abbey and monks at Selby.” It’s a beautiful document, but the reason I bring it to your attention is the last bit:

John signed the charter “.J. Reg” on the verso, along with a note that I cannot decipher. Notice how the quality of his penmanship varies from that of the trained scribe above. His signature seems almost to quaver, and not only does he fail to form the individual letters with the precision that is present in the formal gothic script, but the ink fades out towards the end of each line. I am curious about John’s added note — can you help us decipher it?

If you fancy your ability to read medieval English script, give it a shot. (Thanks, Leslie!)


Another quote from Dobrenko’s “The Literature of the Zhdanov Era: Mentality, Mythology, Lexicon” (see yesterday’s post):

In this way [by the crushing of individuality in the late Stalin era], the beachhead of self-consciousness had been shrunk to a small bit. But this small bit was not too cozy (like a chilly apartment with rented furniture); hence the desire to brighten it, fill it with light, joy, cheerfulness, optimism. This injunction became fixed in the titles. Not being able to stop to consider these works, I give only the titles — a sampling of a vast wave: Light over the Earth, Light over the Fields, Light over Lipsk, The Sun of Altai, the Earth in Bloom, Happiness (Pavlenko), Happiness (Baialinov), The Azure Lights, The Azure Fields, Youth Is with Us, Song over the Waters, Life’s Summits, The Happy Day, Winged People, The Future Begins, The Star of Happiness, Our Youth, The Rise, Youth, Always Ahead, The Stars Never Pale, The Road to Happiness, The Dawn, Toward the Dawn, The Moscow Dawns, The Sun That Never Sets, In the Happy Path. There is an amazing amount of a kind of feeling of spring, breadth, spaciousness (“a spring wind blows over my country”). The small bit is narrow, yet “broad is my beloved country” [a famous song of the Stalin era]; the person is a function, yet “with every passing day it is a greater joy to live.” Here they are, passing before one’s eyes: The Spring Winds, Spring-time, The Spring Streams, Spring, Spring on the Oder, The Big [Spring] Flood, What Airiness, The Wind of the Century, The Sea Breeze, The Wind from the South. And where there are winds and the spring, there are also roads: The Road to Frontiers, The Road Within, The Road to the Ocean, Roads That We Choose, Roads. Spaces also define the optics: The Great Fate, Great Kin, The Great Ore, The Great Family, The Great Art, The Great Day. Even someone who has never touched any of the books mentioned must sense a certain kind of disposition and understand that everything here is not accidental. These titles have a semantics of their own.

It makes me tired and depressed just reading that list of determinedly upbeat titles.
(Another note on translation: a few sentences later, the Russian word фабула ‘plot’ is simply transliterated as “fabula.” I have no idea what the English-speaking reader is supposed to make of that.)
Addendum. I’ve just found (here) a quote from the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (translated by Agha Shahid Ali) that admirably sums up this particular aspect of totalitarian art:

See our leaders polish their manner clean of our suffering:
Indeed, we must confess only to bliss.


Thanks to jamessal’s prodding, I’ve been working to free myself of my compulsion to read every single piece in the periodicals I subscribe to, and with judicious skimming and skipping (a ten-page essay on the privatization of the NHS? No thanks!) I’ve managed to get the backlog of TLSs and NYRBs down to a reasonable two each (one being read, one on deck). This frees me to devote my full attention to those articles that remind me why I subscribe, like Denis Feeney’s LRB review of Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic by Peter White. Feeney starts off with Petrarch’s discovery in 1345 of a manuscript of Cicero’s letters, which “enraptured” him, “providing him with a moment of first contact not unlike that of Howard Carter peering through the hole into Tutankhamun’s tomb and murmuring that he could see ‘wonderful things’.” He then corrects that naive impression:

As Peter White demonstrates, however, in his characteristically incisive and learned book, Cicero’s letters do not provide a window into his soul, any more than the numerous letters from his many correspondents provide a window into theirs (some of them seem to have lacked souls altogether). The letters are more unfamiliar than they appear at first, and less like the unguardedly candid outpourings that Petrarch thought they were. We don’t ‘hear’ Cicero speaking as we read; the letters require patient interpretation before we can understand the kind of artefact they are and the kind of environment from which they arose…
The letters as we have them may well have been arranged in order to shape our sense of Cicero’s persona and significance, but we also have to allow systematically for what White calls ‘the letter-writing habits of a particular Roman milieu’. Those represented in the collection are almost exclusively the great beasts of the Roman political jungle, men for whom every aspect of every interaction had potential political resonance. These people lived in a goldfish bowl, always on view, always being assessed, and our partitions between the public and the private worlds are not ones that mean very much in this environment. White deploys his encyclopedic knowledge of the collection and its personnel to re-create a world in which letters had a crucial role to play in keeping the gears of political interaction oiled and smoothly connecting. What look like confiding moments regularly turn out to be quasi-formulaic techniques for mutual status grooming; the references to contemporary literature, for example, are not the random leavings of a well-stocked literary mind but part of a system of relationship management.

I still had that eye-opening last sentence in my mind when I turned to another chunk of reading material, Late Soviet Culture from Perestroika to Novostroika, edited by Thomas Lahusen and Gene Kuperman, a heterogeneous collection of essays, mainly written for a 1990 colloquium; I was in the middle of Evgeny Dobrenko’s “The Literature of the Zhdanov Era: Mentality, Mythology, Lexicon,” in which the author manfully grapples with the dreadful pseudoliterature of the late ’40s and early ’50s, which he freely admits that no normal person would choose to read but which he thinks it the duty of literary historians to analyze. After pointing out that any real criticism had been ruled out of bounds by the demands of politics, he writes that “It must always be remembered that in the criticism of these years there was nothing accidental — ‘private’ opinions were practically absent here.” I thought that was a remarkable confluence of ideas concerning two very different eras and situations.

[Read more…]


I am a great lover of footnotes, and I find a fellow footnoteophile in Alexandra Horowitz, author of the NYT Book Review essay Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote? As you see from the title (the broadsheet equivalent of E-BOOKS: THREAT OR MENACE?), publishers love apocalyptic prophecies, but in fact the idea is silly—footnotes, at least on my Kindle, are prominently linked, and if you’re too lazy to click on a link you’re too lazy to read footnotes in any form. But the essay is full of good stuff; here’s a sample:

But I champion another species of footnote: the wandering footnote. These digressive notes, seeing a sentence that some might consider complete, determine to hijack it with a new set of ever more tangential facts. In the wayward note, the bumps and curves of the author’s mind seem to be laid plain on the paper. I came of intellectual age hearing the author’s sotto voce asides in the philosophy essays I loved. I still recall footnotes that begin, enticingly, “Imagine that . . . ”; “Consider . . . ”; or even, in one of J. L. Austin’s famous thought experiments, “You have a donkey. . . . ” I had the feeling of being taken into confidence by a wise fellow during an erudite lecture, and being told something even more clever and lucid.
In fiction, I was spoiled by Nicholson Baker, whose novel “The Mezzanine” is largely footnotes — including a four-pager that starts: “And escalators are safe. . . . ” (A door has popped up unexpectedly and opened! I’m going in!) Smitten with the small type, I sought out the broader history of the footnote, covered to within a millimeter of its life in Anthony Grafton’s study “The Footnote: A Curious History” and Chuck Zerby’s “Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes” (both are heavily footnoted). Grafton led me to such rollicking footnoters as Edward Gibbon, whose judgmental, conversational and explicatory notes in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” lighten a weighty read. Such digressions and asides were so enthusiastically used in the 18th century that one satirist wrote a mock dissertation consisting entirely of footnotes. Pierre Bayle’s best seller “Historical and Critical Dictionary,” first published in the 1690s, charmingly used footnotes to point out the errors in the scholarship of others. I’ll take Grafton and Zerby’s word for it that John Hodgson’s mighty “History of Northumberland,” published a century and a half later, is at least worth flipping through for its footnotes on footnotes on footnotes, including one traversing 165 pages.

Thanks, Paul!


Victor Mair has a post at the Log about the use of pinyin in China without either translation or characters; he begins:

I just passed through security at the Xi’an airport (in northwest China) and was surprised to have my belongings searched by a young woman on whose snazzy black uniform, instead of an ID number as a regular worker would have, there was a label that said only SHIXI (“in training; practice”), with no trace of the corresponding characters 实习 anywhere about her. When I read out the pinyin with correct pronunciation and indicated that I knew immediately and exactly what it meant, the young woman and her co-workers were obviously pleased that I could do so.
Even more thought provoking is the fact that many Chinese police cars and uniforms have written on them GONGAN (“public security”) rather than “police”, and sometimes not even 公安.

It’s an interesting phenomenon with a number of possible explanations, currently being hashed out in the comment thread. I am, of course, interested in your thoughts.


My wife was reading Joyce Carol Oates’ piece “The Cure” (a review of Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic’s Search for Health and Healing, by Tim Parks—subscribers only, I’m afraid) in the NYRB, and she drew my attention to the following snippet of Beckett (which Oates quotes from Parks):

The Tuesday scowls, the Wednesday growls, the Thursday curses, the Friday howls, the Saturday snores, the Sunday yawns, the Monday morns, the Monday morns. The whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the welts, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks, the pricks, the prayers, the kicks, the tears, the skelps, and the yelps….

(From Watt; the NYRB version has “the Monday mourns [not “morns”], the Monday morns,” but that’s clearly a typo, so I’ve corrected it.) We both loved the quote and wondered about the word “skelps”; on investigating (it’s another word that’s in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary but not in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate), it turns out to be a Scottish and Northern English word for ‘strike, slap, or smack’ (and is probably imitative in origin). Any readers familiar with it?


That’s the subject line on the e-mail frequent commenter Zackary Sholem Berger sent me with the link I’m about to quote, and I can’t improve on it. Check out this 2006 post from the wonderful site Balashon—Hebrew Language Detective (which I’ve finally gotten around to adding to my RSS feed), featuring Mike Gerver’s impressive etymology for Hebrew אתרוג etrog (the fruit of the hadar tree):

Etrog, on the other hand, is listed in the same book [Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for English Speakers] as borrowed from Persian turung or Mandaic trunga. (The form etrunga is found in Kiddushin 70a.) The Persian word, according to Chaim Rabin’s article “Lexical Borrowings from Indian Languages as Carriers of Ideas and Technical Concepts” (in Between Jerusalem and Benares: Comparative Studies in Judaism and Hinduism, page 25, edited by Hananya Goodman, SUNY Press) comes from Tamil, and is related to matulankam and matulai which mean pomegranate or lemon. (In modern Tamil, pomegranate is matulanpazham, where pazham means ripe fruit.) Rabin says that there is no similar word in Sanskrit, suggesting that etrogs were originally found only in southern India where Tamil and other Dravidian languages are spoken, and only spread to northern India and Persia in a later period (after Sanskrit). I’m not sure what this implies about the question of whether pri etz hadar always meant only the etrog, and whether the etz hadaat could have been an etrog. It is quite possible, of course, that trunga did not mean an etrog, but a different kind of fruit, at the time the word was borrowed from Dravidian, and that it was this other fruit that was only found in southern India. The kam at the end of matulankam (and hence the nga at the end of trunga) are presumably related to kaay meaning “fruit” in modern Tamil. The same root is apparently found in the Persian word naranga (source of naranja in Spanish and hence orange in French and English), which was also borrowed from a Dravidian language. In modern Tamil, naru means “smelly,” so naranga could mean “fragrant fruit.” (Words that mean “fragrant” tend to evolve to mean “smelly” in any language.) Oranges are thought to have come to the Middle East and Europe from northern India, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and to there from southern China and Indochina, so the question arises as to why the word would be borrowed from a Dravidian language. One possibility is that the word dates back to the period before the Indo-European conquest of India, when Dravidian languages were spoken in Northern India as well. So the g in etrog would be cognate with the g in orange.

Zackary said confidently “you will like this,” and of course I do. (I thought either MMcM or I had done a post on the tangled history of orange, but apparently not.)