Archives for November 2011


I had not been aware of Amazon’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, but that’s not surprising, since they only introduced it last year (press release). At any rate, they were kind enough to send me a copy of Thirst, Marian Schwartz’s new translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s 2002 Жажда, a prize-winning short novel (what the Russians call a повесть), and it’s certainly a good calling card for the imprint.

The story is simple: Kostya, a young man scarred by service in the war with Chechnya, holes up in his apartment drinking when he isn’t working; his war buddies show up and drag him out to look for one of their number who has disappeared; we get memories of his family and eventually encounter some of them. As always, the telling is all. It starts with a bravura passage I’ll quote in a minute, soon refers to the grenade that landed in his APC in Grozny and broke his life in half—this is the central image to which the book keeps returning—and then begins its slow spiral outward into the world Kostya is trying to avoid having to deal with; it’s told in a high-energy, slangy narrative voice that keeps the reader involved and often amused (an important consideration when dealing with potentially depressing material). The “About the Author” page compares him to Salinger; while I can understand the PR value of this, I think a better comparison is to the Bulat Okudzhava of “Будь здоров, школяр” (translated as “Good Luck, Schoolboy!”), also told from the perspective, and in the colloquial language of, a young man tossed unprepared into a hellish war—though at one point it reminded me of my favorite Okudzhava song, Молитва (YouTube), which made me choke up more than I probably should have.

But there wouldn’t be much point to my recommending a Russian novel if you couldn’t get a decent sense of it from the translation; fortunately, that’s not a problem here. Schwartz doesn’t need any encomia from me; she’s won all sorts of awards and is generally recognized as one of the best translators of our day. But this book is a tougher challenge than a more conventionally “literary” one; as I wrote in a comment to this post (still one of my favorites, if I may toot my own horn), “Russian dialog has a feel that I’ve never seen rendered successfully in translation.” Well, she does a magnificent job, which can be seen from the very first paragraphs:

All the vodka wouldn’t fit in the fridge. First I tried standing them up and then I laid them on their sides, one on top of the other. The bottles stacked up like transparent fish. Then they hunkered down and stopped clinking. But ten or so just wouldn’t fit.

I should have told my mother to take this refrigerator back a long time ago. It’s an affront to me and the little boy next door. Every night this monster cuts in full blast and he cries on the other side of the wall. And my vodka is never all going to go in. It’s too damn small.

Fucking pig.

I was nodding along to the convincing rhythm of the sentences in the first two paragraphs, and then when I got to the “Fucking pig” I laughed, relaxed, and knew I had nothing to worry about; I can’t imagine a better equivalent of “Засранец” here. She obviously spent a lot of time immersing herself in the narration and finding a voice to match its feel. I kept making marginal notes to remind myself of particularly felicitous renditions: “Thank you for the heads up,” “Cut the pity party,” “sweet wine” for портвейн (which far too many translators render “port” or “port wine,” as though it were the equivalent of Taylor Fladgate rather than Thunderbird). The potentially soppy themes of Kostya’s love for drawing and for children are handled with grace and pay off handsomely. And speaking of handsome: the book is a very nicely designed package (and with no typos that I noticed, which is an unexpected pleasure in these poorly edited times). If you have any interest in the subject of young men chewed up by war, or simply in a well-told story, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

The original of the quoted passage:

Вся водка в холодильник не поместилась. Сначала пробовал ее ставить, потом укладывал одна на одну. Бутылки улеглись внутри как прозрачные рыбы. Затаились и перестали позвякивать. Но штук десять так и не поместилось.
Давно надо было сказать матери, чтобы забрала этот холодильник себе. Издевательство надо мной и над соседским мальчишкой. Каждый раз плачет за стенкой, когда этот урод ночью врубается на полную мощь. И водка моя никогда в него вся не входит. Маленький, блин.


I suddenly realized that it had been a long time, maybe years, since I’d set aside The Russian Language Today by Larissa Ryazanova-Clarke and Terence Wade (see this old post), and it was high time I got back to it, since I learn something or get a new insight on virtually every page. And sure enough, I immediately hit this passage:

An interesting tendency characterises the slang of the 1990s: its development runs counter to that of the general stratum of the language. Throughout the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, English was the primary source of Russian youth slang, whereas in the 1990s, when the language was saturated with new words of foreign origin, slang drew on native resources. The reason for this is that while, previously, English had been the means of isolating one sub-culture from another, and thus those who used slang from the rest of society, English is now becoming too popular to be a sub-cultural code.

They go on to discuss the word тусовка [tusovka] ‘gang, crew’ and its derivatives, like тусоваться [tusovatsya] ‘to hang around, go to parties’: “Etymologically, these words probably derive from the verb тасовáть (кáрты) ‘to shuffle (cards)’. Тусóвка, тусовáться originated in criminal argot, тусóвка originally meaning ‘fight, scene, quarrel’ … Thence, the words spread to hippy slang in the 1970s and later to young people’s informal speech in general. The meaning of тусовáться changed to ‘to hang out’, and the meaning of тусóвка changed to ‘company, circle of acquaintances’, or ‘meeting place’.” Fascinating stuff.


I recently finished Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, a superb piece of reporting—David Remnick was one of the few American reporters in Russia who actually knew the language and could go out and talk with ordinary people, and it shows. Anyone who wants to know what the last years of the USSR felt like from the perspective of an informed outsider will want to read this book. Here’s a bit about Dmitry Likhachov:

When he was a boy, Likhachev watched the February and October revolutions from his window. A decade later he had an even closer view of the rise of Soviet civilization, courtesy of a five-year term in a labor camp. Likhachev was arrested in 1928 for taking part in a students’ literary group called the Cosmic Academy of Sciences. The club posed about as great a threat to the Kremlin as the Harvard Lampoon does to the White House. For election as an “academician,” Likhachev presented a humorous paper on the need to restore to the language the letter “yat.” The Bolsheviks banned the letter as part of a campaign to “modernize” Russian after the revolution. Later, one of Likhachev’s interrogators railed at him for daring to waste his time on such things.
“What do you mean by language reform?” the interrogator shouted. “Perhaps we won’t even have any language at all under socialism!”

(For more on yat, see Bezyatie, and nominally Orfografiya and Orfografiya II.)


First of all, sound the trumpets: Polyglot Vegetarian has a new post up, just the second in the last year! The post, Green Bean, starts with restaurant menus and a detailed discussion of Chinese characters and winds its way to the main theme, the etymology of haricot. I’ll quote just enough to whet your appetite and send you over there for the full meal (there are many, many links in the quoted chunk that I won’t bother trying to reproduce):

The etymology of haricot is uncertain, with contenders from three different continents.
Haricot is a pair of homonyms: haricot de mouton is a lamb stew, from a verb harigoter meaning to cut into small pieces. The Ménagier de Paris (ca. 1393) has Hericot de mouton (II, 148). François Génin derives (Récréations philologiques, I. p. 50) this haricot from Latin aliquot ‘a few’ and Littré (s.v.) quotes the Comtesse de Bassanville as proposing Arabic hali-gote (I’m not sure what this is). More sensible sources derive harigoter from Old Low Franconian *hariôn ‘to mess up’, related to the English verb harry.
The idea that haricot beans are so-called because they came to be used in haricot stew is a bit far-fetched, particularly since beans do not seem to be a common ingredient. Even more so is Alexandre Dumas (père) ‘s claim that the stew originally was meat and beans, until “l’un des deux ingrédients a été détrôné par les navets” ‘one of the ingredients was dethroned by turnips’ (Grand dictionnaire de cuisine, s.v.). More likely is that the form of the earlier stew word influenced the later bean word.
Haricot beans (there will be no more about meat) first appear in the mid-17th century. Before then, such beans were faséoles, from Latin Phaseolus (now the name of the genus), like English fasels. […]

The detailed discussion of various possible sources is vintage Polyveg; it ends:

I don’t know the stand of more modern specialized works (and would welcome pointers). The OED still has “Origin uncertain: see Littré,” while we wait for them to make their way around to the H’s. The Oxford dictionary of English Etymology has “perh. – Aztec ayacotli.” The Petits Robert and Larousse stick with French harigoter. French Wikipedia, s.v. Haricot and Phaseolus, is somewhat uncommitted, listing some of the alternatives given above.

If anyone has pointers, now would be the time to share them.


Thanks to this Log post by Mark Liberman, I’ve been introduced to Samosapedia, “The definitive guide to South Asian lingo.” Today’s Word of the Day is home-ministry, “The domain of a wife. A quaint and old-fashioned euphemism, much favoured by men of an earlier generation in Tamil Nadu.” The entry Mark cited is kolaveri: “It means a murderous rage felt by a jilted or spurned lover but in everyday parlance refers to unnecessary anger”; the context is the song “Kolaveri Di,” which Mark links to and which is pretty darn catchy, and one of the commenters links to J. P. Fabricius’s Tamil and English Dictionary, another excellent online resource.


I can shoehorn this into LH by mentioning that unlike most foreign movies, Edward Yang‘s masterpiece (according to an interview I read, or perhaps according to the critic who introduced the film as his own choice for best overlooked movie of the 1990s at a Museum of the Moving Image festival over a decade ago) was originally titled in English, A Brighter Summer Day, and Yang then came up with what he considered a less adequate Chinese title (牯嶺街少年殺人事件 Guling jie shaonian sha ren shijian, “The Boy in the Murder Incident on Guling Street”). But the fact is I just want to shamelessly plug one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s four hours long, and it takes a while to get going, and it references a lot of obscure (outside Taiwan) history, but if you’re a movie lover in Manhattan, where it’s very belatedly making its official US debut, you owe it to yourself to see it. Here‘s A.O. Scott’s review in yesterday’s NY Times, and here‘s a thoughtful Reverse Shot piece by Andrew Chan, which explains the English title in its final paragraph:

The second pun lies in the title itself: a humorous mistranscription of the phrase “a bright summer day” from Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” which one of Xiao Si’r’s friends is learning to sing.

If a Region 1 DVD ever comes out (I believe there was a Chinese one at some point), it’s going straight on my Amazon wishlist. (Criterion, are you listening?)


I’m too full of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and three kinds of pie to post anything that would demand thought and effort on my part; fortunately, a correspondent has sent me this link, in which six writers discuss their book-collecting habits, so that I need only point you to it and perhaps quote the beginning of Gary Shteyngart’s entry:

I’m big on sniffing books. The old Soviet ones really have this strong smell, reminding me, for some reason, of tomato soup in a cheap Soviet cafeteria.

Thanks, Paul!


Marc Adler (of, who comments here as marc, sent me a link to Volokh’s post A Pronouncing Dictionary of the Supreme Court of the United States, which begins:

Gene Fidell (Yale Law School) and some of his students are putting together an article tentatively titled A Pronouncing Dictionary of the Supreme Court of the United States, which will basically help people know the standard ways of pronouncing Supreme Court case names (such as City of Boerne v. Flores and Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada). They have a list of cases to include, but if you have some suggestions, please post them in the comments. The requirements, of course, are that (1) it’s not obvious what the standard pronunciation is, and (2) the case comes up often enough to make it worth knowing the standard pronunciation. I should note, of course, that the query isn’t about the right pronunciation in some etymological sense; and even the party’s own pronunciation of his own name may not be relevant in some cases, especially if the case is old enough.

This is an excellent idea, but I can see already, from the comment thread over there, that some people are confused; one says, “My law prof pronounced [Giglio] phonetically (‘JIG-lee-oh’), but under standard Italian pronunciation, the second ‘g’ should be silent” and another says “In the case of getting Giglio correct, probably the most important part is getting it to be two syllables rather than the three that many English speakers would get. So, it’s not jzhee-lee-oh, it’s more like jzhee-lyoe.” Italian pronunciation is of course irrelevant. And it should go without saying that Fidell et al. should not take any one respondent’s word for standard pronunciation.
I was surprised to learn from the thread (and from this Safire column, linked from it) that amicus, in America, is universally pronounced either uh-MEE-kuss or AM-uh-kuss; no one except Justice Stephen Breyer uses my version, uh-MY-kuss, learned (I suppose) from UK-oriented dictionaries like the OED. But (not being a lawyer) I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.


The etymology of the word pie (in the edible sense) has been something of a mystery; the American Heritage Dictionary cautiously says “Middle English” and leaves it at that. Alison Richards, at NPR’s food blog, takes the occasion of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday (in the U.S.) to cite the OED’s entry—and links to it in such a way that you can read it even if you’re not a subscriber, which is great. As she says, it “may well derive from the Latin word pica, meaning magpie”; here’s how the OED puts it (in the new third edition):

The dish, which originally consisted of any variety of ingredients, may have been named by association with the bird, either after the bird’s spotted appearance or after its tendency to collect miscellaneous articles. In this context, the similarity between the words haggis n. and haggess n., a name for the magpie, has been pointed out; compare also chewet n.1, a dish of mixed ingredients, and chewet n.2, a name for the chough.
For an alternative etymology < an unattested variant *pis of Anglo-Norman puz and Old French puis pit, well (Middle French puis, French puits; < classical Latin puteus: see pit n.1), and thus an assumption that sense 2 is in fact the original sense, see C. H. Livingston History and Etymology of English “Pie” (1959 ).
Compare post-classical Latin pia (1303, 1317 in British sources), which is perhaps < English. […]
Compare also post-classical Latin pica pie, pastry (c1310, 1419 in British sources; perhaps identified with classical Latin pīca magpie: see pie n.1) .

Ms. Richards expands entertainingly on those suggestions (and links to some other OED entries); she ends her essay: “So as you eat this year’s slice of pumpkin or apple pie, I hope you’ll enjoy the thought that each sweet mouthful of fruit and spice carries the memory of an ancient magpie treasure trove.” I add my own hope that everyone who celebrates the holiday Thursday gets through it without either heartburn or family drama. (Pro tip: Using a butterflied, or spatchcocked, turkey cuts down on cooking time and makes it easier to get all parts to the proper degree of doneness.)

100 WORDS.

I always enjoy David Crystal’s writing about language, and he’s got a new book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that sounds well worth reading (it’s just come out in the U.K. and will appear in the U.S. next spring). Crystal’s piece in the Telegraph explains what he’s up to (and gives a complete list of the words):

If you can tell the history of the world in 100 objects, as the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor did last year, then it ought to be possible to tell the history of a language in a similar number. But, as with objects, it isn’t enough for each word to be interesting in its own right. It has to represent a whole class of words. It has to tell a story. And each of these individual stories should add up to the history of the English language as a whole. …
But words are more than just linguistic objects. They are windows into the world of those who use them. Part of the challenge, then, is to find words that best give us a real insight into social history. For the Anglo-Saxons, my choice included loaf and mead, street and lea. For the medieval period, swain and pork, dame and royal. For the time of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, alphabet and dialect, shibboleth and potato. For the next centuries, gazette and fopdoodle, lunch and tea. And so to modern times, with jazz and Watergate, PC and apps, LOL and unfriend. They make interesting bedfellows.

(I’ve added italics where I’m sure Crystal intended them.)

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