Archives for November 2011


As I was passing by our pasta shelf, my eye fell on a box of macaroni that carried, below the legend ELBOWS, the Italian equivalent CHIFFERI. Wondering what this meant other than ‘elbow macaroni’ and wanting to make sure my tentative pronunciation /’kifferi/, with initial stress, was correct, I looked it up; I confirmed the pronunciation but could find nothing more about the word. Having dug around in Google Books, I’ve come up with the answer, and in the best traditions of Languagehat I am sharing it here so future generations will not have to hack their way through the uncharted jungle.
In the first place, unlike other pasta names (e.g., farfalle ‘butterflies’), it does not in fact mean anything other than ‘elbow macaroni.’ According to somebody writing in the Universidad de Chile’s Boletín de filología Vol. 32-34, p. 429, chiffero is the standard Italian equivalent of the Lombard dialect form chifel ‘croissant,’ and according to Giovan Battista Pellegrini, “Noterelle linguistiche bisiacche” in Günter Holtus, Z̆arko Muljac̆ic̆, and Johannes Kramer (eds.), Romania et Slavia Adriatica (Buske Verlag, 1987), p. 229, that is borrowed from the German (Austrian, according to my large German dictionary) Kipfel, also meaning ‘croissant,’ which in turn is from Latin cippus, which according to Robert Sedlaczek, Das österreichische Deutsch: wie wir uns von unserem grossen Nachbarn unterscheiden, p. 197, meant ‘stake, post.’ I’m pleased that Google has allowed me to assemble these obscure sources and present a coherent story, but once again I shake my head at the lack of scholarly attention paid to food and cooking terminology.


Anatoly’s latest post is about a usage he ran across in his rereading of War and Peace; Prince Vasily is talking about his sons, and says, “Ипполит, по крайней мере, покойный дурак, а Анатоль — беспокойный.” What he means by this is “Hippolyte is at least a quiet fool, but Anatole is an unquiet [restless] one,” but since then покойный has lost the sense ‘quiet’ and now means only ‘late, deceased.’ Anatoly points out that the ‘quiet’ sense was unusual even in 1805, when the scene is supposed to take place, and had become vanishingly rare by the 1860s, when Tolstoy was writing; his question is whether Tolstoy meant it as a pun on the prince’s part or simply as an archaism. It’s an interesting question, and the resulting thread is interesting too, not least for this striking example (pointed out by kraiukhin) of change in meaning: Lomonosov uses “распущенный подонок,” which now can mean only ‘dissolute scum/riffraff,’ in the earlier sense ‘dissolved precipitate.’


What Middletown Read is a database and search engine built upon the circulation records of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library from November 5, 1891 through December 3, 1902. It documents every book that every library patron borrowed during that period, with the exception of one gap from May 28, 1892 to November 5, 1894.” (The use of “Middletown” for Muncie is a result of Robert and Helen Lynd’s famous sociological studies of the city: Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 1929, and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937.) I don’t have time to investigate it at the moment, but I highly recommend the Slate article by John Plotz describing how he used it to try to recreate something of the life of Louis Bloom (“Born in Muncie, Ind. in 1879, … died in San Francisco in 1936 a government engineer”); Plotz went so far as to “read, or at least to sample, all 291 books Louis Bloom had checked out.” The discussion of Muncie reading habits a century ago is absolutely fascinating, and the (rather bizarre) attempt to replicate Bloom’s reading is charmingly described. I have to point out, though, that “I was oddly delighted to learn that like a French king, he pronounced his name without a final ‘s'” is off the mark; “like a French king” should be replaced by “like everyone in those days”—”Louie” is the traditional pronunciation of the name, and still the first one given in the thirteenth (1967) edition of Daniel Jones’s English Pronouncing Dictionary.


Language and Location: A Map Annotation Project looks quite interesting; from their About page:

LL-MAP is a project designed to integrate language information with data from the physical and social sciences by means of a Geographical Information System (GIS). The most important part of the project will be a language subsystem, which will relate geographical information on the area in which a language is or has been spoken to data on resources relevant to the language. Through a link to the Multi-Tree project, information on all proposed genetic relationships of the languages will also be made available and viewable in a geographic context. Ultimately, the system will include ancillary information on topography, political boundaries, demographics, climate, vegetation, and wildlife, thus providing a basis upon which to build hypotheses about language movement across territory. Some cultural information, e.g., on religion, ethnicity, and economics, will also be included.
The LL-MAP system will encourage collaboration between linguists, historians, archaeologists, ethnographers, and geneticists, as they explore the relationship between language and cultural adaptation and change. We hope it will elicit new insights and hypotheses, and that it will also serve as an educational resource. As a GIS, LL-MAP has the potential to be a captivating instructional tool, presenting complex data in a way accessible to all educational levels. Finally, as a free service available online, LL-MAP should increase public knowledge of lesser-known languages and cultures, underlining the importance of language and linguistic diversity to cultural understanding and scientific inquiry.

I haven’t really had a chance to explore it yet, but I figure it’s worth putting out there.
Also, I have to share the Turkish Suffix Dictionary that Vasha linked to in this thread. What great language-study resources there are on the internet these days!


It’s a long wait between Helen DeWitt novels; I’m happy to report she has a short story, “That Obscure Object of Desire,” in Bullett magazine that you can read online at a link in DeWitt’s post (which I cannot reproduce in a way that doesn’t lead to a 404 page; also, she says, I’m sure accurately, that “the print edition is much nicer”). Anyone who enjoyed The Last Samurai (my rave) will enjoy this, as you can see from this snippet:

They have a shelf of paperbacks by Orhan Pamuk. He read one once. He’d like to buy it.
If Kitap = Buch then Kara Kitap =? Black Book. 15,50.
He does not know Turkish, but he opens the book and looks at the words. He feels closer to this writer, probably, than to any writer in any language he knows, read only in sentences with meanings tangled up with other encounters with the language.
The back cover has:
“Pamuk’un şaheseri.” THE TIMES
“Zengin, yaratıcı, modern bir ulusal destan.” THE SUNDAY TIMES, İNGİLTERE
“Büyüleyici, çetin ve esrarlı bir işaretler girdabı. Bitmeyen bir enerji, çok nadir birşşey…” LIRE, FRANSA
He looks up “şaheser” in a Turkisch- Deutsch dictionary he does not mean to buy. Meisterwerk. A masterpiece.

(Typo warning: “смерь” should be смерть; the Polish quoted later on has “niezwzkąe” for niezwykłe in the version I see on my laptop, but that may not reflect what the magazine has on its site.)


I recently finished Soviet Freedom (Picador, 1988), Anthony Barnett’s account of his trip to the Soviet Union in 1987, and was very impressed by his insight into the changing situation and the wide range of interesting people he talked to; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in what that time and place were like. Here I want to pass on an extended quote from Alexander Yakovlev that expresses very well my own sense of the relation between politics and psychology:

Democratization is needed first and foremost, second and third too.[…] We have not got used to really arguing, and what is more, arguing honourably, listening to one another’s opinions. Yet this is essential, since collective wisdom is always stronger than the view of one person. For this reason, the issue does not consist of the perfection of the system of political institutions alone; what is at issue is that we should shape human thinking itself, that we should get people used to a democratic outlook, to a kind of democratic way of thinking.
I mentioned a few days ago here that we have overthrown the tsars, but we have not yet overthrown the petty monarchs hidden within ourselves. Within all of us there sits some kind of khan, tsar, I might say God almighty, in other words a sort of power-hungry being. When this starts to take hold of one, there straight away appears this inner-being, who starts to give out orders, to administrate. It starts to walk not upon our sinful soil but hovers somewhere above it. Such a person already thinks he is more clever, more learned; he starts to make pronouncements and everyone is obliged to attend in awe to his wise thoughts.

[Read more…]


My wife and I are still reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (we’re most of the way through the fourth novel, The Mauritius Command), and naturally we hear a fair amount about grog. I’ve seen the etymology of the word before but had forgotten it, and since it’s surprising and Asya Pereltsvaig tells it well at Languages of the World, I’ll quote her post for the edification and delectation of all and sundry:

Take the word groggy: today it describes someone who’s shaky, dizzy or sluggish, as from a blow or from the lack of sleep, as well as someone experiencing similar symptoms due to being drunk (that’s the earlier meaning, as we shall see immediately below). But the history of this word goes back to a rather unexpected place: the French expression gros grain meaning ‘coarse grain’. It is from this expression that the name of the coarse fabric grogram derives. Still, how did we get from a coarse fabric to being dizzy and sluggish? The crucial figure in this tortuous path is Admiral Edward Vernon of the British Navy, known to sailors as “Old Grog”, for he often wore a coat made of grogram (note that the shortening of grogram to Grog follows the same path of clipping that leaves behind a non-morpheme, as in the case of blog from weblog).
It was Admiral Vernon who in 1740 ordered water to be added to the ration of rum served to the sailors under his command; to cut down on the water’s foulness, lemon or lime juice was also added, which led to lowering the incidence of scurvy, even though the connection was not yet understood at the time. The rest of the Royal Navy rapidly followed Vernon’s lead, and eventually the Admiral’s nickname grog became associated with the drink itself, rum diluted with water. A sailor drunk on grog was called groggy, and eventually the meaning of this word was extended from a more specific to a more general one to include a hazy and dizzy state from any cause.

(The remainder of Asya’s post has interesting stuff about cheese, foie gras, and other things and is well worth reading.)


AJP sent me a link to this Guardian story by Alan Rusbridger and said he had been unfamiliar with the phrase that leaps out at the reader from the first sentence: “The Rt Rev Richard John Carew Chartres exuded an aura of benign ecclesiastical calm having performed the most dramatic reverse ferret in modern church history.” He pointed me to this Wikipedia article for an explanation; since it’s short and pungently written (and since I’m afraid some power-crazed administrator will edit it into blandness or simply delete it for “non-notability”), I’ll just quote the whole thing:

Reverse ferret is a phrase used predominantly within the British media to describe a sudden volte-face in an organisation’s editorial line on a certain issue. Generally, this will involve no acknowledgement of the previous position.
The term originates from Kelvin MacKenzie’s time at the The Sun. His preferred description of the role of journalists when it came to public figures was to “stick a ferret up their trousers”. This meant making their lives uncomfortable, and was based on the northern sport of ferret legging (where contestants compete to show who can endure a live ferret within their sealed trousers the longest). However, when it became clear that the tide of public opinion had turned against the paper’s line, MacKenzie would burst from his office shouting “Reverse Ferret!”

There’s so much concentrated goodness there I couldn’t withhold it from my loyal readers. (Naturally, the assertions are properly footnoted in the original article, to which I refer interested parties for references should they wish them.)


Visiting Lameen’s blog, I found a post mentioning that “Sorosoro have just put up a webpage by me, giving a general picture of the language of Tabelbala: Korandje.” Naturally, I followed the link, and found an interesting brief description of the Northern Songhay language he’s been working on. But what was Sorosoro? I went to their main page, which was intriguing; it has a fancy and colorful layout with links to blogs, videos, and news stories, and the subtitle “So the languages of the world may live on!” Their About page says:

Nowadays, the Araki language is only spoken by eight speakers in Vanuatu, a small state in the Pacific where we can find the biggest linguistic density in the world, about a hundred languages for 200 000 inhabitants.
In Araki, Sorosoro means “breath, speech, language”, and we have chosen this very symbolic word as the name for our safeguard program of threatened languages.
For the Araki language as for many others, time is running out. The process of extinction has accelerated considerably in recent decades and many languages with no more than a few speakers will disappear very quickly.
Of course, to safeguard the 6 000 languages that are spoken today all around the world is almost impossible : we already know that only a part of our linguistic inheritance will be saved. Yet, we want to participate and to contribute, with the help of other actors from this sector, towards the preservation of as many languages as possible ; because inaction will amount to the same thing as resigning to the cultural impoverishment of humanity.
That is why, with the support of our Scientific Council, we have set up a three- faceted program….

It all sounds admirable, but one is left wanting to know more about how it all came about, who’s behind it, how long it’s been in existence, and all the stuff an About page usually tells one. But if Lameen is involved with it, I presume it’s worthwhile, and I intend to investigate what it has on offer.


Stan of Sentence first has a post about “an admirable new website, The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery, that stores and classifies examples of ‘interesting sentence- and paragraph-level patterns, including figures of speech, grammatical-syntactic structures, and other rhetorical devices’. It was created by David Clark, an English teacher who sees the educational value of collecting and systematically arranging sentences that exemplify these literary-linguistic structures and devices.” Clark himself says:

My career involves trying to teach young people to write well: if I want them to write great sentences, they must be exposed to great sentences, again and again; and if I want them to understand, identify, and use a grammatical construction or figure of speech or literary device, they must be exposed to examples of it, again and again and again. The effects of their exposure will be magnified if those examples are amassed, analyzed, grouped—presented systematically—especially if I am careful to include each relevant variation and apparent exception in my example-set.

As Stan says, “If you’re into language and literature, you’re likely to find it fun and edifying,” and you can contribute your own examples if you like. Another good use of the internet.