Archives for December 2011


It turns out Patrick the etymologist, who has commented here recently, has an excellent blog called odamaki (subtitled 古のしづのをだまき繰り返し昔を今になすよしもがな, which Google translates as “Frost forms on it now and repeat the past and the old Dzunowodamaki”). It’s not updated often, but the entries should appeal to anyone who enjoys LH. Here’s the start of Missing “people”:

One Middle English word that I wish had survived into Mondern English is thede, “people, nation, country, Gentile nation.” Can you imagine how useful hip-hop artists would find it as a rhyme for weed? Scots kept the word theed a bit longer than the southern Anglic languages, the only citations in the Dictionary of the Scots Language being from the text Golagros and Gawane […] and then threw the word away too. Thede is the native reflex of the word from which Middle Dutch dūtsch and German deutsch were built. Just look at this savory list of cognates from the OED:[…]

While I’m here, let me update my Xmas Loot post with a few books that have made a late appearance in my stocking: The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym and Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King (thanks, Sven & Leslie!) and The Archaeology of Anxiety: The Russian Silver Age and its Legacy by Galina Rylkova (thanks, Patricia!). The latter is a Kindle book, and I’d been wondering what would happen if someone gave me one; now I know—you get an e-mail announcing the gift and saying “click here to accept,” and once you click, boom, there it is on your Kindle! What fun!
It remains only to wish you all the very best of new years; I hope 2012 proves to be an improvement. See you after the changeover!


I just finished the Strugatsky brothers’ 1964 Трудно быть богом (translated as Hard to be a God), and enjoyed it as much as I did Escape Attempt (see this post). One of the pleasures of this novel set on a distant planet still mired in blood-soaked feudalism is the use of archaic vocabulary, of which my favorite word was книгочей [knigochéi] ‘book-lover, bookish person’; my pleasure was increased when I looked it up in Vasmer (the standard Russian etymological dictionary) and found “др.-русск., ст.-слав. кънигъчии (γραμματεύς; Супр.; Черноризец Храбр). Заимств. из тюркск.; ср. вост.-булг., др.-тюрк. *küinigči от *küinig (см. книга).” In other words, it’s borrowed from Turkic, with the characteristic –či ending for a person having something to do with the noun the suffix is attached to (compare Saatchi ‘watchmaker’ and Khashoggi from kaşıkçı ‘maker or seller of spoons’). And if you look up книга [kniga] ‘book’ you get “Праслав. *kъniga, судя по книгоче́й (см.), нужно возводить через др.-тюрк. *küinig, волжско-болг., дунайско-болг. *küiniv (уйг. kuin, kuinbitig) к кит. k̔üеn «свиток»,” taking the Turkic word back to Chinese; Vasmer goes on to cast doubt on an alternative etymology deriving it from Akkadian kunukku ‘seal’ given the lack of an intermediate geographical link, not to mention problems of form and meaning. Etymological arguments are my idea of a good time.


A reader (thanks, Bill!) sent me this piece by Will Englund from the Washington Post about the linguistic changes that have accompanied or prefigured recent political upheavals in Russia; here’s the core of it:

But if there’s a single word that stands out day after day as people denounce, lambaste and lampoon the Russian authorities, it’s an old one that over time has taken on a new meaning. The word is dostali, and it means “fed up.” […]
More recently the faddish response was voobshche, a word that literally means “in general” but took on a sense akin to the English “You gotta be kidding me!”
But now Russians are fed up. From passively standing by while a nightmare enveloped them, they moved into a state of incredulity. Now, faced with mushrooming corruption, arrogance and stupidity, they say, “Enough. We’re fed up.” And when people are fed up, the implication is that they’re not going to take it anymore. […]
In Soviet times, dostali meant getting something that was hard to obtain. Now it has been flipped around and literally means that something or someone you don’t like has gotten to you.

It’s nice that they’re doing a piece on Russian usage and citing actual Russians, like Olga Severskaya and Mikhail Epstein, but is this really a new development? I know достать [dostát’] ‘to fetch; reach; get’ has had the slang sense ‘to irritate (someone), get under (someone’s) skin’ for some time; has it acquired the stronger sense ‘to make someone fed up (so that they won’t take it anymore),’ or is that just an overinterpretation by the reporter?


Last year, I posted about morion, which “is from a Latin word morion that is a misreading of Pliny’s mormorion. I wrote here about collimate, from an erroneous reading of Latin collineare; I wonder if there is a list somewhere of words with similar histories?” I still haven’t seen such a list, but I just ran across a similar case in my new AHD, Fifth Edition: crenate, “Having a margin with low, rounded or scalloped projections,” is from “Late Medieval Latin crēna, notch, from a reading of an uncertain Latin word in a corrupt passage in Pliny the Elder (influenced by Old French cren, notch).” How does Pliny keep getting mixed up in these things?


A couple of readers have sent me links to this BBC News story about a new translation of the Bible into Jamaican patois (apparently the usual name for what linguists call Jamaican Creole); it provides the usual warring sound bites (“Mr Stewart says the project is largely designed to bring scripture alive, but it also has another important function – to rescue patois from its second-class status in Jamaica and to enshrine it as a national language” vs. “Bishop Alvin Bailey, at the Portmore Holiness Church of God near Kingston, argues that Patois is too limited a language to represent the nuances of Biblical text, and has to resort to coarse expressions to makes its meaning clear”) but is an interesting read and of course quotes the text, though not as much as one would like. (Jamaican Creole previously on LH: Language Barrier, Pullum on Jamaican Creole.)


As an astringent palate-cleanser after the overindulgence of holiday dinners, may I present (courtesy of Marc Adler) a page of Doctors’ Slang, Medical Slang and Medical Acronyms, Veterinary Acronyms & Vet Slang. People with delicate sensibilities should probably not click, but if you have a dark and robust sense of humor, you should find much to enjoy. A few mild examples: Acute Pneumoencephalopathy – airhead; AHF – Acute Hissy Fit; Albatross – chronically ill patient who will remain with a doctor until one or other of them expire; ALC – a la casa (send the patient home). Thanks, Marc!


I’m still recovering from midday Christmas dinner, but I’ve regained enough energy to post about those of my gifts that might interest LH readers. Pride of place goes to a couple of brand-new reference works, The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, 13th Edition and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. I own earlier editions of both, which have long been among my very favorite books; these updates are unbelievably gorgeous, superb products of the bookmaker’s art, and I will be spending a great deal of time poring over both of them. There is an overblown controversy over the atlas because a map apparently incorrectly shows the amount of loss of Greenland’s permanent ice cover since 1999, and what with all the uproar over global warming it got a lot of publicity. I’m not saying that’s insignificant, and the publisher should definitely be embarrassed, but some Amazon customers are saying idiotic things like “Sounds like a pretty big mistake. Wonder how many others have crept into this edition?” News flash: every reference book has errors, but the people at the Times Atlas have been doing this for a long time (my copy came with a gorgeous reproduction of the world map from the first, 1922, edition) and they know what they’re doing. Anyone who needs a high level of detail and can afford this magnificent atlas would be foolish to settle for a lesser one—unless, of course, they’re obsessed with Greenland’s ice cover, in which case they should probably get a more specialized work anyway.
This is my third AHD; I bought the first edition as soon as it came out (during my sophomore year of college), and I remember how thrilled I was with the smell (yes, I’m a book-sniffer), the illustrations, the etymologies, and above all the appendix of Indo-European roots with its introduction by Calvert Watkins, one of the two leading American specialists in the field (I studied with the other, Warren Cowgill). I read it to pieces, quite literally; by the time I reluctantly discarded it (during one of the four moves we’ve made in the last decade), the boards had long since separated from the pages, many of which had been reduced to scraps. I got the fourth edition at the Strand in NYC, and was delighted with the addition of an appendix of Semitic roots; ten years have passed since then, and the dictionary has added 10,000 new words and senses. In the Introduction they mention a number of them, including ghrelin, a hormone that promotes hunger and growth, notable because its discoverers named it after the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed root *ghrē ‘to grow’; it’s surely the only English word in part borrowed, rather than descended, from PIE. Some other words new in this edition I noticed flipping through are kalbi (also galbi), “A Korean dish consisting of marinated, grilled short ribs, often served wrapped in a lettuce leaf with rice and red bean paste” [Korean, rib, ribs < Middle Korean kari-spjə: kari, rib + spjə, bone]; khimar, “A long headscarf worn by Muslim women, typically gathered or fastened under the chin and covering the body to a variable length” [Arabic ḫimār, covering < ḫamara to cover, conceal; see ḫmr in App. II] (this is accompanied by a typically beautiful and informative photo); and Khitan, “A member of a Mongol people who established the Khitan Liao dynasty in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia in the 10th century” [Akin to Persian Khutan and Mandarin Qìdā (< Middle Chinese, khit tan), ultimately < the Khitan ethnic self-designation of unknown meaning]—this is also the source of Russian Китай ‘China.’

[Read more…]


How many languages were spoken in Australia at the time of European settlement? Claire of Anggarrgoon says 363 or 364, not counting Tasmania, and she should know. Her list is here (an xlsx file, which you can open in Excel or Google Docs [thanks, Sven!]); she says “this is, if I say so myself, a far better list to use than the Ethnologue’s,” and I’m perfectly happy to take her word for it.
I hope all LH readers are having a good holiday season; tomorrow I’ll provide my traditional Xmas Loot Report.


A correspondent sent me a link to this touching essay by Anne Fadiman (who knows what it is to be overshadowed by a famous father) about the ill-fated Hartley Coleridge, who wrote well (but not as well as STC) and drank too much and disappointed pretty much everyone, including himself. The e-mail called attention to the impressive words epistolophobia and scribblelation, both of which occur in letters (the first by STC, the second by Hartley) about halfway down the linked page, but I was particularly struck by the unpredictable definition of the phrase I have used as my post title, a little farther down, in the passage about Hartley’s losing his position as a Probationer Fellow at Oriel College: “Hartley failed to attend chapel regularly, stank of tobacco, and associated with ‘bad company,’ a term redolent of bums and barmaids but that in fact referred to undergraduates from colleges other than Oriel.”


A while back, OUP sent me a reviewer’s copy of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, by Michael Adams. I set it aside, thinking it was probably some marginally interesting attempt to cash in on the popularity of all things Star Trek and Tolkien. When I finally took a good look at it, however, it turned out to be a collection of papers edited by Michael Adams, and a fascinating one. The table of contents is after the cut; as you can see, it covers a much wider range of topics than one might think—not only the titular languages and a chapter covering Volapük, Esperanto, et al., but Orwell and Burgess, Hebrew and Hawaiian, even Joyce and Beckett. I was as pleasantly surprised by this book as I was by Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages a couple of years ago (see this post). Rather than try to summarize all the chapters, I’ll just quote some bits from the Tolkien one, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. It starts with this wonderful epigraph:

You can’t be a Tolkien fan without liking the look of these fake languages, and I still find them aesthetically pleasing, even now. There is something wonderful about looking at a new language, noticing something of its structure, sensing its power to communicate and hold things. […] And I remember feeling the ground had opened up in front of me when I got to Appendix F.

Jenny Turner ‘Reasons for Liking Tolkien

From the section “Secrecy and hiddenness”:

The piecemeal revelation [of the languages in The Lord of the Rings] preserves a sense of distance, ancientness, and mystery, just as does the gradual and partial revealing of the history of the Elder Days. Instructive comparison my be made with ‘The Notion Club Papers’ […], an unfinished draft in which the legend of the ancient downfall of Nûmenor is received preternaturally by 20th-century recipients. In a kind of linguistic thriller, the tale emerges as the characters gradually decipher fragments of two languages in which it is described, Elvish and Adûnaic. For the language enthusiast, the phonology and declension system are fascinating, but Tolkien’s instinct in abandoning a story so wholly dependent on linguistic investigation was very sound.

From “The pleasures of Elvish philology”:

Because Tolkien constructed his Elvish language family using the pattern of real-world language change, it is possible for the investigation of Elvish to create the same intellectual and aesthetic pleasure that can be found in real-world philology, delighting in the relations and histories of words.[…] The apprehension of these complex relationships—discovering the relation of an obscure word to another element in the same or another language, or uncovering the transformative effect of a series of sound changes—is a source of fascination whether the context is Elvish or English etymology.[…]

Since few people study classical or even modern languages in depth nowadays, very few have had the chance to discover such philological pleasure; but of those who have, many were introduced to it through Tolkien’s languages.

And reader, I was one of them!

I’m tempted to quote some of the detailed linguistic discussions, but I think I’ll just say if you like the sound of the contents and the excerpts, you’ll like this (amazingly inexpensive) book a lot. And you can still run out and get it if you need a last-minute gift!

Introduction, Michael Adams
“Confounding Babel: International Auxiliary Languages,” Arden Smith
“Invented Vocabularies: The Cases of Newspeak and Nadsat,” Howard Jackson
“Tolkien’s Invented Languages,” E.C.S. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall
“‘Wild and Whirling Words’: The Invention and Use of Klingon,” Marc Okrand, Michael Adams, Judith Hendriks-Hermann, and Sjaak Kroon
“Gaming Languages and Language Games,” James Portnow
“‘Oirish’ Inventions: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Paul Muldoon,” Stephen Watt
“Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages,” Suzanne Romaine
Appendices (“Owning Language,” “Nadsat and the Critics,” “The Case for Synthetic Scots,” etc.)