Archives for January 2012


xkcd presents: Etymology Man! As always, don’t forget to read the mouseover text. (Thanks, Sven!)
While I have your attention, I am puzzled by the term “affectus” in the following sentence from Russia’s Alternative Prose, by Robert Porter (Berg, 1994): “It would be difficult to find a more authentic-sounding amalgam of half-digested official propaganda, perfunctory reading, emotional confusion and popular bigotry than Irina’s outpourings here – she sounds like the Soviet equivalent of an affectus-cum-aficionado of the British gutter press.” The word, if it can be called that in English, isn’t in the OED or any other dictionary I have access to, and I’m afraid Etymology Man isn’t of much help, since the Latin word affectus has too many meanings (as a noun, ‘mental state; strong feeling; physical condition; influence; eagerness; sympathy, affection; purpose; attitude,’ and as an adjective ‘endowed with; disposed; (harmfully) affected, impaired; related (to), connected (with); emotional’) and it’s not clear which if any might be intended. If anyone has any helpful suggestions, I’m all ears. (If it matters, “she” is the protagonist of Viktor Erofeev’s Russian Beauty.)


My wife and I are on the seventh of the Aubrey-Maturin books, The Surgeon’s Mate (which means we’re eating them up at a rate of almost one a month—see this post for the start of the voyage—and will have finished the series sometime in the spring of 2013, and what will we do then?), and when I read the start of Chapter Three, “The Diligence tided it down the long harbour during the night, and before daybreak she was clear of the Little Thrumcap,” of course I had to know where and what the Little Thrumcap was. The Nova Scotia Pilot provides the answer [text below the cut for those who can’t see the Google Books image]:

But another question remained: what’s a thrumcap? Here we turn to the OED and find “Thrum… A short piece of waste thread or yarn…; pl. or collect. sing. odds and ends of thread… thrum cap, a cap made of thrums.” You can see a couple of illustrations (including one from the movie Master and Commander!) here, as well as read “The Ballad of the Caps” (“The Saylors with their Thrums do stand/ On higher place than all the land”).
Oh, and here‘s a splendid painting, “H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour,” in case you too are a devotee of O’Brian and would enjoy seeing such a thing.

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I’ve recently discovered (via Sashura) Olga Kagan’s new blog The Fun of Language and the Language of Fun, which has only been in existence for a week; the Welcome post says “This blog will be devoted to various exciting topics that are related to language, and I am planning to begin with two more specific topics – animal communication and humor.” I’m not all that interested in animal communication, but I do enjoy humor, and yesterday’s post, Homonymy in Russian Jokes about Stierlitz, is very funny indeed if you know Russian. If you don’t, she explains the jokes for you, but as she says, “when a joke based on homonymy is translated and then explained, the result is not funny at all.” But in general, her posts don’t require knowledge of other languages; Polysemy in Winnie-the-Pooh and Other Stories, the follow-up to the homonymy post, is a good example. In any case, welcome to the blogosphere, Olga!


I try not to be shocked by what to me are glaring errors of usage in print, soothing myself with the reflection that times have changed, no one studies the classical languages any more, and you can’t tie the present to the millstone of the past. And yet it bothered me exceedingly when I read, in Christopher Benfey’s review of several books about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the sentence “Her skulls are not mementi mori but resurrections.” It’s true that the plurals of Italian words in –o end in –i, but memento is not an Italian word, it is the singular imperative of the Latin verb meminisse ‘to remember’ (memento mori means ‘remember [that you are going] to die’), and the plural of the phrase in English is the same as the singular. I am pleased to see that the online version of the article has corrected the sentence (“Her skulls are not memento mori but resurrections”); I imagine some harried copyeditor was responsible for the error, since Benfey, the author, is a professor of English. At any rate, this post is a public service announcement, written in the hope that others may be dissuaded from making the same mistake. (N.b.: The word memento by itself is from the same Latin imperative, but the plural is mementos, and that’s OK, because it’s a single word and inevitably became anglicized. Phrases are different.)


A post at bradshaw of the future investigates the Gloucestershire epicene pronoun ou, which “derives from Middle English a, which in turn derives from Old English he ‘he’ and heo ‘she'”:

So was Middle English a really an epicene pronoun? Well, we have examples of it from Trevisa standing for both “he” and “she”, as in these cites from the OED […] It’s in Shakespeare too. Here Hamlet is talking about Polonius.

1604 Shakespeare Hamlet iii. iii. 73 Now might I doe it, but now a is a praying, And now Ile doo’t, and so a goes to heauen.

Modern versions have

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;

But there seems to be a difference between a and singular they. In the examples above, the antecedents have known genders. Singular they is usually not used when the gender of the antecedent is known. What I’d like to know is: can Middle English a (or Gloucester ou) be used when the gender of the antecedent is unknown or irrelevant?

I hadn’t been aware of this early pronoun; it’s no longer usable, alas, having been worn down to a mere schwa (which would probably be interpreted as “I” if heard in a stream of discourse), but it’s certainly an interesting phenomenon.


OUP, bless them, keeps sending me review copies of language-related books, and even though I haven’t had time to actually read these with the thoroughness they deserve, I can tell from the introductions and from dipping into them that they are well worth it, and I thought I’d provide a timely alert here, with the likelihood of further posts later:
1) Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy, by Simon Goldhill. I suspect the more classics-minded of you are rolling your eyes based on the title alone—Christ, not another book on Sophocles as master tragedian? Well, for one thing, Sophocles is like Shakespeare (even if we don’t have nearly as many of his plays): there’s always room for another well-written book on him. And for another, this really is (as far as I, a non-expert, can tell) a new approach, an attempt to combine traditional detailed analysis of language and themes with the more modern historical approach, for which “reception theory” is the usual tag, on a more or less equal basis. Goldhill says in his introduction: “Yet to a surprising and remarkably blinkered degree these two strands of work have continued without significant interaction. So—to take two seminal and, to my mind, outstanding studies as my examples—George Steiner’s ground-breaking study of how Antigone has been read over time […] only very rarely actually engages with the Greek of Sophocles’ play […]. From another angle, Charlie Segal’s long and detailed investigation of the texts of Sophocles proved to be one of the most influential studies of what has become the dominant contemporary critical tradition; yet for all Segal’s extensive and incisive critical reading, his book barely looks forward to see how his understanding relates to—or is influenced by—the long history of criticism that Steiner outlines.” He says of his own work, “The book’s structure sets out—instantiates—the question of how historical an engagement with Sophocles is or must be. This structure is an attempt to lay out what I believe to be the most pressing question facing classics as a discipline today: the tension between historical self-consciousness and the values invested in classical texts. This is a question which goes to the heart of the status and authority of the field of classics itself[…].” I find this an attractive approach; of course, it would be useless without a close reading of the texts, and I am happy to say his first chapter is a detailed analysis of the word lysis ‘release’ and its relatives in the context of the much abused notion of “tragic irony,” and it left me eager to read the rest of the book.
2) Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, by Peter Elbow. Elbow is the author of a number of books on writing with which I am not familiar, but I was immediately grabbed by the way his introduction begins: “The obsession that has kept me energized for the many years of writing this book takes the form of both anger and excitement. I’ve long been angry at how our present culture of ‘proper literacy’ tells us that we are not supposed to do our serious writing in the mother tongue we know best and possess in our bones—but rather only in the prestige, correct, edited version of standardized English or what I will sometimes call ‘correct writing.’ This helps explain a lot that we see about serious writing in the world. Many people have learned to manage or handle adequately ‘correct English,’ but in doing so, they muffle or clog their thoughts into language that’s far less clear and interesting than they could have used in the language of their talking. Many other people don’t even feel that writing is an option for them and feel excluded—yet they speak smart, eloquent, interesting things.” This guy’s singing my song, I thought, and read on. No, he’s not saying anything so simplistic as “just write the way you talk”; he’s suggesting ways in which you can use the sound of your words to improve your writing, at both the composing and revising stages. His index includes multiple page references for linguists like Wallace Chafe, Roy Harris, Nicholas Ostler, and John McWhorter, other scholars like John DeFrancis (LH post), Eric Havelock, and Walter Ong, and just plain interesting writers like Adam Gopnik. And I love this passage from page 7:

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Sometimes you wonder how people get work as translators. A couple of years ago I wrote several posts about the hapless Isidor Schneider and his butchery of Gorky’s autobiography (1, 2, 3); now, reading a recent NYRB, I find Ian Buruma complaining (more decorously than I) about what appears to be almost as bad a job of translating Harry Kessler’s diaries:

Then, in 1891, the diary suddenly switches from English to German. Kessler was of course as much a master of his native tongue as he was of English. Alas, the translation leaves a different impression. The grammar is often mangled, the sentences creak as though written in a thick German accent, and the mistakes are legion. A Kaserne is a military barracks, not a “casern.” Genial is not genial, but brilliant, literally “of genius.” Schallplatten, or records, is not normally rendered in English as “gramophone platters.” To translate schleppen as to schlepp, as in they “schlepped along little children,” sounds Yiddish, which I’m sure was not intended by the author. Hotel Emperorhof instead of Kaiserhof is eccentric. And the grasp, in translation, of this great cosmopolitan’s European geography seems deficient. It is The Hague, not the Haag, and Antwerp, not Anvers, at least not in an English text.

“Eccentric” is so restrained you can almost hear Buruma’s teeth grinding in the effort to maintain the civilized standards of discourse called for at the Review.


A couple of words that surprised me today:
1) Via Jan Freeman’s latest post, an odd bit of obsolete slang: apparently, people used to say “to blue all his savings” and “I blued it all on booze” where we would say “to blow” and “I blew.” I asked Jan if there were etymologies that would indicate whether it was an independent verb, and she replied “Both Green and OED present ‘blue/blued/blued’ as a variation on the (already slang) ‘blow/blew/blown,’ which makes me think it was probably an intentional language joke that caught on for a while.”
2) Via Stan Carey’s latest post, a new sense of bemused that would have upset me were I not such a staunch descriptivist; as it is, I am merely bemused that it snuck up on me without my having the faintest idea that it was undergoing semantic development. To quote the AHD, Fifth Edition: “The word bemused is sometimes used to mean ‘amused, especially when finding something wryly funny,’ as in The stream of jokes from the comedian left the audience bemused, with some breaking out into guffaws.” Are you familiar with this sense? Do you use it yourself?


It’s hard to know how to describe Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy, by Maya Kucherskaya (profile), translated by Alexei Bayer (of which the publisher, Russian Life, was kind enough to send me an advance copy in uncorrected proofs). The Russian title, which translates as A Contemporary Paterikon, is more descriptive, or at least more specific, but since “Paterikon” means nothing to the vast majority of English speakers, I decided “Faith & Humor” was as good an English title as any. The book is sort of a “Lives of the Fathers” crossed with Daniil Kharms; it consists of (often acerbic) little anecdotes that add up to a surprisingly warm and effective collective portrait of modern Orthodoxy in its Russian context. I guess the only thing I can do is quote a few bits so you can see what it’s like and decide whether you want to read more; as far as I’m concerned, they’re like peanuts, and I can’t get enough of them.

1. They were all supping around the refectory table. Suddenly, Father Theoprepus got down under the table. He sat there among the monks’ roughly shod feet. The feet remained still. Then Father Theoprepus began to move around and to tug at the monks’ cassocks from under the table. The monks were humble and no one dared to reproach him. Only one novice asked him in astonishment, “Father, how would you have us interpret this?”
“I want to be like a child,” came the answer.
2. An abbot known for his gift of clairvoyance commanded a novice to cut down a poplar tree growing in the middle of the monastery. The novice, wishing to understand the hidden meaning of this order, inquired, “Father, why should the tree be cut down?”
“I’ve been laid low with allergies, Sonnie, from the poplar down,” the abbot replied, sneezing.
“God bless you,” said the novice and ran to fetch an electric saw.
For he had a gift of understanding.
6. Father Yehudiel spilled pea soup all over himself.
“Vasya, why don’t you go and wash my cassock,” he said to a novice who had recently joined the monastery.
“But I have no idea how to wash clothes,” Vasya protested, laughing loudly.
“And so you shall learn,” Father Yehudiel replied, laughing louder than ever.

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I’m about halfway through Aksyonov’s 1965 novel Пора, мой друг, пора [It’s Time, My Friend, It’s Time], which is so far set in Tallinn (his earlier fiction moves almost entirely between Estonia, the Far East, and the Crimea, with occasional stopovers in Moscow), and with my usual need for geographical precision I was trying to find out where улица Победы [Victory Street] was. I never did locate it, but I did run across one of those scholarly papers I devour with the greatest of enthusiasm, “Historical Multilingualism of Street Names in Estonia” (pdf, abstract) by Peeter Päll. I wanted to quote chunks from it about the linguistic history of Estonia and its capital, but for some reason the “select text” function isn’t working for me, and there doesn’t appear to be a Google cache (does Google not do this for pdfs any more? and why are they hiding Google Books, and even more so Advanced Search? but don’t get me started), so you’ll have to read it for yourself.
And looking for a quotable version of that led me to Simon Hamilton’s wonderful site, A Rambling Dictionary of Tallinn Street Names, which lists Päll’s article in its extensive bibliography and thanks him for “responding to my interminable questions”—Hamilton clearly put a lot of work into his Rambling Dictionary, and I for one appreciate it.