Archives for February 2012


I was reading Lizzie Widdicombe’s sad and funny New Yorker piece about the hapless plagiarist Quentin Rowan, a/k/a Q. R. Markham, “author” of the spy novel Assassin of Secrets, which immediately upon publication was revealed to be a Frankenstein’s monster of chunks of other novels (and nonfiction works), busily stitched together by someone who badly wanted to be a writer but didn’t actually know how to write. While I intensely dislike plagiarism (being an old fuddy-duddy), I admire this guy:

The peculiar thing about Rowan’s case is that he could have obtained a degree of social permission simply by being honest about borrowing from other writers—by doing what Jonathan Lethem did, or by claiming that he was producing a “meta” work. We live in an age of sampling, from “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to Skrillex remixes. “We love remakes. We love makeovers,” the literary theorist Avital Ronell said, when I asked her about the case. She suggested that Rowan “could have used a dream team of literary theorists to get him out of trouble.” But Rowan told me that he’d never considered selling his novel as a mashup, even though, after news of the plagiarism broke, there was even more interest in reading it. (Its Amazon ranking jumped from 62,924 to 174.) “I honestly wanted people to think that I’d written it,” Rowan said.

He could have played the get-out-of-jail-free card of postmodernism, but no, he owns up to his desire and his sin, and good for him. Now let him find an honest way to make a living.
At any rate, I was discussing this with my wife, and she asked me where the word plagiarism comes from. So I looked it up in the American Heritage Dictionary, which told me to see plagiary (and how come the peevers don’t complain about the replacement of this fine old term by the clunky newfangled plagiarism?), which said: “Latin plagiārius, kidnapper, plagiarist, from plagium, kidnapping, from plaga, net; see plāk-1 in Indo-European roots.” So now we know: a plagiarist is someone who throws a net over other people’s words and kidnaps them.
Update. See Michael Hendry‘s comment below for the origin of the metaphor in Martial 1.52: “literally plagium is the stealing of someone else’s slave, or the forcing of a free man into slavery. This is the only passage in classical Latin where the word, or any of its derivatives, is used (even metaphorically) of literary theft.”

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Victor Mair had a recent post at the Log in which he discussed some bits of spoken Peking Chinese that have been mashed into unintelligibility (if you’re not part of the in-group):

This afternoon I passed by a group of high school kids from China going down the street outside of Williams Hall, the office building in which I work. One of the girls said merrily, “Bur’ao”, by which she meant Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) bù zhīdào 不知道 (“[I] don’t know”).
The retroflex final -r is well known for northern varieties of Mandarin, but in Pekingese it seems that the mighty R has the ability to swallow up whole syllables, as in the example quoted in the previous paragraph.

He provides a number of other examples (not all involving -r), and in the comments he adduces the English parallel “sup,” which he heard in a bar full of sailors: “They were all giving high-fives to each other and saying that. I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I knew that it must be something very common in their English (in fact, it was the most frequently uttered expression in that bar), but I felt so silly not being able to figure out what such a common expression meant. […] It took me several tries before I found someone who was patient enough to explain to me that it meant ‘What’s up?'”
I suppose most languages must have such forms; in Russian, for instance, there’s “чё.”


I’m reading my first truly contemporary Russian novel, Не стану взрослой (Amazon) by Andrei Kuzechkin; it came out last year and is set in 2009 (Michael Jackson has just died). I’m only starting the second chapter, but there are already enough linguistically interesting bits I want to share that I thought I’d post about it. To start with, how do you translate the title? The actual equivalent they’re using is Young 4 Ever (and I presume a translation of the book is forthcoming under that title), but how to render the actual Russian title in English? In a sense it’s simple, “I Won’t Grow Up” or “I Won’t Become an Adult”; the problem is that in Russian взрослой is clearly feminine (which means there’s no risk of a reader’s being tempted to apply it to the male protagonist), and there’s no good way to include that in English. “I’m a Girl Who Won’t Grow Up”? “I Won’t Become a Grown Woman”? No, I don’t think it can be done with any elegance or concision.
To move on to the text of the novel, in the first chapter one of the characters says “Я понимаю, что ежа голой задницей не удивишь” [I realize you can’t astonish a hedgehog with (i.e., by showing it) a bare ass], which greatly amused me; Google tells me the more common form uses the more vulgar word for ‘ass/arse’: ежа голой жопой не удивишь. A few pages later there occurs this interesting bit of prescriptivism: “Слово “компьютер” она произносила с отчетливым “е” вместо привычного “э” в последнем слоге. И у этой женщины — высшее образование и должность бухгалтера!” [She pronounced the word komp’yuter with a clear ye in place of the usual e in the last syllable. And this was a woman with higher education and a job in accounting!]. And the first page of Chapter 2 has three such bits in a row. First the protagonist calls Koreans the worst StarCraft players in the world and says “Вот поэтому мы их и дерем как сидоровых коз” [That’s why we beat the crap/stuffing out of them—literally ‘beat them like Sidor’s goats’]. I’d never heard the “Sidor’s goats” expression (usually in the singular: драть как Сидорову козу), but it’s one I like and will try to remember. Then he says to Vadim, the guy he’s just beaten at StarCraft, “Ты надеялся удивить меня “зерг рашем”? Серьезно?” [You were hoping to surprise me with “zerg rashem“? Seriously?] I was completely thrown by zerg rashem; fortunately, Google came to my aid again and explained to me that the Zerg are “a race of fictional parasitic insectoids and the overriding antagonists of the StarCraft series” and “The term ‘Zerg Rush’ or ‘zerging‘ has entered video gaming jargon to describe sacrificing economic development in favour of using many low-cost and weak units to rush and overwhelm an enemy by attrition or sheer numbers. The tactic is infamous, with most experienced RTS players being familiar with the tactic in one form or another.” So it’s just one of the many, many English words and phrases taken over intact in the youthful Russian of the novel (and the -em is the instrumental ending), but not being a player of video games I had no chance of getting the allusion. Then there comes this description of Vadim’s linguistic habits (Russian after the cut):

He’s constantly shoving in bits of internet jargon. Instead of “funny” he says “lol” or “ololo,” instead of “uninteresting” he says “UG” (short for unyloe govno [downer shit]), he calls girls “chan” like they do in Japan.

All I can say is: ololo!

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A couple of opportunities, of different sorts:
1) Megan L. Risdal says:

I’ve been working on a research project for a while now with a former professor and we received IRB approval yesterday to launch our survey of language attitudes, grammaticality judgments, and personality factors. So if you’re reading this and you have a few minutes to spare, I’d love for you to take our survey. We are hoping to capture a large, diverse demographic so we’re disseminating our survey far and wide.

Go to the link for her link.
2) The International Translation Center, under the auspices of Cardinal Points (see this LH post), is dedicating its annual contest to Marina Tsvetaeva: “The First Prize is a compass and $300 (US). The shortlisted translations will be published in both Cardinal Points and Стороны Света journals, as well as on the RT-Russiapedia website.” See that last link for submission guidelines, and good luck!


Edward Luttwak has a review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad that disposes briskly of the ostensible subject (“Mitchell took it on himself to produce and circulate an Iliad that is improperly abridged, indeed mutilated”) but has a number of things to say about the question he is really interested in: why is the Iliad so lastingly popular, considerably more so than its opposite number (“for all its well-remembered adventures and faster pace, the Odyssey has always been outsold – out of 590 Homer papyrus fragments recovered in Egypt at the last count, 454 preserve bits of the Iliad“). I’d like to present here a passage with some fascinating tidbits about availability in unexpected countries:

The only Chinese Homer used to be Donghua Fu’s 1929 version of the Odyssey (Ao-de-sai) published in Changsha in 1929, but that renegade engineer and pioneering Chinese grammarian translated an English text. To translate Homer once is inevitable treason, but twice? Things are far better now that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences supports the study of ancient Greek and Latin at its Institute of Foreign Literature. Luo Niansheng, once its most distinguished classicist, who studied in the United States and at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens before the Second World War, died in 1990 while translating the Iliad. His version was completed by Wilson Wong, who learned his Greek at Moscow State University in the 1960s, and who went on to translate the Odyssey as well, in verse form. Until then, China’s only translation from the Greek had been in prose, by the celebrated Yang Xianyi, who with his wife, Gladys Taylor, translated many Chinese classics into English as he lived through the hellish vicissitudes of China from 1940 till his death in 2009, including his and his wife’s separate imprisonment. Wong and Niansheng, who also translated Aeschylus’ tragedies, propelled the first Chinese-Ancient Greek dictionary, published in 2004. By then, another member of the Institute, Zhong Mei Chen, who studied Homeric Greek at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University after a spell at Brigham Young University in Utah, had published poetical new translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The Luo Niansheng/Wilson Wong Iliad is on sale online, with a handsome Zeus on the cover, for just 19.60 yuan, or $3.10 at the skewed exchange rate. By contrast, writing in Al-Ahram’s English edition in 2004, Youssef Rakha complained that Ahmed Etman’s new prose translation of the Iliad into Arabic was ‘unaffordably priced at LE250’ or $41.44, although he acknowledged that Egypt’s Supreme Council of Culture was publishing a presumably much cheaper paperback edition of Suleyman al-Boustani’s pioneering 1904 verse translation of both Homers. Etman – a professor of classics at Cairo University and chairman of the Egyptian Society of Graeco-Roman Studies, as well as a talented playwright – was quoted in the article explaining why Homer was not translated into Arabic until 1904, and then by the Maronite Catholic al-Boustani, even though his writings were ubiquitous in the Greek-speaking lands that came under Arab rule in the seventh century: ‘Homer is all mythology,’ Etman says, ‘his numerous divinities alone would have been all too obviously incompatible with the Muslim creed. Early Arab authors were too concerned with religion to consider promoting such mythology, however familiar they might have been with Homer and however much they might have admired him.’

(Thanks, Paul!)


My wife and I have been enjoying a DVD of the delightful British detective series Midsomer Murders (thanks, Eric!), and the episode we watched last night, “Blood Will Out,” taught me a new word, didicoi. It’s apparently a purely U.K. term, because none of my U.S. dictionaries have it, not even the imposing Webster’s Third New International, but the Concise Oxford English Dictionary has it: “didicoi … a Gypsy or other nomadic person. Origin C19: perh. an alt. of Romany dik akei ‘look here’.” The etymology doesn’t look very convincing on the face of it, but after all they do say “perhaps,” and it’s often hard to figure out where such dialect terms come from. At any rate, I was wondering if my non-Yank readers are familiar with it, and if so whether it has a derogatory connotation or is a reasonably neutral term. It’s certainly an enjoyable word to say.


We were listening to the radio this evening and a woman was being interviewed about a doughnut recipe that involved arrowroot. The interviewer asked jovially “So is it the root of the arrow, then?” and they had a good laugh; I, of course, headed for the dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary had a particularly good “word history” sidebar, which I will now pass on to you:

The arrowroot is just one of many plants that the European settlers and explorers discovered in the New World. The Arawak, a people who formerly lived on the Caribbean islands and continue to inhabit certain regions of Guiana, named this plant aru-aru, meaning “meal of meals,” so called because they thought very highly of the starchy, nutritious meal made from the arrowroot. The plant also had medicinal value because its tubers could be used to draw poison from wounds inflicted by poison arrows. The medicinal application of the roots provided the impetus for English speakers to remake aru-aru into arrowroot, first recorded in English in 1696. Folk etymology—the process by which an unfamiliar element in a word is changed to resemble a more familiar word, often one that is semantically associated with the word being refashioned—has triumphed once again, giving us arrowroot instead of the direct borrowing of aru-aru.

So it’s like “sparrowgrass” for asparagus, except that it’s become the normal term. Who’d have guessed?
Update. Ian Preston, in the first comment, links to the relevant section in William C. Sturtevant’s “History and Ethnography of Some West Indian Starches” (in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, ed. Peter Ucko and G. Dimbleby, Chicago: Aldine, 1969), which pretty convincingly demolishes the aru-aru theory: “According to Barham, a Jamaica physician writing before 1711, the plant Sloane labelled Canna Indica was called ‘arrow root’ because it was first known as an Indian antidote for poisoned arrow wounds, for which the juice was taken internally and the bruised root was used as a poultice on the wound.” Sturtevant’s conclusion:

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My wife and I are as hooked on Downton Abbey as everyone else (in fact, we just got the DVDs of the first two seasons so we can see the original U.K. versions and watch them whenever we want), so I’ve been interested to see the recent spate of investigations into the language used. Ben Zimmer has a post at Visual Thesaurus listing “lines that seem a bit questionable” and “assessing their accuracy for the time period”; Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention (“Digital Humanities: Using tools from the 1990s to answer questions from the 1960s about 19th century America”) has a post with a similar goal but a more comprehensive approach:

So I thought: why not just check every single line in the show for historical accuracy? Idioms are the most colorful examples, but the whole language is always changing. There must be dozens of mistakes no one else is noticing. Google has digitized so much of written language that I don’t have to rely on my ear to find what sounds wrong; a computer can do that far faster and better. So I found some copies of the Downton Abbey scripts online, and fed every single two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database to see how characteristic of the English Language, c. 1917, Downton Abbey really is.

He finds some “egregious, howling mistakes,” and the detailed discussion is quite fascinating. Finally, Mark Liberman at the Log investigates “Just sayin'”. It’s really very hard to get period dialog right, though that’s no excuse for “logic pills” or “get knotted.”


The Smithsonian has hundreds of the earliest audio recordings ever made, but they have been considered unplayable and nobody knew what was on them. Recently, the Library of Congress and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory collaborated to make optical scanners capable of recording the patterns, and some of the results are becoming available. You can get a basic introduction to the situation at the National Museum of American History’s blog: Trilled R’s and the dawn of recorded sound in America, and Forgotten early sound recordings given a voice, and here‘s a YouTube playlist of six Volta Labs recordings; it sends shivers up my spine to hear a voice saying “It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty-five” (though the silly-sounding high-pitched trills somewhat ruin the spell). There are many more links at this MetaFilter post, where I learned about the restoration.


Occasional commenter (and gracious hostess) dameragnel has sent me a couple of her favorite off-color Russian expressions; I share them here, along with her remark: “I would love to know if others have heard these and would very much enjoy their comments and additions to the list.” (As they say on Википедия: Внимание! Ненормативная лексика или непристойное изображение!)
1. When things seem to be going from bad to worse:
Как пошло пизде на пропасть, и старцы ебут.
2. As a judgement of a woman; I like this one for its Gogolian syntax:
Ни сиськи, ни письки, ни цвета лица.
3. This one isn’t dirty but interesting in that it is what girls were taught for enticing a man. The instructions are about where to look (the угол, the upper right or the upper left). You can see a version of this in action if you watch Angelina Jolie at a photo op or in an interview:
В угол, на нос, на предмет.
(LH again:) The first includes two of the basic Russian “bad words,” пизда ‘cunt’ and ебать ‘fuck’; one of my favorite expressions involving the first is пизда пизде рознь ‘one cunt isn’t like another,’ used to warn against lumping unlike things together, as a medieval philosopher would say “distinguo.” And the rhythm and tone of the second reminds me of the chorus of Shriekback’s immortal “My Spine (Is the Bassline)“: “No guts! No blood! And no brains at all!”