Archives for March 2012


More snippets from all over:
1) Ned Beauman posts about an amusing former usage exemplified by “1848 J. R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (at cited word), She could eat fifty people in her house, but could not sleep half the number.” He gives a number of other citations (e.g., “[Mr. Dickens] has declined the invitation of the Philadelphians to eat him”), “of which every single example made me laugh.” (Thanks, N.!)
2) The Genizah fragments in Oxford’s Bodleian Library are now online. (Thanks, Paul!)
3) How should Shakespeare really sound?: “The British Library have released the first audio guide to how Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded in the original pronunciation.” (You be the judge of how successful it sounds.)


Normally, my attitude toward dictionaries is the more the merrier; each does certain things better than others, and it’s good to be able to compare and contrast. I haven’t had much contact with Webster’s New World Dictionary since I was a kid; I remember enjoying its etymologies and classy-looking typeface back in those days, but since I have been professionally involved with words and language I have relied upon Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and American Heritage and rarely given a thought to the New World, occasionally riffling through it with nostalgic curiosity when I ran across it somewhere. If you’d asked me who used it, I’d have been at a loss. Now, thanks to Allan Metcalf’s Lingua Franca post, I know: journalists. And the reason? Idiotic, sheeplike herd behavior triggered by ill-informed, bilious attacks on one of the great achievements of American lexicography:

Back in the 1960s, Webster’s New World was the David that slew the Goliath of dictionaries, Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged. That one was published by Merriam-Webster, the nation’s most distinguished maker of dictionaries and direct heir of Noah Webster, America’s foremost lexicographer. [I omit the description of the bilious attacks, which you can read about in Metcalf’s piece or described at greater length by Geoff Nunberg here; you can read about the dictionary itself in this LH post.]
Careful reviewers noticed that the Second hadn’t been entirely prescriptive, either, and in fact contained definitions excoriated for permissiveness in the Third. But the mood was set, and to admit reliance on the Third was like confessing to possession of pornography. So what was a journalist to do? There had been a few events and inventions since the Second Unabridged of 1934, so an up-to-date dictionary was needed. But not a Merriam-Webster!
Fortunately, there was a company in Cleveland, Webster’s New World, that had no connection with Merriam-Webster and that published a nice, up-to-date college edition. (The name Webster isn’t trademarked and can be used by any dictionary.) So the non-Merriam became the book of choice.
Over the decades, the shock value of Webster’s Third has dissipated, but it never regained its pre-eminence. It has a place in newsrooms, but just second place.

First off, let me point out the parochialism of “slew the Goliath of dictionaries,” as if newspaper use were all that mattered; I repeat that in a long editorial career I have never seen a copy of Webster’s New World in an office. It might as well not have existed. And now, apparently, it is ceasing to exist; the start of Metcalf’s piece explains that despite the obfuscations of its publisher it appears to be moribund. As I said at the beginning of this post, ordinarily I would regret that, but now that I know how and why it came to be a journalistic standby, my reaction is: good, now let journalists start living in the real world.


1) The first episode of “That Other Word,” a collaborative podcast between the Center for Writers and Translators and the Center for the Art of Translation, which “offers discussions on classic and contemporary literature in translation, along with engaging interviews with writers, translators, and publishers”:

In this first episode, Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito chat about the accidental poetry and reasonable plausibility of César Aira’s Varamo, the miraculous strangeness of László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and the hopping city at the heart of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories.

2) Amateur Archeologists Invited to Decipher Papyri: “Working in collaboration with Oxford University papyrologists and Egypt Exploration Society, Lintott’s team launched the Ancient Lives website, where armchair archaeologists can help with cataloguing and translating the ancient manuscripts.” N.b.: Knowledge of Greek not a prerequisite.
3) No-sword presents We’ll Shield: Taiko Pharmaceutical has a line of products with a brand name written “WE’LL SHIELD” in Roman characters and ウィルシールド wirushīrudo, a portmanteau word combining “English ‘We’ll’, rendered in katakana as ウィル, wiru, … the Japanese word for “virus”, ウイルス, uirusu, [and] English ‘shield’, rendered in katakana as シールド, shīrudo.” Clever!


I’m reading Christopher M. Clark’s Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (having enjoyed the excerpts Joel’s been publishing at Far Outliers, I went to Amazon and bought the surprisingly cheap Kindle edition with a single click, a perilously simple procedure, and started reading it a minute later), and I’ve just gotten to the description of Frederick the Great at the start of chapter 7. Here’s what Clark has to say about old Fritz’s relation to his native tongue:

In one of the eighteenth century’s funniest effusions of literary bile, Frederick, a grumpy old man of sixty-eight, denounced the German language as a ‘semi-barbarian’ idiom in which it was ‘physically impossible’, even for an author of genius, to achieve superior aesthetic effects. German writers, the king wrote, ‘take pleasure in a diffuse style, they pile parenthesis upon parenthesis, and often you don’t find until you reach the end of the page the verb on which the meaning of the entire sentence depends.’

Google Books provides the original:


Geoff Nunberg has a post at the Log about Simon Winchester’s review of Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang (reviewed here at LH) for the New York Review of Books. I had read the review and disliked it, as I dislike everything Winchester does (see this 2004 jeremiad), and one of the reasons I disliked it was what Geoff (who otherwise finds Winchester “a personable and engaging story-teller”) focused on:

The review took an unfortunate turn, though, when Winchester brought in Jonathan Lighter’s still uncompleted Historical Dictionary of American Slang and compared it invidiously, and quite unfairly, to Green’s work. It’s another in a long line of ill-conceived evaluations of dictionaries by writers who mistake their literacy and passion for the language for lexicographical expertise—think of Dwight Macdonald on Webster’s Third, for example.

Geoff wrote a letter to the NYRB complaining about it, which he provides in his post (the magazine probably won’t run it, since it’s long and specialized), and it’s well worth reading; what leads me to post about it here, though, is that Green responded with a long and amazingly civil comment in the thread—Nunberg says it’s “almost certainly more gracious than mine would have been in the circumstances.” As I say in the thread, “the back-and-forth between Green and Nunberg above is one of the most polite and informative such exchanges I’ve ever seen; kudos to both.”


Simin Daneshvar has died at the age of ninety. Stephen Kinzer calls her “the most potent surviving symbol of the vibrancy of 20th-century literature in Iran” in his NY Times obit:

Iran’s turbulent modern history, defined above all by foreign exploitation, framed Ms. Daneshvar’s life. During World War II she witnessed the Allied occupation of her country. It provided the backdrop for her masterpiece, the sprawling family saga “Savushun,” published in 1969. …
After obtaining her doctorate with a dissertation titled “Beauty as Treated in Persian Literature,” she married the leftist writer and social critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad. … In the 1950s and ’60s, Ms. Daneshvar became known as a translator of Chekhov, Shaw, Hawthorne, Schnitzler, Saroyan and other writers. She also published short stories, including several that focused on the oppression of Iranian women. Until the publication of “Savushun” in 1969, however, she was generally assumed to be living under her husband’s literary shadow. No one ever thought of her that way again.

I’m embarrassed to say that her name meant nothing to me when I saw the obituary, even though I was very familiar with that of her husband, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, and further embarrassed that I eventually realized I actually owned a copy of her magnum opus (under the title A Persian Requiem), though of course I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I intend to remedy the omission eventually. (Thanks, Eric!)


Adam Nicolson (whose God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible I wrote about here) is working on a series for BBC Four about “Britain’s original information revolution” of the seventeenth century, and that is the title of a piece in The Telegraph in which he discusses an amazing survival from that era:

Townend is a smallish limewashed 17th-century yeoman’s house at the southern end of the Westmorland village of Troutbeck… Not only is it miraculously full of carved 17th-century beds and chests, with rushlight holders and all kinds of carved stools and chairs (some real, some 19th-century bodge-ups). It also still contains the books that the Brownes kept and treasured. That is its glory. Nowhere else in England does a yeoman’s library survive, but in Townend, now carefully housed in a room at the back, on bookshelves made and carved by a 19th-century antiquarian Browne, is an extraordinary cache of the sort of books that his 17th-century ancestors spent their lives collecting.
There are a couple of 16th-century books here, including, amazingly, a 1548 copy of Erasmus’s paraphrase of the New Testament – Erasmus in a Lake District farmhouse! – and several legal books. But then comes the 17th-century explosion: more than 170 17th-century books, here since they were bought, either in London and sent up with the carrier, or in local auctions, and bound locally. (The minister in late 17th-century Troutbeck, when not preparing his sermons, liked to bind books.)

[Read more…]


I’ve been ignoring the whole minifuror over the recent Atlantic article “The QWERTY Effect: The Keyboards Are Changing Our Language!” by Rebecca J. Rosen, and the paper by Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto it was based on, because it was (to my mind) so self-evidently silly it didn’t bear thinking about, much less writing about. (The idea, in case you missed the furor, is that, in Rosen’s words, “because of the QWERTY keyboard’s asymmetrical shape …, words dominated by right-side letters ‘acquire more positive valences’ — that is to say, they become more likable.”) Mark Liberman at the Log has been doggedly investigating, giving the idea more benefit of the doubt than I would have (The QWERTY Effect, QWERTY: Failure to replicate) but ending up with the results to be expected, that there’s no there there, and Geoffrey Pullum has (as one would expect) done a bang-up job of summarizing it all with the appropriate mockery at Lingua Franca: The Bad Science Reporting Effect. Here’s an excerpt:

Publicity for the unresult of their paper in Psychonomics Bulletin and Review has garnered them some appallingly stupid press coverage (“The Keyboards Are Changing Our Language!”; “Just Typing ‘LOL’ Makes You Happy”; etc.). The worst I saw was in the Metro, a free tabloid in Britain: “SEX is depressing—but only if you use your left hand,” they began. “Typing letters with your left hand conveys more negative emotions than typing with your right, British and U.S. scientists say.” (The authors say nothing about what “conveys more negative emotions,” of course.) And in conclusion: “despite their meaning, words such as ‘lonely’ cheer us up more than, say, ‘sex’.” (If there was ever a worse example of illicit inference about particular cases from aggregated results, don’t show it to me, I might cry.)
One might argue that the two young psychologists are not responsible for jokey press reports. But they are not blameless. Jasmin told Wired: “Technology changes words, and by association languages. It’s an important thing to look at.” All of this is false. There has been no demonstration that technology “changes words.” If connotative valences of some words did alter slightly for some reason, that wouldn’t change the language at all. And above all, this is not “an important thing to look at”: No scientific importance would attach to a very weak correlation between spelling and affective attitudes toward isolated words, even if there was one.

Follow the link for the URLs I’ve left out of my quote, and of course for more of Geoff’s righteous smiting.


I ran across a reference to Yeats’s (repellent) play The Herne’s Egg and naturally wondered what a herne might be. Turns out it’s an archaic spelling of hern, an alternate form of heron which the OED says “is archaic, poet., and dial.; but the word is often so pronounced, even when spelt heron.” It is? Or rather, was in 1898, when that section was published? I don’t suppose anyone knows anything more about this bygone oddity of English pronunciation. (Conrad?)
Incidentally, the ultimate etymology of heron is unknown; it’s immediately from Old French hairon, itself ultimately from Old High German haiger. This survived into Middle High German as heiger but ultimately lost out to its rival reiger, which is why Germans today say Reiher. According to Lutz Mackensen, the form is borrowed from Low German rei(j)er; the Dutch word, however, is reiger, and says Proto-Germanic *hraigara– (the source of the r- forms) gave rise to *haigarō– (the source of the h- forms) by dissimilation. Etymology is a messy business.


The NY Times has a good article by Simon Romero on the indigenous language of Paraguay, Guaraní:

To this day, Paraguay remains the only country in the Americas where a majority of the population speaks one indigenous language: Guaraní. It is enshrined in the Constitution, officially giving it equal footing with the language of European conquest, Spanish. And in the streets, it is a source of national pride.
“Only 54 of nearly 12,000 schools teach Portuguese,” said Nancy Benítez, director of curriculum at the Ministry of Education, of the language of Brazil, the giant neighbor that dominates trade with Paraguay. “But every one of our schools teaches Guaraní.” …
In Paraguay, indigenous peoples account for less than 5 percent of the population. Yet Guaraní is spoken by an estimated 90 percent of Paraguayans, including many in the middle class, upper-crust presidential candidates, and even newer arrivals.

There’s a useful description of the history (“When Spain expelled the Jesuits in 1767, more than 100,000 Guaraní speakers spread throughout Paraguay”) and great quotes, some in Guaraní. I just wish I’d learned the language when I was living in Argentina and had access to native speakers. At least I have the grammar I bought in Asunción forty years ago. (Thanks, Eric and Mark!)