Archives for April 2012


Still reading Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (see this post), I’ve just hit a passage with a word I cannot identify:

Just beyond the whited boundary lay the slipcatch, mown all around, but little used, tall grass growing up through its silvery slats. Peter liked the shape of it, like some archaic boat, and sometimes on evening walks by himself he lay down in it and blew cigarette-smoke at the midges overhead. … Paul had found a cricket ball in the long grass, and stepping back a few yards he threw it swerving through the dip of the slipcatch and up into the air, where no one of course was waiting to receive it—it bounced once and ran off quickly towards the old parked roller, leaving Paul looking both smug and abashed.

It would seem to be a cricket term, and the OED indeed has an entry for “slip-catch”—but there it clearly means a way of catching a ball rather than a piece of terrain (1903 S. L. Jessop in H. G. Hutchinson Cricket v. 119 “This range [of hits for practising catches] will include different kinds of chances, from ‘slip’ catches to catches in the long field”). The very few other Google Books hits seem to have entirely different meanings (“On Bob’s belt was a set of keys hanging from a belt loop by one of those slipcatch hooks with a ring on it”; “he drew back the slipcatch of the garden door and opened it”; “By means of a slipcatch it holds the line firmly”; etc.). Anybody know what it means here? Is it simply a slip on the author’s part?


I’m still reading Гадкие лебеди (The Ugly Swans; see here), and I’ve gotten to a great set-piece of grammar peevery. The depressed middle-aged protagonist, Victor, is talking to his young daughter Irma, whom he has just pulled off the rainy street and into his car (original below the cut):

“Irma,” he said wearily, “what were you doing there at that crossroad?”
“We were thinking fog,” answered Irma.
“Thinking fog,” she repeated.
“About fog,” Victor corrected.
“Why ‘about’?” asked Irma.
“‘Think’ is an intransitive verb,” Victor explained. “It needs an object. Did you study intransitive verbs?”
“It depends,” said Irma. “Thinking fog is one thing, and thinking about fog is completely different… and why anyone would want to think about fog I don’t know.”
Victor pulled out a cigarette and lit up.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “‘Think fog’—people don’t say that, it’s illiterate. Some verbs are intransitive: think, run, walk. They always need a preposition. Walk along the street. Think about… something.”
“You can think nonsense,” said Golem.
“Well, that’s an exception,” said Victor, a little flustered.
“Walk quickly,” said Golem.
“‘Quickly’ isn’t a noun,” said Victor heatedly. “Don’t confuse the child, Golem.”
“Papa, could you please not smoke?” asked Irma.
[A white wall of fog appears as they approach their destination.]
“There’s fog for you,” said Victor. “You can think it. You can also smell, run, and walk.”
Irma wanted to say something, but Golem interrupted her.
“By the way,” he said, “the verb ‘think’ can be transitive in complex sentences as well. For example: ‘I think that…’ and so on.”
“That’s completely different,” objected Victor. He was fed up. He wanted very much to have a smoke and a drink.

[Read more…]


As longtime readers will know, I am extremely fond of the poetry of David Jones (see here, here, and here), so I was delighted to come across the latest post at Bebrowed’s Blog (“writing about writing (and reading)”), David Jones’ “The Fatigue”; the blogger feels as strongly about the oblivion into which Jones has fallen as I do (“I cannot understand why a poet of Jones’ talent and originality should be known more for his work as an artist than as one of the great modernist poets of the last century”), and I recommend his discussion of Jones and his work. I’ll just mention a word both he and I had to look up in the line “It’s whoresons like you as can’t keep those swivel eyes to front one short vigilia through as are diriment to our unific and expanding order”; according to the OED, diriment means “That renders absolutely void; nullifying; chiefly in diriment impediment, one that renders marriage null and void from the beginning,” and it’s from Latin dirimĕre ‘to separate, interrupt, frustrate’ (there is an even more obsolete and much rarer adjective dirempt “Distinct, divided, separate”). The blogger says he is “now of the view that we ought to make much more use of” diriment, and I can’t say I disagree. Caviar to the general, of course, but a splendid specimen of Latinity. “That admission, sir, is diriment to your entire line of reasoning!”


There’s an interesting post at Christopher Culver’s Linguistics Weblog about a typology developed by Leonard Talmy that opposes satellite-framed languages, in which “the direction of motion must be expressed by a particle or prefix and not the verb itself,” to verb-framed languages, in which “the direction of motion is encoded in the verb” and “manner of motion must be expressed by another component, i.e. an adverb or a gerundive.”

The difference between the two categories can be exemplified by an identical sentence in English and Spanish. English the bottle floated out has manner expressed through the verb root (float) and the direction expressed by an adverb (out). In Spanish, on the other hand, la botella salió flotando the bottle exit-3SG.PRET float-GERUND has the direction conflated into the verb root (salió) and manner must be expressed by the accompanying gerund (flotando).

As he says, “this kind of categorization of languages ought to be brought into everyday language teaching.”


I was taken aback to discover that the word changeling does not mean at all what I thought it did, at least according to the dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary can stand in for all the rest, since they all have these three senses in one or another order: “1. A child secretly exchanged for another. 2. Archaic A changeable, fickle person. 3. Obsolete A person of deficient intelligence.” To my wife and me, it means something entirely different: in the words of Wiktionary, “An organism which can change shape to mimic others” (and believe me, I was glad to find that there, proving my wife and I were not completely bonkers). Does anybody know the history of that sense (which presumably the OED will document when it gets around to the C’s)? And which senses are you familiar with?


I’m reading Гадкие лебеди (The Ugly Swans), by the Strugatskys (who have not let me down yet—every novel is different, but all are funny, moving, and above all adult), and I’ve come to a scene in which the protagonist, a writer named Viktor, is giving a somewhat rambling talk to a group of schoolkids who turn out to be a more demanding and difficult audience than he had expected, complaining about his unpleasant characters and what they take to be his dark worldview. He finally bursts out with a rant about how cruel they are; he tells them that their desire to build a new world on the bones of the old is hackneyed and doomed, and ends by exclaiming “Ирония и жалость, ребята! Ирония и жалость!” [Irony and pity, kids! Irony and pity!].

I was struck by the phrase and turned to all-knowing Google, which did not disappoint me. It’s from a Russian translation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Спускаясь по лестнице, я слышал, как Билл напевал: «Ирония и Жалость. Когда ты узнаешь… О, дай им Иронию и дай им Жалость. О, дай нам Иронию. Когда ты узнаешь… Немного Иронии. Немножечко Жалости…»” [“As I went downstairs I heard Bill singing, ‘Irony and Pity. When you’re feeling. . . Oh, Give them Irony and Give them Pity. Oh, give them Irony. When they’re feeling . . . Just a little irony. Just a little pity”]. (I note in passing that the Russian translator, who rendered “When you’re feeling” as “Когда ты узнаешь” [‘When you find out’], clearly did not realize Hemingway was omitting an unprintable rhyme: “When you’re feeling [shitty].”)

But that’s not the half of it. Hemingway was mocking Gilbert Seldes, who wrote in his Dial review of The Great Gatsby (after saying that Fitzgerald was “leaving even farther behind all the men of his own generation and most of his elders,” which Hem certainly would have resented): “Fitzgerald racing over the country, jotting down whatever was current in college circles, is not nearly as significant as Fitzgerald regarding a tiny section of life and reporting it with irony and pity and a consuming passion.” And the Francophile Seldes got the phrase from Anatole France, for whom the two concepts were touchstones: “L’Ironie et la Pitié sont deux bonnes conseillères: l’une, en souriant, nous rend la vie aimable; l’autre, qui pleure, nous la rend sacrée.” (“Le Jardin d’Epicure,” Revue Universitaire 1 (1906):179.) “Il était sage, celui qui a dit: ‘Donnons aux hommes pour témoins et pour juges l’Ironie et la Pitié’.” (Spoken by the character Paul Vence in France’s novel Le Lys rouge (1894), ch. IX.) Also taking it from France, I presume, was the Russian critic Georgy Adamovich, who wrote in a review of Teffi: “Но ирония и жалость – родные сестры” [But irony and pity are sisters].

But France in turn got it from Ernest Renan: “La grande ironie, mêlée de pitié, qu’inspire au penseur ce que la pauvre humanité, amoureuse de ses bourreaux, appelle la gloire…” (Histoire du peuple d’Israël (1889), Vol. III, Book VI, ch. VII); “L’impression des choses humaines n’est complète que si on fait une place à l’ironie à côté des larmes, à la pitié à côté de la colère, au sourire à côté du respect” (Preface to Drames philosophiques, 1888). If Renan got it from some earlier source, Google isn’t saying. But see Love and theft.

Update. Anatoly discusses the Russian translator’s lapse (if lapse it was, rather than deliberate misdirection), and he and his commenters come up with possible Russian equivalents omitting unprintable rhymes. (It gives me pleasure that my Russian has become good enough to supply all the missing words.)


I’ve never watched Doctor Who, though it seems like something I would have enjoyed had I grown up with it; this comment by Ray Girvan (on Mark Liberman’s Log post about the show) makes me feel that even more strongly:

I particularly liked the running joke in The Fires of Pompeii, where the English of the Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate) was changed to Latin via the TARDIS’s translator, but if they actually spoke Latin, the Romans perceived it as Welsh:
Doctor: “Ah, well. Caveat emptor.”
CAECILIUS: “Oh, you’re Celtic. (Welsh accent) There’s lovely.”
Doctor: “Ipso facto.”
Caecilis: (doubtfully) “Look you.”
Doctor: (as guards draw swords): “Oh, morituri te salutant.”
Dextrus: “Celtic prayers won’t help you now.”


I’ve always found it interesting that there are two substantially different interpretations of the adjective moot, most commonly found in the phrase “a moot point.” One takes it as meaning ‘debatable, arguable,’ and the other ‘academic, not worth taking seriously.’ The AHD has a good summary of the history in its usage note:

The adjective moot is originally a legal term going back to the 1500s. It derives from the noun moot in its sense of a hypothetical case argued as an exercise by law students. The noun moot in turn goes back to an Old English word meaning “a meeting, especially one convened for legislative or judicial purposes.” Consequently, a moot question is one that is arguable or open to debate. But in the mid-1800s, people also began to look at the hypothetical side of moot as its essential meaning, and they started to use the word to mean “of no significance or relevance.” Thus, a moot point, however debatable, is one that has no practical value. A number of critics have objected to this usage, but in our 2008 survey 83 percent of the Usage Panel accepted it in the sentence The nominee himself chastised the White House for failing to do more to support him, but his concerns became moot when a number of Republicans announced that they, too, would oppose the nomination. This represents a significant increase over the 59 percent that accepted the same sentence in 1988. Writers who use this word should be sure that the context makes clear which sense of moot is meant. It is often easier to use another word, such as debatable or irrelevant.

Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar has a new post on the topic in which he presents it as a US/UK difference, saying “It seems that moot means something different depending on which side of the Atlantic it’s being used on” and calling the sense “a point that was just generally open for debate, whether or not it had practical consequences” the “British usage.” But in the comments, Kemp says “I’m British, and I’ve never heard of what you refer to as the British meaning of the word. Maybe it’s our exposure to American TV and movies, but I’ve always known moot to refer to a point that, debatable or not, has no real impact on anything,” and dw concurs: “I spent the first 20+ years of my life in England, and, like Kemp, I am only familiar with the ‘American’ meaning of the word.” Then Flesh-eating Dragon weighs in with a complaint from Down Under: “For some reason Australian dictionaries generally record only the ‘debatable’ sense (at least in pocket editions) which is odd because in my experience that sense is not used here — we only use the ‘academic’ sense.” All this roused my curiosity, so I turn the floor over to the Varied Reader: are you familiar with both senses, and which do you use yourself? Obviously it would be useful to add which variety of our far-flung common language you speak.

[Read more…]


Another word whose etymology I had always vaguely wondered about but never investigated beyond the immediate source is meltemi, borrowed from Modern Greek and meaning ‘etesian (annual) summer wind in the Mediterranean’ (or “Etesian,” as Merriam-Webster would have it for some unknowable reason—it’s not from a proper noun but from an ordinary Greek adjective, etesios ‘annual’). I looked it up in the OED and found an interesting speculation:

Etymology: < modern Greek μελτέμι Etesian wind and the related Turkish meltem offshore breeze, of uncertain origin. Compare Italian meltem (19th cent.).
A possible etymon for both the Greek and the Turkish words (which are probably loanwords) is Italian maltempo bad weather.

I’d be interested to know why they think maltempo is a more plausible etymon than it looks at first glance, but an interesting speculation is better than a void.


Once again, Studiolum at Poemas del río Wang has a post I can’t resist calling attention to: My homeland, about a song that served as a tearjerker for Russians both outside and inside their homeland:

The Leshchenko Cabaret, dubbed even in Paris as “the Maxim’s of the East”, was one of the most fashionable places of entertainment in the Bucharest of the thirties. In addition to the metropolitan elite and the foreign aristocrats, its regulars also included those Russian emigrants, aristocrats, White officers and middle-class people, who during the war and the civil war managed to get through to Bessarabia, annexed to Romania. For them was written by the leader of Leshchenko’s orchestra, the Izmail-born George Ipsilanti, the song Тоска по родине, “Homesickness”, which regularly featured in Leshchenko’s repertoire. A recording, however, was made only in the 1940s with Ipsilanti’s wife, the Chisinău/Kishinev-born Anna Bayanova. The song, which was banned in the Soviet Union, spread across the country via the smuggled copies of this disc, and Homesickness, written by Bessarabian Romanian singers and a Greek composer, became a kind of an unofficial Russian anthem.

…The native land, however, waited in vain. The emigrants did not see it any more. On the contrary, the Soviet Union marched into Bucharest. Leshchenko was arrested by the Romanian secret police and he died in the prison of Târgu Ocna in 1954. Bayanova was imprisoned during the war by the Romanian police for singing in Russian. After her release she was condemned to silence, and only in the 1960s she was allowed to leave for the Soviet Union. Ipsilanti managed in time to flee to America, and he died in Los Angeles in 1994. And the hopeful and nostalgic hymn of the emigrants to their homeland became a labor camp song expressing the reality of the same homeland with the title Не печалься, любимая, “Don’t worry, my beloved”, as we can hear in Dmitry Astrakhan’s film Всё будет хорошо, “Everything will be all right” (1995).

Go to río Wang for texts, musical clips, and evocative pictures; the excerpt from the Astrakhan film choked me up, and it’s not even my homeland.

On a different plane, and nothing to do with río Wang: Russia Football Chants and Songs.