Archives for May 2012


I was reading an LRB review by Thomas Jones of a couple of books about David Bowie when I hit the sentence “When the tour resumed in the autumn [of 1974], with many of the musicians from Philadelphia now on stage, Bowie ditched the elaborate set and changed his costume, performing in his girlfriend Ava Cherry’s father’s gouster suits from the 1940s.” Gouster suits? I had no idea of how to pronounce it, let alone what it meant, and half-suspected it might be a misprint. But Google quickly took me to this post at (run by the eloquent Chicagoan Ayana Contreras, who is “passionate about sound and color… Darkjive is about… [w]hat may have once been deemed obsolete, out of fashion, or otherwise lacking. The jive”), where I found not only a good brief definition—”In the Sixties, on the South Side of Chicago, the male clothing signifier was whether you were a Gouster or an Ivy Leaguer…. Basically, Gousters dressed like old school gangsters [i.e., from the 1930s to the ’50s], and Ivy Leaguers dressed preppy”—but “a record from about 1964 called ‘The Gouster’ by a local group called the Five-Du Tones” that showed that the pronunciation is /’gawstər/ (you can listen to it here; it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it).

So that gave me the basics, but I went to Google Books to see what I might find, and along with some quotes along similar lines (“I was a Gouster; we didn’t have social clubs like that, but we went to the clubs on the street”; “Listening to Chicago radio in the mid-1960s one could frequently hear ‘fox,’ ‘gouster,’ ‘feznecky,’ and ‘fern’ … Disc jockies, particularly Herb Kent, would invariably ask upon taking a call if the caller were a ‘gouster’ or an ‘ivy-leaguer'”) I saw a snippet from Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language: “GOUSTER, s. A violent or unmanageable person, a swaggering fellow.” I looked it up in the DSL and found “gouster II. n. 1. A wild, violent, blustering or swaggering person (Sc. 1825 Jam.; Sh., Ork. 1880 Ib.; Sh.10 rare, Ork., Kcb., Dmf. 1955); a stubborn, churlish person (w.Dmf. 1925 Trans. Dmf. & Gall. Antiq. Soc. 27; Kcb. 1929).” So what are we to make of this? The words are formally identical and semantically very close indeed, but how might it have gotten from Scotland to the South Side of Chicago? Not impossible, certainly, but I’d like to see more steps of the journey before letting go of my usual presumption in favor of coincidence.


This is one of those occasions when I shamelessly take advantage of my bully pulpit and international audience to try and satisfy a random bit of curiosity that no one else would care about. I recently ran across a reference to Dr. Wilfred Geominy of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome and the Akademisches Kunstmuseum-Antikensammlung of the University of Bonn, and it drives me nuts that I have no idea what kind of name Geominy is or how to pronounce it (I’m tentatively [and wrongly—see update below] saying /geo’mini/ in my head). I’m hoping someone out there might be able to enlighten me on one or both issues.
A quote for AJP, from Naukratis: die Beziehungen zu Ostgriechenland, Ägypten und Zypern in archaischer Zeit by Ursula Höckmann and Detlev Kreikenbom (Bibliopolis, 2001): “W. Geominy hingegen hat den Wild Goat Style für das Bonner Frgt. ausgeschlossen.”
Update. The name turns out to be a respelling of the Swiss-French name Jomini (/ʒomini/), and a Dutch bearer of the name was kind enough to drop by the thread and suggest the anglicized pronunciation “Joe me knee.”


Brother Auger, who did his best to imprint Latin upon me almost half a century ago, would not be happy, but I fear I was unfamiliar with the basic-sounding number word dodranstwo-thirdsthree-quarters,’ which I learned today (thanks, Sven!) from the website for “the splendid clipper ship City of Adelaide – the oldest clipper ship in the world.” In their post on “a 175th Jubilee project to commemorate the birthday of the state of South Australia in 2011,” they have a whole section on what to call a 175th birthday or anniversary:

Latin terms for a 175th anniversary are not in wide spread use. Some terms that have been used in modern times include the following definitions (from Wikipedia):
• Demisemiseptcentennial – broken down as demi– (half) x semi– (half) x sept– (7) centennial (100 years) = 175 years.
• Quartoseptcentennial – broken down as quarto– (¼) x sept– (7) centennial (100 years) = 175 years.
• Terquasquicentennial has been used as a word for an anniversary of 175 years. The originator intended it to mean “[one] and three quarters” but Wikipedia suggests that it incorrectly adds the root elements rather than multiplying them. […] Notwithstanding that the Wikpedia definition suggests it is wrong, terquasquicentennial is one of the most frequently used terms for 175 years.
• Septaquintaquinquecentennial has also been used as a word for an anniversary of 175 years. It appears that the originator was trying to create the number 175 but instead it literally refers to an anniversary of 35,000 years as follows: septaquinta– (70) x quinque– (5) x centennial (100 years).
Roman fractions were based on a duodecimal system. From 1/12 to 8/12 they were described as multiples of twelfths (uncia “twelfth”; the source of the English words inch and ounce) and from 9/12 to 11/12 they were described as multiple-twelfths less than the next whole unit – i.e. a whole unit less 3/12, 2/12 or 1/12 respectively. There were also special terms for quarter (quadrans), half (semis), and three-quarters (dodrans). Dodrans is a Latin contraction of de-quadrans which means “a whole unit less a quarter” […] The personal preference of the author of this webpage for a 175th anniversary is: Dodransbicentennial (Dodrabicentennial) or Dequasbicentennial for 175 years. […] As an extension to these thoughts, perhaps “dodranscentennial” or “dequascentennial” without the “bi” are probably the appropriate term(s) for a 75 year anniversary.

Charmed but bemused, I welcome the thoughts of those whose Latinity is above the level of my own (a low bar indeed).


I have just added linguistics grad student Joe Kessler’s blog Language Hippie to my RSS feed; its self-description warms my heart:

Language Hippie is a voice for increased tolerance and celebration of linguistic diversity. This blog marks an objection to the widespread notion that nonconventional spelling, grammar, and word choice are incorrect or shame-worthy. Here instead, those differences are embraced.

I commend to your attention his latest post, The Joy of Language (“Imagine you have a favorite recipe for making cookies. … You understandably take great pride in your baking — but would you insult someone else’s cookies, or denounce their recipe as illegitimate?”) and the previous one on singular they, but what really made me want to post was this one, with its brilliant imitation of “a notification from the old Microsoft Word Assistant, Clippy the Paperclip”; it’s reproduced at All Things Linguistic, which is where I found it. (Thanks, Jenny!)


In my irritated previous post about Doomsday Book, I failed to mention that one of the things I’m very much enjoying about the book is the lovingly detailed picture of life in medieval England, which at one point involves a concept entirely new to me (and a new sense of a familiar word). The domineering mother-in-law sends out for sugar, saying “We have none for the subtlety nor the sweetmeats.” Subtlety? Turns out that’s a term the OED defines thus: “5. Cookery. A highly ornamental device, wholly or chiefly made of sugar, sometimes eaten, sometimes used as a table decoration. Obs. exc. Hist.” (The first citation is from The Form of Cury, the early cookbook I wrote about back in 2003: “It techiþ for to make curious potages & meetes and sotiltees.”) Wikipedia tells us it’s the older English term for what is more commonly known as an entremet. And there’s a detailed description in The Penguin Companion to Food (see this post):

[Read more…]


I’m about halfway through Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, a very well regarded author who’s won just about every award you can win in the field of science fiction. I used to read science fiction continually and omnivorously, but that was several decades ago, and now I do so only rarely. I’m reading this because of a rave review (in Russian) by Anatoly, whose literary judgment I tend to trust. This time I’m afraid he led me astray.

I’m not blaming him, mind you; his only sin is one of excessive enthusiasm, and that’s not only the most venial of sins but one I’ve been guilty of myself far too often to even look askance at. I’m not sorry he got me to give it a try, because it’s a good read and any science fiction fan would enjoy it (it did, after all, win both the Hugo and Nebula awards). But Anatoly called Willis one of the best authors he had read in recent years, recommended the book not just to sf fans but to “lovers of good literature in general,” and said the book was “a genuine tragedy, without any discount for genre… a very, very good novel [настоящая, без всяких скидок на жанр, трагедия… очень, очень хороший роман].” And that’s just not true. As I say, it’s a good read, but it’s basically a mixed salad of academic humor (professors concerned only with their specialties, scheming heads of departments, etc.), young adult adventure (our plucky heroine must confront the unexpected in fourteenth-century England), Oxford mystery/thriller a la Inspector Lewis, and just plain sitcom (various characters exist only to provide easy jokes at regular intervals). The characters are one-dimensional, each concerned about one thing to the exclusion of everything else (I must get to my dig! I must practice my bell-ringing! I must watch over my son like a mother hen! I must worry endlessly over my student!), and the plot is drawn out to a ridiculous degree, every action being repeated over and over and over (it’s not enough that a character who has crucial information is delirious and unable to provide it—the character who needs the information has to be repeatedly shown visiting him, asking his questions urgently, and getting delirious responses). It could have used some ruthless pruning, and once again I lament the abdication by publishers of the editorial responsibilities they used to assume as a matter of course.

But none of this would drive me to write about the book here; what bothers me with my language hat on is the translator implanted in our plucky heroine, a graduate student sent back in time as part of a regular program of exploring the past. She has, of course, studied Middle English, French, and Latin (as well as every practical skill she could conceivably need), but just in case the locals don’t speak the dialect she’s learned, she has this translator thingie—a wise precaution, as it turns out. At first she can’t understand anyone (and the bits of dialect she hears are rendered in a clever sort-of-transcription through which you can sometimes make out what’s being said), but as the translator absorbs more of the speech around her it starts working and she hears what people are saying in Modern English.

Except not. For some reason, it doesn’t translate into modern Modern English, it translates into Historical Novelese (described in this 2006 post). What she hears, via this translator thingie, is full of words like “fain,” “broidery,” “bade,” and “Oxenford.” One character says “Found you aught that might tell us of the lady’s identity?” and the response begins “Nay…” (There are also sentences like “She will no doubt have a relapse,” so it’s not that the thing isn’t capable of truly modern translation. It just enjoys Ye Olde Englisshe Feelynge, I guess.) And what really takes the cake is that Willis does not understand the words “hence” and “thence,” taking them to mean “hither” and “thither” (cf. “when we came hence [to this house]” and “and brought you hence [to this house],” and “Can we go thence [=there] now?” and “Why would you go thence [=there]?”). I am mildly shocked that an award-winning author does not understand these frankly pretty simple and common words, and even more saddened that no one at Bantam noticed the problem.


1) Tom Shippey’s TLS review of Christopher Upward and George Davidson’s The History of English Spelling and Richard J. Watts’ Language Myths and the History of English makes both books sound interesting, especially the Watts.
2) John Emerson has done some digging into references in Lolita and presented the results in this Haquelebac post. (I regret his dismissive attitude toward Zoot Sims, but that’s a side issue.) I particularly appreciate his gloss on “the art of being a granddad” (“Certainly a reference to Victor Hugo’s 1877 L’art d’être Grand-Père. Hugo was a highly affectionate grandfather who once told his four-year-old granddaughter that she had a cute ass. He was also one of the horniest bastards who ever lived; his preference in women was ‘the first one who comes along'”) and his explanation of “columbine kisses.”


I’m a great admirer of P. G. Wodehouse, but I don’t seem to have said much about him here except to call him “immortal” in this brief post (about the influence of “Babu English” on him); what, after all, is there to say other than that he was a master of English prose and perhaps the most consistently funny writer the language has produced? All you can really do is to quote him endlessly, and now there is a tool that enables you to do just that: the Wodehouse quote generator. Keep refreshing and you’ll have as many Wodehouse quotes as you like; I just got:

‘Unhappily,’ said the bishop, ‘my wife has instructed me to give the vacant vicarage to a cousin of hers. A fellow,’ he added bitterly, ‘who bleats like a sheep and doesn’t know an alb from a reredos.’
  The Bishop’s Move (1927)

Via this MetaFilter post, with a surprise guest appearance by the guy who created the site (who goes by the moniker of phliar)—he says “people send me their favourite quotes and I just add them to the list.” I will take this opportunity to say, as I did in that thread, that I wish I could see again the BBC show that introduced me to Wodehouse many, many years ago, The World of Wooster (1965–1967), of which only the opening titles seem to have been preserved.


I’ve written about the controversial historian Orlando Figes a number of times (for the correct pronunciation of his name, see this post); his prose is very readable, but his facts are not always reliable (and of course there was that business about his Amazon reviews and threats to sue, covered in the links below). There’s more controversy, this time about his recent book The Whisperers; Peter Reddaway and Stephen Cohen publicized it in a Nation article, and Robert Booth and Miriam Elder reported on it for the Guardian, saying:

Figes had commissioned hundreds of interviews with the relatives of victims of gulag labour camps to produce a 700-page chronicle of “private life in Stalin’s Russia”, published in 2007. But the Moscow-based publisher, and a historian who conducted some of the interviews, claim some of the material was misrepresented. While none of the alleged errors would strike the lay reader as particularly egregious, the Russians argue Figes’ version of some of the most tragic events in Russian history would cause distress to relatives of gulag victims.

For that reason, Russian publishers have rejected a translation of the book.
That sordid squabble by itself wouldn’t necessarily be LH material, but in the comments at the Guardian, a reader says “One thing that Figes has done is to put his source material on the Internet, where anyone can access it. In a way these documents and interview transcripts speak more eloquently that the book could. It’s an extraordinary oral history project,” and gives links to extended extracts from the interviews and the family archives; I thought they were worth passing along here for anyone who is interested in the period (and can read Russian). Hat tip to Garrigus Carraig for the links.


Hey, remember that Rossica Young Translators Award I posted about a few months ago? Well, they’ve announced the winner, and I couldn’t be more pleased to proclaim here that the prize goes to Gregory Afinogenov, known around these parts as Slawkenbergius. He won by translating an extract of S.N.U.F.F by Victor Pelevin, who has got to be one of the most difficult modern writers to render into English; you can read his version (alongside the original) on pages 34-35 of this brochure (pdf). And he found out about the contest from my post, so I take special pride in his achievement.
The winner of the main translation prize was John Elsworth, for his translation of Bely’s Petersburg; from the excerpt in the brochure it looks like he did a fine job. Congratulations to both men!