Archives for July 2012


I linked to Searchable World Wide Web Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database within a post once, but I’ve never made a separate post of it, and I think I should, having been reminded of it by e-mail. Thanks, Paul!


Joshua Cohen’s LRB review of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet: A Novel has some interesting language-related bits:

Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, is a commentary on the Elisha text, but a commentary that fulfils both obligations of flame: the text’s illumination is also its destruction. A novel concerned with children and language and the terrors wrought when one comes into possession of the other, it holds speech to be dangerous not just to Samaritan delinquents and itinerant seers but also to religion and the life of the mind. Marcus does violence to prayer – it doesn’t help, it harms – and to philosophy, which becomes a playground of forgery and misattribution: he misquotes Thoreau as having called the alphabet ‘the saddest song’ (shades of Psalm 137); he has Schopenhauer impossibly plagiarise Wittgenstein (‘if it can be said, then I am not interested’); while the Nietzsche citation is not only false but a reversal of Nietzschean Sprache: ‘if I could take something from the world … it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.’ […]
The title itself is Judaic. Samuel maintains it’s a kabbalistic tradition but he, or Marcus, is off by ten centuries. The Flame Alphabet first appears in the Oral Law, sparked not by divine contemplation but by a lexical problem involving the Written Law (the Torah). Exodus 32 holds that the twin tablets Moses brought down from Sinai were written on by the forefinger of God on both sides, and that the lettering went through the stones. The Talmud, which is the written compilation of the Oral Law, holds that the souls of all the Children of Israel, past and future, were gathered together to receive the Torah, the book that describes its own giving. After addressing the question of this metafiction, the rabbis wonder about that graphological feat. How is it possible, they ask, that the two tablets were readable by everyone, and by everyone in the correct way, which in Hebrew is from right to left?
The Jerusalem Talmud answers with mysticism: Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish that the commandments were written with white fire on black fire, and leaves it at that. The later Babylonian Talmud attempts to clarify: Rabbi Hisda says that the words could be read from both sides in two word orders and that both forward and backward readings were correct (suggesting that the retrograde letters contained even more arcane meanings). Kabbalistic writings of the 14th and 15th centuries – according to the religious, the age of kabbala’s codification; according to historians, the age of its creation – proposed the Talmud’s alphabet of fire as an ur-alphabet. Before glyphs and the innovations of Cadmus (or Kadmus?), before Babel, this was the language we spoke, the language we will speak again after the coming of the Messiah and the disconfusion of tongues. All the languages around us, Indo-European and Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic, are mere representations of this tongue; their sounds and letterforms portals into a semi-comprehensible, apocalypse-grade inferno.

I like that kind of mysticism (and enjoyed Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book for that reason).
And on the general topic of the dangers of language, comedian David Mitchell has a video called “Authenticity” that starts off with an agonized discussion of how his fellow Brits pronounce valet and how they perceive others’ pronunciation of it, and winds up with “I don’t want to be inauthentic, but I can no longer remember what I authentically said. I’m searching for the most honest way to be fake.” Lots of fun.


I wrote (very briefly) about forensic linguistics back in 2003, and I was glad to get this week’s New Yorker and discover that the lead article, by Jack Hitt, was on that subject. Unfortunately, all they put online is an abstract, but that should give you a good enough idea to decide if you want to spring for the issue. If you’re already a subscriber, I recommend reading it. And one of the linguists prominently featured is Roger Shuy, “a Georgetown University professor and the author of such fundamental textbooks as Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom,” whom I know slightly (through correspondence), so I will mention that his name, pronounced like the word shy, is from the Alsatian name Scheu (etymologically the same as the English word it sounds like).


WTPh? (What the Phonics) – Pronouncing street names in Denmark:

Created by by Momo Miyazaki and Andrew Spitz at the CIID, WTPh? (What the Phonics) is an installation which helps passers-by to learn the correct way to pronounce street names in Denmark.
Street names in Denmark are close to impossible for foreigners to pronounce, so we did a little intervention in the touristic areas of Copenhagen. We recorded a Danish person speaking the street names then split up each syllable. In true karaoke style, we placed lights above the matching syllable so that in real-time, you can see which part of the word is being spoken. When participants lift the speaker off the wall, it starts playing.

A very cool idea (Danish really is impossible to pronounce if you don’t know Danish); you can watch a brief video about it, and hear some of the street signs, here. (Brief, but not brief enough for my taste; too much artsiness and too little actual information. But hey, it’s only a couple of minutes.)
Via MetaFilter, where people share other interesting links, like this Danish dialect site.


Matt at No-sword has a post that starts off with Gary Snyder and quickly moves to something I knew nothing about and found fascinating, a refrain in Ainu song known as a sakehe, “a group of words the meaning of which is not well understood but which are retained for the importance of their sound and their function in the song).” Here’s a description Matt quotes from Sarah M. Strong’s “The Most Revered of Foxes: Knowledge of Animals and Animal Power in an Ainu Kamui Yukar” (2009; pdf):

As a native speaker of Ainu, Chiri Yukie knew orally the chants she had heard since childhood. For her, each kamui yukar was not a static, memorized “text” but rather a living oral tradition, and her written versions possess qualifies of oral performance. One feature of each chant that was clearly central to her experience of it was its refrain or sakehe. Because the refrain of each kamui yukar is unique to the particular chant it was traditionally used as a way of identifying the chant. Both in the earlier notebook versions and in the Ainu shin’yoshu text Chiri includes the sakehe as a defining title after first identifying the animal spiritual being who is singing its tale. Thus, in the case of the third chant of the Ainu shin’yoshu she names the chant as that “of the fox (chironnup) about itself” and further identifies it with its unique sakehe, haikunterke haikoshitemturi. Although the sakehe, with its long phrases, might seem puzzling for readers unfamiliar with the tradition, for those within Ainu oral tradition it serves as an easy way to distinguish this fox kamui yukar from others about the same animal spiritual being.


I’m generally left cold by invented-word sites (English has plenty of words already—use them!), but for some reason The Oxford English Fictionary gets through my defenses. Maybe I just like “Anachronister (noun): a time-traveling spider.” Anyway, check it out, there’s some amusing stuff there. (Thanks, Paul!)


The NY Times Magazine has gotten even fluffier over the years, and I spend less time over it than I used to, but somehow I wound up reading Willy Staley’s piece (titled “What is the Real Meaning of ‘Fanute’?” in the physical paper and “Lady Mondegreen and the Miracle of Misheard Song Lyrics” online) and now I have to vent about it. This falls into two common genres at once, “How Can It Be that Other People Have Access to and Dare to Praise the Special Thing that Was Mine, All Mine?” (which is silly but eternal and understandable) and “Ignorance is Better than Knowledge,” which is the heresy I am here to smite. (Nobody expects the Hattic Inquisition!) After explaining the mondegreen phenomenon, Staley segues into his favorite example from rap music, a line from French Montana that sounds to many people like “fanute the coupe to that Ghost, dog.” Staley deigns to explain that the line is actually “from the hoopty coupe to that Ghost, dog” (though he doesn’t deign to explain what “hoopty” means, presumably so as to preserve at least a shred of your treasured ignorance; I, more cruel, will deprive you of it by quoting Urban Dictionary: “In reference to cars: a vehicle in poor condition, often large, boatlike, and aided by duct tape or bungee cords”). He then proceeds to mock a site called Rap Genius (“a hip-hop Wikipedia”) that does such explaining on a large scale, saying “The perhaps fallacious assumption at the Web site’s heart is that every rap lyric has a meaning and that the meaning of every rap lyric should be unearthed,” and another called RapMETRICS that has the gall to analyze rap lyrics. And listen to the way he talks about it:

Both approaches belie an attitude that ultimately creates distance between the listener and the music: rap lyrics are data; rap lyrics are graphs. Rap lyrics are poetry to be read in your smoking jacket with a glass of Cognac (E. & J., sir? I recommend you fanute to the Louis XIII?). […] It at least suggests a nascent anxiety: that to appreciate the music in a direct and visceral or even emotional way would be untoward for the effete, urbane listener. […] More to the point, however, is that this rigorous organization of rap lyrics into structured and unstructured data sets, into problems to be solved, exists in direct opposition to accidental mondegreens like “fanute,” which can arise only from actually listening to the music, rather than fussing over it as if it were your homework. The Internet is a powerful research tool, and apparently we’ve decided to use it to enable crowdsourced pedantry of the most obnoxious sort. Anyone with a laptop can be as authoritative as Springfield’s Comic Book Guy now, and apparently that’s something to be celebrated.

The contempt is palpable and reveals, I effetely suggest, a heaping helping of bad faith. In this piece for The Awl (with the equally dubious message that we shouldn’t treat rap as poetry), Staley calls himself “a white dude from California,” and I’m guessing he’s manifesting the trying-too-hard of the white guy who fears being seen as an outsider and therefore insists on the ineffable authenticity of it all, invisible to the urbane chap who wants to understand it without having done the time in the street and learned the secret handshake.
It’s a foolish crusade, of course. Knowledge will out; you can’t make sites like Rap Genius and RapMETRICS go away by mocking them, nor can you make people stop wanting to know what rappers are saying by comparing them to Comic Book Guy. And I’m here to tell you that knowledge is better than ignorance, no matter how you dress the latter up by calling it “mondegreens,” and the drive to suppress it is to be deprecated whether it manifests itself in a Times Magazine essay or a campaign against climate science or evolution. Magna est veritas: The truth is great, and shall prevail.


I’ve long been a fan of Adam Gopnik’s, and I greatly enjoyed his A Point of View: The curse of a ridiculous name, in which he laments his surname and worries about its effect on his afterlife:

Are there any big modern writers who have really funny names? Only Kipling, I think, and that is an accident of the participle.
More to the point, are there good writers who are now forgotten, as I am pretty sure I shall be, because their names are so funny?
Yes, I have to say with dread, there are – for instance, the 20th Century American poet WD Snodgrass. Snodgrass was a truly great poet, the originator, if anyone was, of the style we now call “confessional poetry”, a hero to Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and the rest. But he had that funny Pickwickian name, and he knew it. He used to make fun of his own name: “Snodgrass is walking through the universe!” one poem reads (I, too, make fun of my surname, in the hopes of keeping off the name-demons).

It even has a Russian aspect:

A gopnik in Russian, and in Russia, is now a drunken hooligan, a small-time lout, a criminal without even the sinister glamour of courage. When Russian people hear my last name, they can barely conceal a snigger of distaste and disgusted laughter. Those thugs who clashed with Polish fans at Euro 2012? All gopniks – small G. And I’m told that it derives from an acronym for public housing, rather than from our family’s Jewish roots, but no difference.

(Thanks, Eric!)


This is another in the occasional LH series Annoying Errors I Feel the Need to Correct Publicly. I’m still reading, and enjoying, Benson Bobrick’s East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia (see here and here); it’s an excellent overview of the region’s history, with lots of piquant details and mini-biographies. But on p. 286, he says:

Thus did a quite limited idea of Siberia become fixed in the public mind. One Victorian writer called the colony “the cesspool of the Tsars,” and if the judgment seems harsh, the prevailing view was perhaps fairly epitomized by Count Nesselrode’s emphatic pronouncement that Siberia was “the bottom of the sack.”

I was puzzled by the odd phrase “the bottom of the sack” (which he also uses as the chapter title), and checked the footnotes; it turned out that his source was Anatole G. Mazour’s Women in Exile: Wives of the Decembrists (Diplomatic Press, 1975), which was no help. But by dint of clever googling, I was able to turn up the original quote in Ivan Barsukov’s «Граф Н. Н. Муравьев-Амурский по его письмам, официальным документам, рассказам современников и печатным источникам» [Count Nikolai Nikolaevich Murav’ev-Amursky according to his letters, official documents, stories of contemporaries, and printed sources], Vol. 1 (1891); I’ll put the Russian (and a clip from the Google Books page for those who can see it) below the cut, but it is represented accurately by this quote from Mark Bassin’s Imperial Visions: Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East, 1840-1865 (which looks quite interesting in its own right, but damn, it costs $129.96 new and $69.00 used):

Nesselrode explained that up to this time distant Siberia had represented a “deep net” into which Russia could discard its social sins and scum (podonki) in the form of convicts and exiles. With the annexation of the Amur, however, “the bottom of this net will be untied, and our convicts would be presented with a broad field for escape down the Amur to the Pacific.”

Yes, he’s comparing eastern Siberia (Transbaikal) to a net for exiles, but the “emphatic” phrase Bobrick quotes is simply a part of the metaphor, representing the then border with China, and not a grim image for the entirety of Siberia (which would have been an extremely unlikely thing to emerge from the pen of the Russian foreign minister). Once more we see the danger of relying on secondary sources.

[Read more…]


A correspondent sent me a link to Mark Forsyth’s The Inky Fool post on the etymology of taser, remarking that it was news to him. It’s news to me, too, and I quote Mark’s post, which tells the story well:

The taser was invented by a NASA scientist called Jack Cover who worked on it between 1969 and 1974. He had been inspired by a series of children’s books about a hero called Tom Swift. Tom Swift is an adventuring sort of chap who goes around having adventures, sometimes in darkest, deepest Africa and sometimes on the Moon. There have been over a hundred Tom Swift books published since 1910 and they still seem to be going strong, there was even a Tom Swift board game once. However, the one that interests us is the tenth in the series which was published in 1911: Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle. In this one Tom Swift goes elephant hunting when he discovers that some of his friends have been taken hostage by a tribe of red pygmies. Luckily for the hero (but unluckily for the red pygmies) Tom has with him his brand new invention: a rifle that uses electricity rather than bullets. It can therefore be set to different ranges and different levels of lethality, so he can stun elephants, kill pygmies etc.
It was this invention that Jack Cover was attempting to imitate, and he even decided to call it Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle, or TSER. However, as that didn’t make a catchy acronym he decided to add a gratuitous initial and make it Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, or TASER.

Of course, it occurred to me that it might be too good a story, and my suspicions were aroused when neither M-W nor AHD had it, but then I turned to the OED and found “Etymology: Acronym < the initial letters of Tom Swift’s electric rifle (a fictitious weapon), after laser n.” If it’s good enough for the OED, it’s good enough for me. (Thanks, Bruce!)