Still reading A Sentimental Journey, I found myself completely flummoxed by this passage:

Having settled all these little matters, I got into my post-chaise with more ease than ever I got into a post-chaise in my life; and La Fleur having got one large jack-boot on the far side of a little bidet, and another on this (for I count nothing of his legs) – he canter’d away before me as happy and as perpendicular as a prince.

Like many Americans, I have had my own moments of confusion when confronted by a French bidet, but I had never had one canter away before me. A look at the OED enlightened me:

[a. French bidet pony; of unknown origin: cf. Old French bider (Godefroy) to trot. In 16th cent. the F. word meant also some small kind of dagger. (The Celtic comparisons made by Diez and Littré are rejected by Thurneysen.)]
1. A small horse.
1630 B. Jonson Chlorid. Wks. (1838) 656, I will returne to myself, mount my bidet, in a dance; and curvet upon my curtal. 1828 I. D’Israeli Chas. I, I. ii. Then there are thanks for two bidets which Henry sends him. 1863 Sala Capt. Dangerous II. vi. 202, I trotted behind on a little Bidet.
2. ‘A vessel on a low, narrow stand, which can be bestridden’ (Syd. Soc. Lex.) for bathing purposes.

I quote my old dead-tree Compact Edition because my computer was off when this occurred. The online edition, while substantially the same, has added a few quotes for the newer sense; the first is from Tobias Smollett’s 1766 Travels through France and Italy I. v. 64: “Will custom exempt from the imputation of gross indecency a French lady, who shifts her frousy smock in presence of a male visitant, and talks to him of her lavement, her medecine, and her bidet!” It was Smollett whom Sterne satirized as the “learned Smelfungus,” who “set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. – He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.”


I’ve been reading A Sentimental Journey (see this post) with pleasure and profit; not only is Sterne’s style a constant joy, but I’m seeing where later authors got their material (Radishchev’s anecdote about giving his platok [kerchief] to the beggar who wouldn’t accept his banknote is clearly derived from Sterne’s tale of giving his snuffbox to the mendicant monk he’d refused alms to), and I’m learning some new words and phrases. He starts off the book by deciding to go to France after being challenged by an interlocutor (“They order, said I, this matter better in France. – You have been in France? said my gentleman, turning quick upon me, with the most civil triumph in the world”) and immediately makes reference to the droit d’aubaine, which turns out to be something for which prerevolutionary France was notorious: any foreigner who died within the country had his goods seized by the French crown, and his heirs got nothing.
After he goes to Calais and stiffs the monk, he goes out into the coach-yard of the inn where he’s staying and sees “an old désobligeant in the furthest corner of the court”; the OED soon informed me that this pleasing word refers to “A chaise so called in France from its holding but one person.” (The OED marks the stress on the second syllable, implying an anglicized pronunciation /dezˈɒblɪdʒənt/, but Sterne’s spelling, with italics and an accent aigu, implies at least an attempt at a French version; a pity we don’t have a recording by the author.) He later tells his landlord he wants to buy a coach to continue his journey, and “we walk’d together towards his Remise, to take a view of his magazine of chaises.” (Note the use of magazine in its original sense, ‘a place where goods are kept in store; a warehouse or depot’; it’s from Arabic maḵzan or maḵzin ‘storehouse,’ which is also the source of Spanish almacén.) A remise (also given with anglicized pronunciation, /rᵻˈmʌɪz/ ri-MIZE) turns out to be “A building providing shelter for a carriage; a coach house (Chiefly in French contexts),” and the specific sense is somehow from French remise ‘action of replacing, (in law) pardon, reduction of a penalty, adjournment, lessening of the severity of a disease or symptom, renunciation of a debt, action of restoring, re-establishing, action of handing over to someone.’
Not of linguistic relevance, but it strikes me forcibly that Sterne’s 1765 journey took place only two years after the end of the long and brutal Seven Years’ War, in which France and England were enemies, and yet so far there’s been only one passing mention of it; I don’t know whether Sterne is simply choosing not to write about it (don’t mention the war!) or whether it really wouldn’t have come up much, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have been comparable to visiting France in, say, 1947.


Last night my wife asked me (in the course of our O’Brian reading) where the word admiral comes from, and I gave her an off-the-cuff answer that was correct in essence (Arabic amir) but wrong on the details, as I discovered when I looked it up in the OED today. What astonished me was the length of the etymology: 1,341 words, with separate mini-etymologies for five different historical forms of the word and excursuses on “A further development in Latin,” “Further comments regarding Arabic models” (“It has been suggested that the presence of the final -al was caused or reinforced by Arabic al, the definite article which is also used in genitive constructions, but this is not borne out by the textual evidence in either Arabic or the Western languages”), “History of the title,” “Development of phrases,” “Development of secondary senses,” and “Development of forms”! I briefly wondered whether this was the longest etymology in the OED, but then I realized that was foolishness, and upon checking the Guide to the Third Edition of the OED discovered that (unsurprisingly) “The longest etymology section in the dictionary is the revised one at the verb to be.” So of course I went to that entry and discovered the etymology is a mind-boggling 9,672 words long, so long that it has its own table of contents, running from “1. General overview” to “3.7. Omission of auxiliary have in periphrastic tenses.” And there are 1,765 words (considerably more than the entire admiral etymology) before the table of contents! Here are the first few sentences:

The paradigm of the verb ‘to be’ in West Germanic languages in general shows forms derived from three unrelated Indo-European bases, in English itself perhaps forms derived from four Indo-European bases. These occur in sometimes overlapping, but generally distinct functions within the paradigm (see below), although there have been significant changes in these functions over time and in different varieties of English. The following notation is used in this entry to distinguish the different forms: (i) am/is-group: α (am), β (is), γ (Old English sind), δ (Old English sīe), ε (art), ζ (are); (ii) be-group: η (be); (iii) was-group: θ (was), ι (were). The present tense and non-finite forms are chiefly derived from two distinct bases.[...]

God bless and keep the OED!

[Read more...]


I’ve finished Radishchev’s Journey (see this post), and the final chapter, on Lomonosov, was actually reasonably interesting. In the course of discussing Lomonosov’s thirst for learning, acquired in part through mastery of foreign languages, Radishchev writes (I quote the Leo Weiner translation, published by Harvard University Press, 1958):

Thus the student, upon approaching an unknown language, is confused by strange sounds. His throat is exhausted by the unfamiliar rustling of air escaping from it, and his tongue, compelled to wag in a new way, grows lame. The mind grows stiff, reason is weakened by inactivity, imagination loses its wings; memory alone is wide awake and ever keener, filling all its convolutions and openings with hitherto unknown sounds. In learning languages, at first everything is repulsive and burdensome. If one were not encouraged by the hope that, after having accustomed his ear to the unusual sounds and having mastered the strange pronunciation, most delightful ways would be opened up to him, it is doubtful that one would want to enter upon so arduous a path. But when these obstacles are surmounted, how generous is the reward for perseverance in overcoming hardships! New aspects of nature, and a new chain of ideas then present themselves. By acquiring a foreign language we become citizens of the region where it is spoken, we converse with those who lived many thousand years ago, we adopt their ideas; and we unite and co-ordinate the inventions and the thought of all peoples and all times.

And, approaching the end of Slezkine’s wonderful Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (see this post), I’ve run into the following striking quote from the Nanai author Petr Kile (born 1936; I assume “Kile” has the stress on the second syllable—anybody know?):

There is no point in writing in my native language because out of eight thousand Nanai living in this world, if anybody reads poetry, they read it in Russian. There is no need to translate Pushkin into Nanai. I love Pushkin in the element of Russian speech and I cannot reject it. In any case, writing poetry in any other language strikes me as strange. And who knows to what extent Russian has become my native language?

This is from Идти вечно [To always go/walk] (1972), which Slezkine calls Kile’s “remarkably fresh memoir.”


This Wordorigins thread about names for dictators wound up discussing the impressive moniker Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga, the last part of which is variously translated as “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake” and “the rooster that watches over all the hens.” Apparently some Wikipedia editor said on the talk page, “That’s the Tshiluba translation of his name. The Ngbandi translation is the one stated in the article. Both are correct.” Which is idiotic on the face of it. I had always wondered what language it was and what an accurate translation would be, and now my curiosity has reached a crisis point and I am impelled to ask the Varied Reader: do any of you know enough about Congolese languages to be able to speak with authority on this matter?
Unrelated, but we’re all jamessal fans here, so I know you’ll want to see his inaugural post as a GQ television critic. In the course of it, he calls Justified “the best show currently on television,” and he makes me want to see it.


A couple of years ago I wrote about Mikhail Gronas’s superb book Cognitive Poetics and Cultural Memory: Russian Literary Mnemonics; now the Pushkin Review has published an article of his on a subject perhaps of more specialized interest, Who Was the Author of the First Book (or Rather Booklet) on Pushkin? Spoiler: he thinks it was Faddey Bulgarin (aka Jan Tadeusz Krzysztof Bulharyn), a nasty piece of work who had a grudge against Pushkin and no scruples about scurrilous anonymous attacks. But the fun is in the details, and anyone interested in early-nineteenth-century Russian literary life should enjoy it. And for what it’s worth, he convinces me. (Russian translation here.)


Frequent commenter Paul Ogden has created a Wikipedia article for what sounds like a wonderful thing, the Historical Dictionary Project for Hebrew. That second link is from the official site of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which sponsors the project; they say:

The overarching goal of the HDP is to present the history and development of the Hebrew lexicon, from the earliest occurrences of words down through their most recent documentation. Whereas similar historical dictionary projects in Europe merely brought citations from texts of recent centuries, the Academy’s HDP is based upon Hebrew texts up until 1100 CE, and large selections of literature from the periods thereafter until the founding of the State of Israel. It was decided to begin with texts from the post-biblical period, and thus the database reflects more than 2000 years of Hebrew writing.

The Wikipedia article adds that “The complete lexical archive will contain at least 25 million quotations.” In short, a Hebrew OED. Every language needs one!


For those of you who might be wondering about the progress of my march through Russian literature, it has taken a sudden swerve. I had gotten up through the year 1968 (I enjoyed the Strugatskys’ Сказка о Тройке [Tale of the Troika], but it was essentially a rather silly satirical fantasy, not on the level of their great, somber sf novels) when I suddenly decided to reverse course and go back to the beginning of modern Russian literature (arbitrarily taking that to be the Tale of Frol Skobeev, a delightful piece of roguery which I enjoyed as much as Turgenev did). There were several motives coalescing in this decision, but probably the most basic was a desire to get to Dostoevsky sooner rather than later. After Frol Skobeev I read Mikhail Chulkov‘s 1770 Пригожая повариха [The Comely Cook], an early Russian picaresque novel which Prince Mirsky called “a sort of Russian Moll Flanders“; it too was very enjoyable, though pure fluff. Now I’m most of the way through Radishchev‘s famously controversial Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву [Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow], a brave manifesto against serfdom and arbitrary rule which got its author exiled to Siberia; alas, it’s not particularly enjoyable, and in places almost as unreadable as the second appendix to War and Peace. Long stretches of it are of the form “O my compatriots! can you really feast in comfort on your imported delicacies while your brothers groan under the yoke of serfdom, while your sisters are forced into unsuitable marriages? can you not see how much better it is to earn your bread by honest toil, rather than to live off the dishonestly acquired fruits of the labor of men placed under you by unjust laws…” (That’s a pastiche, not a quote, but you’d have to be a dedicated Radishchev scholar to tell the difference.) I’m reading it because it influenced everybody from Pushkin to Venedikt Erofeev, but I’ll be glad to put it aside and move on to Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, which I’m reading because it influenced everybody from Pushkin to Shklovsky. Then it’s on to Karamzin‘s 1792 story «Бедная Лиза» [Poor Liza], which comes highly recommended by its heroine’s namesake Lizok.
I must say, reading eighteenth-century prose is a lot easier for me now, with the internet handy (and of course a lot more Russian under my belt), than it was when I bought my copy of Radishchev in Prague in 1998; I remember struggling with the archaic vocabulary and the recondite allusions. Now I can find pretty much anything I want, from the location of Sofiya (the first stop on the journey, which turns out to be essentially a suburb of Tsarskoye Selo that had only recently been founded by Catherine the Great and was to be rejected, like most of her initiatives, by her awful son Paul), to the majestic but impenetrable (and misquoted) epigraph from Trediakovsky, which turns out to have its own Russian Wikipedia entry. It’s a good time to be alive and reading Russian literature.


Mark Liberman made a Log post a while back in which he discussed the phrase “all in all”:

It’s not syntactically or semantically transparent — we don’t say “some in all” or “some in some” or anything else remotely close. The fact that “in all” also exists helps a bit, but it’s still pretty opaque. And when I looked it up in the OED, I discovered that the only meaning offered there for all in all is “All things in all respects, all things altogether in one”…

He distinguishes three senses of the phrase, exemplified by the quotes “Is God my all in all?,” “He was a man, take him for all in all,” and “It was, all in all, the most ubiquitous feature of the landscape,” and tracks their changes in relative frequency over time, finding (unsurprisingly) that the first two declined steadily over the first half of the twentieth century while the third shot up like a rocket. His conclusion:

So “all in all”, in the meaning “Generally, all things considered”, increased just about as rapidly as “at the end of the day” did, a century later. The result is arguably ungrammatical and illogical except as an idiom. It displaced an older, arguably useful version of the same phrase meaning “all things to a person, or all things desired”. But as far as I can tell, no one ever complained. Go figure.

I think it’s worth emphasizing that last bit: no peevers have arisen to smite this new, illogical distortion of a fine old phrase, hallowed by usage. The inescapable conclusion? Peevery is personal and random. If Fowler or Strunk had happened to notice the phrase, think about it, and decide to attack it in print, it would be as “skunked” as sentence adverbial hopefully and all the other dreary shibboleths. But the lightning struck (or strunk) elsewhere, and we all use it without fear.


I ran across the Spanish word rueca ‘distaff’ and (as is my wont) wondered where it had come from. That turns out to be a more difficult question to answer than one might think. I first turned to the Diccionario de la lengua española, which said laconically “(Del germ. *rŏkko).” With that to go on, Google Books got me a view of p. 110 of Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, by James Mallory and D. Q. Adams, with the entry:

*ruk- ‘over-garment’. [IEW 874 (*ruk(k)-); Wat 55 (*ruk-)]. Olr rucht (< *ruktu-) ‘tunic’, MWels ruch(en) (< *roukkā) ‘cloak’, OE rocc ‘over-garment, rochet’, OHG rocko ‘distaff, Goth *rukka (borrowed into Italian rocca ‘distaff’) (< Gmc *rukkōn). An isogloss of the western periphery of the IE world.

Which sounded reasonably convincing, except that I wasn’t sure why a word for ‘over-garment’ would turn into one for ‘distaff.’ Investigating further, I learned there was an archaic English word for ‘distaff,’ rock, first attested in the fourteenth century (a1325 in G. H. McKnight Middle Eng. Humorous Tales (1913) 23 “Wit my roc y me fede; Cani do non oyir dede”), whose entry, happily for me, had just been updated in June 2010. The long etymology says everything that can be said at present about the history of this difficult word:

[Read more...]