Archives for September 2012


My attention was just called to the word “spudger,” which Wikipedia defines as “a wiring tool used for poking or adjusting small wires or components, generally in the electronics and telecommunications industries.” Since it’s not in any of my dictionaries, not even the OED, I assumed it must be a brand-new word, but then I checked Google Books and found it in the Records and Briefs of the United States Supreme Court: John J. Manning and Caleb J. Norwood, appellants, vs. The Cape Ann Isinglass and Glue Company, Charles W. Parker, and James B. Rowe, filed Sept. 1, 1880, p. 15 (reproducing a deposition from 1877):

Int. 8. In the manufacture of isinglass prior to the time when scrapers were introduced, permanently adjusted to the rolls, how was it customary to prevent the isinglass being burnt by accumulation upon the surface of the rolls and passing through between the rolls several times?
Ans. They used a stick, made round at one end, for a handle to hold on to, and sharp at the other end, like a wedge, with a piece of steel or iron put on to it so to make it hard and not batter up when coming in contact with the rolls; with that they would dig the accumulated matter from the rolls. The above stick was known or called by isinglass manufacturers a “spudger.”

Could it be related to the antiquated slang phrase spudge around ‘exert oneself’? Here’s a quote from the unsigned “My Mother’s Slang” in the August 1920 issue of Scribner’s, p. 246: “The next phrase to be added to my collection … was the phrase ‘spudge around’ … Again I could hardly believe my eyes when the dictionary passed obliviously from spud (not a potato at all but a spear) to spue. ‘Spudge’ was one of my mother’s favorite and most forceful words, frequently used in the hope of accelerating our dressing in the morning.” Note that the author had the same fruitless recourse to the dictionary that I did; both slang and obscure technical terms are excellent examples of the kind of item lexicographers are likely to overlook, showing the absurdity of considering even very large dictionaries as exhausting the lexical resources of a language.


Several years ago I wrote briefly about “the Russian craze a century ago for Nat Pinkerton novels and stories,” adding that “there’s almost nothing online about Pinkerton.” Ever since then I’ve been wanting to know more; little did I know that Pinkerton would come to me rather than my having to seek him out. Earlier this year translator and poet Boris Dralyuk wrote me out of the blue (he hadn’t seen that 2008 post) to say how much he appreciated “the work you and your contributors have done to shed light on the little mysteries of my trade(s) — for instance, the fine points of portvein [see this thread] and the roots of Montigomo [see this one]”… and he mentioned that he was a “researcher of obscure haunts and byways of Russian literary culture (namely, Pinkertonovshchina).” It would be a considerable understatement to say I was intrigued; after telling him I knew his name from the impressive translations of Polina Barskova’s poems he did with David Stromberg (The Zoo in Winter: Selected Poems; see here for an account of my encountering Barskova’s wonderful poems in person), I asked if he had written anything about Pinkerton, and he allowed as how he had a book forthcoming from Brill. Well, the book, Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934, has come forth (priced at a forbidding $133.00, but you can get it for only $99.75 at The Book Depository!), and since Boris was kind enough to send me a copy, I can report that it’s one of the best things I’ve read on Soviet literature in a long time.

One of the strange things about that endlessly strange entity the Soviet Union was its official attitude toward the arts. You might think that a country created by a revolution ostensibly of workers and peasants and run ostensibly in their name would support their favorite leisure activities and prefer detective stories, comedies, and adventure movies to the highfaluting novels, symphonies, and classical paintings of the old regime. There were, in fact, many revolutionaries who felt that way; as the Wikipedia article on Proletkult, their official organization, says, “Under a workers’ state, some Marxist theoreticians believed, the new proletarian ruling class would develop its own distinct class culture to supplant the former culture of the old ruling order.” But the people who counted, Lenin and the other top members of the hierarchy, did not feel that way at all. They liked highfaluting novels, symphonies, and classical paintings, and as soon as the Civil War was over and they had time to deal with minor issues like aesthetics, they began promoting them—with new, improved, socialist content of course, but the idea was to bring the formerly oppressed masses up to the level of High Culture, not to destroy that culture and build something new in its place. After the confused, vibrant mid-1920s (the USSR’s “Hundred Flowers” period, if you will), Stalin took over and cracked down in his inimitable fashion. But until then there was genuine debate, and one of the debaters was the ill-fated Nikolai Bukharin, who in 1921 called for the creation of a “communist Pinkerton” to inspire young communists.

What, you ask, is a Pinkerton? Ah, therein lies Dralyuk’s tale. To quote Valentin Kataev, who includes in his memoirs a description of his youthful fondness for them (I presume the translation is Dralyuk’s, although Moira Budberg and Gordon Latta translated the memoirs in 1976 as A Mosaic of Life):

Nat Pinkerton was a famous American detective, whose adventures drove us all crazy. These were small—about the size of a school notebook—so-called “installments” [vypuski], each with a new picture on the cover and a color portrait of the famous detective in a red circle. In this crudely lithographed portrait, Nat Pinkerton’s head was depicted in profile. His clean-shaven, flabby face, with a protruding chin and a somewhat meaty nose, a sharp line between his nostrils and the edge of his tightly pressed lips, his piercing eyes (or rather, only one eye), even the sideways part of his slightly graying brown hair and colorful American tie, all spoke to the fact that this was the twentieth century’s greatest criminologist, an experienced and fearless man, with an iron will, the scourge of the American criminal world, who’d uncovered hundreds and hundreds of bloody crimes, and sent more than one villain to the electric chair of New York’s Sing Sing prison.

That should give an idea of both the style and the appeal of the thrillers, which began to appear in 1907 and were wildly popular. Not only Kataev but other Soviet cultural figures, like the director Eisenstein and the playwright Viktor Rozov, recalled their youthful love of the cheap and gaudy Pinkertons. Sergei Esenin wrote, in his 1923 poem Папиросники [Cigarette Peddlers], “Снуют по всем притонам/ И, улучив досуг,/ Читают Пинкертона/ За кружкой пива вслух.” [Dralyuk: “They dash to all the barrooms/ And, with some time to spare,/ They pore over Pinkerton/ Out loud over a beer.”] Bukharin, when he repeated his appeal in 1922, said:

“Pinkerton” enjoys tremendous success[. . . .] Marx, as is generally known, read crime novels with great enthusiasm. What’s the point here? The point is that the mind requires a light, entertaining, interesting plot [fabula] and unfolding of events—and this is true of the youth ten times more so than of adults. The bourgeoisie knows and understands this . . . We do not yet have this, and this must be overcome. We have material that we have not used to any extent, material that, in terms of the entertaining quality of the unfolding of events, could outdo any “Pinkerton.” This is the area of military battles, the adventures of our underground work, the Civil War, the various adventures of our comrades . . . If we give one specific description of one of our revolutionary fighters’ lives—that will be a thousand times more interesting than anything. And it will be of the greatest educational value—more than many of our posters, discussions, etc.

His point was valid and the adventure stories he wanted to see were written by men like Arkady Gaidar and Venyamin Kaverin, but his framing was unfortunate, because “Pinkerton” represented an individualistic ethos anathema to the official worldview. Marietta Shaginyan (under the name “Jim Dollar”) wrote the most successful of the “red Pinkertons” created in response to Bukharin’s call, Mess-Mend (1923); Dralyuk writes:

The critics’ negative reaction to Shaginian’s novel and its sequels—as well as to the work of her contenders and imitators—was quite clearly conditioned by recalcitrant leftist biases against the Pinkerton genre as a whole. For instance, in his negative review of Mess-Mend the critic L. Fevral’skii trotted out the most commonplace accusations leveled against pre-Revolutionary Pinkertons, namely their visual allure and their corrupting stranglehold on the youth:

This book, for which Gosizdat found a very salable format and for which Rodchenko provided a seductive advertising appearance [soblaznitel’naia reklamnaia vneshnost’], is read ravenously by everyone, including readers of this journal, the Party young, Komsomol members-activists.

The critics were quite correct in their diagnoses. No matter how much Shaginian stressed collectivism and class struggle, the genre demanded floridly individuated characters like Mick Thingsmaster, who stood out like those memorable cameos on the pre-Revolutionary serials’ covers. The genre also demanded clumsy exoticism, even if it was turned on its head by Shaginian’s invention of a foreign author warping the geography of Soviet Russia. It also demanded stark, Manichean conflicts, which precluded nuanced theoretical elaborations. The “red Pinkerton” was most seriously compromised, however, by its ambiguous tone. As Nikolaev writes, “[m]any of the books perceived as responding to Bukharin’s call bore a parodic character; and this parody was not only undisguised, it was underscored.” The fundamental problem was a failure to communicate.

But even though Bukharin and his call for “red Pinkertons” were suppressed, the style left its mark, and in the last chapter of Dralyuk’s book he traces its influence on what would seem to be the polar opposite of Pinkertons, the novels of Socialist Realism:

Pinkertonian pacing—and even some archetypal scenes—worked their way into Socialist Realism. Though these elements were purged of obvious irony and adjusted for the ideology of the Five-Year Plan and of “Socialism in One Country,” they remained recognizable, as evidenced by the opening of Kataev’s Time, Forward!:

The alarm clock rattled like a tin of bonbons.

The alarm clock was cheap, painted, brown, of Soviet manufacture.

Half-past six.

The clock was accurate. But Margulies was not asleep. He rose at six and was ahead of time. There had never been an occasion when the alarm clock had actually awakened him.

[…] As Kataev’s and Shaginian’s work shows, the generically heterogeneous “red Pinkertons” provided a training ground for Soviet writers who would eventually pen model works in officially sanctioned and immensely successful genres: not only the “production novel” (Shaginian, Kataev), but also the historical novel (Aleksei Tolstoi’s Peter the Great [Petr pervyi] [1929–1945], Nikulin’s Russia’s Faithful Sons [Rossii vernye syny] [1950]); communist hagiography (Ivanov’s Parkhomenko [1938–39]); and the memoir (Shaginian, Kataev, Nikulin, Ivanov, Shklovskii, etc.). […]

Although the path from Pinkertonovshchina to Socialist Realism and mainstream Soviet entertainment is full of evolutionary dead-ends, the “red Pinkerton” emerges as a vital “missing link” between pre- and post-Revolutionary popular literature, and the fitful start of a decades-long negotiation between the regime, the author, and the reading masses.

The main line of his argument is a new and much-needed reanalysis of the development of Soviet literary culture, but equally fascinating are the sidelights he keeps tossing in: wrestling culture, competing thrillers (“two popular Russian serials chronicled the adventures of Japanese detectives Oka-Shima (1908) and Kio-Hako (1917), the latter of whom was ‘a pipe-smoking Holmesian figure who speaks many languages and solves cases as far afield as South Africa, Italy, and China'”), library purges (“Soviet censors and librarian-pedagogues sought to limit readers’ access to unsavory material through continuous purges of regional libraries,” and “children’s libraries suffered particularly badly as a result of the removals”)… well, I could go on, but you get the idea. This book is chock-full of good stuff, and you should pester your local library to acquire it.

Meanwhile, a bit of Dralyuk you can read online is The Incomplete Cain, a review essay on the hard-boiled writer Paul Cain, a lively read about an amazing fellow; Cain was not his real name, nor was he “Peter Rurick, a wild Russian writer of free verse,” as Myrna Loy called him in her autobiography (quoted by MMcM at the end of this LH thread). If you have any interest in detective novels, you’ll enjoy it.


I just discovered a mother lode of blog links: the LINGUIST List Linguistic Blogs page. It’s somewhat out of date (A Luggage Exit in Sits and Polyglot Conspiracy, for instance, are defunct, and their Double-Tongued Word Wrester link redirects to Grant Barrett’s new project, A Way with Words), but there’s lots of good stuff there that I look forward to exploring when work allows, from A Replicated Typo (“A group blog dedicated to language, its evolution and anything in-between”) to Yes Russian (“Written by a Russian native, these lessons teach you the Russian language in a very practical way”).


I was reading Julian Bell’s LRB review of a Munch exhibition at the Tate Modern (which Wikipedia says is the most-visited modern art gallery in the world) when I was stopped in my tracks by the italicized word in the following sentence: “Munch did come to Paris with some training, but in genres appropriate to provincial Kristiania, each of them distinct: the frontal portrait, the landscape pochade, the bourgeois interior.” I had no idea what a pochade might be, so I went to my trusty Concise Oxford, which didn’t have it. It did, however, have pochard “a diving duck, the male of which typically has a reddish-brown head,” which is “of unknown origin.” So I had to go to the big OED, which of course has both words. Here’s what it says about the first (I’m putting brackets around the etymology for clarity): “[< French pochade a rough or hastily executed sketch (1828; also in sense ‘literary work written rapidly’ (1830)) < pocher (see poach v.1) + –ade -ade suffix.] A rough or hastily executed sketch; a blurred or indistinct picture. Also in extended use (chiefly Theatre).” The first citation is from 1872: R. Browning Fifine xxxvi, “So, any sketch or scrap, pochade, caricature, Made in a moment, meant a moment to endure, I snap at.” The diving duck pochard is “Apparently partly < poach v.2 + –ard suffix, and partly < poke v.1 + –ard suffix, in both cases probably with reference to the feeding habits of the bird.” You will note that both etymologies refer to a verb poach; poach 1 is the commonly known ‘cook (an egg) without the shell in simmering, or over boiling, water,’ which is ultimately from Old/Middle French poche ‘bag’ (the sense “is usually explained as referring to the enclosure of the yolk in the white as in a bag”), while poach 2, ‘shove, poke, thrust,’ has an etymology (revised September 2006) so tortured I won’t try to summarize it:

Origin uncertain. It is also uncertain whether the material below shows the development of a single word or of two or more, and whether (if a single origin is assumed) the original meaning should be taken to be ‘to shove’, ‘to poke’, ‘to thrust’, ‘to trample’, or ‘to thrust into a bag’. Branch I. perhaps shows a variant (with palatalized consonant) of poke v.1, but if so sense 1b must be of independent origin, < Middle French, French pocher to poke out (an eye) (1223 in Old French; spec. use of pocher poach v.1, perhaps arising originally from an analogy between the empty eye socket and a bag or pocket); with the early uses at sense 1a, and perhaps also with branch II., perhaps compare also French pocher poach v.1 in the sense ‘to put in a bag’, although this sense (although apparently a primary one) is not recorded in French until later (1660, unless implied slightly earlier by the idiom recorded by Cotgrave in quot. 1611 at sense 4a) and is apparently rare at all times. Perhaps alternatively compare poke v.2, of which the present word could perhaps show a variant (perhaps compare early forms at pouch n.).

That’s six perhapses, if I’ve counted right. I admit to feeling a certain irritation on being confronted with an obscure word like pochade used in place of a more transparent synonym, but on the other hand I enjoy looking things up, so I guess it’s a wash.


I really should check my referrer log more often than I do; I find some very interesting things that way. Just now I discovered Blazing Hyphens (Makafim Lohatim), Yuval Pinter’s blog: “Since language is my main passion, most of the posts revolve around the meaningless parts of linguistics.” He goes on to say, “I also write meaningful squibs (sometimes with more-than-just-google research!) which I post at Dagesh Kal, the Israeli answer to Language Log,” so of course I had to investigate the latter; they write:

Hi and welcome to the Dagesh Kal blog (= dagesh lene), a young Israeli linguablog. We (Ben lee, Itamar, Tal, Yair and Yuval) try and touch on a variety of topics that have to do with language, directly or indirectly, in a manner accessible to the general public. In other words, we’re basically ripping off Language Log. If you think a certain post might interest you but can’t understand it because you can’t read Hebrew (or rather, because Google’s machine translation system isn’t good enough yet), just drop us a line and we’ll see if we can help.

They’ve translated a couple already, Paul McCartney and the World in Which we Live in and Dolphins Obey Natural Language Rules! They also Obey Danish Cities (“A cautious debunking of claims regarding the syntactical abilities of dolphins”), and they “welcome guest posts in any language from people working in language-related fields.” Live long and prosper, both of you!


Stan Carey writes:

Mysteries of Vernacular is a fun and admirable project from Myriapod Productions comprising short animated films about etymology. Each film sketches the history of a word in the form of a story lasting a couple of minutes.
There are to be 26 in total, one for each letter of the alphabet…

As I wrote in Stan’s thread, “Very nice videos, and the etymology of hearse is amazing — if I once knew it, I’d forgotten. I do find very annoying, however, the narrator’s insistence on anglicizing all the foreign words he reads.” Watch the film to find out how the Oscan hirpus ‘wolf’ became our word for a vehicle for carrying a body!


Jordan MacVay sent me a link to Amir Muhammad’s wonderful project, The UMD (The Urban / Uncensored Malaysian Dictionary). As Jordan says, “Basically he’s listing out Malaysian words/terms that are excluded from the ‘official’ Malay dictionaries.” Official dictionaries have their uses, obviously, but when they exclude words and phrases known to most users of the language they purport to represent, they are not doing their job, and it’s important that they be supplemented by things like this. To pick an entry at random:

Yam seng. 饮 胜
A rowdy toast where people stand up and hold up their alcoholic drinks and try to prolong the phrase ‘yam seng’ as much as possible. From the Cantonese, ‘drink to victory.’ In 2003 Tourism Minister Kadir Sheikh Fadzir complimented his deputy Ng Yen Yen who had just returned from a promotional trip to China, by saying, “She mixed around well and yam seng her way all over China. The Chinese just loved it because they did not know one could yam seng in an Islamic country.”

Yam seng, Amir!


Frequent commenter Trond Engen sent me a link to Neil Drysdale’s STV News story about a Scots lawyer, Gordon Hay, who has taken six years to translate the New Testament into his native tongue, Doric (the Scottish dialect, not the Ancient Greek one). I’m a sucker for this kind of thing; here’s an extract from The Acks o the Apostles (Chaptir 14, verse 8):

Noo, at Lystra, there was a cripple mannie vrang amo e feet fae e day he wis born, nivver haein waalkit. He wis hearknin tae Paul as he spak, an Paul, leukin him straicht in e ee an seein he hid e faith tae be made aa better, says till him wi a lood vice: “Stan straicht up on yer feet!” He jumpit up an set oot waalkin. An fan e crood saa fit Paul hid deen, they roart oot o them in their ain tongue, “E gods hiv come dooon till hiz in e form o a mannie.”


Back in 2005 I had a brief post on the Northern Cities Shift; now Rob Mifsud has a nice Slate piece on it:

From Syracuse, N.Y., in the east to Milwaukee in the west, 34 million Americans are revolutionizing the sound of English. Linguists first noted aspects of the change in the late 1960s. In 1972, three linguists, led by William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, christened the phenomenon the Northern Cities Vowel Shift or, more simply, the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). What they observed may be the most important change in English pronunciation in centuries. …
If news of this radical linguistic shift hasn’t made it to you yet, you are not alone. Even people who speak this way remain mostly unaware of it. Dennis Preston, a professor of perceptual linguistics at Oklahoma State University—he doesn’t merely study how people speak, he studies how people perceive both their own speech and the speech of others—discovered something peculiar about NCS speakers when he was teaching at Michigan State University. “They don’t perceive their dialect at all,” he says. “The awareness of the NCS in NCS territory is zero.”

It’s well worth a read; as John Cowan, who sent me the link, said, “not a single factual error that I could see except for the weirdness of wha instead of aw for /O/.”


A Guardian piece by Agnès Poirier laments the fading of the polite pronoun:

Today, French people in their 20s hardly ever use vous or tend to think of it like the past perfect subjunctive, an archaic remnant. They have never known the world before the internet and social networks are their thing. They use textspeak, and communicate with emoticons. We had slang, verlan, and wrote love letters. They have got tweets, RTs and “likes”. They set up dates by text, and use Twitter to dump people. In a world where one communicates within the 140 characterlimit, vous is a hindrance and tu a godsend.
Things get complicated when different generations collide on the social networks. Last year, as the Le Monde blogpost points out, Franz Durupt, a young hack from the French daily dared to say “tu” to Laurent Joffrin, editor of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine on Twitter. Scandal. The older journalist complained and the Twittersphere accused him of being pedantic. He retorted that all he asked for was a little respect, and that the vous culture was exactly what social media needed most. …
I personally didn’t have a strong opinion on the matter until Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007. The former French president said tu to everyone. This shocked and infuriated me as it did millions of French people. How dare he say tu to people he didn’t know? How disrespectful, how hypocritical, how disingenuous. I suddenly realised the importance of having two forms of address. Vous is not only a sign of respect and politeness towards an older person or a stranger; it puts a healthy and adult distance between two individuals, it gives them some space to actually get to know one another better, to win the other over and get to the stage where they’ll happily say “tu”. Tu is a sign of real intimacy, one that should be genuine, not contrived. Tu is a gift to real friendship – just not the kind you necessarily have with your 1500 Facebook “friends”.

On the one hand, as a fellow geezer I’m sympathetic. On the other, I’m pretty sure her teenage self (“We were the salut generation, the ones with bad manners”) would have laughed her lament-writing self to scorn. Instead of realizing “the importance of having two forms of address,” she should have realized “Oh, hell, I’m getting old.” It never ceases to amaze me how automatically people replicate the lament modes of their parents and grandparents, and how hard it is for them to see that process for what it is. Mom and dad were just being foolish, but my complaints are serious! (Thanks for the link, Kobi.)