Archives for September 2012


I’m in the middle of Vasily Narezhny‘s very enjoyable 1814 novel Российский Жилблаз (A Russian Gil Blas); I’ll have a good deal to say about it when I finish it, but right now I want to pass on one of those etymologies I probably once knew but have long since forgotten. One of the characters in the novel is a woman named Федора [Fedora]; I didn’t remember encountering the name before, but it was obviously the female version of the very common Федор [Fyodor] and thus was the Russian equivalent of Theodora. “Huh, it sounds just like fedora,” thought I, but was that a coincidence? I knew the hat was named for the title character in the 1882 play Fédora by Sardou (Sarah Bernhardt was so popular in the role that the soft felt hat she wore became fashionable and was called by that name), but was that character by any chance Russian? I went to the Wikipedia article, and sure enough, the character was Princess Fédora Romanoff (i.e., Федора Романова). I fingered my own, slightly battered, fedora with even greater affection.
Oddly, in 1884 Sardou wrote a play Théodora about the Byzantine empress. I wonder if he knew it was the same name?
Update (November 2012). See now Sashura’s post (in Russian), with video clips of Kornei Chukovsky’s reading of his poem “Федорино горе” and a staged version.


A reference to “Akan speakers (generally called Minas or Coromantees in the Americas)” led me via Google Books to Kwasi Konadu’s The Akan Diaspora in the Americas, which, after establishing to the author’s satisfaction that “Mina” (a term used primarily in non-English-language sources) does refer specifically to Akan speakers, continues with the following extremely interesting discussion (pp. 13 ff.):

The Mina experience thus raises some critical questions about African social formation and cultural transformation in the Americas. Did Africans use language, “religious” affiliation (e.g., as adherents to African and African-based spiritualities in the Americas, Islam, or Christianity), or the structures of African polities as remembered from Africa, or did they use all three in varying degrees and as principles by which to organize themselves? If the mechanism of organization was primarily language, did cultural groups identify themselves and others by the principal and perhaps mutually intelligible languages they spoke? What might have been the decision-making process of bi- or multilingual speakers from contiguous areas and those accessible by land and water? Africans may have identified with localized or broader polities in West Africa as a source of security and thus would have given their loyalty to those bases of social unity, and this would have been true for centralized Akan polities. However, religious affiliations via Islam or Christianity would have been meaningless for most Akan, who were non-Christian and non-Islamic and had been that way for centuries. …

[Read more…]


Michael Quinion at World Wide Words has a post on the phrase touch and go which, after explaining the obsolete sense of “dealing with some matter merely glancingly or momentarily (in the British sense of something that happens for a very short time): to merely touch on it and at once go on to something else,” goes on to the competing possibilities for the modern one (“a precarious, unpredictable or risky situation whose outcome is uncertain”):

One was given by Hotten in the first edition of his dictionary in 1859 as a coaching term: “The old jarveys [coachmen, thought to derive from the personal name Jervis], to shew their skill, used to drive against things so close as absolutely to touch, yet without injury. This they called a toucher, or, touch and go, which was hence applied to anything which was within an ace of ruin.”
The other appears in nautical contexts and was summed up by Admiral William Smyth in The Sailor’s Word-book in 1865: “Said of anything within an ace of ruin; as in rounding a ship very narrowly to escape rocks, &c, or when, under sail, she rubs against the ground with her keel, without much diminution of her velocity.” The latter sense is recorded from the beginning of the nineteenth century. One Admiralty court case in 1817 noted that a temporary touching of the keel on the sea floor “has been vulgarly described” as a touch and go, which suggests that it had even then been in the language for some time as sailors’ jargon.
Which of these is the true origin, if either, is unknowable in the present state of the etymological art. But both are based on the same idea of momentary contact that exists in the aeronautical touch and go.

My wife and I are in the middle of Patrick O’Brian’s The Thirteen-Gun Salute, where we’ve just been through a harrowing example of what Smyth describes. (Via Stan at Sentence first.)


Frequent commenter Andrew Dunbar writes to say “All the Georgian dictionaries I could find only list one word [დელფინი, delphini] for ‘dolphin’, that coming ultimately from Greek. But why borrow this word when both dolphins and the Georgians have always been at the Black Sea and the Georgians were not big borrowers of basic words?” He also posted the question at Linguistics StackExchange. As I wrote him, I looked დელფინი up in my 1887 Chubinov Georgian-Russian dictionary, which also has Georgian definitions, and it had ზღვის ღორი ‘sea pig,’ so perhaps that’s an alternate name? Also, as the etymological source it gives “ბერძ.” (i.e., Greek); that doesn’t necessarily mean it was borrowed directly from Greek, however. (Russian itself borrowed it from German.) So I thought I’d post it here and see if anyone had any thoughts on the subject.


I love detailed comparisons of translations that also have things to say about what it means to evaluate a translation, and Brad Johnson (of the wonderfully named An und für sich) has a good one at The New Inquiry, “Too Foreign,” in which he discusses two translations of Clarice Lispector:

…Moser bristles at what he sees as English translators trying to tame Lispector’s strangely composed Portuguese, ironing out the wrinkles in her syntax and cleaning up what would be bad grammar if it weren’t intentional.
I cannot read Portuguese, and very likely would need at least two tries to identify it by ear, so it would seem that I am in no position to judge (or, therefore, doubt) Moser’s assessment of previous translations. Neither am I capable of assessing Idra Novey’s attempt at The Passion According to G.H., released this June by New Directions. How then do I review Clarice Lispector? Is it right for one so distanced from her language, and thus from her style, to stand in evaluative judgment of her work? To put it less abstractly: are we reading Lispector at all, or merely her translators? Are we capable of accessing her style when her language is foreign to us? …
Both of this book’s English translators, first Ronald Sousa and now Idra Novey, appeal to their struggles with her style—a struggle beautifully expressed by Novey in her afterword: “when to prioritize the music and when the meaning.” Lispector’s Portuguese is, we are told by both translators, a sonorous web of repetitions, intent more on establishing a cadence than insuring coherence. …
If Novey’s version is an improvement, it is not necessarily because she is more faithful to the original text or even because she better evokes its transmission of a “potential language chaos,” but because she does not seem to see the struggle as something that can be won or lost. Where Sousa beckons towards a confusion outside the grasp of his translation, Novey intends to highlight the dissonant chord that hers shares with the novel. It may not be the same strangeness of Lispector’s original, but how could it be?

There’s more discussion of the issues, as well as some very interesting side-by-side comparisons of selected passages. Well worth the read, and once again I find myself thinking I should get around to Lispector one of these days. (Via wood s lot.)


Another useful internet resource is the Cal Poly Pomona Asian name pronunciation guide: “This web site has been developed to help the campus community more accurately pronounce some common Asian first and last names. Native speakers who were/are Cal Poly Pomona students provided all sound samples (in .wav format) for Cambodian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Filipino, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese names.” The audio files are indispensable, because the respellings intended to aid pronunciation range from vaguely helpful to actively misleading (the Indonesian name Harjanti is respelled as “harjantee,” when the written j actually corresponds to /y/). But the audio files make it a must-bookmark; I could listen to native speakers say names all day. (Thanks for the link, Lobster Mitten!)


This is another “marvel at the resources of the internet!” moment. To quote memiyawanzi, where I found the link: “I’ve come across this great index of Ancient Language Resources online Lexicity. It contains an index of online resources for the study of Akkadian, Aramaic, Coptic, Egyptian, Ge’ez, Old Georgian, Gothic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Old English, Old Norse, Sanskrit, Syriac, and Ugaritic, with relevant links to new stuff, out of copyright grammars and texts on, and so forth.” From their About page:

Learning an ancient language is difficult, but it becomes more difficult if one isn’t part of a high school or college class or doesn’t have access to the more advanced resources of a university library. The natural solution is the internet, where some of those advanced resources are housed and where there is an abundance of materials intended to facilitate one’s study.
However, there are a few problems when turning to the internet. … The solution to these problems is to unite all the resources under a single banner after reviewing them to see which are most useful. Lexicity has done this for 16 of the most prominent ancient languages. All the ancient language resources we feature are free and available to anyone; they’re easy to navigate, easy to sort, and easy to access. You don’t need to be an expert or be willing to wade through 50 pages of search engine results – just visit our languages page to get started.

And what riches are there! Going to the OCS page, I found a link to the Codex Suprasliensis, the largest extant Old Church Slavonic manuscript; I remember it well from grad school days. And that’s just one link of who knows how many! Explore and enjoy.


I never actually regret having dropped out of grad school, but there are times when I’m particularly glad that I didn’t become an academic, such as when I’m reminded how out of touch academics can be. (This does not apply, of course, to academics who read LH, who are totally hip.) I just read Thomas Keymer’s LRB review of Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental 18th Century by Simon Dickie, becoming more and more astonished at the attitude expressed and assumed therein toward low humor:

In Cruelty and Laughter, Simon Dickie mounts a compelling case against what he calls ‘the politeness-sensibility paradigm’, by resurrecting a jeering counter-discourse that revelled in human suffering and physical affliction. … Dickie painstakingly retrieves the older pleasures from fugitive jestbooks and trashy ephemera: an archive little studied not only because of low survival rates – the books he describes were read to pieces – but also because of its content. With their unrepentant nastiness and gloating delight in other people’s pain, the ubiquitous jestbooks gleefully up-end the official values of the age. The humanitarian sensibilities we associate with the Enlightenment are nowhere to be seen. In compilations with titles like England’s Witty and Ingenious Jester, The Buck’s Pocket Companion and Fun for the Parlour, blind women are walked into walls, crutches are stolen from one-legged beggars, dwarfs are picked up and tossed from windows and starving paupers are fed shit pies. Some of the most rebarbative jests, often whole sequences of them, reappear across the decades. Even works like The Delicate Jester; or, Wit and Humour Divested of Ribaldry (a lucus a non lucendo kind of title) reprint them without any softening. … To what extent can we put these unendearing but popular texts down to cultural lag, to the persistence of the coarsely medieval in the age of reason?

The persistence of the coarsely medieval? Has the Chancellor Jackman Professor of English at the University of Toronto never gone online? Did he not have school friends who told exactly such jokes with boisterous relish? Is he really not aware that cruel jokes about women, the blind, paupers, and indeed every identifiable subgroup of people have been told and laughed at since the beginning of time and will doubtless continue to be told and laughed at until the human race evolves into the kind of ethereal beings foretold by the more high-minded sort of sf writer a century or so ago? I’m not defending that class of jokes (though I have laughed at them), but words like “rebarbative” and “unendearing” reek of an arm’s-length distaste that makes me want to recite from Fun for the Parlour in his class. And “medieval”? Really, professor! Wake up and smell the crooked timber of humanity!


Geoff Nunberg was kind enough to have his publisher send me a copy of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, which I (as a connoisseur of feelthy language) was looking forward to. It turns out to be not as much in my wheelhouse as Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word (see this post), which of course was my automatic point of comparison; most of it is taken up with what you might call the sociological analysis of assholism (puts the anal in analysis!), which is fun and thought-provoking but not really LH material. But there are nice bits of philological investigation as well. Chapter Three, “The Rise of Talking Dirty,” is excellent stuff; it starts off by quoting Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead: “Lieutenant (sg) Dove, USNR. A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole.” Nunberg then writes:

By the time asshole appeared in print, it had undoubtedly been circulating in army slang for quite a while. In fact it doesn’t really make sense to ask when this use of asshole was “coined.” It isn’t one of those items like pizzazz or beatnik that a clever columnist or copywriter can drop into the language some Tuesday morning. After all, it doesn’t take a great deal of ingenuity to compare someone you want to disparage to the anus, and it’s fair to assume that people have been doing that from time to time for as long as asshole (or in its older form arsehole) has been around.
Still, it isn’t likely that asshole was a conventional epithet much before the modern period. Even in more straight-laced ages, vulgarities and profanities show up in sources such as diaries, personal letters, pornography, slang dictionaries, and the records of prosecutions for public disorderliness or military insubordination (“Go and f— yourself” made its first print appearance in the proceedings of the Old Bailey in 1901). People have been using arsehole to refer to the anus at least since Chaucer’s time, and there are citations from the 1860s on for the metaphorical use of the word for the most detestable spot in a region, as in “the arse-hole of the universe.” So if asshole had been a routine term of abuse much before World War II, there would most likely be some record of it. Ernest Hemingway didn’t use the word in the manuscript of A Farewell to Arms that he submitted to Scribner’s in 1929, which included shit, fuck, cocksucker, cunt, and balls, none of which made it into the published version. That’s not conclusive, of course, but if asshole had been around then, it’s a fair bet Hemingway would have taken to it (it did show up in Islands in the Stream, written in the early 1950s and set during World War II).

That’s good stuff there! He goes on to discuss the change from profanity proprement dit (damn, God, Jesus, etc.) to our modern secular swearing and the spread of such swearing from the military and other restricted circles into the wider society. And throughout the book he has intriguing charts tracking the ascent of asshole against the parallel ascent of words like empathetic and the descent of words like cad. In short, if the topic of assholes and assholery (or, to use Nunberg’s preferred term, assholism) interests you, this is the book for you.
Oh, and if you’re curious, as I was, about the Russian equivalent of asshole, Anatoly has a thorough discussion; I’m willing to accept his decision that мудак is the best candidate.


The Mind is a Metaphor “is an evolving work of reference, an ever more interactive, more solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics.” From the About page:

This collection of eighteenth-century metaphors of mind serves as the basis for a scholarly study of the metaphors and root-images appealed to by the novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists, philosophers, belle-lettrists, preachers, and pamphleteers of the long eighteenth century. While the database does include metaphors from classical sources, from Shakespeare and Milton, from the King James Bible, and from more recent texts, it does not pretend to any depth or density of coverage in literature other than that of the British eighteenth century.
☞ The database was assembled and taxonomized and is maintained by Brad Pasanek

Even with the restriction to the British eighteenth century, it’s a neat idea and a valuable resource.