Archives for October 2012


Frequent commenter Paul sent me a link to Sam Leith’s “In defence of the smiley” (“It is time to give the emoticon the praise it deserves”) and quoted the following paragraph:

Why shouldn’t we speak in praise of emoticons? They have some unique virtues. For a start, they introduce a pictorial element into the written language: something western languages have not had since the days of illuminated manuscripts. That is pleasing. Users of kanji or, ancestrally, hieroglyphics are spoilt in this regard; we have been scanted.

Paul finds the use of “scanted” very peculiar. It seems OK to me (definition 4 in Merriam-Webster is “to provide with a meager or inadequate portion or supply : stint”), but I thought I’d check with the Varied Reader; maybe it’s a US/UK thing?


Jascha Hoffman has an amusing essay on translation in the New York Times Book Review from Sunday; I’d like to excerpt this passage on George Saunders in German:

Might some funny bits actually get funnier in translation? In the title story of George Saunders’s “Pastoralia,” a character is paid to impersonate a cave man at a theme park, his employers providing a freshly-killed goat to roast daily, until one morning he goes to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Among the many possible renderings of this made-up word, Saunders’s German translator chose ziegenleer, a lofty-sounding melding of “goat” and “void” with no exact equivalent in English.
“The German translation is accurate, but the word combination tickles some kind of orthographical, sound-receptive funny bone,” explained the Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis, the editorial director for Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literature in translation press and one of the conference organizers. “The more high-minded you make it sound in your head, the funnier it gets, implying a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”

My question to my German-speaking readers: does ziegenleer actually tickle your funny bone in that way? (Thanks to Paul for the link, and apologies to AJP for the lack of goat.)


That’s the title of Roger Blench’s Dictionary of Ghanaian English (pdf), which he generously put online (in an early version from 2006) and which Matt of No-sword wrote me about (thanks, Matt!). Here’s an interesting paragraph:

One of the more surprising things about Ghanaian English is the extent to which it has a common lexicon and grammar with other West African Englishes, notably Nigerian. I have less information about Cameroun, Sierra Leone and Gambia and would welcome further insights. However, the puzzle is the history of some of these forms. Do they go back to the early days of colonial presence on the coast or are they more recent products of the massive migration of Ghanaians to Nigeria during the oil-boom era of the 1970s and 1980s? Probably both, but only a detailed scanning of earlier sources will provide answers.

The title is an odd one, not explained in the text, but it’s appropriate for today, given that Marie-Lucie wrote expressing concern for our situation in Western Mass., right in the path of the storm, and suggesting that I reassure my faithful readers, which I hereby do: we’re fine, with two cords of wood in the garage and a wood stove ready to cook food and heat water for us if the power goes out as it did last year (though hopefully it won’t be out for four days this time). So far we’ve just gotten a little wind and rain. She says of her own situation: “Here in Nova Scotia we will probably see just the tail end – the brunt will be in Southern Ontario and Québec and perhaps New Brunswick.” I trust all my readers in the eastern part of North America are safe and secure. Let’s all knock wood!
Update. We got lucky; a bit of wind and rain, no damage, no power loss. My best wishes to those who had it worse, and to anyone in Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) who may have suffered from the earthquake that struck there Saturday night, as iakon reminds us in the comments.


My wife and I happened to catch Sullivan’s Travels on television (a wonderful movie which I’ve seen several times before—like Preston Sturges’s other movies of the early 1940s, it never gets old) and I noticed in the credits that Harry Rosenthal was billed as “The Trombenick.” Naturally, I wanted to know what that odd-sounding word meant, and thanks to Google I quickly learned that it’s a Yiddish word (usually transliterated trombenik), according to this site meaning either “lazy person, ne’er-do-well” or “boastful loudmouth, bullshitter” and according to this one “faker; bum; ne’er-do-well.” What I’m still wondering is why Rosenthal’s character is so designated; does anybody know? And of course any further information about the Yiddish word will be appreciated.


A very nice visualization of the language communities of London, as revealed by Twitter:

English tweets (grey) dominate (unsurprisingly) and they provide crisp outlines to roads and train lines as people tweet on the move. Towards the north, more Turkish tweets (blue) appear, Arabic tweets (green) are most common around Edgware Road and there are pockets of Russian tweets (pink) in parts of central London. The geography of the French tweets (red) is perhaps most surprising as they appear to exist in high density pockets around the centre and don’t stand out in South Kensington (an area with the Institut Francais, a French High School and the French Embassy). It may be that as a proportion of tweeters in this area they are small so they don’t stand out, or it could be that there are prolific tweeters (or bots) in the highly concentrated areas.

And don’t miss Eric Fischer’s map (at the end of the post) similarly visualising the language communities of the entire world.


Peter Mountford discovered that his novel was being translated into Russian by an ill-informed and completely unauthorized party; his Atlantic account of what he found and what he did about it is interesting and very funny:

Though I was impressed by AlexanderIII’s dedication, his numerous message-board queries did not inspire much confidence in his translation abilities. At one point, he indicated that he was struggling with “white-liberal guilt.” (Me too!, I wanted to chime in.) He postulated that white liberal guilt meant: “the guilt for consuming white substance (cocaine).”

The story was also on NPR; along with an audio file, that link has a transcript, with the usual inaccuracies (“soothed” for Mountford’s “zooted”; “towing the party line”) but with some additional examples.


I’ve seen a lot of attempts to explain why it’s a bad idea to expect purity, consistency, and logic of English, but I don’t think I’ve seen a fresher or funnier one than Kory Stamper’s:

English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.
Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??
Like well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.

This is in the context of explaining to a correspondent why objecting to “irregardless” is futile; read the whole post for maximum enjoyment. (I assume many of you will agree with marc leavitt, who commented on her post to say “Of all the ill-advised concatenations conflated into words, ‘irregardless’ drives me mad, makes me maunder mindlessly at the moon, creates a crescendo of contumely, climaxing in a desire to depart from civil discourse. In a word, I despise the word, though word it is”; like Kory, I will defend to the death your right to despise that or any other word, but I hope you can bring yourself to recognize that your feelings have to do with you and not any inherent evil in the word, which is just out there frolicking and being a word. It can’t help it.)


Two more terms from Gene Wolfe’s Peace (see this post), each from one of the many stories-within-the-story (I’m a sucker for books with stories-within-the-story):
1) From a tale involving a circus, a woman with hands but no arms explains to the narrator that it’s a much easier life being a “special person” in a circus: “When you’re a special person, everybody respects you; when you’re not—I’ve seen it—you’ve got to work all the time, hustle and brag all the time, to make people see you’re not just a Monday Man, to show you’re pulling your weight with the outfit.” What’s a Monday Man? A circus glossary explains:

Monday Man ~ You would see him when you needed a change of clothes. He would provide you with clothing that was stolen off the local townsfolk’s clotheslines on wash day, which was usually Monday.

2) An imitation of a tale from the Arabian Nights begins: “Prince of fishermen, it hath come to my ears that there was once a marid, Naranj hight, who had a man to serve him. This man’s name was ben Yahya, and the marid kept him to his toil by day and by night, with never a moment without its task.” What’s a marid? At first I confused it with murid, but the OED enlightened me: “In Arabian stories and Muslim mythology: a very powerful wicked genie.” It’s from Arabic mārid, active participle of marada to rebel: “The word occurs once in the Qur’an with the sense ‘rebel’, but in later tradition denotes a fantastic being of a particular type, being represented in the popular tales as more powerful than the ʿifrīt.” The citations range from 1839 (E. W. Lane tr. Thousand & One Nights I. 72 “When the Márid heard these words of the fisherman, he said, There is no deity but God!”) to 1986 (I. Hassan Out of Egypt ii. 42 “Ginns, afrits, and marids still haunt these sites at night, calling for blood”).


I have long known, and enjoyed, the classic American slang term horsefeathers (meaning ‘nonsense,’ a euphemism for horseshit), but Gene Wolfe (see this post) has taught me another meaning, unrecorded in any of my dictionaries (including Webster’s Third New International and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang). He writes about farmhouses “with walls of logs, covered now by clapboards or horsefeathers,” and Google Books turned up plenty of hits that elucidated the sense: “Beveled wood strips called ‘horsefeathers’ are used to level up the surface” (Ernest H. Cirou, Practical Carpentry, Goodheart-Willcox, 1953, p. 148); “Feathering strips, called horsefeathers, can be used to level cedar-shingle roof” (Popular Mechanics, April 1978, p. 160); “Beveled wood strips, commonly called ‘horsefeathers,’ are obtainable — and these can be applied to even up the wall surfaces” (American Lumberman & Building Products Merchandiser, 1957, p. 302). I pass on the fruits of my research as a public service; I hope the OED will get around to covering it so we can find out how far back it goes. (They do have the sense ‘nonsense, rubbish, balderdash,’ first citation from 1928: Amer. Speech 4 98 “Mr. William De Beck, the comic-strip comedian..assumes credit for the first actual use of the word horsefeathers.”)


A couple of people have sent me this BBC News story by Sean Coughlan about a research project led by Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster; they have a device that “is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken” of ancient clay tablets”:

It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.
And the Oxford team think that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.

That last sentence is typical journalistic heavy-breathing bullshit insofar as it implies the researchers, or anyone else, are going to “understand” proto-Elamite (which, by the way, probably has nothing to do with either Linear Elamite or the Elamite language). To quote Andrew Robinson’s wonderful Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts:

Decipherment of proto-Elamite has been hampered by various factors. As already remarked, there is effectively no help available from the underlying language since we know nothing about it (unlike that of proto-cuneiform); neither are there any bilinguals. Then there is the content of the tablets—self-evidently lists and calculations as in proto-cuneiform—which warns us that the correlation between the script and the spoken language may not be an exact one (how much could we learn of a modern spoken language working only from a series of supermarket till receipts?). Furthermore, there are no lexical lists, only lists of people and objects, so far as we can tell. […] The various attempts at compiling a proto-Elamite sign list have therefore relied mainly on internal analysis of the characters.

The most that’s going to happen is that they’ll find some plausible meanings for a few more characters. But that doesn’t make for an exciting headline.
However, I did find this section of the BBC story quite interesting:

But why has this writing proved so difficult to interpret?
Dr Dahl suspects he might have part of the answer. He’s discovered that the original texts seem to contain many mistakes – and this makes it extremely tricky for anyone trying to find consistent patterns.
He believes this was not just a case of the scribes having a bad day at the office. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing.
This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years. “It’s an early example of a technology being lost,” he says.
“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless.”

Intriguing to think about, whether it’s actually true in this case or not. (Thanks, Eric and Stan!)