Archives for November 2012


Joan Acocella has a New Yorker blog post that starts: “Many of the world’s best novels have bad endings. I don’t mean that they end sadly, or on a back-to-work, all-is-forgiven note (e.g. ‘War and Peace,’ ‘The Red and the Black,’ ‘A Suitable Boy’), but that the ending is actually inartistic—a betrayal of what came before.” This is an indubitable fact, and it doesn’t only apply to books; I’ve long noticed that almost all movies go on fifteen minutes or so longer than they should. Her discussion of possible reasons is interesting. But what amuses me is that she seems to have entirely forgotten how War and Peace actually ends, which is not “when the excitable young heroine grows up and has kids and gets fat.” I complained about it at length here (scroll down to “But nothing will reconcile me to the Second Appendix”). Not that I blame her—in fact, I think the Second Appendix should be printed in such tiny type only the most hardened seekers after boredom would read it. Or just omitted entirely. Sorry, Lev Nikolaevich!


Shakespeare has Macbeth, in his “If it were done when ’tis done” speech, say “That but this blow/ Might be the be all, and the end all,” and like so many of his catchy bits, this has passed into general discourse. But in what form? Aye, there’s the rub. All the dictionaries I routinely consult—M-W, AHD, and the Concise Oxford—have it only as “be-all and end-all” (with or without hyphens), which is what I myself say, but it has come to my attention that many people omit the “and” and reverse the order, saying “end all, be all.” The reverse order has fairly hoary precedent (the OED quotes T. P. Thompson’s 1830 Exercises: “This is the end-all and be-all of the anti-liberals’ piety”), but the omission of the conjunction strikes me as odd. We still have judgment here, though it counts for nothing in the scheme of things, so I appeal to the assembled multitudes. Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and tell us what form you use, and whether you’re familiar with the Shakespearian source.


Alison Flood has a story in The Guardian reporting on what Sarah Ogilvie, “a linguist, lexicographer and former editor on the OED,” found when she was researching her book on the history of the OED: editor Robert Burchfield “covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins and bizarrely blamed previous editors.”

She undertook a detailed analysis of Burchfield’s supplement, comparing it with the 1933 supplement by Charles Onions and William Craigie. She found that, far from opening up the OED to foreign linguistic influences, Burchfield had deleted 17% of the “loanwords” and world English words that had been included by Onions, who included 45% more foreign words than Burchfield. […]
“This is really shocking. If a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. If it becomes obsolete, we put a dagger beside it, but it never leaves,” Ogilvie said.

I have used to agree with her; “shocking” is le mot juste. (Thanks, peacay!)
Update. Jesse Sheidlower sent me a link to his New Yorker blog post on this topic, and I now realize I should have been more suspicious of a newspaper report on a linguistic topic; it turns out to be much ado about nothing:

Burchfield’s task was not to revise the 1933 Supplement, which would always be available for consultation, but to produce a new work, extending the entire O.E.D., with relevant material included from the 1933 Supplement as necessary. The misunderstanding about the purpose of Burchfield’s Supplements is the source of the current controversy.

[Read more…]


I’m about halfway through Lev Loseff‘s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life (see this post), and at the moment I don’t have much to say about it other than that it’s indispensable for anyone who wants to understand how Brodsky’s poetry relates to his life and to Russian literature. But there are a couple of details on page 121 worth discussing.

The first is a minor but irritating error: in translating the first few stanzas from part V of “Post aetatem nostram,” the parenthesis in the lines “смело выступает/ с призывом Императора убрать/ (на следующей строчке) с медных денег” is transposed to the previous line, rendering it unintelligible: “boldly calls/ (next line) for the Emperor’s removal/ from our copper coins.” It should be “boldly calls/ for the Emperor’s removal/ (next line) from our copper coins,” the point being that the shock value of calling for the Emperor’s removal is greatly diminished by the discovery (in—wait for it!—the next line) that the poet is merely calling for his removal from copper coins. As Loseff says, “Here Brodsky is parodying a famous poem by Andrey Voznesensky in which the latter issues a challenge to “Remove Lenin /from [our] money!” Incidentally, one thing I like very much about the book is that Loseff, while clearly writing as a friend of Brodsky, does not take the opportunity to bash Voznesensky; it would have been easy to say “See, Brodsky took the brave path of refusal to compromise, whereas Voznesensky took the cowardly route of Aesopean parable!” But he simply says that they took different approaches, concluding the passage with “It was this clash in ethos (rather than personality) that would eventually lead to the breakdown of the friendship between Brodsky and Evtushenko, and Brodsky and Aksyonov.” I might add that in this, as in other respects, Brodsky shows an affinity with Mandelstam, who in his “Fourth Prose” (Четвертая проза) evinces an uncompromising refusal to seek the permission of the authorities: “Все произведения мировой литературы я делю на разрешенные и написанные без разрешения. Первые — это мразь, вторые — ворованный воздух.” [In Jane Gray Harris’s translation: “I divide all of world literature into authorized and unauthorized works. The former are all trash; the latter ― stolen air.”]

The other interesting point is that the “famous poem by Andrey Voznesensky” seems to be famous entirely by oral tradition, since it is not (as far as I can tell) printed in any of his collections. This guy says he’s been looking for it for years and not found it even in a 1,200-page Complete Collected Poems. In the version he quotes, the relevant bit (“уберите Ленина с денег” [‘remove Lenin from the money’]) is all on one line, which would throw cold water on Brodsky’s parody, but I found another source that shows it as three lines: уберите/ Ленина/ с денег, which would fit with Voznesensky’s usual way of laying out his poems on the page. Anyway, if anyone knows more about this poem (with its rather embarrassing Lenin-love—he wants Lenin’s image off the coins so it won’t be soiled by the dirty fingers of nasty people), by all means chime in.


I was reading Joel’s latest excerpt from Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (which sounds like a must-read—as is, of course, Joel’s blog Far Outliers) when I was taken aback by the term “harquebus.” “Isn’t it arquebus?” thought I, but on consulting M-W and AHD I discovered that the entry form indeed had the h– (which makes sense, since it’s from Middle Dutch hakebusse ‘hook gun’; busse ‘tube, box, gun’ is from Latin buxis). But then when I went to Wikipedia I found the article was Arquebus, and on checking the Concise Oxford I found that arquebus was the entry form, with harquebus given as a variant. So I’m guessing this is a US/UK divide hitherto unknown to me (not surprisingly, since there’s not much discussion of early matchlock firearms these days).
One interesting point is that, to quote the OED article (itself antiquated, dating to the 1890s; the entry is under the heading “harquebus | arquebus”), “The name … meant literally ‘hook-gun’, from the hook cast along with the piece, by which it was fastened to the ‘carriage’; but the name became generic for portable firearms generally in the 16th century, so that the type with the hook was subsequently distinguished as arquebuse à croc“—making it surely one of the earliest retronyms.


An absolutely fascinating post by David Shulman at the NYRBlog describes the discovery of a remarkably preserved dramatic tradition in South India:

Imagine a classicist who, visiting some remote Ionian valley, stumbles on an unknown, uninterrupted performance tradition of classical Greek tragedy going back to the days of Sophocles. In fact, something like this happened on a different stretch of Indian coast, in the southwestern state of Kerala, where scholars have encountered a living tradition of classical Sanskrit drama that has survived intact for more than one thousand years. It is called Kudiyattam—literally, “performing or playing together”; the name may reflect the presence on stage of one or more actors closely attuned to drummers playing the ancient, free-standing mizhavu drums, or it may point to the moment, common to many of the dramas performed, when a lone actor—who has held the audience in thrall over many nights—is joined by another.
Kudiyattam performances are never short. In their natural form, they range from twelve hours to over one hundred and fifty hours. This summer I spent all of August in central Kerala with my Sanskrit and Malayalam students, witnessing one of the great compositions of this tradition, the so-called Anguliyankam, or Drama of the Ring, which went on for some 130 hours spread over twenty-nine nights.
Kudiyattam plays, always based on classical Sanskrit texts, many of them composed in Kerala, invariably include a long nirvahanam or “retrospective” in which a character reveals, mostly by the silent language of hand- and eye-gestures, abhinaya, the long process that has brought him or her to the present moment in the play. In the course of performing this retrospective, the solitary actor frequently adopts other personae, always signaling such a transition by a coded move familiar to the spectators—usually by tying or untying the tasseled ends of a long cord that forms part of his elaborate costume of red, white, and black cloth, rich ornament with many reflecting surfaces, and a high headdress. This condensation of many voices in a single actor (called pakarnattam, “exchanging roles”) is a hallmark of the tradition and a clear innovation in relation to what we know of classical Sanskrit drama. Sanskrit verses and prose passages from the original text of the play are recited, or rather sung, always in a peculiar, high-pitched musical style that includes several distinct ragas or recitation modes; but the great bulk of the performance is devoted to the actor’s silent enactment and elaboration of such passages, to the accompaniment of the drums.

I’m tempted to go on quoting, but I’d wind up reproducing the whole thing, so I’ll send you to the link for the rest. I’m not sure I could sit through a month-long dramatic performance, but I love reading about it; the description reminds me of the aristocratic dramas of Japan and Southeast Asia (not that I know all that much about either—and yes, “Drama of the Ring” reminds us all, distractingly, of Tolkien). I wish I could share Shulman’s confidence that the tradition “simply cannot come to an end”; on the contrary, I’d bet it won’t last more than a few decades, and I hope it’s decently recorded before it vanishes. (Thanks, Eric!)


Well, actually the top ten American essays since 1950, as chosen by Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series (latest edition). Atwan says:

I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism—Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.

Some are obvious choices (Baldwin, Mailer, Sontag, Didion), some I wasn’t familiar with, but all look worth reading (and most have links for online reading), so I thought I’d share the bounty.


Whittling away the stack of review copies (see this post), here are some more language-related ones:
1) Alliteration in Culture, edited by Jonathan Roper: I apologize for the fact that I’m waxing enthusiastic about a book that Amazon is selling for $85.00 (22 new from $70.75, 10 used from $71.00!), but maybe they’ll come out with a paperback at a more reasonable price? Anyway, check out the table of contents at the publisher’s page: “Love, Silver and the Devil: Alliteration in English Place-Names,” “Dealing Dooms: Alliteration in the Old Frisian Laws,” “Alliteration in the Þrymskviða and in Chamisso’s German Translation,” “Alliteration in Iceland: From the Edda to Modern Verse and Pop Lyrics,” “Alliteration in Somali Poetry,” even “Alliteration in Sign Language Poetry”… and for our Mongolian friend read, there’s “Alliteration in Mongol Poetry,” with quotes from everything from the Secret History (qoluqat qo’oǰiǰu’u/ šilüget šiberiǰü’ü “The chicks have shed their down,/ The lambs have grown up!”) to Inǰannaši’s nineteenth-century ars poetica, Buryat proverbs, and modern poetry (Yawuuxulan’s 1977 Šüleg min’ xüleg min’ “My Verse, My Steed”). This is one of those books I didn’t know I needed until I saw it.
2) How to Read a Word, by Elizabeth Knowles: The OUP publisher’s page says it “offers clear guidance on how to explore the various aspects of words, with chapters on pronunciation, spelling, date of first use, etymology, regional distribution, and meaning, all spiced with intriguing examples. For instance, Knowles offers a fascinating account of how the word ‘scientist’ originated in a public debate in 1834… Knowles also discusses the ever-expanding range of sources available to the curious word-hunter, from general and specialist dictionaries to websites devoted to areas of language, from Project Gutenberg and Google Book Search to various online newspaper archives.”
3) Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, by Daniel Swift: “Societies and entire nations draw their identities from certain founding documents, whether charters, declarations, or manifestos. The Book of Common Prayer figures as one of the most crucial in the history of the English-speaking peoples. … In Shakespeare’s Common Prayers, Daniel Swift makes dazzling and original use of this foundational text, employing it as an entry-point into the works of England’s most celebrated writer. Though commonly neglected as a source for Shakespeare’s work, Swift persuasively and conclusively argues that the Book of Common Prayer was absolutely essential to the playwright.”


Frequent commenter Paul sent me Gary Saul Morson’s overview of Chekhov’s approach to life and literature, from which I excerpt the following list from a letter to his brother Nikolai:

In my opinion people of culture must fulfill the following conditions:
1. They respect the human personality and are therefore forbearing, gentle, courteous, and compliant.
2. They are sympathetic not only to beggars and cats. Their heart aches for things they don’t see with the naked eye.
3. They respect the property of others, and therefore pay their debts.
4. They are pure of heart and therefore fear lying like fire. They do not lie even in small matters.
5. . . . They don’t play upon the heartstrings in order to excite pity . . . because all this is striving after cheap effect, and is false.
6. They don’t occupy themselves with such imitation diamonds as acquaintances with celebrities.
7. If they have talent, they respect it.
8. They develop an aesthetic taste. They cannot bring themselves to look with unconcern at a crack in the wall with bedbugs in it, breathe foul air, walk across a floor that has been spat on. . . . They try as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct. . . . They don’t swill vodka . . . For they need to have mens sana in corpore sano.
It is not enough to have memorized a monologue from Faust. . . .
What you need is constant work, and will power.

I’m just glad he didn’t say anything about overeating, or I’d have to apologize to his shade for my excessive consumption of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy this afternoon. Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers; happy St. Cecilia’s Day to everyone else!


A couple of great Wondermark cartoons by David Malki ! (who spells his name with an exclamation point; “It’s considered an honorific, and used in the same manner as “Jr.” or “PhD”: there’s a single space before it”):
Is “pepper” something that adds pep?
I know the difference between Uralic and Altaic!
Needless to say, I find the last panel of the first one quite poignant. (Thanks, Sven!)