Archives for November 2012


Get your mind out of the gutter—that title has nothing to do with porn, it’s wirespeak for “an analysis piece with accompanying photographs.” Read all about it at Mike Feinsilber’s Writing Easy: Unearthing a Lost Language, an explication of “the jargon that Associated Press and its erstwhile strongest competitor in those days, United Press, independently devised for internal communications. Its purpose was to save time—and money.” It’s based on what sounds like an interesting book:

In 1997, four years before his death, hurrying before all this was lost, Richard Harnett, a retired reporter and bureau manager in San Francisco for 36 years, wrote and self-published Wirespeak: Codes and Jargon of the News Business. He printed 500 copies and figured he’d be lucky to sell half of them. This blogpost draws from Harnett’s work. His book is out of print, although Amazon lists used copies at three-figure prices.
I never met Harnett, the son of a traveling dry-goods salesman in North Dakota, but I uppicked the phone and interviewed him in 1997, the year his book was published. He said these codewords were used as much for esprit as for saving words. “If you could use them, it meant you were in the know,” he said.

There’s some history and a good story or two, and a comment with further details by Paul (who frequently comments here as well and who sent me the link). Outcheck soonest!
And speaking of porn, don’t miss Maev Kennedy’s Guardian piece on the latest Bad Sex Award shortlist. In general that award tends to annoy me—it seems to me they seize on any attempt at literary writing, whether bad or not, and don’t really notice when a writer is deliberately being funny (as in the last nominee quoted, Nicholas Coleridge’s “In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might'”), but the Craig Raine quote that includes the phrase “Like a wubbering springboard” is so hilarious it justifies the existence of the award all by itself. (Thanks, Conrad!)


Sashura passed on to me the sad news that the great Russian science fiction author Boris Strugatsky died today at 79. (I link to Russian Wikipedia because for some reason he doesn’t get his own English Wikipedia article, only being allowed a share of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.) I’ve written about Strugatsky books here and here, among other places; I still have many more of them to read, but I’m already aware of how he and his brother towered above almost all writers corralled into the box labeled “sf,” and I’m sorry his heart gave out while he was still in his seventies (as my mother’s did, at 77). I hope English-language papers give him the kind of obit he deserves.


Continuing the attempt to thin the stack of review copies (see this post), I’ll continue with some language-related ones:
1) A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning, by Ray Jackendoff: The publisher says, “Jackendoff starts out by looking at languages and what the meanings of words and sentences actually do. Finding meanings to be more adaptive and complicated than they’re commonly given credit for, he is led to some basic questions: how do we perceive and act in the world? How do we talk about it? And how can the collection of neurons in the brain give rise to conscious experience? He shows that the organization of language, thought, and perception does not look much like the way we experience things, and that only a small part of what the brain does is conscious.” Sounds quite interesting; Tadeusz Zawidzki likes it a lot, tehom doesn’t.
2) The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, by James W. Pennebaker: The author’s book website says, “In English, there are fewer than 500 function words yet they account for more than half of the words we speak, hear, and read every day. By analyzing their use, we begin to learn how speakers are connecting with their audiences, their friends, their conversational topics, and themselves.” Ben Zimmer has a good, thoughtful review at the Times, which quotes Pennebaker’s “primary rule of word counting”: “Don’t trust your instincts.”
3) The Life of Slang, by Julie Coleman (who has done four monographs on the cant and slang dictionary tradition): This one sounds really tempting, and I wish I had time to dive into it. Robert McCrum has a rave at The Observer (“Rarely, since Eric Partridge, has any scholar evinced such pleasure in the vulgar tongue”), and Mark Wilson has one at The Independent (“Coleman relishes slang in all its chewy, vigorous glory, and gives a sociological insight – that context is key – which elevates it way above a dictionary of rude words”).


Noah Shachtman has a riveting Wired account of the decipherment of a centuries-old cipher and what it revealed about a forgotten secret society. It starts with a description of an eighteenth-century initiation, jumps to 1998 and a going-away present of a mysterious manuscript, then to 2011 and an Uppsala conference on computational linguistics that inspired the successful decipherment. If you like codes, you’ll love this story, and it’s hard to argue with the Oculists:

die neugierigkeit ist dem meNschlicheN geschlecht an geerbt wir wolleN offt eine sache wisseN blos des wegeN weil sie geheim gehalteN
Curiosity is the inheritance of mankind. Frequently we want to know something only because it needs to be kept secret.

(Via MetaFilter.)


Review copies have been piling up, and since other calls on my time have prevented me from immersing myself in any of them enough to do it justice, I’ve decided to do a roundup giving at least a brief description of each in time for people thinking about gifts for the holiday season (approaching with terrifying speed) to see if any of them sound appealing. I’ll start with a few Russia-related ones:
1) The Russian’s World: Life and Language, Fourth Edition, by Genevra Gerhart with Eloise M. Boyle. A couple of years ago I reviewed an earlier edition of this book; now Slavica has sent me the brand-new 2012 edition. Go read the earlier post, and all I need say is that it’s updated (including nice new photos) and its endpapers are now graced with two of the most beautiful maps I’ve seen of Russia, one political-administrative and one physical. If you know someone studying Russian, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Actually, while I’m at it, let me take this opportunity to tip my hat to Slavica for all the great books they’ve published over the years; just glancing up at my shelves I see Held’s Beginning Hittite, Hancock’s Handbook of Vlax Romani, Messing’s Greek Romany Glossary, Aronson’s Georgian: A Reading Grammar, Huld’s Basic Albanian Etymologies, Non-Slavic Languages of the USSR, and several volumes of Folia Slavica. While other publishers go haring after the quick buck and the lowest common denominator, these guys keep putting out gems. You go, Slavica!
2) It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions, by Kirill Medvedev. Keith Gessen, of n + 1 (see this 2011 post), sounded quite excited to be publishing this book when he sent me a galley copy (the publication date is next month), and I can see why—Medvedev reminds me of the angry young men of a century ago, all the acmeists/futurists/dadaists who were fed up with business as usual and trying to shake the complacent out of their complacency. I can see him at the Stray Dog in Petersburg alongside Gumilyov, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, and Mandelstam. He’s pissed off about the literary situation, in Russia and elsewhere, and is taking some drastic action (like renouncing copyright and withdrawing from literary life) in an attempt to do something about it. You can learn something about him (and watch videos of him reading at Dickinson College) here and read a couple of translations (by Gessen) here; if you like what you see, you know where to find more. I guarantee you he’s not boring.
3) The Zoo in Winter: Selected Poems, by Polina Barskova. I wrote about Barskova here; she’s a damned impressive poet, and this is your chance to read her in English, translated by Boris Dralyuk (see this post) and David Stromberg. You can read a couple of excerpts here, and see a clip of her reading here.


I should really read more August Kleinzahler; I’ve enjoyed his poems whenever I’ve run across them, and any poet who gets compared to Bunting and Pound is right up my alley. Anyway, a recent LRB has his poem “A Baroque Scot’s Excess,” which takes unholy joy in the magnificently motley vocabulary of the copious Urquhart (regarding whom see this 2008 post); I’ll quote a few stanzas, and you can read the whole thing here if the LRB link doesn’t work for non-subscribers:

Chivvied by creditors, pilloried by malison of every kind,
his noddle much modified by the liquor of grape,
he gan to unleash his word-hoard
and visit upon the worst his fullest measure of clapperclaw;
then, drawing both his oak-handled dirk and sgian dubh
from his gargantuan purse of Rhetorick,
fell about them with trope and paramologetick,
diminishing them tapinotically and by paraphrasis,
next by means of simile and cromatick,
followed hard by a sulfurous hail of scorn:
slabberdegullion druggels, freckled bittors, drawlatch hoydons,
ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, blockish grutnols, doddipol
joltheads, slutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, noddie-
peak simpletons, turdy-gut shitten shepherds
and still worse, threatening
to plunge his Roger into their packet-rackets one by one
until they set off a great pioling in the manner of pelicans.

The first obscure word in that section, malison, is a Frenchified equivalent of malediction (it’s from Old French maleiçon, from classical Latin maledictiō ‘curse’); to clapperclaw is “to claw or scratch with the open hand and nails; to beat, thrash, drub” (Shakespeare in Merry Wives of Windsor has “He will clapperclaw thee titely bully”); and tapinotically is a nonce adverb derived from Greek ταπείνωσις ‘lowness (of style).’


I wrote briefly about the The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition in this post, but limited myself to calling it (and the Times Atlas) “unbelievably gorgeous, superb products of the bookmaker’s art”; happily, Victor Mair has posted a thorough appreciation of that wonderful book at the Log. He is even more nuts about it than I am; he owns all five editions (and bought multiple copies of the latest), and writes: “I will confess that AHD, from the first edition, has always been my ‘number one’ reference work and, if I were going to be exiled to Xinjiang or Siberia or marooned on a desert island, the one book, indeed, the single belonging that I would want to take with me, would — without any hesitation whatsoever — be the AHD.” Read his post if you’re not already familiar with this great work of American lexicography.


I started to read Sarah Young’s Russian thought lecture 3: The Westernizers and concepts of the self, and decided it would be a good occasion to haul down my copy of Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers and read his “A Remarkable Decade” (about the Russian thinkers and writers of the 1840s) to get some background. I hit on a Herzen quote I like very much (on p. 126 of my copy):

We are great doctrinaires and raisonneurs. To this German capacity we add our own national . . . element, ruthless, fanatically dry: we are only too willing to cut off heads . . . With fearless step we march to the very limit, and go beyond it; never out of step with the dialectic, only with the truth . . .

Of course I wanted to see the original; I tried googling various words from it in Russian but come up dry, and I was hoping someone out there might know the source. (Also, has anyone seen Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia? Is it worth the nine hours?)


Geoffrey Pullum has a good piece at Lingua Franca that begins “How and why would an adjective meaning ‘correct’ turn into an adverb meaning (1) ‘accurately’ or (2) ‘completely’ or (3) ‘immediately’? I recently spent an hour with my class on English grammar at Brown University trying to figure that out.” It’s a nice piece of detective work and an illustration of the kinds of things linguists do, and the answer they came up with seems convincing.
(Sorry about the server problems today; certain IP addresses are apparently causing too much of a load. We are attempting to remedy the situation, but commenting ability may be iffy for awhile. Do not despair!)


This little squib from the Telegraph is basically an excuse to publicize a bunch of naughty-sounding place names (and “This is not the Soviet Union” is pure Torygraph—hey, guys, there hasn’t been a USSR for over twenty years now), but I enjoy naughty-sounding place names as much as the next language lover, and I thoroughly agree with the point about names being what the people use and not what bien-pensant betters think they should be, so I’m passing it along:

The people of Cornwall, or some of them, want to change the name of Brown Willy on Bodmin Moor, at 1,378ft, the highest point in the Duchy. The motive is to stop people sniggering. It is pointed out that in Cornish the name is Bronn Wennili, “hill of swallows”, which has pleasant associations. But can place names simply be changed? This is not the Soviet Union. Places are what people call them. If we are the first generation of adults who, like the comic book character Finbarr Saunders, see double entendres everywhere, what is to become of Great Cockup and Little Cockup in Cumbria; Crapstone, Devon; Penistone, South Yorkshire; Brokenwind, Aberdeenshire; Shitterton, Dorset; North Piddle, Worcestershire; Nether Peover, Cheshire; Slack Bottom, West Yorkshire; Pratts Bottom, Kent; and Titty Hill in West Sussex?

Thanks, Paul!