Archives for January 2013


I’m now reading Mikhail Zagoskin‘s very enjoyable 1829 novel Yury Miloslavsky, an imitation of Walter Scott that was immediately and widely popular, and I’ve gotten to the point where the Cossack hero Kirsha (a diminutive of Kirill) is telling a gaping crowd of provincials about his adventures among the basurmany (Muslims). They ask him if it was far away, and he says “Далеконько… за Хвалынским морем” [Pretty far… beyond the Khvalyn Sea]. Since he goes on to clarify that it was “beyond Astrakhan,” I figured it must be the Caspian, but where was the name from? Vasmer explained: Хвалисское [Khvalisskoe] and its variants Хвалимское [Khvalimkoe], Хвалижское [Khvalizhskoe], and Хвалынское [Khvalynskoe] are from Middle Persian XvārēzmKhwarezm.’ This gave me one of those joyous bursts of etymological surprise that I can’t resist passing on.
Kirsha goes on to say that although in those far-off lands there is gold and silver aplenty, God has stinted them when it comes to winter [Зимой только бог их обидел]: it doesn’t snow, and the water doesn’t freeze. The bailiff (prikazchik) says “No winter at all! Truly a punishment from God—but they deserve it, the basurmany!” [Вовсе нет зимы! Подлинно божье наказанье! Да поделом им, басурманам!]. Russians do love their winter.
Addendum. A little farther on, Zagoskin describes the terem (women’s quarters) in the house of an unpleasant noble; one of the items he mentions is дорогие монисты из крупных бурмитских зерен ‘expensive necklaces made of large burmitskikh pearls.’ The word бурмицкий [burmitskii] wasn’t in any of my Russian-English dictionaries, but it was in Vasmer, who explains that an earlier form is гурмицкий [gurmitskii] and that it’s from the name of Hormuz—in other words, another Russian word with an unexpected Iranian-place-name etymology!


I was listening to William H. Macy being interviewed about his TV show Shameless, and he said the writers kept finding ways to throw his character off kilter, the actor’s job being to put the character back… and here he paused (giving me a moment of breathless anticipation: how would he finish this?) and said “back on kilter.” I was amused by the tangle he’d gotten himself into, and of course I wondered what a kilter was originally and how the saying developed. Well, it turns out nobody knows; M-W, AHD, and the Concise Oxford all say the etymology is unknown. The OED (in an article unrevised from 1901) doesn’t add any etymological information, or even guesses, but it surprised me by being under the headword kelter | kilter, saying “Widely diffused in English dialect from Northumbria and Cumberland to Cornwall, and occasional in literature. More frequent in U.S. (in form kilter).” However, the Concise Oxford has it under kilter and doesn’t mention a form kelter, so I guess the latter has either disappeared or retreated into deep dialectal cover.
Also, it goes back a lot further than I expected (the first citation has the modern/U.S. spelling, the next few are with -e-):
1628 W. Bradford Hist. Plymouth Plantation in Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1856) 4th Ser. III. 235 Ye very sight of one [sc. a gun] (though out of kilter) was a terrour unto them.
1643 R. Williams Key into Lang. Amer. 177 Their Gunnes they..often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter.
1674 J. Ray S. & E. Countrey Words in Coll. Eng. Words 69 Kelter or Kilter, Frame, order.
a1677 I. Barrow Serm. Several Occasions (1678) 201 If the organs of Prayer are out of kelter, or out of tune, how can we pray?


A very interesting post at Memiyawanzi sketches an ingenious etymology for Greek ἔρως ‘love, desire’ proposed by Michael Weiss in his article “Erotica: On the Prehistory of Greek Desire” (Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 98 [1998]: 31-61; Weiss also etymologizes πόθος and ἵμερος). This basic word has never had a satisfactory etymology; Frisk says “ohne Etymologie” and Chantraine “inconnue,” and “[r]egrettably Weiss’s proposal is also overlooked in the newest (2010) Etymological Dictionary of Greek by Robert Beekes (s.v. ἔραμαι) as well.” Weiss proposes a hypothetical Indo-European root *h₁erh₂– meaning ‘divide,’ represented also by “Hittite arḫāš ‘border’ (Cuneiform Luwian irḫa-, Hieroglyphic Luwian irha-), Latin ōra ’border, brim, edge, margin’, Old Irish or ‘border’ all as nominal reflexes, and Lithuanian ìrti as a primary verb.” Go to Memiyawanzi for more on the semantics (and a long quote from Anne Carson), and of course to Weiss’s article for the details (you know you can get free access to JSTOR now, right?); in my rusty-ex-Indo-Europeanist opinion, the etymology makes sense and is a pleasing step forward in a field that sometimes seems dusty and almost stationary.
Addendum. I completely forgot that I had meant to link to the previous post as well: Cypro-Minoan Birthday Cake!


A Financial Times piece by Michael Skapinker, “Thank America for saving our language” (if that link takes you to a registration page, paste the title into Google and get to it that way), takes a refreshingly unusual tack on the clichéd subject of UK-US linguistic differences: they don’t amount to much. He says “this year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most illuminating [discussions of the relationship] – between Albert Marckwardt of Princeton University and Randolph Quirk of University College London”:

They do not dwell on the differences. Their principal point is how similar the two versions are. The grammars are almost identical. One of the few differences is the American “gotten”, but even that turns out to be only half a difference. Americans use it only when they mean “acquired” – “we’ve gotten a new car” – and use the same form as the British when they mean “possess” or “obliged to” – “I’ve got a pen” or “I’ve got to write a letter”. Occasional differences of vocabulary apart, UK and US English are mutually entirely comprehensible – and the two professors remarked on how extraordinary that was.
The first permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, was in 1607, when Shakespeare was still alive. Think how much English has changed. Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice that the quality of mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain”. Both British and Americans altered -eth to -s (“drops”) and spent four centuries making their grammatical and linguistic changes together.
It didn’t have to be that way. The 17th century Dutch settlers in South Africa ended up speaking Afrikaans, a substantially different language.
Noah Webster predicted a similar fate for American English, which would one day be “as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German”.

That didn’t happen, of course, and he concludes: “the US still speaks our language – and we non-American English-speakers should be grateful.” (Thanks, Paul!)


In the course of editing an article on Aulus Gellius (who sounds like an interesting fellow I should investigate further), I came across this quote from the remarkable scholar and editor Leofranc Holford-Strevens (“Aulus Gellius,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 211: Ancient Roman Writers, p. 33): “Aware that in the wrong hands the use of archaic words often creates obscurity, Gellius relates in 1.10 that Favorinus rebuked a young man who affected obsolete usages because he admired antiquity for its moral excellence: he should live by ancient morals but use present-day words.” I’ve put Gellius’s Latin below the cut for those who can read it.
Incidentally, Gellius also has the distinction of an oddly nativized French name, Aulu-Gelle. As I pointed out to Marie-Lucie in an e-mail, “all other people named Aulus Something-or-other keep Aulus in French (Aulus Plautius, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, etc. etc.)”; she replied, “perhaps when saying the name the scholars first said Aulus-Gelle as one word, adapting the end only (as with single names like Antoine, Apulée, Pétrone, Térence) but soon the -s was lost before consonants by a regular French rule, hence the pronunciation Aulu-Gelle reflected in the spelling. Others named Aulus X were probably less well-known and came into French texts later, at a time when Latin names were preserved as such if they didn’t already have a French form.” Makes sense to me.

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If there’s one thing I love in literary criticism, it’s a book that shows me a kind of writing I’m interested in from a completely new perspective, one that would never have occurred to me, and makes me see works and authors I already know in a new light while introducing me to others I’ve never heard of. Such a book is Muireann Maguire‘s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature, which the publisher, Peter Lang, was kind enough to send me. (That Amazon page lists the price as $5,398.35, which seems excessive even for a specialist item; the publisher’s page for the book shows a slightly more reasonable $73.95, €56.45, or £45.00.) Now, I’ve never read Gothic fiction at all—not The Castle of Otranto, not The Mysteries of Udolpho, not even Dracula (though I have of course seen more than one filmed version). In my sf-reading youth I despised anything with ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, and since then, although I’ve found myself reading and enjoying things I thought were as beyond me as brussels sprouts and ballet (Proust, for example), I’ve never gotten around to trying that particular genre. Now Maguire has shown me that the anti-realist impulses that power it underlie much of Russian literature, even though the typical stage props (ghosts, vampires) are rare. She writes, “The centrality of the Gothic-fantastic to Russian fiction is almost impossible to exaggerate, and certainly exceptional in the context of world literature,” and she backs it up.
Though she takes the story back to the early nineteenth century and forward to current writers like Petr Aleshkovsky and Dmitri Bykov, her main focus is (as the subtitle suggests) on the 1920s and ’30s. She spends a good deal of time on well-known masterworks like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Platonov’s Kotlovan, making me want to reread them with these affiliations in mind, but she also goes into detail about lesser-known writers like Alexander Belyayev and Marietta Shaginyan and Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky and largely forgotten ones like Pyotr Krasnov and Nikolai Ognev (obscure enough that he doesn’t have an English Wikipedia page), not to mention Pavel Perov, so obscure his death date isn’t known. She also discusses the unjustifiably neglected early-nineteenth-century writer Antony Pogorelsky, whose Hoffmannesque stories I happened to be reading at the time (see this recent post), which was a nice bit of synchronicity. And in describing a Krzhizhanovsky story called Фантом [Fantom], or “Phantom,” she taught me an unusual sense of both the English and Russian words: “Med. A model of the body or of a body part or organ, esp. one used to demonstrate the progression of the fetus through the birth canal” (OED). (The story is about one such phantom that comes alive and persecutes its creator—brr!) It was such an absorbing read I was sorry it was over, and I’m very much looking forward to the companion book of short stories, Red Spectres, which is even now on its way to me. (I might add that there are amazingly few typos for a 350-page book with lots of passages in Russian; well done, Peter Lang!)


I’ve gotten the following request:

I am looking for Latin reading material I could reasonably give to a curious high-school student. My brother has been taught Latin for the past 4-5 years and he wants to try some “natural” Latin for fun. He’s not interested in the classics of antiquity, but does like reading about the European Renaissance. Realizing that Renaissance Latin is not exactly what students learn in high school, I’d like to find something that’s both COOL and that he can also try to make some actual headway into. My first instinct was a work by Paracelsus or even Kepler’s Somnium. However, I can’t read Latin of any variety and my knowledge of these and similar authors is minimal. Can you think of something you could recommend in this situation? We’re mainly looking for primary documents (i.e., not Hobbitus Ille), preferably in the physical sciences, rather than history or literature. Tractates, manuals, and thesauri are all good.

I, alas, am unable to help, my Latinity being as exiguous and little employed as it is, but I’m sure some of my readers will have recommendations. Fire away!


The always lively Ozwords (“For the dinkum oil on Australian English”) has a post by Julia Robinson on the centennial of children’s author May Gibbs and the popularity of the characters she created, which “has also left its mark on Australian English.” I was particularly struck by the “Banksia Men” who serve as villains; even though I never read the books, just seeing that illustration makes the cone of the Banksia look evil.

The idea of the banksia man as bogey still resonates in adult life: ‘Is “globalisation” the cause of many of the world’s economic troubles, or has it merely become the big, bad Banksia man of our era?’ (Australian Financial Review, 1 September 2001)

If you go to the Ozwords post, you will also learn (if you do not already know) about the gumnut twins Bib and Bub; “the similarity of their names and appearance has given us a way of referring to a pair of people or things who are inseparable or virtually indistinguishable.”


Foras na Gaeilge has just launched its new English-Irish dictionary, Focló “Our aim is to provide comprehensive coverage for every entry, illustrated with examples to give context to the Irish equivalents. As well as translations for the English content, the dictionary also contains sound files and grammatical information.” Those sound files provide Connacht, Munster and Ulster pronunciations of each Irish word, which is so wonderful I can barely believe it. A caveat: “The dictionary is being published on a phased basis, and the full content won’t be online until end-2014. The entries published in January 2013 consist of approximately 30% of the eventual content, however this range covers approximately 80% of general English usage.” But what’s there is very useful, and it’s well worth bookmarking. (Hat tip to Stan Carey.)


Lucy Ferriss at Lingua Franca has a post that made me as intensely nostalgic as yesterday’s Taiwan one, bringing back my late-’60s college days:

I began buttonholing friends and acquaintances. “Picture,” I told them, “a friend who is generally stoned. I say that he’s brought a lid over to my dorm room. What has he brought?”
Men and women born between 1950 and 1958, I found in this completely anecdotal survey, knew immediately that I was talking about four fingers’ worth of marijuana in a plastic bag. Those born before or after those dates (allowing for a bit of regional variation) had no idea what I was talking about. My copy editor, obviously, was a young person.
Slang references give a wide variety of definitions for the pot-related use of lid. Some designate it as an ounce of weed, others as 1/4 or 1/8 ounce. The source may be the lid of a Hellman’s mayonnaise jar, the lid of a Prince Albert tobacco can—in both cases, the amount of marijuana is enough to fill the lid—or, strangely, the finger-shape created by unrolling the lid of a coffee can with its custom key. One source refers to the fold of a sandwich Baggie as its “lid,” suggesting that the bag would be filled to that point. All these so-called authorities agree that the term arose in the 1960s and disappeared by the mid-1970s.
What puzzled me, as I wrestled with the sentence highlighted by my copy editor, was that when we were using the term, there seemed to be no alternative term.[…] [After quoting one theory:] If others have a different story for the rapid, widespread rise of the term lid in the mid-60s and its equally rapid and complete disappearance in the mid-70s, I’d be delighted to hear it.

Decades later, I discover a generational shibboleth I never knew existed!