Archives for April 2013


A post mentions an NPR correspondent talking about someone on a bicycle “having a looky-loo”:

The show’s host remarked that he believed it was the first time in NPR’s history that the term “looky-loo” had been broadcast. It made me smile. The term is quite common here in Oklahoma where, for example, after a tornado, there is sometimes a problem with traffic from all the “looky-loos”, or people “having a looky-loo” at the damage. I’ve always kind of thought it was a regional term, but perhaps it is more widespread.

One commenter says “I’m familiar with it (born and raised in Southern California). FWIW, I’ve always thought of the term as a bit old-fashioned (in a good way), but not necessarily regional”; Dave Wilton, who runs the site, says “IIRC, DARE, which I don’t have in front of my, says it’s predominantly a Californism.” I checked Jonathon Green’s Cassell Dictionary of Slang (sadly, I no longer have access to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which I wrote about here), and it says “lookie-loo, looky-loo n. [1980s+] (US Black/campus) an inquisitive person, a peeping Tom.” I asked my wife if she knew the term, and she said she’d heard it recently but couldn’t say where, or what it meant; I don’t think I’ve ever heard it myself, though I spent years in Southern California (of course, that was decades ago). So: are you familiar with this term? If you use it yourself, do you use it to refer to the gawker or the act of gawking (“having a looky-loo”)?


I meant to post this a while back but lost track of it; ah well, better late than never. Stan at Sentence first has a post featuring a question from John Cowan directed to native speakers of Hiberno-English: which would you use, and when, of the alternatives “the head of him,” “the head on him,” and “the head to him,” and when (if ever) do you hear them spoken by others? It’s been pretty well established in the thread there that the third (“to”) version doesn’t really exist, but the others are in common use, and the personal accounts are fascinating.
[Apologies to Stan and all who saw the original version of this post, in which the third alternative was “the head at him”; it’s been a long week, and I simply miscopied the sentence in my stupor.]


An idea I tend to harp on is the irreducible messiness and variety of the human world and the importance of dealing with it by digging into the details and using a variety of perspectives rather than by trying to cram it all into a simplistic schema. For that reason I was delighted to read the opening to Chapter Two, “Language Groups and Social Organizations,” of George E. Brooks’s Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630, which I’ve had for years but am only now starting to read:

Scholars studying western Africa are challenged by conundrums involving relationships between languages, social groupings, and cultures. People in western Africa define themselves principally according to kinship and occupational affiliations and only secondarily in linguistic terms. Indeed individuals and families change their languages and modify their social and cultural patterns in ways that are often perplexing to outsiders. Individuals may change their family names to assert their affiliation with elite families (captives once adopted slavemaster names), to express client relationships, apprenticeships, or religious affiliations, and for other reasons […]. In his study of Senegambian oral traditions concerning Mande- and West Atlantic-speaking societies, Donald R. Wright remarked, “Determination of one’s ethnicity seems to have been more a matter of cultural lifestyle than of parentage or ancestry” […].

[Read more…]


New Hawaii language discovered by UH researchers:

“What we didn’t know until very recently is that Hawaiʻi is home to a second, highly endangered, language that is found nowhere else in the world,” said William O’Grady, a linguistics professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. … “Our information on Hawaii Sign Language goes back to 1800s, long before the influence of American Sign Language,” said Barbara Earth, an adjunct assistant professor at the Mānoa Department of Linguistics and one of the research team leaders.
Linda Lambrecht, an American Sign Language instructor at Kapiʻolani Community College, who was also a research team leader, inspired the study. HSL was the first language Lambrecht learned and she spoke it as child before ASL became the dominant sign language in the 1940s and 1950s. … This is the first time since the 1930s, that a previously unknown language, either spoken or signed, has been documented in the United States.

That page links to a press release with more information; anybody know what language was discovered in the ’30s?


I was trying to discover the pronunciation and, if possible, origin of the place name Korhogo (why yes, I am editing an article on West Africa, why do you ask?) when my googling took me to Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande, edited by David C. Conrad and Barbara E. Frank (Indiana University Press, 1995), and I fell in love. I’ll copy part of the section “The Dieli of Korhogo” (pp. 155 ff.), from Robert Launay’s chapter “The Dieli of Korhogo: Identity and Identification”:

It is certainly ironic that, although the debate hinges in principle on whether the Dieli language is related to Siena-re or to Manding, none of the scholars concerned is a trained linguist, nor has any linguistic evidence been cited in this literature substantiating any of the peremptory identifications which have been proffered with an air of authority. Pierre Boutin, who is a trained linguist familiar with the region, has, on the basis of word lists which he has personally collected as well as on lists collected much earlier by Louis Tauxier, expressed some skepticism about all of these assertions.[…]
There remains one last clue to their identity, a clue every bit as elusive, perhaps, as all the others: their very name, Dieli. The name is homonymous — or one might say identical — with that of the well-known “caste” of Mande bards, the jeli. Might the Dieli of Korhogo actually be descendants of the Mande jeli? Or is the resemblance between these two category labels simply one of those unfortunate linguistic coincidences that seem to breed so much idle speculation? Admittedly, both the Korhogo Dieli and the Mande jeli are among those West African populations often labeled as “castes.” On the other hand, the Mande jeli are usually associated in the scholarly literature with the occupations of music and praise singing […] However, Barbara Frank has demonstrated conclusively that the Mande jeli are, on the contrary, very frequently involved in the activity of leatherworking, and are by no means confined to the occupation of bards.

There follows a detailed discussion of the weight that should be given to patronymics, which are frequently associated with traditional occupations (“Patronymic labels can and do change in the region. Such changes are invariably justified on the grounds that one name is ‘really’ equivalent to another. In particular, Senufo patronyms have roughly standardized Mande equivalents…”). The combination of thorough research and careful detail with an understanding of the importance of linguistics (and of course that wonderful sentence about “those unfortunate linguistic coincidences that seem to breed so much idle speculation”) wowed me. But maybe it was just the one article? I checked the reviews, and Thomas A. Hale’s in Research in African Literatures 27 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 148-150, convinced me: “For anyone who teaches or does research on African literature, the insights found in this volume call for a reexamination of the classic texts from the Mande world.” Oh, and that word nyamakalaw? It’s the plural of nyamakala; the review says:

[Read more…]


I’ve just learned a term so marginal it’s not even in the newly revised M section of the OED, but useful enough to occur frequently in books about West Africa: moriman, plural morimen (sometimes written “mori man,” “mori men”). It refers to people in Sierra Leone who earn a living from writing Arabic charms for magical amulets, and of course I wanted to know its origin. Assiduous googling made it clear that mori is a Mende word for ‘Muslim’ (morimo or moremo is “Muslim/mori man”), but the only suggestion I could find about its origin is in a footnote on page 211 of The Mende Language: Containing Useful Phrases, Elementary Grammar, Short Vocabularies, Reading Materials (London: Kegan Paul, 1908) by F. W. H. Migeod (available at “Mori, corruption of Moor, means magician, or Arabic charm writer, etc.” Now, Moor goes all the way back to Latin Maurus ‘inhabitant of North Africa,’ so it’s not unthinkable (as dear Prof. Cowgill used to say) that some related form is the source of the Mende word, but I have no idea whether it’s plausible. Anybody know? And for that matter, does anybody know what kind of a name Migeod is, and how it’s pronounced?
Update. Lameen says in the comments: “One plausible etymology proposed derives it from Arabic mu’addib …, and that would fit well with the Fulani form moodibbo ‘teacher’ …. However, I would also consider deriving it from a Berber form like Tuareg əmud ‘pray’, since Islam reached the area mainly via Berbers.”
Addendum. A quote from Robert Launay and Marie Miran, “Beyond Mande mory: Islam and Ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire,” Paideuma 46 (2000), p. 66: “In its most restricted sense, the word mory (or mori) refers to an Islamic scholar, and [sic] individual whose religious learning entitles him to authority in that domain…. Much more generally, mory were all those persons who, by virtue of their hereditary membership in certain lineages, were expected to conform rigorously to Sunni standards of piety: regular prayer five times daily, fasting during the month of Ramadan, abstinence from forbidden foods and alcoholic beverages, etc.” Unfortunately, they don’t say anything about the etymology, but it’s useful to have the alternate spelling and the definition.


OK, not actually a poem but sort-of-rhymed doggerel, but David Bukszpan’s Poem So You’ll Know All 101 Two-Letter Words is fun and might even prove useful for some of you. My favorite line is the second of this couplet:

QI, Scrabble’s most popular word, is just ki spelled with a kue,
and like qat (or your cat) it doesn’t need U.

And the line most relevant to a recent LH post is “DO, like the deer, is the first tone you hum.”
Completely irrelevant, but I can’t resist sharing it: Aulus Gellius quotes Herodes Atticus as saying of a man who claimed to be a philosopher “Video barbam et pallium; philosophum nondum video” (I see a beard and a cloak; I don’t see a philosopher yet). Hence the proverb Barba non facit philosophum, “A beard does not make a philosopher.”


A couple of months ago I reviewed Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature, which I liked a great deal. Now Overlook Press has sent me her companion volume, the anthology Red Spectres, which is even more fun (and much more affordable!). The introduction has a quick overview of the historical background gone into in much more detail in Stalin’s Ghosts, but the focus is on the early twentieth century, which is when all the stories included were written (and all but two in the 1920s).
Valery Bryusov’s “In the Mirror” (1903) is essentially a nineteenth-century story (Poe would have loved it) about a woman obsessed since childhood with mirrors who winds up in a terrible struggle with her own reflection; it’s a good choice for an opener, since Bryusov was an excellent writer and it establishes a compelling mood (not to mention serving as a source for Chayanov’s “The Venetian Mirror,” virtually a parody). The Bryusov is followed by three stories by Aleksandr Chayanov, who’s much better known as an agricultural economist but who wrote five Gothic stories which he published at his own expense; I’m not as impressed by him as Maguire is—as a writer, he’s essentially an antiquarian, doing pastiches of early-nineteenth-century Gothic rather than rethinking the genre for his own grim era—but the stories are enjoyable, especially the first, “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin,” which jumps from Moscow to Kolomna to Korcheva (which was flooded for a reservoir in the 1930s—how I love drowned cities!) to various European locales and has a cheerful brio. I didn’t care for the doleful and clotted “Venediktov,” but apparently it influenced Master and Margarita (the hero is named Bulgakov, which must have struck the imagination of the greater writer), and that by itself justifies its inclusion.
Then come two stories by Bulgakov himself, and what a leap in quality: here’s a writer who can’t help but infuse whatever he writes with the terror of his time. “The Red Crown” is about a White officer going mad because he couldn’t obey his mother’s plea to save his brother’s life during the Civil War; it starts “More than anything else I hate sunlight, loud conversations and, of course, the endless thudding.” The second story, “A Seance,” is largely funny rather than grim (it starts “Ksyushka, the idiot maid, announced ‘That feller has turned up to see yer…'”), but it does involve the secret police. Both are fine examples of Bulgakov’s brilliance even in miniature forms, and they justify the existence of the book all by themselves. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Phantom” (which I described in the earlier post) is both funny and terrifying, and makes me want to read more by him. Aleksandr Grin’s “The Grey Motor Car” is a splendid example of his peculiar genius and hopefully will introduce a lot of English-speaking readers to a wonderful writer who should be as well loved as he is by Russians. The two stories by “Georgy Peskov” (actually the émigré Yelena Deisha) are effective genre pieces; only the last item in the book, “Professor Knop’s Experiment” by the completely unknown Pavel Perov, is a disappointment, the kind of mad-scientist riff that would have served as filler in Weird Tales (already in existence for a year by 1924, when the story was published in Berlin). I’m delighted to say that Maguire’s translations are uniformly excellent and that so far as I could tell there’s not a single typo, both highly impressive feats. I recommend the book warmly to anyone with the slightest interest in stories of the uncanny, in early-twentieth-century Russia, or simply in good writing.
Addendum. Maguire’s thoughts about translating the book are well worth reading.


I don’t think I’ve ever had so many people send me a single story before, and I can understand why: it’s an astonishing piece of journalism and right up my alley. Go read Eric Naiman’s “When Dickens met Dostoevsky” (TLS); it’s long, but trust me, it just keeps getting better. And it starts off pretty darn good, with Michiko Kakutani getting duped in the very first sentence. Ah, Stephanie Harvey! Ah, humanity!
Update (July 2013). See now Stephen Moss’s fascinating and sad Guardian interview with Harvey (thanks, David!).


Many years ago I visited the Topkapı Palace. As that Wikipedia article says, “The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important are accessible to the public today,” and I was frustrated by the quick march our guide was providing through that limited number of rooms, so at a convenient moment I slipped away from the group and wandered for a bit through some of the closed areas. It was amazing seeing those dusty rooms with their faded ornamentation by myself; I soon hurried back to the group, not wanting to cause distress if my absence was noticed, but ever since then I’ve slipped into reveries thinking about the experience, and wished they’d open more of the place up.

Now that I’ve finished Veltman’s Strannik [The wanderer] (see this post), I have a very similar feeling. I started my swerve back to the beginning of modern Russian literature more or less on a whim, thinking I’d dash through some stories and at least start a few novels to get a sense of what the early stuff was like before settling in to Dostoevsky, but here it is the better part of a year later and I keep devouring writers of whom I, like most aficionados of Russian literature, had barely heard, thinking “Why don’t more people read this?” After finishing Narezhny’s Rossiisky Zhilblaz (A Russian Gil Blas; see this post), I went on to read two more of his novels (Bursak [The seminary student] and Dva Ivana [The two Ivans]), and once I had a taste of Pogorelsky (see this post) I read whatever else I could find by him. But what about the writers who aren’t even available online? What about Alexander Izmailov (1779–1831), whose Evgeny, ili pagubnye posledstviya durnogo vospitaniya i soobshchestva [Eugene, or the ruinous results of bad upbringing and association] Mirsky called “a cautionary and moral story, where the author describes vice with such realistic gusto that his critics were inclined to doubt the sincerity of his moral purpose”? What about Alexander Benitsky (1781–1809), whose style (again according to Mirsky) “surpassed in elegance and lucidity everything written in Russian prose before Pushkin” and upon whose death Batyushkov wrote to Gnedich: “What wit, and now no longer with us! Aren’t you ashamed not to write a line in praise of him, not in verse but prose? Why not let people know that a certain Benitsky lived and wrote ‘The Next Day’?” [Был умен, да умеръ! А тебе не стыдно ли не написать ни строчки в его похвалу, не стихами, а прозою? Зачем не известить людей, что жил некто Беницкий и написал На другой день?] (I’ve added a Google Books clip below the cut for those who can see it.) He’s so completely forgotten I can’t find a list of his stories with dates, let alone any texts, and it’s not even clear how to spell his last name (there are comparable numbers of hits for Бенитцкий and Беницкий). It’s a striking sign of the richness of Russian literature that it can afford to forget about writers that other cultures would name avenues after.

But enough preamble; let me tell you about Strannik (online here). I mentioned Moby-Dick in my previous Veltman post (linked above), and Melville certainly comes to mind; compare the openings of the two novels. Strannik: “This sedentary, monotonous life has grown wearisome; let us go, sir! — said I one day to myself — let us go a-traveling!” [Наскучив сидячею, однообразною жизнию, поедемте, сударь! — сказал я однажды сам себе, — поедемте путешествовать!] Moby-Dick (after the famous opening sentence): “Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” And the constant detours, the apparently inconsequential interruptions and side-thoughts, these too are reminiscent of the greatest American novelist (not a considered judgment that I am prepared to defend against all comers, mind you, but it is impossible for me not to feel it after immersing myself, however briefly, in Melville’s prose)—except that both writers got this style from the fons et origo of all divagating, diverting, dissertating novelists and prestidigitators of prose, Laurence Sterne, especially his Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy. The former (see this LH post) provides the template for the personal (“sentimental”) approach to the act of traversing a landscape, the latter the focus on war and the memory of war—Shandy’s siege of Namur becomes the Wanderer’s sieges of Shumla and Varna, all of them equally obscure after the passage of a few centuries (and indeed, the War of the League of Augsburg is one of the least remembered of the early modern pan-European wars, as the War of 1828–29 is one of the least remembered of the Russo-Turkish wars). (Here he sums up the twin poles of the book: “I do not intend to devote this day either to peaceful wandering through the Universe and through events, or to military campaigns through Bulgaria. It is as fine as the first of May.” [Этот день я не намерен посвящать ни мирному странствию по Вселенной и по событиям, ни военным походам по Булгарии. Он так хорош, как 1-е маия.]) Another source is Xavier de Maistre‘s Voyage autour de ma chambre, but of course de Maistre himself is heavily indebted to Sterne.

At any rate, what am I to say of the novel now that I’ve gotten its genealogy out of the way? It’s a war memoir, a travelogue, a fantasy, a dream of fair women, with poetry and ethnography tossed in, not to mention a phrasebook with bits of Greek, Turkish, Yiddish, French, and just about every other language to be found in the surprisingly cosmopolitan towns of early-nineteenth-century Bessarabia, Moldavia, and Bulgaria. It’s definitely postmodern avant le mot. It’s funny and wistful and occasionally hints at the devastation of war without ever rubbing the reader’s nose in it. I guess the best thing to do is quote a typical passage (I’ll put the original at the end of the post). Here are a couple of chapters from the end of the second part):

Boring, boring! … no, without [my Amazons] not a step forward! I’m ready to put off the march on Shumla to the end of the third part! Oh, to accomplish great deeds, one needs patience!… angelic… diabolic… do you think? no, mine—i.e., midway between them.
How patient is he who, having satisfied thirst and hunger, feelings, mind, and heart, stretches out to rest in downy waves and, already falling asleep, feels that something is crawling on his face, but fears to move lest in frightening off the insect he should also frighten sleep from his eyes… how patient he is!
And that isn’t everything, because everything is more than the whole Universe. That is not the end, nor is it the beginning… Show me a beginning and an end in anything, and I will say: No, that is a continuation.
Such transitions can be likened to familiar transitions… No, better yet, to the familiar Mozart chord in the overture to La clemenza di Tito. It goes without saying that he who does not know the thoroughbass of human emotions cannot understand the rightness of abrupt transitions; he can understand only a simple scale… Haydn, expressing the creation of the world, first of all depicted Chaos… In everything, harmony arises from disharmony… Thoughts, opinions, speeches, deeds, all of life, everything is subject to this law.

That’s as close as he comes to a manifesto. I wish I had a physical copy of the book, so I could mark all the cross-references and allusions, but although a Russian edition is available, Amazon wants $30 for it, and I’m not willing to shell out that much. But I would like to be living in a world where Strannik was as valued as any other nineteenth-century masterpiece, and I continue to meditate on the reasons it’s not. I suspect it has a lot to do with the turn toward Seriousness and Social Responsibility that Russian literature took in the 1840s. Belinsky has much to answer for.

Скучно, скучно!.. нет, без них ни шагу вперед! готов отложить поход к Шумле хоть до конца 3-й части! О, чтоб совершать дела великие, нужно терпение!.. ангельское… дьявольское… думаете вы? нет, мое — т. е. среднее между ними.
Как терпелив тот, который, утолив жажду и голод, чувства, ум и сердце, ложится в пуховые волны и, уже засыпая, чувствует, что что-то ползет по лицу, но боится пошевелиться, протянуть руку, чтоб, спугнув насекомое, не спугнуть и усыпления с очей своих… как терпелив он!
Это еще не все, ибо все более целой Вселенной. Это не конец и не начало… Покажите мне в чем-нибудь начало и конец, я скажу: нет, это продолжение.
Подобные переходы уподобляются известным переходам… или, еще лучше, известному моцартовскому аккорду в увертюре Титова милосердие. Разумеется, что тот, кто не знает генерал-баса чувств человеческих, не может понимать правильности резких переходов; для понятий его доступна только простая гамма… Хайдн, выражая создание мира, прежде всего изобразил Хаос… Во всем стройность создается из нестройности… Мысли, мнения, речи, дела, вся жизнь, все подвержено этому закону.