Archives for June 2013


Maria Popova had a post a year ago (I’m always the last to know!) at Brain Pickings, “Unusual Words Rendered in Bold Graphics: A visual A-Z of the hidden treasures of language.” Her introduction is a model of brevity:

As a lover of language and words, especially obscure and endangered words, I was instantly besotted with Project Twins’ visual interpretations of unusual words, originally exhibited at the MadArt Gallery Dublin during DesignWeek 2011.

The rest is all illustrations (lovely, to my eye) of obscure words (one each from A to Z); I won’t give examples, because some of you may enjoy guessing as you scroll down which word is being illustrated (I tried, but didn’t get a one), I’ll just send you over and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


I’m still reading Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms (see this post), and I’ve gotten to the chapter on the Kingdom of Aragon, where my attention was grabbed by this statement: “The people of the Vall d’Aran speak a unique language that mixes Basque and neo-Latin elements (aran means ‘valley’ in Basque).” Of course I hustled to Wikipedia, where the article can’t make up its mind whether Aranese is a dialect of Occitan (as the title suggests) or a separate language (“In 2010, it was named the third official language of the whole of Catalonia”); it doesn’t mention Basque at all, and I’m wondering whether Davies got it wrong or whether that element simply didn’t make it into the Wikipedia article. (The language/dialect is so obscure it isn’t in the An Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe, which has an article on the Basque-Icelandic pidgin discussed in this LH post.)


Sowjetrussische Vornamen: Ein Lexikon, by Herwig Kraus, looks like a very interesting book about “first names that were inspired by the communist ideology,” but at that price I’m not about to order a copy. I do have to pass on an amusing bit from the publisher’s page: “Often only specialists recognize that the name ‘Melor’ for example stands for the initials of Marx, Engels, Lenin and October Revolution. And ‘Trolebuzin’ has nothing to do with the trolleybus, but originated from the first letters of Trotsky, Lenin, Bukharin and Zinov’ev.” Thanks, Paul!


I was looking at the Wikipedia article on Barcelona when a photo in the “Education” section caught my eye; it showed a large, attractive, light-filled room and was labeled “Paranymph of the UB.” I am rarely completely thrown by an English word any more; I may want to look up the etymology or the details of the sense, but I can usually figure out the general idea, especially if it’s a transparent classical formation, as this was: Greek παρα- ‘para-‘ + νύμϕη ‘bride.’ But it clearly had nothing to do with brides. My first thought was vandalism (but who would vandalize a Wikipedia article by inserting the word “Paranymph”?); as a first step, I clicked on the photo to see the file name and discovered it was “Paranimf de la Universitat de Barcelona.jpg.” This was the vital clue; I pulled down my Catalan Dictionary (a very odd book in that it has no indication of authorship) and discovered that paraninf (pronounced /pərə’nimf/) is Catalan for “main or central hall of ceremonies [university].’ That solved the practical problem (and I changed the caption to read “Main hall of the University of Barcelona”), but left the problem of why the word had such an improbable meaning. Here the online Diccionari català was indispensable (note the different spelling of the word):

PARANIMF m.: cast. paraninfo.
1. En l’antiguitat, Padrí de noces, home que anava a cercar la núvia i l’acompanyava fins al nuvi.
2. El qui feia el discurs inaugural del curs en les universitats.
3. Sala d’actes principal en algunes universitats.
Etim.: del gr. παρανύμφιος, mat. sign.

So the meaning changed from the Ancient Greek ‘friend of the bridegroom, best man’ to ‘one who makes the inaugural speech at a university course’ (?) to ‘main hall’ (in which such a speech would be given). A lovely semantic transition, and one shared with Spanish (in which paraninfo means ‘main hall, auditorium’); a quick check suggests it did not take place in any other Romance languages (paraninfo in Portuguese means “god-father, honor guest of wedding” according to my antiquated McKay’s Modern dictionary, and in Italian it apparently means ‘matchmaker’). The OED calls English paranymph “Now rare” and has the definitions “1. At a wedding: a bridesmaid or best man. Also fig.” (last citation 1922 J. Joyce Ulysses ii. 375 “Juveniles amatory whom the odoriferous flambeaus of the paranymphs have escorted to the quadrupedal proscenium of connubial communion”) and “2. An advocate; a spokesperson or orator who speaks on behalf of someone else. Now hist. and rare” (e.g., a1722 A. Pennecuik Wks. 368 “Yet for all that splendid show, you be But paranymphs of vice and luxury”).


LH doesn’t usually cover current events, but Julia Ioffe’s TNR piece on the Snowden foofaraw has a very Hattic focus: Putin’s comment “In any case, I would not like to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig. There’s lots of squealing, and little fleece.” She writes:

What it means is that it is useless, thankless work: pigs, after all, have no fleece. It is an old, if rather obscure Russian saying that comes from a series that can be best described as “the Devil is a moron” series. The original is: “The devil sheared a pig—lots of squealing, but little fleece.” (Also: “The devil struck flint against rock, and got a shower of goblins and mermaids.”)

What especially impressed me was that “original” link to Dahl’s Пословицы русского народа [Proverbs of the Russian people], which gives the Russian “Черт стриг свинью – визгу много, а шерсти нет.” It’s not common for American general-interest media to link to Russian sources, and I applaud heartily. I also like her discussion of the fact that foreign proverbs sound funny:

I frequently run into this issue myself when, offhand, I caution an American friend about someone’s “cockroaches” (psychological issues scurrying around the recesses of a normal-seeming brain), or describe someone as a “dick descended from the mountain” (a stranger or interloper), or describe someone as a “cunt with ears” (a ridiculous, useless human), or warn them that they’ll be “biting their elbows later.” (If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it’s pretty much impossible and it is a folksy Russian way of saying “you’ll regret it.” As in, you’ll be so twisted by the coulda, shoulda, you’ll be trying, futilely, to bite your elbows.)

And she has a good discussion of “the textures—social, historical, literary—that are wound into these phrases” (“Putin loves … citing folksy idioms, and using crude, often scatalogical imagery…. The problem in Russia, however, says Maxim Kronhaus, … is that the folksy idioms are becoming less and less recognizable to the Russian public, especially the younger generations”). Read the whole thing! (Hat tip to Ben Zimmer for the link.)


I just ran across the term bocio, referring to a kind of wooden sculpture created by the Fon. Of course I wanted to know something about the word. Jeffrey H. Wallenfeldt (ed.), Africa to America: From the Middle Passage Through the 1930s, p. 71, says “empowered sculptural objects known as bo (plural bocio).” On the other hand, Laura S. Grillo, in Elias Kifon Bongmba (ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, p. 118 (citing Suzanne Preston Blier), says “literally meaning ’empowered (bo) cadaver (cio).'” This is the kind of problem you tend not to run into with European languages.


I learned a new word just now, from Theo Tait’s LRB review of two books on ghosts:

The will to ghost-belief is very strong. Clarke cites the interesting case of 50 Berkeley Square, notorious for a century as ‘the most haunted house in London’. It seems to have been lived in by a recluse for a short period. Thereafter a series of scary stories came to be associated with it: a haunted attic; an ‘evil room’; a housemaid struck dead with fright; the wraith of a sobbing child who had died in the nursery; the ghost of a betrayed woman who had thrown herself out of the window; a police notice forbidding anyone to use the upper floor. Clarke sent an email to the current resident, an antiquarian bookseller, and received the following response: ‘There are absolutely no first-hand accounts of anything at all. It’s fiction reversing into reality – similar to what folklorists call ostension.’ (Technically, I think, it’s quasi-ostension – the interpretation of real events according to folkloric or legendary templates: ostension is when people actually act out the folklore.) These fixed units of ghostly narrative seem to circulate endlessly – the body in the basement, the white lady, the hooded monk – just waiting for a suitable place to take up residence: often the same story concerning Anne Boleyn or the headless horseman or whoever will be found in various locations. And fiction constantly gives the ghost-seers new material. For instance, belief in spirit possession had all but died out in America before The Exorcist came out; now it’s widespread. As the ghost-hunter Harry Price put it: ‘People don’t want the debunk, they want the bunk.’

(Great quote in the last line!) The OED entry for ostension, though updated as of September 2004, does not include this sense; they have only “The action of showing, exhibiting, or making manifest[…] (Now rare)” and “Christian Church. The showing of the consecrated elements to the congregation at the Eucharist; (also) a similar display of some other object of veneration. Now rare (hist.).”

[Read more…]


This is great news:

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies announced the official launch of the Doha Historical Dictionary of the Arabic Language, on May 25, 2013, following two years of extensive preparation by a select group of linguistic experts, lexicographers, and computational scientists from a variety of Arab countries. […]
During the meeting, they also announced the launching of a temporary website for the lexicon, hosted on the ACRPS domain for the time being[…]
The new dictionary, which will chronicle the history of Arabic terms over 2,000 years, is projected to take 15 years until completion, with achievement highlights being presented every three years. The dictionary hopes to make possible the facilitation of research on Arab intellectual legacy through the work it uncovers. As a comprehensive electronic corpus, the dictionary will be able to assist a number of projects related to machine language in Arabic, including machine translation and automated spelling and grammar checkers. A number of specialist lexicons will also be published as auxiliaries to the main project, including dedicated works on scientific terms, terms related to the study of civilization, a complete dictionary of contemporary Arabic, and educational dictionaries.

I’ve been complaining about this lack since 2004, and I’m thrilled it’s being dealt with. (Of course, “15 years until completion” is pure fantasy, but let’s not tell them that…) Hat tip to Paul Ogden, who has provided me with so many great links!


Chris Santella’s story in today’s NY Times on salmon fishing in northern Russia begins “My fly skittered across the current in front of our jet boat on the Lower Tomba beat of Russia’s Ponoi River, darting erratically as the tension on my line increased.” I know nothing about fishing, but it was obvious from context that “beat” meant a stretch of river; no dictionary I have access to, however, has such a definition. Of course there’s the general sense “area of activity,” like a policeman’s beat, but the closest I can get to this specific usage is “A tract over which a sportsman ranges in pursuit of game” (OED, sample citation 1884 Weekly Times 29 Aug. 14/4 “On the first day’s beat he saw one brace of barren birds”), “a tract with more or less definite bounds over which sportsmen customarily range for game” (Webster’s New International). Does anybody know whether this is a commonly used term in angling, with rivers divided into named “beats,” or just an occasional extension of the general sense? If the former, lexicographers should take notice of it.


I’ve always loved this famous sentence from the Communist Manifesto, translated by Samuel Moore (under Engels’s supervision) for the 1888 English edition: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” The first seven words were used by Marshall Berman for the title of his superb book All That Is Solid Melts into Air (see this LH post), and it’s hard to imagine a different rendering. And yet it’s a very loose translation of the German, which reads “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen.” The first bit, “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft,” literally means “Everything related to the traditional estates, [everything] stationary/stagnant, evaporates,” but how do you say that in English without putting the reader to sleep? The LRB has an excellent letter (in response to this review) on the subject in the 6 June 2013 issue:

Richard J. Evans’s comment on Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to find a better translation of Marx’s phrase ‘Alles ständische und stehende verdampft,’ usually rendered ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ pinpoints a particular difficulty in translating the German term Stand (LRB, 23 May). Sperber’s preferred version – ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate’ – is, well, frankly hideous. On the other hand it is a lot more accurate than the elegant version it seeks to replace. The words Stand and its adjective ständisch have been variously translated as ‘status’, ‘estate’, ‘estate-type’ and now here as ‘a society of orders’. None of these captures what Marx is talking about here, which is inequality organised on a basis other than class or market. For Marx the problem of the emancipation of the Jews was that it would ‘free’ them only to enter an unequal, class-based world and, in so doing, would dissolve what was distinctive in a Jewish way of life, whatever value you might place on that. Even more than Marx, Max Weber contrasted status-based (ständisch) inequality with market-based divisions. A status group (Stand) has a distinctive way of life, which is regarded in a particular way, and is reflected in legal provisions and even in clothes or diet. An example in our contemporary world might be children: we think of them as fully human yet somehow as a different order of beings from adults, with a different legal position and different preoccupations. To some degree, gender divisions too are ständische differences. For both Marx and Weber what mattered was that the sweeping away of the old order – the ancien regime of, er, ‘social orders’ – is at first experienced as emancipation, only for the reality to dawn that what replaces it are different forms of exploitation and oppression and new social identities grounded solely in market position: in buying or selling labour-power. The German term Stand is first cousin to the English word ‘standing’, and both Marx’s and Weber’s point was that modernity erodes all identities, honour and relationships in the acid of commercial exchange, leaving few of us really happy with where we stand.
Jem Thomas

Russian is not only lucky enough to have a corresponding adjective сословный [soslovnyi] meaning ‘of or pertaining to сословие [soslovie],” where сословие is ‘estate’ in the old-fashioned sense of Stand (nobility, clergy, etc.), but lucky enough to have a phrase сословное и застойное [soslovnoe i zastoinoe] that chimes almost as nicely as the German “Ständische und Stehende” which it translates; the full sentence is “Все сословное и застойное исчезает, все священное оскверняется, и люди приходят, наконец, к необходимости взглянуть трезвыми глазами на свое жизненное положение и свои взаимные отношения.” But since English cannot provide a literal translation that is not hideous, I’m grateful we have the option of the lovely and suggestive “All that is solid melts into air.”