Archives for June 2013


It is with a heavy heart that I pass on this link, in which Anne Curzan reports that many of her students think “a sight for sore eyes” is a negative expression:

I have polled several classes since. In each, while more than half the undergraduates welcome a sight for sore eyes, a significant percentage uses the phrase to refer to something (or someone) that is a mess, ugly, disgusting, or otherwise capable of making the eyes unhappy. I recently asked some folks under 15, and, while I will admit there were only six of them, all six of them believed “sight for sore eyes” was negative, not in any way a compliment or a welcome sight. […]
When I’ve told people about this change in meaning for the idiom, the most common reaction has been: “But that doesn’t make any sense.” And with this comment, they dismiss younger speakers’ reinterpretation of the idiom.
I would not be so quick to dismiss it. First, idioms don’t have to make sense. By definition, idioms have a distinctive meaning that cannot be inferred solely from the meanings of the words in the expression. Think about “a can of worms” or “beat around the bush”—the latter of which has shifted semantically from its origin: beating around the bush was how hunters got the birds to fly out, which was the goal; the goal was not to beat the bush itself (in other words, beating around the bush was a preliminary activity, not an avoidance strategy).
Second, it is easy to see how younger speakers got to this meaning—that is, I’m not sure it “makes no sense.” They are just reinterpreting how the word “for” functions in the phrase: it is a sight that creates sore eyes, just as a phrase like “a pen for calligraphy” is a pen that is used to create calligraphy.

She is, of course, absolutely correct, and the descriptivist half of me nods vigorously in agreement. The other half is running around in circles bellowing in fear and loathing, but I know from experience that after a while it will run out of energy, lie down and pant a while, and then get on with life, wincing only occasionally.


R.L.G. at The Economist‘s “Johnson” blog has a post on an interesting subject that hadn’t occurred to me:

On Twitter, a friend asked “Twenty years from now, how many Chinese words will be common parlance in English?” I replied that we’ve already had 35 years since Deng Xiaoping began opening China’s economy, resulting in its stratospheric rise—but almost no recent Chinese borrowings in English.
Many purported experts are willing to explain China to curious (and anxious) westerners. And yet I can’t think of even one Chinese word or phrase that has become “common parlance in English” recently.

He mentions guanxi, “the personal connections and relationships critical to getting things done in China,” as “the only word that comes close,” but I agree with him that it doesn’t come very close at all. He tosses out the idea that “perhaps China’s rise is simply too new, and we just need another 20 years or so,” and that’s certainly a possibility; it’s hard to argue with his conclusion: “Whether future Chinese borrowings will be new edibles, cultural items or even philosophical terms will depend on China’s development and how the West responds.” At any rate, something to think about. (The “Featured comment” by tacitus secundus points out that “The disinclination to borrow is reciprocal: By comparison with the many thousands of English words found in Japanese, Chinese has relatively few English loan-words.”)


Richard Stanihurst (1547–1618) was born in Dublin of what began to be called in his day Old English stock (“the descendants of the settlers who came to Ireland from Wales, Normandy, and England after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169–71”), and as Andrew Hadfield writes in his TLS review of Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, edited by John Barry and Hiram Morgan, “he poured scorn on both the – as he saw them – barbarous native Irish, and the vulgar and rapacious New English who were replacing the Old English descendants of the Anglo-Normans as rulers of Ireland loyal to the English Crown.” I had to laugh when I got to this section of the review:

In a striking aside, Stanihurst repeats his judgements about English identity in Holinshed, accentuating the gap between Irish and English – “Those who live in the English province differ from the Irish in their way of life, their customs and their speech: they deviate not one finger’s breadth from the ancient ways of the English” – before turning on the mores of the English today. The English in Ireland speak the language of Chaucer, “beyond doubt the Homer of the English”, so that they use “English in such a way that you would not believe that England itself was more English”. Chaucer is the right model because “Nothing in his writings will strike the reader as being redolent of disgusting newness”, a nice dig at the moderns.

(If you want to see the passage in Latin, go to p. 28 of the Google Books version, or search on “Homerus.”) Peevers today look back on Shakespeare as the exemplar of English at its peak, but in Shakespeare’s time they looked back to Chaucer.
I was also struck by this description of the book under review, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis: “Written in chatty, familiar Latin, and peppered with anecdotes and asides, De Rebus was designed to provide its author with an entrance to the republic of letters dominated by Erasmus and harking back to Cicero.” It chimed with this, from Richard Jenkyns’s review, earlier in the same issue of TLS, of Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Golden Ass: “Apuleius … liked loosely hanging clauses, symmetries, echoing phrases, rocking rhythms and hints of rhyme. At the start of The Golden Ass, the narrator claims to be a Greek who has learned Latin only in adulthood: that is why his lingo may seem eccentric. And indeed it is a unique farrago of archaisms, colloquialisms, coinages and sheer fantastication, combining a driving energy with elusive beauty.” And both those descriptions reminded me of the early-nineteenth-century Russian novelists I’ve been reading, more concerned with having fun with language and storytelling than satisfying anyone’s idea of classical form.


I wrote to Boris Dralyuk asking him about the Russian phrase пятый угол [pyaty ugol] ‘fifth corner,’ which Brodsky uses in a couple of poems in a way that was opaque to me (in “Кентавры” “спрятавшись в пятый угол” ‘hidden in the fifth corner,’ and in “Элегия” “заштриховывать пятый угол” ‘to shade the fifth corner’); his explanation was so surprising and enlightening I thought I’d share it here, since other lovers of Russian will probably have as much difficulty finding references to it in books or online as I did:

The “fifth corner” is a cruel children’s game, in which bullies push a younger student around the four corners of a classroom until he “finds the fifth corner”; police took this up, and would offer a suspect the chance to escape the interrogation if he were to “find the fifth corner.” In the broader metaphorical sense, it signifies the desperate, foolhardy attempt to escape one’s fate — a pipe dream.

The things they don’t tell you in Russian class!
Incidentally, Boris was in the UK for the Translators’ Coven in Oxford and various Poetry Week events in London; I wish I could have been there, and I look forward to Lizok‘s report.


In another of those random moments of curiosity, it occurred to me to wonder where the expression “nest egg” came from. As you can see from the various lexicographical sources collected at TheFreeDictionary, it literally means “An artificial or natural egg placed in a nest to induce a bird to continue to lay eggs in that place.” The OED has the first citation from 1579 (J. Stubbs Discouerie Gaping Gulf sig. B5, “The church of Christ rased, the very nest egge broken, as farr as mens mischeeuous reasonable wit cold reach”) and gives the first figurative sense as “A sum of money laid or set by as a reserve” (1686 Let. 4 May in B. Rand Locke & Clarke 164 “The rest, I perceive, he is not troubled should remain as a nest egg till a farther occasion”; 1990 Internat. Business Week 2 Apr. 31/3 “Increasing numbers of seniors enjoying the fruits of private pensions, as well as nest eggs built up during the high-growth years”), with the sense “A sum of money serving as a nucleus for the acquisition of more” only from 1801 (R. B. Sheridan Let. Jan. II. 147 “Burgess has only the nest egg of my Quaker £100”)—which is odd, since it would seem to be the obvious extension of the literal sense.
My ancient Oxford French Dictionary gives the literal nichet for “nest egg”; my more recent Collins-Robert gives only the figurative pécule. The Russian word подкладень (podkladen’, stress on the first syllable) seems to have been forgotten since Dahl’s day, but then I expect the practice of putting such fake eggs in nests has long fallen into desuetude as well.


I have occasionally run across the word majolica but never had anything but the vaguest idea of its meaning (some kind of porcelain?); now, having run across it again in Abulafia’s The Great Sea, I’ve looked it up again and discovered that there are two words, or two variants of one word, with two slightly different meanings, neither of which I’ll remember five minutes after I post this, but I’ll pass it along for the general enlightenment and/or confusion. Merriam-Webster says:

ma·jol·i·ca \mə-ˈjä-li-kə\ also ma·iol·i·ca \mə-ˈyä-li-kə\ [Italian maiolica, from Old Italian Maiolica, Maiorica Majorca] 1 : earthenware covered with an opaque tin glaze and decorated on the glaze before firing; esp : an Italian ware of this kind 2 : a 19th century earthenware modeled in naturalistic shapes and glazed in lively colors

I must have known at some point that the word was from the name of the island Majorca, but I’d forgotten. The interesting thing is that the OED (in an entry updated in 2000) gives both pronunciations (in their system, /məˈdʒɒlᵻkə/ and /məˈjɒlᵻkə/) for the entry majolica, which seems bizarre; the first definition is “= maiolica n.” [“A fine kind of Renaissance Italian earthenware with coloured decoration on an opaque white tin glaze; (more generally) any tin-glazed earthenware in the same stylistic tradition, esp. Hispano-Moresque lustreware. Also: any of various other kinds of glazed and ornamented Italian ware (also called faience and Raphael ware)”] and the main definition of this spelling (sense 3) is “A type of 19th-cent. earthenware with coloured decoration on an opaque white tin (or sometimes lead) glaze, of vaguely Renaissance inspiration; (also) the technique of painting on to unfired opaque white glaze.” The etymology gives the following mind-boggling detail about spelling and pronunciation (bear in mind that their /j/ represents the y sound):

[Read more…]


An e-mail from Nick Jainschigg pointed me to this page (“5 Huge Mistakes Nobody Noticed for a Shockingly Long Time,” by Evan V. Symon for; it was headed “#1,” which sent me down the page to “#1. Scholars Mistake Random Cracks in a Rock for an Epic Poem”:

In the 12th century, a rock bearing what appeared to be slowly fading runic symbols was discovered in Blekinge, Sweden, because ancient Norsemen just wrote shit down wherever they could. The king of Denmark sent a team of skilled translators to figure out what it said, but they were all stumped, claiming that the Runamo Inscription (as it would come to be called) was written in a form of Viking that was just too obscure for them to read. The actual reason they were unable to decipher the inscription is because it isn’t an inscription at all — it’s just a bunch of random fissures in the surface of the rock.
[…]Then, in the early 1800s, an Icelandic scholar named Finnur Magnusson, who would eventually become famous for habitually identifying meaningless naturally occurring bullshit as authentic runic writing, translated the Runamo Inscription as an epic poem about warrior chieftain Harald Wartooth defeating the Swedish king in the eighth century. This was a potentially huge discovery, because at the time little was known about the famous battle, and the rock would serve as a genuine historical record. … Sweden sent its own scientists to verify Magnusson’s story, which they determined to be categorically false, much to the chagrin of hopeful historians and terrible Icelandic rune experts everywhere.

Not only was this amusing for its own sake, it immediately explained where Osip Senkovsky got the inspiration for the long Bear Island section of “The fantastic journeys of Baron Brambeus” that I described here; what I didn’t mention in that post is that the long hieroglyphic cave inscription Brambeus and his pal deciphered turned out to be natural outgrowths on the rock faces that they had mistaken for writing. Ripped from the headlines!


This came up in a comment thread a while back, but I just reread it and decided it was so good it deserved its own post: Richard Lourie, writing in the NY Times a couple of decades ago, reviewed several translations of Crime and Punishment, and it’s probably the best such thing I’ve seen in an American newspaper. He starts out with the astonishing information that the Dostoevsky book “strengthened my resolve to be a writer and inspired me to learn Russian so I could read the novel in the original. Finally, some 30 years later, in order to review these two new translations, I read it in Russian and was back in that world of dark staircases and ax murders.” A reviewer of Russian literature who reads Russian, and read a novel in Russian in order to review translations: be still my beating heart! And in reviewing David McDuff and the Pevear/Volokhonsky team, he favors the former but comes down on the side of the often, and unfairly, despised Constance Garnett, which gave me intense pleasure. Here are a few paragraphs to give you an idea, but the whole thing is well worth your while:

Later on, Raskolnikov is revolted by his crime, though more by its banality than its criminality. In one of those self-lacerating torrents of consciousness that are a Dostoyevsky specialty, Raskolnikov exclaims: “Oh, the vulgarity of it! Oh, the baseness!” — if we are to believe Mr. McDuff — or “Oh, triteness! Oh, meanness!” if we are to credit Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky. I cannot imagine a Russian murderer thinking: “Oh, triteness! Oh, meanness!” I cannot imagine anyone thinking it, for that matter. This sort of rendering betrays a lack of skill, ear and editor.
The word the translators have rendered as either “vulgarity” or “triteness” is “poshlost” in Russian, a word so rich that Vladimir Nabokov devoted 12 pages to it in his 155-page biography of Nikolai Gogol. In essence, “poshlost” denotes spiritual tackiness; it pains Raskolnikov more that he has proved to be mediocre, banal, even vulgar, than that he has taken life. Mr. McDuff’s “Oh, the vulgarity of it! Oh, the baseness!” is certainly better than the Pevear-Volokhonsky version, but the two “Ohs” and the word “baseness” lend the line too antique a coloration.
Oddly enough, Garnett, translating in an era when “Ohs,” one assumes, seemed less dated, chooses a different syntax entirely, one that is itself exclamation without first signaling that it is such. She says: “The vulgarity! The abjectness!” This also has the value of being concise. The other word Dostoyevsky used, engaging in a little alliteration, was “podlost,” a more common word than “abjectness” ever was. This is one instance in which the problem has yet to be excellently resolved.

Thanks go to Sashura for remembering and linking to it.


I tend to groan when I see links with titles like “X Words That…” because they’re usually unfunny invented words, allegedly untranslatable words, or some other category that’s been done to death, but I perked up when I saw that 12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms was by Arika Okrent, one of my favorite popular writers on language (see this LH review), and even more when I realized that it was actually useful: “There are some old words, however, that are nearly obsolete, but we still recognize because they were lucky enough to get stuck in set phrases that have lasted across the centuries. Here are 12 lucky words that survived by getting fossilized in idioms.” Here’s the first:

You rarely see a “wend” without a “way.” You can wend your way through a crowd or down a hill, but no one wends to bed or to school. However, there was a time when English speakers would wend to all kinds of places. “Wend” was just another word for “go” in Old English. The past tense of “wend” was “went” and the past tense of “go” was “gaed.” People used both until the 15th century, when “go” became the preferred verb, except in the past tense where “went” hung on, leaving us with an outrageously irregular verb.

Succinct and satisfying; read ’em all!

Another entrant in the word-list category: 18 obsolete words, which never should have gone out of style, by Carmel Lobello. From snoutfair (“A person with a handsome countenance”) to zafty (“A person very easily imposed upon”), they might give you a chuckle—and groak (“To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them”) was featured right here at LH a few years ago. (Thanks, Sven!)


Just a quick note to let people know that the deadline for the Compass Translation Award for translations of Maria Petrovykh (see this LH post) has been extended to July 15. If you hadn’t heard about it and enjoy translating Russian poetry, there’s still time to give it your best shot!