Archives for July 2013


Joel at Far Outliers has one of his Wordcatcher Tales posts, this one on heeltap and punkah louvre. The latter refers to air vents and was not that interesting to me, but heeltap is quite wonderful, and I intend to start using it immediately. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a small quantity of alcoholic beverage remaining (as in a glass after drinking)”; the OED has a nice selection of citations:

1780 Bannatyne Mirror No. 76. ⁋13 Having, it seems, left a little more than was proper in the bottom of his glass, he was saluted with a call of ‘No heeltaps!’
1820 Shelley Œdipus Tyrannus ii. ii. 35 All. A toast! a toast!.. Dakry. No heel-taps—darken daylights!
1836 E. Howard Rattlin xliv, No heel-taps after, and no day~light before.
1841 Dickens Old Curiosity Shop ii. lxii. 149 Toss it off, don’t leave any heeltap.
1859 L. Oliphant Narr. Earl of Elgin’s Mission China & Japan I. 203 Obliging us to turn over our glasses each time as a security against heel-taps.
1933 C. St. J. Sprigg Fatality in Fleet St. v. 55 Wait, I have still a heel-tap. I must drink a toast.

And there’s a typophile post asking the question “Why are quotation marks language-dependent?” There are interesting attempts to answer it in the comment thread; the first commenter suggests that “the lack of a single standardized convention prior to the spread of printing would have left open the opportunity for different national centers of printing to adapt and evolve different conventions.”


I’ve finished Lazhechnikov‘s Ледяной дом (The ice house; see this post), and I enjoyed it despite the bad writing and melodramatic contrivances (the plot is often driven by intercepted letters, overheard conversations, and the like). The focus of the story is the downfall of Artemy Volynsky, who plots unsuccessfully against the hated Biron, the empress’s favorite. Historically, this came about because of foreign policy (Biron thought that a generous indemnity should be given to the Poles for Russian violations of Polish territory during a recent war, whereas Volynsky thought the Poles were all a bunch of traitors and no indemnity should be paid at all, and in the course of his objection he used language that Biron took extreme offense at), but Lazhechnikov invents a princess of obscure origin who has become a favorite of the empress’s and who Volynsky falls hard for, neglecting both his wife and his patriotic duty. While very silly, this works well in terms of basic storytelling (a great deal of classic literature, not to mention opera, boils down to love versus duty) and it keeps you reading despite the overlong digressions and tedious outbursts of predictable emotion (tears, handwringing, broken exclamations, verbose assurances of eternal love, etc. etc.). If you like Scott or Dickens, you’ll probably like Lazhechnikov.
One interesting point is that he found it necessary to change some of the names of his hero’s coconspirators, who were either executed or exiled: Khrushchov becomes Shchurkhov, Eropkin becomes Perokin, and (my favorite) Musin-Pushkin becomes Sumin-Kupshin. I’m guessing that the real aristocrats involved had powerful descendents who, even if their ancestors had been vindicated by history, would not have appreciated the tarnishing of their family names in a popular novel.
And now: more Gogol!


I’ve been reading The London Train (P.S.) (a birthday gift from jamessal), and I was sent to the dictionary by the following sentence: “She showed them a dusty depression on the bank that might be where the otters slept by day, and their spraints nearby, blackish messes of fish scales and fragments of bone, probably eel bones.” Spraints, it turns out, are (to quote the OED) the excrement of the otter. It’s from Old French espraintes, from espraindre ‘to squeeze out’ < Latin exprimere: an expressive word.
And now a quiz. A correspondent writes that he canvassed his friends about the word “fornication” and discovered that most of them understand it as referring to any sex at all, whereas the dictionaries define it only as sex outside of marriage (which is the way I understand it): “This makes me think there’s been an interesting shift in the meaning of the word, perhaps only during the twentieth century (the OED’s entry is unchanged since 1e, in 1897). Do you or your readers know whether this shift has been studied?” I don’t; do you?


Back in 2008 I posted about the exhibition “Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910–1917”; here‘s a gorgeous collection of book covers from that period (scroll down). The text is in Russian, but anyone can appreciate the design; click on the covers to get a better view.


I’m in the home stretch of Lazhechnikov’s Ледяной дом (The ice house), and I just hit a sentence that took me aback. Poor beleaguered Marioritsa, the princess of mysterious origins beloved of Empress Anna and of the patriotic but besotted (and married) Volynsky, has received yet another blow from fate and had yet another fainting fit: “Когда княжна была приведена в чувство и государыня оставила ее в ее спальне, уверенная, что ей лучше, горничная ее Груня наэлектризовала ее одним прикосновением к руке” [When the princess had been brought round and the empress had left her in her bedroom, confident that she was feeling better, her maid Grunya electrified her with one touch of her hand]. Electrified her! In 1835? I mean, I know Ben Franklin was tying keys to kites in lightning storms in the 1750s, but I hadn’t realized it had settled into metaphorical usage quite that early. Sure enough, the Corpus of the Russian Language shows this as the earliest literary use in Russian, but the OED takes it much further back in English:

1. trans.
a. To charge with electricity; to pass an electric current through; (formerly also) †to subject (a person) to an electric current or an electric shock for therapeutic purposes (obs.).
1745 Philos. Trans. 1744–5 (Royal Soc.) 43 490, I procur’d an iron Bar..; this I electrified lying on Cakes of Wax and Resin. […]
1818 S. Ferrier Marriage x. 104 That old man has the palsy; why don’t you electrify him? […]
3. trans. fig. To excite, arouse, or startle (a person), as if by an electric charge or shock. Also intr.
1748 E. Moore Foundling ii. vi. 25, I can electrify her by a Look.
1794 W. Burke & E. Burke tr. J. P. Brissot To his Constituents 72 Those heights of courage which electrify an army and ensure victory.
1838 J. H. Ingraham Burton I. 184 The touch of his bold lip electrified her. […]

MEDIEVAL PET NAMES. has a nice post on what people in the Middle Ages called their pets:

In England we find dogs that were named Sturdy, Whitefoot, Hardy, Jakke, Bo and Terri. Anne Boleyn, one of the wives of King Henry VIII, had a dog named Purkoy, who got its name from the French ‘pourquoi’ because it was very inquisitive.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale has a line where they name three dogs: Colle, Talbot and Gerland. Meanwhile, in the early fifteenth-century, Edward, Duke of York, wrote The Master of Game, which explains how dogs are to be used in hunting and taken care of. He also included a list of 1100 names that he thought would be appropriate for hunting dogs. They include Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast. …

In medieval England domestic cats were known as Gyb – the short form of of Gilbert – and that name was also popular for individual pet cats. … Other names for cats included Mite, who prowled around Beaulieu Abbey in the 13th century, and Belaud, a grey cat belonging to Joachim du Bellay in the 16th century. Isabella d’Este also owned a cat named Martino. Old Irish legal texts refer to several individual cats and names them: Meone (little meow); Cruibne (little paws); Breone (little flame, perhaps an orange cat), and Glas nenta (nettle grey). An Irish poem from the ninth century describes how a monk owned a cat named Pangur Bán, which meant ‘fuller white’. The poem begins:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

“Pangur Bán” is everybody’s favorite Old Irish poem; you can see the original text with translation en face here, and hear it read (in Modern Irish pronunciation) here. But I object strongly to the alleged translation “fuller white”; as Hermocrates says here, “Pangur isn’t an Irish word. It’s actually the cat’s name and could be of Welsh origin (pannwr).” Welsh pannwr means ‘fuller,’ but 1) there’s no way of knowing if that’s actually the source of the Irish name, and 2) even if it is (etymologically), there’s no way of knowing if the cat’s owner (the poet) knew that fact. The only honest way to translate the phrase is White Pangur. (Thanks, Rick!)


I love poetry, and cities, and poetry about cities, and I’ve been enjoying Adam Zagajewski’s “Jechać do Lwowa” for a while now in an English translation by Renata Gorczynski, which starts:

To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. …

The Polish original is here, along with an en face translation into Russian (“Поехать во Львов”), and here‘s a different Russian translation by Aleksandr Medyanik (“Ехать во Львов”)—if you know Russian, comparing the two is a very interesting exercise. (The first has “С какого вокзала ехать” [from which station to leave] for “Z którego dworca jechać,” the second “С какого перрона ехать [from which platform to leave]”—I have no idea which is more accurate.) I almost certainly originally found the poem, in one version or another, at Poemas del río Wang, for which the anciently multicultural city of Lwów/Lemberg/Lemberik/Leopolis/L’vov/L’viv has always been a touchstone.


Last year I posted about Allan Metcalf’s Lingua Franca piece on the journal Comments on Etymology; now Metcalf has a Tablet story about the guy who writes it, “Gerald Leonard Cohen, professor in the department of arts, languages, and philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and grand impresario of American etymologists.” Cohen’s lived in Missouri for years, but he grew up in New York and “got a good start by majoring in Russian civilization as an undergraduate at Dartmouth”:

With a Reynolds Fellowship for foreign study from Dartmouth, after finishing his bachelor’s he spent a year at Oxford, earning a diploma in Slavonic studies.
He then embarked on a doctorate in Slavic linguistics at Columbia University, for which degree he had to demonstrate proficiency in French, German, Russian, and two other Slavic languages. His dissertation, finished in 1971, was The Stress of the Russian Short Adjective: A Diachronic Study. He modestly admits that for a while he was the world’s foremost expert on the stress of the Russian short adjective—modestly, because that’s not a topic crowded with experts.
Meanwhile, with his graduate coursework finished, in 1968 he went to what might be considered the antipodes of Manhattan: Rolla. “I was looking for a suburban-type lifestyle—trees, grass, no crime,” he explained. “And the move to Rolla also offered me the chance to teach several languages.”
At the university there ever since, he has taught general linguistics and Russian, French, German, and occasionally Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. And he began his apprenticeship in etymology. “Starting in the 1970s and continuing for eight years or so,” he has written, “I made a concerted effort to study as many languages as possible each day. The key to this effort was consistency.” Each day he would sit down with a pile of books about different languages—dictionaries and grammars, for the most part. And “each day I would try to learn something about a variety of languages, even if it was just one or two words per language, and hope that various insights would emerge from the effort.” At the peak of his endeavors, he relates, he was looking at 20 to 30 different languages per day.

I admire that man! And there’s lots of interesting etymological tidbits in the article; read the whole thing. (Thanks for the link, Paul and Kobi!)


The genre of what Russians call Садистские стишки, ‘sadistic verses,’ is quite interesting, and I’m happy to report you can read about it in English from two angles, the personal/bloggish in “The Sadistic Couplets,” by a Georgian (U.S.) woman named Robin, and the academic in “Sadistic Verse as a Genre of Russian Urban Folklore: Typical and Specific Features, Child and Adult Audiences” (pdf), by Mikhail Lurye. I’m always impressed by the delight kids (especially boys?) take in cartoonish violence, and there are plenty of good examples here (though one might wish that the authors provided the Russian originals in footnotes).
While I have your attention, on a far less interesting and ridiculously recondite topic that nevertheless has been bothering me all day: Erik at XIX век has a post about the obscure and thoroughly obsolete Russian expression “ни к стру, ни к смотру,” meaning either “for no reason, out of the blue” or “(good) for nothing,” or possibly something else (see his post for details); what bothers me, as I said in the comment thread, is this:

So what is стру? It’s maddening that Finkel and Bazhenov say [the expression has] gone out of use because one of its components has become incomprehensible but don’t bother to explain the component! Unless maybe they didn’t know either? It must be from some old word of the form с(ъ)т(ъ)ръ, but damned if I can figure out what.

If anybody knows, or has a good idea, I’m all ears.


In this thread, D-AW linked to his Chains of OED Evidence, about “different kinds of chains of quotation created by the OED, in which the OED is itself already implicated”; that post, in turn, links to Charlotte Brewer’s Examining the OED essay on Auden’s relationship with the OED and its editor R. W. Burchfield, which is full of interesting stuff like this:

On another occasion, Burchfield was sitting working quietly in his room at Christ Church when the door burst open and in rushed an excited Auden, waving a sheet of paper in his hand freshly torn out of his typewriter, to insist Burchfield should put back into the OED an obscure word in a poem he had just that minute written. In telling this tale – to an audience of historical linguists at a conference in Oxford in 1988 – Burchfield gave it as his opinion that ‘Auden was not a scholar and often didn’t know what words meant’.

Before you get all huffy about a mere lexicographer saying a great poet “didn’t know what words meant,” take a look at the evidence; Auden seems to have scoured the OED for words he could insert into his poems, sometimes without checking the senses carefully enough (“But lenient in the etymological sense Auden seems to intend here, ‘soft’, is not a possible meaning according to OED”). Of course, like any user of the language, he was free to use words however he wanted and hope that his usage would catch on, but he seems to have thought he was continuing an age-old tradition rather than innovating.