Archives for September 2013


My eye happened to fall on the entry couch grass in Merriam-Webster and the first definition was quack grass. I found that amusing; then I noticed the etymology said “alteration of quitch.” Intrigued, I went to the American Heritage and found that they actually had an entry for quitch grass, whose etymology read “[Middle English quich, from Old English cwice; see gwei- in Indo-European roots].” (The PIE root gwei- means ‘to live’ and gives us the native quick as well as the borrowed Latin viv- and Greek bio- and zo(o)- words.) And it said couch grass was “Also called quack grass, witch grass.” I found that an interesting cluster of forms, and I thought I’d pass it along.
Today, by the way, is [a month from] Jelly Roll Morton‘s birthday. He may not have invented jazz, as he used to claim, but he sure helped get it off on the right track. Happy birthday, Doctor Jazz! [Oops: I took the birthday info from another site without checking; it’s actually Oct. 20, as a commenter points out. Let this be a lesson to me. Oh well, any day is a good day to listen to Jelly Roll!]


Having finished Lermontov’s unfinished novel Княгина Лиговская [Princess Ligovskaya], written 1836-37—and it’s too bad he didn’t finish it, because a main character, the chinovnik Krasinsky, is a remarkably early instance of the “poor folks” theme that was to become prominent a decade or so later, and it would be nice to know where he was going with it—I’m now starting Odoevsky‘s 4338-й год (The Year 4338; new online translation here) and am looking forward to this early sf novel in which a somnambulist sees via Mesmeric self-magnetism a future in which Russia is the cultural center of a world about to be destroyed by a comet. But just a few pages into the introduction I’m taken aback to discover that the comet involved is not Halley’s, as I had been informed by authoritative scholarly sources, but Biela’s, which was as terrifying in the 1830s (to people who like to be terrified by such things, of course) as the 2012 phenomenon was in recent memory. As Wikipedia says, “the fact that Biela’s Comet was the only comet known to intersect the Earth’s orbit was to make it of particular interest, both to astronomers and the public, during the 19th century,” but the fact that it broke up and turned into a meteor shower later in the century means that it’s forgotten today, and I guess people just automatically substitute Halley’s in their minds. Still, I direct a click of the tongue at those who perpetrate the lazy error.

Update. Well, for Pete’s sake. Later on, there’s a reference to the threat of Halley’s comet. Did Odoevsky not understand that they were two different things, or did he change his mind and not bother to make the text consistent? Bah.

Addendum. Not worth making a separate post of, but I can’t resist passing on the best typo I’ve seen this month (and probably the best since “melted down into Ottoman canons“). On page 340, fn. 8, of Catriona Kelly’s A History of Russian Women’s Writing 1820-1992, we find: “Stalin’s best-known personal intervention was in the field of linguistics, in which he published a volume in 1950 refuting the doctrines of Marx, which he had earlier supported…” For Marx, read Marr.


Victor Mair has an intriguing post at the Log, “Sayable but not writable,” about Chinese expressions that most Chinese don’t know how to write. Here’s the last couple of paragraphs:

I was also surprised that only a couple of the students from China had ever heard of, much less were able to write, the words gūlu 軲轆 (“wheel”) and gūlù 轂轆 (“reel”). These are old colloquial terms that seem to have survived mostly in the oral realm and are related to some form of the Indo-European word for “cycle; wheel”. See Robert S. Bauer, “Sino-Tibetan *kolo ‘Wheel’,” Sino-Platonic Papers 47 (Aug. 1994), 1-11.
I always tell the students in my classes that the sounds of the words in Chinese languages are much more important than the characters that might be used to write them — even in Classical Chinese — where there are often variant written forms for the same term. I demonstrated that for my students in the case of lāta 邋遢 (“slovenly; dirty; dowdy; sloppy; slobby; shaggy; unkempt; ill-groomed; sluttery; slipshod; untidy”) by putting on the board more than two dozen different topolectal variants of this colloquial term. I read aloud the pronunciations of each of the variants and pointed out that the second and subsequent characters of these variants were mostly arbitrary transcriptions of the sounds of the local variants and that the surface signification of the characters used to write these syllables was essentially irrelevant. The fact that many terms in Chinese — even in ancient texts — have a variety of different written forms, e.g., wěiyǐ 委迤 / wēiyí 委蛇 / wēiyí 逶迤 / etc. (“winding; meandering; twisting”) confirms the primacy of sound over symbol.

I was irresistibly reminded of a great anecdote in Jack Seward’s Japanese in Action about his going to considerable pains to learn the complicated Japanese character for ringo ‘apple’ to impress Japanese acquaintances only to discover that none of them knew it.


Geoff Pullum has a Lingua Franca piece about an odd phenomenon he’s run across: people who get offended if you try to converse in their own language. Only two examples, mind you—an English-speaking American, fluent in German, whose German university colleagues don’t want him to speak German with them and a native speaker of English who “has learned Korean really well,” but encounters hostility when he uses it to talk to students and colleagues, who “seem to think it is distasteful that he should do such a thing”—but he’s not claiming it’s representative, just surprising:

I had of course seen this kind of reluctance to let outsiders join the speech community with languages of very low prestige, for instance creole languages. Efforts at learning Jamaican Creole are typically met with anger rather than pleasure in Jamaica: Jamaicans, especially if middle-class or college-educated, want to be regarded as English speakers. They tend to despise the creole that is in fact the primary medium of oral communication across the country.
But discouragement from learning prestigious national languages like Berlin German and Seoul Korean? It amazed me.

The comment thread is worth reading as well.


Elizabeth Weingarten has a piece in Future Tense (“a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate” that “explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture”) on Google’s Ngram Viewer; it doesn’t break any new ground, but it links to some good stuff and presents nice tidbits:

“There are hundreds of little mysteries that one can resolve with the Ngram Viewer,” says Erez Lieberman Aiden, a founding father of the Viewer and the field of Culturomics (which studies human culture and history through the lens of massive datasets) and fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Take the mystery of donuts vs. doughnuts. When did the spelling change? Before the Ngram Viewer, “it would’ve taken a very long time to determine when that spelling transition took place,” Aiden explains. But according to the Viewer, the donut spelling starts to take off in early 1950s, right around the time Dunkin’ Donuts opened its first store. Of course, it doesn’t prove that Dunkin’ Donuts alone changed the spelling—but it does add a compelling dimension to the story.

I do have to take issue with this: “The Viewer also helps corroborate larger, semantic debates—like, do words actually evolve in the Darwinian sense? … [Researchers] discovered that the verbs did undergo a kind of evolutionary process. ‘The less frequent the verb, the more rapidly it becomes irregular,’ Aiden explains.” Yeah, no. It is impossible for words, or anything non-biological, to evolve in the Darwinian sense. If you insist on using evolution as a metaphor, best to just slip it in there quietly and not try to pin it down as “Darwinian.” Because that just looks silly.


A couple of years ago I posted about Keith Houston’s blog Shady Characters (“The secret life of punctuation”); now he’s written a book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, and he’s got a New Yorker blog post sharing some of his findings. He discusses the hashtag/octothorpe, the paragraphos/pilcrow, the ampersand, the manicule (see this LH post), and the diple:

Quite unlike the manicule, however, the diple underwent a rapid transformation from critical mark to authorial one: a scant few centuries after its creation, Christian writers began to use the diple to mark not noteworthy text but Biblical quotations in an era when Christian books outnumbered all other works four to one. Over time, a number of variations on the diple began to appear as citation marks: some writers added a dot between the wedge of their marks (featured here, in the margins of an eighth-century psalter), while French manuscripts from that period appear with the dotted diple rotated to create a “V”-shaped mark. By the end of the eighth century, the original diple had fallen out of use. Its final demise, like the manicule’s, was caused by the advent of the printing press. Type designers were strangely reluctant to cast the diple in lead, and almost overnight that mark, and its variations, were replaced by double commas (,,) hung in the margins around cited portions of text. The diple was dead, and the modern quotation mark was on its way.

Enjoyable reading, and the illustrations are gorgeous. Thanks, Terry!


I’m almost finished with Veltman’s Сердце и думка [Heart and head] (see this LH post), and I think I see why the young Dostoevsky liked it so much; not only does it show considerable psychological penetration, but this must have appealed to him: “из одного человека можно больше сделать, нежели из мильона голов; один в мильон раз лучше мильона” [you can do more with a single person than with a million; one person is a million times better than a million]. Of course, that is said by a demon to a witch, but that’s Veltman for you. At any rate, he refers a couple of times to тинтере [tintere], a card game apparently equivalent to кончинка [konchinka], and (according to that Wikipedia article) also spelled тинтерей [tinterei] and тинтерет [tinteret]. I presume it’s of French origin, given those spellings, and the stress is presumably therefore on the final syllable, but I’ve had no luck finding any mention of such a game outside of Russia. Anybody know what the origin might be?

Addendum. Franco Pratesi in Russian Card Games and Their Literature (pdf) describes the exiguous literature on the subject and gives a brief account of tenteret (as he spells it), beginning: “It is said to have an old French origin, to have been very much played at home, but to be at present almost forgotten. I could find no trace in French sources of this seemingly French name, nor of the game itself.” Pratesi also describes “babochka” and “konchinka,” if anyone needs to know about those games.


I’m reading Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, a gift from the learned and generous bulbul, and thoroughly enjoying it. I do have to complain, in the mildest of tones, about this bit from p. 79: “As one of Henry’s inner circle, Parker had been able ro take advantage of the king’s dissolution of the monasteries to snoop around their libraries and remove many of the choicest treasures (giving rise to the English expression ‘a nosey Parker’).” Anyone who frequents LH will probably have the same dismissive reaction I did on reading that parenthetical, and sure enough, a moment’s investigation is enough to dispose of it: The Phrase Finder says “Was the first Nosy Parker a real person and, if so, who? We don’t know”; the OED s.v. nosy parker (entry updated 2003) says “Apparently < nosy adj. + the surname Parker. Compare (especially earlier) allusive use as a proper name, apparently with reference to a (probably fictitious) individual taken as the type of someone inquisitive or prying.”
But I can’t blame Soskice, who had no reason to disbelieve what she read either at the Wikipedia article I linked to for Parker (I’ve just corrected the section on the phrase, and I hope nobody reverts it) or in the Wallechinsky Book of Lists the article cites or some other source repeating the same story; people love a good story, and it takes special training—training (to beat my favorite dead horse) that almost no one receives—to realize how unlikely this particular sort of story is. I’m just mentioning it in the hope of making a few more people think twice before accepting just-so stories about eponyms. And while I’m at it, the same goes for acronymic origins (port out starboard home, for unlawful carnal knowledge, et hoc genus omne). Accept no substitutes for scholarly etymologies!
By the way, does anybody happen to know the origin of the name Soskice? The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names tells me it’s pronounced SOSS-kiss, but I can find no information about it in any of my surname references.


Reed Johnson has a New Yorker blog post about two Russian translations of The Catcher in the Rye, the classic one by Rita Rait-Kovaleva, called Над пропастью во ржи [Over the abyss in the rye], and the 2008 version by Max Nemtsov, Ловец на хлебном поле [The catcher in the field of grain], summarizing the differences by saying “Rait-Kovaleva has subtly shifted Caulfield’s speech into closer accord with good Russian literary norms, while Nemtsov’s Caulfield is both brassier and crasser, exaggerating his supposed iconoclasm”:

Here is how the protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye” sounds in the original and the two translations—back-translated, of course, into English, which inevitably introduces its own distortions. I’ve tried to preserve the differences in tone, which are apparent from the very opening sentences of each of these works:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye”)

If you truly would like to hear this story, first of all you will probably want to find out where I was born, how I spent my stupid childhood, what my parents did before my birth—in a word, all that David Copperfield rot. But truthfully speaking, I don’t have any urge to delve into that. (Rait-Kovaleva, “Over the Abyss in Rye”)

If you’re truly up for listening, for starters you’ll probably want me to dish up where I was born and what sort of crap went down in my childhood, what the ’rents did and some such stuff before they had me, and other David Copperfield bullshit, except blabbing about all that doesn’t get me stoked, to tell you the truth. (Nemtsov, “Catcher on a Grain Field”)

Michele Berdy, who sent me the link, feels that Johnson wasn’t hard enough on Nemtsov, and I have to agree with her response to the latter’s version: Bleah. She was also kind enough to send the Russian originals of the sentence quoted by Johnson in back-translation, which I have appended below the cut.
Addendum. I won’t make a separate post of it, but Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg has a WSJ piece about translations that’s worth a read; I particularly want to single out this quote from Richard Pevear:

“Most disagreements over words ignore the context, which is all important,” responds Mr. Pevear in an email. He says Tolstoy’s original word for the shoes, “porshni,” “is obsolete in Russian,” describing “primitive peasant shoes made from raw leather.” He says that is “rather close to the first meaning of brogues in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘rough shoes of untanned hide.’ “

He is responding to Rosamund Bartlett, who said, quite correctly, that “brogues” “conjures up an image of ‘smart shoes with perforations.'” No English-speaker today [aside from John Cowan; see comment thread] thinks of brogues as “rough shoes of untanned hide” (and I might point out that the OED entry he cites hasn’t been updated since 1888). But never mind facts: the important thing is for Pevear to never, ever admit error.

[Read more…]


I found the most unhelpful set of definitions/equivalents yet in this New Great Russian-English Dictionary entry: “опалённый ppp of опалить; adust; sphacelate, deustate.” Now, if you look further down the page you’ll see that опалить means ‘to singe,’ and therefore its past passive participle must mean ‘singed,’ but the first thing your eye lights on is that forbidding sequence “adust; sphacelate, deustate.” There may be a non-empty set of “English-speakers to whom those words mean something,” but I have my doubts whether it overlaps with the set of “people who consult the New Great Russian-English Dictionary.” Just for kicks, I’ll explain them here.
You might guess that adust means ‘dusty,’ and in fact such a word exists, but this is a different adust, from Latin adūstus ‘burnt, scorched; dusky, swarthy, (of colour) dark,’ first used in English (c. 1400) to mean “Designating any of the humours of the body when considered to be abnormally concentrated and dark in colour, and associated with a pathological state of hotness and dryness of the body” (“Of the four humours, choler appears to have been the most often described as adust”); later senses were “having a melancholy character or appearance; gloomy; sallow,” ” Burnt, scorched; desiccated by exposure to strong heat; parched,” and “Of or designating a dark brown colour, as if scorched; (of a person) dark-skinned, tanned.” All are rare and/or obsolete.
The OED entry for sphacelate has not been updated since 1914; the adjective is called Obs. rare and defined as “Sphacelated,” and only two cites are given (1634 T. Johnson Wks. xxvi. xxxi. 1064 “Exhalations, lifted or raised up from any part which is gangrenate or sphacelate”; 1785 T. Martyn Lett. Elements Bot. xxvi. 392 “Having a cylindric..calyx, with the scales sphacelate or seeming mortified at top”); sphacelated means “Mortified, gangrened” and has a fair sprinkling of cites from 1639 (J. Woodall Surgeons Mate 387 “They used to take of the Sphacelated member”) to 1877 (F. T. Roberts Handbk. Med. I. 393 “The sphacelated portion is expelled”). Both are from the verb sphacelate “To affect with sphacelus; to cause to gangrene or mortify” or “To become gangrenous or mortified,” from a medieval or modern Latin borrowing of Greek σϕάκελος ‘gangrene.’
As for deustate, it clearly has the same Latin ūst- root as adust, but I regret to say it is unknown to the OED; Google Books turns it up in A Glossary of Mycology (1971) by Walter Snell and Esther A. Dick: “deustate, deustous. As if scorched. [< L. deurere to burn up.]” How the compilers of the New Great Russian-English Dictionary got hold of it, god only knows.