Archives for November 2013


I am closing comments on all threads in preparation for moving LH to WordPress. I apologize for the temporary inconvenience, but I think you’ll like the results.

Update. Thanks to the devoted work of Songdog, we finally have a new, improved LH that (knock wood) won’t have a spam problem! For the moment I’m opening all posts to comments, so feel free to go through the archives and chat about old topics—your comment will show up on the spiffy new Recent Comments thingie. And of course let me know if there’s anything that needs fixing. Thanks to all of you for your patience, over the last year of ever-increasing spam and the long weekend of a frozen site!


A friend writes:

As a meta-observation, one of the reasons I enjoy writing to you so much is that I can use my inner language — which is a mixture of Russian and English. There is something very interesting (to me) in my code switching practice: when the switch occurs in the middle of the sentence, the resulting output has to be valid in both grammars. How my brain does that is the real question — do you know any book that deals with it?

I do not, and it’s an interesting question, so I pass it along to my readership. If you know of any good articles accessible via JSTOR, they’re welcome too.


A nice little piece by Mark Bowden for The Atlantic:

I have the old English major’s habit of never reading past a word I don’t know, and have worn out more than a few pocket dictionaries. There are certain kinds of books, generally high-toned novels, that you expect to give you a good lexical workout—Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for example, which I read for the first time this year after watching the great HBO miniseries, or anything by William Faulkner.[…]
Here are some of the puzzlers in The Guns at Last Light, [Rick Atkinson’s World War II Liberation Trilogy]’s final volume: bedizened, biffing, cozenage, bootless, jinking, maledictory, spavined, tintinnabulation, anabasis, flinders. Some in that list may be more familiar than others, but speaking as someone who has been reading and writing for four decades, if a word stops me, it’s going to stop most people.

As I wrote Paul, who sent me the link (thanks, Paul!): “Frankly, I’m shocked that someone who has ‘the old English major’s habit of never reading past a word I don’t know’ and has ‘worn out more than a few pocket dictionaries’ wasn’t familiar with some of those words: really, he’d never seen bootless or spavined? (The ‘boot’ in the former, by the way, is an archaic noun meaning ‘deliverance,’ ‘avail,’ or ‘something to equalize a trade’; it still occurs in the phrase ‘to boot.’)”


An interesting Financial Times article by Lorien Kite (the FT Books Editor, who “worked at the OED as a keyboarder for a few months after graduating in the mid-1990s”—I am struck by the name Lorien, and can only assume his parents were Tolkien fans); it’s full of interesting tidbits (“the third edition is expected to have doubled in overall length”) and exciting prospects: Michael Proffitt, the new chief editor, talks “of the potential to embed OED content in ereaders so the meaning of a word such as ‘plisky’ (a trick or an awkward situation) in Wuthering Heights (1847), not found in most dictionaries of current usage, could be revealed to the reader as he or she went along.” I heartily agree with Charlotte Brewer, author of Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED, who “is critical of a decision in 2010 to merge the dynamic third edition with OED2, obscuring the differences between the two. ‘Because [OED2] was electronically searchable it was a fantastic source for historical inquiry of every sort, not just linguistic scholarship, but they’ve pulled the plug on it,’ she says. ‘It makes you weep.'” That it does. Still a magnificent resource, though. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


A correspondent writes:

I used to pronounce Gogarty‘s (Buck Mulligan) middle name as it’s spelled, til I’d heard “SIN-jin”.
In the James Bond movie, A View to a Kill, Roger Moore introduces himself to the villain (Christopher Walken) as “Somebody SIN-jin Something” and it finally occurred to me that written, it would’ve been “St. John”.
Is this an Irish thing? An English thing? A class thing? Is it exclusive or does it live, however uneasily, with the literal pronunciation?

Excellent questions all. As I responded, “It’s a UK/Irish thing, I think. I have no idea if it’s still a thing, though; every once in a while I discover that some traditional weird pronunciation (like ‘Rafe’ for Ralph) is now ancient history and nobody uses it any more. But yes, I say SINjn Gogarty because that’s how he and his contemporaries said it.” I welcome all input on the current status of this charming old pronunciation.


It suddenly struck me as odd that the words indolence and indolent have the meanings they do, since they’re transparently from Latin dolere ‘hurt’ (either transitive ‘give pain to’ or intransitive ‘feel pain’) and Latin indolentia does in fact mean ‘freedom from pain.’ I wondered if it was just English that had the sense development to ‘unwilling(ness) to exert oneself,’ but no, the cognate words mean the same thing in all the Romance languages. The OED entry (published 1900) doesn’t help; it just gives the senses “Insensibility or indifference to pain” and “Freedom from pain; a state of rest or ease, in which neither pain nor pleasure is felt” (both obsolete) and “The disposition to avoid trouble; love of ease; laziness, slothfulness, sluggishness” (first in 1710: R. Steele, Tatler No. 132 “Heavy honest Men, with whom I have passed many Hours with much Indolence”), without any explanation of the development. Then I checked with the Trésor de la langue française informatisé and found that the modern sense “Disposition à se donner le moins de peine possible” goes back to at least 1660, and wondered if it was the multivalence of the French word peine, which started out meaning ‘suffering’ and developed a range of senses including ‘trouble, pains’ (of the sort one takes if one is not indolent), that was responsible for the change, and it spread from French to other languages. In any case, I’ll be interested to see the updated entry when the OED gets around to revising it.


Stan at Sentence first has a good post about the Hibernian use of “haitch” for the letter most of the English-speaking world knows as “aitch.” I’ve always found it charming, and am amused by the example he provides of an issue of “the local freesheet Galway Advertiser” that in repeating a headline on the second page of a story has “a HSE” (i.e., Haitch Ess Ee) where the first version had “an HSE” (i.e., Aitch Ess Ee; see his post for screenshots). I was even more amused by the misguided historical analysis underlying the peevery cited at the end of this passage:

The history of h-dropping and h-adding at the start of various words is quite a tangle, made worse by the fact that people often feel their own version must be correct and others’ therefore can’t be. I’ve seen real fury directed at the American practice of muting the H in herb, from listeners probably unaware that sounding the H was a later convention.

He goes on to discuss the history of the name “aitch,” which goes back (via Old French ache) to “a late Latin *accha, *ahha, or *aha,” and ends with the extremely interesting information that “haitch” is spreading—see the telling graph from John Wells—and the following speculation: “I wonder whether aitching H correlates at all with the wine–whine merger – or, phrased another way, whether haitching H correlates with pronouncing wine and whine differently.” Lots of good stuff in the comment thread as well.


An enjoyable quiz: “Can you pick the [Romance] language in which the given sentence is written?” (created by Norwegian_dude); I’m a little dubious about including Esperanto on the basis that “most of its words” derive from Romance, but big deal, it just adds to the fun. I got 11 out of 11; I wouldn’t recognize Romansh on its own, but it was easy enough to get by elimination.


Exciting news from

Using cutting-edge technology, European scientists have uncovered new fragments by Euripides and an unknown ancient commentary on Aristotle.
These writings were on parchments that were washed off and overwritten in medieval times. Using advanced multispectral imaging methods, the Palamedes project, based out of the Universities of Göttingen and Bologna were able to see the original writings in the manuscripts, one of which is located at the library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, while the t other can be found at the National Library of France in Paris.
The manuscript in Jerusalem originates from the famous Library of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. The uppermost text layer from the thirteenth century comprises the Prophetic Books of the Greek Old Testament, underlaid by older texts from various medieval manuscripts that contain works of Euripides and Aristotle, alongside theological tractates. “The manuscript in Jerusalem is one of the most significant witnesses to Euripides’ work”, explains the head of the research project, Felix Albrecht from Göttingen University’s Faculty of Theology. The manuscript contains the text of Euripides, surrounded by ancient annotations.[…]

Check out the accompanying photograph—it sends a chill down my spine to see that ghostly text showing through the overwriting. Thanks for the link, Paul!


A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, by Robert Bringhurst, looks like a fascinating book, and this LARB review by Matthew Spellberg describes how the Haida material came to be preserved:

In 1900, a 27-year-old American ethnographer named John Swanton, newly minted PhD from Harvard, junior employee at the Bureau of American Ethnology, and disciple of Franz Boas, arrived on Haida Gwaii to study the culture of the islands and collect artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History. Swanton met a younger Haida, fluent in English, named Henry Moody, who would act as his translator and entrée into Haida society. Moody was a prince under the old system, and he could bring Swanton into the most refined Haida households, or at least what remained of them. By the end of the 19th century, nine-tenths of the Haida had fallen victim to ecological destruction and disease, especially smallpox. By 1900 the ancient villages, some of the largest pre-agricultural settlements in history, were cemeteries of fallen house-poles and rotting cedar-plank lodges. The survivors of the holocaust lived in two clapboard missionary towns.
Swanton realized that transcribing stories was the most important task he could set himself to while on the islands. He was a hard worker and a patient, self-effacing listener — a man who lived for a year on Haida Gwaii “as if nothing in the world were more important than to record what a Native American oral poet wanted to say in precisely the way that poet wanted to say it.” For six hours a day, six days a week, Swanton took dictation. His Haida informants would tell their stories a few phrases at a time. Then, Henry Moody, at Swanton’s side, would repeat slowly what they had said, and Swanton would transcribe the poetry into a phonetic alphabet of Boas’ devising. The Haida spoke a language that had never existed before in writing, except as the vessel for evangelical tracts and Bible passages.
Swanton believed that stories ought to be recorded exactly as they were told, in the original language, preserving the storyteller’s vocabulary and syntax. He did not believe that there was a single version for each myth in a culture; he thought that a storyteller’s variations on a story were conscious artistic choices, not mere corruptions of the original. In this he differed from Boas and most of his colleagues, who preferred to make English prose reductions of the myths, trying to distill some elusive standard version of each story. Swanton’s Haida texts are thus some of the only unadulterated mythtellers’ works to survive the eclipse of classical North American Indian culture.
Bringhurst doubles down on Swanton’s convictions: his trilogy champions the exact words of Native American poets, and makes the sweeping claim that those words are — niceties of cultural relativism be damned — products of artistic genius. The result is a true widening of the canon of world literature.

Swanton is a true hero who should be better remembered, and good for Bringhurst for presenting the material with such care. (He’s apparently been “criticized for his apparent use of western categories like ‘art’ and ‘genius’ to describe non-Western cultural practices,” to which I say “Bah, humbug!” Spellberg has a more thoughtful response, and the whole review is well worth your while.)