Archives for February 2014


Following up on my recent request for information about Toronto/tkaronto (and my much earlier query about Wampanoag), I have a question arising from this very interesting half-hour talk in which Amy King, Julia Bloch, and Tom Pickard discuss Basil Bunting’s reading of Whitman’s great “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (they only play a few bits, but the whole thing is available [mp3]). I note with pleasure that Bunting stresses the middle syllable of Paumanok, as I have always done myself; it seems the only reading that fits the rhythm of Whitman’s lines. But I got curious about that native name for Long Island, and I find that Whitman says, in a footnote to Specimen Days, “Paumanok, (or Paumanake, or Paumanack, the Indian name of Long Island,” and the 1846 Proceedings of the New York Historical Society (p. 126) says “The following variety of names occur, either as referring to the Island, or its inhabitants, as well before, as at the period of its settlement by the white people, namely — Paumanake, Matanwake, Metoacs, Meitowax, Metanwack, and Sewanhack, or Sewan-hacky. The first of these is most frequently met with in old deeds…. It would therefore seem that this was the more favorite and general designation, while at the same time the natives themselves were called Metoacs.” Do any of my Americanist readers have any further information about this old toponym?

Addendum. I found this in Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York, by Evan T. Pritchard (Council Oak Books, 2002):

In ancient times, Long Island was called Matouac by some, Paumanok by others. Matouac means a “young man,” or “the young warriors,” referring to the younger tribes of the western half of the island. Paumanok is a term in the Renneiu language indicating “land of tribute,” in reference to Long Island’s role as a main source for the quohog and conch shells used in the manufacture of sewan or wampum, often used to pay tribute or taxes to another tribe.

Elsewhere in the book, Pritchard says “The Matinecock language was the new Matouac-type, what I call the Renneiu language, rather than the older, more traditional Munsee as spoken in Manhattan.”

Cantonese Proverbs in One Picture.

From the Cantonese Resources blog, this wonderful cartoon:

阿塗 (Ah To), a graphic designer and part-time cartoonist who concerns about the survival of Cantonese in Canton and Hong Kong, has just published a comic called “The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” on Hong Kong independent media “Passion Times“. The cartoon contains illustrations of 81 Cantonese proverbs.

Each proverb is explained below the cartoon; e.g., “有錢使得鬼推磨 [yáuh chín sái dāk gwái tēui mòh] (if you have money, you can make a ghost push a millstone): everything is possible with money; money makes the world go round.” And each explanation is accompanied by an enlarged detail from the cartoon. Lots of fun.

And while we’re on the topic of language-related graphics: A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels. (I imagine readers below middle age never had to diagram sentences in school; I did, though I’m not sure how much I learned from it and I certainly couldn’t do it now.)


I’ve just started Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, by José Alaniz, and I’m enjoying it greatly despite the sprinkling of typos and minor errors that seem to disfigure even the best-produced books these days (and this is a gorgeous piece of work, with a section of color reproductions that make the high price seem justified for once). Alaniz traces the origins of the Russian form back to icons and lubki (the plural of lubok), and here’s an interesting section on the history of the latter word (which I had just assumed was as ancient as the thing itself):

Since Snegirov [should be Snegiryov] launched the formal study of the lubok in the 1820s—to no small controversy among educated circles, who considered it beneath contempt—scholars have skirmished over several issues involved in the study of the subject. Avram Reitblat, reviewing the recent literature in 2001, notes that the very term “lubok” is problematic, since the historical record indicates that before Snegirov few people actually called the prints by that name. Instead, depending on the region and/or what they depicted, the prints went by poteshnie listy (“funny sheets”), Suzdalskie (from Suzdal), panki (“little panels”), bogatyry [should be bogatyri] (“knights”), konnitsa (referring to figures on horseback), friazhkie (“Western European”), prazdniky [should be prazdniki](“holidays”), prostovik (“simple”), balagurnik (“joker,” “jester”), satira (“satire”), Moskovskie kartiny (“Moscow pictures”), or simply listy (“sheets”)—among a plethora of other names.

Snegirov himself called the prints “lubok” fully aware of the term’s ambiguity: did it refer to the bark (lub) of the linden tree, from which he claimed peasants formed the wood blocks; or did it point to Moscow’s Lubianka Street, where the sheets were printed and near which they were sold; or, indeed, to the wooden box in which the ofeni carried the prints for sale? Or did the word simply connote something “crude,” “badly made,” and “ramshackle,” as it did in other contexts? Evidently, Boris Sokolov surmises, Snegirov simply picked one of the local names for the prints; already by the 1840s this had grown into a general term, handed down to the present day.

I love that kind of philological background (though I don’t love the refusal to put Russian words in italics, which makes it just that little bit harder to read, since at first glance you don’t know whether, say, “ofeni” is some obscure English word, a typo, or a Russian word—in fact, it’s the latter, the plural of ofenya ‘peddler, huckster’).

Addendum. I know it’s almost superfluous to say about any new book, however prestigious the publisher, but man, this could have used some copyediting. I’ll give them a pass on “V. S. Zemenkov” for the correct B. S. (his name was Boris), since that takes specialized knowledge, but on p. 20 it has “discreet” when “discrete” is meant, and on p. 39 “…shows the worker grown enormous, so that he now dwarves the Whites…” [emphasis added]. Come on, that’s just plain sloppy.

Crowdsourcing WWI Word Origins.

I got an e-mail from Christian Purdy, Director of Publicity at Oxford University Press USA, with an appeal for the public to help find cites for an iinteresting class of words:

To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War, the OED is revising a set of vocabulary related to, or coined during, the war. Part of the revision process involves searching for earlier or additional evidence, and for this we need the help of the US public.

Our first quotations are often from newspapers and magazines, and we know that there may well be earlier evidence in less-easily-accessible sources such as personal letters, soldiers’ diaries, and government records, many of which are now being made available in digital form for the first time. We are hopeful the public can help find earlier evidence for the use of some wartime words? We are gathering all contributions on the OED appeals website.

The top item at the website now is skive, meaning ‘to avoid work’; their first quotation is from a 1919 magazine article, and they’d like to antedate it. Give ’em a hand!

That Damned Raw Stuff.

John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun tells a wonderful story that may help explain why it’s so hard to convince people (journalists, in particular) “that some of their imagined rules and standard practices are without foundation”:

After my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack in 1945, my father, Raymond McIntyre, undertook to make a go of his general store in Elizaville Kentucky.

He told me that one week the man who drove the bread truck was apprehensive. He also made deliveries to a remote little country store, and he had been accustomed to offload his stale bread there. “But last week,” he said, “I didn’t have any old bread to give them, and I delivered fresh loaves. They’re going to be mad as hell when they realize what I’ve been doing.”

The next week when the bread truck man came by, my father asked him how it had gone with the other store. And the bread man said, “They sure were mad at me. The storekeeper told me all his customers had complained and he never wanted me to deliver any of that damned raw stuff to his store ever again.”

Once you’re accustomed to journalese and its non-idiomatic practices, it sounds like natural language to you and actual English just seems wrong.

Visit his post for a funny footnote and a couple of examples of newspaper superstitions of the sort he deplores.


A Wordorigins post on the Mohawk origin of the toponym Toronto, deriving it from “tkaronto, meaning ‘trees standing in the water,'” led me to ask for an explanation of the morphology of tkaronto, i.e., how exactly it means ‘trees standing in the water.’ Since Dave Wilton didn’t know, I thought I’d see if any of my readers do.


For someone who doesn’t dance, I seem fated to spend a surprising amount of time investigating the names of (usually long-forgotten) dances. Back in 2011 it was the lipsi; last year it was the money musk, in its guise as monimaska (манимаска); now, in reading Sollogub‘s best-known (if not best) work, Тарантас (“The tarantass“), I encounter the following sentence in the chapter devoted to describing the haphazard upbringing of the older of the two travelers, Vasily Ivanovich, born in the 1780s in an estate near Kazan: “Никто ловче его не прохаживался в матрадуре, монимаске, куранте или Даниле Купере” [No one was more adroit than he at dancing the matradur(a), the monimaska, the courante, or the Daniel Cooper]. The monimaska is our old friend the money musk, the Daniel Cooper famously occurs in War and Peace (you can see and hear a lively rendition here), but what’s a matradur(a) (you can’t tell from the Russian declined form whether it’s masculine or feminine)?

I did a ridiculous amount of googling before discovering that it has an entry in Vasmer, which explains that матрадур, or матрадура, is a loan from Polish matradur, itself borrowed from Italian matratura ‘castanet’ (apparently archaic). Dances certainly get around! An amusing side note about this particular dance is that Gogol used it for one of his jokes in Dead Souls: the landowner whom Nabokov called “the braggard and bully Nozdryov” describes a champagne he drank once as “не клико, а какое-то клико-матрадура, это значит двойное клико” [not a Clicquot but a matradura-Clicquot — that means a double Clicquot]. This has confused readers for generations, ever since the dance whose name he’s using fell into oblivion.

Weegie Words.

I’ve long been a fan of the Glaswegian dialect (see this post from 2003); EveningTimes (“Nobody knows Glasgow better”) has a post called “The Weegie Words: you help us list 100 words that prove you come from Glasgow,” starting with the opaque (if you’re not Glaswegian) “Happenin? You wint tae cum to ma bit cos I’ve goat an empty ra morra ‘n a fancy a swally?” and interpreting it (they don’t, however, explain the “empty ra morra,” which I’m curious about), and it’s a lot of fun. Thanks, AJP!

The Library of Deir al-Surian.

A Spear’s article by Teresa Levonian Cole describes the history of Deir al-Surian, ‘Monastery of the Syrians,’ and its remarkable library:

The tower, built around AD 850, contained the monastery’s original library. It might have remained a library like any other, had it not been for a decision by the new vizier to tax the monasteries in Egypt. To plead exemption for Deir al-Surian, Abbot Mushe of Nisibis made his way to the Abbasid capital of Baghdad in 927, and, while awaiting the Caliph’s decision (it was favourable), embarked on a five-year spree that would yield a cache of 250 manuscripts from Syria and Mesopotamia.

This would form the core of his monastery’s collection which, over the years, increased to number Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Christian-Arab texts, dating from the 5th to the 18th centuries. They would include biblical, Patristic and liturgical writings, as well as early translations of philosophy, medicine and science, many of whose original Greek texts have been lost.

Of these treasures, the most ancient are the writings in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Christ), which include the earliest dated Old and New Testament manuscripts ever found in any language: part of the Book of Isaiah, dated AD 459/60, and a Gospel of AD 510.

A great many of its treasures were ripped off — excuse me, I mean “acquired” — by various minions of imperialism like the Egregious — excuse me, I mean Honourable — Robert Curzon, but quite a few remain, and they’re now being well taken care of thanks to the unstinting efforts of the monastery’s new librarian, Elizabeth Sobczynski. The whole thing is well worth a read. (Thanks, Paul!)

The Red Balloon of Russian History.

Veronica Davidov has a good post at All the Russias’ Blog (sponsored by the NYU Jordan Center) about “how American Media misunderstood the Sochi Olympics opening,” with an analysis of the “long grand narrative of Russian and Soviet history presented as a psychedelic dream of a young girl named Lyuba.” Davidov focuses in particular on the image of the red balloon, “uniformly interpreted throughout the American mediascape as letting go of the dream of communism,” and I urge you to read the whole thing (and listen to Bulat Okudzhava’s “minute-long existential melancholy song about a blue balloon and the cycle of life and time” [text]). What I want to mention here, though, is what won me over when I was watching the ceremony. It was a one-two punch: first, for the letter Н (N), they had the name Nabokov and a bunch of his beloved butterflies; then, for Ъ (the hard sign [not П = P, as I originally wrote!]), they had Pushkin (of course)… and Khatul Madan! How could I resist?