Archives for May 2014

Jonathon Green on Slang II.

A few years ago I posted an interview with the great slangographer Jonathon Green; now here, via BBC News (thanks, Paul!), is a list of “slang words and expressions that encapsulate the age in which they were coined.” They include booze (goes back at least to 1532!), dis (goes back to 1906!), groovy (it “began life meaning conservative (‘stuck in a groove’)”), dosh (which “started life around 1850” and probably comes from “doss, a sleep, bed or lodging house, itself rooted in Latin’s dorsus, the back, on which one rests”), and many others; here’s one that was new to me (unsurprisingly, as I am neither young nor a Londoner):

Nang, meaning first-rate, is an example of slang’s current cutting edge, Multi-ethnic London English (MLE). This mix of Jamaican patois, American hip-hop, Cockney classics and the coinages of youthful Londoners has added much to slang’s vocabulary. Nang, imported from the Caribbean where it means ostentation or style and rooted in Mende nyanga, showing off, is one of the better-known examples.

I love slang, and I love explication of it by people who know what they’re talking about.

Hodgson III: The Quest for Form.

Time for another excerpt from Hodgson’s book (see previous posts: I, II):

In his book on Dostoevsky’s philosophy of art, Robert Jackson writes, “Perhaps no other writer, except Gogol, experienced more painfully and explored more deeply than Dostoevsky that quest for form which lies at the center of Russia’s national awakening in the first part of the nineteenth century. A militant restlessness in the face of “complacent” naturalism places Dostoevsky outside the classical tradition of Pushkin, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, and that therefore, perhaps unwillingly, he stands “somewhere on the threshold of that modern revolution in form” which consists in a “breakdown of form.” Literature was an epistemological tool for Dostoevsky, instead of a daguerreotype plate. He understood Gogol’s “shapeless” Pirogov, a character in “Nevsky Prospect,” to be a metaphor for as yet formless negative traits in the Russian character. He experimented with patently inadequate European forms, not so that he might hit upon a combination of techniques which would “mirror” the familiar Nevsky Prospect but because he felt that Russian literature had yet to give form to the psychological and moral reality of his countrymen. In following Gogol’s lead and exploiting the native baroque traditions which resided in the subculture, Dostoevsky drew on a set of literary forms which were appropriate to the peculiarly unwestern aspects of Russian reality. At the same time, however, he manipulated their innately irreverent tendency as a weapon against the inappropriate European forms which had accrued to legitimate Russian prose during a century of Europeanization. (p. 21)

Incidentally, Hodgson said I could link to his website,, with the proviso that it’s almost a decade old and he hasn’t gotten around to doing the updating he’s been planning (to give you a taste: “literacy’s beginnings signal our first tentative steps out of tribal xenophobia toward global linguistic interaction [a gregarious sociability unique to our species]; spurred by material necessity and fostered by mercantile enterprise, this venturing forth from the ancestral hearth was entirely compatible with the essential human impetus, our innate curiosity”).

Images of Persian Manuscripts Online.

Ursula Sims-Williams has a post on the Asian and African studies blog of the British Library announcing that they’ve uploaded more than 15,000 images of Persian manuscripts online. I got the news from Victor Mair’s Log post of a couple days ago, but I’ve been to share it until I could access the British Library blog — I’ve been getting 404 errors. Now that I’ve done so, here it is, but be warned that it may vanish behind the “not found” screen again. Be patient.

Also, Mair points out “one of the most amazing items”:

A leaf from the Saddar (‘100 doors’), a popular compilation of 100 rules for Zoroastrians which range from justifying instant death for sodomy to the treatment of good and evil animals, and the avoidance of different forms of pollution. This copy, dated Samvat 1631 (AD 1575), is in Persian language, but transcribed in Avestan (Old Iranian) script, together with a Gujarati translation. (BL IO Islamic 3043, f 137r)

He adds, “There is a nice discussion (in the comments section) of why the interspersed Gujarati translation is upside down,” and his summary is well worth reading.

Emily Dickinson Archive.

This is a great site:

Emily Dickinson Archive makes high-resolution images of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts available in open access, and provides readers with a website through which they can view images of manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives. This first phase of the EDA includes images for the corpus of poems identified in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998).

I don’t know what I can add to that; if you’re a Dickinson fan, you’ve wanted something like this for a long time. If I weren’t editing a bear of a job, I’d be spending a lot of time there. (Via MetaFilter, where you will find more links.)

Superfine English.

A commenter in this Wordorigins thread cited a wonderful essay in the December 1885 issue of Cornhill Magazine called “Superfine English” (pp. 626-635); it begins:

It is the Nemesis of pedantry to be always wrong. Your true prig of a pedant goes immensely out of his way to be vastly more correct than other people, and succeeds in the end in being vastly more ungrammatical, or vastly more illogical, or both at once. The common pronunciation, the common idiom, the common meaning attached to a word, are not nearly good enough or fine enough for him; he must try to get at the original sound, at the strict construction, at the true sense—and he always manages to blunder upon something far worse than the slight error, if error it be, whioh he attempts to avoid in his superfine correctness. There are people so fastidious that instead of saying ‘camelia,’ the form practically sanctified by usage and by Dumas Fils (for even Dumas Fils can sanctify), they must needs say ‘camella,’ a monstrous hybrid, the true but now somewhat pedantic ‘Latin’ name being really ‘camellia.’ There are people so learned that instead of talking about Alfred the Great, like all the rest of us, they must needs talk about Ælfred, and then pronounce the word as though the first half of it had something or other to do with eels, whereas the true Anglo-Saxon sound thus clumsily expressed is simply and solely the common Alfred. There are people so grammatical that they must needs dispute ‘against’ their opponent instead of disputing with him, in complete ignorance of the fact that the word ‘with’ itself means ‘against’ in the early forms of the English language, and still retains that meaning even now in ‘withstand,’ ‘withhold,’ ‘withdraw,’ and half-a-dozen other familiar expressions. To such good people one is tempted to answer, in the immortal words of Dr. Parr to the inquirer who asked that great scholar whether the right pronunciation was Samaria or Samareia, ‘You may thay Thamareia if you like, but Thamaria ith quite good enough for me.’

There’s a great passage about the etymological fallacy (the connection in which it was adduced at Wordorigins):

And this leads us on to a second habit of the microscopic critic, which I venture to describe as the Etymological Fallacy. Your critic happens to know well some one particular language, let us say Greek or Latin; and so far as the words derived from that language are concerned (and so far only) he insists upon every word being rigidly applied in its strict original etymological meaning. He makes no allowance for the natural and beautiful growth of metaphor, and the transference of signification, which must necessarily affect the usage of all words in the course of time; he is aware that the root of ‘mutual’ in Latin implies reciprocal action, and so he objects to the harmless English colloquial expression ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ which the genius of Dickens has stamped so indelibly upon the English language that all the ink of all the pedants will never suffice to wash out the hall-mark. I use the mixed metaphor quite intentionally, because it exactly expresses the utter hopelessness of the efforts of banded pedantry.

I wonder if that’s the origin of the phrase (in its modern sense)? The whole thing is worth a read; [I just wish I knew who had written it — Punch suggests it was the editor of the magazine, who would have been James Payn at this time].

Update. Apparently the author is Grant Allen; see Jan Freeman’s comment below.


A correspondent writes: “In the Russian table of ranks you linked to, is Actual in eg. Actual privy councillor a mistranslation? It seems very odd.” I’ve wondered about that oddness myself — it’s not a mistranslation, in the sense that Russian Действительный and German Wirklicher both mean ‘actual,’ but how did that term arise? Anybody know the history of these titles? The OED entry for actual (updated November 2010) is no help; it gives no senses that are obviously appropriate here.

Grannies Telling Fortunes.

I’m now reading Dostoevsky’s Двойник (The Double), his second published work, which came out in late 1846 after the extraordinary success of his first, Poor Folk (discussed at LH here and here), had turned his head and inspired jealous colleagues like Turgenev to mock him unmercifully; I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished it, but for the moment I’ll just note that the use of language is wonderful and frequently hilarious, and the paranoid main character, Golyadkin, may be modeled on Dostoevsky’s friend Butkov, who I’ve been writing about lately — besides the similarities in psychology and social position, they share the same given name and patronymic, Yakov Petrovich. But at the moment I want to post about some colloquial phrases that seem to have given translators some trouble.

As Golyadkin is pouring out his troubles to the irritated and confused Doctor Rutenspitz, he mentions that some people “умеют этак иногда поднести коку с соком” — they know how to present someone with koka s sokom. Now, кока с соком is literally ‘egg with juice’ (кока is a children’s word for ‘egg’), but it is, or was, a colloquial expression for ‘abundance, riches’; it’s not very common (is it still used at all? the last citation in the Национальный корпус русского языка is from 1920), but it’s not clear whether the doctor’s response (“Что? что поднести?” — “What? present what?”) means he doesn’t know the idiom or is simply overwhelmed by Golyadkin’s flood of non sequiturs (he responds with similar confusion to much of what Golyadkin says). Golyadkin reponds impatiently, “Коку с соком, Крестьян Иванович; это пословица русская” (Koka s sokom, Krestyan Ivanovich; it’s a Russian saying), which isn’t much help to the floundering doctor. But how to translate it? Constance Garnett has “they sometimes manage to serve you up a fine egg in gravy,” which, OK, that’s literally pretty much what the Russian says and conveys the general sense, but I’m not sure it’s ideal. The overhyped Pevear-Volokhonsky duo have “a cock with a sock,” which is so ridiculous I can’t even imagine what they were thinking. But let’s move on.

Shortly afterwards, Golyadkin describes how an acquaintance congratulated someone on having attained the rank of collegiate assessor, the eighth rung on the Table of Ranks which ruled Russian official life, and an important one worthy of celebration because it conferred nobility (hereditary until 1845, when Nicholas I reduced it to lifetime nobility, with hereditary nobility beginning at the fifth rank, state councilor). Golyadkin is a titular councilor, the ninth rank, so he himself is of course longing for such a promotion. He quotes the acquaintance as saying “И тем более рад, что нынче, как всему свету известно, вывелись бабушки, которые ворожат”: “and I’m even more pleased because now…” now what? There’s the rub. The Russian literally says “grandmothers who tell fortunes vyvelis’,” the verb meaning either ‘go out of use, disappear, become extinct’ or ‘be hatched.’ Garnett apparently chooses the second sense (“all the world knows that there are old women nowadays who tell fortunes”), P&V the first (“as all the world knows, there are no more little grannies telling fortunes”). But what both of them ignore is that there is a phrase (ему) бабушка ворожит ‘(he) holds good cards’ or ‘has a friend in court,’ which it seems to me must be intended here, because grannies telling fortunes, whether they exist or have gone extinct, are completely irrelevant, whereas “I’m even more pleased because now you have friends in high places” makes perfect sense in context. I know Golyadkin is insane, but that doesn’t mean everything he says is random babbling.

But there’s a third phrase that I myself can’t make head nor tail of. Golyadkin says “Да тут, чтоб уж разом двух воробьев одним камнем убить, — как срезал молодца-то на бабушках”: “But now, to kill two birds with one stone, as…” As what? Garnett has “But, to kill two birds with one stone, as I twitted our young gentleman with the old women”; P&V have “And here, to kill two birds with one stone — once I’ve cut the lad down with the little grannies,” and neither of them makes any sense at all (furthermore, typically for them, P&V translate тут by its literal equivalent “here” rather than the contextually appropriate “now”); surely they are missing some idiom or reference, but I don’t have any idea what it might be. Anybody know?

Russia’s New Profanity Wars.

Angela Brintlinger posts at NYU Jordan Center News about the traditional prudishness of Russian high/literary culture and how it’s been eaten away since perestroika by writers like Viktor Erofeev and Eduard Limonov, and about one aspect of the alarming new “bloggers law” (thanks for the link, George!):

All that is about to end. As reported this week, Putin’s new “bloggers law”—which goes into effect on August 1—includes a section on profanity. Four “vulgar words” will no longer be permitted. The New York Times explains: “(The words, not mentioned in the law either, are crude terms for male and female genitalia, sex and a prostitute.)”[2]

Really? We’re going back to х**, п***а, е****, and б***?

In other words, they’re banning the Big Four: хуй ‘cock, prick,’ пизда ‘cunt,’ ебать ‘fuck,’ and блядь ‘whore’ (but functionally equivalent to ‘fuck’ in that it can be inserted anywhere in a sentence just to add an extra helping of profanity). This is obviously far from the worst thing in the law or in what’s going on these days in Russia, but even though having a finger cut off isn’t as bad as having your head cut off, you still don’t want to have a finger cut off. I just wish she hadn’t felt the need to add the prissy caveat “I am no fan of profanity. The great and powerful Russian language, as Turgenev had it, has made a lasting impact on world culture even without those nasty words…” Fuck that shit, lady. Profanity is an inherent part of the великий и могучий, as it is of any proper language, and there’s no need to hold it at arm’s length when you’re going to the trouble of deploring its banning.

The Third Language.

The Most Common Language In Each US State—Besides English And Spanish: the title is pretty self-explanatory. In Arizona and New Mexico, it’s Navajo, which is unsurprising. In California, Nevada, and Hawaii, it’s Tagalog, which surprised me. In large swaths of the Midwest, it’s German. And in Oregon, it’s Russian! (Thanks, Sven!)

What Kind of Linguist Should You Be?

I know, I know, online polls, but how could I resist this one? My one concern was that my variety was so out of fashion it wouldn’t even be included, but no, it placed me properly:

Historical Linguist

Latin, Ancient Greek, Hitite, etc… are far from dead to you. You have a firm grasp on phonological processes and philology. You memorize etymology texts in your free time. The Brothers Grimm are so much more to you than fairy tale writers, and you can explain every spelling discrepancy for both English and French. You are social, but mostly with illuminated texts and Shakespeare. You are SO over current trends and know that modern technology is only good for improving our understanding of the past.

Silly, but it improved my morning just a bit, and I’m passing it along in case it might do the same for others.