Archives for August 2014

The Story of “Dob.”

Bruce Moore (a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary) discusses the meanings and history of the Australian slang verb dob in an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words (Oxford University Press Australia, 2010), quoted in this Ozwords post:

The verb dob has a range of meanings in Australian English. The most common meaning (often in the form dob in, dob into, or dob on) is ‘to inform upon, to incriminate’ … It can also (and less commonly) mean ‘to impose a responsibility upon (often a matter of getting someone to do an unpopular or difficult task)’ … As dob in it can also mean ‘to contribute money to a common cause’ … Finally, in Australian Rules football, dob can mean ‘to kick (the ball) long and accurately; to kick (a goal)’ … Are all these meanings related?

A possible clue to the origin of this major sense of dob, and also the other dobs, may lie in British dialect. … In fact, most dictionaries trace the Australian dobs back to these British dialect dobs. There, we find the verb dob meaning ‘to put down an article heavily or clumsily; to throw down’, with widespread dialectal usage… A second dialectal meaning of dob is ‘to throw stones etc. at a mark’, mainly from northern English dialects, and from Cornwall. … In Lincolnshire dob means ‘to hit’ or ‘a hit’. The underlying notion of throwing and hitting is evident in some marble games. In Cheshire the verb dob means ‘to throw a piece of slate, or other flat missile, at marbles placed in a ring at a distance of about six or seven feet from the player’, and in Northamptonshire ‘When one boy strikes another boy’s marble, without his marble first touching the ground, he is said to dob on it’. A dobber in British dialect is ‘a large, heavy marble’ and a dob-taw is ‘a large marble, a “lobber”’. In most of these uses the dialect dob is synonymous with the more familiar dab, and with some of that word’s dialectal uses—for example, a dab can be ‘an amount of money’, and to dab down means ‘to put a thing down quickly’ and figuratively ‘to pay down ready money’.

This is clearly a very complex etymology. The problem with what is outlined here is that those Australian words and meanings, which we are certain have their origin in British dialect, appear during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the influence of dialectal words on Australian English was at its greatest. The Australian dob and its variants are first recorded much later then this. … On these grounds we must conclude that the origin remains uncertain, although the clues provided in the dialectal material certainly provide some very likely origins.

An admirable example of how the nitty-gritty of etymology is carried on; see the link for citations, references, and further speculation.

Garnett and Tolstoy.

Translator Rosamund Bartlett (also author of a biography of Tolstoy) has a very interesting piece in the Financial Times on the history of Tolstoy translations; the centerpiece is an account of how the woman who practically defined Russian literature in English got her start:

Within months of its completion in 1893, Tolstoy’s philosophical magnum opus The Kingdom of God is Within You was being read in English in northern Pakistan by the explorer Francis Younghusband, and in South Africa by a young Indian lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi. It had an equally immediate and explosive impact on both of them, and on countless others in cities as far-flung as Chicago, Alexandria and Rangoon who promptly resigned army commissions or abandoned commerce.

The translation they read was by Constance Garnett, a remarkable woman who would play a key role in popularising Tolstoy as a novelist. Born Constance Black in Brighton in 1861, the momentous year in which serfdom was abolished in Russia, she graduated in classics from Cambridge and began her career as a librarian in the East End of London. Marriage to the editor and critic Edward Garnett brought her more directly into the world of letters. His work led to friendships with writers such as Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence, and also to contact with Russian émigrés. Through her interest in socialism, Constance Garnett had already met George Bernard Shaw, a leading light in the Fabian Society, which was a common thread uniting the community of radicals, writers and exiles from Tsarist Russia among whom she and her husband ended up living on the Kent-­Surrey border. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. He provided assistance in her first translating project: Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story.

Garnett learnt more Russian with another revolutionary with whom she fell in love. Sergei Stepnyak (who had assassinated the Russian head of the secret police in St Petersburg in 1878) encouraged her to tackle Turgenev. But then, as now, the market for literary translation was small, and publishers needed to sell books. What was selling in 1894 was Tolstoy, so it was to The Kingdom of God is Within You that Garnett turned next. Earlier that winter she made her first visit to Russia, and had an inspiring meeting with Tolstoy in a snowbound Moscow. His piercing eyes, she reported, “seemed to look right through one and to make anything but perfect candour out of the question”, while at the same time “there was an extraordinary warmth and affection in them”.

As Erik McDonald of XIX век said, “There’s so much I didn’t know here — it would have taken me a long time to guess the first thing Garnett translated.” (He has some good links on other Garnetts as well.) Thanks for the FT link, Paul!

Maltese and Arabic.

Remember last year I posted about Maltese, and in a comment bulbul talked about a grant to functionally study the mutual intelligibility of Maltese and Benghazi Arabic? Well, he’s now on his way to Groningen for the Methods in Dialectology XV conference where he’ll be speaking about it, and he sent me a link to his presentation (pdf) saying I should feel free to share it, so I’m sharing it; I presume when the actual paper is available he’ll link to it in the comments. He also says “wish me luck tomorrow,” so: break a leg and give ’em hell!

New Dialects.

1) Of Welsh. The Economist writes about efforts to revive the Welsh language:

But the Welsh that can be heard in schools and that is spoken by the sports commentators on the Blue Boar’s small television set is different from the kind that many native speakers grew up with. A standardisation centre at Bangor University has added new words, such as “cyfrifiadur” for computer. Old words that had fallen out of use in many parts, like “brechdanau” [sandwiches], have been revived. Grammar is more English and less complicated. […]

Not everybody is delighted with the new lingo. “So bloody fake”, mutters the Blue Boar’s landlord at the television, while local comedians like Daniel Glyn mock the clunky phrases on stage: “I can speak English and Welsh, but neither of them proper, bach.” Jonathan Snicker of St John’s College, Oxford, says the change breaks the link between older villagers and the urbane young, who can struggle to understand each other.

But Colin Nosworthy, a spokesman for the Welsh Language Society, points out that the birth of a new dialect is a good sign for a language. “Better a slack Welsh than a slick English,” he says—and many agree.

Including me. (Thanks, Kobi!)

2) In English. Pamela Druckerman writes in the NY Times about her native city:

Miami even has a homegrown dialect. Young Latinos — regardless of whether they even know Spanish — speak English with a Spanish twang. To non-Miamians, they sound like extremely fluent immigrants. Phillip M. Carter, a linguist at Florida International University, says that when young born-and-bred Miamians visit the rest of America, or even Boca Raton, people often ask them what country they’re from.

“Miami English” is also proof that a city can be international but not cosmopolitan. People typically don’t realize they’re speaking a dialect unless they leave Miami, Mr. Carter says.

It’s not in the least surprising, but I hadn’t read about it before.

Uyghur läghmän and Mandarin lāmiàn.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log involving exactly the kind of detailed historical-linguistic analysis I like, about the apparent but hard-to-parse relationship between the Uyghur and Mandarin terms for pulled noodles, läghmän and lāmiàn respectively; as several commenters point out, läghmän can’t be of Turkic origin because Turkic words don’t start with l, but where is it from? Stefan Georg says it’s “very likely just the Chinese word. The inorganic velar may be an encroachment from/contamination with Uzbek /lagan/, Modern ‘Uighur’ /lägän/, which is a kind of dish or plate”; Peter Golden says “You may want to think of an Iranian provenance, although I cannot think of any term in Persian.” Fascinating stuff, and it should be of particular interest to our Central Asia maven John Emerson. (Also, I’m now hungry for pulled noodles.)

HUGE Database.

Robin Straaijer writes at Slate about the Hyper Usage Guide of English or HUGE database, based out of Leiden University, that includes “more than 75 usage guides and 123 usage problems in the English language, spanning a period of nearly 250 years.” He goes into some detail about the history of “hopefully” peevery (“It seems to have begun in Wilson Follett’s 1966 Modern American Usage“) and continues:

The HUGE database contains similar levels of detail for 122 other usage issues throughout the ages, including data: singular vs. plural; different to, from or than; they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun; and could of for could have. Although describing them all here would be a book in itself, more on these types of issues and how we made the database can be found at the project blog, Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public.

One of the general issues that we’ve noticed in creating HUGE is that newer usage guides tend to discuss a greater number of usage problems than older ones do. This suggests that more usage problems are “discovered” than disappear, either by being “forgotten” about or resolved. Furthermore, the database mainly contains usage problems relating to grammatical issues rather than word-choice or spelling. It seems then, that grammatical issues don’t easily “go out of fashion,” something that happens more easily with problems of word choice, spelling or pronunciation. The number of problems probably increases because writers of usage guides base themselves on existing guides and grammars, and add their pet peeves. What also plays a role is that usage guides continue to mention specific usage items, even if just to mention that they are no longer problematic—although if you have to explicitly mention that something is no longer an issue, it clearly still is.

It’s definitely a worthy project, and do check out that blog; still, I was put off right at the start when he talks about usage guides that “range from the venerable, like Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, to the modern, like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.” While that is, of course, literally true, I bristle at the equation of the utterly reliable and descriptivist MWDEU with the others, which all fall under the rubric of “I’m going to tell you what’s right and wrong based on my personal authority.” The term “usage guide” covers both, but “medical book” covers both Galen and, say, Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine; I know which one I’d rather have my doctor consulting. I know I’m extra touchy on this subject, but I had to say it anyway.


I happened on a reference to The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern and took advantage of Amazon’s “Sample the beginning of this book for free” offer, and having read the introduction I’m now eager to read the book itself. It’s one of those books — like Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (LH post) and Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (LH post), both covering the Polish/Ukrainian/Russian territory that has suffered so much from history and is the focus of this book — that change the way you think about the history of a substantial part of the world. As you can tell from the title, Petrovsky-Shtern’s focus is on the shtetl, except that they didn’t call it that when it was in what he terms its golden age, from the 1790s to the 1840s, when it was a thriving type of community (taken over by the Russian Empire from Polish “private towns”) in which Jews ran the economy (fairs, markets, taverns). As I wrote over at XIX век, it provides essential background for understanding the Ukrainian and Belorussian communities early-19th-century Russian novelists wrote about; I thought especially of Narezhny (LH post), with his peasant communities whose economic focus is a prosperous Jewish tavern-keeper. Here are some passages from the introduction:

Jews only called their locality a shtetl once they had gotten out of the shtetl. […] For loyal shtetl dwellers, the word shtetl was too charged with pejorative and condescending meanings. God forbid a traveling Jewish merchant from Brody would tell the Jews of Medvedovka that they lived in a shtetl, or even worse, a shtetele. […] They lived in a town, a shtot—nothing less. […] Like the Russian administrators who sought to define mestechko [the Russian term], the Jews ignored the significance of demography and statistics. What mattered to the Jews was not the size of the place but what the Jews did there. […] If they had a scribe there, a rabbi in charge of marriages and divorces, two knowledgeable Jews serving on the rabbinic court, and could issue a sophisticated document, this was definitely a town, a formidable center of Jewish life. […]

Today we readily call any locality in East Europe where Jews once lived a shtetl, although the Jews who lived there two hundred years ago called it a town and the Russian bureaucrats called it a mestechko. The shtetl thus absorbs various meanings and the tension between them: the Polish legal and economic private town, the Russian administrative mestechko, and the Jewish religious “holy community.” It was precisely the combination of these factors that created the triangle of power, shared by Poles, Jews, and Russians—that shaped the shtetl golden age. […]

Any number of trading Jews sufficed to make a shtetl insofar as they dominated within the corresponding trading or urban estate. This book calls a settlement a shtetl if it had elements of the old Polish leaseholding economy, an established trade and a marketplace, and a liquor trade—all run predominantly by Jews, who paid taxes to the Russian state treasury and bribes to the Russian police, and who organized themselves into a traditional Jewish community. That multiethnic settlement was a shtetl. […]

Had Russia come to grips with the shtetls’ character and activity, its relations with its Jews would have taken a different path. This did not happen. Political and ideological interests had the upper hand over common sense, and the shtetl found itself at the epicenter of a longlasting if latent war between the Russians and the Poles. Since the Russians were playing the game on their own territory, they won, at the expense of interethnic tolerance and the golden age shtetl.

The story has a sad end, but it sounds well worth reading.

Stet and An Untranslatable Poem.

“To cheer you up in the practice of your profession,” John Cowan sent me a link to Stet, a collection of intemperate responses by authors to publishers who have committed editing outrages, e.g.:

In all the proof that has reached me, windrow has been spelled window. If, in the bound book, windrow still appears as window, then neither rain nor hail nor gloom of night nor fleets of riot squads will prevent me from assassinating the man who is responsible. If the coward hides behind my finding, I shall step into Scribner’s and merely shoot up the place Southern style.” — American author Gordon Dorrance (1890-1957), note to his publishers

It did indeed cheer me up, and in browsing around Futility Closet (which I should visit more often) I found (in the Language category) An Untranslatable Poem, about a six-word Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo called “Serenata sintética” that “is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue”:

“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.

“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”

Some Links.

1) A linguist walks into a bar. Gave me a chuckle. (Thanks, David!)

2) “20 Missouri Cities No One Knows How to Pronounce,” by Lindsay Toler. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

3) “The Jargon Trap,” by David Tuller (from the NY Times’ Opinionator blog). Useful advice for specialists trying to write for the general public:

My colleague Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of environmental health sciences at Berkeley, says writing opinion pieces aimed at nonprofessionals forces her to sharpen her focus and think hard about what’s most important. “For a popular audience, you have to get to your point quickly,” she told me in an interview. “In academic writing, the ‘so what’ is usually buried under a lot of verbiage.” Researchers familiar with a particular discipline find great value in academic literature because they’re used to the format. But while the rigid structure and formal language of these peer-reviewed journal articles “are useful for the purpose they’re supposed to serve,” Dr. Morello-Frosch added, “that doesn’t make them well written or interesting to read.”

Tuller tells his students to “forget formal references” and abandon “the promiscuous use of acronyms.” (Thanks, Eric!)

4) “You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso,” by Ben Yagoda, points out that this much-peeved issue is more complicated than you might think:

Whatever the source of its appeal, expresso has had a long and not entirely disreputable history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it as an acceptable variant. Between 1945 (date of the OED’s first citation) and 1960, it was permitted in The New York Times, with 43 uses compared with 122 for espresso. The paper noted in 1947 that “the Bazaar Francais has some new single-cup pots, one of the expresso style from Italy,” and in 1954, “Expresso coffee has been familiar in New York’s numerous Italian restaurants for many years.” The spelling was also widely used in Britain, especially in references to the coffee houses popular with the bohemian set in Soho. […] Contrarians have pointed out that expresso is the norm in France, Portugal, and Spain.

5) John McIntyre, “mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper,” has a typically sensible and punchy piece taking issue with a “misguided (read: stupid)” article on lexicography by Michael Dirda:

Before we get to the lexicography, we might ask why Mr. Dirda thought we would be interested in his personal preferences in vocabulary. All of us, I imagine, have words we favor and words we avoid out of aesthetic preferences, but we don’t imagine that the public is keen to be let in on them.

We might also wonder why Mr. Dirda was so eager to fall into the newspaper cliche of The Awful Way Those Young People Talk. Journalists go in for this every few years, about the way The Young are butchering English, and their weird clothes and loud music and degenerate carnality. (For the last, read: having more sex than I am.) I suppose it’s one way to proclaim that one is no longer young, but why that would be of more interest to readers than one’s individual preferences in vocabulary escapes me.

He also seems not to understand the point of slang. Slang is being generated all the time, by different groups, The Young prominent among them. It starts out as a code, an in-group language, and it loses its appeal for the young as soon as older people like Mr. Dirda come to understand it. It’s ephemeral. Most of it fades away quickly, though a little will lodge in the language. Vaporing about it makes as much sense as throwing a hissy about the weather, which is equally changeable.

But we should be getting to the point, the point being that Mr. Dirda appears to be in the dark about what lexicographers are doing. […]

Read the whole thing; McIntyre is always a delight.

God in Four Letters.

I do love a good crackpot — excuse me, I mean premodern — etymology, and Poemas del río Wang has a doozy; the quote is from “the eleven-language dictionary of Calepinus, published in 1590 in Basle, which I happen to have here on my bookshelf” (“I found this bulky folio volume some thirty year ago in a waste paper recycling shop, and purchased it at the price of scrap paper, for about one euro in today’s currency”):

It is not unworthy to consider, that almost every people and language writes the name of God in four letters. In fact, the Hebrews call him יחוח Yehova, with four letters, the Chaldeans also with four letters, אלוח Eloha, the Syriacs also אלוח Eloha; at the Aethiopians He is אמלו Amlau, at the Assyrians אדעד Adad, at the Greeks Θεός, at the Egyptians Θωύθ, at the Persians Σύρη, at the Latins Deus, at the Italians Idio, at the Spanish Dios, at the French Dieu, at the Germans, Flemish and English Gott or Godt, at the [Persian] Magi Orsi, at the Poles Boog, from bog, that is, ʻfear’, at the Dalmatians and Illyrians Boga or Boog, at the older Muslims, whom we also call Saracens, Abgd, at the Turks following Mohamed Alla, at the peoples discovered in the world called “new” Zimi, at the Vlachs Zëul, at the Gypsies Odel.

At the Hungarians, if we look at its origin, the name of God has also four letters. They call him with great respect Isten, which, although seems to have five letters, if we consider its origin, has only four. In fact, the Hungarian term comes from the second aorist of the verb ʻto be’ ἴστημι, which sounds ἐϛὶν [ἐστὶν]: ʻI exist, I am by way of myself’, which second aorist is written with four letters. The s and t, written with two letters in the Hungarian word, are both encompassed in the single Greek letter ϛ sigmatau. Thus, by virtue of its origin, the Hungarian name also has to be written with four letters, so: Ἴϛεν [Ἴστεν]. In this way, the name of God is a τετραγράμματον [four-letter name] for every people, and we think He is called so, because His essence is one, but within His one essence He is three actually existing and different persons.”

You can see an image of the Calepinus page at the link, where you will also find a discussion of the actual etymology of Hungarian isten (about which there are various opinions).