Archives for September 2014

Fifth Business.

My wife has been reading Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy, and the things she’s muttered or asked about as she’s read have been so intriguing that I’ve started the first novel in the series, Fifth Business. I’ve known about the book most of my life — seen it in bookstores, heard it mentioned, and so on — and always wondered about the odd title; on opening the book I found it immediately explained in a Definition (on a page by itself, where the Dedication would normally go):

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
        –Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

But was that a real thing, or invented by Davies? There actually is a book Den danske skueplads [The Danish stage] by Thomas Overskou, but there appear to be quite a few volumes (here‘s Volume 6) and I don’t read Danish (nor, presumably, do most of Davies’s intended readers), so he could perfectly well have invented the quote and foisted it on the safely dead Overskou. On the other hand, sometimes the most improbable such epigraphs turn out to be perfectly accurate. And I’m afraid to do too much googling because I don’t want to learn anything about the plot, which my wife says is cleverly constructed. So: does anybody happen to know if it’s a real thing or an invention?

Also, if anyone’s curious about our nighttime reading, we’ve finished Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and begun Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, which also deals with the WWI period in England but is otherwise utterly different (and sentence by sentence, better written); we’re enjoying it greatly.

Fairy Ann.

Back in 2006, we here at LH (always ahead of the curve) discussed the WWI-era Tommyfied French “san fairy Ann” (ça ne fait rien); now Mark Liberman has posted about it at the Log, spurred by David Shariatmadari’s “That eggcorn moment” (“If you’ve been signalled out by friends for saying ‘when all is set and done’, you’re not alone – linguists even have a word for it”). Both Liberman and Shariatmadari quote a wonderful paragraph by Jeanette Winterson about “damp squid”; Liberman goes on to cite this further passage:

My father was in Ipres, (pronounced Wipers), during the War, and like many of his generation, came back with bits of French.

Ce ne fait rien turned into San Fairy Ann, meaning Stuff You, and then a new character emerged in Lancashire-speak, known as Fairy Ann; a got-up creature, no better than she should be, who couldn’t give a damn. ‘San Fairy Ann to you’, morphed into, ‘Who does she think she is? Fairy Ann?’

And he quotes he OED on san fairy ann., n.:

Jocular form repr. French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter’, said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.

An expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs. Also ellipt. as Fairy Ann.

And yes, I’m quite sure “signalled out” in the subhead is a deliberate eggcorn. (Thanks for the link, Eric!)

Word Usage over Time in Movies and TV.

You like Google’s Ngram Viewer (LH post), right? Well, Benjamin Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, has done the same for movies and TV. You can read about it, and see a couple of samples, here. Data keeps getting more searchable and useful!

References, Please.

I like Tim Parks. Mind you, I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ve always enjoyed his essays when I’ve come across them, usually in the NYRB. His latest blog post for them, however, makes me want to rap him across the knuckles. It’s an extended whine about how annoying it is to create scholarly references and how he wishes they wouldn’t make him do it any more. Hey, I know exactly how annoying it is; I do it routinely as part of my editing, fixing the references of authors who couldn’t be bothered to do a decent job (or who farmed it out to grad students or interns who, more understandably, couldn’t be bothered to do a decent job). But it’s got to be done unless you want to jettison the whole enterprise of verifiable scholarship and go back to the days of quotation from memory and “every schoolboy knows.” Here’s a paragraph where the absurdity of his idea (that he and other slackers should be spared the suffering) shows through plainly:

Of course it will be objected that Google is not always accurate and does not yet include everything. Who would disagree? Though my experience with literary texts is that Google Books, or again Project Gutenberg, or the online University of Adelaide Library are accurate in an overwhelming majority of cases. But if they are not, let’s insist they become more accurate and more comprehensive, particularly with all works that are now out of copyright.

You go right ahead and insist, Tim, and on the day when online metadata become thoroughly reliable, sometime in the thirty-fifth century, you have my permission to rely on them. Until then, suck it up and get those page numbers.

Update. Dave Wilton of has a far more thorough rebuttal of Parks’s silly idea; go read it. A sample (the Parks allegation is in itals):

Texts are available on the internet. If someone wants to verify a quotation from The Great Gatsby, yes it is easier and for most purposes just as valid to search Project Gutenberg than it is to track down the specific edition and then find the quotation in it, but I challenge anyone to do that with a quotation from one of Bede’s homilies. (I’ve been spending weeks trying to locate the source of just such a quotation because the scholar who quoted it did not provide adequate bibliographic information.) Furthermore, secondary sources are often behind firewalls and not readily searchable. Even if a scholar has digital access to the journal article through her university library, without knowing the journal title, issue, and date, finding the article is time consuming if not impossible.

The Language of Food.

A NY Times story by Jennifer Schuessler (thanks for the link, Bonnie!) draws attention to a new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, which sounds fascinating:

In his book, Mr. Jurafsky traces the gradual fading of French as the lingua franca of “fancy” American restaurants. “Entree” has gone all but extinct at the high end, though there are some holdouts like “jus,” used at Root & Bone to describe the silky chicken gravy served alongside “Grandma Daisy’s Angel Biscuits,” dipping-sauce style.

The “Southern Peach Caprese,” on the other hand, built around an oozing ball of fried pimento cheese, testified to Italian food’s rising fortunes. “Caprese has become such a common word, we can now use it as a metaphor for something else,” he said. “You can expect your customer to know what it is.”

It also mentions Jurafsky’s blog The Language of Food, apparently newly revived after several years’ hiatus (which gives me hope for MMcM’s Polyglot Vegetarian); I’ve added it to my RSS feed and am hoping for more discussions like this from the latest post, Tea if by Sea:

The story begins where the far southwest of China’s Yunnan province meets northeastern Burma and Thailand, somewhere between the Mekong, Irawaddy, and Salween rivers. The tea plant, camellia sinensis, is native to a wide area that includes this region, and it was probably somewhere near here that it was domesticated. A number of linguistic groups arrived in this region very early, first speakers of Mon-Khmer (a proto-language that is the ancestor of Cambodian, Vietnamese and many smaller languages scattered around southeast Asia), and then Tibeto-Burman (the family that includes Burmese) and Tai-Kadai (the ancestor of Thai and other smaller languages). Tea plays many important roles in this region; as a beverage, a salad, a ritual item, and regional groups in northern Laos or Thailand even ferment tea leaves in bamboo tubes, sprinkle them with salt and chew them like plugs of chewing tobacco.

Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh postulate in their terrific The True History of Tea (check out Appendix C which has the linguistic details) that the earliest Mon-Khmer used a word like *la (the * means a word in a hypothetical proto-language) to mean ‘tea’ or ‘leaf’. As other groups like the Tibeto-Burmans moved into the area, they borrowed *la; that’s the origin of the la (‘tea/leaf’) in Burmese tea laphet. Mair and Hoh postulate that early Chinese speakers borrowed the word *la too as they immigrated south into Yunnan, and over time *la changed to *lra and then, by sometime around 500 CE, the Middle Chinese form *dra.

For the next thousand years, tea culture and the word for tea developed in China. Tea slowly spread to neighboring countries, as the early Chinese powdered tea traditions ritualized in the matcha of the Japanese tea ceremony and yak-butter tea became a staple in Tibet. As the Chinese language diversified, words for tea began to diversify as well, becoming cha in Mandarin and Cantonese and te in the Southern Min dialect spoken in Fujian and Taiwan.

Roughly around the turn of the 17th century, tea began to spread around the globe, and languages around the world borrowed the word from Chinese, in two distinct forms. Some languages have a word starting with “t” like our tea (and German Tee and Spanish ), while others have a word starting with “ch” like cha in Japanese and Portuguese, or chai in Russian, Mongolian, and Hindi.

There are even maps, which gives bonus points as far as I’m concerned.

Who Can Save Ayapaneco?

Daniel Suslak, an associate professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, has an impassioned piece at SchwaFire on a dying Mexican language, the dedicated linguists and people of Ayapa (“Linguists started calling the language of the people here ‘Ayapaneco’ because it’s spoken in Ayapa and nowhere else”) who are trying to save it, and the telecom company that has been misrepresenting the story for their own benefit; it’s longish but worth the read. It’s just one of the many (59!) links at Stan’s latest Link love post, which I am slowly working my way through; I suggest you bookmark it and do the same. Lotsa good stuff.

So Your A Pedant?

OK, Bridie Jabour’s Guardian rant isn’t really anything I haven’t said and quoted many times before, but a good anti-peever rant is always worth seeing, and I like the in-your-face nature of this one and the emphasis in the conclusion on an important point that is sometimes not attended to:

That aside, there is a need for us to be literate, of course. Which brings me to what may be the most devastating revelation for the enthusiastic corrector: WE KNOW. Most of the time, serial manglers of the English language know the difference between “complimentary” and “complementary”.

Eight times out of 10, it will just be a simple typo made as we’re tweeting while ordering food, dodging traffic or pretending to work. But the glee with which typos, outside of news articles, is jumped on is tedious. Affectively, you’re just saying you are more educated than the person writing or speaking. Or you think you are. But just as Tony Abbott certainly knows what Canada is called, and Tanya Plibersek is clear that Africa is a continent, a slip on the keyboard is not a good reason for you to type your most patronising “*”.

Also: “The first person to spot all 10 errors and/or misuses of the English language gets a prize,” so act now — supplies are doubtless limited. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)


Metambesen is one of those fine old Native American place names; as we read in the American Historical Register for 1896:

About 1680 Colonel Peter Schuyler purchased from the Indians a tract of land lying over against Magdalen island, and in 1688 obtained therefor, from Governor Thomas Dongan, a patent, in which the boundaries are thus defined. “Situated, lying, and being on the east side of Hudson’s river, in Dutchess county over against Magdalen island, beginning at a certain creek called Metambesen (now the Sawkill), running thence easterly to about two miles southeast of Upper Red Hook, thence northerly so far, till, upon a due east and west line, it reaches over against Sawyer’s creek, from thence due west to the Hudson river, and from thence southerly along said river to the said creek, called Metambesen.”

Robert Kelly is fond of the name; he’s used it in his poetry (from “Yesterbite”: “just/ the sunlight on Metambesen/ and Baron Delafield’s untrimmed woods,/ a business in land”), and his wife, the translator Charlotte Mandell, writes me that they’ve set up a website of that name:

As citizens in the commonwealth of language, we are anxious to make new work freely and easily available, using the swift herald of the internet to bring readers chapbooks and other texts they can read and download without cost. The first publication in this series is Eyeland, photos by Charlotte Mandell with texts by Lynn Behrendt, Billie Chernicoff, Robert Kelly, and Tamas Panitz.

In future weeks, we will make more texts available, including the long poem The Language of Eden by Robert Kelly.

This is a fine thing to have done, and I await with eagerness whatever texts they decide to share.


Some of you will remember Alexander Kim’s earlier site (see this LH post); I am glad to report he is planning to move the archives to his new site, Sarkoboros, about which he says (on the About page):

I’m a researcher in David Reich’s lab at Harvard’s Department of Genetics who seeks to better understand the human past through ancient and modern genomes and their dialogue with archaeology, historical biogeography, linguistics, physical anthropology, ethnography, and other disciplines. My interests range widely through evolution, ecology, and history.

I wish him the best and look forward to seeing more such interesting posts as Helimski: Early European Avars were (in part) Tungusic speakers; I’m adding the URL to my RSS feed.

Stalinist Cosmopolitanism.

I’m reading Katerina Clark’s Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, whose surprising thesis is that the Soviet 1930s, generally considered a time of socialism-in-one-country retrenchment in which contacts with the world beyond Russia’s borders were looked on with disfavor, actually involved a fair amount of such contact, and here’s a particularly surprising example:

The demise of RAPP [abolished in 1932] was for most writers liberating. The change was almost immediately reflected in Literaturnaia gazeta, where in recent years RAPP had been the driving force. Its editorial board was revamped—now to include Koltsov—and the amount of material it published about Western writers and intellectuals increased exponentially, with regular columns such as “Literary New York” and items on current developments in English culture by Prince Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky, who had recently returned from London after twelve years in emigration.

Most striking were the intermittent articles extolling such members of the Western avant-garde as Joyce, Dos Passos, Picasso, and the French Surrealists. By 1935 a Pravda editorial, “The Style of Soviet Culture,” was citing Balzac, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy as its models. And in 1932 Koltsov founded and edited a new journal, Za rubezhom (Abroad). “Boy” was not just meeting “tractor,” he was also encountering Western culture.

Who knew? Not me, anyway.

Addendum. A later paragraph that drives home the point:

The Soviets established their superiority over the Nazis in part with tremendous investment in publication of German books, boasting the largest publishing house of German books outside Germany (VEGAAR) and authorizing 250 titles in German a year at its height, not to mention a lot of German literature published in Russian or Ukrainian translation.

And both Joyce (Ulysses) and Céline were translated and published in the mid-’30s!