Archives for January 2015

The Dawn’s Posterior.

Frequent commenter Paul sent me a French etymology so piquant I have to share it with all of you. There are two synonymous obsolete expressions (now used humorously), potron-jacquet and potron-minet, appearing only in the phrases à potron-minet/jacquet and dès (le) potron-minet/jacquet ‘at the crack of dawn.’ In today’s French dictionaries, minet means ‘pussycat,’ jacquet means ‘backgammon,’ and there is no word potron; what’s the story? The Trésor de la langue française informatisé has the answer:

Étymol. et Hist. 1835 (Ac.). Loc. issue par substitution de minet* «chat» à jacquet «écureuil» … de (dès le) poitron-jacquet «dès l’aube» (1640, OUDIN Curiositez); poitron (fin XIIe s., Audigier, éd. O. Jodogne, 23) représente le b. lat. posterio «cul». Cette loc. qui signifie proprement «dès que le derrière de l’écureuil se fait voir», s’explique par le fait que l’écureuil dresse souvent sa queue, faisant ainsi voir son derrière. Son remplacement par potron-minet est sans doute dû au fait que le chat passe pour être très matinal. Les expr. ont parfois été altérées en patron-jaquet (jacquette), patron-minet (minette), v. en partic. BALZAC, Père Goriot, 1835, p. 50 et HUGO, Misér., t. 1, 1862, p. 862.

In other words, this jacquet is an old word for ‘squirrel,’ poitron is from Low Latin posterio ‘rear end,’ and the expression originally meant ‘as soon as you can see a squirrel’s ass’ (which is explained par le fait que l’écureuil dresse souvent sa queue, faisant ainsi voir son derrière: by the fact that the squirrel often raises his tail, letting you see his derriere); the squirrel was replaced by the cat because the latter passe pour être très matinal, is thought to be a very early riser. (There is a word matou ‘male cat,’ but it is a variant of mitou and has, alas, nothing to do with le matin.)

Completely unrelated, but here‘s an Irish Examiner story with a brief clip of “a young Derry lad being interviewed by UTV Ireland about the walk to school in the snow.” It was posted to Reddit with the caption “Give up just 16 seconds of your day to hear potentially the greatest accent ever to grace the ears of mankind.” Thanks, Trevor!


I’m still reading Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, and I’ve gotten to the part where the title is explained. First, on p. 176:

The ogee curve was repeated in the mirrors and pelmets and in the wardrobes, which looked like Gothic confessionals; but its grandest statement was in the canopy of the bed, made of two transecting ogees crowned by a boss like a huge wooden cabbage. It was as he lay beneath it, in uneasy post-coital vacancy, that the idea of calling Wani’s outfit Ogee had come to him: it had a rightness to it, being both English and exotic, like so many things he loved. The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural; a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome. […] The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compusions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back. He didn’t think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell—he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty.

Then, on p. 196, a fuller exposition:

“So you’ve got a name for the bloody thing.”

“Yah, we’re calling it Ogee, like the company,” Wani said, very straightforwardly.

Bertrand pursed his plump lips. “I don’t get it, what is it…? ‘Oh Gee!,'” is that it?” he said, bad-tempered but pleased to have made a joke. “You’ll have to tell me again because no one’s ever heard of this bloody ‘ogee.'”

“I thought he was saying ‘Orgy,'” said Martine.

“Orgy?!” said Bertrand.

Wani looked across the table, and since this unheard-of name had originally been his idea Nick said, “You know, it’s a double curve, such as you see in a window or a dome.” He made the shape of half an hourglass with his hands raised in the air, just as Monique, in one of her occasional collusive gestures, did the same and smiled at him as if salaaming.

“It goes first one way, and then the other,” she said.

“Exactly. It originates in… well, in the Middle East, in fact, and then you see it in English architecture from about the fourteenth century onwards. It’s like Hogarth’s line of beauty,” Nick said, with a mounting sense of fatuity, “except that there are two of them, of course… I suppose the line of beauty’s a sort of animating principle, isn’t it…” He looked around and swooped his hand suggestively in the air. It wasn’t perhaps the animating principle here.

First off, I love the writing: “a boss like a huge wooden cabbage”! It’s also interesting that Hollinghurst changes Hogarth’s phrase, which is “line of grace”; in Analysis of Beauty (1754), he writes: “that sort of proportioned, winding line, which will hereafter be called the precise serpentine line, or line of grace.”

But there’s actually an item of etymological interest, which is the word ogee itself; it may be historically identical with ogive. OED (both entries updated March 2004) for ogee:

Origin uncertain; perhaps shortened < ogive n., or perhaps < an unattested Anglo-Norman *ogé < an unattested post-classical Latin *obviatum, use as noun of neuter singular past participle of classical Latin obviāre obviate v., the sense being assumed to be ‘going against’ and hence ‘supporting’.

And for ogive:

< Old French, Middle French, French ogive diagonal arc under a vault (1260), also œgive (1325), augive (1347), orgive (1399), osive, oisive (1462–3), oysive (1472), further etymology uncertain and disputed: perhaps < Spanish aljibe cistern (1202 as algib, 1278 as algibe) < Spanish Arabic al-jubb < al the + jubb well, cistern, pit (see note below), or perhaps < an unattested derivative (see –ive suffix) of classical Latin obviāta, feminine past participle of obviāre (see obviate v.), the sense being assumed to be ‘going against’ and hence ‘supporting’. French augive is also attested in sense 2 (1606). Compare post-classical Latin ogiva (1289, 1325 in British sources).
The proposed Spanish-Arabic etymology implies that the cistern is subterranean and supported by pillars with groined vaulting; support has been drawn from the correspondence between French voute d’ogive (1676) and Spanish bóveda de aljibe, lit. ‘vault of a cistern’ (1661), but this phrase is attested much later than the French or English words. The etymology remains uncertain: see further G. B. Pellegrini Gli Arabismi nelle Lingue Neolatine (1972) 89 n. 93.

The etymological conjectures recorded by N.E.D. (1902) (connection with French auge trough; with Italian auge (1336), Spanish auge (1256–76), Portuguese auge (1460–8) ‘the highest point of any planet’ (Florio), culmination, highest point < Arabic awj; or with classical Latin augēre to increase, augment) have now been superseded.

It always gives me perverse pleasure when the OED (ex-NED) explicitly rejects its old etymologies, as in the last paragraph above. (Oh, and if you’re wondering about the pelmets in the first quote, a pelmet is “A narrow border of cloth or wood, fitted across the top of a door or window to conceal curtain fittings,” and it’s probably “a variant of palmette n. …, palmette designs having been a conventional ornament on window cornices” — OED, entry updated 2003.)

Year in Philology 2014.

One of the things I love about the internet is the fact that people immersed in some specialized subject will share their knowledge of the good stuff in the field. I present the estimable Memiyawanzi’s This Year in Philology 2014; surely anyone who enjoys LH will find at least one item of interest. It ranges from Stephen Colvin’s A Brief History of Ancient Greek to Rupert J. E. Thompson’s “Orations for Honorary Degrees” (which “contains the texts of the Latin orations given for honorary degrees granted in Cambridge this last June”), with stops at “Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases,” “Two New Poems of Sappho” (“probably the highlight of the philological year”; seen at LH here), and other places. I’m already looking forward to next year’s roundup!

The Definition of a Dictionary.

Stefan Fatsis has a good (and very long) piece in Slate on Merriam-Webster’s revision of its unabridged dictionary; if you want to know what ever happened to the long-promised Fourth, you will learn all about it. It also turns out — and this saddens me — that there isn’t going to be a 12th edition of the Collegiate any time soon:

Sales of the 11th edition of the Collegiate, released in 2003, didn’t approach the boffo figures of the 1980s, failing to crack a million in its first year and declining ever since. Morse doesn’t envision publishing a 12th edition anytime soon. Given the dearth of competitive pressure on the print side now, “trying to tear apart the Collegiate every 10 years and give it that level of scrutiny is something we just don’t have to do,” he says. “No dictionary user online is looking around for the copyright date.”

And here I was thinking it might be my birthday gift this year! Anyway, there’s plenty of good stuff there (including a link to LH, which I appreciate); I’ll just quote a couple of very different new etymologies, which delight me equally. The first is for blephar-:

borrowed from Greek, from blépharon “eyelid,” probably going back to a derivative from the base of blépein “to see”

Eric Hamp (in Glotta, vol. 72 [1994], p. 15) suggests *gʷlep-H-ro– from the base *gʷlep– (whence blépein). The variants in initial gl– found in Doric—glépharon for blépharon—are explained by Hamp as outcomes of word-initial *gʷl– with syllabification of the –l-, yielding *gul-, reduced by analogy to *gl– (see his earlier article “Notes on Early Greek Phonology,” Glotta, vol. 38 [1960], p. 202). The aspirate in blépharon, according to Hamp, would be parallel to kephalḗ “head” from *kep-h₂-l-. Alternatively, Robert Beekes sees the g-/b- alternation as a sign of pre-Greek substratum, citing Edzard Furnée, Die wichtigsten konsonantischen Erscheinungen des Vorgriechischen (Mouton, 1972), p. 389—though both Beekes and Furnée observe that the evidence for this particular alternation is exiguous.

The second is asshat (a fine word, also included in the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary):

The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious earlier history as a sort of cultural meme. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from recent films: “Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!” (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen); “I like your ass. Can I wear it as a hat?” (a character’s parody of a flirtatious advance, City Slickers, 1991, script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel). Of more immediate etymological relevance may be this dialogue sequence from the television series That ’70’s Show: “RED: Eric, if you don’t want to wear your ass for a hat, you’ll get up here, pronto! DONNA: You better go. You know how that ass-hat screws up your hair” (“Red Fired Up,” Episode 24 of Season 2, script by Dave Schiff, first aired May 8, 2000). The current meaning of asshat may be a reanalysis, perhaps in part based on the expression “have one’s head up one’s ass” (meaning “to be obtuse, be insufficiently conscious of one’s surroundings”), perhaps in part due to simple phonetic similarity to asshole. A more precise history will depend on the location of further attestations.

“I make it sound very scholarly,” says etymologist Jim Rader. “I want to be very scholarly about a very ridiculous word…. I just figured I’m writing this stuff down anyway, so why not put it in the dictionary?” Why not indeed?

Modern Literature Collection.

Via MetaFilter:

Modern Literature Collection: The First 50 Years” is a digital exhibit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Modern Literature Collection (MLC), part of the Special Collections in the Washington University Libraries. The digital exhibit is a companion to the onsite exhibit in Olin Library, on display November 2014 – March 2015, and contains everything available onsite, and much more. We hope that through these digitized materials you will enjoy exploring the history of the MLC, as well as the rich contents of some of the writers’ archives.

They’ve got Beckett, Creeley, Dickey, Duncan, Gaddis, Gass… a bunch of people. See the MeFi post for some highlights. And enjoy!

The Murty Classical Library.

When my brother sent me this NY Times story by Jennifer Schuessler (thanks, Eric!), I was confused at first: didn’t I post about this years ago, and hasn’t it already gone under? But then I realized I was thinking of New York University Press’s Clay Sanskrit Library, which I wrote about in 2008; as this story says, it “closed up shop prematurely after four years and 56 volumes when its benefactor, the financier John Clay, ended his support.” This is a new venture, by Harvard University Press:

The Murty Classical Library of India, whose first five dual-language volumes will be released next week, will include not only Sanskrit texts but also works in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages. Projected to reach some 500 books over the next century, the series is to encompass poetry and prose, history and philosophy, Buddhist and Muslim texts as well as Hindu ones, and familiar works alongside those that have been all but unavailable to nonspecialists.

The Murty will offer “something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past,” said Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and the library’s general editor.

That literary heritage can seem daunting in size. While the canon of surviving Greek and Roman classics is fairly small, the literature of India’s multiple classical languages includes thousands upon thousands of texts, many of which, as the writer William Dalrymple recently noted, exist only in manuscripts that are decaying before they can be translated or even cataloged.

The Murty Library, Mr. Pollock said, aims to take in the broadest swath of them. “We are a big tent,” he said. “As long as it’s good and interesting and important, it’s going to be in the Murty Classical Library.”

Good for them for picking up the torch, and especially for expanding beyond Sanskrit to include all the classical languages of India. I wish the series well, and I hope it doesn’t get cut off before its time like its predecessor.

English Phrases Used Only By Indians.

The title’s an exaggeration (“do the needful” is not restricted to Indian English, and “first-class” is reasonably common elsewhere), but the piece is funny, and the (unrelated except for linguistic humor) illustrations are hilarious: Rutu Ladage’s “English Phrases Used Only By Indians Which The World Knows Nothing About,” from India Times.

Vaguely related, in the sense that one language is making odd use of another: there is a Latin tag “Lingua latina non penis canina” (“The Latin language is not a dog’s penis”) that appears to exist only in Russian. I have no idea how this came about, but there’s an entire Lurkomore article on it (which starts by claiming it comes from medieval nerds; for Lurkomore, see this LH post).

Comparing Diachronies of Negation.

John Cowan sends me this link (prepublication draft of David Willis, Christopher Lucas and Anne Breitbarth, “Comparing Diachronies of Negation,” from their The History of Negation in the Languages of Europe and the Mediterranean, Vol. 1: Case Studies), adding:

It’s a fairly accessible paper (if you skip the formal-syntax section in pp. 6-7) that talks about how negation elements are replaced over time with new negation elements. In English, “ic ne secge” > “I ne seye not” > “I say not” > “I don’t say”, where the preverbal “ne” gets supplemented by not < ne-wiht ‘nothing’, which then replaces it and moves forward to attach to the new auxiliary, more or less re-creating the original situation. There are discussions of Germanic, Romance, Baltic, Slavic, Uralic, and Semitic languages, with lots of those complicated details we both love.

Definitely LH material; thanks, JC!

Timur’s Language(s).

A correspondent asks:

What language(s) would have been natively spoken by Timur the Lame, and what script would it / they have been written in?

I responded that he apparently spoke Turkish, but I wasn’t sure whether it would have been written in the Uyghur-based script of the Mongols or the Arabic-based script borrowed from Persian, and I thought I’d turn to the Varied Reader for enlightenment. What say you?

Curtius’s Guiding Principles.

I’ve just started Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, recommended by elessorn and others in this thread (why juggle half a dozen books when you can juggle a dozen, is my motto), and the first thing that greeted me was the list of ten Guiding Principles, untranslated quotations from Greek, Latin, German, French (Old and Modern), and Spanish. I was thinking it would cost me a certain amount of research to figure them all out, but a moment’s googling showed me that Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti had saved me the trouble in this post from 2014:

I could find existing translations of only the first three principles, so I tried to translate the others myself. Thanks very much to friends who patiently answered questions and made suggestions—any remaining errors and infelicities are my own fault. I’ve also added a few notes.

Here’s a sample of his very useful work:

4. Proverb:

Ne tu aliis faciendam trade, factam si quam rem cupis.

If you want something done, don’t give it to others to be done.

This proverb isn’t in Hans Walther, Proverbia Sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevi (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963-1969), or Renzo Tosi, Dictionnaire des sentences latines et grecques, tr. Rebecca Lenoir (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2010). W.M. Lindsay quotes it as an old proverb (proverbii veteris) in the Latin preface to his edition of Isidore’s Etymologiae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), p. vi.

Being fundamentally lazy, I love it when people do my work for me (cf. this post on “Culturally Backward Nationalities”), so I offer my hearty thanks to Michael; the only thing I can think to add is a bit of context for the first three, so I will do that. The first, from Herodotus I.8 (πάλαι δὲ τὰ καλὰ ἀνθρώποισι ἐξεύρηται, ἐκ τῶν μανθάνειν δεῖ), is in the famous story of Candaules and Gyges; the former is so proud of his wife’s beauty he tells the latter to look at her naked, and the horrified response includes the remark that (in the Godley translation quoted in the blog post) “Men have long ago made wise rules from which one ought to learn,” or (in the version used in Paul L. MacKendrick and ‎Herbert M. Howe’s Classics in Translation) “Men of old discovered the proprieties, and it is our duty to learn from them.”

The second is from Scipio’s negotiations with the Carthaginians in Polybius 15:

But Scipio, on hearing from the Roman legates that both the senate and the people had readily accepted the treaty he had made with the Carthaginians and were ready to comply with all his requests, was highly gratified by this, and ordered Baebius to treat the Carthaginian envoys with all courtesy and send them home, acting, as I think, very rightly and wisely. For aware as he was of the high value attached by his own nation to keeping faith to ambassadors, he took into consideration not so much the deserts of the Carthaginians as the duty of the Romans. Therefore restraining his own anger and the bitter resentment he felt owing to the late occurrence, he did his best to preserve ‘the glorious record of our sires,’ as the saying is.

(The bit I have bolded is Curtius’s Principle.)

And the third is from Petronius 118:

“Yes, my young friends,” said Eumolpus, “poetry has led many astray. As soon as a man has shaped his verse in feet and woven into it a more delicate meaning with an ingenious circumlocution, he thinks that forthwith he has scaled Helicon. In this fashion people who are tired out with forensic oratory often take refuge in the calm of poetry as in some happier haven, supposing that a poem is easier to construct than a declamation adorned with quivering epigrams. But nobler souls do not love such coxcombry, and the mind cannot conceive or bring forth its fruit unless it is steeped in the vast flood of literature. One must flee away from all diction that is, so to speak, cheap, and choose words divorced from popular use, putting into practice, “I hate the common herd and hold it afar.”

The last quote, “odi profanum vulgus et arceo,” is the start of Horace Odes 3.1.

Addendum. I was a little nervous about the attribution of the Ortega quote (number 10) to “Obras (1932),” so I did a little googling and discovered it’s from a 1927 review of Ramón Menéndez Pidal’s Orígenes del español: Estado lingüístico de la Península Ibérica hasta el siglo XI (Madrid, 1926); the full parenthesis is:

(Es preciso que los hombres de ciencia vuelvan a caer en la cuenta de que escriben libros. Los mismos alemanes, que causaron originariamente el daño, comienzan a arrepentirse. Un libro de ciencia tiene que ser de ciencia; pero también tiene que ser un libro).

My translation (with the Principle bolded):

(Men of science need to realize once again that they are writing books. The same Germans who caused the damage are beginning to regret it. A book of science must be scientific, but it must also be a book.)