Archives for April 2015

Skew-whiff.

I was reading Catherine Shoard’s Guardian puff piece on Mark Rylance (“the best actor of his generation,” “the world’s greatest actor”) when I was pulled up short by this passage:

He plays Terry, a banker who once ran a Congo-based squad of assassins (including Penn and Ray Winstone). As projects go, it feels a bit skew whiff for a pacifist so committed that he winces at the very mention of American Sniper.

I was so unfamiliar with “skew whiff” that I assumed it must be a typo, but a moment’s googling showed me my error: the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “sloping instead of straight, or wrongly positioned: You’ve got your hat on skew-whiff.” And it’s not some recent bit of slang; the OED (in an entry from 1933) takes it back almost three centuries:

dial. and colloq.

Askew, awry (lit. and fig.).

1754 Scots Mag. July 337/2 Behind, with a coach-horse short dock, cut your hair; Stick a flower before, scew-whiff, with an air.
1839 W. Holloway Gen. Dict. Provincialisms (new ed.) 154/1 Skew-whift, adj. (Askew, from Skef, Belg. oblique; and perhaps Whiffed, blown.) Awry.
[…]
1895 J. T. Clegg Stories, Sketches, & Rhymes in Rochdale Dial. 228 Her judgment’s getten thrut skew-wift.
1899 Shetland News 20 May 7/2, I hed ta geng skewquieff.
1935 A. P. Herbert What a Word! iv. 101 Go on cackling..until the orator has to stop and ask you why you cackle. Then tell him. He won’t get Frankenstein skew-whiff again.
1946 D. L. Sayers Unpop. Opinions 59 When Neptune shouldered Britain out of the sea, he did not make a neat engineering job of it. Characteristically, Britain came up skew-wiff, with one edge thick and hard and the other soft and thin, like a slice of wedding-cake.
1959 I. Opie & P. Opie Lore & Lang. Schoolchildren iii. 47 If a boy’s cap is on skew-whiff: ‘Are you wearing that cap or just walking underneath it?’
[…]
1974 J. Cleary Peter’s Pence iii. 82 Our plans seem to have gone a bit skew-wiff, don’t they? That’s the trouble with the Irish.
1977 Lancashire Life Feb. 53/4 Thi tie’s put on skew-wiff.

Is this a word every UKanian knows? And are any of my non-UK readers familiar with it?

Rylance is indeed an amazing actor, by the way, and my wife and I are thoroughly enjoying the BBC Wolf Hall adaptation.

Russian, a Barbarian Language.

Anatoly Vorobey quotes (in Russian) a passage from an 1811 letter by Konstantin Batyushkov to Nikolay Gnedich complaining about the Russian language so strikingly I thought it was worth translating here:

Guess what I’m beginning to be angry about. What? The Russian language, and the writers who deal with it so unmercifully. And the language, it’s just not very good, it’s a bit boorish, it smells of Tartary. What is this y [ы]? And this shch [щ]? What about these sh, shii, shchii, pri, try? O barbarians! And the writers? Never mind them! Forgive me for getting angry at the Russian people and their dialect. I have just this minute been reading Ariosto, breathing the pure air of Florence, delighting in the musical sounds of the Ausonian language and speaking with the shades of Dante, Tasso, and sweet Petrarch, from whose lips each word is bliss.

Anatoly goes on to quote a passage from Bely’s Peterburg complaining about how awful the sound y [ы] is, concluding “Not a single cultured language knows the y: it’s something obtuse, cynical, slippery.” A strange coincidence of attitudes! Anatoly says he himself thinks the y is a very nice sound: “I like it a lot.”

The Curious Incident of the Odd Words.

Something recently struck me about Wolf Hall (which I’ve almost finished): I haven’t had to look up any words. This is fairly astonishing for a historical novel; from Walter Scott on, novelists who dabble in the dead past tend to pound nails in its coffin not only with words like “thee” and “thither” and “accoutred” and exclamations like “Over God’s forbode!” but with quaint terms for long-forgotten objects and customs. (For a full-immersion experience, check out Skeat’s A glossary of Tudor and Stuart words, especially from the dramatists.) Even Ford Madox Ford, a fine writer whose Fifth Queen trilogy is one of the better pieces of historical novelry around, couldn’t resist tossing in some of ye olde wordhoard, as I posted here (aumbry, balinger, tulzie, et al.). Mind you, this passage from Alan Judd’s biography of Ford, quoted in the Wikipedia article linked above, is accurate:

He creates a version of Tudor English that is not only effective but does not in any way hinder the sense of reality. This is a considerable achievement; the use of a dated form of one’s own language always sounds the contrivance it is, unconvincing, artificial and slow. In order to work it needs to sound natural and in order for that to happen the author needs to have created a world or an atmosphere in the context of which it can be natural… The result in The Fifth Queen is vigorous and convincing, sometimes compressed poetic speech.

But it’s even more true of Mantel’s book, and I am in awe of how she pulls it off.

Object Lesson.

William Giraldi’s New Republic essay “Object Lesson” is, let’s face it, just another books-are-the-greatest-thing-ever rant, with an added helping of e-reader panic (though he gracefully admits at the end that the panic is irrational), but it resonates with me and my 5,000 or so books:

Those of us who dwell within mounts of books—a sierra of them in one room, an Everest in another; hulks in the kitchen, heaps in the hallway—can tell you that, in addition to the special bliss of having and holding them, it’s a hefty, crowded, inconvenient life that’s also an affront to the average bank account. (New hardback books are expensive to buy and economically neutered the second you do.) What’s more, your collection is a fatal Niagara if it falls.[…]

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.[…]

Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no. Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan, the collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay “My Library,” simply to sit with them, “aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used”—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.[…]

Thanks, Paul!

Kibitz.

Stan Carey has a post on one of the most successful Yiddish exports to English, kibitz:

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

1927, from Yiddish kibitsen “to offer gratuitous advice as an outsider,” from German kiebitzen “to look on at cards, to kibitz,” originally in thieves’ cant “to visit,” from Kiebitz, name of a shore bird (European pewit, lapwing) with a folk reputation as a meddler, from Middle High German gibitz “pewit,” imitative of its cry.

That is indeed delightful, so I thought I’d share it. I’ll also add the final sentence, which Stan inexplicably omitted: “Young lapwings are proverbially precocious and active, and were said to run around with half-shells still on their heads soon after hatching.”

As Such.

Anne Curzan has a piece at Lingua Franca that pushes my buttons so that they produce a loud, harsh, buzzing noise in my head. She begins:

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times.

Here is an example from a recent dissertation of an as such that I left untouched, given that it is used the way I would use it:

[This scholar] argues that Christianity has become, for many college students, little more than a restrictive moral code, and as such, has earned a bad name.

In this sentence, the pronoun such has a clear antecedent (“a restrictive moral code”) and the prepositional phrase as such accords with the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition: “As being what the name or description implies; in that capacity.”

Here is an example of as such from the same dissertation that I underlined:

[The organization] encourages students to acknowledge where their own lives challenge Christian belief, and as such, these students are unlikely to fear such representation in academically oriented texts.

As such in this sentence seems to be synonymous with therefore or consequently. As a reader, I find myself searching for the antecedent of such, and given that I cannot find one, the sentences feels out of kilter. To me.

“To me, too!” the voice in my head screams. “How can it not! It’s wrong!” But Curzan goes on to discuss the history involved, pointing out that the OED called it colloquial and vulgar in 1915 but that the extended use has been growing so common that Jonathon Owen, in a 2013 post on Visual Thesaurus, “recognizes that these kinds of changes happen” and wonders “if he should loosen up and let this one go.” She concludes:

My as-such underlining does not seem well justified. Yes, there are certainly critics of the construction out there. But the use of as such to mean therefore or consequently seems entrenched enough in published academic prose that writers should not feel they have to avoid this use for fear of harsh judgment that it is too colloquial or “slipshod.” If this use of as such ever comes up on the ballot for American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, I’m voting acceptable.

This puts me in a pickle. As you know, I am a stone descriptivist, and if usage favors a construction, my principles insist it is perfectly good English. On the other hand, I am only human, and as it happens I hate this extended use with a passion (and use my editorial pen to stamp it out when I encounter it in the course of my job); when I see a sentence like one she quotes beginning “The main problem is a lack of data from banks and other institutions that suffer losses; as such, these estimates are heavily dependent on the methods used…,” I snarl “as what?” and change the offending phrase to “therefore.” So I am placing the pickle before the Varied Reader and soliciting input. Does the phrase seem horrible, not so bad, or totally unremarkable? Should I, like Curzan, loosen up and let it go?

Translating Dōgen.

Via Matt at No-sword, a wonderful essay by Carl Bielefeldt called “Translating Dōgen: Thoughts on the Soto Zen Text Project” (paper delivered to the conference The Many Faces of Dogen, Mt. Tremper, July 8-11, 2004). As Matt says: “This is not one of those essays about how translation is really hard, man, with a few challenging lexemes thrown in as examples.” Bielefeldt takes a passage from Dōgen‘s 13th-century Shōbōgenzō (which he’s been working on for years — he says charmingly “Frankly, speaking as one of the translators, I don’t think our translations will be better than the best of what we’ve got already”), provides a smooth, easy-reading version (“The ocean seal samādhi is what is actually happening all around us; it is our own expression of what is actually happening…”) and quotes a previously published one he calls “actually more difficult to understand than the original” (“This samādhi is actualization and attainment of the Way. When we are sleeping at night and grope for the pillow there is no thought of discrimination…”), and then gives us the translation he had just sent off to Dharma Eye, “the Sōtō Zen journal that has been including one of our pieces in each issue.” Here’s the paragraph in full:

Samādhi is the actual present; it is a saying. It is “the night” when “the hand gropes for the pillow behind.”(1) The groping for a pillow like this of “the hand groping for the pillow behind” in the night is not merely “hundreds of millions of tens of thousands of kalpas”; it is “in the ocean, I always preached only the Lotus Sūtra of the Wondrous Dharma.”(2) Because “they don’t state, ‘I arise,’” “I am in the ocean.”(3) The former face is the “I always preached” of “the slightest motion of a single wave, and ten thousand waves follow”; the latter face is the Lotus Sūtra of the Wondrous Dharma of “the slightest motion of ten thousand waves, and a single wave follows.”(4) Whether we wind up or let out “a line of a thousand feet” or ten thousand feet, what we regret is that it “goes straight down.” The former face and latter face here are “I am on the face of the ocean.” They are like saying “the former head” and “the latter head.” The former head and the latter head are “putting a head on top on your head.”(5)

And here’s the first footnote:

1. Allusion to a dialogue between Yunyan Tansheng (780?-841) and fellow disciple Daowu Yuanzhi (769-835) regarding the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who in one form is represented as having a thousand arms with an eye in the palm of each hand. “Yunyan asked Daowu, ‘How does the bodhisattva of great compassion use so many hands and eyes?’ Wu said, ‘Like a person searching behind him for his pillow in the night.’”

The rest of the footnotes and the original Japanese text are at the link, along with much interesting discussion of the problems involved in translating such a difficult and allusive text; he ends:

We tend to treat Dōgen as a wise Zen master, not a wise guy, as a master of Zen, not a Japanese student of Chinese language. But the fact is, Dōgen is also an outsider, an eccentric. His Zen is different from that of both his Chinese and Japanese contemporaries. His Shōbōgenzō is a different kind of book from other texts of his time, a genre almost sui generis. And his use of language in the Shōbōgenzō is different from other authors, very odd and very self-consciously odd. How are we to understand this book and its language? How are we to understand the author’s view of his book and the language in which he chose to write it? How are we to understand the author, his book, and his language as Zen?

Translations like those of the Sōtō Zen Text Project that seek to preserve something of Dōgen’s language may not be the sort you want on your night stand; but, if they can serve not just to help other translators or scholars do their work but to get us thinking about big questions such as these, then I’ll be happy enough with our efforts.

I can understand how people can be put off by this kind of heavily annotated text, but for myself, it is exactly the sort I want on my night stand; I have no interest in somebody’s attempt to assimilate a difficult text to my presumed (low) level of attention and (limited) set of cultural references. I want the whole catastrophe or nothing.

Mabuchi vs. Kanji.

Kamo no Mabuchi, an eighteenth-century Japanese poet and philologist, had some striking ideas about the use of Chinese characters, as reported by Victor Mair at the Log quoting Peter Flueckiger’s translation in “Reflections on the Meaning of Our Country: Kamo no Mabuchi’s Kokuikō” (JSTOR), pp. 247-8:

[An interlocutor said,] “This country, though, has no writing of its own. Instead, we use Chinese characters and through these are able to know about everything.” My response was that first of all, it goes without saying that China is a troublesome and poorly governed country. To give a specific example, there are the characters in the form of pictures. When we look at the characters that someone has put forth as just the ones necessary for ordinary use, they amount to some 38,000. To describe a single flower, for example, one needs to use different characters for blooming, scattering, pistil, plant, stem, and more than ten other things. Moreover, there are characters that are used in the name of a specific country or place, or for a particular type of plant, but are used nowhere else. Could people remember so many characters even if they tried? Sometimes people make mistakes with characters, and sometimes the characters change over time, leading to disputes over their usage; they are burdensome and useless.

In India, though, using fifty characters, they have written and passed down over five thousand volumes of Buddhist texts. Just knowing fifty characters, it is possible to know and transmit a limitless number of words from both past and present. Moreover, it is not only a matter of the characters; the fifty sounds are the voice of Heaven and Earth (ametsuchi no koe [characters omitted]), so what they contain within them is natural (onozukara). In the same way, there seem to have been some kind of characters in our Imperial Land as well, but after the introduction of Chinese characters, this original writing sunk wrongly into obscurity, and now only the ancient words remain. Although these words are not the same as the fifty sounds of India, they are based on the same principle in that fifty sounds suffice to express all things. To repeat the example of the flower discussed above, we can just say “blooming,” “scattering,” “budding,” “fading,” “pistil,” “stem,” and the like; without needing to resort to characters, one can easily express both the good and the bad, and there is nothing troublesome. In Holland they have twenty-five characters, in this country there are fifty, and, in general, characters are like this in all countries. Only China concocted a cumbersome system, so things are disorderly there and everything is troublesome.

Too bad more people didn’t think like him!

He Touched His Dictionary and Died.

Nora-Ide McAuliffe describes for the Irish Times “how ‘Lane’s English-Irish Dictionary’ was born”; it’s quite a story:

It was in Paris in the 1880s that he began work on his dictionary. Dictionaries had been produced in the 18th and 19th centuries, but O’Neill Lane found them to be lacking. His aim was to produce something that would better inform students of Irish. By the time he finally finished, in 1904, he had spent more than £2,500 – more than €325,000 today – to complete it.

O’Neill Lane spent five years travelling around Ireland. He made the most of his time and wrote a series of travel books while visiting Gaeltacht areas, where he collected words and phrases from locals. Words thought to be obsolete in Munster he found alive and well in other parts of the country, so he documented regional variations of Irish words and phrases. …

As soon as his 581-page work was published, however, O’Neill Lane expressed dissatisfaction with it. He had at this stage given up his journalism career and partly blamed his Paris commitments for shortcomings in the first edition.

“When he realised that the first one was inadequate he started work straight away on the second,” says O’Maolcatha. “He had included in his first edition an appeal for corrections and omissions, with a prize of £25 for the person who provided him with the best information.” …

Although he received many subscriptions for the second edition, producing it left O’Neill Lane virtually penniless. The day before he passed away a copy of the dictionary arrived by train at his local station in Limerick. He laid his hands on it on his deathbed and died on May 8th, 1915.

You’ve got to love anything that includes sentences like “O’Neill Lane asked that corrections be sent to Tournafulla, a parish a few kilometres from Templeglantine…” Thanks, Trevor!

Salammbô.

Many years ago, when I was going through a Flaubert phase, I read his novel Salammbô; as I was living in New Haven at the time, I used to go up on West Rock and pretend I was looking down on Carthage from the Byrsa hill, imagining where the various areas mentioned would be. I used to wonder where the heroine’s name came from, and now I have a good idea, thanks to this passage at the very end of Stanislav Segert’s “Crossing the Waters: Moses and Hamilcar,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 53, No. 3 (1994), pp. 195-203 (JSTOR):

A final note on the name of the heroine whose name is the title of the novel, Salammbô: according to ancient sources, the name attested in Greek as Salambō and in Latin as Salambo referred to a Babylonian goddess, the equivalent of Aphrodite or Venus. The last part of this form of the name is shortened from the divine name Baal (Phoenician bʿl), as in the feminine name preserved in a Latin inscription, ANNIBONI, corresponding to Punic ḥnbʿʿ, a shortened form of the famous name ḥnbʿl, Hannibal, used for both males and females. The first component /šalam-/ may also refer to the word for “peace” but, more probably, corresponds to the once-attested Punic name šlmbʿl and the name containing the same elements bʿlšlm. It should thus be interpreted as “(the god) Dusk (is) (my?) Lord,” which is analogous to the Phoenician name šḥrbʿl, “(the god) Dawn is (my) Lord.”

A footnote mentions that Flaubert’s original name for the novel was Carthage. (Thanks, Paul!)