Archives for January 2016


I am finally reading Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories, which I have been wanting to do ever since this thread (almost a decade ago now!); they are wonderful, and I hereby thank everyone who recommended them. In the third, called “Giulia Lazzari” in my edition, this sentence introduced me to a delightful word I had never before encountered: “Chandra met her in Berlin in a Tingel-tangel, you know what that is, a cheap sort of music-hall.” German Wikipedia has it as one word, Tingeltangel; it says it goes back to 1870s Berlin and the name is onomatopoeic, “nach dem Klang von Schlagzeuginstrumenten gebildet (vergleiche dazu auch den Eintrag ‘ting tang tingel tangel’ im Wörterbuch der Brüder Grimm).” It also provides the information that Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons is called Tingel-Tangel-Bob in German, which suggests that the word, if not the institution, remains in living use. I’d be glad to hear more from my Germanophone readers.

Een Cookie, C’est Un Cookie.

An amusing legal contretemps from “Facebook disputes Belgian tracking order over use of English in court ruling,” by Samuel Gibbs of the Guardian:

Facebook is objecting to the use of English words such as “cookie” and “browser” in a Belgian court order, which has demanded the site stop tracking users without their consent, saying that Belgians may not understand the words. […]

Dirk Lindemans, a lawyer representing Facebook Belgium told the Belgian newspaper De Tijd: “It is a requirement that justice can be understood by everyone. Otherwise you get a slippery slope towards class-biased justice.”

But “the strength of Facebook’s argument on this point is questionable”:

The Dutch for “web browser” is “webbrowser” for instance, while in French it is “browser” or “navigateur”. An internet “cookie”, as opposed to a biscuit, is “cookie” in all three languages.

Thanks, Bathrobe!

Butterfly Redux.

Back in 2003 I posted about the many and varied words for ‘butterfly’ in the world’s languages; I’m pleased to see the subject has come up again in Victor Mair’s latest Log post. Mair starts off by mentioning an absurd attempt to make butterfly equal “butter” + “shit” (as I started off with an absurd account of “cognate borrowing” by an anthropologist), but he moves on to a detailed account of the history of the Chinese word húdié 蝴蝶 / 胡蝶, “which is botched in almost all lexicographical sources”: it’s “from Middle Chinese *ɣo dep (first syllable unstressed), from Old Chinese *ɡa-lep, derived from a proto-form of *kʰleːp ~ *ɦleːp, a prefixed form of the root *lep (“wide, flat”, represented by the phonetic element 枼).” The post is well worth reading for that alone, but the comments include many interesting examples, some of which are startlingly similar to *lep: DE brings up Hungarian lepke, and I cite Wolof lëpp-lëpp bi, mentioned by Tim May in the earlier LH thread. I continue to be amazed by the fascinating variety of these words, which are so frequently poetic-sounding.

Arabic Listening Resources In All Dialects.

Donovan Nagel posts at Mezzoguild:

I often say that the hardest part about learning a language like Arabic is not the speaking. Speaking can be picked up pretty quickly believe it or not (made even easier by amazing sites like italki that connect you with Arabic speakers). The hardest part about Arabic is actually learning to listen – training your ears to grasp what you’re hearing.

What sucks is that this is the one part of language learning where there are no shortcuts. To become better at listening you just need time and lots of exposure to Arabic. You need to listen constantly. […]

Here you’ll find some excellent links to high quality material online that will improve your listening skills in Arabic. There are many many more than this online and probably a lot that I don’t know about but what I’ve listed here are high quality listening resources (mostly free, some paid) in a wide variety of dialects.

A tip o’ the Languagehat hat to Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul).

How Shakespeare Spoke.

A nice half-hour episode of the BBC’s Word of Mouth show:

To take us back to Shakespeare’s own time Michael Rosen and Dr Laura Wright hear Shakespeare as he himself would have spoken. The original, unvarnished version from linguist David Crystal and actor Ben Crystal. They look at the fashion for Original Pronunciation and ask what it can tell us about how we speak now.

Michael and Laura perform some of Shakespeare’s best known work in the original accent and attempt to bring new meaning and wit to language coated by centuries of veneer.

David Crystal explains how, for instance, we know that love and prove had the former sound, not the latter (because Ben Jonson said so); puns are explained (reason/raisin, hour/whore, lines/loins); and several passages are read in original pronunciation. Well worth your time. Thanks, PK!

Australian Dates.

Mark Gwynn at Ozwords takes “a light-hearted look” at Australian words for the backside; the opening paragraph will explain my post title:

As a kid I was often told by my dad to ‘get off my date’ when he wanted me to get off the lounge and go outside, or to help with some chore. I was surprised to discover many years later, when I started working at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, that date was not a coinage of my dad’s but an established word in Australian English, meaning ‘anus’. Further exposure to Australian English at the ANDC revealed a number of colloquial terms with the same or a similar meaning.

Lots of interesting terms there, like blurter (from blurt ‘to emit breath eruptively’) and bracket (probably from the shape of a pair of round brackets).

All This I Saw.

I’m reading Tolstoy’s first published work, the 1852 Istoriya moego detstva [The story of my childhood] (in 1856 published in the book Detstvo i Otrochestvo [Childhood and Boyhood] and known from then on as Detstvo [Childhood]), and I was struck by this passage, from a description of a hunt:

Говор народа, топот лошадей и телег, веселый свист перепелов, жужжание насекомых, которые неподвижными стаями вились в воздухе, запах полыни, соломы и лошадиного пота, тысячи различных цветов и теней, которые разливало палящее солнце по светло-желтому жнивью, синей дали леса и бело-лиловым облакам, белые паутины, которые носились в воздухе или ложились по жнивью, – все это я видел, слышал и чувствовал.

The voices of the peasants; the clatter of horses and wagons; the joyous whistling of quails; the buzz of insects hovering in motionless swarms in the air; the smell of wormwood, straw, and horse-sweat; the thousands of different lights and shadows which the blazing sun poured out over the light-yellow stubblefield, the blue distance of the forest, and the white-and-lilac clouds; the white spiderwebs which were floating in the air or lying on the stubble—all this I saw and heard and felt.

That final “all this I saw and heard and felt” sums up for me what is so striking in Tolstoy, his unique ability to convey in words the sense of life as it is happening and as it is experienced. Even in this early work (he was only twenty-three when he wrote it), his prose has that magical effect; it’s no wonder people took notice and wanted more from him.

Incidentally, I’ve translated полынь as “wormwood,” but it could equally well mean “mugwort”; I have no idea which is more likely for a central Russian rye field in late summer, or for that matter what either smells like.

Update. According to John Cowan in the comments: “For practical purposes the names wormwood and mugwort are interchangeable.” Which would make the task of the translator easier, except that both are exceptionally ugly words. Also, I finally looked up “mugwort” in the OED (entry updated 2003) and discovered it’s etymologically “midge-wort”: “The plant is said to attract flies and midges, and has therefore been used as a means of disposing of them (compare the North German custom of hanging up bundles of mugwort in rooms to attract flies, which are then easily caught by pulling a sack over the bundle).”

Universal Positivity Bias?

Another study that arouses my instinctual skepticism: “Human Language Reveals a Universal Positivity Bias,” by Peter Sheridan Dodds, Eric M. Clark, Suma Desuc, et al., PNAS Online, 112.8 (2015). The abstract:

Using human evaluation of 100,000 words spread across 24 corpora in 10 languages diverse in origin and culture, we present evidence of a deep imprint of human sociality in language, observing that (i) the words of natural human language possess a universal positivity bias, (ii) the estimated emotional content of words is consistent between languages under translation, and (iii) this positivity bias is strongly independent of frequency of word use. Alongside these general regularities, we describe interlanguage variations in the emotional spectrum of languages that allow us to rank corpora. We also show how our word evaluations can be used to construct physical-like instruments for both real-time and offline measurement of the emotional content of large-scale texts.

Significance: “The most commonly used words of 24 corpora across 10 diverse human languages exhibit a clear positive bias, a big data confirmation of the Pollyanna hypothesis.” It may well be true, and as a pretty optimistic guy myself, I don’t find it inherently implausible, but I don’t know enough about statistics to evaluate it, and I can’t help but think the results depend on how you set up the study and define things like “positive.” But confirmation of the Pollyanna hypothesis (which apparently goes back to 1969) certainly sounds like a good thing. Always look on the bright side of life!

Dictionary Society of North America.

This link comes via John Cowan, who writes: “Considering how under threat dictionaries are, you might want to give these people some free publicity.” Good advice, and I am taking it. It’s a plea for support by David Jost:

The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary have asked me, as head of the membership committee of the Dictionary Society of North America and as a member of AHD’s editorial staff from 1984 to 2005, to write this guest essay about my membership in the DSNA. The DSNA has been the most important professional organization in my career. Throughout the time I worked on the editorial staffs of both the Middle English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary, I have published in the Journal, given papers at conferences, and served in various offices including that of president and conference chair for Boston 2005. I am particularly pleased that the Society has made me a Fellow.

As my career, both scholarly and commercial, underlines, the DSNA is an unusual group made up of scholars, commercial practitioners, collectors, and those with a general interest in various fields of language study, particularly lexicography. The Society served me when I was working on the MED, when I worked on the AHD and other reference works published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and when as vice president I took over the development of my company’s electronic dictionary publishing program. The conferences throughout North America have been vital moments in my career, perhaps no more so than when I met my future supervisor at the American Heritage Dictionary before I knew that I might be hired there someday.

Of course, the DSNA isn’t just for people who practice or study lexicography. It’s also a social network where dictionary and language lovers in the general populace can pursue and share their interests. If you’re not currently a member, please check out the DSNA website and consider joining today!

Bruxing and Boggling.

At first, I didn’t think this delightful NY Times story by Andy Newman, about a rescue rat who made it to Broadway, was LH material, but then I got to this passage:

And then Rose did something special. She bruxed, and she boggled. Bruxing is when a rat grinds its incisors together. Boggling, a muscular side effect of bruxing, is when a rat bugs its eyes in and out rapidly, like a possessed vaudeville comic.

They are the ultimate indicators of a relaxed, happy rat.

The OED has only bruxism (entry from 1993), “Involuntary or unconscious grinding or clenching of the teeth, esp. during sleep,” from Greek βρύκειν, βρύχ- ‘to eat greedily, to grind (teeth),’ but a verb brux is an obvious thing to create; as for boggle, the OED has only traditional senses (“To start with fright, to shy as a startled horse,” etc.), but the entry is from 1887. I’m glad to have these new additions to my rat-related vocabulary. And speaking of rat, I hadn’t realized the etymology was so unclear; OED (updated December 2008):

A word inherited from Germanic. Cognate with Old High German rato […]. Compare post-classical Latin ratus, rattus rat (from 12th cent. in British and continental sources […]), Anglo-Norman and Old French rat, masculine (second half of the 12th cent. […]), Old French rate, feminine (second half of the 12th cent. […]), Old Occitan rata (12th cent.) […].

It is uncertain whether the Latin and Romance words are cognate with the Germanic words, or whether they were borrowed from Germanic, or vice versa; in any case the ultimate origin is uncertain; perhaps imitative of the sound of gnawing. None of the Latin and Romance words is attested before the end of the first millennium, and the fact that the German word has not undergone the High German sound shift suggests that the Germanic group is also late (Middle High German ratz, ratze, German regional (chiefly southern) Ratz, Ratze are secondary, perhaps hypocoristic formations). The word was probably spread with the reintroduction of rats to Northern Europe during the Viking Age (for a discussion of the physical evidence compare P. L. Armitage in Antiquity 68 (1994) 231–40).

A derivation < an ablaut variant of the Indo-European base of classical Latin rōdere to gnaw (see rodent adj.) has been suggested, but seems unlikely in the light of the apparently recent introduction of the word.

A suggested derivation of the Romance words < classical Latin rapidus rapid adj. is no longer accepted, as it would only account for the Italian, which for chronological and historical reasons cannot be the single origin of the whole group.

Thanks, Bonnie!