Archives for March 2017


A MetaFilter post included a video on “how to wear a shemagh,” and I left a comment saying:

In case anybody else is ignorant/curious, like me, it turns out a shemagh is what I knew as a keffiyeh; Wiktionary says it’s “British military use, from Arabic شْمَاغ (šmāḡ).” Which would explain why Yanks like me don’t know it.

Another commenter wrote:

languagehat: I think the “shemagh” term is gaining heavy use in the US – at least among military and wannabees – thanks to US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which means that various edc/prep/etc places sell them but with zombie skulls on them and such.

So of course now I want to know: do you, Varied Reader, know this term, and if so where do you know it from?

Novy Mir Online.

Novy Mir, the famous Russian (ex-Soviet) monthly literary magazine that published so many works that are now classics, has been putting its archives online; I got the news via XIX век, where Erik says “as of now they have most of 1925-30, everything since mid-1993, and isolated issues in between.” I have a treasured collection of old issues with their faded blue covers, and anyone who studied Russian, as I did, in the latter decades of the existence of the USSR will presumably be as pleased as I am at this news.

Das Empire.

I’m only on the first chapter of Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of those books I’ll recommend to people for years to come — I have to pause after just about every paragraph to think about what he just said and integrate it with what I already (thought I) knew. At any rate, one of his footnotes said “On the background to all the issues discussed in this paragraph, see A. Rose, Zwischen Empire und Kontinent: Britische Aussenpolitik vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Munich, 2011), esp. pp. 279–99 on Anglo-American relations,” and I was waylaid by the word Empire, which I didn’t recall seeing in a German context (the normal word for ’empire’ being Reich). The burning question was, how is it pronounced? It wasn’t in my pocket Bantam dictionary, so I went to the big gun, the Harper-Collins Unabridged (900 pages, weighs enough to stun a small bear with), and found it. I found it twice, in fact:

Empire 1 [ãˈpiːɐ] nt -(s), no pl (Hist) Empire; (~stil) Empire style.

Empire 2 [ˈɛmpaɪə] nt -(s), no pl (British) Empire.

So I guess since the referenced title appears to be about the British Empire, it would take the second pronunciation, which is essentially the English one (as opposed to the first, which is French). But this is an odd situation; can my German-speaking readers confirm for me that there are two (rare) words Empire with different pronunciations depending on whether the empire in question is British or not?

The Goethe Dictionary.

Gero Schliess reports on what the title accurately calls a “mammoth task”:

Precisely 70 years ago, the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin initiated the huge project of the Goethe dictionary – a lexicon precisely listing, describing and explaining every single word used by Goethe in his poems, dramas, letters, official writings and scientific essays.

In his speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the initiative, project manager Michael Niedermeier of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) said that back then, the time was ripe for this project.

Following the Nazi era, people were yearning for the imperturbable values epitomized by Goethe and his era. At the time, nobody could have imagined that the project would go on over several generations, including the reunification of Germany.

Goethe commanded the biggest ever documented individual lexicon of 93,000 words. The researchers have collected everything, ranging from verbs and nouns to prepositions and articles. Martin Luther, by comparison, “only” commanded 23,000 words.

It took more than 20 years just to list and evaluate these 93,000 words. But now, an end is in sight. In terms of lexical evaluation, the present team consisting of 17 academics has reached the letters S and T. It is hoped that the project will be completed in 2025. Originally, the researchers had the year 2040 in mind. However, the patience and the budget of the BBAW and of the academies in Heidelberg and Göttingen cooperating with it turned out to be limited after all.

Michael Niedermeier says the dictionary, whose website is here, is a “central instrument of exploring Classicism, and it will take decades and centuries until its full effect will be realized.” Hyperbolic, perhaps, but surely one is permitted a bit of proud hyperbole when discussing a project like this. Thanks, Trevor!


Your enraging tidbit for the day, courtesy of Tristan Bridges:

Knowledge production is a collective endeavor. Individuals get named as authors of studies and on the covers of books and journal articles. But little knowledge is produced in such a vacuum that it can actually be attributed to only those whose names are associated with the final product. Bruce Holsinger, a literary scholar at the University of Virginia, came up with an interesting way of calling attention to some of women’s invisible labor in this process–typing their husbands’ manuscripts.

Holsinger noted a collection of notes written by husbands to their wives thanking them for typing the entirety of their manuscripts (dissertations, books, articles, etc.), but not actually explicitly naming them in the acknowledgement. It started with five tweets and a hashtag: #ThanksForTyping.

The most mind-boggling one: “my wife typed my manuscript drafts as soon as I gave them to her, even though she was caring for our first child, born in June 1946, and was also teaching part time in the chemistry department.” There are many more examples at the first link, as well as an interesting Google Ngram; I got there via MetaFilter, where appropriate indignation is expressed (and further tales of women’s contributions being given a dismissive head-pat are provided).

Old English Dictionaries.

Via Dave Wilton at, I present this useful introduction to three OE dictionaries. I’ll let Dave describe it:

Peter Buchanan, who teaches at New Mexico Highlands University, has assembled an excellent introduction to the three major Old English dictionaries: John Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (a.k.a., Clark Hall), Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Bosworth Toller), and Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE). Buchanan’s discussion can be found on his blog, Phenomenal Anglo-Saxons. Buchanan’s description is framed as a reference for students at NMHU, but it’s useful for anyone who wants an introduction to the dictionaries.

I have a hard copy (i.e., actual book) of Clark Hall, which is sufficient for my limited OE needs, but if I got into the language more deeply, I’d be grateful for the detailed and helpful descriptions at the link, and I imagine some of my readers will be as well.

A Justly Forgotten Poet.

Emily Bernhard Jackson begins her 2015 review of Emily Harrington’s Second Person Singular: Late Victorian Poets and the Bonds of Verse and Elizabeth Ludlow’s Christina Rossetti and the Bible with the refreshing sentence “There is, it should be admitted, such a thing as a justly forgotten poet.” I applaud the desire to rescue good writers who have fallen into obscurity, but that generous impulse can easily go too far; I like very much this paragraph in which Jackson explains the kind of problem it can cause:

One queries Harrington’s decision to include a chapter on Dollie Radford, for example. Several times in the course of her discussion, she herself confesses that Radford at least appears to be a minor poet, and the verse she includes does nothing to suggest otherwise. There seems no reason to anticipate a renaissance in Radford studies, and one cannot help feeling that this chapter might have been removed with little lost overall. Perhaps, in fact, the space opened up by removing the Radford chapter might have been used to lengthen the others, for the book’s other flaw is the brevity of its study of each poet. Granting only a chapter each to a group of smaller poets results in their continuing to seem small; these women might gain greater weight in the canon if each had been the subject of a longer, individually focused study.

Incidentally, on the next page of that issue of the TLS Claire Lowdon reviews James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life (which I wrote about here) and complains about his “fatal tidying instinct … the desire to gather up several disparate concepts into a single neat theory”; she says “Wood seems to feel the need to defend literature against charges of slightness. The result is obfuscation.” That seemed to shed some light on something that startled me in an interview with Wood I heard this morning, in which he confessed (or boasted, depending on how you take it) that he never reads genre literature, even though he’s happy to watch junk TV and read car magazines (so it’s not just a matter of not wanting to waste precious time). I suspect it’s the need, perhaps based somehow on his intensely religious upbringing, to have literature be Serious. That’s not a good basis for criticism, though it’s not incompatible with good criticism (obviously, since we’re talking about Wood); it’s all too reminiscent of the pomposity that infected the generation that came to prominence in the 1950s, Lionel Trilling et al. Literature — worthwhile literature, at least — is not made by high-minded creatures with ichor in their veins, and it’s a bad idea to approach it that way.

The Greatest Book Deal Ever.

OK, that’s a little hyperbolic maybe, but the subject lends itself to hyperbole. Nina Martyris at the Paris Review writes about “of one of the riskiest—and shrewdest—deals in publishing history,” the one that brought us Les Misérables:

In a new book, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’, the professor and translator David Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

The deal, Bellos points out, was pathbreaking on several levels. First, Hugo earned an unprecedented sum: 300,000 francs (roughly $3.8 million in today’s money) for an eight-year license. “It was a tremendous amount of money, and since it entitled the publisher to own the work for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature,” Bellos writes: “In terms of gold it would have weighed around ninety-seven kilos [213 pounds]. It was enough money to build a small railway or endow a chair at the Sorbonne.”

Second, the neophyte Belgian publisher Albert Lacroix was the antithesis of a Penguin Random House. At the time, the twenty-eight-year-old Lacroix had cut his teeth at his uncle’s printing press, and he didn’t have so much as a sou to his name. Determined to sign Hugo on, he set up his own firm—Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Co—and borrowed the entire amount for Hugo’s advance from the Oppenheim bank in Brussels, where he had contacts. Bellos marks it as “probably the first loan ever made by a bank to finance a book,” which means “Les Misérables stands at the vanguard of the use of venture capital to fund the arts.”

There’s much, much more, including such piquant details as “The text was as fiercely embargoed as a Harry Potter novel” and “Gustave Flaubert privately mocked it as a ‘book written for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack'” (and then had to delay publishing his own Salammbô by six months: “the catholico-socialist shithead novel was monopolizing sales”). Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys tales of literary dealmaking.

The Merriam-Webster Word Factory.

Jennifer Schuessler takes an enjoyable look (for the NY Times) at lexicographer Kory Stamper and her inside view of the workings of the Merriam-Webster empire (now sadly diminished, like all lexicographical enterprises, but still going strong). Stamper (whom I’ve posted about before, e.g., here) has a good attitude about language:

Ms. Stamper has no patience for self-styled purists who quail at “irregardless” — an actual word, she notes. (She is O.K. with ending sentences with prepositions as well as — brace yourself — split infinitives.) But she also describes being caught up in some higher-stakes fights.

One chapter takes an uncomfortable look at the racial assumptions baked into a Merriam-Webster definition of the color term “nude.” Another recounts the furor that erupted in 2009 when it added a subdefinition to its entry on “marriage,” noting uses to refer to same-sex unions that weren’t necessarily legally sanctioned. [..]

If dictionaries are a form of information technology, the building is in some ways a catalog of obsolescence. A downstairs gallery includes a 1934 poster advertising the second edition of the Webster’s New International Dictionary, billed as “one of the thickest books ever printed.” (The technology needed to bind it, Ms. Stamper said, no longer exists.)

There are also oddities like an asymmetrically bound Seventh New Collegiate from 1969, designed so it could hold itself up — an innovation that failed to catch on, probably because if you open it too far from the center, it falls over.

There’s a picture of that asymmetrically bound failure, as well as of the monstrously fat second edition of the New International and other related objects, and in general it’s worth a look. Thanks, Eric!

Addendum. Stan Carey reviews Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Scraping the Mold off Meanings.

It’s high time I gave a shoutout to Amateur Reader (Tom) and his literary blog Wuthering Expectations. What impelled me to post at this particular time was his series on Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1986), which I now want a copy of; in this post he focuses on Jacob Glatstein and Moishe-Leib Halpern, and in this one on H. Leivick (“the Russian among the American Yiddish poets”). I was barely aware of these poets (really just their names), but look at these snippets! From Glatstein’s “We the Wordproletariat” (1937):

The sky, the blue hazard, went out.
You still sit and seek the shadows of a word
And scrape the mold off meanings.
Words take on sadder and purer tones.

The cursed night has got into your bones.

From Moishe-Leib Halpern’s “My Restlessness Is of a Wolf” (1919):

My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.

And from Leivick’s “Yiddish Poets” (1930s?):

Sometimes, like frazzled cats, dragging
Their kittens around, distraught,
We drag our poems between our teeth
By the neck through the streets of New York.

In all of these excerpts, the poetry shines through the translations and makes me want to delve deeper. But this is just a side journey; he’s been reading late-nineteenth-century prose and early-twentieth-century Russian poetry, among other things, and no matter what he writes about I always find my understanding deepened. I first realized his excellence when reading his posts on Flaubert; I think the one that hooked me was this one from 2015, about the framework of metaphors in Sentimental Education, but this one is also amazing:

Flaubert, though, considers the novel to be beautiful all the way through. Any surface dullness is of no consequence because he can see the hidden patterns he has carefully constructed underneath the flat surface. They are always there somewhere, they are beautiful.

But hell, just scan down the list of “Labels” in the right margin and click on anything that piques your interest. Then subscribe to the RSS feed. Your time will not be wasted.