Archives for April 2017

The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations.

Ben Yagoda reviews Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, which sounds like a lot of fun; I’ll quote the ending, which I especially enjoyed:

And so it goes with that wonderful tale about Hemingway being challenged to write a short story in six words, and coming up with, “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” O’Toole traces more than a dozen iterations and variations going back to 1906, including an item in a 1921 newspaper column attributed to a reader named Jerry:

There was an ad in the Brooklyn ‘Home Talk’ which read, ‘Baby carriage for sale, never used.’ Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?

The above item, which O’Toole harvested from NewspaperArchive, is a good example of his research chops in action. It wouldn’t pop up in a search for the supposed Hemingway quote (in quotation marks or not) because it refers to a carriage, not shoes, that was never used, not worn. I’m still not exactly sure how he got it.

The Hemingway connection, he goes on to explain, stems from a play produced in 1989 where “Hemingway,” the character, used the baby shoes line. There is no evidence that the real Hemingway ever did.

There is one darling O’Toole doesn’t murder. It’s perhaps my favorite quote of all time: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” O’Toole finds that it has been misattributed to John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Woodrow Wilson, but confirms that it was written in 1657 by Blaise Pascal. If he hadn’t, I might just have had to murder him.

I’m not surprised the “quote” is not actually from Hemingway; I am surprised, and pleased, to learn the misattribution only dates to 1989! How quickly we adopt an attractive error…

Reef and Skerry.

I ran across the French word écueil, which was unfamiliar to me, and of course I looked it up. The English equivalent was allegedly reef, but I thought ‘reef’ was récif. Further investigation revealed that an écueil is actually a skerry, a small rocky island which may or may not be a reef. At any rate, it has an interesting etymology:

Empr. à l’a. prov. escueyll, attesté début XIVe s. au sens propre et au sens fig. […] qui, comme l’ital. scoglio (d’orig. ligure) et le cat. escull, remontent à un lat. vulg. *scŏclu, altération du class. scŏpŭlus « écueil » (du gr. σκόπελος), due, soit à une assimilation régressive du p au c, soit à une substitution du suff. –culus à la finale –pulus, moins fréquente […]. La forme fr. isolée scoigle […] est une adaptation de l’ital. scoglio (v. FEW, loc. cit.).

In other words, it’s from Provencal escueyll, which like Italian scoglio and Catalan escull are from a Vulgar Latin *scŏclu, from Latin scopulus, from Greek σκόπελος. (The Italian word scoglio always brings to my mind the great soprano aria from Così fan tutte [aria starts at 1:40].)

Celtic Identity.

I’m making my way through the Oct. 9, 2015 TLS, and have just read Patrick Sims-Williams’ review (available here to subscribers) of a British Museum exhibition on the Celts; I thought the last couple of paragraphs worth reproducing:

The Director of the British Museum introduces Celts: Art and identity as “not so much a show about a people as a show about a label”. An exhibition may not be the best way to explore the “Celtic” label because the clearest evidence for long-term Celtic identity is linguistic, not visual. Language is the basis for modern pan-Celticism. Buchanan (1582), Leibniz (1699) and Lhuyd (1707), who first applied the “Celtic” label to Gaelic, Welsh and Breton, did so not because Celtic was a prestigious term to appropriate but because they saw that these languages are related to the language of the Gauls who called themselves “Celtae” according to Caesar. Already in the ninth century the element dunum in Augustidunum (modern Autun) had been correctly identified as “hill” in Celtica lingua. The obvious next step was to link it with Gaelic dùn (“fort”) and start to map Celtic place names across Europe. Thus Celts as Celtic-speaking peoples were in place long before any notion of Celtic art. That only arrived from 1851 onwards with Daniel Wilson, J. O. Westwood and J. M. Kemble. Tipped off by Kemble, Ferdinand Keller finally attached the Celtic label to the La Tène art of Lake Neuchâtel in 1866, the year in which Matthew Arnold could still take the ancient Celts’ “inaptitude for the plastic arts” as a given.

In view of the primacy of language, it is a shame that the exhibition is so reticent about it. It is said that the Celts “left almost no written records”, and “Celtic-speaking communities” are hardly mentioned before the medieval sections. Just one inscription is included, the sixth-century Irish “Maccutreni Saliciduni” inscription from Powys (note dunum again). It would have been good to show a Celtiberian bronze inscription and a pre-Herodotean Celtic inscription from the Italian lakes. Both would come from areas devoid of “Celtic art” as understood here and would enhance the exploration of the label Celtic. The fact is that while most ancient Celts spoke what we call Celtic languages (so far as we know), only some Celtic-speakers went in for “Celtic art”. Conversely, “Celtic art” probably appealed to many who were not in any sense Celts, as it still does today.

An earlier paragraph doesn’t have to do with language, but puzzles me:

Reaching the Roman period, the focus narrows to Britain and Ireland. When the Roman army left Britain, “new pagan leaders gradually established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms”, reads the caption. Perhaps it would have been helpful to let on that these pagans had crossed the North Sea? But “migration” and “invasion” have been taboo words in British archaeology for decades, and are avoided throughout this exhibition. The curators are even partial to the groundless speculation that the Celtic languages originated c.2000 BC on Atlantic shores and were never carried there from anywhere else.

Anybody know why “migration” and “invasion” are taboo words in British archaeology? Surely nobody is claiming the Angles, Saxons, et al. were native to the isles!

Dipping into Fallon.

Everybody knows (I hope) about the great Hobson-Jobson; R Devraj has posted at Dick & Garlick about another “great glossary of the colonial era,” S. W. Fallon’s A New Hindustani-English Dictionary (1879):

Fallon took up the language of north India in the late 19th century as his field of study, the common colloquial speech which was then being thrust out of sight in official use as well as literature by an artificial written language of ‘stiff pompous words, strange Arabic sounds which have no meaning for the people, and the dull cold clay of Sanskrit forms’. As Ambarish Satwik writes in his column, to open Fallon is to ‘see the invisible stream that flows all around us, full of things we have left unsaid’ […]

In an article in Dawn, Rauf Parekh writes that Fallon knew the value of field research in lexicography. With the help of his native informants, he recorded the words and idioms used by women, and interviewed ordinary people to understand usage and pronunciation. In an aside, Parekh notes that this led Fallon to use lewd or taboo words ‘and he sort of developed a taste for such expressions’.

Fallon’s lack of prudery and his emphasis on descriptive rather than prescriptive lexicography is what sets him apart from most Hindi/Urdu lexicographers. It also makes his dictionary a great read.

There’s an excellent example at the link, and more at his follow-up post. I’m so glad he’s posting again!


Mark Liberman’s latest Log post features an amazing aspect of Google Translate; watch the brief video and enjoy the comments exploring it. As commenter كتشف said, “I think this rabbit hole goes on forever.”

Kerry Accent Again.

I know we just recently enjoyed the distinctive Kerry accent, but I can’t resist bringing you this RTE News story about farmer Mikey Joe O’Shea, who is upset about the theft of some of his sheep. (Don’t bother making “Ewe-ro” jokes; Twitter is way ahead of you.) Thanks, Trevor!

Small Homelands.

I’m reading Vera Tolz’s Russia’s Own Orient: The Politics of Identity and Oriental Studies in the Late Imperial and Early Soviet Periods (you can read a review by Denis V. Volkov here [pdf]), and I found this passage (on p. 37) of interest from a linguistic point of view:

In the 1870s, Russia’s size and underdeveloped systems of communication began to be depicted in the Russian press as an obstacle to the consolidation of the Russian national core. Russia, it was argued, was far too large and diverse for people to be able easily to identify with the state (otechestvo) as a whole. The proposed solution was to start national integration by fostering people’s particular affinity to their so-called ‘small native homeland’ (malaia rodina)—the region and the immediate locality where they lived.

The footnote says “In the discussion of the relationship between local and national identities, authors constantly use the expressions ‘rodina’ or ‘malaia rodina’ to refer to a particular locality and the word ‘otechestvo’ to describe Russia in its entirety.” I confess I had thought of otechestvo and rodina as pretty much synonymous, with the latter having more emotional force (“Родина-мать зовет!”); this use to mean ‘small homeland’ reminds me of French pays. A little later Tolz refers to the comparable German Heimat movement of that period; we don’t really have a comparable word in America — being more urbanized, we talk about one’s hometown. At any rate, I was wondering if the Russian use she describes still seems valid to my Russian-speaking readers.

Historic Book Odour Wheel.

ScienceDaily reports on a project “to document and archive the aroma associated with old books”; on the one hand, it seems ripe for mockery, but on the other hand, as a confirmed book-sniffer I can’t help but find it intriguing:

A ‘Historic Book Odour Wheel’ which has been developed to document and archive the aroma associated with old books, is being presented in a study in the open access journal Heritage Science. Researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage created the wheel as part of an experiment in which they asked visitors to St Paul’s Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter library in London to characterize its smell.

The visitors most frequently described the aroma of the library as ‘woody’ (selected by 100% of the visitors who were asked), followed by ‘smoky’ (86%), ‘earthy'(71%) and ‘vanilla’ (41%). The intensity of the smells was assessed as between ‘strong odor’ and ‘very strong odor’. Over 70% of the visitors described the smell as pleasant, 14% as ‘mildly pleasant’ and 14% as ‘neutral’. […]

Cecilia Bembibre, heritage scientist at UCL and corresponding author of the study said: “Our odour wheel provides an example of how scientists and historians could begin to identify, analyze and document smells that have cultural significance, such as the aroma of old books in historic libraries. The role of smells in how we perceive heritage has not been systematically explored until now.”

Further research is, needless to say, needed. The study is “Smell of heritage: A framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours,” by Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič. Thanks, Paul!


Gerardo Licón’s KCET story on pachucos, young Mexican-Americans in the WWII era, is excellent and taught me a lot about a culture of which I had only foggy and cliché-ridden ideas. What makes it LH material is the following paragraph:

This brings us back to the question regarding why pachucos in Los Angeles seemed to speak more [African American] jive than pachuco caló [slang]. It is because Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were greatly influenced by other groups in the U.S. compared to the Mexicans that were more recent arrivals to Los Angeles, especially from the border area of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Border cities have a greater degree of language mixture (something akin to Spanglish) than cities further inland as well. At that time, El Paso was the primary point of entry for Mexicans into the U.S. The slang name of El Paso was “El Chuco.” Many Mexicans would cross into the U.S. and go to El Chuco, or in Spanish slang, “Pa’l Chuco.” When young Mexican Americans took trains along the Southern Pacific railroad, through Tucson, Arizona, to Los Angeles for wartime employment opportunities, they were referred to as pachucos. They brought their form of border Spanglish to Los Angeles with them. Mexican American zoot suiters native to Los Angeles spoke more jive; migrants from El Paso spoke pachuco caló with more of a Spanish-language and Spanish slang influence. This is also why when reporters asked Mexican citizens, after the Zoot Suit Riots, where pachucos had come from, many said they came from El Paso.

Naturally, I was dubious about this derivation, and sure enough, when I looked it up in AHD I found a different etymology:

[American Spanish, person from El Paso, pachuco, possibly alteration of payuco, yokel, from Spanish payo, peasant, perhaps from Gallego Payo, Pelagius (considered a typical peasant name).]

And googling brought me this webpage by the redoubtable Barry Popik, whose first paragraph reverses Licón’s causation:

El Paso is infrequently called “El Chuco” or “Chuco Town”/”Chucotown.” The term comes from the word “pachuco,” a Mexican Spanish Caló dialect word of disputed origin, dating from the 1930s-1940s.

After that it has as many citations and theories as you could possibly want.

Code-switching as a Teaching Method.

Lameen Souag recently posted at Jabal al-Lughat about an intriguing teaching method:

I haven’t done much language teaching in my life, but as a person who likes learning new languages, I’ve seen a fair range of different teaching methods applied, from only speaking the target language to saying almost everything in English. But the approach used in Simon Bird‘s “#LilMoshom” series of Cree-teaching videos was new to me, and very interesting. Take a moment to watch some of them before reading further [links omitted click through to Lameen’s post for them]

There are a lot of strong points one could comment on – the CGI, the subtitles, and the humour, for instance – but what particularly draws my attention is the way he combines the two languages. To introduce the words he’s teaching, he usually speaks in English – but he doesn’t just gloss, much less lecture (contrast, say, the more conventional approach used in this Ojibwe video series). When speaking in English, he throws in Cree discourse particles and sometimes even content words, gives the sentence a distinctly non-mainstream English intonation pattern which I assume reflects Cree, and even pronounces the English with a Cree accent. In different contexts, the maker of these videos speaks English like any other Canadian academic, so this appears to be a deliberate teaching strategy. The beauty of this is that, before the learner can even formulate a full sentence, they’re already getting a chance to acquire some aspects of language – discourse structure and intonation – that are super-important for actually making yourself understood, yet play a minor role or get left out entirely in many traditional curriculums and textbooks (not to mention grammars!).

Have you ever encountered such a teaching method? If so, did you find it effective?

I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it seems like it could work, and I’m curious to know my readers’ thoughts.