Ghent Vocabulary Test.

Back in 2011 I posted about “an enjoyable and useful vocabulary test that gives you a bunch of words, asks you to check whether you know them, and extrapolates your total vocabulary size” that attracted quite a bit of interest (results here); now Ghent University has put online a similar test, introducing it thus:

In this test you get 100 letter sequences, some of which are existing English words (American spelling) and some of which are made-up nonwords. Indicate for each letter sequence whether it is a word you know or not by pressing the F or J key. […] The test takes about 4 minutes and you can repeat the test as often as you want (you will get new letter sequences each time).

If you take part, you consent to your data being used for scientific analysis of word knowledge.

Advice! Do not say yes to words you do not know, because yes-responses to nonwords are penalized heavily!

Advice! The test works best in Firefox, Chrome or Safari.

My results:

You said yes to 83% of the existing words.

You said yes to 0% of the nonwords.

This gives you a corrected score of 83% – 0% = 83%.

You are at the top level!

Theoretically, I could have done better, since I said “no” to a number of items that I thought could very well be words and turned out to be, but I didn’t want to risk yes-responses to nonwords (“penalized heavily!”), and the words were so obscure (“a rare name for the hyrax”) that I don’t feel bad about not knowing them. Enjoy! (A tip of the Languagehat hat to Trevor Joyce, who sent me the link — and who got 96% with no false positives, the bum.)


In the Facebook Historical Linguistics & Etymology group, Gary Rawding asks:·

Kulthum… as in Um Kulthum (ام كلثوم) ??
Wikipedia gives ‘from elephant’ but no source.
I don’t find kulthum in Lane or Wehr. Maybe it is Persian or Turkish ? Can somebody help me ?

I’ve long been familiar with Umm Kulthum and had wondered about her name, so I read the thread eagerly. After some unsourced speculation (“Kulthum means cheek in Arabic. So a woman who is an ‘um Kulthum’ is a woman with a face that has a big fleshy cheek”), Nane Limon Dada wrote:

It is unlikely that the name Kulthum would be Arabic in origin because of its rare morphological stem and because it is untraceable to any Proto-Semitic root. Another meaning to add what the respondents suggested above is “elephant”. This is suggestive to a Indo-Iranian root as the animal fauna indicates a potential geographical candidate. However, I couldn’t locate any cognate in the comprehensive dictionary of Indo-Iranian languages on University of Chicago’s webpage. We find in a work, a modern onomistics miscellany some interesting suggestions, Sijill Asma al-Arab, v.4., p. 2245. The cognate is proposed as كلتوم “kultuum” too hence invoking an idea for a historical defricitization in pre-classical-Arabic as the name goes back to one of the poets of the Pre-Islamic poetry that was listed in the Seven Hanged Poems, Amr Ibn Kulthum. If so, the transition must have been realized earlier. In the Sijill, كلتوم گلبهار (kultum gholbahar) is proposed as an attestation of its example. However the كلتوم is not analyzed, at all. This may inspire for another consideration for a compound phrase and a lexical search within the Indo-Iranian background, though. Also, it is proposed in line with zoological “elephant” association that the meaning can be cognate with a Latin root كلريوس (Cellarius?) well-known an “lizard”. [Google Books link] The feminine beauty in the Classical Arabic was represented through the natural fauna as well as flora like the premature born (lamb) Khadija etc. The selectivity of the motifs could be explained in their perception of the world consistently and in an ideal beauty given the semiotics of the meaning, that of course presupposes an intertextual reading effort. Therefore, the modern audience should avoid the modern metaphorical esthetization of femininity for its interpretation not to be misled.

I don’t have enough background to know how much sense any of that makes, and I welcome the thoughts of the assembled Hatters.

Unrelated except that it involves Egypt, Slavo/bulbul has alerted me to “Early alphabetic writing in the ancient Near East: the ‘missing link’ from Tel Lachish,” by Felix Höflmayer, Haggai Misgav, Lyndelle Webster, and Katharina Streit. Looks intriguing.


My wife was checking to see if we had a good supply of garbanzo beans when she asked me where the word was from (she knows how to keep me occupied). I thought the answer would be simple, but once you go beyond Spanish it’s a morass. Wiktionary:

From Spanish garbanzo, initially borrowed as garvance in the 17th c. and anglicized as calavance (“chickpea; any kind of bean or pulse”). The original garbanzo was re-established in the 19th c., primarily via American Spanish. The Spanish garbanzo is from Early Modern Spanish garbanços, from Old Spanish arvanço, which is of uncertain origin, presumably influenced by garroba (“carob fruit”) and galbana (“small pea; a variety of pea”), which is borrowed from Arabic جلبان‎ (“peas”). Other theories for the origin of garbanzo include the Basque compound garau (“seed”) +‎ antzu (“dry”) and the Ancient Greek ἐρέβινθος (erébinthos).

I got excited when I went to the OED and discovered that their entry was updated in June 2020, but alas, for the etymology they say “< Spanish garbanzo chickpea (see calavance n.),” and the calavance entry (with its label “Perhaps Obsolete”!) is from 1888. For what it’s worth, here’s that antique version:

Etymology: Originally garvance, caravance, < Spanish garbanzo chick-pea, according to Larramendi < Basque garbantzu, < garau seed, corn + antzu dry. (Diez says the question of derivation < Greek ἐρέβινθος chick-pea is not worth consideration; though the Portuguese form ervanço suggests connection with the Greek) Calavance appears to have come into English through some foreign language which changed r into l.

The AHD has a fresh take, bringing in the Goths:

Spanish, from Old Spanish garbanço, perhaps alteration (perhaps influenced by Old Spanish garroba, carob) of Old Spanish arvanço (compare Portuguese ervanço, chickpea), perhaps from Gothic *arwaits; akin to Dutch erwt and Old High German araweiz, pea, both from Proto-Germanic *arwait-, *arwīt-, pea, pulse, probably from the same same European substrate source as Greek erebinthos, chickpea, and Greek orobos and Latin ervum, bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), a vetch once widely cultivated in the Mediterranean region as a pulse and as fodder for livestock.]

At any rate, I like the older form calavance, and I like very much this OED citation:

1997 Church Times 14 Mar. 10/5 Chickpeas, or more excitingly, garbanzos, are one of the best pulses.

Foreign Accent Syndrome.

Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts write for the MIT Press Reader about a phenomenon that turns out to be not as spooky as the lede makes it seem:

On September 6, 1941, the German-occupied city of Oslo was attacked by the British Royal Air Force. The frightened citizens caught in the open frantically sought refuge from the falling bombs. One of the casualties of the air raid was a 30-year-old woman named Astrid, who was hit by shrapnel as she ran toward a shelter. She was seriously wounded on the left side of her head. Hospital staff feared she would not survive. After a few days, however, she regained consciousness and was found to have paralysis on the right side of her body. She was also unable to speak.

Over time her paralysis receded, and she gradually recovered her ability to talk. Her speech, however, had changed, and people who heard her detected a pronounced German-like accent. This was a serious problem in Norway, where the military occupation had created intense antipathy toward anything German, and her speech caused shopkeepers to refuse to assist her. Clearly she had no desire to speak as she did. Even more mysteriously, she had never lived outside Norway, nor had she interacted with foreigners.

Two years after her injury, Astrid’s strange case came to the attention of Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn. He was a professor of neurology at the University of Oslo and had a particular interest in language disorders. He was also struck by Astrid’s distinctly foreign accent and initially thought that she must be German or French.

Astrid’s case is not unique: An occurrence of what is now called foreign accent syndrome (FAS) was described as early as 1907 by Pierre Marie in France, where a Parisian had acquired an “Alsatian” accent. Over the next century, physicians and language researchers reported dozens of similar cases. As the case studies piled up in the medical journals, scholars struggled to understand what was going on. […]

[Read more…]

Handwörterbuch des Altuigurischen.

The Göttingen University Press (Universitätsverlag Göttingen) has published Jens Wilkens’ Handwörterbuch des Altuigurischen: Altuigurisch – Deutsch – Türkisch:

The “Hand Dictionary of Old Uyghur” is the first inventory of the entire vocabulary of Old Uyghur texts (manuscripts, block prints, inscriptions) found in the oasis cities of the ancient Silk Road (Turfan, Dunhuang and others). Also included is the rich loan vocabulary of Buddhist, Manichaean and Christian texts. With the help of the dictionary, editions of all text genres (religious, medical, astrological and divinatory texts, letters, deeds, contracts, inscriptions) can now be used for the first time without further lexicographic aids. The “Handwörterbuch des Altuigurischen” (Dictionary of Old Uyghur) is particularly suitable for university teaching in the subject of Turkology, since even complex terms and collocations are covered. Because Old Uyghur is the best attested indigenous language of Central Asia in pre-Islamic times and at the same time the first extensively documented Turkic literary language, this variant of Old Turkic is of great importance not only for Turkology and general linguistics, but also for the diverse and still fascinating cultural history of the Silk Road.

You can pay 68 euros for the hardcover (929 pages)… or you can download the pdf for free (click “Online” at the link)! I highly approve of this trend of making texts freely available, and the dictionary is very clearly laid out and easy to use (if, of course, you know German and/or Turkish). Here are a couple of entries:

abipiray < TochA *abhiprāy / < TochB abhiprāy < Skt. abhiprāya Bedeutung, Kommentar || anlam, mana, izah

abita < Chin. 䱯彌䱰 a mi tuo (Spätmittelchin. ʔa mji tha) << Skt. amita (= amitābha ~ amitāyus) n. pr. (ein Buddha) || bir Buda’nın adı (s./bk. Khotansak. armätāya-) (s./bk. Mo. abida) (→amita)

Also, I recently ran into a couple of Russian culinary words that a translator would doubtless have trouble with: затируха [zatirukha] is a kind of thin flour-and-water soup or porridge and дрочена [drochona] can be a soft pie-like dish (see the illustration) or a potato pancake (if it has potatoes, which it doesn’t always). The Wikipedia article for the latter quotes M. Syrnikov as saying «вероятно, ни одно другое древнее блюдо не было позабыто единственно из-за неблагозвучности своего названия» [probably no other ancient dish has been forgotten exclusively because of the unpleasing sound of its name] — дрочить [drochít′] is “(vulgar, slang) to jerk off, to wank, to beat off (to masturbate).”


I’m reading Valentin Kataev’s Алмазный мой венец [My diamond crown (a Pushkin quote)], one of his many novelized memoirs or autobiographical novels or what have you (it’s the fifth I’ve read so far), and I’ve gotten to a point where his Odessite friend Eduard Bagritsky says to his wife “Бенимунис” [benimunis], said to be a “Jewish oath” meaning ‘I swear.’ This didn’t ring any bells, so I googled it and found this discussion (in Russian) by Valery Smirnov, which quotes various sources with various alternative spellings like бенимунес [benimunes], бенамунес [benamunes], бенемунес [benemunes], and бенымуныс [benymunys] but doesn’t explain its origin. Anybody know?

Foclóir Farraige.

Claudia Geib writes for Hakai about a new dictionary project:

Sitting amid the bric-a-brac of generations of seafarers before him, fisherman and museum curator John Bhaba Jeaic Ó Confhaola of Galway, Ireland, tried to describe a word to interviewer Manchán Magan. The word, in the Irish language, was for a three-bladed knife on a long pole, used by generations of Galway fishermen to harvest kelp. Ó Confhaola dredged it from his memory: a scian coirlí.

“I don’t think I’ve said that word out loud for 50 years,” he told Magan.

It was a sentiment that Magan would hear again and again along Ireland’s west coast. This is a place shaped by proximity to the ocean: nothing stands between the sea and the country’s craggy, cliff-lined shores for roughly 3,000 kilometers, leaving it open to the raw breath of the North Atlantic. Many cities and towns here have roots as fishing villages and ports, and for generations, to speak Irish in them was to speak of the sea.

A sarcastic person might be described as tá sé mar a bheadh scadán i dtóin an bharraille (like a salted herring from the bottom of a barrel). To humble a braggart was an ghaoth a bhaint as seolta duine (to take the wind out of their sails). Each community developed its own vocabulary: words for every sort of wave, every tide, and every shift in weather; for the sea’s sounds, its plants, and its creatures; and for the tools and tricks a mariner used to make a living on the ocean’s surface.

[Read more…]

McWhorter on P&V.

John McWhorter goes into detail on why he can’t stand the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace, and it’s music to my ears:

It bears mentioning, then, that for whatever it’s worth, I read (although do not speak) Russian well, and more to the point, have run my observations here past a native Russian speaker whose English is excellent-plus and has worked in the past as an interpreter and done translation. That person added insights of their own that I had not caught – and agrees with me that there is a major problem with the lionization of P&V.

I will use as an example just one page, taken (virtually) at random. It is from the 21st and final chapter of the second part of the first volume of the book, and it is typical of how this translation “feels” throughout, especially when people talk, but quite often just in descriptions. It’s a sequence from one of the “war” parts, with military men on a break wallowing in the privations of life outdoors with low provisions.

P&V seem to pride themselves on sticking close to the original. But the reason so many celebrated translators do not do so as diligently as they do is that languages differ in what means they use to convey concepts. This language conveys something with an adjective while that language needs a phrase for it. This language conveys something with a quiet resonance from a word while that language nails that something with an explicit suffix. This language expresses something which, rendered in that other language, sounds hopelessly affected or insincere and you have to work around it.

P&V just aren’t very good at wangling art from such things. And then surprisingly often, given that Volokhonsky is a native Russian speaker and Pevear is at least along for the ride, P&V miss basic nuances of how Russian even works. […]

[Read more…]

Dombrovsky’s Useless Things.

Last year I was pleasantly surprised by how good Yury Dombrovsky’s Хранитель древности [The Keeper of Antiquities] was; now I’m let down a bit that the sequel, Факультет ненужных вещей [The faculty of useless things, translated as The Faculty of Useless Knowledge], wasn’t as good as I expected, based both on the earlier book and the fact that everyone treats Keeper as less important. I can see why they feel that way: Keeper is small-scale, focused on the titular archeologist and his feelings and observations as he tries to preserve his messy collections at the Alma Ata museum, while Faculty widens its scope tremendously, including a whole new set of characters who either work for the NKVD or are imprisoned by it. Furthermore, it incorporates a slew of cultural, literary, and historical allusions, from Georges Borman chocolates (“Жорж Борман — нос оторван”) to Avvakum to Yagoda (who in 1937 had recently been replaced as director of the NKVD by Yezhov — and I was pleased with myself for knowing when a reference to “Nikolai Ivanovich” in the book meant Yezhov and when it meant Bukharin), quoting Mandelstam several times without naming him. It’s got powerful descriptions of gulag and prison life. And it’s over twice as long.

The thing is, none of that makes it a good novel. A good novel, in my view, may be a baggy monster, but it has to have some kind of coherence, a sense that all the balls are being juggled according to an esthetic pattern that will eventually become clear, even if perhaps only on a second reading. I am reasonably confident that that is not the case here. When Dombrovsky was asked to write a sequel after the success of Keeper in 1964, he obviously decided to put in all he knew, both from personal experience and accounts by others, of the gulag system his hero was headed for, even as Brezhnev’s overthrow of Khrushchev put a definitive end to the Thaw and made the new novel unpublishable in the USSR. What he couldn’t base on the experiences of his protagonist (named Georgy Zybin in the sequel) he shoveled in by having an old hand share a cell with Zybin and give long monologues about what he’d been through or by creating a character who writes to Stalin asking to be released from a camp (described in detail) on the basis of a loan he’d made back when the dictator was just a poor fugitive named Dzhugashvili back in 1904. There’s a section told from Stalin’s point of view, musing about his mother, his childhood, his love of nature. A whole section of the book (Part Three) is devoted to an otherwise minor character named Kornilov just so he can show him being turned into an informer, while the implausibly perfect Zybin keeps his integrity (and implausibly gets away with hurling long, angry, truth-telling monologues at his NKVD interrogators).

All of this is effective, but not nearly as effective as it would have been if the same ground hadn’t been covered by others, notably Solzhenitsyn (more thoroughly) and Shalamov (more artistically). That’s not Dombrovsky’s fault, of course; he felt a strong imperative to bear witness and let people know what was going on, and he did so to the best of his ability. But now that we all know pretty much everything there is to know about the gulag and its denizens, that informational aspect is deflated, and we’re left with an overlong, incoherent novel. It reminds me of those well-meaning progressive novels of the 1860s and 1870s that grabbed the reader by the lapels and educated them about the horrors of serfdom and autocracy — without the context that gave them their urgency, nobody wanted to read them any more. I don’t mean to say Faculty is that bad; it’s got very effective scenes and is well worth reading. I was just disappointed, is all, as I was with Aksyonov’s В поисках жанра [In search of a genre] (see this post) and Trifonov’s Старик [The Old Man], where a powerful investigation of the protagonist’s Civil War past is diluted by a rather tedious squabble over the disposition of a dacha in the novel’s present (the early 1970s). But as I continue with the year 1978, I’m heading on to Valentin Kataev’s Алмазны мой венец [My diamond crown/wreath], his controversial novel-memoir about 1920s literary life; since Sashura lists it as his favorite Kataev, I doubt I’m going to be disappointed.

Oh, one bit I enjoyed from the Dombrovsky is that in the first chapter of Part Two he has a character quote “Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?” I’m glad to see Russians have been infected with Cicero’s earworm just like I was back in Brother Auger’s Latin class.


The word dooryard is well known to me as a lexical item, but I had no idea what exactly it meant; as ktschwarz said in this Wordorigins thread, “like probably most Americans outside New England, I associate it mainly with Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’.” Fortunately, in the same thread cuchuflete linked to this 2017 FB post from the Bangor Maine Police Department:

The term “dooryard” has such a simple and clear meaning to me that I had no idea the phrase could be so misunderstood. Door + Yard = Dooryard. A concise term, crafted over time by our ancestors. I even received a few notes that hinted of frustration in my use of the term without a definition attached. I feel wicked bad. So stinkin’ bad – that I now have to write an entirely separate post to clear up the confusion.

Dooryard (sometimes pronounced Doah-Yahd – don’t do this) simply means the area of yard adjacent to the most commonly used door exiting the home where you are currently dwelling. It could be the front door, it could be the side door, and it might even be the back door. It also could be the yard(s) located by each and every door in your home. You make the determination of where the “dooryard” is at your home, and if your uncle Mervin stops by, he might only consider the dooryard to be the area near the side door.

The best indicator of the area of which the person speaks would be to pay attention to the movement of their head or shoulders when they use the term. Pointing is too obvious. If the person is indicating the dooryard near the side of the house, he or she might glance in that general direction. You will know, but only if you pay attention.
When you arrive at a home in Maine (and I have arrived at many in many different towns during my time as an investigator) you need to look for door with the most worn path in the grass or mud.

Just because there are pavers or crushed rock leading to a door does not mean that it is the clear choice in entry and exit for the homeowners. You must find the dooryard. Screw it up, and you will not be welcomed. […] Whatever you do, do not try to pronounce “dooryard” like Tom Bosley did in “Murder She Wrote.” Do not try to use a Maine accent if you do not have a Maine accent. It actually can get you into trouble. Actually, don’t even try to use the term “dooryard” unless you know where it is. If you use the term regularly, you understand. If you don’t, that’s cool as well. […]

The OED (in a 1897 entry) defines it as “A yard or garden-patch about the door of a house” and gives the following citations:

c1764 in T. D. Woolsey Hist. Disc. (1850) 54 The Freshmen ..are forbidden to wear their the front door~yard of the President’s or Professor’s house.
1854 J. R. Lowell Cambr. 30 Years Ago in Prose Wks. (1890) I. 59 The flowers which decked his little door-yard.
1878 Emerson in N. Amer. Rev. CXXVI. 412 We send to England for shrubs, which grow as well in our own door~yards and cow-pastures.
1913 R. Frost Boy’s Will 9 How drifts are piled, Dooryard and road ungraded.
1941 T. S. Eliot Dry Salvages i. 7 The rank ailanthus of the April dooryard.

The Dictionary of American Regional English labels it “chiefly NEng, NY” (and Whitman, of course, was from NY). We previously discussed the word in 2018. And in connection with the last citation, I will remind people that in that title Salvages has penultimate stress and “long a” (or, as Eliot annoyingly puts it, “Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages” — why not use wages as the rhyming word rather than one nobody knows how to pronounce?).