A SCRABBLE POEM.

OK, not actually a poem but sort-of-rhymed doggerel, but David Bukszpan’s Poem So You’ll Know All 101 Two-Letter Words is fun and might even prove useful for some of you. My favorite line is the second of this couplet:

QI, Scrabble’s most popular word, is just ki spelled with a kue,
and like qat (or your cat) it doesn’t need U.

And the line most relevant to a recent LH post is “DO, like the deer, is the first tone you hum.”
Completely irrelevant, but I can’t resist sharing it: Aulus Gellius quotes Herodes Atticus as saying of a man who claimed to be a philosopher “Video barbam et pallium; philosophum nondum video” (I see a beard and a cloak; I don’t see a philosopher yet). Hence the proverb Barba non facit philosophum, “A beard does not make a philosopher.”

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    The Aulus Gellius reminds me of a line I’ve heard attributed to Victor Serge when he was in the USSR during the first Five-Year Plan: “All right, I see the broken eggs, but where’s this omelette you keep talking about?”

  2. Yes, that’s one of my all-time favorite history-related quotes.

  3. Ah yes, and I quoted it myself in this post.

  4. slawkenbergius says:

    But “qi” is pronounced “chee”!

  5. Yes, as he says under “ki.”

  6. Javel, jeg kan se de knuste eggene. Nå hvor er denne omeletten deres?
    Wikiquote has this only in English and bokmål Norwegian (it doesn’t work in French, apparently, the only other language having Victor Serge Wikiquotes), but – and assuming he didn’t say it in Norwegian or English – is this expression common in Russian too? Did people eat omelettes in pre-revolutionary Russia?

  7. slawkenbergius says:

    Now I’m curious. Who spells 氣 qi “ki”? Certainly not pinyin or Wade-Giles. Is it a Cantonese thing? In that case, is it still pronounced “chee”?

  8. slawkenbergius says:

    As for the Serge quote, Googling reveals that it was actually Serge reporting a remark by the Romanian poet Panait Istrati. It still sounds apocryphal to me, though, like the famous bogus line of Stalin’s about a million deaths being a statistic.

  9. slawkenbergius says:

    I’m skeptical in part because I’ve never heard any Russian using an expression like the one about the omelette. The corresponding Russian proverb, which in fact was used during the Red Terror in the Civil War years, was “Лес рубят, щепки летят” (roughly “You can’t chop wood without splinters flying off”). Like the Stalin quote and the one about “reaching for my revolver” mangled and falsely attributed to Goebbels, people repeat it because it sounds right.

  10. falsely attributed to Goebbels
    Normally, it’s falsely attributed to Goering. I’ve never heard Goebbels. The original is “Wenn ich Kultur höre entsichere ich meinen Browning!”

  11. marie-lucie says:

    une omelette
    What do they mean, it does not work in French? Of course it does.
    The starting point is the proverb On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ which may be the original (omelette being a French word). Here is my translation:
    Je vois bien les oeufs cassés, mais où est donc cette omelette dont vous ne cessez de parler?
    literally: “I do indeed see the broken eggs, but where is that omelette you don’t stop talking about?”

  12. (And David Starkey is a buffoon. My vacuum cleaner knows more about history than he does.)

  13. Here is my translation:
    Je vois bien les oeufs cassés, mais où est donc cette omelette dont vous ne cessez de parler?

    m-l, what were you translating and where did you find it?
    You must blame me for saying it apparently doesn’t work in French, no one else said so. It’s just that it’s not included in the Victor Serge Wikiquote article in French.

  14. …and of course France is the only place apart from my own kitchen I would expect to be served a decent omelette.

  15. I’m skeptical in part because I’ve never heard any Russian using an expression like the one about the omelette.
    But Serge was not your ordinary Russian. He was born in Brussels and lived there until he was expelled from Belgium at the age of nineteen, when he moved to Paris. On his release from a French jail in 1917 (he was convicted of abetting terrorist activities) he went to live in Spain, and in July 1917 he visited Russia for the first time in his life. It was perfectly in order for him to talk about eggs and omelettes, and since the quote suits both his wit and his politics, I’m not sure why you insist on being skeptical about it if not out of a principle that nobody ever said anything attributed to them, which would be taking a laudable caution to an unhealthy extreme.

  16. slawkenbergius says:

    What makes the quote–which, again, was not said by Serge even if it was real–clever and witty is the way it plays on the phrase “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” If the phrase “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” would not have been familiar to a Soviet person or would not have been used by them in this context, it wouldn’t be witty, just sort of odd. (Or, to put it another way, the “you” of the quote would need to actually “keep talking about” omelettes for it to make sense.) And since I’ve never seen an actual Bolshevik use of the phrase, I’m skeptical.

  17. Online ED says that “omelette” has a scrambled history. It also mentions the French proverb (not exactly the same version as m-l’s).

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Je vois bien les oeufs cassés, mais où est donc cette omelette dont vous ne cessez de parler?
    AJP: m-l, what were you translating and where did you find it?
    I was translating VS’s alleged sentence into French in order to show that the English version was not untranslatable. Following that translation, I quoted and translated into English the French proverb it is based on.
    slawkenbergius, it is possible that (if VS did say it), he was talking to a Russian person who had been educated in French the old-fashioned (Russian) way and would probably have known the proverb.
    Ø : Thank you for looking up the Online ED, which says: On ne saurait faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs, quoting the date 1859.
    The sentence is correct but very old-fashioned today. It means literally “One would not be able to make an omelette …”, with an old idiomatic use of saurait (from the verb savoir now meaning ‘know (how to)’) instead of pourrait (from pouvoir meaning ‘can, be able to’). This is not unknown nowadays but sounds very archaic. I can hardly imagine people saying it, or even writing it, except perhaps members of the Académie Française! Actually, my father might have said it, but as a a joke.
    In my earlier comment I translated On by ‘you’ since ‘you’ in this context (referring to an indefinite person) is a more appropriate English translation, and also because the sentence quoted was allegedly addressed to an actual person.

  19. AR is the letter that starts the word “rice.”
    My first reaction to this was disgust and disbelief, but then I realized that I can’t really offer a better spelling of the way “R” is pronounced. “Are” is already a word, and “Arr” has been commandeered by pirates.
    Now I’m curious. Who spells 氣 qi “ki”? Certainly not pinyin or Wade-Giles. Is it a Cantonese thing?
    Not even, I’m afraid; it’s a Japanese thing. So anyone who learned about 気 (note simplification!) via, for example, a Japanese martial art like Aikido 合気道 will pronounce it “ki”, all other things being equal.

  20. slawkenbergius says:

    slawkenbergius, it is possible that (if VS did say it), he was talking to a Russian person who had been educated in French the old-fashioned (Russian) way and would probably have known the proverb.
    You might be right–and if so that adds a layer of painful irony. Serge encountered Istrati, the actual author of that remark, at the tail end of the ’20s. Istrati’s alleged egg-breaking interlocutor could well have had aristocratic origins at that point in time. That would mean that within a decade he or she would likely have fallen victim to the campaign against “former people,” which was launched in 1937, thus becoming another one of the “eggs.”
    Not even, I’m afraid; it’s a Japanese thing. So anyone who learned about 気 (note simplification!) via, for example, a Japanese martial art like Aikido 合気道 will pronounce it “ki”, all other things being equal.
    Duh, I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me!

  21. m-l, is it normal in French to update archaisms in proverbs and popular sayings in this way? In English (and I believe also in Russian), proverbs are one of the fields in which archaisms cluster most thickly, along of course with poetry and religious language. I note that the saying Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, attributed to one Henri Estienne (1531-98), has the “modern” word, and I wonder if that’s what Estienne really wrote or said. The English version If youth only knew, if age only could has an archaism in it: we no longer use can as a main verb in the sense “can do (something unspecified)”.

  22. Chron: Starkey is undoubtedly a baboon as well as a buffoon, but you don’t get a Cambridge First and a Ph.D. without knowing something, at least about his special subject of Henery the Eighth. He certainly seems to have no sense of proportion, however.

  23. really wrote
    Up to orthography, yes.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    JC: About “updating” proverbs and similar sayings, I think that some of them have been updated over time, but others haven’t. An example of the latter is Pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse which is probably the original of ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’. In Modern French the lack of articles in front of pierre and mousse is ungrammatical (the modern sentence would be: Une pierre qui roule n’amasse pas de mousse).
    I note that the saying Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, attributed to one Henri Estienne (1531-98), has the “modern” word
    I don’t know if Estienne thought this up or just wrote it, but it sounds right. You could not use savait with different meanings in the same sentence. Savoir is from Latin sapere which also means ‘to know’, and has kept the Latin meaning in most contexts (in the sense of ‘to know how to, to be able to perform’, eg swim, play an instrument, speak a language, etc).
    Note that in some contexts there is hardly any difference between know how to and be able to, as in the old Je ne saurais dire … ‘I would not be able to say (lit. ‘I wouldn’t know how to say’, hence ‘I couldn’t say’).
    Henri Estienne was a very interesting character, one of the Renaissance polymaths, especially concerning languages. He was also one of the “defenders” of the French language. He was interested not only in vocabulary but in pronunciation and spelling. His own spelling usage was not adopted by others but represents French pronunciation at the time, eg la langue françoèze.
    If you look him up on Wikipedia.fr, you will find that several of the paragraphs appear to be lifted from a 19C or even earlier biography of Estienne.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    MMcM, thank you for finding the original quotation. The work where it is found, authored by Estienne, is a compilation of sayings, with their meaning and use, as well as alternate wordings, and it is a complete misunderstanding to attribute the sayings themselves to Estienne. One might as well think that the author of a dictionary must have invented all the words in it.

  26. I would if I could but I can’t so I won’t.
    I didn’t feel that If youth only knew, if age only could contained an archaism. In modern usage it sounds more a kind of ellipsis — although this is likely different from the original usage, in that it assumes the verb is elided rather than unneeded. But I don’t feel that the locution itself feels totally archaic.

  27. I agree with Bathrobe: it’s quaint/literary but not archaic.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    I became curious about the attribution of the “can’t make an omelette” quote to Lenin. In a quick and quite possibly incomplete trawl through google books (suffering the slings and arrows of snippet view etc.), the earliest English-language linkage of the quote to Bolshevism in general I found was dated 1932 (although it also turned up in a 1934 anthology by the infamous Walter Duranty, so perhaps he got it into Western newspapers several years before that). The earliest use that looked like it might be tied more directly to Lenin himself (although snippet view and thus lack of context makes that characterization a bit uncertain and ambiguous) was in a 1939 book about Stalin by Boris Souvarine, who interestingly enough spent most of his life in Paris and is said by wikipedia to have been close to Victor Sorge. Of course, for all I know that 1939 publication date could be for the English translation of a work Souvarine published in French several years earlier. It seems not implausible that a relevant Russian proverb got as it were translated by way of explanation into an equivalent French proverb and then became current in that version among Anglophone and Francophone apologists for Bolshevism by sometime circa 1930 before drifting posthumously into Lenin’s own mouth.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    Followup: Eugene Lyons’ 1937 “Assignment in Utopia,” an early entry in the disillusioned-former-fellow-traveler memoir genre, attributes the popularization of the omelette cliche in the Bolshevist-apologist context to Duranty, including a dating to a specific 1933 New York Times story by Duranty denying that anyone was being deliberately starved in the Ukraine.
    While perhaps originally French, the maxim seems to have been reasonably common in Anglophone writing by world war I in military contexts (where it was sometimes attributed to Napoleon . . .), but with a somewhat different connotation, i.e. the eggs are not hapless third-party bystanders sideswiped by the Revolution but ones own troops, ships etc., the idea being that a competent military commander must accept the regrettable inevitability of casualties to his own side in order to accomplish anything of value.

  30. “Is it a Cantonese thing? In that case, is it still pronounced “chee”?
    No, it can’t be Cantonese because that would be something like “kei”.
    It’s an archaicism in English transliteration like the one that gave us “Peking” and “Nanking”, probably from a dialect somewhere around the Jiang. Wait, other European languages have that same influence, so it probably dates from the Treaty Ports era – so it could be anywhere, since there were Treaty Ports all along the coast.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: As in other cases of sayings widespread in the military, and therefore attributed to them even though the metaphor is quite alien from military life,* I don’t think that the metaphorical use of a saying about food preparation, known to have been uttered by a military figure, must be original to that person. It is more likely that the metaphorical use was already known in ordinary life, so that it came naturally to the military figure in question when referring to the loss of life inherent in hostile military activities.
    *I am thinking specifically to “the whole nine yards”, commented upon in at least three LH threads, but there must be others, less well-known or whose origin is now unrecoverable.

  32. 1-John Cowan: I agree with Marie-Lucie’s answer to your question: proverbs are not as a rule updated linguistically in French, and thus you can find many archaic features in them. “Advienne que pourra” is still used as a proverb, “Comme what may”, and is not updated to something like “Qu’il advienne ce qui pourra”.
    As a result, of course, some of these proverbs can be misunderstood: a Québec humor group once had a (dim-witted) character misquote the above proverb as “Advienne que pourrira”, which I guess you could render into English as “Come what will rot”.
    2-“Savoir” in the sense of “to be able to”: there are some French creoles in the Americas where a form /sa/ or /sav/, a reduced form of /savwer/ (the seventeenth-century pronunciation of SAVOIR) is used with this meaning: whether this is a preserved archaism or an innovation is unclear.
    I am unaware of the original meaning having been clearly preserved in Canadian French, which makes me suspect this French Creole usage is indeed an innovation.
    3-“Si vieillesse pouvait”/”If age only could”: I think this English translation weakens the original. I would prefer rendering it as something like “If age only had the power”.

  33. Jim: From what I understand, “Peking” and “Nanking” reflect Mandarin before the modern palatalization; in Pinyin they’d be Beiging and Nan’ging respectively, except that Mandarin no longer has velar syllables ging, king, hing; they have become alveolopalatal syllables jing, qing, xing. The same is true for all velars followed by either /i/ or /y/ or their respective glides /j/ and /ɥ/.
    So it would be plausible to treat the alveolopalatals as allophones of the velars, except that they sound completely different. To make things more complex, the apicodental initials z, c, s and the retroflex initials zh, ch, sh never contrast with the alveolopalatals either, with one exception: there is a contrast between apicodentals, retroflexes, and palatals before the minimal vowel /i/ itself — whereas with /a/, schwa, /u/, and /u/-glide, the three-way contrast is between apicodentals, retroflexes, and velars! As I said before, Mandarin phonology is massively over-constrained.

  34. Victor Serge in his ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’ (page 278 in Sedgwick’s translation) credits Panaït Istrati: ‘He was incapable of theoretical reasoning, and so could not fall into the trap of convenient sophistry. People told him, in my hearing: “Panaït, one can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Our revolution… ” etc. He exclaimed, “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?”‘ . Not dated, but Moscow about 1930.
    But who coined the original comfortable saying? It’s often attributed to Robespierre, but is that right?

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    I don’t know how complete google books is for French-language stuff, plus I can’t read French, but “Où est votre omelette?” seems to pop up in some sort of connection with Istrati in a 1951 memoir by Serge covering the years through 1941 (Memoires d’un Revolutionnaire). So it *might* be an accurate recollection of an actual conversation sometime in the late 1920’s . . . But by the publication date, the omelette-Bolshevik link was already in print in a variety of sources in English and I assume French as well. Istrati himself seems to have had a somewhat tumultuous subsequent life according to various wikiarticles on the weirder strands of the unsavory Romananian politics of the 1930’s.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Jonathan: who coined the original comfortable saying? It’s often attributed to Robespierre, but is that right?
    Once again, a famous figure used a homely metaphor, and was credited with inventing it! Robespierre, of all people! He is remembered as a rather dour, intellectual person, not one to make jokes or speak in images.

  37. marie-lucie: an old idiomatic use of saurait … This is not unknown nowadays but sounds very archaic. I can hardly imagine people saying it, or even writing it, except perhaps members of the Académie Française!
    Are you sure that “archaic” is the mot juste here ? For speech perhaps, but not for books. I encounter “on ne saurait” in practically every high-tone 20C book in French I read: philosophy, novels, sociology. It’s ubiquitous in L’être et le néant, and even occurs (IIRC) in Aimez-vous Brahms.., which I just read.
    I remember these things because “on ne saurait” annoys me every time I see it. It looks archaic, yet its repeated use seems to be telling me that I’m wrong, and will never move in high-tone French circles.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly: I have never moved in high-tone French circles and I don’t miss the experience, but I don’t really think that the people there use Je ne saurais … or On ne saurait … in their informal everyday speech. Note that the verb is the only one thus used, it is always in the conditional, sentences are always negative, and they always include ne but never pas, the opposite of normal spoken contemporary French but going back several centuries. With so many restrictions, yes, these phrases are archaic (or perhaps only “archaizing”), but they give a certain aura or rather patina of formality and tradition to one’s prose, something like using “Would that I/it were …” in English.

  39. marie-lucie: With so many restrictions, yes, these phrases are archaic (or perhaps only “archaizing”), but they give a certain aura or rather patina of formality and tradition to one’s prose, something like using “Would that I/it were …” in English.
    Yes, that’s the point, isn’t it. These archaic phrases have a modern, non-archaic function: to demonstrate awareness of tradition.
    Similarly, a “historical” building has been preserved for the present. However, it’s usually not the same building, but one which has been restored to “look like” the original. “Historical” buildings can tell you as much about the history of historicizing techniques and theories as they do about the “originals”.
    I would have thought it clear that my use of the word “high-tone” was only partly mocking. You and I both, and many other people, allow the different settings in which we speak or write to guide our choice of words. I am unwilling to dismiss as merely “archaic” a French expression whose use by certain French writers obviously is intended to demonstrate linguistic competence and awareness of literary history – for whatever reasons.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly, you are right on all counts. That’s why I thought that “archaizing” might be a better word.

  41. Rodger C says:

    @John Cowan: I believe the syllable we’ve been tal;king about would have been written k’i in the old French Sinological system, which was evidently based on a very conservative upper-class Mandarin pronunciation and consistently distinguished k’i, ts’i, and tch’i, all now qi.

  42. As a writer who’s friends with several philosophy professors, I’m amused to see that from the very beginning, humor emerged.
    And the best philosopher I know does have a beard.

  43. “Grumbly, you are right on all counts.”
    If I were you, Stu, I’d blow up that sentence very large, xerox it onto rice paper, cover it in aspic, keep it in the fridge for a few days as a nice surprise and then invite a few friends round to eat it.

  44. rice paper on all counts
    The issue for me is what to make of on ne saurait as I learn French. I think marie-lucie and I don’t disagree in principle about such expressions. However, we might disagree about that particular expression. Marie-lucie in prose and person seems to be more conservative and less flamboyant than me (neither property implies the other). I always take that into account when reading what she writes.
    I suspect that “archaizing” has different connotations for each of us. The nowadays rare English expression “Would that I/it were …” in a text is something I too would describe as archaizing. Is that comparable to the use of on ne saurait in 20C French writing, say philosophical texts ? Given its frequency, I don’t think so.
    Thing is, it’s not just on ne saurait that bugs me, but a helluva lot besides in French texts. I have been through all this before with German: assessing and reassessing over decades the various registers, styles and idiosyncrasies of German writers and speakers – picking, choosing and judging for myself. On ne saurait is one detail in a big picture. Though marie-lucie disagree with me, I am still inclined to fret over this.

  45. A SCRABBLE POEM: BABEL MAP SCORE
    OK, spambot, your turn. Next anagram please.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly: I thought of “Would that I …” as an example of an English archaism which is still used in some contexts, but it seems to be nowhere as common as On ne saurait ….
    Here is another example which I just remembered: in Molière’s Tartuffe, the first appearance of the character on the stage (preceded by scenes in which the others talk mostly about him) occurs as he enters a room where the only person is the daughter’s personal maid (and probably former wet nurse) Dorine. Nurses needed to be ready to breastfeed the baby at any time, and their traditional clothing (still worn long after it was needed) showed a good deal of bosom. When Tartuffe sees Dorine he hands her a handkerchief to cover herself, saying “Cachez ce sein que je ne saurais voir!”, literally ‘Hide this bosom that I could not possibly see!’ Meanwhile he turns his head slightly aside and brings his other hand to his face in order to shield his eyes, but keeps his fingers slightly apart so as to have a good look at the allegedly forbidden sight.
    The line with saurais is not very easy to interpret. An English version of the play which was used in performance uses ‘…that I cannot endure to see’, but I don’t agree with “endure”. The meaning seems to me to be more on the lines of ‘…that I cannot be allowed to see’ in his assumed personality as an ostentatiously religious person.

  47. How about “that I must not see”?

  48. Trond Engen says:

    I was thinking “… that I should not see”, or maybe rather “… that I should not be seeing”.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    LH: How about “that I must not see”?
    Trond: I was thinking “… that I should not see”, or maybe rather “… that I should not be seeing”.
    “Must” is definitely too strong. “Should” has a conditional flavour like “saurais”. But both “must” and “should” imply that the prohibition is externally imposed.
    The French verb form on the other hand implies that the prohibition is at least partly self-imposed, because it is incompatible with the speaker’s character. I was not completely happy with my earlier suggestion “that I cannot be allowed to see”. I now think that
    “that I could not allow myself to see” is closer to the French meaning. The implication is that Tartuffe (in his assumed personality) would be demeaning himself in his own eyes and be unable to live with himself if he were to yield to the temptation (which he does, of course, since he is a consummate hypocrite).
    Grumbly, my translation here does not mean that it would fit all instances of Je ne saurais, etc, but I think that the ides of self-imposed restriction and moral fitness applies to many of the cases (though not to those which clearly indicate actual ignorance, like Je ne saurais vous dire … ‘I would not be able to tell you’).
    The semantic link between the two meanings must be ‘wouldn’t (even) know (how to) …’, as in the English phrase “I wouldn’t even know where to begin”, often said about some action that the speaker could not imagine doing.

  50. Trond Engen says:

    Ah, I think I get it. It’s the false modest “I couldn’t possibly” as in “It’s too much. I couldn’t possibly accept that” when everybody knows you will. When Tartuffe says it in his opening line, it’s for that effect: “Oh, it’s too much. I couldn’t possibly allow myself to look.”

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Cover this bosom I could not possibly watch.

  52. Archaizing: “Veil that breast, lest I ken what I cannot know”.

  53. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    John Cowan: the use of the verb “can” without a specific object happens from time to time in English. Clearly not often, but I recall a winning presidential election slogan just like that.

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