Apis.

I’ve barely begun Thomas Laqueur’s very long LRB review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, and I already have a nit to pick. Laqueur says “Clark, however, begins with an earlier terrorist act, the grotesque murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga, by a small group of officers acting as part of a larger conspiracy. … One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’) as he was known – would in 1911 become a founding member of the secret, ultra-nationalist organisation Union or Death, a.k.a. the Black Hand.” To get the nit out of the way immediately, the Serbian word for ‘bull’ is not apis, it is bik (cognate with Russian бык). Apis is not a Serbian word at all.

A couple of decades ago I would have found this annoying but forgivable; after all, not many English-speakers know South Slavic languages, and while it wouldn’t have been all that hard to check on a Serbian word, I can see how it might have seemed too much trouble. Now, however, it’s ridiculously easy. Not only is the internet full of translation sites, if you go to the Wikipedia article for Dimitrijević, just about the first thing you see is “also known as Apis (Апис),” and that link takes you to an article on “Apis or Hapis (alternatively spelled Hapi-ankh),” “a bull-deity that was worshipped in the Memphis region” of ancient Egypt. I can’t say I’m shocked, but I am disappointed that neither Laqueur, a historian who presumably has to deal with foreign languages now and again, nor anyone at the LRB bothered to check on this. Come on, people, you can and should do better.

(That said, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the review, because like so many people I have an insatiable appetite for material about World War I.)

Comments

  1. Bosnian Wikipedia has a completely different explanation, and says “Apis” is simply the Latin word for “bee”:

    “Kao tinejdžer bio je vrlo popularan i briljantan učenik. Pun energije, neumoran. Prijatelji su ga prozvali “Apis” (“pčela”). I taj mu je nadimak ostao čitav život.”

    “As a teenager he was a very popullar and brilliant student. Tireless and full of energy. His friends called him “Apis” (“bee”). And this nickname remained with him his whole life.”

    Anti-Serb propaganda? I have no idea. Neither the Serb nor Croat Wikipedia entries mention where the “Apis” monicker came from.

  2. Alexei has also picked up on this error.

    I have vague memories of reading that the colonel was indeed named after the Egyptian Apis. Looking at Google Books appears to confirm this. For instance, Richard Hamilton’s Decisions for War 1914-1917, p.42 says he was “called Apis because his bull-like physique recalled the ancient Egyptian god”.

  3. ” … I have an insatiable appetite for material about World War 1″: then you’ll probably agree that they weren’t ‘Sleepwalkers’.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Isn’t Latin apis a feminine word? Is there grammatical gender in Serbian? It would be strange to call a male by a feminine word. Also, the stereotypical “busy bee” is known for tireless activity but not of an intellectual kind. Would an anglophone male be likely to be nicknamed “Busy Bee”?

  5. Is there grammatical gender in Serbian?

    Yes, but that doesn’t mean they would know or care about the gender of Latin nouns. In any case, the nickname does not appear to be from Latin.

  6. One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’) as he was known

    “Apis or Hapis (alternatively spelled Hapi-ankh),” “a bull-deity” that was worshipped in the Memphis region” of ancient Egypt

    The letter-name aleph is derived from the West Semitic word for “ox”, and the shape of the letter derives from a Proto-Sinaitic glyph based on a hieroglyph.

    If you turn an image of that letter 90 degrees to the right you will see Greek, Latin and Cyrillic A.

  7. Marie-Lucie, Hat: to a native Serbian speaker a Latin noun such as APIS might be considered masculine because of its form, i.e. because it ends in a consonant. In which case it might well have been perceived as a doubly appropriate nickbname to give to any unusually energetic and active teen boy.

    Using Latin as a source of nicknames is certainly not unheard-of: in my own High School a classmate named “Beausoleil” was (teasingly) called “Pulchersol”. My question, however: was knowledge of Latin sufficiently widespread among Serbians of that era for this etymology to be taken seriously?

  8. was knowledge of Latin sufficiently widespread among Serbians of that era for this etymology to be taken seriously?

    I believe Latin was compulsory in good Serbian secondary schools at the time, just as it was in most of Europe. The Bosnian article has no footnotes or sources though. On the other hand, ask yourself how likely is it that Serbs of that era would be well acquainted enough with Greek or Egyptian mythology to think that picking the name of some relatively minor figure as a cognomen was a good idea. Also, note that in Croatian, at least, the “Apis” links not to the Egyptian Apis, but to a Greek mythological personage – Apis the King of Argos, son of Phoroneus by the nymph Laodice, and brother of Niobe.

  9. “Isn’t Latin apis a feminine word?” It’s feminine in Serbian as well.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Apparently, the man was called Apis while in school, and this nickname followed him throughout his career. There are two traditions about the origin of this name (Latin ‘bee’ and Egyptian bull-god), both of which are compatible with a classical secondary education. As an example, I learned Latin, so I knew apis ‘bee’, and I was also exposed to Latin, Greek and (some) Egyptian mythology, including le bœuf Apis ‘the ox Apis’ (‘ox’ surely being a euphemism). That the man was known to all Serbians as Apis does not mean that the general population was aware of the classical origins of the name. The third possibility cited by Vanya is also a classical one, though less well-known outside of the region. It may be the right one, while the majority of people being unfamiliar with the king in question would have looked elsewhere for the name and found the Latin and Egyptian references. I think that ‘bee’ is the least likely one of the three possibilities.

  11. John Emerson says:

    That title really gets a workout: Broch, Koestler, adn now Laqueur. Loved Koestler however unreliable. Dutifully finished Broch, important!, almost unreadable.

  12. I think that ‘bee’ is the least likely one of the three possibilities.

    If he really got the nickname in highschool from his classmates I find the “bee” explanation to be far more plausible, with the “bull god” being a post hoc explanation when the “bee” origin story became embarassing. On the other hand it is also equally possible that Dimitrejevic picked the mythological name himself as his code name, and some wit who knew Latin, maybe ignorant of Egyptian mythology, made up the “bee” story later.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Vanya: some wit who knew Latin, maybe ignorant of Egyptian mythology, made up the “bee” story later

    That’s what I think. The story as told above does not say that the source was an actual classmate of “Apis”.

  14. On the other hand, ask yourself how likely is it that Serbs of that era would be well acquainted enough with Greek or Egyptian mythology to think that picking the name of some relatively minor figure as a cognomen

    Apis is really not that obscure. There’s a famous passage in Herodotus which describes the Persian king Cambyses killing the sacred Apis bull and being punished with madness.

    Christopher Clark himself says (on page 11 of Sleepwalkers) that Dimitrijevic was known as Apis “because his heavy build reminded his admirers of the broad-shouldered bull-god of ancient Egypt.”

  15. As a native speaker of Serbian who stumbled onto the article a couple of weeks ago, I wrote to the LRB immedeately, pointing out the error. But I see the piece remains unchanged.

  16. ” … I have an insatiable appetite for material about World War 1″: then you’ll probably agree that they weren’t ‘Sleepwalkers’.

    Yes, and the reviewer takes issue with this as well at the end of the review:

    Only on the very last page does Clark offer a general explanation for the big story and this is the one place where I think he is wrong on a question that matters. ‘The protagonists of 1914,’ he concludes, ‘were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.’ There are three things wrong with this. First, the ‘watchful calculated steps’ that he has been chronicling don’t constitute sleepwalking. On the contrary, as he has shown on page after page. Second, the evidence that he offers for the general blindness of the time is nothing more than a gesture based on a self-congratulatory leading article in the Figaro on 5 March 1913, extolling the ‘horrific force’ of French arms and the nation’s medical organisation, ‘that we may confidently describe as marvellous’. I agree that it was easier to imagine away the horrors of what was to be a ‘conventional war’ than it would be in our nuclear age, and this may be the reason the arms build-up of the Cold War – the biggest war in world history – has had no climactic dénouement; it is a story of the dog that didn’t bark.

    But to see the Figaro article as an instance of sleepwalking is to miss the important question of exactly why perfectly alert contemporaries imagined the course of the war as confidently as they did, and why they couldn’t see the evidence before their eyes that modern warfare would be horrendous. One can only make guesses. Perhaps the memory of how destructive the new technology had been in the Franco-Prussian War was lost in the repression that followed the Commune, while the Russo-Japanese War had shown that a defensive strategy could gain a big advantage over an offensive one – and the big story of that war was about navies, not foot soldiers. Why Europeans should have remained unaware that in the American Civil War hundreds of thousands of men had been mowed down as they crossed open fields against the fire of new and more accurate rifles is puzzling. But the history of the imagination is not a history of sleepwalking, whatever else it is.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    Sleepwalkers or not, it’s interesting how political leaders of all persuasions, again and again, when facing a crisis, put on a grave face and make choices in spite of what they’re supposed to know. I’d like to see a game theoretical explanation of that.

  18. Thanks for the mention, JCass, and for the quote from Clark explaining the nickname. Perhaps the reviewer relied on his memory too much and it played a trick on him.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Apis (the bull) makes a lot more sense than apis (Latin bee) for a strongly-built, dominant individual.

  20. “Why Europeans should have remained unaware that in the American Civil War hundreds of thousands of men had been mowed down as they crossed open fields against the fire of new and more accurate rifles is puzzling”

    Then again, American Civil War generals didn’t learn from their own experience. With few exceptions (the hit and run raiding by John Mosby and Bedford Forrest, the slash and burn terrorism of Sheridan and Sherman, trenches at Petersburg) the tactic of massed advance in open fields was pretty much standard operating procedure from Bull Run to Sailor’s Creek.

  21. @Trond Engen: according to my reading on the subject, Britain entered the First World War because the Liberal cabinet was persuaded by Asquith and Lloyd George that it would be a good way to “dish the Tories”.

    There were also, it must be said, respectable arguments both for and against going to the aid of France and Belgium.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    I didn’t mean to say that Britain made the wrong decision in entering the war, with things already having been allowed to go too far (although the case is less clear than in 1939), but still, considerations of domestic power play was part of the equation, as they had been in the run-up. The depressing fact is that they still are, in matters of war and peace, a century later.

  23. John Cowan says:

    American Civil War generals didn’t learn from their own experience

    They knew and valued skirmish tactics, and often used them in the beginning of a battle. Civil War rifles had a maximum fire rate of three aimed shots per minute, and made a lot of sense in the hands of sharpshooters. But the average soldier neither needed nor could effectively use such a weapon: the shock of massed unaimed fire with the muskets that most men carried was far more destructive not only physically but to enemy morale (which, as Napoleon said, is about 3:1 more important). Green troops exposed to it often broke and ran, as at Bull Run/Manasses.

    Furthermore, one of the main causes of the fog of war in the 19th century was the sheer confusion and disorganization of battlefields. It took extremely deep-rooted conditioning to get men to march and shoot and obey orders at all in such conditions, something not easily changed. Since being hit or not was strictly a statistical matter, not something you could do anything about, training emphasized toughness: the ability, literally, to stand and take it, knowing that it was just a matter of time until the bullet with your name on it arrived.

    For the most part, the tactics used in the Civil War were still correct for the conditions. Strategic thinking is another matter: only extreme lack of generalship, or ruthlessness if you prefer, on the Union side allowed the war to go on as long as it did.

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