Attorneys and Brigadiers.

I reproduce in its entirety this letter to the NYRB and the bracing response:

To the Editors:

I am ridiculously late in reading the NYR of November 19, 2015. In Judge Rakoff’s review of Professor John C. Coffee Jr.’s Entrepreneurial Litigation there are several references to the plural of “attorney general,” rendered there as “attorney generals.” I always have understood the plural to be “attorneys general.” Is this yet another of many instances in which the NYR knows something I do not know? Or is this (gasp!) an error in the NYR?

Florence Wagman Roisman
Rober H. McKinney School of Law
Indiana University
Indianapolis, Indiana

Jed S. Rakoff replies:

Sorry, Professor Roisman, there was no error. Your nice letter, however, gives me a chance to vent one of my pet peeves: against the use of the term “attorneys general” when the preferable plural is “attorney generals.” To be sure, Webster’s and most other dictionaries say either form is correct and do not express a preference. See, e.g., the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary, both available online. But although the term “attorney general,” in its first reported use in 1398, was a synonym for an attorney with a general practice (which might justify “attorneys general”—if you were living in the fourteenth century), the capitalized version has, in American parlance, always referred to the two-word title given to the government legal officer who has command of all the other government attorneys. No one would refer to two “brigadiers general,” so why say “attorneys general”? Or, in the words of James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine and now director of Harvard Law School’s Attorney General Clinic, “‘Attorneys general’ is stupid, silly, and not the way we talk in [everyday places].” I agree, although, in fairness, Tierney was previously director of Columbia Law School’s “Attorneys General Program”!

Music to my ears, and I thank jamessal for passing it along! (Also, I am pleased to see there is someone who is almost as behind in their journal reading as I am.)


Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca writes about a phenomenon I’ve noticed but not really thought about: the distinction between the traditional use of hence meaning ‘as a result, for this reason’ as an introduction to full clauses (her example: “Hence, vaccines with enhanced serotype coverage … might be needed to prevent IPD in this age group in the near future”) and its modern use to introduce a noun phrase (“Hence the value of strengthening skills now”). Curzan says:

It will probably come as no surprise to readers that hence is one of the conjunctive adverbs that strongly prefer academic prose over other registers. […] Hence is more comparable in frequency with nevertheless in academic writing (74.50 pmw).

The frequency of hence in spoken language, in comparison, is low. It puts hence in the range of words like validity and contemplate in the spoken section of this database. […]

Despite the formal feel of hence, it seems more colloquial when it introduces a noun phrase rather than a clause. […]

The frequency of hence overall seems to be declining in written American English (it is holding steadier in British English).

I agree that hence “seems more colloquial when it introduces a noun phrase rather than a clause,” and in fact if I use it that way I feel like I do when I use fun as an adjective (“a fun time”). But I’m happy if people use it at all, since it’s a useful little word (with a fun etymology: it’s the obsolete adverb hen plus the adverbial genitive suffix -(e)s, as in –wards). Do you use it, and if so do you use it to introduce a noun phrase or only a clause?

Tolstoy’s Youth.

I’ve finally finished Tolstoy’s Юность [Youth]; it took me twice as long as it should have, because for a couple of weeks I only read one short chapter a day. This wasn’t just indolence — it usually takes me a while to get into a long work, but here I felt like I was slogging through molasses. There were some fine character sketches and nature descriptions (always a Tolstoy specialty), but the viewpoint character, sixteen-year-old Nikolai Irtenev, is a smug, preening little aristocrat whose main goal in life is to be comme il faut and to look down on anyone who isn’t, and while Tolstoy has fun with the disasters this leads him into, it gets boring having a succession of episodes that can be boiled down to “although I liked X, I treated him/her contemptuously because they weren’t comme il faut, and then I was surprised they didn’t like me!”

Part of the problem is that Tolstoy himself wasn’t old enough to have a fully adult detachment from the character, so there’s an element of “And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true” about it. Although the story is not autobiographical in detail, the general arc is true to his experience: he himself flunked out of the Department of Arabo-Turkic Languages at the University of Kazan in 1844, having spent the year in drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels. (He then enrolled in the Department of Jurisprudence, dropped out when he inherited Yasnaya Polyana, tried to devote himself to estate management and self-improvement, but got bored and returned to dissipation, this time in Moscow.) Still, I was glad I persevered, because whenever the narrator turns his attention outward there are fine vignettes, including descriptions of the university examination system and the Yar restaurant, a Moscow favorite for generations. And of course I was immensely gratified by the following passage, from Chapter XLIII, about the fellow students he is trying to study with (despite not having paid attention to either the reading or the lectures):

Это чувство возбуждали во мне […] в особенности их манера говорить, употреблять и интонировать некоторые слова. Например, они употребляли слова: глупец вместо дурак, словно вместо точно, великолепно вместо прекрасно, движучи и т. п., что мне казалось книжно и отвратительно непорядочно. Но еще более возбуждали во мне эту комильфотную ненависть интонации, которые они делали на некоторые русские и в особенности иностранные слова: они говорили ма́шина вместо маши́на, дея́тельность вместо де́ятельность, на́рочно вместо наро́чно, в камине́ вместо в ками́не, Ше́кспир вместо Шекспи́р, и т. д., и т. д.

This feeling [of dislike for them] was aroused in me […] especially by their way of speaking, of using and pronouncing certain words. For instance, they used the words glupets instead of durak [‘fool’], slovno instead of tochno [‘as if’], velikolepno [‘splendidly’] instead of prekrasno [‘excellently’], dvizhuchi [i.e., instead of dvizhushchii ‘driving (force)’], and the like, which seemed to me bookish and repellently uncouth. But what aroused even more strongly in me this comme-il-faut loathing was their improper accenting of certain Russian and especially foreign words: they said máshina instead of mashína [‘machine’], deyátelnost’ instead of déyatelnost’ [‘activity’], nárochno instead of naróchno [‘on purpose’], v kaminé instead of v kamíne [‘in the fireplace’], Shékspir instead of Shekspír [‘Shakespeare’], etc. etc.

The last is especially amusing: the English stress is vulgar, only the French will do!

The OED’s Surf Consultant.

A nice squib by Nick Paumgarten from the New Yorker about Matt Warshaw, “the world’s leading surfing scholar”:

Warshaw is the world’s leading surfing scholar, the Linnaeus of the lineup. Over the years, he has assembled a research library, in his home, of hundreds of books, thousands of periodicals, and some three hundred and fifty movies, and created a database: logged, indexed, searchable. From all this, and from his own experience as a California beach rat, middling pro surfer, and surfing writer, he composed the idiosyncratic yet authoritative “Encyclopedia of Surfing,” which was published, to wide acclaim, in 2003. “I decided to rule this domain that no one gives a shit about,” he said the other day. In the past half-dozen years, he’s been transferring the encyclopedia’s fifteen hundred-odd entries to the Web, and adding many new ones, along with a wealth of photographs and videos. He has likened this migration to Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.

Within a day of the request from Oxford, Warshaw came across, in his stacks, a mention of “tandem surfing” from 1935. You can now find, in the O.E.D.’s Web edition, the following citation: “T. Blake Hawaiian Surfboard (front material, verso of fifth leaf) (caption): ‘A tourist, without surfboard experience, can enjoy . . . tandem surfing. The boy in most cases does most of the work, his partner enjoys the rides.’ ”

The O.E.D. sent Warshaw a few more terms, and before long hired him to be its first-ever Surf Consultant (total pay: four hundred pounds). The O.E.D. has some three hundred consultants, who provide an extra layer of expert scrutiny in such areas of arcana as falconry and wine. It has always tried to keep up with American slang; noted recent additions are “Masshole” and “vape.” “Clearly, they felt they needed to up their surf game,” Warshaw said. He speculated that there was a closet surfer on staff.

It turns out there was indeed a closet surfer, senior editor David Martin, who says: “A surf word that we are currently tracking is the verb ‘chandelier.’ It seems to be used with reference to the lip at the opening of a barrelling wave closing in on or falling on top of a surfer.” Vivid stuff, surfing vocabulary.

Katexic Clippings.

From the About page:

Founded during the high heat of the 2014 Alaskan summer, Katexic Clippings is a (now) weekly email newsletter for bookworms, word nerds and the incurably curious. In each issue:

WORK: a concise, compelling work or excerpt
WORD(S): a wonderful word or fascinating phrase
WEB: a bijou suite of links
WATCH/WITNESS: a video, map, painting, picture, animation or other visual
WHAT!?: an unclassifiable curiosity

After two years and more than 300 email issues, yr humble editor gave in to readers’ demands for this companion website. He still thinks subscribing to the newsletter is a lot more fun.

Here‘s the main page; I discovered it via a trackback. I figure anything aimed at bookworms, word nerds and the incurably curious is likely to intrigue LH readers. Oh, and if you’re wondering, I’m afraid “katexic” is a David Foster Wallace-ism, apparently a deliberate misspelling of cachectic. But I won’t hold that against the clippings.

Rewarded with Oppugnancy.

I finally reached the back page of the TLS from August 7 of last year (I just resubscribed to the NYRB so I’ll have something to read in 2018), and there was a brief mention of what sounds like a dreadful book about the Bard, prefaced with the following paragraph cobbled together from “words said to have been coined by Shakespeare”:

Attaskt with bringing obscure words back into use, we begnawed the matter, scratching our bubukles as we did so. Fellow researchers congreed that the conspectuity was immoment. Incorpsing our plantage in a mistempered account book, we were rewarded with oppugnancy, against which we offered no propugnation. Reprobance has seldom made us so rubious.

Now, that’s what I call fun with words. (Bubukle, if you’re curious, is Fluellen’s conflation of bubo and carbuncle; I leave the rest to research and/or imagination.)

Bottom’s Dream.

Edwin Turner writes:

Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Bottom’s Dream is finally available in English translation by John E. Woods. The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive.

It is enormous. […]

Look, I know that dwelling on a book’s size probably has nothing to do with literary criticism, but Bottom’s Dream poses something of a special case. As an article on Bottom’s Dream at The Wall Street Journal points out, Schmidt’s opus is 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. […]

The obvious easy reference point here is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which indeed Schmidt was actively following, both in form and style: competing columns, a fragmentary and elusive/allusive style, collage-like metacommentary, an etymological explosion—words as paint, text as meaning. Etc.

Turner has screenshots which will give you an idea of what the book is like, both externally (it’s enormous!) and on the inside. As I wrote on MetaFilter (where I learned about it):

Sounds really interesting, in the way that the Wake is interesting, but I still haven’t gotten very far into the Wake after decades of off-and-on trying, so I’m not about to tackle a book based on it that’s 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. But much respect to the translator, and to readers younger and gutsier than I who plunge into it!

Gilliver on Lexicography.

OUPBlog has an interview with OED editor Peter Gilliver that is short but enjoyable; here’s his answer to “How did you become interested in lexicography?”:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in language. Both my parents were language teachers, and the family was always discussing English words and usages. And I remember being fascinated by the first dictionary I ever looked at: it was a dictionary for schoolchildren, but it must have been an unusual one in that it was full of strange and intriguing words that a schoolboy was hardly likely to come across in his reading (chalazion is one that sticks in my mind). Later my interest in words found other outlets, like Scrabble and The Times crossword.

But these things are a long way from lexicography as such; and in fact it was only in 1987, when a friend — knowing that I ‘liked words’— drew my attention to an ad for a job on the OED, that I seriously thought about it as an occupation. And that was when I realized that I couldn’t think of a more interesting job. I still can’t, 29 years later.

(Why couldn’t I have seen such an ad?) The first word he worked on at Oxford was fish, and his favorite word (or the one he names “rather than give the rather uninteresting answer ‘I don’t have one’”) is twiffler, which we discussed back in 2010.

Another Large Pearl.

The other day I posted about Tsvetaeva’s poem «Отмыкала ларец железный…» [I unlocked the iron casket]; I’ve just come to one she wrote a couple of months later, «На крыльцо выхожу — слушаю…», that uses so much of the same imagery I can’t resist posting a rough translation so anyone interested can compare and contrast:

I go out onto the porch — I listen,
I tell fortunes on lead — I weep.
The nights: stifling,
Lights in the distance, a Cossack village.

And it’s bad at noon too — the suburb:
The droshky rattles along the road,
A pauper begs a penny,
And children chase a cat,
And grasshoppers in the grass — hop.

In a black shawl, with a large rose
On my breast, — as the evening falls,
With a red-curled, rosy,
Very merry trickster
I’ll have very — sweet — speech.

Don’t load me with gifts of silver,
With large maternal pearls,
A little ring from a little finger.
I want a costlier present:
Over the village — a glow!

The porch, the cat, the big pearl, the little ring… there’s something going on here, but damned if I know what it is. (As for “And grasshoppers in the grass — hop,” the Russian word for ‘grasshopper’ has nothing to do with grass or hopping, but that’s what the original says — ‘the grasshoppers in the grass — leap/spring/bound’ — so how could I resist? I think Tsvetaeva would have liked it.) And of course if I’ve misunderstood any of the Russian, please let me know.

A Corfiot Complaint.

My wife and I recently watched the first episode of the new PBS Masterpiece series The Durrells in Corfu and thoroughly enjoyed it; it is, as this review says, delightful, and it makes a very pleasant and undemanding way to finish an evening. But I do have one complaint I have to get off my chest. They distort historical fact in a number of ways (e.g., the writing son Lawrence was actually married when the family relocated to Corfu), but I can accept such distortions in the name of enjoyable television. What I can’t accept is that when daughter Margo is chided for wearing a two-piece bathing suit, it is called a “bikini.” Look, I’m not a fanatic for period usage in historical drama; I recognize there are more important things than making sure every word and phrase in the script is attested for the period (though I do enjoy it when they make the effort). But come on, I thought every schoolchild knew that, to quote Wikipedia, the bikini was so named in 1946, “from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb was happening.” It was so jarring to have the word used by people supposedly living in 1935 it threw me right out of the story for a while. (If anyone’s interested in the geographical name Bikini itself, we discussed it back in 2005; the thread is worth a visit.)