I Tip My Hat.

A reader wrote to ask: “I said to a Quebecker, an army vet, in English ‘I tip my hat to you’ or ‘I lift my hat to you’… in respect he found this hilarious, as apparently it means something rude in French… do you know what that might be?” I didn’t, so I thought I’d put it out there. Anybody know?

The Provenance of Province.

I have previously praised A Thing About Words, the M-W Unabridged blog, by calling it “reliably interesting,” and so it is — but it is far more important for such a would-be scholarly venue to be accurate than interesting, and I regret to have to report a serious lapse in that regard. The recent post The Provenance of ‘Providence’ opens thus:

Provenance and provenience share the meaning of “origin” or “source,” with provenance also referring to the history of ownership of a work of art. Providence refers to divine guidance or care or the quality of being frugal or prudent.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, words rooted in Latin vidēre, meaning “to see,” began to emerge in English […]

There follow examples like provision, purvey, and provide. This is all well and good, but then we get:

The nouns province and providence are from Latin provincia and providentia, respectively, and they enter Middle English in the 14th century. Their base root (like provision, purvey, and provide) is providēre—a combination of the prefix pro-, meaning “before,” “prior to,” or “earlier than,” and vidēre.

Unless they know something nobody else does, including the OED, AHD, and their own dictionary (“Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin provincia”), the Latin word provincia cannot be traced back any further; it does not have any relation to vidēre. If that misinformation were purveyed in any random blog, it would irritate me, but to see it in the official Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, representing the most esteemed name in American lexicography, is infuriating. They should correct it forthwith, and whoever wrote and approved it should feel ashamed. It’s hard enough getting people to distinguish reliable sources of language information from uninformed blather without having lexicographers letting down the side.


I recently had occasion to look up the verb daven ‘to recite the Jewish liturgy; to pray’ and was surprised to discover the murkiness of its origin. That Wiktionary article says it’s from Yiddish דאַוונען‎ (davnen), itself from “Middle Dutch *daven, further etymology uncertain. May be related to Old Saxon dovon, Old High German tobēn, but the vowel a is irregular in this case.” The Wikipedia article is more expansive (but doesn’t even mention the proposed German origin!):

Daven is the originally exclusively Eastern Yiddish verb meaning “pray”; it is widely used by Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews. In Yinglish, this has become the Anglicised davening.

The origin of the word is obscure, but is thought by some to have come from Arabic (from diwan, a collection of poems or prayers), French (from devoner, ‘to devote’ or ‘dedicate’ or possibly from the French ‘devant‘- ‘in front of’ with the idea that the person praying is mindful of before whom they stand), Latin (from divin, ‘divine’) or even English (from dawn). Others believe that it derives from a Slavic word meaning “to give” (Russian: давать, romanized: davat’). Some claim that it originates from an Aramaic word, de’avuhon or d’avinun, meaning ‘of their/our forefathers’, as the three prayers are said to have been invented by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Another Aramaic derivation, proposed by Avigdor Chaikin, cites the Talmudic phrase, “ka davai lamizrach“, ‘gazing wistfully to the east’ (Shab. 35a). Kevin A. Brook, cites Zeiden’s suggestion that the word daven comes from the Turkish root tabun– meaning ‘to pray’, and that in Kipchak Turkish, the initial t morphs into d.

Most of those ideas are absurd on their face, but their very proliferation suggests the need people have to know where words come from. I regret to report that the OED, in a 2005 entry, limits itself to “< Yiddish daven to pray.” Cowards!


Before I settled on the Beckett quote for yesterday’s post, I was trying out other possibilities, including this passage from Pound’s Pisan Cantos (the very long Canto LXXX — it’s on page 510 in my old New Directions hardcover):

    Nancy where art thou?
Whither go all the vair and the cisclatons
and the wave pattern runs in the stone
on the high parapet (Excideuil)
Mt Segur and the city of Dioce
Que tous les mois avons nouvelle lune
What the deuce has Herbiet (Christian)
    done with his painting?
Fritz still roaring at treize rue Gay de Lussac
with his stone head still on the balcony?
Orage, Fordie, Crevel too quickly taken

I’ve read it who knows how many times, but never focused on the odd word “cisclatons” before (there are so many oddities and mysteries in the Cantos!); this time I did, and googling produced only this Occitan word, which seemed unlikely as an immediate source. After further wrangling, I discovered that the OED has it s.v. ciclatoun (the entry hasn’t been updated since 1889):
[Read more…]

James Salant, RIP.

I’ve been putting off writing this because it’s so hard for me to do and such depressing news to saddle you all with, but Jim Salant, who commented here as jamessal, was an integral and much-loved part of this community, and I felt you should know as soon as I could bring myself to tell you. So: Jim died in his sleep on Sunday, August 25, in the Maine house he shared with his wife Robin.

Even as I write those words I don’t quite believe them. He was thirty-five, for God’s sake. He’d finally fought his way through a lot of the hard things he’d been dealing with for years, and he was writing so well I couldn’t wait for the next installment of the novel he was working on. (He had spent years writing a book of TV criticism, and when he set it aside to write the novel I was overjoyed; as I told him, “you were born to write fiction, and it always gladdens my heart to get more of it.”) He was enjoying life (though he was grieving his mother, who had died a few weeks earlier), and sounding more upbeat than he had in a long time. Things were looking good.

He must have contacted me first in 2007, having found the blog and wanting to talk about language. He sent me his book Leaving Dirty Jersey (which I called “that rara avis, a drug memoir that’s neither tough-guy fake nor weepily repentant, told in straightforward, no-bullshit style and ending exactly where it should”) and I sent him Jim Quinn’s American Tongue and Cheek, which accomplished what I hoped it would — he wrote: “Both of you have totally converted me. I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me a few years to get here, but I now think that if writers want to communicate ideas clearly with as many people as possible (and not merely feel superior by knowing obscure “rules” that nobody follows), then they shouldn’t waste time whining every time a word changes meaning; they should note each change and try to keep up. I can’t wait to start arguing with prescriptive-leaning friends.” And he argued eloquently, here and elsewhere, not only about language but about every form of prejudice and misuse of history. History! He was constantly investigating different aspects of it, and loved sharing what he learned as he loved sharing everything good. What a good-hearted, generous man he was! Everywhere I turn I see things he gave me: books, CDs, whiskey, and more books. And every time I visit an old LH thread I see his comments and feel a fresh pang.

I was at his wedding in 2010 (I wrote about it here), and he and Robin visited Hadley a couple of times; there should have been more chances to get together. To tell the truth, I was expecting him to be the one to write a memorial for me, hopefully many years down the line. I’m sure he would have done a better job than this. But it will have to do. Send your best thoughts Robin’s way; her father died earlier this year, and she deserved much better. I’ll close this with a quote from Jim’s beloved Beckett; everybody else quotes the end of The Unnamable, but here’s a passage from near the start:

Malone is there. Of his mortal liveliness little trace remains. He passes before me at doubtless regular intervals, unless it is I who pass before him. No, once and for all, I do not move. He passes, motionless. But there will not be much on the subject of Malone, from whom there is nothing further to be hoped. Personally I do not intend to be bored. It was while watching him pass that I wondered if we cast a shadow. Impossible to say. He passes close by me, a few feet away, slowly, always in the same direction. I am almost sure it is he. The brimless hat seems to me conclusive. With his two hands he props up his jaw. He passes without a word. Perhaps he does not see me. One of these days I’ll challenge him. I’ll say, I don’t know, I’ll say something, I’ll think of something when the time comes. There are no days here, but I use the expression. I see him from the waist up, he stops at the waist, as far as I am concerned. The trunk is erect. But I do not know whether he is on his feet or on his knees. He might also be seated. I see him in profile. Sometimes I wonder if it is not Molloy. Perhaps it is Molloy, wearing Malone’s hat. But it is more reasonable to suppose it is Malone, wearing his own hat. Oh look, there is the first thing, Malone’s hat. I see no other clothes. Perhaps Molloy is not here at all. Could he be, without my knowledge? The place is no doubt vast. Dim intermittent lights suggest a kind of distance. To tell the truth I believe they are all here, at least from Murphy on, I believe we are all here, but so far I have only seen Malone. Another hypothesis, they were here, but are here no longer. I shall examine it after my fashion. Are there other pits, deeper down? To which one accedes by mine? Stupid obsession with depth. Are there other places set aside for us and this one where I am, with Malone, merely their narthex? I thought I had done with preliminaries. No, no, we have all been here forever, we shall all be here forever, I know it.

Moses Murin.

While reading Leskov’s excellent 1879 novella Шерамур [Sheramur (i.e. cher amour, a distortion of the protagonist’s original nickname Chernomor, in Pushkin’s Ruslan i Lyudmila the dwarf sorcerer who steals Lyudmila)] I came across a reference to Моисей Мурин, which looked like “Moses Murin.” Upon googling, however, I discovered he’s known in English as Moses the Black, a fourth-century monk with a captivating life story (seriously, read that Wikipedia article). And мурин turns out to be an obsolete word meaning ‘Moor,’ from Church Slavic муринъ ‘αἰθίοψ,’ according to Vasmer borrowed from OHG môr < Latin maurus. An interesting word, applied to an interesting character, a sort of “holy fool” who is somehow involved in a student disturbance, flees Russia, and winds up in Paris living on the streets. The narrator takes an interest in him and tries to help him, but all his schemes fall through thanks to Cheramur’s stubbornness and prickliness (he walks out on one aristocratic lady who’s trying to help because she offers him Trollope’s comic novel Is He Popenjoy? to read). Then he’s saved by the Balkan conflict of 1876-77! For once Leskov manages to rein in his discursiveness and produce a compulsively readable narrative.

A Dog Snapping at a Gnat.

My wife and I have moved on to Oberland, the next in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series (see this post); our heroine Miriam has gotten away from her somewhat claustrophobic London life and is spending a couple of weeks in the Bernese Oberland. There are a number of other English tourists in the hotel where she’s staying, and this is her reaction to listening to them at the dinner table:

The clipped, slurred words had no longer the charm of a foreign tongue. Though still they rang upon the air the preoccupations of the man at the wheel: the sound of ‘The Services,’ adapted. But clustered in this small space they seemed to be bringing with them another account of their origin, to be showing how they might come about of themselves and vary from group to group, from person to person—with one aim: to avoid disturbing the repose of the features. Expression might be animated or inanimate, but features must remain undisturbed.

Then there is no place for clearly enunciated speech, apart from oratory; platform and pulpit. Anywhere else it is bad form. Bad fawm.

She felt she knew now why perfect speech, delightful in itself, always seemed insincere. Why women with clear musical voices, undulating, and clean enunciation, are always cats; and the corresponding men, ingratiating and charming at first, turn out sooner or later to be charlatans.

The nicest people have bad handwriting and bad delivery.

But all this applied only to English, to Germanics; that was a queer exciting thing, that only these languages had the quality of aggressive disturbance of the speaking face: chin-jerking vowels and aspirates, throat-swelling gutturals … force and strength and richness, qualities innumerable and more various than in any other language.

Quelling an impulse to gaze at the speakers lit by discovery, she gazed instead at imagined faces, representative Englishmen, with eyes and brows serene above rapid slipshod speech.

Here, too, of course, was the explanation of the other spontaneous forms of garbling, the extraordinary pulpit speech of self-conscious and incompletely believing parsons, and the mincing speech of the genteel. It explained ‘nace.’ Nice, correctly spoken, is a convulsion of the lower face—like a dog snapping at a gnat.

It’s not a linguistically sophisticated description, but it’s vivid and evocative. (Compare the “London Essex” described here.)

The Efficiency of Spoken Languages.

Rachel Gutman at The Atlantic reports on an interesting study:

In the early 1960s, a doctoral student at Cornell University wanted to figure out whether there was any truth behind the “cultural stereotype” that certain foreigners speak faster than Americans. He recorded 12 of his fellow students—six Japanese speakers and six American English speakers—monologuing about life on campus, analyzed one minute of each man’s speech, and found that the two groups produced sounds at roughly the same speed. He and a co-author concluded that “the hearer judges the speech rate of a foreign language in terms of his linguistic background,” and that humans the world over were all likely to be more or less equally fast talkers.

In the half century since then, more rigorous studies have shown that, prejudice aside, some languages—such as Japanese, Basque, and Italian—really are spoken more quickly than others. But as mathematical methods and computing power have improved, linguists have spent more time studying not just speech rate, but the effort a speaker has to exert to get a message across to a listener. By calculating how much information every syllable in a language conveys, it’s possible to compare the “efficiency” of different languages. And a study published today in Science Advances [“Different languages, similar encoding efficiency: Comparable information rates across the human communicative niche,” by Christophe Coupé, Yoon Oh, Dan Dediu, and François Pellegrino] found that more efficient languages tend to be spoken more slowly. In other words, no matter how quickly speakers chatter, the rate of information they’re transmitting is roughly the same across languages.

The basic problem of “efficiency,” in linguistics, starts with the trade-off between effort and communication. It takes a certain amount of coordination, and burns a certain number of calories, to make noises come out of your mouth in an intelligible way. And those noises can be more or less informative to a listener, based on how predictable they are. […] Informativity in linguistics is usually calculated per syllable, and it’s measured in bits, just like computer files. The concept can be rather slippery when you’re talking about talking, but essentially, a bit of linguistic information is the amount of information that reduces uncertainty by half. In other words, if I utter a syllable, and that utterance narrows down the set of things I could be talking about from everything in the world to only half the things in the world, that syllable carries one bit of information.

In the new study, the authors calculated the average information density—that is, bits per syllable—of a set of 17 Eurasian languages and compared it with the average speech rate, in syllables per second, of 10 speakers for each language. They found that the rate of information transferred stayed constant—at about 39.15 bits per second, to be exact.

François Pellegrino, the senior author of the new study, says linguists aren’t likely to be surprised to learn that there’s a trade-off between speech rate and information density: “It just confirms what the intuition would be.” But what’s special about his and his team’s work is that, for the first time, they were able “to prove that it holds” for this set of languages.

She goes on to discuss the differing reactions of generativists and other linguists to this kind of thing. Thanks, Kobi!

Harry Potter in Many Tongues.

Bathrobe sent me a link to Carly Jaddoa’s webpage featuring audio clips of Harry Potter translations:

Below are native and second-language speakers reading the 1st Paragraph of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in their own language(s). […]

The Authorized Languages of Potter:
Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Asturian, Azerbaijani, Basque, Bengali, Bosnian, Breton, Bulgarian, Catalan, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, UK English, US English, Estonian, Faroese, Filipino, Finnish, French, West Frisian, Galician, Georgian, German, Low German, Modern Greek, Ancient Greek, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Latin, Latvian, Lithuanian, Luxembourgish, Macedonian, Marathi, Malay, Malayalam, Mongolian, Montenegrin, Nepali, Norwegian, Occitan, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Serbian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Valencian, Vietnamese, Welsh​

It is, of course, catnip to the likes of me; the only thing that would have made it better would be providing the texts so you could follow along, but you can often google the titles and find Amazon pages with “Look inside the book.” And it’s just plain fun to hear Armenian, Georgian, and the like, even if you can’t see the texts. (Honorable mention goes to the Polish reader, who provided a video of the text — it’s a little blurry, but better than nothing.) As expected, the Brazilian Portuguese was far more intelligible than the European Portuguese. The only thing that made me grumpy was the Ancient Greek version, whose reader not only pronounced it as if it were Modern Greek but clearly did not understand the ancient language, since particles were joined with the wrong word in the reading. But never mind, that’s just a quibble: click through and enjoy!

The Style Guide Alignment Chart.

Jonathon Owen says: “I’ve been thinking a lot about style guides lately, and I decided that what the world really needs right now is the definitive style guide alignment chart.” It’s a lot of fun; most of my professional editing used the Chicago Manual of Style, so here’s his entry on that magisterial work:

A lawful good character “combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly.” And boy howdy, is Chicago relentless—the thing is over 1,100 pages! Even if you use it every day in your job as an editor, there are probably entire chapters that you’ve never looked at. But it’s there with its recommendations just in case.

I assure him, however, that there is not a chapter I haven’t looked at. (I’ve even researched their sample bibliography.) Thanks, Martin!