A reader writes: “At a concert yesterday, Verdi’s Brindisi from La Traviata playing, I thought, that’s a funny name for a toast! According to Wikipedia, from German, but mangled to sound like the Italian town, to which it is completely unrelated.” That of course caught my attention, and sure enough, Wikipedia says:

The word is Italian, but it derives from an old German phrase, (ich) bringe dir’s – “(I) offer it to you”, which at one time was used to introduce a toast.[1] The transformation of that phrase into the current Italian word may have been influenced by similar-sounding name of the Italian city of Brindisi, but otherwise the city and the term are etymologically unrelated.

That footnote says: “O. Pianigiani, Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana, s.v. brindisi. See also OED, s.v. brendice.” And yes, Pianigiani says “dal ted. BRING DIR’S,” and the OED (entry unrevised since 1888) says “< Italian bríndesi, bríndisi, ‘a drinking or health to one’ (Florio); according to Diez perverted (by popular etymology) from German bring dir’s , i.e. ich bringe dir’s zu ; whence also French brinde”… but I don’t believe it. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it sure sounds like something that Diez thought up and that has stuck because it’s a clever idea and nobody’s had a better one. Anybody know anything more? (Thanks, Adrian!)

Do Babies Cry in Different Languages?

Sophie Hardach reports for the NY Times:

[…] In 2009, Dr. [Kathleen] Wermke’s and her colleagues made headlines with a study showing that French and German newborns produce distinctly different “cry melodies,” reflecting the languages they heard in utero: German newborns produce more cries that fall from a higher to a lower pitch, mimicking the falling intonation of the German language, while French infants tend to cry with the rising intonation of French. At this age, babies experiment with a wide variety of sounds, and can learn any language. But they are already influenced by their mother tongue.

Today, Dr. Wermke’s lab houses an archive of around a half-million recordings of babies from as far afield as Cameroon and China, where a team of graduate students armed with recording equipment paced the corridors of a Beijing hospital around the clock. […] Quantitative acoustic analysis of these recordings has produced further insights into the factors that shape a baby’s first sounds. Newborns whose mothers speak tonal languages, such as Mandarin, tend to produce more complex cry melodies. Swedish newborns, whose native language has what linguists call a “pitch accent,” produce more sing-songy cries.

These studies underpin the lab’s broader effort to map the typical development of a baby’s cries, as well as vocalizations like cooing and babbling. Knowing what typical development looks like, and what factors can influence it, helps doctors address potential problems early on. […]

“Imagine you’re thrown into a new language environment, which is what happens with the newborn,” said Judit Gervain, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris who studies early speech perception. “There’s just so much going on: There are all the words, there’s all the meaning, all the grammar, all the sounds, all of it. You can’t do it all, it’s just too much. One way prosody helps is it gives them nice little chunks that are the right size.”

In English, for example, a stressed syllable is often a cue for the start of a word, as in: English language. In French, a lengthened syllable signals the end of a sentence, as in: “Bonjour Madame!” Long before they can speak, babies begin to recognize patterns like these. “A lot has to happen before that first word is produced,” said Janet Werker, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies early language acquisition.

There’s lots more good stuff, including the soothing effect of maternal howling on infants. Thanks, Eric! (Incidentally, we discussed newborns and language in 2007 and 2011, and I note that the researchers featured in those posts were named Weikum and Werker; together with today’s Wermke, they constitute a cluster at least as impressive as the monosyllabic Indo-Europeanists — Rask, Bopp, et al. — we’ve discussed on occasion.)


Albireo is a double star designated Beta Cygni (β Cygni), or (per the International Astronomical Union) specifically the brightest star in the system. Name’s gotta be Arabic, like Alcor and Aldebaran, right? Wrong! Per that Wikipedia article:

The system’s traditional name Albireo is a result of misunderstanding and mistranslation. It is thought that it originated in the Greek name ornis for the constellation of Cygnus, which became urnis in Arabic. When translated into Latin, this name was thought to refer to the Greek name Erysimon for the plant called Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale, which in Latin is ireo), and so was described in Latin in the Arabo-Latin Almagest of 1515 as “Eurisim: et est volans; et jam vocatur gallina. et dicitur eurisim quasi redolens ut lilium ab ireo” (“Eurisim: and it is the flyer, and now it is called the hen, and it is called Eurisim, as if redolent like the lily from the ‘ireo'”), via a confusion between ireo and the scented flower Iris florentina. This was variously miscopied, until “ab ireo” was treated as a miscopy of an Arabic term and changed into al-bireo.

Isn’t that great? (It reminds me of the spurious dogs of Canes Venatici.) Thanks, Adrian!

The Pushkin Mob.

Another quote from Marcus C. Levitt’s Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880 (see the Cachucha post); he’s been talking about the government’s nervousness about the approaching anniversary of Pushkin’s death and their attempts to prevent celebrations (which they feared would be a pretext for expressions of liberal opinion):

The actual anniversary day, January 29, 1887, passed very quietly. Prayers for Pushkin were conducted in many churches and in most academic institutions, and universities and scholarly societies held their own special commemorative sessions. On the next day, however, when the fifty-year copyright on Pushkin’s works expired, there was pandemonium at the bookstores. It suddenly became quite clear just how popular Pushkin had become. At Suvorin’s Novoe Vremia bookstore on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, which had advertised its own, inexpensive new edition of Pushkin, riots actually broke out. Despite extra sales help, prepackaged books, and other precautions, when the doors opened, reported Suvorin’s paper, the store could not handle the mob:

The salespeople and cashiers were run off their feet; some members of the public climbed up onto the tables and over the counters, and grabbed their change themselves. By 11 [A.M.] the store presented a picture of havoc: there were mounds of ripped apart, soiled books that had been trampled heaped up in disorder in the corners and on the counters, books that they hadn’t managed to clear away in time; there was smashed furniture that had been thrown onto the floor; and the cashier’s booth was knocked over, and the financial record books all crumpled and stamped upon. Attempts to reason [with the crowd] had had no effect.

By noon, with the help of the police, the entire stock of six thousand books was sold out and the store was closed. It was a half-day unparalleled in history of the Russian book trade.

He goes on to say that in the half-century since Pushkin’s death no more than 60,000 copies of his works had been sold; more books than that were sold in the single day described above, and “During the next two to three days, five new editions came out, each of about 40,000 copies; the next ones were published in even larger numbers.” In the next year, well over a million (and possibly more than two million) copies of Pushkin works were published: “Spearheaded by the surging demand for Pushkin’s works, Russian publishing by absolute or relative standards expanded at a rate fantastic for any country. By the eve of World War I, the Russian publishing industry, second only to that of Germany, was outpublishing Great Britain, France, and the United States combined.”

Spain, Land of Rabbits?

Balashon has a post on various Spain-related place names; unfortunately, the basis for it is a video called “The Names of Iberia Explained” which is full of folk etymologies and is not worth spending time on (it ends with a theory that the word gibberish derives from Gibraltar!), but the proposed etymology for Hispania is at least plausible, and it’s of enough interest to post here, namely that it’s derived from Phoenician tsepan “rabbit or hyrax (in Hebrew shafan שפן).” He quotes that bit from an earlier Balashon post, then says:

I should have been more careful, and pointed out, as Rabbi Natan Slifkin famously does here, that in ancient Hebrew the shafan is only a hyrax, not a rabbit. (In fact, according to Slifkin in his book, The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax, there were no rabbits in biblical Israel. The word commonly used today for rabbit – arnav ארנב, which in the Bible only appears in the female, arnevet ארנבת – refers to a hare, which is distinct from a rabbit.)

I am not competent to discuss the geographical spread of Lagomorpha and Hyracoidea a couple of millennia ago, but some of my readers probably are.

The Elizabethan James Joyce.

Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti posts an intriguing quote, from Jonathan Bate’s new book How the Classics Made Shakespeare, about Richard Stanyhurst’s translation of the Aeneid:

Thanks largely to Nashe’s attack, Stanyhurst has come to be regarded as a kind of literary-historical bad joke. The Cambridge History of English Literature solemnly asked whether we can plausibly “Imagine Dido Queen of Carthage asking in fury ‘Shall a stranger give me the slampam?'” and a more recent guide is characteristically dismissive in suggesting that Stanyhurst “insisted on not being mistaken for an ignoramus” but that his translation “proves, in unconscious burlesque, how bad neo-classical theory was.” The indecorum of high classical matter being rendered through low verbal coinages is what provokes the derision. Thus the Cambridge History again: “he surpassed in a fantastic eccentricity the vainest of his contemporaries. Never was there a stranger mixture of pedantry and slang than is to be found in his work.” Wait a minute, though: is not the juxtaposition of high and low, of kings and clowns, of soaring poetry and earthy vernacular, one of the qualities that we so value in the plays of one William Shakespeare? Do we not praise the Stratford grammar school lad to the rafters for the living sound of his lines and the astonishing array of his verbal coinages? Stanyhurst gives us: Chuff chaff, clush clash, crack-rack crashing, hob lob, hurly burly, huf puff, kym kam, muff maff, pell mell, pit pat, rags jags, swish swash, tag rag, tara-tan-tara, thwick thwack, trush trash, wig wag, yolp yalp.

Again, do we not consider the art of creating compound adjectives as one of the marks of all true poets since Homer and the ancient Greek tragedians? Stanyhurst delights in: “Herd-flock,” “Frith-cops,” “Blustrous huzzing with clush clash buzzing, with drooming clattered humming,” “It brayeth in snorting,” “The push and poke of lance,” “Deep minced, far chopped,” “Rapfully frapping,” “With belling screech cry she roareth.” One almost hears Tony Harrison’s acclaimed translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Or even the sheer zany word-adoring inventiveness of another Irishman in exile on the continent: could Richard Stanyhurst be not so much a joke as a pioneer? Was he the Elizabethan James Joyce?

In the Oxford English Dictionary, Stanyhurst is credited with the invention of a rich array of more than one hundred and fifty words, including Bepowdered, Breakvow, Carousing, Disjoincted, Distracted, Flailing, Flounce, Frolic, Gadding, Gutter, Hoblobs, Hoodwink, Makesport, Mopsy, Pertlike, Plashy, Rake, Sea-froth, Smocktoy, Spumy, Unhoused, Wanton (as a verb), and Whizling. OED also gives him nearly two hundred nonce-words, among them Bedgle, Bepurpled, Blastbob, Breedsleep, Crabknob, Garbroils, Gyreful, Hedgebrat, Pack-paunch, Plashbreach, Racebrood, Snarnoise, Sportbreeder, Uddered, Upvomited, and Windblast. Many of his coinages failed to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary at all: Bughag, Birthsoil, Foresnaffled, Hailknob, Hell-swarm, Hotlove, Lustilad, Nightfog, Rapesnatched, Seabelch, and about seventy more. And on about fifty occasions, his usage of a word predates the OED‘s earliest citation. In the following instances, Shakespeare is cited as the earliest usage but the credit should really go to Stanyhurst: Baggage, Beldam, Eyeball, Huddle, Post-haste, Quillet.

Shakespeare and Joyce may be pushing it, but the list of words is certainly impressive (I suspect “Bedgle” is a typo for Bedagle, in OED s.v. bedaggle [= bedag “To bemire the bottom of (dress)”]: 1582 R. Stanyhurst tr. Virgil First Foure Bookes Æneis ii. 29 “With dust al powdred, with filthood dustye bedagled”).

Speaking of the Aeneid, April Bernard in the November 23, 2017 NYRB recommends the new translation by David Ferry in the strongest terms: “it is what Ferry accomplishes […] that makes this new translation such a marvel throughout. […] This kind of translation almost needs a new name, to distinguish it from all the other worthy efforts to bring the ancient poets to life: it is an iteration, another version, but also—perhaps, almost—the thing itself.” And speaking of poetry, they’ve found an extra quatrain by Baudelaire (see Alison Flood’s Guardian story).

Sara Wheeler on Constance Garnett.

Sara Wheeler writes for LitHub about Constance Garnett and other translators:

My first publication was a translation, not something I wrote myself. It was an essay in Greek about the poet C.P. Cavafy for a literary anthology of that kind of thing. Before taking up Modern Greek I had spent thousands of hours of my youth translating Homer for my studies—probably too many hours, when I should have been doing something else. I am not very good at written translation, and have a tremendous respect for those who carry it off. Having a smaller vocabulary than English, Russian in particular requires the translator to wrestle constantly with nuance. (Dusha, for example, means “soul,” and also “heart” in a figurative sense. The word appears more than a hundred times in War and Peace.)

The one I hold dear to my own dusha, as a woman, and as a translator, is Constance Garnett. Born in Brighton in 1861, Garnett translated 70 volumes from Russian, including all Dostoyevsky’s baggy monsters. She was an indefatigable worker who moved through the literary and political circles of a troubled time and emerged as a heroine, always on the side of the poor and oppressed, fighting in a man’s world. She was the opposite of a Little Englander, determined to see things from an international point of view.

Fair-haired, short-sighted, and in poor health all her life, Garnett had a pinched childhood. When she went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, as a scholar at 17, she had never before left Sussex. She read classics and math, both of which provided rigorous training in the art of translation and the expression of precise meanings. She began learning Russian just before she turned 30 when she fell in with a gang of fiery exiles. She lectured a little, taught, moved to London, and associated with the Fabians—a movement which she later joined, and later still left. She was friends with George Bernard Shaw, who claimed he would have liked to marry her had he been richer.

Garnett worked at the People’s Palace, a library designed to improve the education of working people in London’s East End. She married Edward Garnett, a publisher’s reader and would-be novelist who started a newspaper for cats (motto “Cave Canem”) which included a food column. His family had always been sympathetic to political refugees, and the newlyweds embarked on married life with an altruistic sense of purpose. For her part Connie befriended many Russian Jews who had fled persecution after the assassination of Alexander II. The couple set up home in Surrey in a cottage where Constance once picked 27 quarts of blackberries in a day and found a mouse preserved in a jar of treacle.

We talked about Garnett’s life back in 2014, but this account has more details (and more piquant ones — that newspaper for cats!), and there’s a nice slap at Nabokov, who “jumped in to damn her versions”:

But compare his translation of Gogol’s sleighbells in Dead Souls to Garnett’s. Chudnym zvonom zalivayetsya kolokolchik becomes:

Garnett: “The ringing of the bells melts into music.”

Nabokov: “The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy.”

Who, do you think, has the tin ear?

Thanks, Trevor!

The Lively Fig.

We recently discussed the vanishing fig, but that was the gesture; there was a brief mention of the fruit word here. This is neither fig, but the one that occurs only in phrases like “in full fig” and “in fine fig” — it is the second entry in this AHD link. I recently ran across that usage, wondered what it was from, and discovered (see that AHD link) that it is “Perhaps from fig, to trot out a horse in lively condition, dress up, variant of feague, to make a horse lively, probably from Dutch vegen, to brush, from Middle Dutch vēghen.” The OED entry is ancient (from 1896) but has the same derivation, from to fig out “to dress, ‘get up’” from feague from German or Dutch, though “there may be mixture of a native word; compare feak v.3 [‘To twitch, jerk, pull smartly’],” whose etymology says “Compare fike v.1 and Old Norse fjúka to drift, fly away, and its causative feyka to blow, drive away, to rush.” And fike “To move restlessly, bustle, fidget” says “? < Old Norse fíkja (rare in Icelandic) = Middle Swedish fíkja to move briskly, be restless or eager. Compare Old Norse fíkenn eager. See fig v.3, fitch v.1, fidge v.” At this point I gave up the chase and decided it was one of those knots that’s best left alone.

Mongolia Glossary.

There’s apparently a novel called The Green Eyed Lama (“The year is 1938. The newly-installed Communist Government of Mongolia, under orders from Moscow, launches a nation-wide purge. Before it’s over, nearly tenth of the country’s population is murdered. Sendmaa, a young herdswoman, falls in love with Baasan, a talented and handsome lama…”) whose website includes a glossary useful to anyone with an interest in Mongolia. Here are the first couple of entries:

Aarts Boiled fermented milk without the watery component called yellow milk. Its dried version is called aaruul. During autumn, herders put aarts into an animal stomach and freeze it. In winter, frozen aarts – also called tsagaa — is used as an addition to soup and the hot soup-like drink made of aarts, flour, and water. For children, frozen aarts is a favourite snack during winter and is eaten like ice-cream. Depending on the animal milk from which it is derived and the method of boiling, aarts can have different tastes, colour, and content. Some families add Sugar, rice, aaruul, eezgii and cheese to their aarts before freezing.

Aaruul A dried milk product. Aaruul is light, hard, and sturdy for long travel — the perfect snack for nomadic herders. Thick, big aaruul is called huruud. Aaruul is rich in calcium. It can be of many tastes, shapes, levels of hardness depending on the milk of which animal it is made such as cow aaruul, sheep aaruul, goat aaruul, camel aaruul, reindeer aaruul, and yak aaruul. Yak, sheep, camel and reindeer aaruuls are distinctive with their richness, while goat and cow aaruul are typically less oily. Arkhan and Dayan Deerkh people commonly produce cow and sheep aaruul. There is no aaruul from mare’s milk. Aaruul is made of boiled fermented milk called aarts. Before producing aaruul from boiled fermented milk, herders separate out so called ‘yellow milk’ (water and protein) from the boiled fermented milk. During the boiling process of the fermented milk, Mongolian herders extract ‘milk vodka’. In summer pieces of aaruul are often seen drying on wood trays placed on the sloping tops of gers or other surfaces out of reach of goats and other animals.

It includes historical/biographical entries like Amar (“Prime Minister of Mongolia 1937-1939. Well educated and wealthy, he didn’t like Russia’s interference in Mongolian affairs”) and Bogd, Eighth or Javzundamba Hutagt VIII (“Mongolia’s religious and secular leader having the title of Bogd Khaan of Mongolia from 1911 to 1921”); particularly interesting is the entry for the much-renamed capital city:

Urga (also spelled Örgöö) The name for Ulaanbaatar from its founding in 1639 to 1706. From 1706–1911 it was known as Ikh Khüree (great camp) or Da Khüree (from the Chinese dà for “great”). After the declaration of Independence from the Chinese Manchu Dynasty in 1911 the city was known as Niislel Khüree (capital camp). In 1924 the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Government renamed the capital, Ulaanbaatar (red hero).

Thanks, Bathrobe!

The Brothers Karamazov: The Summing Up.

I have finished The Brothers Karamazov (see earlier posts: 1, 2), and am still stunned and unsure of what to say. I should probably go right back and read it again, but I think I’ll put that off for a few years; I’ll just mention a few things that struck me. The remainder of the novel, since that last post, consists of Book 10 (Alyosha hangs out with the schoolboys), Book 11 (Ivan hangs out with Smerdyakov and has his encounter with the Devil), and Book 12 (the trial and its consequences). The Alyosha chapters are charming if not especially relevant to the main line of the book; the same, in fact, could be said of the earlier sections focusing on him — the whole Father Zosima section could have been cut with no detriment to the plot, but of course it was central to Dostoevsky’s vision, and Alyosha would have been the protagonist of the projected sequel that he never got to write. The Ivan chapters are riveting and harrowing, just as I remembered them from my decades-old first reading. And the trial is far better than I remembered; the local prosecutor, hitherto not much respected by the community, gives the speech of his life, eloquently tying the various bits of evidence into a convincing (and erroneous) picture of events, and then the hotshot Petersburg defense attorney turns that picture inside out, showing how each of the apparently damning elements could be otherwise explained and insisting there is no proof that Dmitry either killed his father or stole his money. The jury retires, there is a brief section of comments from the crowd (the ladies want Dmitry let off, the men want him convicted), and then vox populi speaks: the jury finds him guilty on all counts. There is no explanation, just the bare fact; Dmitry cries out that he is innocent, then prepares himself as best he can for Siberia, while those who love him hatch a plan for his escape.

What struck me forcibly about the trial, especially having recently read Anna Karenina, is its exemplification of what Gary Saul Morson calls vortex time, the apparent swirling of events down and in to create a sense of inevitability that is not objectively inherent in life (if, like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and me, you believe in free will). Anna allows herself to be swallowed up by it as she hurtles toward suicide, while the prosecutor forces Dmitry into it, each creating a plot focused inexorably on producing doom. Life has no plot, but people love plots and insist on creating them, often with bad results. Dmitry knows he is innocent of the murder he is charged with, but knows also that he had wished his father’s death and could easily have accomplished it that night; he welcomes the chance to atone for all his previous vileness (though he doesn’t think he can bear to be struck by an officer if he actually goes to Siberia, a convincing trait for a scion of the landowning gentry class). The last few pages, with Alyosha delivering a “we will never forget this moment” speech to his assembled disciples (twelve kids!), are sickly-sweet, but he wouldn’t be Dostoevsky without some of that (just as Dickens wouldn’t be Dickens). Whatever my qualms about one or another detail, on the whole this is the only Dostoevsky novel I don’t yearn to edit, to carve off extraneous elements and bring out the potential greatness. The Brothers Karamazov needs no apology and no editing, and I’m glad he lived to write it.

And now I have finished my Long March through 19th-century Russian literature. I will tie up a few loose ends (finish the Writer’s Diary and the Golovlyov Family), then celebrate by rereading the Strugatskys’ Улитка на склоне (Snail on the Slope), which I found confusing the first time around. Then, who knows: maybe Sologub’s Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon), maybe some Merezhkovsky, maybe Trifonov — I can splash around as the spirit leads me. I will, of course, report on whatever I read if I find I have anything to say.