The Vanishing Fig.

Anatoly recently had a post on elements of the Russian language of gesture (a rich one, about which there’s a very useful illustrated book, A Dictionary of Russian Gesture [CommissionsEarned]). He said that when he was a kid in 1980s Ukraine, nobody used the middle-finger gesture for “fuck you,” they only used the “elbow gesture” (жест по локоть, what the French call bras d’honneur); there was also the фига (fig), also called дуля or кукиш, which was used mainly as a sign of refusal (“nothing doing,” “no way”). He asked if the fig is still used, and if the Western middle-finger gesture has displaced the elbow one; the answers are fascinating, and I’ll summarize a few of them here. (Apparently the fig is, or was, also used when you saw someone with a black eye or sty.)

On the subject of the fig as refusal, son_0f_morning wrote that it was more specifically equivalent to the phrase “на коси выкуси” — i.e., it added an element of taunting. I hadn’t known the phrase; Sophia Lubensky, in her invaluable Dictionary of Idioms [CommissionsEarned], has it as:

HА́-KA (НА́-КАСЬ, НА́-КАСЯ, НА́), ВЫ́КУСИ! substand, rude […] emphatically no (used to express one’s categorical refusal to do sth., refutation of some statement etc): (when refusing to do sth.) no (frigging) way!; you can whistle for it!; not on your life!; nothing doing!; like hell I (we) will!; I’ll see you in hell first!; [when refuting a statement] what (a load of) crap!; that’s bullshit!; [when emphasizing a previous statement of refusal etc] put that in your pipe (and smoke it)! […]
     < The idiom may be accompanied by one of two gestures: a “fig” gesture, in which one’s hand is extended, clenched in a fist with the palm usually facing up and the thumb placed between the index and middle fingers or an obscene gesture, by which the left fist is placed in the crook of the right arm and the right elbow is bent, bringing the forearm all the way up.

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Two Links.

1) How to speak rugby, by Simon Horobin:

In a game of rugby, each team has fifteen players; the eight forwards make up the pack or scrum (an abbreviated form of scrummage). Although a set-scrum is intended to be an orderly way of restarting play, it is often a good deal more chaotic, reflecting its roots in skirmish “an episode of irregular or unpremeditated fighting” between armies or fleets of ships. Scrums that are more informal are called mauls (from a medieval term for striking someone with a heavy weapon, originally Latin malleus “hammer”) or rucks (from a Scandinavian word for a heap or stack—related to rick “haystack”). The technical difference between the two is whether the ball is in the hand or on the ground—a distinction that can be difficult to apply when lying underneath a heap of bodies and being trampled on by studded boots.

The front row is made up of a hooker (so called because his job is to hook the ball out of the back of the scrum), supported by two props. Behind them are the second row (or locks), while the back row (originally used of a chorus line of dancers) consists of two flankers (from the term used for the outer edges of an army) and a number eight. The forwards’ job is to outshove the opponent’s pack so as to deliver the ball to the seven backs, or three-quarters: the scrum–half, fly-half, wingers, and full-back. These positions were originally termed half-backs or quarter-backs—the latter is now a key role in an American football team.

More at the link; it’s the explanations of word origins that make it worthwhile.

2) Is it ‘Forty’? Or ‘Fourty’? I have to admit I didn’t think this would be of much interest (it’s forty, duh), but I was wrong:

There is no good explanation for why forty lacks a u that its near-relation four has. Forty simply is, as American English Spelling author D.W. Cummings calls it, an “ill-formed but accepted spelling.” It is, however, also a relatively new spelling.

While the word forty dates back to the language’s earliest incarnation, it had many varied spellings over the centuries, and the current spelling forty dates only to the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary includes a number of spellings that predate that one. […] The logical Middle English relic fourty, hiding most of the way down that long list, lasted until the 18th century, when for reasons unknown it fell out of use. Sometimes that’s just how it goes in English.

See the link for the remarkable variety of forms: feouwerti, fuerti, fourti, vourty, faurty, fourthy… Sometimes I regret that we clamped down on such things and enforced single spellings, though that has provided me with a living.


I’ve used a lot of dictionaries and seen a lot of strange words and definitions, but this is the strangest I ever did see. I was looking something else up in my three-volume New Great Russian-English Dictionary when my eye fell on this, near the top of page 2536:

сермесо́ак а m icecap, continental ice, inland ice.

My first thought was “what a strange, un-Russian word!” Of course, there are lots of un-Russian-looking Russian words — the very next page has серпазил and серфинг — but this was more so than most. Naturally I wanted to know where it came from, so I googled it… and got “Your search – сермосоак – did not match any documents.” This lifted it out of the “strange” category and put it right into the Twilight Zone. Even if it were a very rare word, even if it meant something entirely different, even if it weren’t Russian at all but had been presented to Russian readers somewhere in Cyrillic form, there would have been at least a few Google hits! What was going on?

Then I had the bright idea of googling the transliterated “sermesoak” and hit the jackpot, which is to say “About 6 results.” Most of them were from James Nicol’s An Historical and Descriptive Account of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands: With Illustrations of Their Natural History (Oliver & Boyd, 1840), which says:

The island of Sermesoak, in the vicinity, is filled with lofty mountains covered with perpetual ice, from which sharp naked peaks project, like the towers and spires of some old castle. The extremity of this island is usually named Cape Farewell, but the true situation of that promontory is nearly thirty-six miles farther south.

The other hits were of no help (“The people of Sermesoak were then in consternation”; “a bear swam off from Sermesoak, tore our gathered heap asunder, and devoured her”) and had probably taken the word from the Nicol book. But the quoted passage has the vital clue that the island had an extremity named Cape Farewell, and googling that got me to this, from which I learned that the chunk of land it’s on is now called Egger Island (Danish: Eggers Ø; Greenlandic: Itilleq, old spelling: Itivdleq). North of it is an island called Sammisoq (old spelling Sangmissoq), which is close enough to Sermesoak that I’m not sure if it is the same word (and there was a geographical error at some point) or a similar word that was once applied to Egger Island and has now been forgotten. The whole thing is bizarre; I presume no one will be able to answer the main question, which is how the devil this (completely non-Russian) word (actually a proper name) got into the New Great Russian-English Dictionary, but maybe some Hatter will know something about the Greenlandic elements involved. As always, all thoughts gratefully received!

Different Names.

Greg Woolf had a very interesting review (LRB, 2 November 2017, pp. 25-30) of Images of Mithra by Philippa Adrych, Robert Bracey, Dominic Dalglish, Stefanie Lenk and Rachel Wood (Oxford, 2017), from which I learn that we know hardly anything about the worship of Mithra:

Earlier generations of scholars often tried to interpret the images as products of a system of belief rather like a modern religion. This has often been labelled ‘Mithraism’ although there is no ancient justification for that term. Mithraism was conceived of as a package of notions and rituals – again on the model of a modern religion – held and practised by people called ‘Mithraists’, another term with no ancient authority. […] Modern writers have not always been able to choose between finding Mithraism very strange, and seeing it as just one more variation in the rich world of ancient polytheism. […] Some Mithraisms are beguiling, others fantastic. Yet they share two weaknesses. The first is the presumption that Mithraism and Mithraists existed in the way Judaism and Jews or Christianity and Christians do today. This seems pretty unlikely given that in the Roman period almost no texts refer even to Judaism or Christianity in this way. There is no sign at all that those who worshipped Mithras did not worship many other gods as well, no sign that their beliefs about the divine were very different from those of their fellows, no sign that anyone ever made the cult of Mithras an important part of their identity.

The second weakness is that all these reconstructions have been created by lumping. Lumpers presume a basic commonality to the worship of Mithras, from place to place and century to century. Our evidence is so sparse that it’s tempting to complete a mosaic from Ostia with graffiti from Dura Europos on the Euphrates, add a scatter of Latin inscriptions and then declare that all Mithraists underwent the same series of initiations on their way to learning the same truths.

But this is the paragraph that drives me to post:

The authors of Images of Mithra are occasionally tempted to lump, but almost always end up splitting. They have good reasons for it. They have cast their net very wide, far beyond the Mediterranean to Syria and Iran, Afghanistan and northern India. The old idea that Mithraism was an invasive eastern religion is certainly wrong. Nothing like the western material appears in the god’s eastern realms, not even the slaughtering of a bull. Even his name is different: Mihr in Middle Persian, Mioro [should be Μιυρο, i.e. /mihro/ — thanks, J Pystynen!] or Miiro in Bactrian (one of the main languages of the Kushan Empire that ruled both sides of the Hindu Kush in the early centuries AD), Mitra in Sanskrit. His earliest appearances were in the Vedas and in a treaty signed between the Hittites and the Mitanni, two of the major powers that fought for control of the Near East in the second millennium BC. Images of Mithra doesn’t devote much time to his Bronze Age avatars, perhaps because we have no images of the god from that far back. Spreading the net wide takes us to places where iconography seems less central than it did in the Roman world. Our earliest Mithras is a god who guarantees pacts and treaties. This is how he appears in Zoroastrian inscriptions, too, where he is an angelic supporter of Ahura Mazda, the god of light, and so an opponent of Ahriman, the spirit of destruction.

“Even his name is different”: what a strange thing to say! Mihr, Mioro, and Mitra are simply the equivalents (perfectly regular in their respective languages) of Old Persian/Avestan Mithra; it’s like claiming there are a number of different cities called Paris, París, Párizs, Parigi, Παρίσι, etc., because they all have different names. I also don’t understand his point that “The old idea that Mithraism was an invasive eastern religion is certainly wrong,” since he goes on to say that the earliest appearances were in the east. But perhaps I’m missing something. I am, after all, not a Mithraist.

Karamazov: Preliminary Investigation; Art/Life.

This is going to be a longish and somewhat rambling post in which I try to formulate some thoughts about Book Nine of The Brothers Karamazov, Предварительное следствие [The Preliminary Investigation], and some critical responses to it. It will, obviously, contain spoilers, and I doubt there will be much in the way of philological/etymological material; I’m mainly going to be musing about what Dostoevsky is up to and how it fits with my (and the critics’) ideas of how the world works. Proceed at your own risk.
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Via Michael Gilleland:

In the shepherd villages of the Interior, they endeavour to die in their homes near the hearth, where they were born. Lying on a mat near the fire, the sick person awaits death. As soon as this occurs, relatives begin to lament loudly; women wail, beat their breasts and tear their hair. This lamentation over the deceased is called téyu in the Logudorese and téu in the Campidanese dialects = taedium.525

525 taedium occurs already in Petronius 137 (itaque taedio fatigatus: Rogo, inquam, expiare manus pretio licet) with the meaning ‘sorrow, affliction’; Nonius explains it in this way (dividia est taedium) and in the same sense it is used in the Vulgate and the Church Fathers as a translation of Greek λύπη, ἀκηδία. See Rönsch Itala und Vulgata, p. 325 and Semasiologische Beiträge I, p. 69.

That’s Eric Thomson’s translation of a passage from La vita rustica della Sardegna riflessa nella lingua (Nuoro: Illisso, 2011), an Italian translation of Max Leopold Wagner’s Das ländliche Leben Sardiniens im Spiegel der Sprache (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1921); you can see the Italian at the Gilleland link, so I’ll provide the German original (which does not include the Petronius, so I assume the footnote was added for the Italian edition[yes it does; see Eric Thomson’s very helpful comment below]):

In den Hirtendörfern des Inneren trachtet man danach, in der Nähe der heimischen Herdstätte zu sterben, so wie man neben ihr geboren wird. Auf eine Strohmatte neben dem Feuer hingestreckt, erwartet der Kranke den Tod.

Kaum ist der Tod eingetreten, so beginnen die Anwesenden laut zu klagen; die Weiber kreischen, zerschlagen sich die Brüste und raufen sich das Haar aus. Dieses Wehklagen um den Toten heisst log. teyu, cp. téu = taedium2 (SUBAK, ZRPh XXXIII (1909), S 669).

Point de capiton.

The news of the death of the actor Robert Forster inspired me to watch the final scene of Jackie Brown, in which he gave an indelible performance as Max Cherry, and that led me to a Google trail which wound up on p. 114 of Robert Miklitsch’s Roll Over Adorno: Critical Theory, Popular Culture, Audiovisual Media, where I was stopped by the following passage:

While Jackie’s musical point of audition is realized via black R&B artists such as Bobby Womack and Randy Crawford, Melanie’s is associated with white pop-rock bands like the Guess Who and the Grass Roots. In fact, it’s not insignificant that the latter musical points de capiton are introduced in the scenes that immediately precede Melanie’s death.

Now, I’m familiar with all sorts of French phrases used in English texts, from the simple (point de vue, if you’re feeling too continental to say “point of view”) to the fancy (point de repère, ‘point of reference, landmark’), but I’d never run across point de capiton, and I didn’t even know what a capiton was (turns out it’s a kind of padding; since the French word was borrowed into English in the 17th century, meaning “Silk or linen flock,” the OED has an entry for it from which we learn that it’s “< Italian †capitone irregularity in a silk thread (a1347), probably < classical Latin capit-, caput head”). A bit of further googling told me that point de capiton is a Lacanian term, and happily there’s a Lacanian Wikipedia-equivalent (called No Subject for doubtless good and sufficient reasons) which has an article on it:

The French term point de capiton is variously translated in English editions of Lacan’s work as “quilting point” or “anchoring point.” […] It literally designates an upholstery button, the analogy being that just as upholstery buttons are places where “the mattress-maker’s needle has worked hard to prevent a shapeless mass of stuffing from moving too freely about,” so the points de capiton are points at which the “signified and signifier are knotted together.”

I have no idea what that means, and I don’t care enough to subject myself to the immersion in Lacan that would be necessary to find out — I long ago came to the conclusion that Theory is not for me. I have no objection to Lacanians using Lacanian terms in their Lacanian writings; that’s what in-groups are for. But I do object to the usage in the Miklitsch sentence I quoted. In the first place, his book, while Theory-oriented (as you can see from the title), is not specifically a work of Lacanian theory, and in fact Lacan is mentioned only a few times; is this particular Lacanian phrase so crucial to his argument it has to be used in this particular context? In the second place, the sentence just before it uses the phrase “point of audition” (which he explains elsewhere is an auditory equivalent of “point of view,” which seems both useful and self-explanatory), and when you read the two sentences together it seems to the untutored eye that point de capiton must be just a fancily French elegant variation on “point of audition.” I try not to fall too quickly into the category of grumpy old fart, and I try not to let my Theory-phobia morph into simple philistinism, but it does seem to me that authors should try a little harder to write accessibly — not for the general reader (since the general reader is unlikely to attempt a book called Roll Over Adorno: Critical Theory, Popular Culture, Audiovisual Media), but for the reader who, while comfortable with academic prose and the usual touchstones of modern academic reference, is not completely immersed in them. Otherwise you’re basically writing only for your own grad students.

Unusual Units of Measurement.

This MetaFilter post contains some fine words:

The boundary wikipedia maintains between *unusual* units of measurement and *humorous* units of measurement is permeable and probably subjective; the rate of flow from one to the other might well be measured in miner’s inches (Colorado, Arizona, or New Zealand standard).

The shake (10 nanoseconds) and jiffy (varying lengths of time, depending on field of use) are still on both humorous and unusual lists; the smoot (5 feet 7 inches) had been on both but, despite some pushback that people actually use it, is now classified as merely humorous. The Waffle House Index (previously), the banana equivalent dose, the foe, and the centipawn are all notable, highly specialized units in some sort of use; funny but functional. For all its Pratchettlike appeal, the FFF (furlong-firkin-fortnight) system doesn’t seem to be used that much except for giggles (as measured in aH, natch).

For your further consideration, a list of measurements that don’t even qualify as unusual (failing wikipedia’s “notable” criterion): Ponder the archaic Finnish peninkulma, the maximum distance over which you can hear a dog bark; the hedon, a unit of pleasure in ethical mathematics; and the cran, a measure of uncleaned herring equivalent to 42 British wine gallons (US). (Lovely old fishing pictures on that last link, which describes the quarter cran basket.) And for your melancholy / steampunk / poetical needs, obsolete units of measurement too.

There are, of course, many more in the lists. I have kept the links to lists but was too lazy to add links for individual units — you’ll have to go to the MeFi link for that. My favorite is the peninkulma; at that link you can find a detailed discussion of its changing length, as well as an etymology:

Although it’s length has changed over the years, etymologically the peninkulma kept its canine definition throughout: the word itself brings together peni, a Finnish word for “dog” (apparently not much used in modern Finnish except as a stock name for a dog, like “Rover” or “Rex”) alongside the Finnish word kuulua, essentially meaning “to be heard” or “to be audible”.

And the MeFite who posted it has a rumination:

Imagining anxiety at measuring the peninkulma (“the distance a barking dog can be heard in still air”). I know it’s not meant to be a unit with such precision, but a few steps inside the edge of the circle with radius of 1 peninkulma, you still hear your dog barking and while maybe you know why he’s still barking you’ve already walked like five versts from home and maybe there’s some new thing he’s barking at, some danger he’s warning you of, maybe you should go back and check. Also, did you even shut the gate, is he still following you? (You totally forgot to shut the gate.) Then a few steps further on, outside the edge of a circle you can’t see, you’re still measuring it, the woods go silent. They were already still but now the absence of barking seizes all your attention, muffles all other sound. Is this the edge of your hearing? Is it quiet because he got back into the house and is now eating your dinner? Is he just quiet because he’s caught your scent and is now using all his breath to run to come play with you & see how you are because you forgot to shut the gate, probably on purpose, the purpose of making sure your best friend is free to run after you to make sure you’re ok in the woods on such a still day?

Needless to say, this LH post is highly relevant.


I am becoming irritated by the vagueness surrounding the origins of the word millionaire, and I am hoping the Varied Reader can help out. I was intrigued by the idea that (as Wikipedia puts it s.v. John Law) “The term ‘millionaire’ was coined specifically to describe the beneficiaries of Law’s scheme,” i.e. the Banque Royale (“The collapse of the Mississippi Company and the Banque Royale tarnished the word banque (‘bank’) so much that France abandoned central banking for almost a century, possibly precipitating Louis XVI’s economic crisis and the French Revolution”), but I can find no confirmation of that. The Wikipedia Millionaire article says “The word was first used (as millionnaire, double “n”) in French in 1719 and is first recorded in English (millionaire, as a French term) in a letter of Lord Byron of 1816, then in print in Vivian Grey, a novel of 1826 by Benjamin Disraeli.” French Wikipedia says “Le mot « millionnaire » a été utilisé en premier par Steven Fentiman en 1719,” but I can find no information on this alleged Steven Fentiman (not a very French-sounding name) or on what he might have published in 1719. The Trésor de la langue française informatisé says “1740 millionnaire «celui dont la fortune est de plusieurs millions» (LE SAGE, La Valise trouvée, ds Œuvres, éd. 1821, t.12, p.258),” but I can’t find an accessible edition of that volume of the Œuvres. Any further information will be gratefully &c. &c.

Just checked the OED (updated March 2002) and found “< French millionnaire, noun (early 18th cent. or earlier as millionaire) and adjective (1740),” so I’m guessing Steven Fentiman is a red herring (and now I’m wondering where he came from).

OED October Update.

Jonathan Dent, OED Senior Assistant Editor, provides a roundup of the new words, phrases, and compounds added to the OED this quarter:

New additions this September cover a lot of ground, stretching alphabetically from abugida (a system for organizing words or characters in the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, or a writing system used in some South or South-East Asian languages) to the slangily dismissive whatevs. This update travels back to the early Jurassic to examine dinosaurs of the genus Anchisaurus, drops in on ancient Rome for the fertility ritual Ambarvalia, and returns to the present day for a phenomenon celebrated (or at least, endlessly photographed) in the archetypal modern Western city: Manhattanhenge is an alignment of sunrise or sunset with the streets of New York, first recorded by this name in an email from the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2003. Among the earliest additions this quarter is an adverbial sense of ange (expressing a feeling of distress or anxiety) found in Old English works copied over a thousand years ago, while the most recent was first used less than seven years ago: a satoshi is the smallest monetary unit in the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, and is named after Satoshi Nakamoto, the—probably pseudonymous—developer(s) of Bitcoin.

The italicized words have links to their OED entries; he goes on to discuss the categories of food and drink (e.g., angels’ share, “the portion of distilled spirits […] lost to evaporation while ageing in casks”), politics and society (simples: “This modification of the interjection simple is probably unfamiliar to anyone outside the UK”), World English and regional words (sumphy, “a Scottish adjective meaning either ‘stupid’ or ‘sullen’”), and sf (“Star Wars fans eagerly awaiting the release of The Rise of Skywalker in December can pass the time by checking out the linguistic histories of lightsabre, Jedi, Padawan, and the Force”). I was particularly struck by the new entry for chess (pie), “a pie or tart filled with a mixture of eggs, butter, and sugar, to which nuts and fruit are sometimes added”:

Etymology: Origin unknown.
It has been suggested that chess is an alteration of cheese n.1 (compare cheesecake n. and cheese pie n. at cheese n.1 Compounds 2: the former at least denotes a similar dish and did not necessarily contain cheese; compare also chess cake in quot. 1860), but the form chess is not attested as a variant of cheese n.1 Another theory is that the name is an alteration of chest n.1 in chest pie, with reference to storing pies in a chest, but no evidence has been found of a form chest pie (or of pie chest). There is an anecdote in which the pie was described as ‘jes’ pie’ (just pie), which became chess pie, but there is no evidence to support this.

What a tangled recipe for such a simple word!