It occurred to me to wonder why the word nephew, which comes from French neveu, is written with -ph-, so I looked it up in the OED, which (though the entry was updated in September 2003) is uncharacteristically unhelpful — after listing over a hundred variant spellings (including neveaw, newowe, neuo, nephwoy, and nevvey) gives the following etymology:

< Anglo-Norman nevou, neveu, nevew, nevu, newu and Old French, Middle French neveu (also in Old French as nevou, nevo, nevu, nepveu, etc.; French neveu), originally the oblique case of Old French nies, niers (c1100; 2nd half of the 12th cent. in sense ‘grandson’, c1500 as nepveux (plural) in sense ‘descendants’) < classical Latin nepōt-, nepōs, grandson, descendant, a prodigal (see sense 2c), a secondary shoot (see sense 5), in post-classical Latin also nephew (4th cent.), niece (13th cent.), cognate with neve n.1. Compare also nepote n.

Which has some interesting information (I didn’t know about the OF nominative nies, niers, or the native Germanic form neve, parallel to German Neffe), but doesn’t address the spelling issue. Spellings with -p- go back way earlier than I would have guessed (?1456 Duke of York in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) II. 100 “To take possession and saisine, in the name and to þe vse of our ful worshipful nepueu th’Erl of Warrewic”); I realize it must be Latinizing, after nepōs, but it seems very odd — we write river, not riper or ripher, even though again French -v- is from Latin -p-. Does anybody know anything more about the history of this spelling change, and the concomitant spelling pronunciation with /f/ which is universal in the US and exists in the UK as well? Come to think of it, that’s another thing I’m curious about — I’ve long been aware of the UK pronunciation /ˈnɛvjuː/, but for some reason I had the impression it was antiquated; the OED, however, implies it’s the more common one:
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈnɛvjuː/, /ˈnɛfjuː/, U.S. /ˈnɛfju/

So I’ll ask you Brits: do you say it with /v/ or /f/, and do you think of the former as standard or old-fashioned?


I had one yanked today, so I thought I’d post about the Indo-European forms, which mostly all come from the same root and which beautifully illustrate all sorts of sound changes; this is the sort of thing that got me interested in historical linguistics. The Germanic forms — Old English tóþ, Old Saxon tand, Low German tan, Dutch tand, Old High German zan(a) (German Zahn), and Old Norse tǫnn (Swedish, Danish tand, Norwegian tonn) — all come from a reconstructed *tanþuz (Gothic Gothic tunþus has a different vowel that must come from the zero grade); French dent, Italian dente, Spanish diente, and Romanian dinte all come from Latin dent- (nominative dens); Greek odont- (nominative odous) shows the o-grade and an initial laryngeal; and all these, plus Sanskrit dant-, Welsh dant, Old Irish dét (i.e., /de:d/), Lithuanian dantìs, and Armenian atamn, come from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as *dent-. The AHD IE Appendix lays it out by root grade, beginning with the suggestion that it was originally a participle:

Tooth. Originally *h1d-ent‑, “biting,” present participle of ed- in the earlier meaning “to bite.”

1. O-grade form *dont‑. tooth, from Old English tōth, tooth, from Germanic *tanthuz.
2. Zero-grade form *dn̥t‑. tusk, from Old English tūsc, tūx, canine tooth, from Germanic *tunth-sk‑.
3. Full-grade form *dent‑. dental, [...] from Latin dēns (stem dent‑), tooth.
4. O-grade variant form *ədont‑, ultimately becoming odont‑ in Greek -odon, [...] from Greek odōn, odous, tooth.

[In Pokorny ed‑ 287.]

The Slavic words (Russian зуб [Vasmer], Polish ząb, etc., all from related to OCS зѫбъ), like Latvian zùobs and Albanian dhëmb, come from a different root, *gembh- ‘tooth, nail,’ which gives English comb among others, and Irish has fiacail, which is just weird.

The Sephardic Bibliophile of Brooklyn.

I’m a sucker for bookstore pieces, and Batya Ungar-Sargon wrote a good one for the Forward that begins:

On a nondescript street of brick row houses, nestled between an insurance office and a computer store, in an out of the way corner of Brooklyn known as Marine Park that is not on any subway lines, lies a small storefront. From the street, it’s impossible to see in — the glass windows are blocked by bookshelves, the glass door covered by a large red and white version of the Israeli flag. A small printed flyer is taped to the top of the door: “Mizrahi Bookstore: Over 60,000 Jewish Books in Stock.” A phone number is provided, and then: “Please knock and ring bell.”

It’s run by Yisrael Mizrachi, who wanted the piece to be about the books and not him: “The focus should be, people should be reading these books. People should know there’s a place they can read stuff which is interesting to read. Jews produced a lot of very good works.” But he’s an interesting guy, only 28 (“‘Such a young guy, and such old books,’ they say”), born in Brooklyn to a Sephardic family of Moroccan descent:

A lover of books for as long as he could remember, Mizrahi had been a buyer well before he began to sell, but shortly after he got married, he started to sell a few titles, and, shortly thereafter, Mizrahi Bookstore was born.

That was eight years ago, and he has in the meantime accumulated a stock of 100,000 books. [...]

Mizrahi —who speaks English and Hebrew fluently and can read Ladino and Yiddish — knows where every single book is. Disturbing a book’s location has catastrophic effects on his ability to sell it. A sign beseeches customers: “We beg, we insist, we plead, we urge, whatever it takes: Please make sure every book gets back in the shelf it started from. We want to continue to serve you.” [...]

He once got a call from a guy in New Jersey asking if Mizrahi wanted an Encyclopedia Judaica. Mizrahi asked if he had anything else, and the man told him he had just disposed of thousands of books. “But you didn’t want them,” the man said “They were old.” To add insult to injury, the man came from a prominent Zionist activist family, just the kind whose library might contain untold treasures. [...]

He regularly finds books that aren’t recorded anywhere else. “There’s something fascinating about picking up a book no one has read for 50 years,” he mused. Twice he found his own great grandfather’s signature in a book.

If you like that, there’s plenty more good stuff at the link. If I were still living in the city, I’d shlep out to Marine Park to visit.

Leaving the Myth Behind.

My apologies to those of you who either subscribe to Chomskyan linguistics or aren’t interested in it, but I still bear the scars of attempted brainwashing from my time in grad school four decades ago, and I can never get enough of attacks on the Great Man and his Theory (or, more accurately, Theories). Herewith, for those who are interested, Christina Behme and Vyvyan Evans, “Leaving the myth behind: A reply to Adger (2015)” (pdf), a satisfying response to Adger’s defense of Chomsky against Evans’s The Language Myth (a book I’ll have to get hold of some time) and article “There Is No Language Instinct.” Here’s the concluding paragraph; click through for the detailed discussion:

Minimalists have directed harsh criticism at The Language Myth and There is no language instinct, but little of this criticism seems to concern substantial issues. Alleged misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the Chomskyan commitment and the Chomskyan framework are in large degree due to the imprecise and, at times, inconsistent formulation of its basic assumptions. Chomskyans refer informally to language as an instinct, do not use key terms (e.g. I-language) consistently, do not provide precise definitions of important concepts (e.g. ‘innate’, ’language organ’, Universal Grammar), and they regularly conflate the meanings of ‘recursion’ Adger wishes to keep separate. Given that most of The Language Myth has been ignored by Adger, he is no position to judge whether it makes a valuable contribution or should be dismissed. And he has given little reason to think that the minimalist research program can shed light on there being “new exciting challenges to be addressed about how language is implemented in the brain, how what we know about language structure can improve statistical translation techniques, how language interacts with other systems in our minds and how it’s put to use in situations of social complexity” (Adger, 2015: 80). Adger seems to believe that generative grammarians continue to play the central role in syntactic research, and that they ought to shape the agenda of a larger, multidisciplinary research community. Yet, as Chomsky pointed out decades ago: “this framework is only taken seriously by a tiny minority in the field … it does not represent a major tendency within the field in statistical terms” (Chomsky, 1982: 41). It is arguable whether this evaluation was accurate in 1982. But, Chomsky could have hardly offered a better prediction for that state of the field in 2015. Anyone who wishes to defend the Chomskyan framework ought to move beyond the fruitless quarrelling that has distracted so much attention from the real issues, and address the following questions: [i] what are the specific theories Chomskyans are currently committed to, [ii] which concrete findings from developmental psychology and neurobiology support the Chomskyan framework, and [iii] how can the Chomskyan paradigm overcome the familiar, long standing challenges stated in the technical literature, including those by other
generativists (e.g. Culicover and Jackendoff, 2005; Jackendoff, 2011; Seuren, 2004).

A Shared Imperial Culture.

I enjoyed Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle so much that I’m now reading a book Brown highly recommended, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, by Chris Wickham. I already like two things very much about Wickham’s approach: he covers the Byzantine, Islamic, and Eastern European worlds on a par with Western Europe, and he is resolutely anti-teleological, saying:

Any reading of the Roman empire in the fifth century only in terms of the factors which led to its break-up, of Merovingian Francia only in terms of what led to Charlemagne’s power and ambitions, of tenth-century papal activity only in terms of what led to ‘Gregorian reform’, of the economic dynamism of the Arab world only in terms of its (supposed) supersession by Italian and then north European merchants and producers, is a false reading of the past. Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap.

Here’s what he has to say about one of the things that bound the disparate halves of the Roman Empire together:

A shared culture perhaps marked the Roman senatorial and provincial aristocracies most, for it was based on a literary tradition. Every western aristocrat had to know Virgil by heart, and many other classical Latin authors, and be able to write poetry and turn a polished sentence in prose; in the East it was Homer. The two traditions, in Latin and Greek, did not have much influence on each other by now [c. 400], but they were very dense and highly prized.There was a pecking-order based on the extent of this cultural capital. Ammianus reports scornfully that senators in Rome, the supposed crème de la crème, only really read Juvenal, a racy and satirical poet, so by implication not the difficult texts; whether or not this was true, it was a real insult. Conversely, literary experts, such as Ausonius in the West and Libanios (d. c. 393) in the East, could rise fast and gain imperial patronage and office simply because of their writing – in Libanios’ case so fast that he was accused of magic – although both were already landowners of at least medium wealth. The emperor Julian in his attempt to reverse Christianization tried to force Christian intellectuals to teach only the Bible, not the pagan classics, thus enclosing them in a ghetto of inferior prose. This failed, but the assumptions behind such an enactment clearly show the close relationship between traditional culture and social status. Some Christian hard-liners responded by rejecting Virgil, but this failed too: by the fifth century the aristocracy knew both Virgil (or Homer) and the Bible, and might add to these some of the new Christian theologians too, Augustine in the West or Basil of Caesarea in the East, both of whom were good stylists.

I love Ammianus’s dig; I guess the current equivalent would be claiming a politician you disliked only reads People magazine.

Malaise and Pooter.

Jennie Erin Smith‘s TLS review (freely accessible) of Frederik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap, besides being fun to read (see excerpt below), taught me two new words. The review begins: “Malaise traps are tent-like contraptions that intercept flying insects with mesh and, taking advantage of their urge to fly up towards the light when faced with an obstacle, shuttle them upwards into a poison-filled chamber.” I thought malaise was a pretty euphemistic description of what the insects experienced as a result of the trap, but as I read on I saw that the word was consistently spelled with a capital M and realized it was a proper name — the name, in fact, of the book’s subject, René Malaise. (There’s a good illustration of the trap at the Wikipedia page.) And several sentences later Smith writes: “Sjöberg collected his hoverflies with a net and a pooter, a flexible tube used to suck up insects by mouth into a container.” Pooter! What a word! (Later on, she writes: “He has suffered ‘every conceivable insinuation and witticism’ with regard to his pooter, the portable insect-sucking tube, but even he will concede its resemblance to an opium pipe.”) The OED says:

Etymology: Apparently < the name of F. W. Poos (1891–1987), U.S. entomologist who first used the device + -er suffix, with insertion of -t-, apparently for euphony.
1939 Amateur Entomologist Sept. 33 A coleopterist’s sucking tube (a pooter) is useful when collecting large numbers.

So both words seem to be eponyms. As for Malaise, he had quite a life:

Malaise was born in 1892 in Stockholm, the son of a French chef, and, like naturalists everywhere, began collecting as a child – plants, then butterflies, then, as he got more serious, sawflies. After the end of the First World War, Malaise left his famous journalist girlfriend, Ester Blenda Nordström, and joined his zoologist friend Sten Bergman and three others on a lavishly funded collecting expedition to the Kamchatka Peninsula, the lobe of terrain in easternmost Russia that dangles over Japan. The Kamchatka expedition lasted three years, officially, and Bergman secured his fame with a dramatic account of it. Malaise, though, chose to stay in Kamchatka, inured to homesickness and civil war, surviving in the backwoods on a primitive bread boiled in bear fat while continuing to collect his flies. In 1923, he experienced a series of extraordinary earthquakes. The first came in the winter, while he was sleeping in a yurt in the woods. The trees bowed, there was a terrible roaring noise, and a tsunami drove a giant wall of ice inland, razing the coastal fringe of forest. The aftershocks continued for weeks. In August of that year, Malaise was making a supply run to Tokyo when the ground dropped out beneath him, collapsing the roof and floor of his hotel at once, and triggering deadly fires. It was the Great Kanto Earthquake, one of the worst in Japan’s history. Malaise sailed from Tokyo as the city burned. [...]

In Sweden, where he took refuge after the quakes, Malaise was reunited with Nordström, who was brilliant, charming and probably lesbian; she followed him back to Kamchatka, married him, and wrote a book about the place which never once mentioned her husband. Malaise returned to Stockholm again after the marriage dissolved, and developed a prototype of his trap, which he demonstrated there and in London. Oddly, few were impressed. Malaise himself was undeterred. He married again, this time an adventurous schoolteacher happy to accompany him on a dangerous expedition to Burma. In Rangoon with his new wife, he had his first traps sewn by tailors. The traps proved frighteningly effective: the Malaises returned with more than 100,000 insects, which museums were still sorting at the time of Sjöberg’s writing.

He went on to become an Atlantis crank, unfortunately, but he “never grew bitter and never lost his optimism, even in the face of ridicule.”

Languages of London.

18 Beautiful And Weird Maps That Will Change How You Think About London has a lot of interesting stuff (I love the first one, showing London around the turn of the first millennium: “Hamor Smydde, Fulanham, Brixges Tane: Sound familiar?”), but the one of LH relevance is 10, showing the non-English languages most commonly spoken in different parts of the city — it’s fascinating to me to see the huge swaths of Polish, Gujarati, Turkish, and Bengali, and the lesser realms of Urdu, Lithuanian, Somali, Arabic, and the rest.

Russian Culture in Landmarks.

Via Michael Webster, editor of SPRING: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society, I have discovered John Freedman’s amazing blog Russian Culture in Landmarks, “Russian literature, art, music and theater through architecture and monuments.” Cast your eye down the left-hand margin and you’ll see a tag list, with the most frequent names in larger type, running from “Actors House” to “Yury Trifonov”; the first post I read was this one, on the building at 12 Bryusov Lane in Moscow in which once lived Vsevolod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Raikh, and I’m still shuddering at Raikh’s fate (I knew about Meyerhold’s). Anyone interested in Russian literature and culture should bookmark it or subscribe to it.

And speaking of Cummings, Vladimir Feshchenko alerted me to Aleksander Ulanov’s Znamya review (in Russian) of the translation Feshchenko did with Emily Wright of EIMI (see this post), Приключения нетоварища Кемминкза в Стране Советов: Э.Э. Каммингс и Россия [The Adventures of Untovarich Kem-min-kz in the Land of the Soviets: E. E. Cummings and Russia] (St. Petersburg: European University in St. Petersburg, 2013). It sounds like an excellent translation (accompanied by useful notes, essays, photos, and the like); it’s too bad they translated less than a quarter of Cummings’ text, but better a good translation of a part than a sloppy one of the whole.


No, not the river (whose name is French, from Latin Mosa); this is an English dialect word I just ran across, with an unexpected etymology (French < Celtic) I thought I’d share. OED (updated December 2001):

Pronunciation: Brit. /mjuːs/ , /mjuːz/ , U.S. /mjuz/

Etymology: < Middle French muce, musse, mouce hiding place, secret place (1190 in Old French as muce; only from 1561 in spec. sense 1a; French regional (central and western) musse hiding place, hole in a hedge) < mucier, mucer to hide, conceal oneself (second half of the 12th cent.; compare Anglo-Norman muscier, muscer, mucier, etc.; also Italian (regional) mucciare, muccire to flee) < an unidentified reflex of the Celtic base of Early Irish múch smoke, Welsh mwg smoke, which in turn is related to the Germanic base of smoke v. Compare mitch v., muset n.1 Compare slightly earlier maze n.2 and discussion at that entry.
Recorded in Eng. Dial. Dict. s.v. in very widespread English regional use.

Now Brit. regional.
A gap in a fence or hedge through which hares, rabbits, etc., pass, esp. as a means of escape; (also) a man-made track or tunnel for leading hares, rabbits, etc., into a trap. Cf. run n.2 12a.
1523 J. Skelton Goodly Garlande of Laurell 1384 He wrate of a muse [1568 mows] throw a mud wall; How a do cam trippyng in at the rere warde.
1575 G. Gascoigne Noble Arte Venerie lix. 164 She..will all the daye long holde the same wayes..and passe through the same muses untill hir death or escape.
1623 T. Scott High-waies of God 55 A Hare started before Greyhounds will haue her accustomed way and muse, or die for it.
1754 W. Cowper Epist. to R. Lloyd 52 The virtuoso..The gilded butterfly pursues O’er hedge and ditch, through gaps and mews.
1756 Gentleman’s Mag. 26 180 The most effectual method of destroying hares is by laying the muishes of hedges, dykes, and other fences.
1812 W. B. Daniel Rural Sports (new ed.) I. 587 The Tipe or trap..consists of a large pit or Cistern, covered with a floor, with a small trap door, nicely balanced, near its centre, into which the rabbits are led by a narrow Meuse.
1821 Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. 8 531 It is doubted whether the stoutest March hare will have sufficient vivacity to carry him to his muese.
1884 R. Lawson Upton-on-Severn Words & Phrases at Muse, Them Welshmen [sc. Welsh sheep]‘d go through a rabbit run or a har’ muce.
1895 Athenæum 2 Mar. 285/3 In a stone-wall country you will not find a hare close to the lee side..because of the concentrated wind which whistles through every ‘meuse’.
1972 G. E. Evans & D. Thomson Leaping Hare vi. 75 An unusual method of catching hares..appears to have been extensively used by poachers in addition to the more common device of snaring or netting at the smiles or meuses.
2006 T. Williamson Archaeol. Rabbit Warrens vi. 54 (caption) A narrow wooden tunnel or muce runs through the wall and across the top of the pit; here there is a small trap-door in the tunnel floor.

b. In extended use: a means of escape; (a device affording) a way out of a difficulty. Obs.
1528 J. Skelton Honorificatissimo: Replycacion agaynst Yong Scolers sig. Avi, had..deuyllysshely deuysed The people to seduce And chase them thorowe the muse Of your noughty counsell.
1606 W. Warner Continuance Albions Eng. xvi. cii. 404 When desprate Ruffins fraught with faults finde readily a Meuse.
1647 N. Bacon Hist. Disc. Govt. 184 In this Tragedy the Pope observing how the English Bishops had forsaken their Archbishop, espied a muse through which all the game of the Popedome might soon escape.
1858 R. S. Surtees Ask Mamma xxix. 116 The Major, after trying every meuse, and every twist, and every turn..was at length obliged to whip off.

2. The form or lair of a hare; occas. with reference to other animals of the chase. Obs.
In 16th and 17th centuries freq. in proverbial sayings, as a hare without a meuse, every hare has its meuse, etc.
1585 S. Robson Choise of Change sig. Miii, Things very hard or not at all to be found. A hare without a muse…A whore without a skuse.
1598 G. Chapman tr. Homer Seauen Bks. Iliades vii. 123 As when a crew of gallantes watch, the wild muse of a bore.
1627 W. Hawkins Apollo Shroving v. iv. 86 Ludio The Nine Muses play at Nine-holes: euery Muse hath her hole. Thur. Yes, and euery Hare hath her Muse.
1788 W. Marshall Provincialisms E. Yorks. in Rural Econ. Yorks. II. 353 Smoot, a hare muce; or any small gap or hole in the bottom of a hedge.
1890 J. D. Robertson Gloss. Words County of Gloucester Mews, a hare’s form.

Note the odd form ‘lair of a hare,’ also new to me (it’s the OED’s sense 21); some citations:

a1300 Fragm. Pop. Sc. (Wright) 318 I-buyd as an hare Whan he in forme lyth.
c1386 Chaucer Shipman’s Tale 104 As in a fourme sitteth a wery hare.
1575 G. Gascoigne Noble Arte Venerie lviii. 161 When a Hare ryseth out of the forme.
1735 W. Somervile Chace ii. 38 In the dry crumbling Bank Their Forms they delve.
1845 C. Darwin Jrnl. (ed. 2) iii. 46 The Indians catch the Varying Hare by walking spirally round and round, it when on its form.
1952 R. Campbell tr. C. Baudelaire Poems 77 Whereon as in a fourm you would fill out And mould your hair.

I’m actually not sure the last one belongs here; it’s not at all clear to me what sense Campbell intended, since the line has little to do with Baudelaire’s French (“Qui, comme une guérite, enfermera tes charmes”). You can see the poem in the original with three translations here (William Aggeler and Lewis Piaget Shanks both render guérite accurately as “sentry-box”).

Addendum. It turns out I wrote about this word and its etymology less than three months ago. Sigh. At least it gets its own post here.

Cutthroat Compounds.

I just got around to Stan Carey’s post from last month on a fascinating corner of English morphology:

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

Despite the familiarity of these examples, only a few dozen are current in modern English. It’s because they conflict with the right-headedness of English, Brianne writes in her master’s thesis (‘From Turncoats To Backstabbers: How Headedness and Word Order Determine the Productivity of Agentive and Instrumental Compounding in English’), that cutthroats’ productivity will never surpass that of ‘backstabber’ compounds, which use the far more usual N-V-er pattern. We’re ‘book readers’, not ‘readbooks’; ‘word lovers’, not ‘lovewords’.

Cutthroats largely constitute ‘a treasury of nonce words’, having peaked centuries ago. Survivors tend to be peripheral, found in slang, regional dialects, and children’s short-lived innovations. But Brianne is on a mission to catalogue them and has recorded several hundred, including such malicious archaic marvels as want-wit (stupid person), spoil-paper (bad writer), whiparse (abusive teacher), eat-bee (bird), lacklooks (unattractive person), stretchgut (glutton), clutchfist (miser), and catch-fart (servant who walks behind their master).

There’s wonderful stuff there (whiparse! catch-fart!) and much more at the link, including the cutthroats spontaneously invented by kids before they grow out of it.