Lars Mathiesen wrote me: “I admit that I never thought about the number declension in Archaea (bacteria), but somebody did (second graf).” The graf in question (by Hannah Devlin in the Graun):

Then, the theory goes, a rogue archaeon gobbled up a bacterium to create an entirely new type of cell that would go on to form the basis of all complex life on Earth, from plants to humans.

One of those words that makes you go “Huh”; the OED says:

Etymology: < scientific Latin Archaeon (see quot. 1990), singular form corresponding to Archaea Archaea n.

A member of the Archaea; an archaebacterium.
The plural form is usually supplied by Archaea n.

1990 Proc. National Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 87 5788 (title) HMf, a DNA-binding protein isolated from the hyperthermophilic archaeon Methanothermus fervidus, is most closely related to histones.
2001 FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 196 129 M[ethanobrevibacter] oralis was found to be the predominant archaeon in the subgingival dental plaque.

I have to admit I didn’t realize the taxon was so new; first cite for Archaea:

1990 C. R. Woese et al. in Proc. National Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 87 4576 We propose that a formal system of organisms be established in which above the level of kingdom there exists a new taxon called a ‘domain’. Life on this planet would then be seen as comprising three domains, the Bacteria, the Archaea, and the Eucarya, each containing two or more kingdoms.

And why do they give the author for that last quote but not for the 1990 cite for archaeon, from the same article? Sometimes the OED baffles me.


Like most Americans, I’ve always had only a hazy idea of what is meant by “aristocracy,” “nobility,” and the like (“dukes and earls,” as my friend Mike used to say), but I’m starting to think hardly anyone understands it, since the closer you look the more impenetrable it gets. I’m reading Irina Reyfman’s excellent How Russia Learned to Write: Literature and the Imperial Table of Ranks, and on pp. 5-6 she writes:

The term “nobility” requires a brief elucidation. Students of Russian history and culture of the Imperial period face a difficulty when choosing the appropriate term for this group. Not only are all of the possible translations of dvoriane or the collective term dvorianstvo into English (“aristocracy,” “nobility,” “gentry”) misleading to various degrees (as Marc Raeff argues in his seminal study of the eighteenth-century Russian nobility), but even in Russian the term competes with other designations, such as aristokratiia (aristocracy) or znat’ (notables). For this reason, many contemporary historians prefer to use, often alongside dvorianstvo, the neutral terms “elite” and “elites” (elita and elity), as neither existed at the time discussed and are therefore “unburdened” by contemporary connotations. However, these terms are too vague to be used without a qualifier, such as “service,” “cultural,” “intellectual,” or “economic,” all of which intersect only partially with the terms dvoriane and dvorianstvo, with the degree of intersection changing over time. The more traditional if imperfect terms “nobles” and “nobility” are thus preferable.

This linguistic uncertainty reflects an uncertainty about the composition of the group itself. For all practical purposes, the post-Petrine shliakhetstvo (or dvorianstvo, as it came to be called later in the eighteenth century) was a newly formed estate. The eighteenth-century dvorianstvo incorporated not only all kinds of pre-Petrine elite groups (such as the upper echelons of Muscovite nobility—boyars—as well as both middle and upper serving classes, deti boiarskie and dvoriane) but also commoners who were able to enter the noble class thanks either to successful service or to sluchái, imperial favor. The boundaries of the group, particularly in the early eighteenth century, were thus uncertain and shifting.

And right after reading that I ran into this in Tobias Gregory’s LRB review of Philippe Desan’s Montaigne: A Life:

The 16th-century French nobility was a heterogeneous and expanding class. In theory you were noble or you weren’t; in practice there were ambiguities and gradations. The old or upper nobility, the noblesse d’épée, was a small hereditary class containing descendants of the medieval knightly families who had provided military service to the crown in exchange for landed estates. Montaigne belonged to the larger and more permeable class of lower nobility, claiming a place in two ways: by inheriting his father’s seigneurial estate, and by becoming a magistrate, which made him a member of the noblesse de robe, or a robin. A magistrate’s office conferred noble status, according to the official explanation, because the king’s justice was royal and therefore should be administered by nobles. The real reason was that the crown sold the offices, and the title was an incentive. Montaigne’s uncle purchased himself a seat in the Bordeaux parlement in 1535, and Pierre Eyquem bought his eldest son a seat in a new tax court established in Périgueux in 1556. This court was dissolved after two years, and its officers, including the 25-year-old Montaigne, were transferred by royal command into the parlement of Bordeaux, where they were unwelcome and treated badly by the incumbent magistrates, because this expansion diluted their authority and income. Places in the magistracy were not sinecures; as a junior member of the Bordeaux parlement Montaigne worked hard at the routine business of writing up case reports. To their purchasers they conveyed an income and a career path, as well as the prestige of the title. A robin might be promoted within the regional magistracy; he might, with connections and talent, rise to an administrative position at court, which had use for capable new men. But to be perceived as noble in a fuller sense, it was not enough to hold a magistrate’s office or own a seigneurial estate. Your family had to be known to have ‘lived nobly’ on its estate for at least a hundred years: that is, to reside principally there, and to derive its main income from land rather than from commerce. Here Montaigne’s claim was tenuous. In 1571 the family had owned the estate for almost a hundred years, but Pierre had been the first Eyquem to make an effort to live nobly at Montaigne, and even he spent considerable time in the city. Montaigne’s retirement inscription declared not only his literary ambitions but his intent to live on his lands in a manner in keeping with the title he had recently inherited. Unsurprisingly he does not dwell on his family’s bourgeois origins. In describing his château as the ‘sweet retreat of his ancestors’ he gives the impression that they had been at Montaigne for time out of mind.

It reminds me of the self-important bickering among Proust’s aristocratic set, and I’m glad that’s one nest of vipers I’ll never have to step into.

Two Tidbits.

From Futility Closet, “A dry footnote from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, regarding the Porteous Riots of 1736, in which a guard captain was lynched in Edinburgh”:

The Magistrates were closely interrogated before the House of Peers, concerning the particulars of the Mob, and the patois in which these functionaries made their answers, sounded strange in the ears of the Southern nobles. The Duke of Newcastle having demanded to know with what kind of shot the guard which Porteous commanded had loaded their muskets, was answered naively, ‘Ow, just sic as ane shoots dukes and fools with.’ This reply was considered as a contempt of the House of Lords, and the Provost would have suffered accordingly, but that the Duke of Argyle explained, that the expression, properly rendered into English, meant ducks and waterfowl.

Thanks, JC! And from Jamie Fisher’s LRB review (8 March 2018) of The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney:

The first machine marketed as a ‘Chinese typewriter’ was invented in 1888 by the American missionary Devello Sheffield, his goal less to create a typewriter than to replace the missionary’s intermediary, the opinionated Chinese clerk. ‘They usually talk to their writer,’ Sheffield wrote, ‘and he takes down with a pen what has been said, and later puts their work into Chinese literary style … The finished product will be found to have lost in this process no slight proportion of what the writer wished to say, and to have taken on quite as large a proportion of what the Chinese assistant contributed to the thought.’

Dee and Don.

Courtesy of bulbul, this historico-linguistic story by Albert Galea:

Maltese is known for its expressions and synonyms, and perhaps one of the best known of these is the saying ‘qishom id-di u d-do’. It is an expression which in reality has no direct translation, but which is used to refer to two people who are always seen together.

The origin of this expression is an unlikely source: two British gunboats built in the nineteenth century which spent much of their lives moored next to each other in Kalkara Creek. HMS Dee and HMS Don were both Medina-class gunboats, being two out of 12 such ships which were built by the Palmers Shipbuilding & Iron Company between 1876 and 1877. The two ships were launched within 10 days of other – the Dee was launched on 4 April 1877 and the Don on 14 April of the same year. […]

Visit the link for further details; here’s a bit from a passage on Henry Casingena, who enlisted with the Royal Navy in 1882:

Also interesting to note is the variety of spelling inputted by the British for the surname Casingena: it is written as ‘Casincena’, ‘Casencena’, ‘Caningena’, and ‘Cancencena’ on different occasions. This befuddlement at how to spell Maltese surnames on the part of the British is not uncommon, and can be observed on war records from the time.

And for lagniappe, an unexpected etymology I recently learned: proxy is a contraction of procuracy.

Rí-rá agus rumpy-pumpy.

Philip O’Leary reviews The Dregs of the Day, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain:

When the first published English translations of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille appeared in 2015 and 2016, readers of English were able to share what readers of Irish had long known – that Ó Cadhain had achieved world stature by drawing on his unparalleled mastery of his linguistic medium to express the life lived by the people of his own native Conamara Gaeltacht. Ó Cadhain himself was, however, never satisfied with that achievement, writing in his 1969 pamphlet Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca that having lived in Dublin longer than he had in the Gaeltacht he didn’t have the right “Baile Átha Cliath a fhágáil ina pháipéar bán”. The result of this guilty awareness was a series of groundbreaking stories of Irish urban life in the Irish language, of which the most important is the novella Fuíoll Fuine, here translated by Alan Titley as The Dregs of the Day, the final story in the final collection published in Ó Cadhain’s lifetime and thus an important indication of the direction in which his work might have gone had he not died in 1970. […]

So much for the novella itself, but what about the translation? In many ways, Titley, the finest writer of Irish prose since Ó Cadhain, is in his element with Fuíoll Fuíne, having shown in his early novel Stiall Fhial Fheola (1980) and in later short stories a kindred ability to create a Dublin that is both alien and weirdly like the “real” one. Moreover, he also shares Ó Cadhain’s extraordinary command of his linguistic medium and a sometimes anarchic willingness to expand his word hoard with borrowings, adaptations, puns, and outright creations. As a result, The Dregs of the Day reads very much like an original work, free of any touch of academic second thoughts or undue subservience to an esteemed original. The one aspect of the translation that may require comment involves the question of linguistic register. Titley’s English here is far slangier and raunchier than Ó Cadhain’s Irish. For example, in Fuíoll Fuine, the Little Sisters of the Poor will lay out a corpse “in aisce”, while in Dregs they will do it “for feck all”. Ó Cadhain’s “ag cur imní air” becomes Titley’s “bugging him”; “ar meisce” is translated “pisso blotto”; “céard ba chóir dhó a dhéanamh” as “what the fuck he should do”; “a dliteanas céileachais” as “her rightful amount of rumpy-pumpy”; “lucht na tuaithe” as “that bogger crowd”; “póilís” as ‘fuzz”; “lucht póite” as “piss artists from the boozers”; “duine dímheabhrach” as “total thicko”; “fear ab airde ná é” as “somebody higher up the food chain”; “an múnlach bréan móna seo” as “this fucking bogplace shithole here”; and “chuir sin scáth air” as “this put the shits on him”. And there is much more of the same.

Some of these earthier renderings are more successful than others, and there will doubtless be readers who know the original who will find some or many of them startling and/or objectionable. But that is just the point. In Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca, Ó Cadhain recalls a conversation he overheard on a Dublin bus in which a man called him “a right galoot if ever there was one. A Joycean smutmonger.” What this man was shocked by was not Ó Cadhain’s language, for having developed largely free of the absurdities and excesses of Latinate classism and Victorian respectability, Gaeltacht Irish never needed to develop separate registers of acceptable and “dirty” words to denote body parts and their functions. The simple fact that a writer of Irish like Ó Cadhain wrote about – perhaps even knew about ‑ such things – was enough to scandalise more than a few committed “Gaels” for whom the Gaeltacht was more holy ground than a place where people actually lived. Thus the simple fact that Ó Cadhain wrote of that life so naturally and honestly lent his Irish a certain frisson in his own time. To give his readers that same jolt now a translator must up the voltage in his search for English equivalents for what seem to be neutral Irish words and expressions. (One thinks here, for example, of Paul Muldoon’s translations of poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.) Titley must have had great fun coming up with his rumpy-pumpys, and to a great extent if they bother us that’s our problem. Besides, should anyone be surprised to find more than a few fucks in a story set in Dublin?

Thanks, Trevor!

Tout au plus la grecque et la latine.

It’s been a busy day, so I’ll just toss up this edifying quote from Jean de La Bruyère (courtesy of Laudator Temporis Acti):

Some people immoderately thirst after knowledge, and are unwilling to ignore any branch of it, so they study them all and master none; they are fonder of knowing much than of knowing some things well, and had rather be superficial smatterers in several sciences than be well and thoroughly acquainted with one. They everywhere meet with some person who enlightens and corrects them; they are deceived by their idle curiosity, and often, after very long and painful efforts, can but just extricate themselves from the grossest ignorance.

Other people have a master-key to all sciences, but never enter there; they spend their lives in trying to decipher the Eastern and Northern languages, those of both the Indies, of the two poles, nay, the language spoken in the moon itself. The most useless idioms, the oddest and most hieroglyphical-looking characters, are just those which awaken their passion and induce them to study; they pity those persons who ingenuously content themselves with knowing their own language, or, at most, the Greek and Latin tongues. Such men read all historians and know nothing of history; they run through all books, but are not the wiser for any; they are absolutely ignorant of all facts and principles, but they possess as abundant a store and garner-house of words and phrases as can well be imagined, which weighs them down, and with which they overload their memory, whilst their mind remains a blank.

Original French:

Quelques-uns, par une intempérance de savoir, et par ne pouvoir se résoudre à renoncer à aucune sorte de connaissance, les embrassent toutes et n’en possèdent aucune; ils aiment mieux savoir beaucoup que de savoir bien, et être faibles et superficiels dans diverses sciences que d’être sûrs et profonds dans une seule. Ils trouvent en toutes rencontres celui qui est leur maître et qui les redresse; ils sont les dupes de leur curiosité, et ne peuvent au plus, par de longs et pénibles efforts, que se tirer d’une ignorance crasse.

D’autres ont la clef des sciences, où ils n’entrent jamais; ils passent leur vie à déchiffrer les langues orientales et les langues du nord, celles des deux Indes, celles des deux pôles, et celle qui se parle dans la lune. Les idiomes les plus inutiles, avec les caractères les plus bizarres et les plus magiques, sont précisément ce qui réveille leur passion et qui excite leur travail; ils plaignent ceux qui se bornent ingénument à savoir leur langue, ou tout au plus la grecque et la latine. Ces gens lisent toutes les histoires et ignorent l’histoire; ils parcourent tous les livres, et ne profitent d’aucun; c’est en eux une stérilité de faits et de principes qui ne peut être plus grande, mais, à la vérité, la meilleure récolte et la richesse la plus abondante de mots et de paroles qui puisse s’imaginer: ils plient sous le faix; leur mémoire en est accablée, pendant que leur esprit demeure vide.

Why We Love Untranslatable Words.

David Shariatmadari has a wonderful LitHub piece, actually an excerpt from his book Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language (see this LH post from last August) but well worth reading on its own. It begins:

Goya. A small word, but one that contains multitudes. It is one of those mythic beasts, the “untranslatables,” the foreign words that supposedly lack any equivalent in English. Lists of them spread virally online. Someone may have shared one with you on social media: it might have included utepils, sgrìob and saudade—of which more later. But for now, let us examine goya.

Urdu speakers know the meaning of goya in their bones; for the rest of us it is a mystery. When a native son or daughter of Pakistan hears it, whole worlds are conjured—scenes of tales told around a fire as the smoke rises into the crisp air of the Hindu Kush, of being dandled on a grandmother’s knee, of being told a cautionary tale by a village elder as a child and remembering it for the rest of your days. “Goya,” as one breathless internet account has it, “is an Urdu word that refers to the transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality . . . usually associated with good, powerful storytelling.”

Goya. Almost a mystical experience in itself. But look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find “as if,” “as though” and “as it were.” One Urdu speaker I asked translated it as “as though”; another, “and so.” It’s used to make or clarify a point—the sentence might be structured as “and so (goya), as I was saying.” Based on this, it seems to function as a discourse marker, which the Cambridge A–Z of Spoken and Written Grammar defines as “words or phrases like ‘anyway,’ ‘right,’ ‘okay,’ ‘as I say,’ ‘to begin with.’ We use them to connect, organize and manage what we say or write or to express attitude.” That’s it. No mystical campfires here. No “transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality,” unless the Hindu Kush you’re thinking of is the strain of cannabis. Whoever came up with this translation even seems to have got the grammar wrong: their explanation suggests a (very) abstract noun, whereas goya is an adverb, formed on the stem of a Farsi verb meaning “to speak.” (In that language, the ultimate source of the Urdu word, gooya means “as it were,” “as you would say” or “apparently.”)

So how did this happen? There is something deeply seductive about the idea that other languages contain codes that are impossible to crack, as I know from first-hand experience. When I was a kid, I used to sit in the hallway and listen to my dad speak Farsi on the phone to his relatives in Tehran. I had no idea what he was saying, and nor did my brother and sister. But we learned to recognize certain phrases, two in particular: tarjimmykonee and azbezutumkay. We used to repeat them, over and over. Like “abracadabra,” they seemed to be incantations. Dad was a magician. When, as an adult, I learned what these phrases actually were, I realized the extent to which we had filtered them through our English-attuned ears, distorting the sounds and syllables. And the meaning was more prosaic than I imagined, too. Tavajoh mikonee can be translated as “Are you paying attention?,” a conversational filler like “Do you see?” or “D’you know what I mean?” Arz be hozuretan ke is a polite stock phrase similar to “May I say, . . .”

I was a child, but adults should know better than to believe that other cultures speak in spells.

How I love that kind of demolition job! Go to the link for more (it’s worth it just for his taking Bill Bryson apart); the Persian verb he mentions is goftan (root gu; colloquial migam ‘I say’). Thanks, Ariel!

The Sumerian Rib.

Anne Enright in the LRB (8 March 2018) discusses the malign effects of the usual understanding of the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden; she mentions language a fair amount, and here are a couple of such passages:

‘Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.’ The word ‘naked’ is a translation of the Hebrew erom, which is used to describe a state of being stripped or vulnerable, and is without sexual connotation. As for ‘no shame’, Jerome in his translation into the Vulgate Latin uses ‘et non erubescebant’ implying that Adam and Eve did not blush – and this is sweet, for Jerome. It suggests a moment of virginal self-consciousness, full of possibility. It also, perhaps, reflects Jerome’s skill as a linguist. The original word in Hebrew, bosh, comes from a primitive root ‘to pale’, and is here used reflexively – ‘and they were not ashamed before one another.’ In the rest of the Old Testament, bosh is used in contexts that involve feeling confounded or disgraced, but it is rarely linked to ideas of impurity and abomination (when it comes to sex, the Old Testament is mostly worried about marrying out). Other Latin translations settled on the stronger pudere, a term for shame which conveys bashfulness, as well as a sense of decency. Pudor contains the idea of being caught out, but it also had social and ethical implications. It was, for the Romans, a manly difficulty and not something a slave could experience. A woman’s honour was usually limited to sexual respectability, and this was referred to by the more limited form pudicitia. The concept conveyed by the word pudor suffered a narrowing of meaning over time, becoming more sexualised and specific. By the 17th century the root had yielded ‘pudenda’, meaning ‘genitals’, usually female. This is where the shame of nakedness landed and got stuck.


In the question and response we call ‘the temptation of Eve’, the snake repeats God’s and then Eve’s sentences, then distorts them with a question mark, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden” or a negative: “You will not certainly die”?’ Eve becomes enclosed in a circular exchange with her own words. In many medieval images, the serpent bears the face of Eve, acting as an enthralling, ghastly reflection. This phallic Eve reminds us of the less spooky but equally phallic rib, which has caused generations of children and philosophers to run a counting hand down their sides. The choice of bone is most likely a remnant from an earlier myth, that played on the double meaning of ti in Sumerian – the noun ‘rib’ and the verb ‘to make live’. The fact that we find the choice of bone both odd and satisfying could be used as another rule for writing enduring fiction: your story must contain the remnants of former drafts, whose original meaning is lost, but which now make an odd kind of sense.

I am particularly intrigued by that last bit, from which I have extracted the post title, which I hope will serve to attract our Sumerian expert, ə de vivre.

The Outer Fringes of Our Language.

The estimable Los Angeles Review of Books presents Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Outer Fringes of Our Language: A Conversation with Werner Herzog; the conversation took place in February 2016, so I’m not sure why it’s just being published now, but never mind, it’s timeless, as is the maniacal Herzog. I’ll quote a few salient bits (Harrison’s questions in bold):

Could you share with us some of your thoughts about your relationship to reading books and the value of the literary?

In a way, it has been something that is guiding me throughout my life. Beyond this auditorium, there are many more students at Stanford University, and many of them do not really read — including film students. They read a book about editing, but they haven’t read, let’s say, the dramas of Greek antiquity. And I keep saying to them you have to read. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will become a mediocre filmmaker at best, but you will never make a really good film. And almost everyone that I know who has made very strong, very good substantial films are people who are reading all the time. […] And of course, I’ve written prose and some poetry. I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films. […]

I’m curious about the books that have become a part of you and your psyche. You mentioned, in A Guide for the Perplexed, that whenever you go on a film set, you bring two books with you, in particular. One is Luther’s translation of the Bible. You have to read the Book of Job for consolation —

It’s a 1546 edition in the original Lutheran language, which was an enormous cultural event. The German language somehow started with Martin Luther — the common language, Hochdeutsch, high German. Before that, there were only dialects. But Luther, yes, the Book of Job for consolation. Or the Psalms sometimes. I have it with me. I love to read it. […]

There’s a long discussion of “a relatively unknown masterpiece published in 1967 called The Peregrine, by an obscure British writer named J. A. Baker,” which they both love and which is apparently factually challenged:
[Read more…]

What Is Fluency?

Eva Sandoval, an Italian-American writer based in Italy, writes for BBC Future about the vexed question of linguistic fluency; she starts with Pete Buttigieg’s “rumoured proficiency in seven languages” and continues:

This is not to deride Mayor Buttigieg. His perceived fluency interests me because I’m a former language teacher – having taught English for 11 years in Japan and Italy – and I am also a Cambridge English exam speaking examiner; a role which requires me to dissect variables in candidates’ second language production such as pronunciation, discourse management, and grammatical range. Buttigieg is clearly fascinated by languages, willing to learn, and is brave enough to practice with native speakers on television – qualities that would have made him the star of my classroom. But – like so many of my ex-students who expected to go from “beginner” to “native” proficiency in two months – Buttigieg may have underestimated what it means to “speak” a language.

I can relate all too well to overestimating one’s own abilities. A “heritage speaker” of Italian, I’d been living in Italy for two years when I overheard a receptionist refer me to me as “that foreigner who doesn’t speak Italian”. I was confused, then gutted. That one casual sentence launched a journey that resulted in my being forced to acknowledge that while I had grown up speaking Italian at home and was fluent, I was not by any means proficient.

What does the word “fluent” actually mean? In lay circles, this term has come to equal “native-level proficient”, with no grey area between the bumbling beginner and the mellifluous master. […] But Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English – a popular chain of English schools in Italy – says that fluency actually refers to how “smoothly” and “efficiently” a second language (L2) speaker can speak on “a range of topics in real time”. While fluency may denote a degree of proficiency, it does not automatically imply accuracy – the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences – nor does it imply grammatical range. […]

Luckily, scales for measuring spoken fluency and overall proficiency exist. “Fluency is an abstract concept, so we assign observable variables,” explains Daniel Morgan. Two of the most reliable factors are “speech rate” and “utterance length”. Speech rate can be defined as how much (effective) language you’re producing over time, for example how many syllables per minute. Utterance length is, as an average, how much you can produce between disfluencies (e.g. a pause or hesitation). You could look at accuracy as being subsumed into fluency, in terms of grammatical accuracy, lexical choice, pronunciation, and precision.”

There’s much more detail at the link; it’s an interesting piece. (We had a good discussion on learning languages back in 2003, by the way.) Thanks, Bathrobe!