Until recently, I did not know there was a word seringa; now I find there are two of them, both, confusingly, referring to plants. OED:

seringa, n.1

Etymology: < French seringa (1600)< post-classical Latin syringa syringa n.

Any of various white- or cream-flowered shrubs of the genus Philadelphus (family Hydrangeaceae); esp. P. coronarius, native to southern Europe and south-west Asia and cultivated in numerous ornamental varieties and hybrids; also called mock orange. Cf. syringa n.

1740 Countess of Hartford in Countess of Hartford & Countess of Pomfret Corr. (1805) I. 221 Arbours interwoven with lilacs, woodbines, seringas, and laurels.
2003 W. Taylor et al. Waterberg iv. 87 At sunset the beautifully conformed shapes of seringas make perfect silhouettes.

seringa, n.2

Etymology: Probably < Brazilian Portuguese seringa India rubber (1774 or earlier; the Portuguese word is apparently not attested denoting the rubber plant), apparently an extended use of Portuguese seringa syringe n., apparently so called because syringes were frequently made from natural rubber.
Compare slightly later seringue n.

Any of several South American trees of the genus Hevea (family Euphorbiaceae) which yield latex from which natural rubber is made; esp. the para rubber tree, H. brasiliensis, of the Amazon basin. Also: this rubber itself. Frequently attributive, esp. in seringa rubber, seringa tree.

1847 W. H. Edwards Voy. River Amazon x. 116 Here were numbers of seringa trees, and we passed many habitations of the gum collectors.
2005 D. S. Hammond in D. S. Hammond Trop. Forests Guiana Shield viii. 422/2 By 1920, more than 60,0000 [sic] people were engaged in the extraction of timber, gold, bauxite, diamonds, balata, seringa rubber and other minor forest products.

Then there’s syringa, mentioned in the first entry and synonymous with it, and seringue, mentioned in the second entry and synonymous with it. Not to mention syringe — but at least that’s not a plant.


Frequent commenter Jongseong Park wrote asking about a comment that never showed up in the thread (I had to rescue it from the spam bin; I encourage everyone suffering from disappearing-comment syndrome to write me — I can usually restore them) and added:

By the way, after seeing the news about the Congolese musician Aurlus Mabélé who passed away recently, I’ve been wondering about the name Aurlus. The name seems to be used across francophone West Africa, including Ivory Coast, Benin, and Cameroon, but doesn’t look like it’s from any local language. In French-language videos, it is pronounced [ɔʁlys] as you would expect it to be pronounced based on the spelling. Aurlus Mabélé’s real name was Aurélien Miatsonama or Miatshonama, and on Facebook there is a certain “Aurelien Tchouab” from Cameroon who also goes by the name Aurlus, so maybe Aurlus is being used as a nickname for Aurélien in these cases. But I can’t figure out where that name could have come from and why it is only apparently used in francophone West Africa. Perhaps your readership can help?

Mabélé by the way comes from the Lingala word for ‘earth’, mabele.

(I hadn’t been familiar with Mabélé’s music, but it’s delightful.) So: anybody know about this intriguing name?

The Crust of Custom.

I have written about Herder a number of times, as in this 2009 post where I said he and I “have much more in common than I had thought”; Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti has posted a couple of Isaiah Berlin passages about him (from Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas) that poke at one of the most sensitive joints in my sloppily patched-together worldview, the tension between love of particularity and hatred of nationalism:

To belong to a given community, to be connected with its members by indissoluble and impalpable ties of common language, historical memory, habit, tradition and feeling, is a basic human need no less natural than that for food or drink or security or procreation. One nation can understand and sympathise with the institutions of another only because it knows how much its own mean to itself. Cosmopolitanism is the shedding of all that makes one most human, most oneself.


The philosophes proposed to rationalise communication by inventing a universal language free from the irrational survivals, the idiosyncratic twists and turns, the capricious peculiarities of existing tongues; if they were to succeed, this would be disastrous, for it is precisely the individual historical development of a language that belongs to a people that absorbs, enshrines and encapsulates a vast wealth of half-conscious, half-remembered collective experience. What men call superstition and prejudice are but the crust of custom which by sheer survival has shown itself proof against the ravages and vicissitudes of its long life; to lose it is to lose the shield that protects men’s national existence, their spirit, the habits, memories, faith that have made them what they are.

I agree with the praise for “impalpable ties of common language, historical memory, habit, tradition and feeling,” but he (that is, Berlin’s summarized Herder) makes what seems to me a basic logical error (or, less charitably, a nasty prosecutorial trick) when he follows that with “Cosmopolitanism is the shedding of all that makes one most human, most oneself.” To me, cosmopolitanism is not a rejection of particularity but that very understanding and sympathizing with others who do not share one’s particulars which he seems to agree is important. To be cosmopolitan is not to be a citizen of nowhere with no particular language or tradition (how would that even be possible?) but to be sufficiently aware of the languages and traditions of others to realize that one’s own are not God-given and ideal but merely the ones we happen to have grown up with and therefore are comfortable with, just as our family is not actually better than other people’s, it just seems that way because it is ours (assuming, of course, we have a family we love and are comfortable with, which I realize is often not the case). We can at one and the same time love and revere the customs and people we have grown up with and respect, even love, other, very different, people and their customs; indeed (and here comes the tedious moral, sorry about that) we must do so if we are to avoid endless and ever more destructive wars. I sometimes argue with people who insist that nationalism (or “patriotism,” as they often prefer to call it) is a Good Thing for reasons that probably resemble Herder’s, but they can never explain to me how we can indulge ourselves in it while avoiding wars. (Of course, before WWI people frequently thought war was a Good Thing because it revitalized our virility and restored our precious bodily fluids and life essence, but that has mostly fallen out of fashion in respectable discourse.) And the idea that a universal language would solve our problems is so silly I don’t understand how intelligent people have ever entertained it. Human thought is very muddled.

The Veronese Riddle.

From Giulio Lepschy, “History of the Italian Language,” in Gaetana Marrone, Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies, Vol. 1 (New York: Routledge, 2007):

Frequently collections of Early Italian texts begin with documents for which it is difficult to say if they are in Latin or in Italian, such as the Indovinello veronese (Veronese Riddle), penned at the beginning of the ninth century (or possibly earlier) on a page of a prayer book prepared in the seventh or eighth century and now preserved in the Chapter Library at Verona. The text says: “se pareba boves alba pratalia araba & albo versorio teneba & negro semen seminaba” (He was driving oxen, ploughing white meadows and holding a white plough and sowing black seed. This is one of the many possible interpretations).

The riddle is apparently about oxen and ploughing and sowing, and the solution is the quill used for writing, leaving ink traces on the page. Linguistically, certain features are clearly Latin (b instead of v in the imperfect endings of pareba, araba, teneba, seminaba; the consonant endings in boves and semen; the voiceless t instead of d in pratalia). Others are, equally clearly, vernacular (the dropping of the consonantal endings in the -ba instead of –bat suffixes; the endings in –o instead of –um in albo, versorio, negro; the pronoun se instead of sibi).

Via Laudator Temporis Acti. If you want to read more of Lepschy’s article, here’s the page at Google Books.

Japanese Dialects.

Victor Mair at the Log posts about Kobayashi Takashi’s “Linguistic Treasures: The Value of Dialects“; it begins:

Japan has a great number of dialects. One scholar divides the archipelago into 24 areas with distinct regional linguistic forms. Yet, this is a very broad classification, and if one pays attention to variations in grammar and specific words, it is no exaggeration to say that there is a dialect for every city, town, village, and hamlet.

These were once looked down on for their association with uncultured, provincial speakers. In recent years, however, dialects have been increasingly appreciated for the pleasure they can bring to verbal interaction and their ability to draw people from a particular area closer together. This has led increasingly to their use in the names of local products, and their incorporation into plays and TV dramas.

Notably, the 2013 NHK morning drama Ama-chan (Little Diver) brought the expression of surprise jejeje to national attention, which was one element in its success. The phrase je comes from just one part of Kuji in Iwate Prefecture, although ja is in use over a much wider area centered on Iwate. Other unique ways to voice one’s amazement that are found in dialects but not standard Japanese include waiha, sāsa, ūu, and chopped off forms of da and ba. The wide range seen even in this category of utterance demonstrates how rich in dialects the country is.

Where did these differences originally arise? The main source of dialect forms comes through transmission of language from the center to the regions. New words in former capitals like Nara and Kyoto gradually spread through neighboring areas to the wider nation. These successive waves created regional linguistic differences, or dialects.

This means that many dialect words derive from standard terms in more ancient forms of Japanese. For example, the word menkoi in Tōhoku, equivalent to kawaii (cute, adorable), comes from megushi, a word seen in the Man’yōshū poetry collection from the Nara period (710–94). Churasan, an Okinawan word for “beautiful,” is related to kiyora nari, seen in works from the Heian period (794–1185) like The Tale of Genji.

Kobayashi goes on to discuss their role in people’s lives (“They build mutual understanding that goes beyond the use of language as a communication tool, and are essential to creating community ties”) and threatened dialects (“The Center for the Study of Dialectology is working to record conversations showing how dialect is used in everyday life”). Mair ends by mentioning variants of spoken language in China (“following Chinese custom I refer to them as fāngyán 方言”); I’ll end by passing along this beautiful chart of languages and dialects in late tsarist Russia (the Indo-European, Semitic, and Ural-Altaic families have languages, the rest merely нарѣчія ‘dialects’).

Tolstoy and the Grippe.

Ilya Vinitsky has written an article, Война и мор [War and Pestilence], which has been translated by Emily Wang for the Jordan Russian Center. It’s a very interesting analysis of the opening scene of War and Peace focusing on Anna Pavlova Scherer, who, the narrator tells us, “had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the elite.” I had never given much thought to this, but Vinitsky explains the significance:

The Tolstoy scholar Evelina Zaidenshnur noted long ago that the writer borrowed the motif of the “fashionable” cough from an ironic note in Parisian Fashions published in The Herald of Europe in 1804. (That year’s copy of the journal may be found in Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana library). […] In Zaidenshnur’s opinion, Tolstoy allowed himself to transfer this very same Parisian fashion to Russia in the summer of 1805. Another commentator notes that the everyday historical context of Anna Scherer’s “grippe” was the epidemic that raged in Europe from 1799 to 1805. […]

It must be said that, in the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, this disease went by many different names in different countries and even different provinces: influenza (an Italian word that gained prominence during the epidemics of 1729 and 1732), epidemic catarrh, the catarrh fever, miasmic catarrh, bilious catarrh, the spring epidemic, epidemic fever. As the nineteenth century German physician Edward Martini observed, in Italy this disease was called mazuchi, in Spain cocculucas, in France coqu[e]luche (to relieve headaches, the head was often covered with a hood [in French, “cagoule”]), in Germany Ziep [presumably from the verb “ziepen,” to cause a stinging pain], Schafhusten, Schafkranheit, spanischer Pips. They also called it the northern, Chinese, or Siberian fever, the dog’s disease, the pauper’s disease, and the vagrant’s disease.

But the most common term was a word that had already come into usage in the 1740s, la grippe, which nineteenth-century etymologists linked to both French and German verbs for “to seize,” as well as the Russian verb “хрипеть [to be hoarse]” (in Germany they sometimes called this kind of illness “the Russian disease,” russische Krankheit), as well as with the French name for the insect (la grippe) that superstitious people blamed for the spread of the disease.

According to Trésor de la langue française, the word “grippe” initially meant “caprice, whim.” […]

Historians of Russian literary language confirm that this word indeed seemed new in Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first known usage is from 1799, in the youthful diary of the scholar A. Kh. Vostokov; in the fall and winter of 1799, the epidemic, which had originated in Siberia, gripped Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kronstadt and badly infected Emperor Paul I. Later on, the virus progressed to Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw. It’s worth noting that, for a long time, the Russian version of the word took a feminine ending (for example, “гриппа доканала его [the grippa finished him off]), which also testifies to its French origins. […]

In the era of the Bonaparte Consulate, French culture gave la grippe another popular name, now associated with fashion: “the muslin disease.” It was thought that its first victims were French women of fashion who had been wearing overly revealing dresses made from this light material. […]

There’s a great deal more, including Boris Gasparov’s suggestion that Tolstoy’s comparison of the conversations of Scherer’s salon visitors to the endlessly repeated humming of spinning wheels reveals “the hidden presence of the Fates in Anna Pavlovna’s salon in itself symbolizes the novel’s plot.” Anyone interested in War and Peace should find Vinitsky’s piece eye-opening.


I’ve been reading about ancient Peru and the “Nasca Lines” (yes, that Wikipedia article uses the spelling Nazca, but as far as I can tell the Peruvians use Nasca, and that’s good enough for me), and that inevitably involved mention of the Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe who discovered them in 1927, and that stopped me dead in my tracks. What kind of name (I wondered) was Xesspe, and (more importantly) how was it pronounced? SES-pe? KHES-pe? SHES-pe? Naturally I did a video search, but I was frustrated repeatedly by clips that mentioned him in the description but turned out to have nothing but music on the soundtrack (I got very sick very quickly of the sound of panpipes — it seems to be impossible to show images of Peru without assaulting you with them). The culmination was finding a five-minute video all about him (paydirt, I naively thought) which turns out to be a cartoon with all the information given in writing and nothing but music on the soundtrack (reader, I cursed loudly). So I turn to the assembled multitudes: does anyone happen to know how the name is properly pronounced, or at least pronounced by Peruvians?

58 and other Confusing Numbers.

This nine-minute video features linguist Tom Scott on numbers and linguistics; Lars Mathiesen, who sent it to me, says it has “a good explanation of otteoghalvtreds. Also septemvigesimal gestural numbers.” Fun pull-quote: “Hindi is so irregular that for the numbers from 1 to 100 you essentially have a hundred different words.” Scott says “Danish is astonishing” and adduces the number Lars mentions, which represents 58 and where the halvtreds part represents “half thrice times twenty” = 3 – 1/2 x 20 = 50. He ends with a peroration that warmed my heart, about how sf writers — who he had assumed would blow his mind with their wild and crazy alien number systems — are tame compared to the number systems of, say, the South Pacific. And it’s worth having the captions on so you can enjoy things like “dot is the freebie action” = “that is the abbreviation.” Thanks, Lars! (Oh, and if you look at the frame of the video and think “That’s almost ten minutes, why does he call it a nine-minute video?”: the final minute is an ad for a hosting service, which you should feel free to skip. There is no bonus Easter egg at the end.)

The Spread of the Persian Onion.

Victor Mair has a Log post called “Onion” in Persian, Turkic, Mongolian, Manchu, Dungan (northwest Mandarin), and Indic whose title is admirably descriptive. He starts with “this interesting Uyghur word for “onion” that derives from Persian” and quotes Brian Spooner as follows:

It’s the normal Persian word for onion, which is a key ingredient in pretty much every Persian dinner dish, and (as I wrote in The Persianate Millennium) as Persian culture spread through Central Asia with the Persian language starting in the 9th century all the way to northern China, I wouldn’t be surprised to find piyaz in any Turkic language. I don’t remember whether the Ottomans bequeathed it to modern Turkish.

As Mehmet Olmez says, “In modern Turkish, the word piyaz is used for a special food prepared with onion, boiled eggs, and beans.” There is a list of words borrowed from the Persian at the Wiktionary page, and Mair adds “The same Persian word also worked its way into Sinitic, hence Dungan (Northwest Mandarin, written in Cyrillic): пиязы (pii͡azɨ, I-I-II)”

I love that kind of spread of culture words, but what I want to know is, where did the Persian word come from? Thomas Benfey says:

I will just add that I couldn’t find Middle Persian pyʾc/piyāz anywhere, whether in MacKenzie’s Zoroastrian Middle Persian dictionary, Skjærvø’s digitized ZMP corpus, or Durkin-Meisterernst’s dictionary of Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian. There aren’t all that many culinary discussions that survive in any of these corpora, so it could well be from Middle Persian but simply not attested. But unless the author of that Wiktionary entry is aware of something I’m not, the MP pyʾc/piyāz in the piyāz entry there should really come with an asterisk. That said, there are several cases of words from eastern Middle Iranian languages such as Sogdian and Bactrian making their way into the core vocabulary of New Persian. This is not too relevant to the etymology of Persian piyāz because of the final consonant, but for what it’s worth I did find a Sogdian pyʾk (piyāk) meaning “onion” in Gharib’s dictionary.

I don’t know, that Sogdian word seems suspiciously close… (Too bad MMcM never got around to onions in the late lamented Polyglot Vegetarian, though he did discuss garlic. For onions et alia allia previously at LH, see this post.)

Bryusov’s Fiery Angel.

I’ve had a beat-up copy of the famous symbolist novel Огненный ангел (The Fiery Angel) for a couple of decades now — it’s one of the many books I grabbed when the late lamented Donnell Branch was selling off its stock as fast as it could deaccession it — and it seemed the obvious follow-up to Merezhkovsky’s Leonardo, so I finally read it. As I read, I kept changing my mind about it.

Going in, I knew two things: that it was about philosophico-mystical goings-on in 16th-century Germany, and that it was a roman à clef about a love triangle (notorious at the time) between Bryusov, Andrei Bely, and the “Symbolist groupie” (as Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal called her) Nina Petrovskaya. The first interested me not at all, but I had read Khodasevich’s “brilliant book of memoirs,” Некрополь (Necropolis), with its heartfelt account of the affair — catastrophic for poor Nina (a friend of his for many years) — and I was curious to know how Bryusov treated it. And of course it took place immediately after Leonardo, and it also involved witches.

It starts with a fake publisher’s preface of the sort commonly found in the works of playful authors, but this one is neither funny (as in Gogol) nor artistically significant (as in Nabokov) — it merely drops a bunch of names like Ulrich Zasius and Jean Bodin, which seems superfluous given that the novel itself is crammed full of them. Then we get a preface by the purported author of the “truthful tale,” Ruprecht, who drops a bunch more such names (the Doctrinale of Alexander of Villedieu, Lambertus de Monte’s Copulata [commentary] on Peter of Spain); all of this, it has to be said, is exceedingly dry and does not inspire eagerness in the reader who is not already hungry for such matter. But then we’re into the story itself: Ruprecht, recently returned from a successful spell as a mercenary for the Hapsburgs in New Spain, is returning to his childhood home in Losheim to show his parents that their runaway son amounted to something after all when he runs into Renata, the heroine, in a ramshackle country inn on the road to Neuss. It’s a 16th-century meet-cute: he’s trying to get some sleep when he hears what sounds like a woman being assaulted in the next room; full of knightly ardor, he grabs his sword and runs in, only to find a young woman disheveled but alone. It turns out she’s been fighting off demons, and she tells him a tangled tale of how she had loved the “fiery angel” Madiel since she was a child, how when she grew up and started having romantic feelings he had appeared to her as a gorgeous young man, Count Heinrich von Otterheim, with whom she ran away and lived in his castle on the Danube, and how he had suddenly rejected her and expelled her to wander penniless and undefended. This is shown to be a pack of lies the very next morning, when the landlady tells him, among other things, that the count actually lives not far south on the Rhine, but Ruprecht is smitten and swears eternal fealty, accompanying Renata to Cologne and fulfilling her every desire.

One of her desires is that he join her pact with the devil, for which purpose he smears himself with ointment and flies off to a witches’ sabbath, just as in Merezhkovsky; he wakes up in his room with no sign that he actually went anywhere, so he’s not sure what to believe. He also plunges into magical studies, buying book after book from a specialist in the field and finally meeting the great legal scholar and occultist Cornelius Agrippa. All of this is fairly tedious unless you’re as absorbed in such things as Bryusov was. But the description of Ruprecht’s tormented love for Renata, who alternately clings to him and rejects him, constantly rubbing her passionate love for Count Heinrich in his face (she makes him promise not only to help her get him back but to love him as much as she does), and eventually gives herself to him physically before once more violently rejecting him and running away, is very well done; anyone who has ever been in the clutches of such a passion will recognize the symptoms with a pang.

Once she leaves him for good, he decides he can’t stay in Cologne. As he’s taking his farewell tour of the city (where he’d attended the university a decade back), he is accosted by two men who ask him to show them around, since they’re new in town; these turn out to be Faust and Mephistopheles, which made me groan and wonder if we were going to be subjected to every famous person in the Germany of that time. The picture Bryusov draws of the two is amusing and enjoyable, but it’s basically a pointless diversion, like Merezhkovsky dragging in everyone from Raphael to the pope in his own heavily researched magnum opus. But just as I was deciding the book had gone to hell, there’s a brilliantly managed transition that brings Ruprecht face to face with Renata again — she has joined the nuns at a convent, where she is causing so much dissension (some say she’s a saint, others that she’s in league with the devil) that the Inquisition is called in. This, needless to say, upsets Ruprecht, who has to be restrained from suicidally intervening by a friendly nobleman who helps him concoct a deeply implausible rescue plot straight out of a boy’s-own adventure novel; he actually succeeds in getting into the dungeon where she’s being held, but she refuses to be rescued, calling him names and saying she wants to be cleansed in fire. When he tries to carry her out by force, she fights back, then has what he recognizes as a faint of death (!); she opens her eyes and has just enough strength to say “Dear Ruprecht, I’m so glad you’re with me” before expiring. What a load of hooey! Did people take it seriously in 1907?

At any rate, I’m glad I read it, and I guess the obvious follow-up is Sologub’s Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon), which came out around the same time and also involves the demonic. But I’ll take a breather before diving back in to those murky waters.