Emanuel Ax came up in conversation, and my wife asked me about his family name. Googling in English produced no results, but since he was born in (what’s now) Ukraine I thought of googling in Russian, and this page gave me the answer: it’s a variant of Yiddish oks ‘ox,’ and a translation of the Jewish rabbinical surname Shor (Schor, Schorr), the Hebrew word (שור‎) for bull or ox. If anyone with more patience wants to try to get this information onto Wikipedia, be my guest!

Enchanting Chaos.

Alexander Grin is a writer like no other; his most famous work is Алые паруса (Scarlet Sails), but he wrote scads of wonderful stories, and Geoff Cebula has translated a little chiller, Волшебное безобразие, as Enchanting Chaos. It begins:

This city used to be packed with people, each good for at least one extraordinarily strange story, if not several. Some of these people died long ago, yet when I pass through the cemetery my nose can tell the precise graves in which their former bodies rest after living through a trying stretch of bizarre experiences. I recall their names, how they looked, the way they used to cough or extract their cigarettes.

To this day, an old courier stands at the corner of Miscue-Miscreance and Herbivory, having destroyed his youth and the beautiful home life he shared with his beloved wife by taking it upon himself one day to procure a caged bird without pay. This task was given to him by a beautiful young woman dressed elegantly and aromatically. Though the courier was himself a heartbreaker, married only recently to a sweet but restless blonde, this young woman was of exceptional beauty. He felt stricken in the heart. This fiery-eyed beauty didn’t happen to have any money on hand. “Listen here,” said the courier. “I’m just an ordinary guy, miss, but allow me do you this service for free.”

“Thank you,” she answered simply, with a smile—and her smile imbued the courier’s flustered soul with an incendiary gleam of joyful excitement.

I won’t tell you how it ends. I will say that while I admire “at the corner of Miscue-Miscreance and Herbivory” for “На углу Кикса Кисляйства и Травоедения,” I don’t like the translation of the title: безобразие can mean ‘ugliness’ or ‘outrage, scandal, disgrace,’ but ‘chaos’ doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure how to improve it, though; maybe “Ugly Enchantment”?

New French Lingo: du Coup.

Lucy Ferriss at Lingua Franca writes about a phenomenon of whose existence I had no suspicion:

Each time I stay in France for an extended period, I become aware of a new expression that’s infiltrated the language. Just as the occasional sojourner in America might be surprised to discover woke or the ubiquity of like, I’ve found myself suddenly hearing a phrase I thought I understood, used with almost alarming frequency in contexts that don’t quite add up.

This time, the phrase du coup, which technically means “at a blow” or “suddenly,” most familiar to French language learners from the expression tout d’un coup, now echoes from sidewalk cafés, métro trains, meeting rooms, and hallways.

On ne sort pas ce soir. On fait quoi du coup?
We’re not going out tonight. So then what do we do? […]

It was a relief to discover I wasn’t alone in suspecting this once-meaningful phrase had become a discourse marker. The French, so often devoted to prescriptivism (I’m looking at you, l’Académie Française), have had a field day recently with the proliferation of du coup. Writing in Le Figaro, Quentin Périnel, the “bureaulogue,” suspects that his readers screamed at the sight of a headline proposing to examine du coup […]

In 2014, du coup had already become so ubiquitous that the Académie Française did indeed weigh in, writing:

[…] We must not, then, use “du coup,” as we often hear, in place of “therefore” or “consequently.” We must also avoid making “du coup” a simple adverb of speech without particular meaning.

Good luck with that. Even though, as the French writer Claudine Chollet has observed, the expression poisons intellectual discourse because it “has the appearance of a logical expression but hides any real argument [as to cause and effect] in order to win approval from others,” du coup is not going away.

Quite right, and why should it? Tempora mutantur, du coup nos et mutamur in illis.

The Benefits of Knowing Languages.

Another passage from Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (see this post):

People often talked about languages; seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid. Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s life or the lives of other people.

In earlier years, when merchants were traveling, they carried all their cash in money belts slung around their shoulders. They wore them on the Danube steamers too, and that was dangerous. Once, when my mother’s grandfather got on deck and pretended to sleep, he overheard two men discussing a murder plan in Greek. As soon as the steamer approached the next town, they wanted to mug and kill a merchant in his stateroom, steal his heavy money belt, throw the body into the Danube through a porthole, and then, when the steamer docked, leave the ship immediately. My great-grandfather went to the captain and told him what he had heard in Greek. The merchant was warned, a member of the crew concealed himself in the stateroom, others were stationed outside, and when the two cutthroats went to carry out their plan, they were seized, clapped into chains, and handed over to the police in the very harbor where they had intended to make off with their booty. This happy end came from understanding Greek, and there were many other edifying language stories.

The Birth of Smarmy.

Ben Yagoda has a Lingua Franca piece on the history of that useful word smarmy; he begins with definition (OED: “Ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous”) and continues with the all-important matter of dating. He and the great Jonathon Green have a back-and-forth about it, with Green finding an antedate from a 1916 edition of the Barrier Miner (New South Wales): “I wonder what his game is […] He doesn’t look the sort she could make a friend of; too smarmy for my taste.” Then Yagoda hits the jackpot:

I kept looking and eventually came upon an even earlier use of modern smarmy. As I said up top, it was a joke. A London journal called The Academy ran “Literary Competitions” in each issue, much as New York magazine and The Washington Post have done in later years. Here are the rules for No. 14 [“the best list of four original words, with definitions attached”]. Using Google Books, I found an article about the results of the competition, including this list of some of the best responses [one of which is “Smarmy: Saying treacly things which do not sound genuine”].

After I sent that out over Twitter, the language maven Ben Zimmer located the original article from the January 14, 1899, issue of The Academy announcing the winner of the competition. It revealed that one B.R.L., of Brighton, had come up with the idea that a word for “saying treacly things which do not sound genuine” should be smarmy.

The Internet is full of articles about notable neologisms, such as witticism, coined by John Dryden, and serendipity, invented by Horace Walpole. But none of them includes smarmy, and the very fact that B.R.L.’s humorous definition in a literary contest should eventually have become widely adopted — even as screel, scrungle, and gluxy disappeared — I find amazing.

So do I; it’s a pity that we don’t know B.R.L.’s full name — he or she deserves credit for their brilliant creation.

God’s Name.

I imagine most of us know the basic facts about the Hebrew name of God, conventionally rendered YHWH, but Elon Gilad has a useful roundup at Haaretz:

According to the Mishnah (redacted in 200 C.E. but containing ancient traditions going back hundreds of years), the sacred name was only to be pronounced in the Temple in Jerusalem, and only in very specific occasions – by the High Priest on Yom Kippur and when the priests sanctified the crowds with the Priestly Blessing.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. by Rome, to punish the Jews for their latest rebellion, there was no longer any context in which the uttering of God’s name was permissible. Since then, to this day, when the name YHWH arises during prayer or recitation outside the Temple, Jews read it aloud as ‘adonai, meaning “my lord.” Thus the true pronunciation was eventually lost.

Still, linguists and biblical scholars have come up with a likely reconstruction based on ancient transcriptions, information gleaned from theophoric names, comparative material, and Hebrew grammar. The details of these analyses are too technical and frankly boring to even summarize here, but the upshot is that in all likelihood, in biblical times, the name was pronounced yah-weh, with soft a and soft (and slightly elongated) e.

(What on earth are “soft a” and “soft e”?) As for the meaning:
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Weinberger and Plain Language.

I just reread (because I’m a couple years behind in my NYRB reading) the 2016 Perry Link review of two books by Eliot Weinberger; I actually posted about it at the time, but then I focused on the translation issues, and the discussion in the comment thread followed suit (until it got onto the spacing of dots in Word). This time I was struck by the ending, which I so thoroughly agree with that I’m going to post it separately:

In his analytic observations, Weinberger likes to cut to a core in plain language. He writes:

Confucianism taught that when the government is bad, one should head for the hills. (Taoism taught that, regardless of government, one should head for the hills.)

Professors might warn graduate students against such writing as too casual or “reductive,” but I disagree. The points Weinberger makes here are essentially correct and are much clearer than they would be if dressed up in academic jargon. In addition to its clarity, plain language has the virtue of allowing ideas from ancient times and distant places to extend into our present, just as shared humanity itself extends. The alternative of studying ancient ideas as if they are pickled specimens in a jar cannot do that. Weinberger sees lines of Wang Wei’s poems as “both universal and immediate,” and he sees much else in human cultures in that same spirit, which I think is wonderful.

Really, it would be worth posting just for the quote about Confucianism and Taoism. (By the way, I eventually read The Ghosts of Birds and posted about it several times: 1, 2, 3.)

Etymological Dictionaries for Anatolian Languages.

Remember my post about Matthew Scarborough’s Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries: A Guide for the Perplexed? It ended with “I can’t wait for the promised coverage of handbooks for individual languages/branches!” That promised coverage has begun with Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries for the Perplexed: Anatolian Languages, and it’s just as wonderful as I expected. It’s mostly Hittite, of course, but I didn’t realize there was so much material:

The two main comprehensive dictionary projects are the Chicago Hittite Dictionary (CHD) based at and published by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and the second edition of Johannes Friedrich’s Hethitisches Wörterbuch (HW²) which is currently based at Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität München and funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (regarding the first edition, see further below). […] Awhile back the Oriental Institute recently made all of their publications freely downloadable from their website, including much (if not all?) of their back-catalogue, so all of the CHD volumes are freely available to download from their website. The HW² is only published in print form through Winter Verlag, so it is somewhat more difficult to access unless you have access to a good research library or are the sort of person who has/is willing to shell out hundreds of euros it costs to buy the fascicles outright from Winter Verlag.

At present, the CHD and HW² still do not cover the latter half of Š, and T, U, U̯, and Z. For these letters, there are two shorter single-volume dictionaries that are occasionally useful. […] Johannes Friedrich’s Kurzgefaßtes Hethitisches Wörterbuch [Concise Hittite Dictionary] originally published between 1953–1956 is the only really complete single-volume dictionary. There are three further Ergänzungshefte [supplementary volumes] that were later published and bound together with it in the 1991 Winter Verlag reprint. More recent is Johann Tischler’s Hethitisches Handwörterbuch [Concise Hittite Dictionary] which is also a useful, more recent shorter dictionary, but it lacks lists of the different inflected forms in cuneiform transliteration, for which Friedrich (1966) is still more useful.

But the really fun stuff is the etymological dictionaries, of which there are three, count ’em, three, “either recently completed, or still in the works”:

These are Johann Tischler’s Hethitisches Etymologisches Glossar (Innsbruck, 1977–2016), Jaan Puhvel’s Hittite Etymological Dictionary (Berlin & New York, 1984–), and Alwin Kloekhorst’s Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon. All three of these works have their own particular approaches to the Hittite lexicon in terms of their breadth of coverage of the lexicon, their interpretation of the philological data, and their systems of Indo-European reconstruction.

There is detailed discussion of each, with page scans, including the entry ḫāran- ‘eagle’ so you can directly compare them. He ends with a section on Anatolian languages other than Hittite; it all makes me want to relearn cuneiform and have a go at these long-forgotten languages.


I was translating for my wife Kozma Prutkov’s wonderful little fable Кондуктор и тарантул [The conductor and the tarantula] — for the purposes of the poem, тарантул [tarantul] has final stress as opposed to its usual penultimate stress — and when I got to the moral, beginning “Читатель! разочти вперёд свои депансы,/ Чтоб даром не дерзать садиться в дилижансы” ‘Reader! calculate your expenses in advance,/ So that you don’t dare to sit in diligences without paying [like the tarantula],’ she asked me “Why is a diligence called that?” I went off to investigate, and told her that it was from French, short for carosse de diligence ‘coach of speed,’ but I didn’t know how the ‘speed’ sense developed from Latin dīligentia ‘care, attentiveness’ (itself from dīligō ‘esteem, love’). Anybody know? (Incidentally, apparently there used to be a short form dilly which survived in English dialects for “various kinds of carts, trucks, etc., used in agricultural and industrial operations.”)

Dostoevsky’s Devils.

I spent most of the last month reading Dostoevsky’s Бесы, better known in English as The Possessed but more literally translated as The Devils (the title references both a Pushkin poem and Luke 8:32-36); it’s been several days since I finished it, but I haven’t been able to put together a coherent post, mainly because I haven’t been able to figure out quite what I think of it. So here’s a long, rambling post about a long, rambling novel. You have been warned.

Critical discussion tends to focus on the neat way in which all the lines of influence that cause the various catastrophic events can be traced back to Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the self-important old Westernizer with whom the book opens: he is the neglectful father of Pyotr Stepanovich, the leader of the terrorist group; he is the tutor and spiritual father of Nikolai Stavrogin, the younger Verkhovensky’s idol; and he is the landowning aristocrat who casually sent his serf Fedka into military service, setting him on a track that ended with his escaping from Siberia and returning as a thief and murderer who plays a crucial role in the plot. There are all sorts of symmetries, religious allusions, political implications, and so on that can be laid out and admired ex post facto.

My problem is that none of this is apparent when you’re actually reading the book. It’s exactly the reverse of The Idiot (LH post): there the first part “carries the reader along seamlessly from the Prince’s meeting with Rogozhin on the train to the party where Nastasya Filippovna hurls the money into the fire,” and it’s only with the continuation that it starts bogging down in confusion; here it’s the first part that is (or was for me) a slog — a long section about the past and present relations of Stepan Trofimovich and his patroness Varvara Petrovna (Stavrogin’s mother), two of the most irritating characters in world literature, with occasional cryptic references to various younger people who will turn out to play important roles in the plot but who at this point are just names. You can’t tell Lyamshin from Lebyadkin, or Dasha from Marya. (As a matter of fact, there are two Maryas, Maria Timofeevna, the lame madwoman who turns out to be Stavrogin’s wife, and Marya Ignatievna, Shatov’s wife who shows up pregnant with Stavrogin’s child — the latter appears to be one character too many for most readers, since I never see a mention of her in criticism of the novel, and she is omitted from the otherwise comprehensive list of characters in the Russian Wikipedia article, even though she has an entire chapter to herself.) I kept thinking “Why am I supposed to care about this?”
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