Irritating Byssus.

Felicitas Maeder’s article “Irritating Byssus – Etymological Problems, Material facts, and the Impact of Mass Media” (pdf; from Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD 36 [2017]) begins by quoting the OED’s etymological entry for the term byssus:

< Latin byssus, < Greek βύσσος ‘a fine yellowish flax, and the linen made from it, but in later writers taken for cotton, also silk, which was supposed to be a kind of cotton’ (Liddell & Scott), < Hebrew būts, applied to ‘the finest and most precious stuffs, as worn by kings, priests, and persons of high rank or honour’ (Gesenius), translated in Bible of 1611 ‘fine linen’, < root *būts, Arabic bāḍ to be white, to surpass in whiteness. Originally therefore a fibre or fabric distinguished for its whiteness.

It then examines written and material evidence of byssos in antiquity (“All mummy bandages analysed until today are made of linen”), the term byssus in the Bible (“In the Old Testament, different Hebrew linen terms were translated with the single term byssus in the Latin vulgate”), and later developments; she sums up this part of the argument thus:

The conclusion is: In antiquity byssus was a fine textile of linen (or cotton, rarely silk). In the 16th century the filaments of bivalves like Pinna, blue mussel and others were given the name byssus, in analogy to the ancient byssus.

The fatal consequences for textile history are: From that moment on, textiles called byssus in antique texts were no longer associated only with linen (or cotton, rarely silk). Byssus became, in popular wisdom, for journalists and for some authors, sea-silk. With the simple logic: byssus is the name of the filaments of the Pinna nobilis of which was made sea-silk, byssus is found in the Bible and in profane antique literature, so byssus is, almost always and everywhere and at any time: sea-silk.

She goes on to talk about sea-silk in antiquity and in Italy, with extended quotes from the Enciclopedia italiana di science, lettere ed arti di Treccani, and ends with an extended section on “Invented tradition and the role of mass media,” concluding:

John Peter Wild stated once: “To discover the meaning of a specific textile term, a lexicon is a good place to start, but a bad place to end.” How true! Studying the terms byssus and sea-silk in lexicons and dictionaries is of nearly no help. They only render the researchers uncertain with all their inconsistencies and contradictions. As we have seen, even actual specialised dictionaries raise more questions than answering them. […]

These few examples – from the thesis of a Roman university to historical and textile studies of antique and medieval times up to a modern specialised lexicon and biological reference book – show the consequences of the impact of mass media in present-day research, at least in the matter of byssus and sea-silk. The ‘power of naming’ – so it seems – lies more and more in fanciful websites, odd blogs, facebook accounts, and magic events around ‘secret and sacred old traditions’.

Interesting stuff; thanks, Trevor!


My wife and I enjoy reading the police report in the local paper, which frequently amuses us with tales like these:

An animal was removed from a chicken coop at a Pelham Road residence. The owner of the chickens was given advice on how to keep other animals from attacking the chickens.

A black bear wandering in and out of traffic on Shays Street was not located by police.

(We don’t live in a high-crime area, though there are occasionally worrying rashes of burglaries.) This morning, my wife asked me “What does asportation mean?” “Gotta be a typo,” I responded. (The paper’s typos are so frequent and so awful I’ve given up complaining about them, since they obviously don’t give a damn.) “But it occurs twice,” she said. I took a look. A story about two people “facing charges related to a shoplifting incident” ended thus:

The woman will be summoned to court on a a charges [sic!] of larceny over $250 and shoplifting by asportation, second offense, while the man will be summoned to court on charges of larceny over $250 and shoplifting by asportation, third offense [sic, no period]

This word asportation is not in M-W or AHD, but it’s in various law references, several of them collected here; West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, for instance, defines it as “The removal of items from one place to another, such as carrying things away illegally.” And it’s in the OnEtDic: “from Latin asportationem (nominative asportatio) ‘a carrying away,’ noun of action from past participle stem of asportare ‘to carry off,’ from abs– ‘away’ […] + portare ‘to carry.'” So there you have it. And remember, kids, crime doesn’t pay!


Dictionaria, according to its beta page, is “an open-access journal that publishes high-quality dictionaries of languages from around the world, especially languages that do not have a large number of speakers. The dictionaries are published not in the traditional linear form, but as electronic databases that can be easily searched, linked and exported.” One of its editors, Martin Haspelmath, writes about the virtues of such dictionaries in this Diversity Linguistics Comment post:

To look up a word in a linear dictionary, you typically need to browse to an alphabetic list of possible initial letters, and then browse to the right word, as in a paper dictionary (this is so in the Maa and Archi dictionaries, for example). Other dictionaries try to approximate the familiar Google search line and present users with a search box (e.g. the Yurok dictionary), but this creates the problem that one doesn’t know what to look for – many searches will lead nowhere. Dictionaria combines searching and browsing in an optimal way: Each page shows up to 100 entries (words), with one entry per line (e.g. in the Daakaka dictionary). Each column has a search field on top of it (as in other CLLD applications, such as APiCS), thus allowing searching and filtering by different criteria: not only by headword (as in many dictionaries), but also by part of speech, meaning description and semantic domain, and potentially more. In addition to searching, you can also sort by any field in ascending or descending order.

Many linguists like leafing through dictionaries in order to get a sense of what’s in them, and for a first rough impression, this may work. But have you ever tried to leaf through a dictionary to find out how much it says about adjectives or prepositions? In the Daakaka dictionary, select PREP in the part-of-speech column, and you’ll see all 15 prepositions of the language right away. Similarly, select “color” in the semantic-domain column, and you’ll see all six color terms in the dictionary. You can of course also select two columns at the same time, e.g. “verb” and “food”, to see all 41 food-related verbs of Daakaka. […]

Extensive dictionaries often include copious examples, like the German WDG dictionary above. But what if you want to search within examples? Linear dictionaries let you down, while this is easy in Dictionaria: There is a separate tab where the examples are given in tabular format. Thus, it is easy to search within the 1546 examples of the Teop marine life dictionary, e.g. to find all 36 examples containing ‘tail’ in the English translation. In the Daakaka dictionary, the examples are even glossed, so that it is easy to find the 87 illustrating sentences containing demonstratives, for example.

He is, of course, not an impartial observer, but it certainly does seem like a good concept, and the linked dictionary is fun to play with.


I ran into the word gout and decided to look it up, because although I’ve doubtless seen the etymology before, I couldn’t remember it (ah, the joys of the sexagenarian brain!). It’s interesting but not especially noteworthy; to quote the AHD:

[Middle English goute, from Old French, drop, gout, from Medieval Latin gutta, from Latin, drop (from the belief that gout was caused by drops of morbid humors).]

Now, I knew the Russian word was подагра [podagra], and podagra also exists in English (defined as ‘gout’), and for some reason I assumed that most languages would have equivalents of podagra (from Greek podagrā: pod– ‘foot’ + agrā ‘trap, seizing’), but when I checked the language sidebar at Wikipedia (always a good resource for such things) I found that while the East Slavic and Baltic languages have podagra, the Romance languages (unsurprisingly) have derivatives of Latin gutta (French goutte, Spanish gota, Italian gotta, Romanian gută), while the other Germanic languages have equivalents of German Gicht (“Herkunft unklar”): Dutch jicht, Swedish gikt, etc., and so do Croatian (giht), Serbian (гихт), and Finnish (kihti). Czech and Slovak have dna (in Old Czech ‘intestinal colic’), from Proto-Slavic *dъna, which is probably related to *dъno ‘bottom part of something’ (per Wiktionary). Hungarian has köszvény, whose etymology I don’t know. There is no Georgian equivalent listed, which I take to mean that the Georgian diet is so healthy they don’t suffer from the disease.

Grammatical Mistakes in Medieval Texts.

Bathrobe sent me this extremely interesting response from Will Scathlocke at Quora:

What kind of grammatical mistakes are most prevalent in medieval and later texts written in Latin or Greek by non-native speakers?

Do you by “mistake” mean a deviation from the sort of Latin which Caesar and Cicero wrote?

If so, then the most common sort in mediaeval Latin involves interference from the writer’s actual native language. For example, in classical Latin the preposition post always means “after, behind, in back of” and never “towards”. In the mediaeval Latin written by native speakers of German, the preposition post often enough does mean “towards” because the corresponding German preposition nach means both “after, behind” and “towards” (e.g. in the mediaeval Christmas carol “In dulci jubilo”, a Latin-German macaronic, it is trahe me post te, “draw me unto thee” or “zeuch mich hin nach dir”, where classical Latin would have used the preposition ad, “to, toward”.

Another common type of interference from people’s native languages involves the use of the infinitive to express purpose (in classical Latin a big no-no, but normal in most vernaculars in the post-classical period). Thus what in the creed comes out as venturus est iterum iudicare vivos et mortuos (“and He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”) would be the following in classical Latin: iterum veniet ut vivos et mortuos iudicet (with ut plus subjunctive; lit. “and He shall come again that he may judge the quick and the dead”).

There’s plenty more at the link, including “the use of pseudo-Latin verbs coined on the basis of English ones” in the Magna Carta (imprisono, disseisio, utlago, exulo = “to imprison”, “to disseise”, “to outlaw”, “to exile”).

The Macedonian ‘Moby-Dick’ Translator.

Filip Stojanovski reports on a remarkable translator:

The death of linguist Ognen Čemerski on August 25, cut down in his prime at age 42 by cancer, has shocked the Macedonian public. […] As a translator, Čemerski left a lasting cultural legacy by providing a new translation of the classic American novel “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, and most media outlets stressed that within their obituaries.

The main problem of translating a book from 1851 about sailing and whaling was that the Macedonian language lacked maritime terminology. Most of the ethnic Macedonian population had been landlocked during the last centuries, having little contact with the sea in general and sailing in particular. In order to overcome this, Čemerski had to re-construct the vocabulary by first discovering the origins of the English terms, and then trace their equivalents in Macedonian or other Slavic languages.

As he pointed out in a podcast published by Graceland University staff in 2016, Čemerski also had to deconstruct the nuances of the English language used by Melville. This included influences of earlier authors such as Shakespeare and Milton, and the use of dialects of the Quakers – a religious group that ran the sailing industry — which sounded archaic even to mid-19th-century American readers. When dealing with literary references, he relied on translations of classic English works by other Macedonian translators and archaic language found in preserved writings by Macedonian authors from the same time period and in religious literature written in Old Church Slavonic.

By far the biggest challenge faced by Čemerski was the lack of Macedonian vocabulary for everyday terms used by American sailors to designate parts of the ships, which had become commonplace words in the English language. By researching the origins of these words, he was able to find equivalents in the Macedonian words used by various craftsmen, from carpenters to masons to farmers, since all technology used on sailing ships originated on land.

He also investigated fishermen jargon stemming from the dialects used by Macedonians living around the three big lakes in the country (Ohrid, Prespa and Dojran). Historically, these people used various kinds of row boats to go about their trade, and their terminology could be transposed to parts of sailing ships. Additionally, Čemerski compared the development of maritime terminology in other Slavic languages, in particular those used along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

No wonder it took him over a decade. Thanks, Matt!

Global Medieval Sourcebook.

More online goodness; Allison Meier reports for Hyperallergic:

Images from medieval manuscripts have had something of a revival on social media, with viral accounts sharing their strange scenes of bizarre beasts or cavorting knights and monks. Yet the reading of those manuscripts by non-scholars remains low, partly due to a lack of access. The recently launched Global Medieval Sourcebook (GMS), curated by Stanford University faculty and students, offers English versions of previously untranslated Middle Ages literature.

“These images are often shared without text, and it can be hard to contextualize them if you’re outside of a formal educational environment, without access to books on the topic, and with no real way to sift through information that is out there,” Mae Lyons-Penner, a PhD student in comparative literature and the GMS project manager, told Hyperallergic. “That’s a barrier that we hope to break down by presenting a diverse array of short medieval texts within their cultural and historical context: sharing what we know about who produced them, who read them, what their importance was, and how it has shaped the way we think about the Middle Ages today.”

The initial offerings of the online compendium, which will be expanded as the GMS develops, range from a 15th-century song translated from Middle French that bemoans a lost love (“Two or three days ago / my sweet love went away / without saying anything to me. Alas, who will comfort me?”) to five selections from Hong Mai’s 12th-century Yijian Zhi (or, Record of the Listener […]), a sprawling 420-chapter chronicle that is an invaluable record of society, spirituality, and culture of the Southern Song Dynasty. The GMS is, as suggested by its title, a globally focused resource, with plans for medieval texts translated from Arabic, Chinese, Old Spanish, Latin, Middle High German, Old English, and Old French. […]

Academics are being invited to contribute short introductions, sometimes accompanied by an audio recording and high-resolution image of the original manuscript. The new English translations are readable alongside the source language. “To create a diverse collection, we have enthusiastically solicited material from genres that are rarely if ever found together in modern editions of medieval texts: songs, sermons, sexually explicit short stories, and summaries of world history are only a few of the genres we are currently working on,” Lyons-Penner said.

Visit the link to read some delightful snippets of the texts; the pull-down language menu includes Old Welsh, but alas, there aren’t any examples yet. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Glossing Africa.

Namwali Serpell at NYRDaily writes about an interesting topic that I haven’t seen much discussion of:

Whenever African writers are on a panel together, we are asked about the continent as a whole—its literature, its future, its political woes and economic potential. Whenever African writers get together on our own, we talk about glossaries. These additions to the main text, often vetted, if not entirely decided, by publishers, are crucial to how it will be received by readers. But when African writers talk about glossaries, we don’t just exchange tips. (How long? How comprehensive? By whom?) We talk about whether to include one at all, whether to offer glosses within the text or omit all glossing entirely. To gloss, or not to gloss? That is the question.

Most of us reading in the postcolonies never received glosses for the strange foods and weather of Europe. We had to figure out what snow and crumpets were on our own. […]

The politics of language in African literature have long been fraught. The very first conference on the subject, “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” held in Makerere in 1962, began by begging the question of its own title. Why was most extant African literature written in European languages? the writers wondered. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, in attendance, would decide within a decade that he would henceforth write only in his native language, Gĩkũyũ. He has nevertheless translated all of his Gĩkũyũ novels into English—full-scale glossaries, so to speak. A footnote to his Devil on the Cross reads: “In the original work, written in Gĩkũyũ, certain words and phrases appear in English, French, Latin and Swahili. In this translation all such words and phrases are printed in italic type.” This is a neat obverse of the norm: in many Anglophone African novels, the words from African languages are italicized. This is the other perennial question African writers toss around when we are alone together. To italicize, or not to italicize? […]

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s brilliant novel Kintu, reissued this past May in the US by the independent press Transit Books, doesn’t have a glossary (nor a map nor a family tree). It does, however, italicize non-English words. It offers an object lesson in how African writers these days gloss words without a glossary. Within two pages, Makumbi adopts three modes of glossing.

You’ll have to click the link to learn about the three modes; me, I now want to read Kintu. Thanks, Trevor!

The Stoop.

The Stoop (to quote their website) “is a podcast about blackness, race, and identity in America, hosted by Leila Day and Hana Baba.” I’m not much of a podcast person, but I was listening to my local NPR station, WFCR, and heard a snippet of what sounded like a really interesting episode, “The problem with sounding white”: “We explore voice and unpack what it means linguistically, socially, and professionally when you’re black but supposedly ‘sound white.'” It caught my attention right away by repeating, with gusto, the phrase “interdental fricative,” and went on to discuss code-switching, linguistic profiling, and other related matters. It ends with a talk with poet Chinaka Hodge, who studied linguistics with Renée Blake; she says when she’s told she sounds white, she says: “Do I sound white like a Scottish person? Do I sound white like a Brahmin?” She mentions Blake’s concept of “r-fulness” and gives examples. All in all, it’s a great way to spend 18 minutes, and I highly recommend it.

The World at One.

I love discovering new poets who give me the same kind of thrill as my old favorites, and the latest is Kate Bingham, whose “The World at One” was published in the New Statesman last year:

I lie in bed until The World at One,
why should my heart go off with an alarm?
The body’s woman’s work is never done,

the blood gets up to exercise the lungs.
The kettle sings, I count my lucky charms –
a chain connects and separates each one

and when I shake my wrist it shakes the sun
that scatters off the wall and scalds my arm.
It’s only skin and coffee, no harm done.

War continues, voting has begun;
my left-hand thumb elects my right-hand palm.
We couldn’t all go on to be someone.

I have a little silver house to run,
a silver Scottie dog to keep me calm.
I don’t remember everything I’ve done

but bring me pencil, paper, chewing gum
and I will stay at home and do no harm,
imagining myself a world for one
where what I did was what I should have done.

The easy mastery of iambic pentameter, the simple lines that sink instantly into the memory (“the blood gets up to exercise the lungs”; “and when I shake my wrist it shakes the sun”), the lovely use of repetition and variation — that’s real poetry, folks. Her latest collection, Infragreen, was published by Seren in 2015. It has a beautiful cover and I’ll bet the poems are just as good as this one.