Naming Things.

Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer writes about corporate naming, always a fruitful source of hilarity (I worked for Price Waterhouse during the time they merged with Coopers Lybrand — they paid some huge amount of money to a naming consultant to come up with an appropriate name for the joint company, and after the appropriate amount of musing and focus-group testing, they presented the grand result: PricewaterhouseCoopers, one word, two caps — genius!). He starts with Mazda’s desire to insert another model in between the CX-3 and CX-5 (“What would the logical name be? To go in between “3” and “5”? Any guesses?”) and ends with “the story of that Schiit name [of “a line of inexpensive audio products”], from Jason Stoddard, co-founder of the company”:

[I]t always seemed like I was running out to the garage (where the workbench was).

“I’ve got schiit to do,” I’d tell Lisa, and disappear.

She’s endlessly patient, but one day, she’d finally had enough. “Why don’t you just call it Schiit?” she shot back, crossing her arms.

“Call what schiit?”

“The new company. You’re always saying you’ve got schiit to do. Why not just call it Schiit?”

At first, I laughed. A company called Schiit? No sane company would do that. If we proposed that name to any Centric client, I imagined what they’d say. Way too out there. Can’t believe you’d propose that. Piss off too many people. What a crazy idea. Then they’d fire us.

But I’d had 15 years of marketing playing it safe, second-guessing everything we did, and watering down every great idea until it was meaningless. […]

“Nobody would ever forget it,” I replied, finally.

“It would cut down your marketing costs,” Lisa agreed.

“And we could say we make some really good Schiit.”

Lisa laughed. “Why not? Go ape Schiit.”

“And Schiit happens,” I agreed.

“If you don’t have our stuff, you’re up Schiit creek,” Lisa added.

I nodded and sat back. Suddenly it didn’t seem so crazy. Hell, the word was meaningless for, what, 80% of the world that didn’t speak English? And if you spelled it funny, it could sound vaguely German.

Se non è vero, è ben trovato. Thanks, Jonathan!

Extinction, Laserpicium.

Back in 2005, I posted about “Laserpithium” (i.e., lāserpīcium) and silphium; now graywyvern (who blogs at Diwan: A Wind) sends me this poem about them by A. E. Stallings:

Extinction, Laserpicium

   Quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
   lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis

   —Catullus 7

Consider silphium, extinguished flower,
Kin to the wild carrot, Queen Anne’s lace,
Fennel and dill, and rooted now no place
On earth, that once was worth an empress’ dower,
A Caesar’s ransom. Silphium was power
Stored in Rome’s coffers, stamped upon the face
Of silver tetradrachms, a thing to base
The wealth of nations on. Now past its hour,
Stamped out, its numbers harvested to zero,
What properties, what cures were in an ounce
Are lost to us—mere footnote to the pleasure
Out of a poem—“kisses without measure.”
The last stalk ever found, Pliny recounts,
Presented as a rarity to Nero.

I’ve always loved both the name “Queen Anne’s lace” and the flower, even if they call it a weed.

Irmin, Aryaman, et al.

JC was kind enough to send me a link to John D. Bengtson’s Iarl and Iormun-; Arya- and Aryaman-: A Study in Indo-European Comparative Mythology. The abstract:

In 1854 Martin Haug of Heidelberg suggested a root connection between the obscure German god Irmin and the minor Indic god Aryaman. Almost a century later (1952) Jan de Vries of Leiden agreed, with some reservations, and since then this theory has remained in dispute. In my study of this subject several arguments support the Haug – Vries hypothesis […]. The argument that Irmin simply means ‘great, immense, elevated’ and is the sole remnant of the Indo-European middle participle in Germanic is implausible; the form Irmines- is clearly the genitive form of a name. The oldest sources and comparative mythology point to Irmin / Iǫrmun as some kind of divine or heroic entity closely connected with sovereignty, ancestry, and the collective life of the people (irmin-diot). In the post-Christian literary traditions of the Germanic and Celtic peoples the original patterns were transformed and distorted.

JC adds:

This paper is by John D. Bengtson, and the title “Iarl and Iormun- : Arya- and Aryaman-: A Study in Indo-European Comparative Mythology” says it all: it goes right back to the roots of IE and historical linguistics generally, and is a direct descendant of Grimm’s philological program: to turn prehistory into history using comparative linguistics.

Well, almost all: there is also the Irish hero Éremón, who is said to have arranged many marriage bonds between Irish noble families (of which there were A LOT). Hindu ceremonies today still appeal to Aryaman to bless the marriage, even though he gets only a few mentions even in the Vedas, much less later.

We don’t know much about the Germanic Irmin, except that there are a lot of old names in Irmin-this-that-and-the-other, especially in Upper Saxony, and a few words of mythological import: OE éormengrund ‘orbis terrarum’, ON iormungand ‘the Midgard Serpent’ (the same gand ‘staff, wand’ as in Gandalf) , OHG Irmunsúl ‘axis mundi’ (destroyed by Charlemagne in the 8C). The usual, but not the oldest, interpretation is ‘grand’, as if cognate with ὄρµενος ‘inciter’; but that is a middle participle, and if the etymology is sound it would be the only middle participle in all Germanic.

Bengtson points out that Arminius, was probably named with a close variant of Irmin-, and that the h in personal and tribal names mentioned by later Roman writers, like the tribe of the Herminones, was silent, suggesting that they too are Irmin- based (and that Luther’s Germanization of Arminius as Hermann is a spelling pronunciation!)

Thanks, John!

Georgia and Haligalia.

In Jabotinsky’s Пятеро (The Five), our narrator has gone to an all-night shindig where students of various nationalities congregate, get drunk, and make speeches; he notices that Marko, the older brother in the family he’s been describing, has been hanging out with the group from the Caucasus and acting as though he were completely at home with them, waving his hands, shouting, and supporting the orators, even though they appeared to be talking in their native languages. Finally the gathering breaks up:

Marko accompanied me home; like me, he hadn’t done much drinking, but he was drunk on spiritual wine, specifically that of Kakheti. He hummed the tune and words of “Mraval zhamier” [მრავალჟამიერი, ‘Many Years’]; for two blocks, never having seen the Caucasus, he painted a vivid picture of the Georgian Military Road to Tiflis; he tried to prove something about Queen Tamar and the poet Rustaveli… Lermontov wrote “The timid Georgians ran away” — what a slander on that knightly tribe! Marko already knew all about the Georgian movement, he knew the differences between Kartvelian, Imeretian, Svan, and Laz, he had even mastered the language — he lured a stray dog with “modi ak [მოდი აქ, ‘come here’]” and then drove it away with “tsadi! [წადი, ‘go away’]” (I don’t vouch for the accuracy, but that’s how I remembered it); and he finished by sighing from the depths of his soul:

“It’s so stupid: why can’t a person just up and say ‘I’m a Georgian’?”

Марко проводил меня домой; он тоже мало выпил, но был пьян
от вина духовного, и именно кахетинского. Он мурлыкал напев и слова «мравал джамиэр»; два квартала подряд, никогда не видавши Кавказа, живописал Военно-грузинскую дорогу и Тифлис; что-то доказывал про царицу Тамару и поэта Руставели… Лермонтов пишет: «бежали робкие грузины» — что за клевета на рыцарственное племя! Марко все уже знал о грузинском движении, знал уже разницу между понятиями картвелы, имеретины, сванеты, лазы, даже и языком уже овладел — бездомную собачонку на углу поманил: «моди ак», потом отогнал прочь: «цади!» (за точность не ручаюсь, так запомнилось); и закончил вздохом из самой глубины души:

— Глупо это: почему нельзя человеку взять, да объявить себя грузином?

(In Mraval zhamier, ჟამი zhami is an archaic Georgian word for ‘time,’ borrowed from Armenian žam, which itself borrowed the word from Iranian, which borrowed it from Akkadian zimān, from Proto-Semitic *zaman-.) This is both touching and funny, and it reminded me of another example of immersion in a foreign culture, from Aksyonov’s 1968 novella Затоваренная бочкотара (translated as Surplused Barrelware), in which travelers on a truck get to know each other. One of them is the “refined intellectual” Vadim Drozhzhinin; he has achieved a modest success in life, but what he prides himself on is being a unique expert in the small Latin American country of Haligalia (Халигалия, based on the Russian form of the dance name hully gully):

He knew all the country’s dialects (there were twenty-eight), all its folklore, its history, its economy, all the streets and alleys of its capital, Polis, as well as three other cities, all the shops and stores on those streets, the names of their owners and the members of their families, and the names and dispositions of the domestic animals, even though he had never been in the country. The junta that ran Haligalia wouldn’t give Vadim an entry visa, but the simple Haligalians all knew and loved him, he corresponded with at least half of them, gave advice on their family lives, and settled all sorts of disputes.

Он знал все диалекты этой страны, а их было двадцать восемь, весь фольклор, всю историю, всю экономику, все улицы и закоулки столицы этой страны города Полис и трех остальных городов, все магазины и лавки на этих улицах, имена их хозяев и членов их семей, клички и нрав домашних животных, хотя никогда в этой стране не был. Хунта, правившая в Халигални, не давала Вадиму Афанасьевичу въездной визы, но простые халигалийцы все его знали и любили, по меньшей мере с половиной из них он был в переписке, давал советы по части семейной жизни, урегулировал всякого рода противоречия.

The passage goes on for much longer, and Haligalia becomes a memorable theme of the novella (which is very much worth reading). I’m sure there are other literary examples of this kind of immersion, but I can’t think of any at the moment.


Victor Mair has a Log post, “Carrot” in Persian, Urdu, Uyghur, Sinitic, Vietnamese, etc., that’s full of interesting stuff. He takes off from a question by David Brophy: “I’ve often wondered why the Uyghur word for carrot is sewze, etc., which comes from P. sabz ‘green’.” There’s discussion of the Persian word, including this contribution from John Mullan:

The most common Persian word for “carrot” is havīj (هویج). In eastern dialects, which preserve older phonological features, it’d be hawīj. Other words are gazar (another eastern word) and zardak, literally ‘yellow’ plus the diminutive ending.

This paragraph is from Ephraim Nissan’s “Etymothesis, Fallacy, and Ontologies: An Illustration from Phytonymy”:

Persian havīj (هویج) for ‘carrot’ appeared relatively late in the language, and is related to (and probably derived from) the Turkish name for ‘carrot’, havuç. The standard Persian name for ‘wild carrot’, havīj-e waḥšī, is a compound formed with the adjective for ‘wild’, itself from Arabic. Also the Persian compound for ‘wild carrot’ havīj-e ṣaḥrā’ī is formed with an adjective that comes from Arabic, and literally means ‘of the desert’ (but in Persian, the compound is literally understood as ‘carrot of the field’, i.e., ‘of the wilderness’). By contrast, the third Persian compound for ‘wild carrot’ is entirely Persian etymologically: havīj-e kūhī (but it literally means ‘mountain carrot’).

Sinitic has luóbo 蘿蔔, whose etymology is unknown:

This word has been attested in various forms since early Old Chinese, and is the source of many of the terms for “radish, turnip” in other languages in modern China. The basic form seems to be *rabuk.

There’s no discussion of the English word; the OED entry (from 1888), like Wiktionary, derives it from Greek καρῶτον, but Wikipedia adds (without a citation) that that is “originally from the Indo-European root *ker- (horn), due to its horn-like shape.” I also learn from that Wikipedia article that the carrot only arrived in Europe in medieval times, and Alan Davidson says it didn’t make its way to England until the 15th century, which explains that when I checked the OED’s Historical Thesaurus for earlier terms I found only the rare terms tank (“origin obscure”) “The wild carrot; according to Gerarde, the wild parsnip” (a1400–50 Stockh. Med. MS. 181 Bryddys neste or tanke: daucus asininus) and clapwype “A carrot or ? parsnip” (c1425 in T. Wright & R. P. Wülcker Anglo-Saxon & Old Eng. Vocab. (1884) I. 644 Hic daucus, clapwype).

It’s a shame that MMcM of Polyglot Vegetarian never got around to carrots; he would have done a great job!


Dave Wilton of (check out his office staff) has a post about the history of the term “Dixie” that doesn’t contain any surprising new revelations but is far more detailed than anything else I’ve read on the subject (and he says it “may be the most complex bit of research I’ve done for this site”); it begins:

Dixie is, of course, a name for the American South. It is also a famous anthem of the South. But less well known is that Dixey’s Land was the name of children’s game played in early nineteenth-century New York.

Where does Dixie come from? It most likely is a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland and Virginia (now West Virginia), surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in the 1770s. The line traditionally marked the boundary between the North and the South, the free states from the slave states. But the direct evidence connecting the term with the geographical boundary is scant.

The song Dixie is traditionally credited to Daniel Emmett, a member of and chief composer for Bryant’s Minstrels, a blackface minstrel troupe. But the famous song was not Emmett’s first use of Dixie to refer the South. He used it in an earlier song of his, Johnny Roach, which was first performed in March 1859. […] For his part, Emmett never claimed to have coined the word. He said that he learned the term during his travels as an itinerant musician. Dixie was also the name of a character in the minstrel skit United States Mail and Dixie in Difficulties, which was first performed in 1850. The appearance of the personal name in minstrelsy may also have influenced Emmett’s use of the word.

There is much more at the link, including discussion of the children’s game, first attested in 1844; I particularly like this quotation from New York’s The New World of December 28, 1844:

Doesn’t Old Fezziwig figure here like some planets in his system, crossing and recrossing their orbits, playing, “Dixey’s Land,” in the regions of space?

The Linguistics of Odessa.

My Odessa reading program continues with Jabotinsky’s novel Пятеро (The Five, published in 1936 like the Katayev novel I wrote about here), which has already made me unreasonably happy. The narrator has gone down to the sea and met a young man named Seryozha, who takes him under his wing and fixes the broken oarlocks on his boat; Seryozha asks who’s been hired to watch the boat, and when told it was Chubchik, says (you can read the Russian here, starting with “— Оттого и беспорядок, Чубчик! Его и другие рыбаки все за босявку держут”):

“That’s why it’s such a mess, it’s Chubchik! Even the other fishermen hold him as a bosyavka.”

I raised my head joyfully. Linguistics has always been the true passion of my life, and living in an enlightened circle where everyone tried to speak in a correct Great Russian style, it had been a long time since I had heard the real dialect of the Fountains, Lanzheron, Peresyp, and Dyukovsky Park. “Hold him as a bosyavka” — lovely! “Hold” means “consider.” And bosyavka — to translate it is unthinkable; in that one word is a whole encyclopedia of disapproving judgments. He continued in the same style, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten my native speech, and I’m forced to reproduce his words by and large in official language, acknowledging sorrowfully that every phrase is wrong.

* * *

We set off in respectable fashion; he was a fine rower, and knew the names of things in the boatmen’s language. That day the wind would rise around five o’clock, and not just wind, but the tramontano. “Back water on the right, or we’ll run into that dubok [a local name for a small boat].” “Look, that porpoise has bought it” — pointing at the corpse of a dolphin, thrown up yesterday by a storm onto the lower platform of a breakwater not far from the lighthouse.

In the intervals between nautical remarks he gave me a good deal of fragmentary information about his family. His father “dashed to his office on the horse-tram” every morning, which is why he was so dangerous when you wanted to skip school — you had to leave the house together with him. In the evenings there was a “crush” at home (in other words, what Russians call a flea market): his older sister’s “passengers” came to visit her, mostly students. Then there was his older brother Marko, not a bad fellow, “portable,” but a tyuntya (I didn’t know that term, but it obviously meant something like “dimwit” or “scatterbrain”). Marko was “a Nietzschean this year.”

I’m glad I don’t have to translate the novel; I have no idea what I’d do about words like bosyavka and tyuntya. Michael Katz, who did translate it, used “deadbeat” for the first (a wild guess, I presume; current meanings I can find are ‘prostitute’ and ‘woman who gives tips to the police,’ neither of which is applicable) and simply omitted the second; he rendered dubok as “little oak rowboat,” which is silly — in the first place, just because it looks like the word for ‘little oak’ doesn’t mean the boat is made of oak, and in the second place, the whole point of using the Russian word is to give another example of local language. Why not find a similar local word from the bayous of Louisiana or somewhere? Also, it irritates me that Katz uses “Serezha” and “Alesha” for Seryozha and Alyosha — it gives an entirely false idea of how the names are said.

I was struck by the word лингвистика ‘linguistics’ and wondered how far back it was used; it turns out it’s much older in both Russian and English than I would have guessed. The earliest citation in the National Corpus of the Russian Language is from 1850 (Buslaev in «Москвитянинъ»: “Поприще лингвистики такъ широко, и дѣла, недавно еще только початаго, такъ много, что историку нѣтъ никакой возможности спеціально заниматься этой наукой; въ противномъ случаѣ ему слѣдовало бы отказаться отъ Исторіи” [The field of linguistics is so broad, and it covers so much despite its recent origin, that the historian cannot possibly deal with it as a specialist; if he tried, he would have to stop doing history]), and the OED takes it back to 1837 (N. Amer. Rev. Oct. 379 “Even supposing it possible for the knowledge of one man to comprehend every class of natural history, astronomy, linguistics, &c., the shortness of time allowed him would render thorough observation in more than one impossible” — a strikingly similar sentiment!). Furthermore, the singular form linguistic (presumably straight from French linguistique) goes back to 1825 (Asiatic Jrnl. 1 Dec. 648 “The science of the general comparison of languages, now developing itself under the name of linguistic, has, within a short period, made a very remarkable progress”); oddly, Jonathan Culler chose to use it in 2002 in his The Pursuit of Signs (new ed.): “Ferdinand de Saussure..had argued that linguistic would one day be part of a comprehensive science of signs.”


Well, nobody’s been sending me links and it’s too hot for me to exercise my brain, so let me just share a word I happened across recently, alnage:

Now historical.

1. The fee or duty charged for alnage (sense 2) of cloth; the revenue raised by this means; = ulnage n.2.
2. The action of formally determining whether woollen cloth conforms to particular standards of shape and quality, as required at various times under British law; attestation that these standards have been achieved, by the affixing of a lead seal. Also: the office of the Crown responsible for doing this; = ulnage n.1.
The original requirement was that cloth should be two ells in width and of uniform quality throughout. The requirements as to width were later relaxed; regulations on quality remained in force until 1724.

And here’s the etymology:

< Anglo-Norman aulnage, alnage, Anglo-Norman and Middle French aunage (French aunage) duty paid per ell on cloth sold (early 14th cent. in Old French), measurement and inspection of cloth (14th cent. or earlier) < aulner, auner to measure by the ell, to measure (cloth) against a fee (< aulne, aune: see ell n.1) + -age -age suffix. Compare ulnage n.

So there’s alnage and ulnage, both related to the good old word ell; why isn’t there an *elnage assimilated to it? (In the OED, it would be between elmy “Consisting of, characterized by, or abounding in elms” and El Nath, which can mean either “The star α Arietis, the brightest star of the constellation Aries; (Astrology) the first mansion of the moon” or “The star β Tauri, the second brightest star of the constellation Taurus.”)

Oh, and there’s also alnager “An officer appointed to examine woollen cloth and certify its quality”; sadly, “The position of alnager was formally abolished under English law in 1699.” (However, “The title of Great Alnager of Ireland continued in use as a courtesy title of the Baron de Blaquiere until the death of the 6th Baron in 1920.”)

Multilingual Eye Chart.

See the World: A multilingual eye chart “features characters from more than 25 languages — including Japanese, Icelandic, Russian, Hindi, Tamil, Tibetan and Thai.” You can see information about each of the characters here; I got the links from this MeFi post, which includes other goodies like an investigation of what typeface is used on eye charts and the Таблица Головина-Сивцева (Golovin–Sivtsev Table) for testing visual acuity used in the USSR.

Also, via Anatoly Vorobey, an amazing list of resources for studying Latin, if Latin is something you’re interested in.

Katayev’s White Sail.

I’ve finished Valentin Katayev’s Белеет парус одинокий [A White Sail Gleams; I’ve just discovered there’s a full Soviet translation from 1954 here], and how one sees the novel depends to a great degree on the angle from which one observes it. From one point of view, it’s a Boy’s Own adventure novel in which Petya and Gavrik are the Tom and Huck of 1905 Odessa, getting into scrapes and fooling parents and police alike. That element didn’t excite me, and if that were all there had been I probably would have given up and read something else. From another, it’s Kataev’s attempt to navigate the dangerous cultural waters of Stalin’s USSR by converting himself into a children’s writer; it was successful both in terms of his career (the novel was wildly popular) and of self-preservation. It can be seen as a way for him to smuggle into his writing his favorite elements (learned from Bunin) of using exact language to describe the world while defamiliarizing it without incurring the charge of aestheticism, since he is, after all, describing a child’s view of things. It is also a glorification of the Bolshevik revolutionary movement, as personified by the escaped Potemkin mutineer Rodion Zhukov and Gavrik’s older brother Terenty; that was, of course, a requirement of the times, but it left me cold (and led to later charges that Kataev was a complaisant follower of the party line).

But the element that hooked me and kept me reading was the loving description of the Odessa of Kataev’s youth — not the city center, with its famous statues and cafes and theaters, but the grubby fringes, particularly the area around the train station, with the court and jail to the north, the gymnasium (high school) to the northeast, and (across the large empty space of Kulikovo Pole) the military headquarters to the east, next to which lives Petya’s family, the Bacheis; it expands to take in the shoreline, from Lanzheron in the north to Maly Fontan in the south (and even further, to Arcadia and Bolshoi Fontan and Lustdorf), and the down-and-out neighborhood southwest of the station wonderfully known as Sakhalinchik (“little Sakhalin,” for the large criminal population). I was able to find most of the areas mentioned, no matter how obscure, by using the resources of the internet (especially this detailed 1916 map), but when that failed me, I turned to Odessa native Boris Dralyuk, who invariably provided full details. For example, when I asked about the “дача Вальтуха” [Wahltuch dacha], he said the Wahltuchs “were a worldly, multitalented clan that got its start in Odessa”; the “dacha” was “a tract developed by a less intellectually aspirational member of the clan, a merchant, who sensed which way the Odessan breeze was blowing” — it was at Frantsuz’ky Blvd, 35, though it’s since been demolished. He adds, “A part of the property, at No. 33, became a cine-pavilion and, later, the Odessa Film Studio.” As I have warned him, if he keeps giving me such thorough answers, I’m going to keep pestering him with questions.

And I learned some new vocabulary from the book, like гик [gik] ‘(ship’s) boom’ (I had only known the homophone meaning ‘whoop’); it’s from Dutch, like so many nautical terms, and Dutch Wikipedia says “Verder werd de benaming giek vroeger ook wel gebruikt voor een kleine kapiteins(roei)boot die door meerdere mannen werd geroeid (vergelijk het Engelse “gig”).” I’m not sure whether they’re saying Dutch giek is borrowed from English gig or just pointing out the resemblance; in any case, the OED s.v. gig (entry not fully updated since 1899) says “Perhaps onomatopoeic; the identity of the word in all senses is very doubtful.”

Oh, and out of mild curiosity I clicked on the Vietnamese Wikipedia page for the novel and found that the description was lifted from the Russian page. When I say “lifted,” I don’t mean translated, I mean it begins “Действие происходит в Одессе в 1905 году” and carries on in Russian for a couple of paragraphs. What’s the point of that?