When I came back in from getting the mail, I told my wife that it was snowing again, but this time in little pellets rather than flakes. She said “Oh, sleet?” I said, confusedly, “I thought sleet was wet?” Then I looked it up in AHD:

1. Precipitation consisting of small ice pellets formed by the freezing of raindrops or of melted snowflakes.
2. A mixture of rain and snow or hail.
3. A thin icy coating that forms when rain or sleet freezes, as on trees or streets.

It seemed that my default definition was 2, whereas hers was 1; we agreed that neither of us had heard anyone use 3. Wikipedia has only 1 and 2:

• Rain and snow mixed, snow that partially melts as it falls (UK, Ireland, and most Commonwealth countries)
• Ice pellets, one of three forms of precipitation in “wintry mixes”, the other two being snow and freezing rain (United States, Canada)

But they divide them geographically in a way that doesn’t work for me; as I say, to me it means the wet mixture, and I certainly didn’t pick it up from UK usage. So, naturally, I bring the issue to the Varied Reader: what does it mean to you?


Frequent commenter Y wrote me as follows:

I happened to see the Wikipedia article on the Kimbanguist church of the DRC (formerly Zaïre), a messianic Christian movement. It’s quite interesting in itself, but what caught my attention is the Mandombe script, said by its inventor to have been revealed to him through Simon Kimbangu himself. The script’s appearance and logic are to me spectacularly strange, like nothing I have seen before except maybe some ciphers. A Unicode encoding is underway (the proposal has various examples of the script in use).

He also sent me a Wayback Machine link to a pdf of Helma Pasch’s 2010 article “Mandombe” for Afrikanistik. It really is a remarkable script; I don’t think I could learn to use it myself, but I’m glad it exists.

Linguistics and Indigenous Languages.

I don’t usually bring stuff here from the Log, since I figure most people interested in language follow it already, but this post by Christian DiCanio is important enough I’ll make an exception. It’s about UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages and calls for linguistic research on such languages; here are some of the points made:

Dutch phonetics and syntax are not inherently more interesting than Bengali phonetics and syntax. Bengali has a far more interesting consonant system (if you ask me as a phonetician). Even Bengali morphology, which is far more complex than Dutch morphology, is under-studied relative to Dutch. Dutch speakers just happen to reside in economically-advantaged countries where there has been active English-based scholarship on their language for many years. Bengali speakers do not. […]

But imagine if you were asked to review an abstract or a paper where the author chose to zoom in on the specific details of a particular syntactic construction in Seenku (a Mande language spoken by 17,000 people in Burkina Faso, see work by Laura McPherson) or how tone influences vowel lengthening in a specific Mixtec language (spoken in Mexico). These are minority and indigenous languages. Many linguists would agree that these topics are worthy of scholarship if they contribute something to our knowledge of these languages and/or to different sub-disciplines of linguistics, but where do we place the bar by which we judge?

In practice, linguists often think these topics are limited in scope – even though they are no more limited than topics focusing on the reflexive clitic ‘se’ in Spanish. A consequence of this is that those working on indigenous languages must seek to situate their work in a broader perspective. This might mean that the research becomes comparative within a language family or that the research is a case study within a broader survey on similar phenomena. Rather than magnifying more deeply, if they want their work to be considered by the field at large, linguists working on indigenous languages often take the “go wide” approach instead. […]

Whether intentioned or not, both people and languages can be granted privilege. Scholars working on well-studied languages benefit from a shared linguistic common ground with other scholars which allows them to delve into deep and specific questions within these languages. This is a type of academic privilege. Without this common ground, scholars working on indigenous languages can sometimes face an uphill battle in publishing. And needing to prove one’s validity is a hallmark of institutional bias.

DiCanio adds some questions for linguists to think about (“What languages get to contribute to the development of linguistic theory?”; “Do you quantify the number of languages or the number of speakers that a linguist works with?”), and the comment thread is unusually thoughtful and interesting, with contributions from Bathrobe, J.W. Brewer, and other familiar monikers. I hope it gets a lot of attention.


Looking for something else in my Oxford Russian dictionary, my eye fell on the entry “рода́нистый, adj. (chem.) thiocyanate (of), sulphocyanate (of).” Naturally I wondered about the etymology; there was no related word in the Oxford, but in my three-volume Russian-English dictionary I found “рода́н а m chem rhodane.” That cleared up the Russian derivation but added another problem: what the devil was “rhodane”? It wasn’t in any of my dictionaries, but Webster’s Third had “rhodanic acid \(ˈ)rō¦danik-\ n [rhodanic ISV rhodan– (modification of Greek rhodon rose) + -ic ] 1 : thiocyanic acid —not used systematically 2 : rhodanine.” OK, that helped, sort of — at least it cleared up the etymology — but was “rhodane” the same thing? Apparently, sort of, since googling родан identified it with SCNCH2COOH (more standardly called изотиоцианатоуксусная кислота), and googling that gave isothiocyanoacetic acid. Searching Google Books for “rhodane” turned up a few hits like “Studies on the Formation of Rhodane in the Case of Abnormal Functioning of the Liver” (1936) and “Experiment 1 Excretion of rhodane” (1962), but it appears to be so marginal as an English word as to barely exist, which means it’s malpractice to provide it as an explanation of Russian родан, to the extent that the latter is an actual word, which leads to the further question of why either родан or роданистый is in a bilingual dictionary at all, given the unlikelihood of a reader running into them in text and the absence of so many more common words I’ve had to add to the margins.

Then something else occurred to me: might Perry Rhodan be somehow related? I couldn’t find any information on the etymology of the name of that galaxy-spanning hero, but my Langenscheidt dictionary had an entry “Rhoˈdan m thiocyanogen,” so I’m assuming that’s what Perry’s creators had at least vaguely in mind. But as always, any further information will be welcome.


I just finished Turgenev’s enjoyable 1874 novella Пунин и Бабурин [Punin and Baburin], in which the narrator describes his acquaintance with the odd couple Nikandr Punin and his gloomy “republican” benefactor Paramon Baburin, first having met them when he was twelve on his despotic grandmother’s estate in 1830, then as a student in Moscow seven years later, when Baburin’s ward Muza ran off with the narrator’s friend Tarkhov. At one point he says “Невдалеке от башни, завернутая в альмавиву (альмавивы были тогда в великой моде), виднелась фигура, в которой я тотчас признал Тархова,” which Constance Garnett translates “At no great distance from the tower I discerned, wrapped in an ‘Almaviva’ (‘Almavivas’ were then in the height of fashion), a figure which I recognised at once as Tarhov.” Garnett clearly thinks of “Almaviva” as an English word her reader is likely to recognize, but it meant nothing to me (except the count in Figaro) either in English or Russian. It was in my large Russian dictionary, defined as an obsolete word for a kind of man’s wide cloak, and it has its own Russian Wikipedia article, but it has a more fugitive existence in English; if you google [Almaviva cloak] you get a Wikidata page (apparently translated from Russian) calling it “voluminous cloak of Spanish origin, named after the operatic character Count Almaviva” and an 1857 quote from Bulwer Lytton, “The only thing remarkable in their dress is the so-called Almaviva cloak, in which they all, without any exception, wrap themselves up to the eyes…” Is anyone familiar with it, and does it exist in other languages? You’d think it would have been used in French, but it’s not in the TLFi, so apparently not.

Addendum. Another forgotten cloak name: immensikoff.

Tolstoy the Snob.

It goes without saying that Tolstoy was a great writer, but the more I read about his life the more I realize that, like so many great writers, he was a horrible person, and not the least of it is his appalling snobbery, on view at impressive length here in a passage from the magazine publication of War and Peace, sensibly omitted from the book version (the translation is R. F. Christian’s, from his Tolstoy’s ‘War And Peace’: A Study):

Up to now I have been writing only about princes, counts, ministers, senators and their children, and I am afraid that there will be no other people in my story later on either.

Perhaps this is not a good thing and the public may not like it: perhaps a story of peasants, merchants and theological students would be more interesting and instructive for them; but for all my desire to have as many readers as possible, I cannot satisfy this taste for many reasons. In the first place because the historical monuments of the time I am writing about have survived only in the correspondence and memoirs of people of the highest circle – literate people; the interesting and clever stories which I have managed to hear, I also heard only from people of that circle. In the second place because the lives of merchants, coachmen, theological students, convicts and peasants seem to me boring and monotonous, and all the actions of these people seem to me to stem, for the most part, from one and the same motives: envy of the more fortunate orders, self-interest and the material passions. If all the actions of these people do not in fact stem from these motives, their actions are so obscured by these impulses that it is difficult to understand them and therefore to describe them.

[Read more…]

The Art of Line Editing.

Nick Ripatrazone describes the fine art of line editing for LitHub (but are those editor’s changes rather than Orwell’s in the image of the MS for 1984?):

Anyone in the business knows books are not solo acts. Toni Morrison, who was also edited by [Robert] Gottlieb, said she never wrote “with Bob in mind; that would be very bad for me. He isn’t the ideal reader for the product, but he is the ideal editor for it.” Line editors are not readers in the public sense; they are private practitioners, whose profession operates on a sense of both trust and authority. Gottlieb calls the receipt of a writer’s manuscript as an action of “emotional transference.” The days and weeks before hearing back are fraught, but writers know line edits are worth the wait—and the emotional weight.

Line editors are often mistaken for copyeditors. Copyeditors tend to polish and perfect work at a later stage, but the confusion is telling. George Witte, editor-in-chief at St. Martin’s Press, has said “many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done.” Often copyediting is done from a distance, but as with Erskine and Ellison, Gottlieb and Heller, line editors have a direct relationship with the writer. They are a book’s “ideal reader,” according to Witte, and because they have often been the writer’s acquiring editor, are also the writer’s “source of money, the point of contact, the guide through the publishing process, the cheerleader, the writer’s advocate, the person to cry to, or, perhaps, to complain about, the lunch or drinks companion, sometimes the friend, and above all the most attentive and most honest reader of an author’s work.”

Line editors tighten sentences when tension and clarity is missing, but they also give sentences breath when constrained. Beyond removing clichés, they excise a writer’s pet words and mannered constructions. Line editors help sentences build into paragraphs, and paragraphs flow into pages.

There are good stories and quotes in there, and my copyeditor’s heart warmed when I read “many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done.” Very true. (Thanks, Trevor!)


This brief Guardian story from a couple of years ago reports on yet another annoying result of stupid national laws restricting what parents can name their kids:

A French court has banned a couple from giving their baby a name containing a tilde, ruling that the character ñ was incompatible with national law.

The couple from Brittany wanted to call their newborn boy Fañch, a traditional name in the northwestern region which has its own language. […]

It’s hardly worth posting on its own, but I was curious about the name Fañch; fortunately, in the age of Google and Wikipedia it was the work of a moment to learn that it’s a diminutive of Frañsez, the Breton equivalent of François. What I’m wondering is, how do you get Fañch from Frañsez? Anybody know enough Breton to explain? (Thanks, Kobi!)

Miguel Civil, RIP.

A great Sumerian scholar has died; here’s Harrison Smith’s Washington Post obit:

You have to go back 4,000 years, colleagues said, to find someone as fluent in Sumerian as Miguel Civil. A Catalonian-born professor with a purported photographic memory, he spent decades studying ancient cuneiform tablets, examining the last wedge-shaped traces of what is probably the world’s oldest written language.

Dr. Civil, who was 92 when he died Jan. 13 at a hospital in Chicago, was a giant in the field of Sumerology, an expert in the Mesopotamian civilization that is widely credited with developing the first cities, sailboats, irrigation systems and potter’s wheels, as well as the seven-day week and writing itself.

“He was the most knowledgeable authority of Sumerian since 2000 B.C.,” said Christopher Woods, a fellow Sumerian scholar and director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Civil taught from 1963 until his retirement in 2001. […]

“Civil was a brilliant linguist,” said Benjamin Foster, a Yale professor of Assyriology and Babylonian literature, “who carried forward the reconstruction of ancient Sumerian language and literature begun by Samuel Noah Kramer, Adam Falkenstein and Thorkild Jacobsen in the mid-20th century.” […]

“He took up many difficult problems, such as Sumerian phonology, grammar and semantics, and pioneered the use of computer technology to place small fragments of Sumerian writing in their original contexts,” Foster added. “We all stood in awe of his breadth and depth of knowledge and his originality of thought.”

And here’s Maureen O’Donnell’s for the Chicago Sun-Times, with an excursus on Sumerian beer-making (“The brewmaster said that when he questioned the professor about whether there was a dictionary to consult about Sumerian, ‘He looked up at me, and he said, “I am the dictionary.”’”) and several good photos, including one of Ninkasi Sumerian Beer. Thanks, Bill and Trevor!

Markevich’s Marina.

I’ve finished Boleslav Markevich’s 1873 Марина изъ Алаго-Рога (Marina from Aly Rog), which I mentioned recently here, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic stuff described in this 2014 post — towards the start of the novel, the two heroes, Count Zavalevsky and Prince Puzhbolsky, spend a great deal of time analyzing language and literature and talking about their stay in Italy and the things they saw there. Puzhbolsky, who falls hopelessly in love with Marina, first compares her to Palma Vecchio’s Santa Barbara, then thinks she reminds him more of Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes or Rubens’ Helena Fourment with her son Frans. I can easily imagine a reader feeling that that sort of thing is impossibly recherché, not to say snobbish, but I like it and wish there had been more of it. Alas, as soon as Markevich has established that his heroes are well-traveled, sophisticated, and thoughtful people (and far better than the revolting radicals who had poisoned Marina with their vile ideas), he gets down to the serious business of laying out his absurd plot, borrowed wholesale from the trashiest melodrama (it hinges on the true parentage of his virtuous heroine) with large helpings of Turgenev and Tolstoy (e.g., Zavalevsky’s revival of life force on hearing Marina sing is taken straight from Nikolai Rostov’s similar epiphany on hearing Natasha sing in War and Peace). To be fair, he name-checks both authors and points out that War and Peace is a fine novel! I can’t say I’d recommend this book to anyone else, and had it been longer I might have set it aside before the plot ground to its inevitable happy end, but I’m glad that I set myself the task of trying everything that seemed plausibly worth reading in Russian literature, at least up through the last of Dostoevsky.