The BBC’s A to Z(ed) of Isms series of short video clips includes Britishisms (2:43), worth watching just for the beguiling narration by Ian McMillan (“known for his strong and distinctive Barnsley-area accent”); I, for one, was familiar neither with numpty nor mucker. And it uses the fine linguisticism isogloss, to boot. Thanks, Trevor!

Yuri Felzen.

Bryan Karetnyk, translator of the wonderful Gaito Gazdanov, has a LARB essay on another émigré author, the now-forgotten Yuri Felzen (Юрий Фельзен; Karetnyk for some reason spells it Felsen). After a description of Felzen’s murder in Auschwitz II-Birkenau in early 1943, he continues:

In all likelihood, you have never heard of Yuri Felsen. He plied his art in emigration in Europe, and so was already marginalized and at a significant disadvantage. Writing “difficult” prose and being labeled “a writer’s writer” sunk his chances for fame still lower. Moreover, his terrible end was followed by the mysterious disappearance of his archive, so in addition to what he published, only a handful of his letters survive, and not a single clear photograph of him remains. And yet, for all that fate seemingly tried to efface this man and plunge him into obscurity, he nevertheless left an utterly distinct, if now faint, mark.

I first encountered his curiously un-Russian surname several years ago, as I was reading Gaito Gazdanov’s “Literary Professions” (1934), one of his notorious polemics on the state of Russian literature in exile. [Gazdanov exempted Felzen from his dismissal of most writers of the emigration aside from Nabokov.]

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Absolutely No Jargon.

Mike Walker gave a LangSec Workshop talk, “Persuasive Language for Language Security,” that Anatoly says is mainly for programmers but that I think is of wider interest, at least this part:

At DARPA the rules about language are simple; they’re named [Heilmeier]’s Catechism. Rule Number One goes like this:

“What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.”

Absolutely no jargon. Jargon is the fundamental building block of our field. When we do our work well we get to create new jargon; we call this novelty. Here are some examples of real conversations I had in government. After a talk during which I was challenged to explain the difference between dynamic and symbolic execution, I was taken aside and counseled to stop using the term “concrete input” because construction references would confuse people.

I was informed that a network monitoring approach was so effective that it continually discovered zero-day malware. To this day I don’t know what that means.

While I caught these instances, the ones that haunt me are the ones that slipped by me unnoticed; conversations filled with Rorschach blots where words spoken by one party constructed a completely different meaning in the mind of the recipients. In a culture where everyone’s an expert, nobody can ask for clarification.

These are little stories about the imperfections of language, yet my
assertion is that language is imperfect and dangerous. The danger lies in the summoning power of words. Reagan said that “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” and truer words were never spoken. The power of that statement is that no one ever needs to explain it, which is telling. You’ll find that in places where power is aggregated and used, there is an enormous focus on the economy and precision of language. Your public words will be handed back to you filled not with objections to what you are saying but rather with objections to what people will think you said. A historical wasteland of blowback craters has taught the immune systems of government never to write a long letter when an empty one will do. This is an important lesson, and it would have served the hacker community well.

The point is not, of course, that no one should use jargon, which is indispensable for communication within a group. The point is that you need to learn how to avoid it when communicating with people outside the group, and this is a very hard lesson to learn and apply.

Anatoly ends his post by quoting this delightful anecdote, and I will follow his example:

I had the chance to talk to a lot of smart people; one of them was a young roboticist from MIT […] and I asked this young man what the word Cyber meant. He told me that cyber was a word used exclusively by people in government to let everyone know that they didn’t understand how computers worked. I think maybe he was on to something. I think this definition is still universally accepted in the hacker community.

Note that I have corrected Walker’s spelling of the name Heilmeier. He has his concerns as a programmer; I have mine as an editor.


Q.Z. Lau wrote me as follows:

As a regular reader of Language Hat and the website’s emphasis on languages and linguistic culture, I thought I might suggest for your and Language Hat readers’ interest a project that I moderate – r/translator on Reddit. We’re a community that helps people translate things, including many things of historical, familial, or cultural importance.

Of particular note are our open ‘Unknown’ requests, often of language content that people still have no clue what it is.

Looked worth posting to me, so here it is!

A Certain Belief or Intention.

I was struck by Geoff Pullum’s Lingua Franca post about complicated sentences:

I don’t know any academic field whose writing regularly indulges in sentence structure as complex as in analytic philosophy.

Let me exemplify for you with a wonderful sentence from Page 182 of a recent philosophy book by Ruth Garrett Millikan, Beyond Concepts: Unicepts, Language, and Natural Information (Oxford University Press, 2017). I thought I might have it embroidered on a wall hanging. I omit the initial connective adjunct “Second” (since the link to the previous paragraph is not relevant here) and a reference date (1957) at the end.

In arguing for his analysis of non-natural meaning, Grice made the mistake of arguing from the sensible premise that a hearer who believed that a speaker did not intend by his words to produce in the hearer a certain belief or intention would not acquire that belief or intention to the invalid conclusion that a hearer who merely failed to believe that a speaker intended by his words to produce a certain belief or intention in the hearer also would not acquire that belief or intention.

That is an 86-word sentence, so by the usual standards of readability it’s off the charts, even for high-school students. Yet it is perfectly formed; don’t imagine that I’m criticizing it. It’s just extraordinarily complex and demanding. […]

He goes on to analyze and summarize it (“Millikan is saying that your failure to have any beliefs either way about what someone intended you to believe is not necessarily enough to ensure that you won’t come to believe it anyway”), calling it “mind-crunchingly difficult.” Now, I’m certainly not claiming it’s not difficult; I had to read it twice to make sure I knew what was going on, and it would clearly be educational malpractice to give it to hapless students as a reading exercise. But I didn’t find it all that difficult, which shows how accustomed I’ve become to academic prose. Why, sometimes I’ve understood as many as six impenetrable clauses before breakfast.

The Gambler.

I’ve finished Dostoevsky’s Игрок [The Gambler], and it’s pretty much what I would have expected from a novel written in a single month under the gun of a deadline that, if missed, would have meant all the author’s copyrights would have gone to the vile Stellovsky — that is, it’s barely a novel at all, and while well worth reading (it is, after all, Dostoevsky) is not worth a great deal of attention. (In fact, William J. Leatherbarrow, in his excellent little Twayne book Fedor Dostoevsky, has no more to say about it than this: “The short novel The Gambler is an interesting product of Dostoevsky’s unhealthy preoccupation with roulette.”) But it’s worth as much attention as I give it here.

In the first place, Dostoevsky was right to want to call it Ruletenburg (Stellovsky insisted on a “more Russian” name) — it’s clearly intended as a group portrait of the people assembled in the German resort town given that alias (probably Baden) as well as a study of compulsive gambling, and the title it ended up with places too much emphasis on the latter. The problem with the group portrait is that there’s only one actual character in the entire book — the rich, aged, wheelchair-bound Muscovite Antonida Tarasevicheva, whose death (and consequent inheritance) has been anxiously awaited by most of the characters for their varied reasons and whose sudden appearance at the end of chapter 8 is a magnificent coup de théâtre. She is beautifully thought-out and realized; you would know her immediately if you ran into her, and she is as vivid in my mind as Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, and Porfiry Petrovich in the last novel of his I read or as the various Karamazovs, who have stayed with me since I encountered them in college almost a half-century ago. The rest are pure cardboard, including the narrator, and I can’t help but think that one of the problems with the novel is the choice of first-person narration; Dostoevsky originally planned to write Crime and Punishment that way, but eventually settled on the brilliant third-person approach that allowed him to open the story up and give it depth. But that was a lot of work, and he didn’t have time for it with The Gambler.

So what do people talk about when they talk about The Gambler? For one thing, they call it autobiographical, but that’s nonsense. Yes, Dostoevsky himself was a compulsive gambler and drew on the experience when writing the novel, but otherwise Alexei (the narrator) is nothing like him. Another thing they talk about is this (I quote Joseph Frank):

The Gambler may be seen as Dostoevsky’s brilliantly ambivalent commentary, inspired by his own misadventures in the casino, on the Russian national character. Disorderly and “unseemly” though the Russian character may be, it still has human potentialities closed to the narrow, inhuman, and Philistine penny-pinching of the Germans; the worldly, elegant, and totally perfidious patina of the French, and even the solidly helpful but unattractively stodgy virtues of the English.

Come on now. That sort of guff is great for “three guys walk into a bar” jokes, it can be useful as characterization when put into a character’s mouth, but it is not literary material as such, and here it’s basically recycled from his essay Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. “We X people are not like those silly Y people and those nasty Z people!” is nationalistic prejudice, pure and simple. (Of course, the worst form is anti-Semitism, with which Dostoevsky was badly infected and which must be confronted by any lover of the novels; Gary Saul Morson has an excellent discussion of this in “Dostoevsky’s Anti-Semitism and the Critics,” available on JSTOR.) And that’s much of what is going on in this novel; the Russians are fools for love (Alexei is in love with Praskovya/Polina, who is in love with Des Grieux, and the doddering general is in love with Mlle. Blanche), while the French are cynics out to take them for all they can get and the Germans are soulless money-grubbers. (The exception is the Englishman Astley, who is also in love with Polina and who is unfailingly decent and generous.) It all adds up to anecdote and melodrama, but it does have a memorable female character, his first since Netochka Nezvanova if you don’t count the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold Sonya in Crime and Punishment, which I don’t. Oh, and there’s only one episode of tears falling like hail. On to Turgenev’s Дым [Smoke], by pleasing coincidence also set in Baden!


I’ve finally gotten around to reading Tom McCarthy’s odd but absorbing novel Remainder, which Studiolum gave me a couple of years ago, and I was stopped by the sentence “The road was cambered, like most roads.” I didn’t think I knew the word, but my impression that it meant ‘arched’ was confirmed when I looked it up (AHD: camber “A slightly arched surface, as of a road, a ship’s deck, an airfoil, or a ski”), so I must have absorbed it from somewhere. (I asked my wife, who was familiar with it from skis.) It also has a specifically UK sense “a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed” (reflected in this Wikipedia article), but even though McCarthy is English I don’t think that meaning can be intended here, since it’s not true of “most roads.” I’m curious if this is a word most people are familiar with and I just haven’t run into much, or if it’s a fairly specialized term.

Also, the etymology is interesting; AHD says “From Middle English caumber, curved, from Old North French dialectal caumbre, from Latin camur, perhaps from Greek kamara, vault,” but “perhaps” should be taken with considerable salt according to J. Peter Maher in “‘Stone,’ ‘Hammer,’ and ‘Heaven’ in Indo-European Languages and Cosmology,” published in Approaches to Language: Anthropological Issues, edited by William C. McCormack and Stephen A. Wurm (Walter de Gruyter, 1978):

Benveniste compared a dubious Gk. word (kamára) with a highly ambiguous Iranian form, itself actually borrowed into Gk.: cf. Gk. kamára ‘(soldier’s) belt’. […] If this were not messy enough, Benveniste also brings in an extremely problematical Latin word from Vergil and Isidore of Seville, camur(us), referring to ‘inward curving’ (of cow’s horns). The comparative method of linguistics is damaged by such dubious comparisons.

I don’t know where the truth lies, but I always enjoy that kind of scholarly spleen.

Update. Having finished the book, I regret to report that I didn’t like it. It set up an intriguing situation that I thought could be resolved in either of two interesting ways, but it ended up in over-the-top melodrama possibly brought on by having seen too many movies (perhaps at the Ritzy, a local landmark mentioned more than once in the novel). That’s just my opinion, of course; Antoine Wilson and Liesl Schillinger loved it, and the wonderful Zadie Smith called it “one of the great English novels of the past ten years” (which is what impelled me to want to read it in the first place). But me, I didn’t like it. I may have been spoiled by too much Dostoevsky. Read the reviews and judge for yourself.

United Air Line.

Jonathan Morse posts about the surprising early history of airline, which began as two words:

The noun air line (“chiefly U.S.,” says the OED) originally referred to the shortest distance between two points: a straight line, as might be drawn on a map. During the nineteenth century the term became a selling point that American railroads incorporated into their names. […]

The more famous of the two twentieth-century American magazines named Life was a mid-century weekly that specialized in photojournalism, but the earlier Life was less an illustrated history of its time than a word game played for eternal stakes. It was a humor magazine, and on January 6, 1910, it put the words air line into play and began doodling some thoughts on paper about what they were actually saying, not what they were merely meaning. […]

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers had made their first powered takeoff, and six years and a few days later it’s obvious that the cartoonist still hasn’t actually seen a wing. But he always has known the language of air. He came to crying life on the day it began filling his lungs, and now the play with the mooring ropes has spun off a name. There it is, written across what in 1910 is still probably called a pier: United Air Line. It has no plural ending because it actually is united. It is a single line segment with a beginning and an end: an air line, extending (say the other words on the pier) all the way to London.

You have to go to Jon’s post to see the amazing illustration referred to; trust me, ça vaut le détour.

Is “Y’all” in Trouble?

Allan Metcalf reports for Lingua Franca on a distressing new development:

For some time, “y’all” has been assaulted by “you guys” aiming to replace it as the go-to second-person-plural pronoun in the South. […] In the Dictionary of American Regional English, the usage note for “you guys” says “orig. chiefly North; now widespread; esp freq. among younger speakers.” It backs this up with two citations that indicate the invasion has been on its way at least since the recent turn of the century:

2000 American Speech 75.417: Meanwhile, just as y’all seems to be spreading outside the South, you-guys is moving into the South, especially among younger speakers. […]

Now, I am not in any sense a Southerner, though my father’s side of the family is from the Ozarks and I have some remnants of that accent (UM-brella, IN-surance); I don’t use “y’all” in my normal speech. But I think it’s a wonderful bit of English, and I am appalled at the thought that it could get replaced by the nondescript “you guys.” So y’all get out there and preserve your linguistic heritage!

Anderson on Powell and Proust.

Perry Anderson writes long, long essays for the London Review of Books; they are always interesting, but I confess when their topics are not central to my life, I tend to skim long chunks of them. However, I read all of his very, very, very long piece in the latest issue; ostensibly a review of Hilary Spurling’s new biography of Anthony Powell, it is in fact a detailed comparison of Powell and Proust, frequently to the detriment of the latter. As one of the (probably lamentably few) readers who have made their way through both A la recherche du temps perdu and A Dance to the Music of Time (“1,240,000 words in Proust, 1,130,000 in Powell”), I gobbled it all up, and those who have read one or the other massive set of novels (or, if you prefer, massive novels divided into chunks for publication) may well want to read the relevant portions of the review. I confess I was originally going to post just the following bit, for the sake of the pun (pompe means both ‘pomp’ and ‘pump’):

[Proust’s] father was a friend of Félix Faure, president of the Third Republic in the last years of the 19th century, who expired in one of its most famous scandals, in the course – his pompe funèbre, as it was widely dubbed – of fellation by his mistress.

But as I read on I found he had such interesting things to say that I thought I’d reproduce a few paragraphs here:
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