In Fir Tar Is.

I was leafing idly through the 1951 first edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes when my eye fell on #249:

In fir tar is,
In oak none is,
In mud ells are,
In clay none are.
Goat eat ivy;
Mare eat oats.

A catch which, when said quickly, appears to be in Latin. The joke may be traced back 500 years to a medical manuscript of Henry VI’s time,
‘Is thy pott enty, Colelent? Is gote eate yvy. Mare eate ootys. Is thy cocke lyke owrs?’
The last two lines of the catch form the basis of ‘Maizy Doats’, a swing song contagious in Britain and America in 1943, the words of which were claimed as original.

A number of things caught my attention here. Fake Latin? Hmm, I guess it sounds sort of like “Infertaris, in hoc nonis,” aut similia, but after that it doesn’t sound Latinate to me. The earlier one starts something like “Isti potenti,” but again I get lost. But what really got me was the claim about “Maizy Doats” (a non-rhotic mistake that got corrected to “Mairzy Doats” in later editions, though the snotty “claimed as original” is still there) — really?? Really, apparently; see this account by Dennis Livingston, son of one of the creators of the song:

The song was inspired by Milton Drake, one of my dad’s songwriting partners. Drake had long been familiar with the phrase “mares eat oats, does eat oats,” and so on, which many children learned as a nursery rhyme. These words can be traced back to centuries-old English ditties, one of which proclaimed: “In fir tar is, in oak none is, in mud eel is, in clay none is, goat eat ivy, mare eat oats.” Slide those first words together and you sound like you’re speaking pseudo-Latin!

Early in 1942, Drake suggested that he, my dad and Al Hoffman, the third member of the team, have a go at turning “mares eat oats” into an appropriately nutty song at one of the daily brainstorming sessions they held at the Brill Building in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. It took only a few days of tossing words back and forth, with time out for creative lunch breaks over blintzes and coffee at Lindy’s delicatessen, before they succeeded.

Whodathunkit! (If you’re not familiar with “Mairzy Doats,” here’s The Pied Pipers’ 1944 version; warning: earworm.)

Ghost Nations of Russia’s Civil War.

Frank Jacobs has posted a wonderful annotated map about some little-known splinters of the Russian Civil War:

Those circumstances gave rise to dozens of ephemeral states, mostly at the former Empire’s fraying edges. Some lasted only weeks, other several years. All were eventually absorbed into the U.S.S.R.

This map lists only 28. As map creator /u/pisseguri82 says: “I specifically omitted (states) that are still around – various Red, White, monarchist and others, or incarnations of them anyway. This is about the nations most people haven’t heard of”.

And boy, they’re not kidding. I’ve read a lot about the period, but most of these short-lived entities were new to me: the Republic of Uhtua? North Ingria? the Republic of Perloja? the East Lemko Republic? Green Ukraine (which “was nowhere near actual Ukraine”)? This is a feast for lovers of obscure backwaters of history. And to give it a linguistic fig leaf, I’ll mention that “Idel” in the Republic of Idel-Ural (which “only ever controlled parts of Kazan, its prospective capital”) is a Turkic name of the Volga River (cf. Tatar Idyl, Kazakh Edyl, Chuvash Adyl, etc.). Thanks, Yoram!


In a TLS article about Kenelm Digby‘s privateering expedition in 1627, I read that “He was granted ‘Pratique’, as the right to come ashore and trade was known, with surprising speed [at Cephalonia]”; not being familiar with the word, I looked it up, and found that it was (per Wiktionary) “Permission to use a port given to a ship after compliance with a quarantine or on conviction that she is free of contagious disease” and was “Borrowed from French pratique, from Medieval Latin practica.” The (2nd ed.) OED says it’s pronounced ʹprætik, giving the French praʹtik as an alternate. I’m not clear on the semantic development, nor on whether it’s still in use; the Wikipedia article talks as if it is (“Pratique is the license given to a ship to enter port”), but for all I know that’s straight from the 11th-edition Britannica or some equally obsolete source. So any information anyone has about it will be welcome.

The Cultural Influence of Persian.

Joel at Far Outliers posted a passage from A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy, that ends with a nice summation of a phenomenon that’s been mentioned here before:

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

I might add that Persian/Farsi is quite an easy language to learn (and well worth it for the poetry alone).

Maine Swear Words for Snow.

This New Maine News story is just a bit of fluff, and I really should have posted it on April 1, but what the hell, it’s still snowing occasionally here so it resonates with me. Here’s the start:

Orono — Linguists studying the distinct Maine dialect believe they’ve cataloged every possible swear word Mainers have for snow.

Currently there are 73 swear words Mainers use to describe snow, but linguists with the University of Maine say that number could increase.

“There are obvious ones, the ones that most easily spring to mind when you first have to shovel a path through the dooryard,” said lead researcher Donna Ingalls.

“As the season progresses and snow accumulates, more words enter the lexicon.”

Ingalls said by March, Mainers are stringing together seemingly unrelated swear words to describe the late-season snow.

“Oh, absolutely. It almost sounds like a random barking of obscenities, but the way the Maine dialect works, the swears are often repeated for emphasis in long, long rants.”

Ever-resourceful Mainers will even sometimes invent swearwords on the spot.

And yeah, having to shovel the snow around the mailbox so the goddamn friggin mailman doesn’t have to get out of his goddamn delivery truck is a goddamn pain.

Heaven’s Vault.

I don’t do video games, but those of you who do might be interested in this one (Andrew Webster reporting for The Verge):

Initially, the premise for Heaven’s Vault sounds like a typical video game. You play as a young woman named Aliya Elasra, accompanied by her temperamental robot Six, and together you explore a series of moons that were once home to a mysterious ancient civilization. But the ruins aren’t filled with violent aliens to kill or powerful weapons to discover. Instead, what the civilization left behind is words, and it’s your job to figure out what they mean.

Heaven’s Vault is the next release from Inkle, the British studio best known for the globe-trotting adventure 80 Days. It’s a 3D open-world game built by a team of just eight people, though the scale of the world — or worlds since Heaven’s Vault takes place across a network of moons — isn’t the most impressive thing about it. Instead, it’s the language. In order to make players feel like true archaeologists, Inkle created an entirely new hieroglyphic language from scratch. At first, you won’t understand a word of it, but as you play, you’ll not only start to understand the words, but also the society that created them. […]

The first time you see a hieroglyph, you essentially have to guess what it is. The game will show you a pictorial, and then give you a few options for what it might mean. A symbol could mean either “temple” or “garden,” and, initially, all you have to go on is the context of where the symbol is and what it looks like. If you guess wrong, you aren’t punished. In fact, the game lets you carry on thinking that could be the meaning of the word. As you explore, you’ll keep seeing symbols repeatedly and learn new ones that can give you a better idea of what others mean.

Sounds intriguing; thanks, bulbul!


Anna Bitong at BBC Travel writes about the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego; there’s stuff about their history and current status, but what concerns us is this passage:

That inspiration can be seen in a word that has garnered rapturous admirers and inspired many flights of the imagination. Mamihlapinatapai comes from the near-extinct Yaghan language. According to Vargas’ own interpretation, “It is the moment of meditation around the pusakí [fire in Yaghan] when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.”

But since the 19th Century, the word has held a different meaning – one to which people all over the world relate.

Magellan’s discovery of a ‘land of fire’ prompted more long-distance voyages to the region. In the 1860s, British missionary and linguist Thomas Bridges set up a mission in Ushuaia. He spent the next 20 years living among the Yaghans and compiled around 32,000 of their words and inflections in a Yaghan-English dictionary. The English translation of mamihlapinatapai, which differs from Vargas’ interpretation, debuted in an essay by Bridges: “To look at each other, hoping that either will offer to do something, which both parties much desire done but are unwilling to do.”

[Read more…]

The Intermediate Class.

I can’t really say how good Sam Allingham’s story in last week’s New Yorker is, because my enjoyment of it was overdetermined: it’s about a Russian-American taking a German class with people of different backgrounds, with discussion of various languages, such as this:

“Where do you live?” Kiril asked. He had to force himself to use the casual du. Sometimes, when he searched for German, Russian came to him instead, and he reverted to the patterns of childhood.

And I like the way Allingham renders the effect of the effortful German of the students (the class is conducted in German), mimicked in English:

“I like very much the park,” he said. “It is dark and cool, and in the park there are dogs and people and flowers and trees.”

The girl who played the piano murmured wordlessly. Perhaps she had similar feelings.

Kiril began to relax. “And . . . the park . . . is not . . .” Finally the correct word came to him. “Crowded.”

If you enjoy the story, you’ll want to read the interview with the author (“Learning a language means learning the rules to a seemingly endless series of these games, from the correct procedure for ordering coffee to the delicate art of asking your boss for a raise, none of which are quite the same as they are in English”) and perhaps listen to the author read his story.

Thanks to a Facebook post by Steven Lubman, I have discovered the excellent site Полка (, which has nothing to do with dancing (‘polka’ in Russian is полька, with a palatalized l) — полка is the Russian word for ‘shelf,’ in this case ‘bookshelf,’ and when you go to the site you are confronted with a stylized row of Russian book spines and one face forward (at the moment it’s showing me Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, which is a good choice). If you click on the “books” link, you see the heading Главные произведения русской литературы, выбранные экспертами «Полки» [The main works of Russian literature, chosen by the experts of “Polka”], followed by a list in order of rating (the top one is Hero of Our Time, followed by Anna Karenina). You can have them listed chronologically, by title, or by author, and there’s a search box; as I wrote on FB:

I searched on Nabokov and was surprised to see they included Lolita, which wasn’t written in Russian! But I’m certainly not going to quarrel with that. The search function doesn’t work too well (when I searched on Gazdanov, I got only Призрак Александра Вольфа [The Spectre of Alexander Wolf], but then elsewhere I ran into my beloved Вечер у Клэр [An Evening with Claire]), but somehow that seems fitting for Russian literature. Very much looking forward to exploring this.

There are discussions (by the experts) of each book included. Highly recommended for anyone who reads Russian.

Famous Poems Rewritten as Limericks.

This Wordorigins thread (derived from a Facebook post, shown as an image) is giving me so much pleasure I have to share my two favorites from it (so far). By NotThatGuy:

“Utnapishtim,” cried Gilgamesh, “Why
Do you get to live, while I die?”
“I can see that you’re vexed,”
[There’s a gap in the text]
The walls of Uruk are quite high!

By Dr. Techie:

There once was a king, Ozymandias,
Who no one had triumphed as grandly as.
But his statue fell down
In shards on the ground,
And now, nothing left but the sand, he has.

Mine isn’t as good (to be fair, I dashed it off pretty hastily), but what the hell, I’ll quote it anyway:

I was off to a wedding one day
When a crazy old man blocked my way.
As he clutched at my coat
He said “Once, on a boat…”
And I missed the whole wedding. Oy vey!