The wonderful Boston Globe language columnist, Jan Freeman, is filling in for Safire this week at the NY Times, and her column, “Bierce’s Bugbears,” is a very enjoyable list of odd prohibitions plucked from Bierce’s 1909 book Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. A sample:

“I am afraid it will rain.” Wrong, said Bierce: the proper expression was, “I fear it will rain.” He gave no reason, but the rule appeared at least half a century earlier, in Walton Burgess’s “Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing and Writing the English Language, Corrected.” And Burgess did have a reason: he explained that fear was the correct verb, because “afraid expresses terror; fear may mean only anxiety.” Unfortunately, that was simply false. Afraid did not imply terror for Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen: “When you have seen more of this country, I am afraid you will think you have overrated Hartfield,” Austen’s Emma tells Mrs. Elton. Though several other usage mavens repeated Burgess’s and Bierce’s advice, there’s no sign that it ever made an impression on the wider public.

She’s doing an update of Bierce subtitled “The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers”—look for it at your bookstore in a few months!
Totally unrelated, but does anybody know the history of Clarice Lispector‘s family name? She came from a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Podolia (now in Ukraine), but “Lispector” certainly doesn’t sound Yiddish, or indeed anything but odd and beautiful (like the writer herself, who I got interested in thanks to this review by Fernanda Eberstadt of a new biography).


  1. No idea, but when I read another review of that biography her name immediately reminded me of Regina Spektor’s (which actually made me, who hadn’t heard of Lispector before, suspect a Jewish Eastern European background before it came up in that review).

  2. I tried ‘Lispector’ at, but there were no matches– so it’s an unusual story, whatever it is.

  3. Lots of places on the web, like this (and a biography, but GB won’t let you see that page) quote her last interview in Nov. ’77 on that question.

  4. Oh, I see, Moser’s biography (the one under review in the Times) addresses that version, too.

  5. I refuse to believe Clarice Lispector was real. She sounds like a hoax dreamt up by Roberto Bolaño.

  6. Reminds me of Milton Friedman’s wife, Rose Director, who was also from a Jewish-Ukrainian family.

  7. hsgudnason says:

    And there was an actress on one of the Star Trek series named Nana Visitor, which always struck me as an appropriate name for someone playing a space alien.

  8. CL fits perfectly to ‘my’ displaceds’ theory, i should find her books, thanks
    Lispector is perharps ungrammatical/ukrainized from inspector or something
    there are many Russian words in my language that got very funnily distorted and fit all grammar modifications after that distortion, though there are native words for them too
    for example, ostool – means stol-table, in Mongolian it’s shiree, ocher – ochered’ -line, the native word is egnee etc

  9. MMcM: When I saw your comment I got all excited, but it turns out that those links do nothing more than pass on the author’s silly myth about a fleur-de-lis on her breast. I think Nathaniel’s comparison to Spektor/Spector is more promising; maybe Li- is from a Romance article picked up in the days when Yiddish was being created in the Rhine region?

  10. Sorry to have set false expectations; that’s why I only pointed it out, rather than taking its conclusion. I suppose her father’s information that it was used for generations in Ukraine is more reliable.
    Is there a version of cursive where Ин looks like Ли? It’s roughly the same number of hoops.

  11. It’s slow going without even Snippet View, but I believe A dictionary of Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire says:

    Inspektor (Rovno, Dubno, Kremenets) O: inspector [Russian] (Lispektor, Spekter, Speherman, Speherman, Speklor, Spektor-Shpektor, SpekJorman, Speklorov (Speklarev), Spektorovslàj, Spektrov, Spiktor, Shpekterman, Shpektor (Shpektar), Shpektorov, Shpekiormskij) . In the Jewish community administration there was an inspecting commission for supervising schools and public morals (ЕЕ, 9:81).

    There’s a copy at a nearby public library; I’ll double check when I’m next there.

  12. As for the phonetics, the same book (again via No preview available):

    Transformation of the resonant n before a consonant into the resonant l: Aksel’gorin from Aksengorin, Gojkhel’berg from Gojkhenberg, Lispektor from Inspektor, Rajkhel’shtejn from Rajkhenshtejn, Rojzengurtel’ from Rojzengurten. The origin of this type of substitution is not clear, but there are no examples from Slavic languages.

  13. John Emerson says:

    MMcM belongs in a higher league and should be exiled, on the Athenian principle. He or she just makes everyone else look bad.
    You just watch. We fail to do this and then bingo! one day he’s President for Life.

  14. By god, MMcM, when you face a challenge you rise to it. Thanks, and your ostrakon will arrive by Express Mail; you can choose your island of exile.

  15. Is there a version of cursive where Ин looks like Ли … Transformation of the resonant n before a consonant into the resonant l … Lispektor from Inspektor
    Such variations in names due to differing phonetic systems and orthographic conventions in different languages, misunderstandings and imitation of misunderstandings – that sounds like something that should have occurred with considerable frequency in the past, and still should be occurring.
    How is it that this has all come up only in connection with the single name Lispector, and only by the good offices of MMcM? Is it that everyone else here simply was not explicitly conscious of this being a general phenomenon, as I was not? But then no one seems to be very surprised by it either, as I am not. But this mighty be merely an end-of-summer phenomenon, when not that many people are blogging in!
    Pursuing the origin of Lispector, I had briefly rambled down a dead-end track that I wouldn’t try to dignify as being parallel to that of MMcM. I saw that Lispector resembled L’inspecteur, so I googled the latter. There were several hundred hits, all of them that I checked being apparently misspellings or copies of misspellings. This is going to get much worse as the Internet spreads.
    W.H. Smith offer a children’s book called Lispecteur Bleu de Bresse, which also appears on the Amazon Japanese site as Voleur de Bidonville (L’Ispecteur Bleu de Bresse).
    In a scanned document on, an 1867 HISTOIRE DES PRINCIPALES FAMILLES DU CANADA, you can imagine that misscanning might account for Lispecteur as well as (îardes du Corps:
             …………. René-Benjamin Rouer,
    l’un d’eux, après avoir servi avec distinction en
    Acadie, passa en France après la conquête, entra dans les
    (îardes du Corps, fut fait Chevalier de S’ Louis en 1776,
    Maréchal de Logis en 1788 et Colonel en 1789. Il était
    Lispecteur en Chef, lorsqu’éclatit la révolution française.

    In a 1964 obituary with a picture of the deceased, we have Inspecteur Général des Eaux et Forêts just above the photo, and Ispecteur Général des Eaux et Forêts just below it.
    I just read a TLS article which referred to “Walter Ralegh”. I find now that this is a feature, not a bug.
    The pernicious effects of the internet resemble what Dorothea experienced in Rome, as described in Middlemarch:
    Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense, and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking of them, preparing strange associations which remained through her after-years. Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze; and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.

  16. “Several hundred hits” for Lispecteur: actually only 141 of them. I got that confused with something else.

  17. perhaps

  18. misscanning might account
    My current favorite OCR error: Borneo and Juliet.

  19. That suggests a strategy to prevent your work from being robotomized when you put it on the internet: use a font which puts OCR into a spin, and photograph the text.

  20. the huge bronze canopy
    I see Bernini’s baldacchino in my mind several times a week. I always have, ever since I was twenty-something.

  21. Preachy Preach says:

    I was reading a book on D-Day a few months go that had been appallingly typeset, obviously by a combination of an OCR from the original edition, and a careless global search and replace.
    Which led to the unusual sentence “The transport planes came in too faSt. Lôw and scattered.”

  22. John Emerson says:

    Such variations in names due to differing phonetic systems and orthographic conventions in different languages, misunderstandings and imitation of misunderstandings – that sounds like something that should have occurred with considerable frequency in the past, and still should be occurring.
    This is a major, major factor in the history of the early Mongol Empire. The sources are in Chinese, Mongol, and Persian. Not only are there phonetic differences between the languages, but Chinese is not a phonetic language, Persian does not write the vowels, and in a number of cases old-script Mongol represents two different letters identically. Furthermore, both Persian and Mongol differentiate some sounds by dots, which are often carelessly omitted.
    The upshot is that a name which occurs only in a Persian or a Chinese source must be guessed at. This is less of a problem for the Secret History, the main Mongol source, because it’s pretty well done in both Chinese and Mongol, but if a Chinese or Persian author was translating from a defective Mongol manuscript, big errors could emerge.
    The most famous mistake: “Jochi” is often written “Tushi” in Persian sources, because of a dotting error.
    Ia gree that this would be a great topic for a main post.

  23. I’ll double check when I’m next there.
    Nothing much to add, really, beyond the obvious OCR errors like SpekJorman for Spektorman.
    Its own entry is “Lispektor (Gajsin 372) O: See Inspektor,” confirming the Ukraine association.
    EE is Еврейская Энциклопедия and I once again find myself unable to work out how the online versions of this work relate to the printed reference (9:81).

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