Confidence Man.

I’m reading July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin, having enjoyed his The Russian Origins of the First World War (see this post) and having read in R.J.W. Evans NYRB review that it was “almost impossible to put down” (and of course being prompted by the centenary aspect); I’m still on the Prologue, but I’ve already run into a linguistic conundrum. In describing the preparations of the Serbian conspirators, he writes “Chabrinovitch, with papers provided by Popovitch, was to cross the border en route for Zvornik, on the Bosnian side; from there another confidence man would drive him to Tuzla, a town connected by railway to Sarajevo.” On the next page we get “Finally, in Tuzla, the three terrorists, having been reunited, turned over their deadly cargo to another confidence man, Mishko Jovanovitch, who, like Chubrilovitch, was both an upstanding local citizen (he owned a bank and a movie theater) and a member of Narodna Odbrana.” Setting aside the fact that I’ve been hit with a Chabrinovitch, a Ciganovitch, and a Chubrilovitch within the space of a few pages, about which it would be churlish for an aficionado of Russian literature to complain (though why he uses those archaic spellings instead of the correct Čabrinović etc. is beyond me), I want to focus on the phrase “confidence man,” which puzzled me. At first I thought “Well, the ‘con man’ sense I’m familiar with must be peculiar to the US, and in the UK it must mean ‘a man in whom confidence is placed,’” but a trawl through dictionaries put the kibosh on that idea (the OED defines it as “a professional swindler of respectable appearance and address,” the Concise [12th ed., 2011] simply as “a confidence trickster”). Furthermore, googling turns up no instances I can find of the phrase used as McMeekin uses it. So is he simply in error about its meaning, or am I missing something?

Addendum. I should add that he spells place names (e.g., Šabac) correctly; it’s just personal names that get the Ruritania treatment. Also, he spells the name of Sarajevo’s river “Miljăcke” rather than the correct Miljacka (note that he adds an incorrect breve as well as changing a to e), so I’m starting to have concerns about accuracy in general.

Further addendum. My concerns have been heightened by his reference to “a token Bosnian Muslim with the wonderfully evocative name of Mehmedbashitch (‘Mehmed’ being a Turkic variant of Mohammad and ‘bashitch’ the Slavicization of the Turkish word for kickback, baksheesh).” Now, that’s just silly; Mehmedbašić (to give the name its proper spelling) has the Serbo-Croatian - ending added to a name formed from the elements Mehmed and (I presume) Turkish baş ‘head.’ Why do people feel the need to make up “colorful” details like that?

Yet another addendum. OK, this is getting bad. At the start of chapter 1, describing the “glorious summer of 1914,” he says: “On Sunday afternoon, 28 June, Zweig … was … sitting on a park bench in the spa town of Baden, reading a Tolstoy novel.” Naturally, I wondered: which Tolstoy novel? What a stupid detail to omit! If it was War and Peace, for instance, it would be pleasantly piquant. Fortunately, Google Books lets me preview The World of Yesterday (cited in the footnote), where I discovered what Zweig actually wrote: “I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book—I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoievsky—and I read with interest and attention.” It would appear McMeekin was working from vague memories rather than actual notes. If he’s falling down so badly on stuff I can easily check, why should I trust him on the stuff I can’t? And (he asked, futilely, for the umpteenth time) don’t any reviewers ever bother to check up on such things?

Comments

  1. dmitry pruss says:

    Probably the spellings and the confidence man are lifted from Russian sources… доверенное лицо

  2. He’s not the only one making translation mistakes. L’internaute.com, which is the top google hit for a French dictionary, has the following:

    “homme de confiance, nom masculin
    Sens Personne à qui l’on confie une responsabilité ou une charge délicate. Anglais confidence men”

    What?

  3. I find this use of “confidence man” as puzzling as you do. In another book McMeekin puts the phrase in quotes:

    “Münzenberg was not the only Social Democrat to make a pact with the Bolshevik devil between the two world wars, nor the only Communist responsible for dividing the German Left so fatally before Hitler’s onslaught. Still, his singular position as the senior Bolshevik ‘confidence man’ in the West from Lenin’s inner circle at Zimmerwald; his exceptionally easy access to Moscow gold; and his uniquely reckless unaccountability to either his party colleagues or the working-class patrons he supposedly spoke for — such factors gave Münzenberg a special responsibility for the tragedy of socialism between the world wars.” (The Red Millionaire, p. 306)

    Maybe McMeekin is using the word not just for “a man in whom confidence is placed,” but narrowly to mean “a man valuable to his allies in place A because he is based in place B and trusted there”? The quote marks and the Russian context make Dmitry Pruss’s suggestion that it’s an odd word-by-word translation of доверенное лицо ‘agent, proxy, authorized representative’ seem even more likely. Vasha’s comment made me wonder if “confidence man” might have an obsolete legal meaning similar to доверенное лицо, but I can’t find a single example.

  4. In German, Vertrauensmann means both “agent” like the Russian (and has a number of more specific uses in this sense, including that of a union representative who negotiates with superiors) and also “person entrusted with a delicate responsibility” like the French. English seems like the oddball among all these languages.

  5. But almost surely by “confidence man” McMeekin means “a member of an underground network”, the meaning completely absent in доверенное лицо. So if it is the source of his turn of phrase he probably misconstrued the meaning of its Russian counterpart as well.

    Attention, an attempt at joke: “Tolstoy novel” can be read just as “Harry Potter novel” that is not a novel by Tolstoy, but a novel about Tolstoy.

  6. GeorgeW says:

    It is hard to believe that someone who grew up in Rochester NY and educated at Stanford and UC Berkeley doesn’t know the meaning of “confidence man.” If it is a literal translation from Russian, then it was a bad translation decision. Where was the editor?

  7. Exactly!

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Turkish baš ‘head.’

    Of course spelled baş with a cedilla.

  9. D’oh! Thanks, fixed.

  10. (Somebody’s) man of confidence has sometimes been used in the sense of ‘authorised representative’, ‘returning officer’ or the like (Polish mąż zaufania, literally = ‘man of confidence’, means someone officially authorised to oversee elections at a polling place). I’ve seen mistakes like “a water body” for “a body of water” in my students’ essays more often that I’d like to. However, neither “confidence man” nor “man of confidence” makes sense to me in the context. Some kind of conspirator is meant there.

  11. Another error, too trivial to be worth another update to the post but annoying enough to mention: he uses e.g. where he should use i.e. Understandable for the man on the street, but embarrassing for a scholar.

  12. GeorgeW says:

    “However, neither “confidence man” nor “man of confidence” makes sense to me in the context. Some kind of conspirator is meant there.”

    I suspect he means someone in whom the parties have confidence, can trust.

  13. The OED1 (1891) says s.v. confidence:

    †8. Trustworthiness, as a personal quality. a person of confidence : one entrusted with matters of importance or secrecy, a confidential agent. Cf. confident adj. 6.

    1642 Bp. J. Taylor Of Sacred Order Episcopacy (1647) 366 Bishops and Priests were men of great ability and surest confidence for determinations of justice.

    1777 W. Robertson Hist. Amer. (1783) II. 223 He sent a person of confidence to the Havana, with..farther orders.

    1791 Gentleman’s Mag. 61 ii. 864 If your Lordship pleases, I will nominate a person of confidence.

    1800 tr. Cervantes Force of Blood 161 She sent a man of confidence to the priest.

    Note the obelisk (†), which says the OED considers the sense obsolete, unsurprising if they hadn’t seen it for almost a century.

  14. I think both Dmitry and DO are right, it is a sloppy rendition of доверенное лицо as both a representative of the network, group, and someone reliable. A reliable liaison locally based, as Eric suggests. In Russian, there is another phrase with a definite underground flavour: надежный человек – reliable man. Which in turn could be rendered in French as un homme de confiance (aslo meaning right-hand man, side-kick).
    Perhaps McMeekin was using French sources that used that phrase?

  15. marie-lucie says:

    .French … un homme de confiance (also meaning right-hand man, side-kick)

    I would not use “side-kick” as a translation of homme de confiance, a common phrase which implies ability and reliability in acting and negotiating for his superior (whether in legal or illegal matters). I don’t find these qualities as necessary characteristics of a “side-kick” or even “right-hand man”.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    the obelisk (†)

    A cross is called an obelisk? Suddenly Obelix makes sense!

  17. It’s also called a dagger in English, but I like obelisk because of (as you imply) its relationship to asterisk. The Latin Cross character is ✝, which is not quite the same.

  18. I had always found that use of “obelisk” a bit puzzling. So I just looked it up, and it appears to have started out as an eggcorn for “obelus.”

  19. Quite right, and I’ve learned something today! OED (2004): “Post-classical Latin obeliscus is used for obelus to denote a type of diacritical mark by analogy with post-classical Latin asteriscus asterisk n., with which it generally occurs in juxtaposition.”

  20. Obelisk or obeliskos (ὀβελίσκος) is the diminutive of obelos (ὀβελός). I thought they meant ‘dagger’, but logeion says the primary meaning is ‘spit’, with a secondary meaning for both words of what we call an obelisk, i.e. a very thin square pyramid. Interesting idiom for the non-diminutive: ‘the hot end of the spit’ is proverbial for ‘taking a thing by the wrong end’. English ‘obelize’ comes from one of the meanings of ὀβελός: “horizontal line, —(representation of an arrow acc. to Isid.Etym.1.21.3), used as a critical mark to point out that a passage was spurious, Gal.15.110, Luc.Pr.Im.24 , Sch.Il. ip.xliii Dind.; with an asterisk to denote misplaced lines, ibid.; but with one point below and one above, ὀ. περιεστιγμένος, in texts of Plato, denoted τὰς εἰκαίους ἀθετήσεις, D.L.3.66″. Along with ‘obelus’ and ‘obelize’, classicists use ‘dagger’ as noun and verb for the critical sign which still marks spurious words or sections.

  21. P.S. The resemblance to ‘asterisk’ is all in the diminutive ending: ἀστήρ = ‘star’, ἀστερίσκος = ‘little star’, also (again from Logeion) “the mark ※ by which Gramm. distinguished fine passages in Mss”. Will the mark actually come through? We shall soon see.

  22. Yes! At least on my screen, the asterisk (an X with dots in the angles) is clearly visible. I can’t think of any other English words with the Greek diminutive -isk- in the ending. Are there any?

  23. Hmmm. I see our host slipped in a pertinent comment while I was composing mine.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Basilisk.

  25. Marie-Lucie, thanks. No, I ma not happy with these translations. But is there another English word for a ‘man of confidence?’

  26. “But is there another English word for a ‘man of confidence?”

    Confidant? Crony?

  27. As in the OED that John Cowan quotes (and the Greene thriller), “confidential agent.”

  28. ‘Person of trust’?

  29. How about ‘plenipotentiary’ – someone with full power (as the Latin etymology implies) to negotiate on behalf of his employer, as opposed to a mere messenger who can’t sign anything binding without going back for permission. I’ve only heard it used in political contexts, e.g. the ambassador plenipotentiary of a king, but I suppose a powerful businessman could also have one. With modern communications, they’re less needed, since we can now check back for approval any time it’s needed.

  30. In some circumstances that might work, but it’s far too grand for a passel of impecunious Serbian conspirators smuggling arms.

  31. In Sicily, he would be “a friend of ours”.

  32. Plenipotentiary (which has the archaic clipped form plenipo) captures the agency relationship, but misses the confidentiality. The only recent non-political use in the OED3 is from Nicholson Baker’s U and I: “Someone who resembles you enough to serve as your emotional plenipotentiary.”

    Overall I agree that confidential agent is best. The OED1 does not list the phrase, but the following quotation from J. A. Froude’s History of England … is apropos: “Confidential persons were despatched into Italy to obtain an interview … with the pope.”

    The OED lists an alternative British pronunciation of obelisk with the GOAT vowel rather than the LOT vowel. Any Hattics use this or have heard it? It’s not in ODO.

  33. By the way, con(fidence) man is listed as originally AmE. I wonder if it wasn’t originally a sarcastic subversion of the original: someone holds himself out as a confidential agent, you trust him with your valuables, and off he goes, never to be heard from again.

  34. Obelisks and Obelix: we’ve been here before.

  35. John Cowan: I think I could use either vowel in ‘obelisk’, but I’ve always said (/read) Obelix with GOAT. But I became acquainted with Obelix long before I came across ‘obelisk’ (likewise Asterix and asterisk), and didn’t put the two together for some years after that.

  36. English words with the Greek diminutive -isk- in the ending

    People may remember meniscus from chemistry lab.

  37. In Sicily, he would be “a friend of ours”.
    Modern Russian can use свой человек or наш человек. The first expression can be used by either a member of the same network or by the outsider, the second one is for insider’s use. Neither presupposes clandestine or illegal nature of the connection, but doesn’t exclude it either. I don’t know whether these expressions in this meaning existed ca. 1910.

  38. In Sicily, he would be “a friend of ours”.
    Modern Russian can use свой человек or наш человек. The first expression can be used by either a member of the same network or by the outsider, the second one is for insider’s use. Neither presupposes clandestine or illegal nature of the connection, but doesn’t exclude it either. I don’t know whether these expressions in this meaning existed ca. 1910.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Off topic, just because this is the most recent thread: a travel account from 2007 about Abkhazia and its language.

  40. Another annoying error: McMeekin writes “Wilhelm was no less fooled than Tisza had been by Berchtold’s language” when he means “no more fooled.” That’s the kind of sloppy writing anyone could perpetrate; that it wasn’t caught anywhere along the way shows how little close attention was paid to the text by editors.

  41. Modern Russian can use свой человек or наш человек.

    As in, keeping the Greene theme going, “Our Man in Havana”.

    As for better phrases to use: “agent”, maybe. Or “fixer”. Agent both the connotation of “someone who acts on your behalf” and “secret agent”, both of which seem appropriate. Or just “trusted man”.

  42. oh, yes, it’s so obvious – ‘our man’/’their man’. That’s the right expression.

  43. Hibiscus is from ἱβίσκος, but I don’t know the etymology of that; the root looks a little short for echt Greek. The Middle Liddell says only “= ἀλθαία, v.l. in Ps.-Dsc.3.146, Erot. s.v. ῥίζη ἀλθαίης; also written ἐβίσκος , q.v.”

    Viscera, the plural of Latin viscus, is another plausible candidate, but unfortunately is of unknown origin according to the English dictionaries: L & S is silent.

  44. De Vaan’s new Brill Etymological Dictionary of Latin agrees that vīscus/vīscera, “guts, entrails”, has “No clear etymology”. They do give an etymology for vĭscum, “mistletoe, birdlime”. I imagine the difference in quantity of the I’s, as well as the meanings, makes them unlikely to be related, though they’re both sticky.

  45. Hibiscus is from ἱβίσκος

    No, according to AHD it’s from Late Latin hibiscus, a variant of Latin hibiscum ‘marsh mallow,’ “perhaps of Celtic origin.”

  46. Hat: Etymonline agrees, but then how do you account for the Greek? Admittedly it’s a hapax legomenon, so I suppose it could be borrowed from Latin.

    Sashura: Well, sort of. But you can’t write “They sent their man to Georgia” to mean “They sent a confidential agent to Georgia”. It means too much or too little.

  47. Beekes on ἰβίσκος (some references omitted):
    “…var. ἐβίσκος… Etym. Formed like other plant names, e.g. synonymous ἀλθίσκος (Chantraine 1933:407). Further unclear; it seems to be identical with Lat. (h)ibiscum (also eb-, -us), which is attested earlier (since Verg.). Given the form of the suffix, it was perhaps taken from there, in which case Celtic origin is possible (WH s.v.). Cf. also on ἰβηρίς. Fur.:355 thinks the word comes from Greek and is of pre-Greek origin, where ε/ι is frequent.”

    On ἰβηρίς: “plant name, ‘pepperwort, Lepidium’ (Damocr. apud Gal., Aët. apud Ps.-Dsc.). Etym. Probably named after its native environment, Ἰβηρία. Alessio (…) thinks the name is Aegean, like ἰβίσκος, ἰβάνη, et al.”

    On ἰβάνη: “‘water-bucket’…var. ἴβδης ‘cock, plug in a ship’s bottom’… Etym.: “…The word seems to live on in Tsakonian ἰμάνι ‘bucket to scoop water’… The word ἴβδης can hardly be IE.”

    Walde-Hoffmann’s Latin Etymological dictionary (1938, archive.org), on ibiscum: “…Da das Suff.-Konglutinat -isco- auch keltisch ist, kann das Wort nach Zwicker [De vocabulis et rebus Gallicis] 38 als Gallizismus der Poebene von Verg[ilius] in die Literatur eingeführt sein.”

    In summary, Hibiscus kind of sounds Pre-Greek, though how did it get from Pre-Greek to Latin, and only then to Greek? And it kind of has a Celtic-looking -isco- in the middle. Conclusion: go figure.

  48. Confidence man – a knave, wrong side out, inexhaustible in devices. I’ve always been partial to the British “wide boy”.

  49. A wide boy isn’t the same as a con man, not that you said it was.

    The generic name is derived from the Greek word ἱβίσκος (hibískos), which was the name Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40–90) gave to Althaea officinalis.

    Just to be clear even though it’s a member of the mallow family, hibiscus and marsh mallow are very different. Hibiscus is an exotic (here) tropical climber with trumpet-shaped flowers, whereas wild mallow is a couple of feet high and grows in my garden. Mallow is called kattost (cat cheese), in Norwegian. God knows why.

  50. Hibiscus grows in our back yard, though not without strenuous effort on our part (involving bug spray, mulch, and warning the people who mow the lawn not to get too close and wreck it).

  51. Here’s Tolkien (in a letter, #148 in the published collection) on another such confusion, this time of popular vs. Linnaean names. The context is his use of nasturtians in the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, “snapdragons and sunflowers, and nasturtians trailing all over the turf walls and peeping in at the round windows”:

    But nasturtians is deliberate, and represents a final triumph over the high-handed printers. Jarrold’s appear to have a highly educated pedant as a chief proof-reader, and they started correcting my English without even referring to me: elfin for elven, farther for further, try to say for try and say and so on. I was put to the trouble of proving to him his own ignorance, as well as rebuking his impertinence. So, though I do not much care, I dug my toes in about nasturtians. I have always said this. It seems to be a natural anglicization that started soon after the ‘Indian Cress’ was naturalized (from Peru, I think) in the 18th century; but it remains a minority usage. I prefer it because nasturtium is, as it were, bogusly botanical, and falsely learned. I consulted the college gardener to this effect:

    ‘What do you call these things, gardener?’

    ‘I calls them tropaeolum, sir.’

    ‘But, when you’re just talking to dons?’

    ‘I says nasturtians, sir.’

    ‘Not nasturtium?’

    ‘No, sir; that’s watercress.’

    And that seems to be the fact of botanical nomenclature.

    Nasturtians duly made it into the published text.

  52. To add a little to the hibiscus corpus, in Egypt it is called karkadeeh. I have guessed that this is either of Turkish or Persian origin as it doesn’t sound Arabic. FWIW, in folk medicine, it is taken for high blood pressure, maybe other stuff as well.

  53. The official Arabic term (at least according to Wikipedia) appears to be خطمي (khitmi or khatmi).

  54. I love that, John Cowan. I think my grandmother said nasturtian and I shall now revert to it myself. It’s blomkarse in Norwegian, should you ever need it.

    Not nasturtium?’

    ‘No, sir; that’s watercress.’

    You can eat pretty much the whole of a nasturtian, as well. The seed pods look like capers and you can boil them in salt-water & vinegar and preserve them, in the same way.

    Hibiscus in your back yard, you lucky devils. I can hear crickets in the distance.

  55. …blomkarse, whereas watercress is brønnkarse. In German, die Echte Brunnenkresse ist wie die Kleinblättrige Brunnenkresse ein Elternteil der natürlich vorkommenden Hybride Bastard-Brunnenkresse oder Unfruchtbare Brunnenkresse.

    Bloody bastard watercress.

  56. Nasturtian, oh my. These crazy Brassicaceae surprise me again. Apparently I was under a false belief that garden cress (katem to most Russians of my generation <= Կոտեմ) and water cress are close equivalents, but they aren’t even in the same genus? I love to pick wild riparian cresses along desert and mountain creeks and I always thought of them as katem; not anymore!

    Both garden cress and watercress used to be known as Жеруха in Russian, an archaic-sounding name of nontransparent etymology. Dahl answers it with an open question “Жеруха-режуха? ” and indeed, in the Slavic languages the two forms seem to flow into one another, Pl. rzeżuchą / Cs. Řeřicha / Sloven. Žerucha so it must be related to резать “make a [sharp] cut” … but how these р/ж got transposed?

  57. To add a little to the hibiscus corpus, in Egypt it is called karkadeeh

    Transplanted into Russian as каркадэ, sometimes described as “Sudanese tea rose”

  58. GeorgeW says:

    “The official Arabic term (at least according to Wikipedia) appears to be خطمي (khitmi or khatmi).”

    “Hans Wehr” also gives this word for ‘marsh mallow’ (which seems to be the same thing). I have never personally encountered this word, but karkadeeh, is very common in Egypt. It is a very popular drink.

    “Transplanted into Russian as каркадэ, sometimes described as “Sudanese tea rose”

    I would guess that Arabic and Russian have the same source, Persian?

  59. I would guess that Arabic and Russian have the same source, Persian?

    Russian must have borrowed from Egypt Arabic; Farsi supposedly calls it Chay-e Torsh, literally “sour tea”

  60. GeorgeW says:

    “Russian must have borrowed from Egypt Arabic; Farsi supposedly calls it Chay-e Torsh, literally “sour tea.”

    How about Turkish? It doesn’t look Arabic and it is not the standard Arabic word for hibiscus as LH pointed out (and supported by a couple of Arabic dictionaries). It sure smells like a loan word.

  61. Turkish does use “kerkede” but the plant doesn’t grow there. Azerbaijani calls it literally “Mecca Tea”. The Latin species name, Sabdariffa, is also of murky etymology (wiktionary says “maybe Caribbean or maybe Turkish” and shows a page of XVI c. Latin tract on botany using the name !)

  62. GeorgeW says:

    “Turkish does use “kerkede” but the plant doesn’t grow there.”

    This sounds like the Egyptian Arabic source unless, Egyptians got it from sub-Sahara Africa and the Turks borrowed it from them. But, I think that this is unlikely.

  63. I think my grandmother said nasturtian

    Tolkien was born in 1892. Was your grandmother of his generation?

  64. Yes. She was born in 1903 and had three brothers who were born back as far as 1897.

  65. My grandmothers were born in 1885 (Elnora Kennedy, Missouri) and 1880 (Ada Birkeland, Iowa).

  66. Alas, I don’t know when my grandparents were born, except for my maternal grandmother in 1900. My father, however, was born in 1904. He was the third child, so I’d guess that his parents were born around 1880.

  67. Birkeland, is that one of your Norwegian ancestors? My grandfather was also born in the 1880s. Incidentally, Churchill (b.1874) and Roosevelt (1882) were quite a bit older than Hitler (1889).

    My great-great grandfather was born in the 1790s.

  68. Birkeland, is that one of your Norwegian ancestors?

    Yah, you betcha!

    My great-great grandfather was born in the 1790s.

    Impressive. Mine (on my father’s side; I haven’t traced my mother’s side that far back) was born in 1814. His father was born in 1779, and his father in 1748.

  69. John Emerson has a great picture on Facebook of himself, aged about seven, with his mother and five younger siblings (“Note the vomit on Mom’s shoulder.”)

  70. marie-lucie says:

    nasturtium

    I grew up calling the orange flowers with their round leaves capucines, a word which sounds very nice in French, and was very disappointed by the sound of the English name.

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