I have to admit, I put off reading Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods because I was afraid of being disappointed. I didn’t think I’d dislike it, mind you—how could I, when Helen DeWitt wrote it?—but I thought it might be a letdown after the brilliance of The Last Samurai (see my head-over-heels endorsement here). Specifically, I thought (knowing from reviews that it was about anonymous sex in the workplace) that it might be a well-written piece of sexual surrealism like Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, and I wasn’t sure how many of those the world needed. But it turns out to be something entirely different, a scathing but increasingly funny satire of American culture, using sex as a convenient lever to pry the contraption open and see how it works. To half-quote Judge Woolsey’s decision in the famous Ulysses case, “nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac”—unless you’re turned on by great sentences. DeWitt’s ear for the rhythm and feel of the bland commercialized language of Homo americanus rivals those of S. J. Perelman and John Ashbery; in fact, opening Ashbery’s collection your name here at random, I find that the opening lines of “The Gods of Fairness” could have come straight out of Lightning Rods: “The failure to see God is not a problem/ God has a problem with. Sure, he could see us/ if he had a hankering to do so, but that’s/ not the point.” Here’s DeWitt (again, picked at random): “If you’re in sales you know that confidence creates confidence. If you can convey to the customer that you consider yourself to have a first-class product, nine times out of ten the customer will see the product that way too.” (Her use of italics, incidentally, is masterly.) It’s hard to convey the cumulative effect of her prose by quoting a sentence or two out of context, so let me quote a couple of paragraphs about “Renée (or Miss Perfect, as she was known in her family)”:

She crossed one leg over the other and looked down at her polished Gucci shoe. The leather was a dark chestnut, gleaming like oiled wood; her leg, in its filmy Hanes pantyhose, was two shades paler, and her cashmere dress was marron glacé. She had twelve other pairs of brown shoes in her closet because it’s important to get the shade exactly right when you are matching earth colors. Some people will wear a pair of tan shoes with an oatmeal dress, or chocolate brown shoes with a red dress; the only thing you can say is, if they’re going to go out looking like that, they’re probably better off not noticing. It’s some kind of consolation to think that most of the people around them won’t notice either.
If you actually care about how you look, on the other hand, you’ll take the trouble to get it right. Sometimes a dress needs matching accessories: sometimes a red dress needs red shoes and a red bag. At other times neutral accessories are called for. But just because something is neutral doesn’t mean it goes with everything, it’s important to get it right. Renée had dyed Italian leather sandals in magenta, coquelicot, chartreuse, peacock blue, lime green, lemon yellow, and frosted orange. She had suede loafers in lavender, lilac, ivory, cream, tangerine, royal blue, charcoal grey, and black. She had ankle boots in three shades of navy blue, four shades of brown, black suede, black leather, and black leather with black suede trim. In addition to the sixty other indispensable pairs of shoes she had a list of things that most people get wrong[...]

It’s hard to stop quoting, but hopefully you have a sense by now of whether this is for you. As with The Last Samurai, I can understand it if it’s not. But if you like the bits I’ve quoted, I think I can guarantee that you’ll like the book. The characters are nicely drawn, the repeated bits of business get funnier every time, and the plot ramifies satisfyingly. I just wish I didn’t have to wait so long between books; can’t some publisher out there make it easier for her to get them to her public? (I still don’t know, by the way, who sent me my copy, but they have my grateful blessings.)


  1. I paused at “marron glacé” since I know what those are only in the vague sense of their being one of those candied fruit thingies that I’ve loathed since childhood, just as I loathe marshmallows, meringues and sundry other commestibles that some other people unaccountably enjoy.
    It’s a pity that such a strong dislike for some foods should interrupt my enjoyment of fine writing, but there it is. Does this phenomenon – of being distracted from the point of a piece by the essentially accidental mention of a loathed object – have a name?

  2. I think that some readers — those who loathe the word “panties” — will have run into trouble ten words before you.

  3. Thanks to dearieme, today I learned that French/actual marron glacé is very different from the cheap canned marrom glacê (2) of my Brazilian childhood—a simple, gelatinous paste of sugared sweet potato.
    One thing that must have helped with the name appropriation is the semantic drift of marron, a word that after getting into Portuguese came to mean “brown” and never “chestnut” (similarly to English “maroon”, but not the same color).

  4. Loathing panties is not the same thing as loathing panties.

  5. When is someone going to send Hat their thesis on panties hatred, citing LH in depth and often?

  6. Send any such theses to jamessal, since he is showing such interest. You can send me the meringues instead.

  7. Dearie, if you struggle on, you’ll soon come to oatmeal, lime and frosted orange.
    I’m interested in matching stuff. For interior decorating it’s a deadening convention, as if to say you really can’t go wrong, you don’t need to think, just do it all the same. Curtains, chairs, sofa, wallpaper, toilet seat all merging. Sometimes I’ve thought it’s died out, but five or ten years later it always comes back. Now there’s floral-print camouflage.
    People wear monochrome outfits because: a) they like uniforms, or b) they look taller and thinner. For most of us there is some point in looking taller & thinner.
    Anyway, I’m glad she’s raised it & described it so mercilessly. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  8. Ø is right, I do loathe panties, hose & pantyhose. I prefer underwear, socks & tights, they’re more woody, but I’ll defend to the death Sig’s right to say “Panties”. The word I hate most of all is apparel for clothes – there, I’ve said it.

  9. Ok, not quite to the death.

  10. “Loathing panties is not the same thing as loathing panties.”
    In another thread recently, empty revealed his preference for the word Reizwäsche. By implication he is nothing loath to pantyng.
    It’s odd that the word “brown” is also being bandied here. It all reminds me of Erica Jong.

  11. Crown, I too abhor the word apparel, just as I do vivacious, celebratory, urgent (inquiry), searching (public discussion) and all the other tritely vivid items of journalism-school vocabulary.

  12. For me, the main association of apparel is what we don while we troll the ancient Yuletide carol.
    But then I don’t seem to suffer from either word aversion or word rage.

  13. Yes, Stu, I was charmed to make the acquaintance of the word Reizwäsche, partly for pseudo-Whorfian reasons which I expressed at the time, and partly because, well, I suppose because sexy underwear is sexy.
    John Cowan: Under “loathing of panties we might want to distinguish between loathing of the mention of panties and loathing of the use of panties. Under “loathing of panties” should we also distinguish between loathing of the mention of panties (under any name*) and loathing of the use of panties.
    AJP: What’s the matter with apparel?
    * I believe that some people call underwear “unmentionables”, but that doesn’t stop them from mentioning them.

  14. Well, if we get rid of ‘apparel’, we open the way for that wonderful word ‘garb’ to come back.

  15. I believe that some people call underwear “unmentionables”, but that doesn’t stop them from mentioning them.
    Yes, mention and use are not the only ways to call attention to something. To call it “impossible” or “unmentionable” are two further ways. This is due to what the smart set in Germany used to call the Verweisungszusammenhang.

  16. The matter with apparel and the others (panties etc.) is that they sound (to me) prissy, like they’re euphemisms. I have enough problems, I don’t need to also avoid “clothes”. But as a consequence, now I have to avoid apparel. Far better to be like John, unparanoid and inured. I could get around it by showing I’m not fazed by their euphemisms, something like “Excuse me, where’s the fucking Apparel Department?” Of course then they’ll send me to the Fucking Apparel dept – Calvin Klein pyjamas, presumably. Paris Hilton nighties.

  17. The words “vivacious”, “apparel”, “celebrate (your decision to …)” and so on are not by themselves at fault. Each of them – in diagnostic clumps with certain others – today tend to be used by Bright Young Things who preen themselves on trite or elevated vocab. Dickens and Wodehouse were good at sketching comic characters by those means. So are the scriptwriters of TV comedy series.
    I also find comical, prissy speech patterns being used by evangelists, philosophers, IT consultants and so on. Someone can always be found to accuse others of putting on verbal airs. Of course none of these findings is “scientific”. They are merely part of the rough and tumble of social life.

  18. Send any such theses to jamessal, since he is showing such interest.
    Considering first that I’ve been chuckling heartily these past few mornings over The Pooh Perplex, Frederick Crews’s send up of Lit. Theory, and second that the material a would-be Crews might stumble upon in an LH thread or two I can remember whilst inditing his purposefully ponderous satire analyzing the never-quite-explained phenomenon of word rage, especially as it regards panties… yeah, you can send ‘em to me, innuendo and all.

  19. Since the topic was mentioned here and he’s too modest to brag, Stu destroyed me in our Xmas chess match, bringing our record to five and five. Game eleven — for the series (at least for now) — is ongoing.

  20. I hate the British noun newbuild, meaning a newly-built house. I’ve no idea why I hate it.

  21. shades of “newspeak” ?
    Oh, I just remembered: My own pants peeve is the one where people in the apparel biz refer to a pair of pants (I don’t mean the undergarment: I mean, you know, slacks, trousers, … especially those made for women) as a pant, singular.

  22. people in the apparel biz refer to a pair of pants … as a pant, singular
    Possibly they were tormented by a prescriptivist English teacher in grade school, or read the same prescriptivist newspaper columns in their formative years. They now display a Stockholm syndrome – they too desire to suppress illogical forms. Can you find out whether many of them say “scissor” ?
    A simpler explanation would be that they have merely applied, to words, the familiar social mechanism of trying to acquire distinction by being distinctive.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    This whole word-rage phenomenon obviously needs further study by the “Learn’d philologists who chase / A panting syllable through time and space.” And what better panting syllable to study than “pant”? (Although I’m really not sure whether those who have the strong-aversion reaction to “panties” generally tend to have the same reaction to “pantyhose” – it’s an odd enough phenomenon that I would not necessarily expect it to have any particularly sensible or predictable patterns in terms of the scope of a particular aversion, either phonologically or semantically.)

  24. I’m thinking now of Coleridge: “As if this Earth in fast, thick pants were breathing.” Thick pants can be useful in winter, but I don’t get the “fast” part.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    jamessal, Crews’ decades-later sequel _Postmodern Pooh_ is also well worth the reading. It has a different resonance for me because it is mocking the modes of literary criticism that were coming into vogue when I myself was going through college, which I suppose could either make it funnier or scarier. (Put another way, I read the Pooh Perplex perhaps while still in high school and thus before I had encountered real-life examples of most of the styles of criticism it was parodying; and some of those styles were so defunct by the time I was old enough to encounter literary criticism that I have never, in fact, subsequently encountered them. Thus I had to work backwards to imagine what the seriously-intended phenomenon being mocked must have looked like, somewhat like, for example, learning about Canadian politics from reading satirical columnists/bloggers that presuppose prior knowledge of the Canadian equivalents to the Gore-is-boring / Quayle-is-dumb type stereotypes.)

  26. Fast = fastened?

  27. “As if this earth were breathing”
    My thick winter pants breath. It’s very good if you go skiing and get sweaty. They are fast, there is a cord round the waist.
    I would dislike pant if it weren’t so peculiar. Stu, I can’t blame the smart set. I don’t even know of a smart set. It’s my own fault somehow. Saul Bellow probably wouldn’t have said panties, though. George Orwell certainly wouldn’t. Nor would Fay Weldon or Marguerite Yourcenar. Martin Amis might. QED.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    AJP, via google books it is actually possible to quickly determine whether “panties” occurs in books authored by Fay Weldon and/or George Orwell, and it does in both cases (although for all I know the context may be when the narrative is from the POV of a character of which the author disapproves?). There is also one appearance of “panties” in an English translation of a work by Yourcenar, although that could be the translator’s fault. Bellow has (in Humboldt’s Gift) the rather ambivalent “I could not say, ‘I am standing on this crate among these lilacs trying to solve the riddle of man, and not to see your stout wife in her panties.’ Which was
    indeed what I saw.”

  29. The WiPe on “panties” claims: “Women first wore underwear below the waist during the French Revolution.” So the sans-culottes wore culottes after all ?! The next sentence contradicts the first one: “Catherine de Medici is credited with the idea so that she could ride her horse side-saddle, with her leg folded in front of her across the horse’s neck, without exposing her legs.”
    The article continues: “Even then, women wore full length leggings which were tied at the waist, with the crotch being uncovered. … The open crotch was regarded as more hygienic.” That sounds plausible – I wonder why not more women go in for it. Or maybe they do, and I just don’t know it. Over to you, gentleman.

  30. Gentlemen.

  31. Thanks, JW. I agree the Humboldt’s Gift is a bit ambivalent, thought it’s also quite old now. I didn’t know I could just search google books; as I was driving up the hill to my house just now, I was wondering if it’s possible to search with a Kindle (I don’t have one, mind). If Orwell’s one of the panty brigade, I must try Charles Dickens. I really can’t see Trollope or Thoreau associating themselves with panties. Though Thoreau might wear apparel and both may have worn hose), Jane Austen for sure never wore panties, nor did Gibbon. What about Thackeray, though?

  32. John Emerson says:

    I’ve always thought, ever since I was about 9, that “panties” was more prurient than euphemistic.

  33. I looked up the Orwell, and it’s from one of his Tribune (an independent Labour Party magazine) articles from 1946, in which he said he’d been reading a US fashion magazine “which shall remain nameless”:

    Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, innersole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderise, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance.

    He also has pantie-girdle, “Suddenly your figure lifts…lovely in the litheness of a Foundette pantie-girdle.”
    He also says:

    A fairly diligent search through the magazine reveals two discreet allusions to grey hair, but if there is anywhere a direct mention of fatness or middle age I have not found it.

    so that criticism isn’t new.

  34. Back in the ’60s, was “pant suit” just as common as “pants suit” ? The plural “pants suits” sounds like it has too many esses. But here is a quote from Time Magazine, 1967:

    “The style horrifies restaurant headwaiters, who are still weathering the onslaught of women in pants suits.”

  35. “Suddenly your figure lifts…lovely in the litheness of a Foundette pantie-girdle.”
    One of the earliest sentences I can remember from my childhood was in a TV ad: “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls in my Maidenform bra.” Another one was: “It never rains but it pours”. I puzzled over that one for decades.

  36. That’s cos you lived in Texas. “It never rains” would have made more sense.

  37. jamessal, Crews’ decades-later sequel _Postmodern Pooh_ is also well worth the reading.
    Good to know, thanks, J.W.!
    People I asked seemed to have found it less funny, but of course there’s more to the first than just the humor, and the people I asked seemed kind of hazy about it anyway. My experience with the Perplex was not unlike yours, since I’d only dipped a toe or two in theory beforehand, browsing some of the seminal works and whatnot and reading Terry Eagleton’s idiosyncratic Literary Theory: An Introduction. Crews’s book, even working backward as you say, seems to me a better intro than Eagleton’s, which introduces nothing better than Eagleton himself (not that that’s wholly worthless).
    Humboldt’s Gift I consider the best written book I just could not finish; the first two hundred pages, I was sending passages to everyone I knew, but even Bellow’s prose couldn’t carry me past page 400 and the preposterous female characters thereabout.

  38. I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
    And each damp thing that creeps and crawls
    went wobble-wobble on the walls…
    Lewis Carroll

  39. AJP, I should mention, was kind enough to send me Lightning Rods for Xmas. I haven’t started it yet, though Hat’s post made me want to, and now we’re back on topic, people — playtime’s over.

  40. Crown: the one sentence I quoted was dimmed by memory. It’s actually “When it rains it pours”, the brand slogan on a box of salt (based on “It never rains but it pours”, which the link says is a proverb).
    You may be right that my difficulty understanding what the slogan means had to do with El Paso weather. It’s seldom damp there long enough for salt to get sticky – though sugar sometimes did. One of the Brokeback Mountain guys went to El Paso for sticky business, but that’s another story.

  41. “When it rains it pours” Haha, that’s very good. I wonder by the way if that tv soap Mad Men has made all the young English majors want to go into advertising. I bet it has.
    Jimsal by the way gave me a very good, funny movie about an English professor and his family in Brooklyn, called The Squid & The Whale.

  42. Two by the ways in adjacent paragraphs. Oh the shame.

  43. Two very goods in adjacent paragraphs as well.
    That’s not very good unless you negate one of them, like so.

  44. That’s not very good unless you negate one of them, like so.
    That should be, “That’s not very good unless you negate one of them, like that.” That refers to words, phrases, and clauses just written; this to words, phrases, and clauses about to be written. Not only should so never be used in such a construction — it is not a word. It is a grunt emitted by illiterates who have not learned, or cannot pronounce, therefore. You would not write, “That’s not very good unless you negate one of them, like therefore,” would you? Really, Stu, you should consult a reference book before you hand out advice like so much popped corn. I plan to write one myself. Not only do I know many things, but I also correspond with several linguisticians.

  45. I’m not handing out advice, I’m making a joke. The stylistic break at “like so” – the expression that set your finger waggling – is precisely the joke indicator.
    I don’t do advice. I do fussing and fuming, jokes and bad puns. Why some people suspect guidance behind every tree is a mystery to me. Possibly they are hoping for an excuse to offer counter-guidance.

  46. I’m not handing out advice, I’m making a joke.
    And I’m not? So isn’t a word? If my finger’s wagging, it’s in the type of foam glove sold at stadiums.

  47. Foam gloves ? Where can I get one ?

  48. Popped corn? Do you envisage me with a monocle?

  49. Foam gloves ? Where can I get one ?
    Hat hands ‘em out after comment forty, or 2AM, whichever comes first.

  50. I see that in 1946 Americans didn’t suffer from hyphenphobia. When did it set in?

  51. It may have come from the (postwar?) house style at the New Yorker. William “Mr” Shawn decided that co-operative, etc. was for some reason wrong but that cooperative would lead to mispronunciation, so he added the ¨ umlaut: coöperative – or maybe it’s cöoperative, or even cööpêrativê. I think they may even still use it.

  52. dearieme, your screen-name would be easier to read if you spelled it dearie-me

  53. Stu, the two dots over the o is not (are not?) properly called an umlaut. I’m surprised at you.
    I’ll go back behind my tree now.

  54. Wow, I’m surprised at him too. Shocking. What should it be, diacritics? Diaresis? Something like that. Germans do say umlaut for all that stuff, though. I’m pretty sure. After all it’s a German word.

  55. Oh, and guys, some more free advice: you should learn to use emote-icons, like this :)
    to flag a joke. Or you could try ü instead, if you don’t want your smile tipped over.

  56. I forgot to say that that was a joke.

  57. Diaresis?
    diüresis, I believe

  58. The two dots are called Trema.     :-guidance)

  59. Except when they’re called Umlautpunkte, as in ä, ö, ü     :-furtherguidance)

  60. I didn’t actually know what the dots over the Umlaute are called. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them referred to in everyday speech. They’re like hæmorrhoïds in that respect – unmentioned except by specialists giving advice.

  61. It’s a pretty sore topic. That may be why people scream bloody murder when they feel someone giving them unsolicited advice.

  62. Hæmorrhoids (and like diarea in this sense – diarrhroear or whatever it is, the brown squishy stuff – I’m glad you worked out the spelling so I didn’t have to. Do German keyboards have æ? It’s my least-used key, although I’m very fond of it) are much discussed in advertisements (advertising: another form of unsolicited advice).

  63. My German keyboard doesn’t have an æ. I use a text editor (UltraEdit) with an ASCII character table, in which æ occurs at position 230.
    Combining the different alphabets of even only European languages in a single text is a real pain in the podex. Second-best would be to have a USB plug-inable OCR tablet. First-best, at least for blogs, would be to say sayonara to all that character set crap, and just publish handwritten text as a marked-up graphic image.

  64. æ is much discussed in advertisements ? I didn’t know there was such a large market for that whatever-you-call-it.

  65. The use of computers and text editors forces us to become amateur typesetters with superficially easy-to-use, but completely inefficient equipment. It gets even worse when you have to deal with several languages and alphabets.
    This is a throwback to 19C printing presses. We have to put considerable effort into something which will be read only once by many people. It’s all so text-centric.
    The telephone was a welcome deviation from that, and video clips were too – and of course radio. Last night for the first time I listened to some roundtable discussions on radio stations listed in my ITunes client. Most of it was politely paranoid and right-wing Christian content (brought to you by GCN = Genesis Communications Network), but so conveniently packaged !
    The shock-and-horror tabloids in Germany (Bild Zeitung has the biggest reader base) have always had a easy-going media mix of sex, politics, pictures and general information. So too have the myriads of magazines. With the prominent exception of Stern, it has taken the lefties a long time to tear themselves away from text-centrism and in-your-face guidance. They were absolutely convinced that to be serious, you have to act serious.

  66. Crown, some people spell that other thing dire rear.

  67. My son, who knows almost everything, says that that ae thingy is called “ash”, at least sometimes.

  68. Advertisers and politicians often suffer from logo rear.

  69. The WiPe also says “ash”.
    I did something (for me) unusual to find that. I copied the æ character into the Google “all these words” field, along with “ash”.

  70. Trond Engen says:

    I thought I posted a joke about this thread being infected with diarrhesis just as our guests came, but I didn’t, and now it’s too late.
    I can see the connection between diaresis and ash. Norwegian æsj is both a nanny euphemism (Is that a term? Now it is.) for faeces and an interjection of mild disgust.

  71. cọö̈̈perative ← like this?
    (this comment might not display, depending on your system’s unicode support)

  72. “cọö̈̈perative ← like this?”
    jamessal: if he puts in the arrow like that, is he allowed to say “like this” instead of “like that”?
    “the dots over the Umlaute”
    Stu: Now instead of calling the two dots an umlaut you are calling the letter underneath an umlaut. That can’t be right, either, can it?

  73. Your son really does seem to know everything, Ø. I’m very impressed that he knew that.
    For those who didn’t follow, “Norwegian æsj” is pronounced like English “ash”. There’s also an expression “æsj og fisj”, that means “eew gross”.
    ← ← ← I like these arrows ← ← ←

  74. what does fisj mean?

  75. Trond Engen says:

    what does fisj mean?
    It’s fysj [fyʃ], not fisj [fiʃ] — but that distinction is hard to hear for a speaker of English. I don’t think ‘fysj’ means anything beyond its use as another interjection of mild disgust. Etymologically,I think it’s a blend of fy and æsj.
    Before you ask: Fy [fy:], ON , is originally an imitated spitting sound (cognate to English ‘phew’, I presume), used to convey disgust or blame: fy deg “shame on you”, and as prelude to a curse: fy (i/for/til) faen/helvete/(hva som helst som virker) “phew in/for/to the devil/hell/(anything that works)”. Where I live now, fytti (= fy til) itself is a mild curse.

  76. jamessal: if he puts in the arrow like that, is he allowed to say “like this” instead of “like that”?
    I assume so. As any who knows me knows, I’m really an anything goes guy — so long as it’s euphonious… ideally lucid. I only break out the fatuous fifties grammar maven outfit once a year, and that’s probably too much, even as a joke.

  77. empty: Now instead of calling the two dots an umlaut you are calling the letter underneath an umlaut. That can’t be right, either, can it?
    You are as ‘cute as a bug. But WTF do I know about all this ? After writing “dots over the Umlaute“, I wondered whether I should write “dots at the top of the Umlaute“. The German formulation at Trema is: Die Umlautpunkte auf den deutschen Buchstaben ä, ö und ü sind optisch mit dem Trema identisch, haben aber eine andere Funktion. So “dots at the top of the Umlaut letters” is probably the most bug-free way to put it.
    As an uninitiate, I found it rather hard to follow the Trema, Umlaut and Germanic umlaut WiPe articles. They discuss 1) how and why certain sound mutated over time, 2) how and why certain letters mutated over time to reflect 1), and 3) why you need to keep the historical connections in mind.
    I suppose one could compare the Umlautpunkte with pasties, which form a supervenient but organic unit with the nipples. Their function – to serve the law – is not the original function of the nipples, but you need to keep this original function in mind in order to appreciate what’s going on.

  78. Trond:
    No, thanks to the Great Vowel Shift, the English cognate of fy is fie [faɪ], now archaic. The 1895 OED1 rather quaintly says:
    An exclamation expressing, in early use, disgust or indignant reproach. No longer current in dignified language; said to children to excite shame for some unbecoming action, and hence often used to express the humorous pretence of feeling ‘shocked’. Sometimes more fully fie, for shame!.
    However, “cognate” is not quite the right word: both the English and the Old Norse forms are in fact borrowings from French fi, though whether they were borrowed independently or not, or how much the Old Norse version may or may not have influenced the English one, is a question. The Welsh expression of disgust Ach y fi [axivi~axɨvi] looks related, but in fact fi is almost certainly the 1sg pronoun mi under soft mutation.
    Phew seems to be native and imitative. It is now pronounced [fju], but the spelling (it is first recorded in 1600) suggests that either [fɪu] or [fɛʊ] was the original pronunciation. These two diphthongs merged by 1600, and then merged again with borrowings from French whose original [y] was rendered in English as [ju].

  79. Oh, I forgot. Ash, like thorn, is the name of a rune that became the name of the corresponding Latin letter. Alas, though ác ond æsc ond þorn are still the traditional trees of England, the other rune-based letter names have been lost, alas.
    But what if they had not been? We’d recite the alphabet something like this: “Oak, Birch, Chen, Day, Ee, Fee, Gift, Hall, Ice, Year, Greek Chen, Lake, Man, Need, Ose, Peerd, French Chen, Ride, Sigel, Tew, Ur, Sharp Ur, Double Ur, Elk, Greek Ir, Greek Sigel.”

  80. However, “cognate” is not quite the right word: both the English and the Old Norse forms are in fact borrowings from French fi, though whether they were borrowed independently or not, or how much the Old Norse version may or may not have influenced the English one, is a question.
    In a comment thread here in 2009, marie-lucie and hat agreed that “congeneric” is a useful word to describe that kind of borrowing, instead of the incorrect “cognate”. “Congeneric” was originally suggested by Noetica. Here is some of what marie-lucie wrote there:

    The word cognate is a technical term in historical/comparative linguistics, a discipline which among other things is concerned with tracing the origin of words and if possible with reconstructing the common ancestor of words with a common origin. In this context it is very important to be able to determine whether two words are indeed descended from a common ancestor and have developed since the time of the differentiation of that ancestor into separate languages, or whether one has been adopted from the other language, or whether both have been more or less independently borrowed from yet another language, or whether the resemblance must be due to coincidence or other possible factors. In order to determine which is the most probable scenario, one has to rely on a number of criteria and especially on a detailed knowledge of the structure and history of the languages in question and if possible of others that these languages may have been in contact with (through geographical situation, trade relations, historical dominance, etc). This means that one cannot just look at a couple of words independently of this larger context and decide that they (as words of specific languages) must be related, even if one knows the ultimate origin of the words.

    When you say that a word is “cognate with its source word”, this is another mistaken use of “cognate”. For instance, take the English word “journey” meaning ‘trip’ (originally a one-day trip) and the French word “journée” meaning ‘day, day’s worth (of a potential activity)’. It is incorrect to say that English “journey” is cognate with French “journée”, instead it is “borrowed from Old or Middle French (journée)”, that is, it results from the adoption of the French word into English at a certain time in history. The two words are not cognates, because they are not both the result of independent developments from a common ancestor, which in this case would be as far back as Proto-Indo-European. … French “journée” is descended (“genetically”, that is through a continuous development) from Latin “diurnata” (itself related to the adjective “diurnus, diurna”, itself related to the word “dies” ‘day’), meaning that it is the result of centuries of linguistic evolution from Latin into French, but English “journey” started life as a borrowing of the French word into English at a certain time in history. Similarly, English “diurnal” started life as a borrowing and adaptation of a Latin word, also at a certain time, but as an English word it is not “cognate” with the Latin word.

  81. Unlike old-fashioned Shakespeare-sounding English fie, fy is still very commonly used in Norwegian. I quite like that, and it’s too bad they don’t say gadzooks as well. Fy fæn for instance means “fuck” in its exclamatory sense of “fucking hell!”.
    Trond was up very late last night, I thought.

  82. “Renée (or Miss Perfect, as she was known in her family)”
    David Sedaris uses ‘little Miss Perfect’ to refer to one of his sisters when they were growing up – I think it’s Lisa.

  83. Grumbly, I am more than satisfied with “dots at the top of the Umlaut letters”. Very ‘stute of you. I suppose I was trying to bug you into “the map is not the territory” territory. I might have known that you would bring private parts into the conversation again. I like your analogy, except that I’m not sure what “original function” has to do with laws governing mammary modesty.

  84. JC, I thought of the letter (rune?) thorn when I mentioned ash, and then I almost said something silly about oak and ash and thorn, but I had no clue that there really was a rune named oak. Are you saying that there was?

  85. Die Umlautpunkte auf den deutschen Buchstaben ä, ö und ü sind optisch mit dem Trema identisch, haben aber eine andere Funktion.
    When I first read this quickly, I thought it was calling them optionally identical, but then I saw that it was optically.
    My Ø is meant to be the symbol for the empty set and not the scandinavian letter, but the two are in fact optically identical. Or maybe somebody here once asserted that they are not. They look the same to me. I don’t know.

  86. empty: I’m not sure what “original function” has to do with laws governing mammary modesty.
    They’re not the same. The phenomenon “nipple” comprises several layers of meaning, of which pasties form the top layer. There are layers
    1) to still the child
    2) to thrill the man
    3) to chill the libber
    but this list is by no means exhaustive.

  87. With “still the child”, German took over unnoticed by me, but conveniently: stillen is “nurse”.

  88. I might have known that you would bring private parts into the conversation again.
    They are kept private precisely to enhance their ultimate effectiveness, like storing gunpowder in a cool, dry place. I only flash them occasionally – nota bene not mine – to achieve a Verfremdungseffekt. Impending death is not the only thing that concentrates the mind wonderfully.

  89. Stu, unaware that stillen is “nurse”, I was thinking that if I did decide to bug you any more I might take you to task for emphasizing the sedation of sucklings over their nutrition. (Also, I wanted to add more layers to your three: for example, in addition to being titillated, men may envy women their capability for filling and stilling. But maybe that’s enough breast-baring.)
    As I did so, the word nähren kept coming to mind. It always makes me think of, well, narwhals of course, but also a vividly half-remembered fragment of Goethe’s Urfaust (which Fräulein Theis had us read in third-year German class): something about students who receive preferential treatment from the professor in return for feeding on his spittle (an seinem Speichel nähren?).
    By the way, I just realized that “nurse” is related to “nourish”.

  90. Urfaust, Nacht. Mephistopheles im Schlafrock, eine grose Perrücke auf. Student.

    Dagegen sehn wirs leidlich gern,
    Dass alle Studiosi nah und fern
    Uns wenigstens einmal die Wochen
    Kommen untern Absaz gekrochen.
    Will einer an unserm Speichel sich lezzen,
    Den tuhn wir zu unsrer Rechten sezzen.

    In contrast we are fairly pleased
    To see our students from near and far
    Once every week, at the very least,
    Come in to creep beneath our heel.
    If one should crave to sup our spittle
    He will at our right hand be seated.

  91. So not sich (er)nähren, but sich letzen.    :-(guidance)

  92. Trond Engen says:

    AJP: Up late. Up early. Uptight.
    JC: Fy is used exactly like that in Norwegian. Inducing shame in children (or dogs):Fy! (Slem hund!). Real or mock moral indignation: Fy for skam!.
    There’s also a form føy (fysj og føy). That could be sailors’ slang from a Dutch *fuy or something. Or not. Interjections are naturally given to expressive alteration.

  93. What a memory I have! Is ernarren a word? Ich habe mich ernarrt — benarrt — genarrt — bewiesen, ein Narr zu sein.
    Anyway, this image of academic sycophancy made a strong impression on me at a tender age. Letzen does not turn up in the first two online German-English dictionaries I look at. May I ask what it means? I assume the student is drinking the teacher’s spittle. Does the word suggest breast-feeding by any chance?

  94. Gumbly Stu lived in Texas?? The not-raining thing is recent, tho (in his defense).

  95. Born in Memphis, bred in El Paso, buffed at UT Austin, fluffed at fame and fortune.
    Sich ernähren von is “to nourish oneself from”. Sich letzen an (archaic) is “refresh or quicken oneself with”. Duden says it comes from ahd. lezzen, which is related to lassen and “basically” (eigentlich) means “to weaken, loosen the tension in” (schlaff machen). So you could say there is a connection with breast-feeding in terms of material stress science, but not of etymology.
    Jemanden narren is “jack someone around”, “make a fool of him”. Duden cites a mhd. ernarren, “to become foolish, act like a fool”.

  96. ø or Ø or as the case may be ∅ (the first two are Scandinavian, the last mathematical):
    Yes, absolutely. The rune ᚪ (images here, if you don’t have the right fonts) representing long a, was named ác in Old English. Long a changed to (or perhaps always was) long o in the dialects that led to the London standard of Middle English, so oak is the modern version; similarly tá/toe, gá/go, hám/home, rád ‘act of riding’/road. Further north, long a remained until it was swept up by the Great Vowel Shift, giving us Scots aik ‘oak’, gae ‘go’, hame ‘home’, and raid ‘act of riding’, the last later borrowed back into English by Sir Walter Scott in the broader sense ‘attack, foray’.

  97. empty: What a memory I have! Is ernarren a word?
    I think you did pretty good to remember the Verweisungszusammenhang – that’s what understanding is all about. Maybe Fräulein Theis told you (in German ?) that sich letzen means sich ernähren. That’s not quite right, but a tolerable approximation. Only very well-read Germans, and beavering Americans, will know the expression sich letzen.
    I had actually forgotten it, and puzzled a bit over an unserem Speichel sich lezzen. The first thing I thought of was lechzen, but that couldn’t be right for two reasons: 1) there is no reflexive form *sich lechzen, only lechzen, and 2) it’s lechzen nach, not *lechzen am. Only when I considered more closely Goethe’s old-timey spelling lezzen/sezzen did I remember letzen, ‘coz of setzen.

  98. Grumbly:
    I had forgotten about that. Fie and fy would legitimately be cognate if the borrowing from French (or Proto-Gallo-Romance) happened before the breakup of North and West Germanic, which seems unlikely. So they’re congeneric.
    In the June 2009 thread, you talk about the ambiguity of general. I ran into that a month or so ago, when I was editing a computer language standard (PDF) that contained the phrase general complex numbers. The textual history and context showed that the term was being used in the sense ‘complex numbers that are not real’, that is, the most numerous (and more to the point, the more complicated, no pun intended) case rather than the universal one. Apparently, this had caused rampant confusion among the readers, who took it to mean ‘universal complex numbers (including real numbers)’. So I removed the three occurrences of the phrase from the text.
    (Quaternions are not in the picture here, but I’ll just mention this nice thing about them. Whereas the usual formulation of a quaternion <a, b, c, d> is a + bi + cj + dk where i^2 = j^2 = k^2 = ijk = -1, they can be easily reformulated as a+bi + (c+di)j, that is, a j-complex number whose components are i-complex numbers. Isn’t that cool?)

  99. That is extremely cool ! But it gives the impression that quaternion multiplication is commutative, which it ain’t. Without looking closer, I suspect that is because in order to make that a presentation of the quaternions, you have to arrange things such that ij != ji (ij = -ji ?), or something like that … Otherwise you don’t get a non-commutative division ring that is an extension of the complex numbers, but just a commutative polynomial ring over the complex numbers.

  100. Holy Christ, it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about such things. I hope I didn’t say anything really stoopid.

  101. Holy Christ, it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about such things. I hope I didn’t say anything really stoopid.

  102. That’s very odd: I didn’t touch my browser after posting that comment. Somehow browser, network and server screwed up and made two posts out of it.

  103. John: last month I downloaded MIT GNU Scheme, to see what up. It has only a clunky “command-line window” interface (this is an IDE ??), and I couldn’t find an intelligible intro to the language. The Revised Report appears not to be a starting point for someone innocent of Lisp … Most of what I ever picked up on (indirectly) regarding Lisp was in listening to stuff about theorem-proving from Bob Boyer at UT Austin, an old friend of mine. Also I read part of some book on Lisp which, while I was reading it, had me convinced that in fact everything really is a list. Very unsettling to the worker scratching at the coalfaces of Smalltalk and Java.

  104. In fact a class in an inheritance hierarchy in Smalltalk or Java, say, is a list template. An instance of the class is usually represented internally as a list of (instance-field) structs. Each subclass struct points back to its parent struct, and the root struct points back to nil.

  105. All this means is that lists are useful in many things, but not every thing is usefully regarded as a list.

  106. intelligible intro to the language
    That would be SICP, but it’s really meant for the innocent of programming.
    Bob Boyer at UT Austin, an old friend of mine
    I knew Bob and J at SRI.

  107. Stu, you are right. There are many ways to define or completely describe the algebra of quaternions. John mentioned a nice way of looking at the quaternions, but it cannot stand alone as a description unless you add that ij+ji=0.
    By the way, any quaternion bi+cj+dk with no real part and with length equal to one (i.e. the sum of the squares of b, c, and d is one) shares this same property with i and j, that the square of the quaternion is -1.
    P.S. “Polynomial algebra” is not the right term.

  108. empty: “Polynomial algebra” is not the right term
    But I said only “polynomial ring”. I was thinking of sums of cj^n terms, where the c’s are complex numbers. If i and j commute, then expressions of the type John gave generate such a ring.

  109. MMcM: I knew Bob and J at SRI
    Then I guess I now know who you are. Gulp !

  110. I tried to get SICP through amazon in December, but the supplier didn’t have a copy after all.

  111. I meant to say “‘Polynomial ring’ is not the right term.” Since j^2=-1.

  112. How about “crumbling polynomial ring”, then ? It crumbles at exponents that are multiples of two.

  113. OK, OK, “polynomial” is completely out of place here.

  114. Empty: John mentioned a nice way of looking at the quaternions, but it cannot stand alone as a description unless you add that ij+ji = 0.
    I’m not sure why: I think it suffices to know that ij = k, which follows from the given identity ijk = k^2 by right-dividing both sides by k.
    Grumbly: If you want a built-in IDE, your only current cross-platform option is Racket. Scheme has a lot of implementations: the fairly complete list currently lists 78 implementations, most of which are REPL-based, and for standardization purposes I currently use 31 (soon to be increased). Most Schemers consider Emacs to be their IDE; mine is Gnome Terminal or Konsole with lots of tabs, mostly running ex (not vi), as I am a troglodyte when it comes to editors. As for SICP, the text is available online as well as some highly regarded video lectures by the inventors of Scheme. Here is a brief Scheme for Java Programmers tutorial, for what it’s worth.

  115. John: I’m not sure why
    I took you to be saying that k can be completely eliminated from the definition. Apparently that’s true, provided (in addition to i^2 = j^2 = -1) we also have ij + ji = 0. This can’t follow from an ijk = -1 = k^2 rule when there is no k to put in the rule.
    Many thanks for the many links. I’m going to look at them right now.

  116. Eek! Maths!

  117. Your monikers are always reassuring, Crown – they make me feel less exposed and lonely in the windy wastelands of the cringe-making pun.

  118. Come on, ask me why then do I stay in those wastelands.

  119. Why?

  120. I’m doing pennants. The winds are useful in testing, and are as brisk as sales at this time of year.

  121. John: Yes, it is true that the algebra of quaternions has elements i and j such i^2=j^2=-1 and such that every element is uniquely expressible as (a+bi)+(c+di)j. But it looked as if you were saying something along the lines of: this statement can be used instead of k^2 = ijk = -1 to specify how the quaternions work. I guess you weren’t.

  122. It just occurred to me that, by a symmetry argument, John’s statement also implies that, for x != y and x,y in {i, j, k}, every quaternion is equal to one of the form a+bx + (c+dx)y. It seems that {1, i, j, k} is not a vector base for quaternions – but it is !? Where is my mistake ?
    Is the corresponding statement also true for x = ij, y = jk ?
    Wait – I think I see where my mistake is. When you multiply a+bx + (c+dx)y out, you get x, y and xy terms plus a real. 1, x, y and xy are linearly independent. So for x != y and x,y in {i, j, k}, {1, x, y, xy} is just another vector base.
    That also shows that my “corresponding statement” for x = ij, y = jk is false, because xy = -1.

  123. No, I’m wrong, the “corresponding statement” is not false – at least not for the reason I gave. xy is not -1. If ever mathematics was rusty, mine is.

  124. Octonions are the new hotness. Since this is according to a printed magazine, it’s probably already obsolete.

  125. I had just read a bit about octonions in the WiPe article on quaternions. What caught my eye was the Cayley graph of Q8 – like a bit of tinsel draws the attention of a magpie.
    I might have stuck with mathematics if I had not been hampered by Platonic illusions in my youth. Just imagine: I thought knowledge was “real” ! I didn’t notice how important the presentation and the presenters are, and that you must pick and choose.
    Only much later, through reading Atlan etc and (Luhmann’s brand of) sociology, did I gradually learn to see things from a “group constructivist” point of view. Or rather as a Denkkollektiv business – I’m now reading Ludwik Fleck’s stuff, a current hotness in German Wissenschaftstheorie. It’s all there, Kuhn was a laterloper (of which he made no secret, though).

  126. I might have stuck with mathematics if I had not been hampered by Platonic illusions in my youth. Just imagine: I thought knowledge was “real” !
    I don’t see the connection. Surely if one believes that knowledge is real, mathematics is about as real as it gets. (I myself might have stuck with mathematics if I had not quarreled with the math department.)

  127. She writes like John O’Hara.

  128. Surely if one believes that knowledge is real, mathematics is about as real as it gets.
    Provided you believe that mathematics is knowledge. But knowledge of what ? Vide history of philosophy for a succession of unconvincing answers. The major epistemological breakthrough was when doing mathematics became a paid job.
    If you thought The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was interesting, you should look at Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (after reading the other 200 books on your list). It’s the only English translation of a work by Ludwik Fleck (superficial English WiPe article, see the German one for more) available through amazon. Fleck was a doctor, microbologist and Wissenschaftstheoretiker (I have no idea how to translate that so that it makes sense – “theoretician of science” sounds ridiculous). He published only two books, but published many scientific and wissenschaftstheoretische essays.

  129. I hold with Quine that mathematical statements are empirical: they are, indeed, the most general empirical statements available. Having discovered that two apples plus two apples is four apples, and that two cookies plus two cookies is four cookies, and …, we make a scientific generalization and say “2 + 2 = 4″, meaning that two anythings plus two other anythings is four somethings. (Supposed counterexamples like “1 cloud + 1 cloud = 1 cloud” are explained away as misunderstandings about what addition is or what a countable object is.)
    I say “scientific generalization” quite strictly: the argument for 2 + 2 = 4 is of the same character as the argument for the claim that when the sun comes up, the birds begin to sing (if there are any birds, and weather permitting): it has been so before, and we assume it will be so in future until contradicted by our observations. If and when we are thus contradicted, we may refine our generalization (as in the parenthetical qualification above), or throw it overboard. Mathematical generalizations, because they are the most general generalizations, are the least likely to be thrown overboard (Quine calls this the “maxim of minimum mutilation”), and this gives them a peculiar interest, but not a peculiar authority (as Northrop Frye said about an author’s remarks about the meanings of his own works).

  130. Mathematical generalizations, because they are the most general generalizations, are the least likely to be thrown overboard (Quine calls this the “maxim of minimum mutilation”), and this gives them a peculiar interest, but not a peculiar authority
    This seems to me the crucial statement: that the problem of induction (first described by Hume, I think) applies even to mathematics, and that therefore (and this is crucial point about Quine my philosophy of science professor stressed) there really is no distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning. Am I keeping up?

  131. By “my philosophy of science professor,” I mean The Teaching Company’s, Jeffrey L. Kasser. I stopped sitting in actual classrooms in my early teens.

  132. I’d say there’s still a distinction between inductive and deductive reasoning as processes, but there is no knowledge except empirical knowledge.

  133. I’d say there’s still a distinction between inductive and deductive reasoning as processes
    Pragmatically speaking, yes, there is such a distinction, but some people aren’t satisfied with a pragmatist’s threshold for truth.
    there is no knowledge except empirical knowledge.
    Doesn’t that mean that deductive reasoning ultimately — not pragmatically — falls under the umbrella of inductive reasoning? Isn’t that the whole point of Holism?
    Having discovered that two apples plus two apples is four apples, and that two cookies plus two cookies is four cookies, and …, we make a scientific generalization and say “2 + 2 = 4″, meaning that two anythings plus two other anythings is four somethings.
    Isn’t this an example of the process of inductive reasoning which most people, before Quine, would assume was deductive?

  134. Induction, deduction, synthetic, analytic … It was in high school that I first encountered all these little colored balls that philosophers have juggled over the centuries. One day in woodworking class I made a little conceptual carrying case for them. It had two labeled rows, each holding three balls of similar color:
    POSIS: a posteriori, inductive, synthetic
    PRIDA: a priori, deductive, analytic
    I mislaid the case somewhere around the time I lost my innocence. It’s odd how one can grow out of notions that once seemed so important. I have not needed them since then.

  135. Jim, I just read the description of Kasser’s course at your link. It sounds excellent, really good value for money. In connection with induction, note what Kasser is paraphrased as saying about Hume, Popper and Kuhn. Do consider reading the smallish book by Fleck that I linked above, in addition to Kuhn – for more historical detail but zero great-man-of-science folderol.

  136. Because the Kasser lectures are entitled “Philosophy of Science”, it just hit me that Wissenschaftstheoretiker is satisfactorily approximated in English by “philosopher of science”. I think that in Germany such academics are not necessarily associated with a philosophy department – and don’t want to be, all things told. Very understandable. In my reading, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone who called themselves a Wissenschaftsphilosoph.

  137. I mean merely that the job title Wissenschaftsphilosoph seems to have gone a bit out of fashion, but of course not Wissenschaftsphilosphie to denote a field of study. There are many people who work(ed) in specialized fields, such as Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Wissenschaftsgeschichte) or Latour, Luhmann and Bourdieu (Wissenschaftssoziologie).

  138. Jim, I just read the description of Kasser’s course at your link. It sounds excellent, really good value for money.
    Oh, I loved it, though it was difficult. More than a few lectures required more than one listen, and some real thinking (leading to a few a-ha moments), even though Kasser speaks clearly and naturally, if also quickly. The things is, I listened to the course almost two years ago; it (and the bit of supplemental reading I actually did) was the main thing that let me imagine I could keep up, or at least read along, whenever you went at it with John Cowan or one of the the other few commenters here who really know their philosophy, as well as linguistics. I wanted to see how rusty I was — whether or not I could at least summarize some ideas and use a few fancy terms correctly. I will check out that slim book you mentioned.

  139. good value for money.
    It’s not even on sale now; I think I spent around forty bucks for all those lectures. You only ever buy Teaching Company courses when they’re on sale.

  140. Only forty dollars ?? You interest me strangely. How do I find out when there’s a sale ?

  141. Oh, they tell you. Go to the main page. Every course marked “sale” costs a fraction of the regular price, and every course eventually goes on sale for a few months of the year. Only libraries and such buy courses at full price. I’m surprised more people don’t take advantage. John McWhorter does their linguistics courses, Seth Lerer their English history. They get people who know their shit.

  142. How do I find out when there’s a sale ?
    Check the site every few weeks or so.

  143. I’m sorry, two comments up, that should have been, “Seth Lerer [does their] history of English.” The way I’d phrased made it seem as though he were teaching the history of England. The Teaching Company has a lot of other excellent professors for that sort of thing.

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