LOUIS JAY HERMAN.

One of my regular diversions is checking the “Random books from my library” list on the lower right and visiting any author pages that I think might be obscure enough to have information missing (which, given my collection, is a lot of author pages). I’ve gotten very good at googling up birth/death dates, information on colleges and spouses, and so on, and I take great pleasure in adding them to LibraryThing so the information will be readily accessible; in a way, I feel it helps these forgotten authors to live on. Sometimes I pull off a real coup, like finding that the mysterious “Lee Eun” who coauthored my First Book of Korean was actually Un Yi (1897–1970), Crown Prince and the last surviving son of His Late Majesty Emperor Kojong. (How he came to write an introduction to Korean I still don’t know.) And sometimes I run across a man so remarkable I’m glad to have acquired one of his books; such a man is Louis Jay Herman, “Linguist And a Devoted Man of Letters” as the NY Times obituary calls him (it’s by the best obit writer America ever produced, the superb Robert McG. Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives, who also did the best weather stories I’ve ever read). I have Herman’s Dictionary of Slavic Word Families, an amazing book that I knew I had to have as soon as I saw it at the Strand: it contains, as the subtitle says, Groups of Related Words in Russian, Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian, for each root lining up first the root word and then derivatives with equivalent prefixes in each language, giving the meaning of each and in the Notes at the end of each root explaining whichever semantic developments Herman found most interesting or unpredictable. I happily paid $15 for it in 1994; it now costs considerably more, but I still am amazed that I am the only LT member with a copy. (More than one visitor to my various dwellings has gasped enviously on looking through it.)
At any rate, the obit makes clear that this is a man who truly loved languages:

Mr. Herman discovered his aptitude for languages at Friends Seminary, a Quaker high school in his native Manhattan. He later received intensive linguistic training at Cornell and was an Army interpreter in Europe in World War II; he did not seem to know how to stop acquiring languages.
He kept on learning them during his years at New York University, while earning a master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism, while working as an associate editor at The New Leader and even after becoming a translator at the United Nations. By the time he finished, he had mastered more than 25 languages, a feat that seemed all the more remarkable because Mr. Herman, who worked exclusively on written documents at the United Nations, generally learned to speak them so well that he got the accents as well as the vocabularies down pat.

And he had a second career as “one of the most indefatigable letter writers to The New York Times”:

When an article in The Times noted that words like “charisma,” “pragmatist” and “demagogue” were of Greek origin, for example, Mr. Herman hastened to correct the implication that Greek imports were all “polysyllabic mouthfuls,” and ascribed Greek parentage to such ordinary, everyday words as “air,” “box,” “cane” and “chair.”
A mere dateline, on an article from Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia in 1988, was enough to set off Mr. Herman against “some cartographic czar” who had decreed that the long-sanctioned “Tiflis” should be replaced by the “jaw-breaking” native version. What next, he wondered? “Will such traditional names as Moscow, Prague, Naples and Cologne soon vanish to make way for indigenous Moskva, Warszawa, Praha, Napoli and Koln?”
Mr. Herman caught so many errors in William Safire’s “On Language” column in the Sunday magazine that Mr. Safire named him the “capo di tutti capi” of the Gotcha! Gang, which Mr. Herman cherished as the ulimate accolade.

Yet another of those people I wish I had known.

Comments

  1. komfo,amonan says:
  2. I think the Gotcha! Gang was a little misaimed in the Tiflis/Tbilisi case. First of all, that change happened in 1936, making it older than the Persia-to-Iran switch, about which nobody complains. Second, that was a change internal to the Georgian language, from ტფილისი to თბილისი, like the change from Sài Gòn to Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, which became Ho Chi Minh City in English, or the Oslo > Christiania > Oslo changes.
    Changes like that should in my opinion be respected by outsiders. If the 113th Congress changes the name of Washington, D.C. to Reagan City, I expect our neighbors to the south will duly switch from Wáshington to Ciudád de Reagan.

  3. I don’t know why toponyms have to be mutually exclusive things. Regardless of which name currently has official status, Solun is the same place as Thessaloniki, just as Plovdiv is Philippoupolis. I have to admit that the Balkans are particularly rich in competing place names.

  4. rootlesscosmo says:

    the best obit writer America ever produced
    Just wanted to put in a word for Alden Whitman, and to note that Margalit Fox is doing very good work these days.

  5. If the 113th Congress changes the name of Washington, D.C. to Reagan City, I think it would be inappropriate unless they also call D.C. “Reagania” or some such. Unless the “City” is there to distinguish it from a larger area like “State” (e.g. NYC, Mexico City, City of London) it’s going to sound like one of those small lonely places–Carson City, etc.–where “city” is a mere euphemism for “village” or “town”.

  6. the Persia-to-Iran switch, about which nobody complains
    You need to get out more. And although it’s true that few people complain about Iran, I suspect it’s more than do so about Tbilisi, a truly quirky thing to protest (although I admit I too have a fondness for the older form).
    Second, that was a change internal to the Georgian language, from ტფილისი to თბილისი
    Huh? How does a change from Tpilisi to Tbilisi have anything to do with Tiflis, a Persian form? And I don’t know what you mean about “that change happened in 1936″; the changeover to Tbilisi happened slowly over many years in English, which is why Herman was complaining about it as late as 1988. English speakers don’t change their habits instantly as soon as some leader in a faraway country of which they know nothing decides for obscure reasons to change a traditional place name.
    If the 113th Congress changes the name of Washington, D.C. to Reagan City
    Wash your mouth! But if it happens, I personally will ignore it, just as I do the renaming of the Pan Am Building in New York.
    I don’t know why toponyms have to be mutually exclusive things.
    They don’t! The more the merrier, say I.

  7. Un poco (bastante) off topic de este post que me gustó mucho -aunque en la línea de los cambios de nombres de lugares paradigmáticos- me permito comentarte, LH, apelando a tu conocimiento de Buenos Aires, que desde hace unos días el banco Citi (ex Citibank) ha osado cambiarle el nombre al tradicional Teatro Ópera de la calle Corrientes. Ahora, al ser ellos los dueños, pretenden que se llame “Teatro Citi”. ¡Justo en el año en que el teatro cumplía 75 años! Alguien del departamento de marketing del Citi debe ser muy estúpido…
    Existe una campaña para revertir este cambio absurdo para lo que se ha formado un grupo en Facebook
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=102436193128253

  8. marie-lucie says:

    It seems that the problem of Tiflis changing to Tbilisi concerns the pronunciation, since anglophones would have a hard time with the initial consonants.

  9. They’re not that hard with an epenthetic schwa inserted between them. Which I think is how most anglophones pronounce the name, viz /tblisi/ → [təˈbli.si].

  10. marie-lucie says:

    If multipolyglot Mr Herman called Tbilisi the “jaw-breaking” native version, he must have run into many people who found the pronunciation of the name difficult to figure out. I know people who have great difficulty with unusual words, both in repeating the sounds and in interpreting unusual spellings, even in their own language.

  11. el banco Citi (ex Citibank) ha osado cambiarle el nombre al tradicional Teatro Ópera de la calle Corrientes. Ahora, al ser ellos los dueños, pretenden que se llame “Teatro Citi”.
    !!

  12. I saw my very first operas (Norma and The Barber of Seville) at the Ópera. Damn you, Citi! Damn you to hell!

  13. And yes, Tiflis is a lot easier on the Anglophone than Tbilisi.

  14. el banco Citi (ex Citibank) ha osado cambiarle el nombre al tradicional Teatro Ópera
    And the Sears Tower http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willis_Tower will always be the Sears Tower, even though Sears Roebuck has long since fled to the suburbs.

  15. If the 113th Congress changes the name of Washington, D.C. to Reagan City
    The name of “Washington National Airport” has already been changed to “Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport”. It is a local shibboleth for political party whether you refer to it as “Reagan” or “National”.

  16. ignoramus says:

    ‘omo irrational, love to mark their lamppost with the appropriate liquid.
    Monies and ‘drip’ of power goes a long way as some believe a rose is a rose and still smells just as sweetly, regardless of it being called a stinking daisy.

  17. John Emerson says:

    American sports teams and ballparks have been so absorbed into corporate marketing that the traditional local identifications have become harder to maintain. One reason that the Green Bay Packers have such a mystique is that they are actually a community-owned team.

  18. Thanks a lot for your support!
    Pero, LH, no estás confundiendo el Ópera con el Colón? No estoy segura de si se representaron óperas en el Ópera (al menos no mientras vos pudieras haberlas visto). Pero puede ser ignorancia mía y me gustaría saberlo.
    Aquí una entrada informativa de un blog interesante:
    http://www.eternautasblog.com/2010/03/para-que-le-devuelvan-su-nombre-al.html

  19. mollymooly says:

    The Point Depot, popularly called “The Point”, was Dublin’s biggest auditorium. It was rebuilt and rebranded “The O2″. But the Luas light rail stop outside is still called “The Point”. O2 wanted the city to rename the stop after the renamed building. The grounds for refusal given by the city was that the stop was not called after the old building but rather after East Point, the building’s location. Which is fair enough, but I would have preferred a simple “piss off”.

  20. Pero, LH, no estás confundiendo el Ópera con el Colón?
    When I was a student in New York, Citi was known as Shittybank; not without reason.

  21. When I lived in Amman I tried to open an account at Citibank, but they said the bank was only for those with direct deposit paychecks with a source in the U.S. However HSBC was able to accommodate me.

  22. Pero, LH, no estás confundiendo el Ópera con el Colón?
    Por supuesto, tienes razón. ¡Uf, qu&eacute alivio!

  23. ¡Uf!

  24. John Emerson says:

    ¡Uffda!

  25. Sí, por supuesto, eso sería mucho más terrible. El Teatro Colón sigue siendo estatal (del Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires) espero que no lleguemos tan lejos en nuestra locura como para permitir que sea comprado por ninguna empresa.
    Lo del Teatro Ópera es una verdadera lástima, de todas formas. Y los del Banco Citi se merecen todo lo que han dicho de ellos.

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