I was reading Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years (which I’m afraid is disappointing me in its later chapters) when I ran across a passage describing Massachusetts sumptuary legislation in 1651 which forbade “weomen of the same rancke to weare silke or tiffany hoodes or scarfes.” I asked my wife if she knew of a fabric called “tiffany,” but she didn’t, so I looked it up and found (AHD):

tif·fa·ny (tĭf′ə-nē)
n. pl. tif·fa·nies
    A thin, transparent gauze of silk or cotton muslin.
[Probably from obsolete French tiphanie, Epiphany, from Old French, from Late Latin theophania; see THEOPHANY.]

A great etymology, which it shares with the name Tiffany, which I posted about back in 2003.

A Crisis In British Swearing.

As I am not a Brit, I can only have an outsider’s uninformed opinion on Tom Nicholson’s Esquire jeremiad, but I do have one, and it is that he is correct:

There’s a growing crisis in swearing in this country. After centuries during which everyone was happy to call each other bastards, pricks and wankers, there’s a renewed enthusiasm for faux-archaic compound insults. ‘Cockwomble’ is the breakout star, but jump into any Brexit-adjacent Twitter thread and you’ll see them. ‘Wankpuffin’. ‘Nobsocket’. ‘Shitflute’. ‘Spunktrumpet’. […]

Despite the apparent coarseness, this ‘inventive’ swearing is on the same continuum as swing dancing and having Live Laugh Love wall decals in your kitchen, suitable only for New European readers who really, really, really like Blackadder and call each other ‘sir’ on Twitter.

It’s not clear where the urge to formulate swearwords which sound like surnames of minor Harry Potter characters came from, but it’s been leapt on as a really easy way to make yourself sound a bit witty. Pick a swear word, add a slightly unexpected noun, launch it at Dominic Raab and hey – you’re a Radio 4 quiz show panellist. […]

The idea that this kind of linguistic cut-and-shut job automatically puts whoever uses it in the same literary lineage as Dickens, Carroll and Wodehouse is a fallacy. Crucially, it’s also a case of reinventing the wheel. A solid, agricultural English insult has an implicit poetry of its own, and they do their jobs perfectly. To take one example: a prick is a prick. Drop it at the right time and the insult lands like a hand grenade, and that’s because you know what it means without necessarily being able to fully articulate it. It means you’re a prick, mate – end of. […]

If you use these words, you’re turning your back on the rich history of earthy, brutish, egalitarian British swearing to evoke some bizarre Thorpe Park fantasy Britain set somewhere between 1928 and 1954. It’s not that there’s no room for innovation in swearing, but the forsaking our national inheritance – your everyday fucks, shits and bastards – for smug, self-consciously quirksome insults is a travesty which must be stopped.

Hear, hear! (From Wordshore’s MetaFilter post, where you will find more sweary links; warning: in “10 Old English swear words,” the phrase “Old English” means “English before my time,” as is distressingly common. Yours, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.)

Preserving Languages Through Song.

Chaka V. Grier reports on “how musicians are keeping endangered languages alive”:

“I struggle to talk about languages as dying,” says Jeremy Dutcher, the singer/songwriter whose 2018 Polaris Prize–nominated debut Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa has garnered widespread acclaim since it was released in April. “That [dying language term] often gets put on this project because there are so few speakers [of Wolastoqey, the language of the album].

“But as one of my elders, Maggie Paul, says, ‘Our languages are in our songs. They never died. They had to go away for a while for safekeeping. Now is the time to bring them back.’ I let those words guide the work I do.” […]

[Read more…]

Rillons, Rillettes.

Since this delightful Richard Wilbur poem focuses on fine lexical distinctions, I figure it’s LH material; it’s from his 1966 collection The Mind-Reader (I reproduce the text in my Collected Poems 1943-2004):

Rillons, Rillettes

RILLETTES: Hors d’oeuvre made up of a mash of pigmeat, usually highly seasoned. Also used for making sandwiches. The Rillettes enjoying the greatest popularity are the Rillettes and Rillons de Tours, but there are Rillettes made in many other parts of France.

RILLONS: Another name for the Rillettes, a pigmeat hors d’oeuvre. The most popular Rillons are those of Blois.

      — A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy, edited by Andre L. Simon

Rillons, Rillettes, they taste the same,
And would by any other name,
And are, if I may risk a joke,
Alike as two pigs in a poke.

The dishes are the same, and yet
While Tours provides the best Rillettes,
The best Rillons are made in Blois.
There must be some solution.

Does Blois provide, do you suppose,
The best Rillettes de Tours, while those
Now offered by the chefs of Tours
Are, by their ancient standards, poor?

Clever, but there remains a doubt.
It is a thing to brood about,
Like non-non-A, infinity,
Or the doctrine of the Trinity.

Me, I am very fond of rillettes; I have no opinion on rillons.

The Good Year.

For as long as I’ve studied Russian I’ve been bothered by the cognates год ‘year’ and годиться ‘to suit; to be fit (for), to be of use.’ I knew they were related, but I could never remember how the semantics worked. The first is from Proto-Slavic *godъ ‘suitable/right time; holiday, feast; time, term; year’ and the second from Proto-Slavic *godìti ‘to please,’ which suggests the basic idea, but I’m going to quote the extended discussion on pp. 142-43 of Louis Jay Herman’s Dictionary of Slavic Word Families (incidentally, Herman was one of those hyperpolyglots we’ve been hearing so much about — see this 2010 post):

From a semantic standpoint, the derivatives [of *god ‘good, suitable’] can be divided into three broad groups:

(1) The basic meaning is apparent in a wide variety of words expressing such notions as suitability, worthiness, convenience, advantage, pleasure and agreement (the last of these giving rise to the meanings “to hire,” “to negotiate” and “to decide”) or, with the addition of a negative prefix, such ideas as misfortune, displeasure and disagreement.

(2) The widespread secondary meaning “time” reflects a semantic shift from the notion of “suitable time” (still apparent in “festival, holiday,” “feast,” “opportunity”) to that of “time in general” (> “time, era,” “year,” “hour,” “occasion,” “to wait,” “to postpone,” “until”); it is implicit in the meanings “to happen,” “event” and “chance, accident.” (A similar progression in meaning is discussed in the note on Pol.-Cz.-S-C doba.)

(3) The verbal derivatives. in a reversal of the normal process of semantic development from the concrete to the abstract, have undergone successive changes in meaning from “to be suitable, pleasing” to “to aim,” “to throw” and, finally, “to hit” (whence, further, “to get (into)” and “to guess”).

Non-Slavic cognates include Eng. good and (reflecting the original Indo-European meaning of the root, “fitting, belonging together”) gather, together.

(I’ve replaced his underlines by italics, which he presumably would have used if the typography hadn’t been so primitive.) Among the words with a negative prefix he mentions is Russian негодование [negodovania] ‘indignation,’ which is extremely common in 19th-century literature and which, as it happens, was the spark that inspired this post.)

Maltese for Beginners.

As I wrote in 2015, “We seem to discuss hyperpolyglots every couple of years (2009, 2011, 2013), so it’s time for another installment”; I’m a year late, but herewith a piece from the latest New Yorker, Judith Thurman’s “Maltese for Beginners” (that’s the title in the actual magazine — online they’ve chosen the more boring “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages”). Much of it will be familiar to anyone who has read about such people before (the usual suspects are here: Mithridates, Cleopatra, Mezzofanti, et al.), but there’s more than enough new material to make it well worth reading. Thurman accompanies Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia to Malta for a week to watch him learn the basics of Maltese:

His father is a Peruvian businessman, and the family lives comfortably in Lima. His mother is a shop manager of Italian origin, and his maternal grandmother, who cared for him as a boy, taught him Piedmontese. He learned English in preschool and speaks it impeccably, with the same slight Latin inflection—a trill of otherness, rather than an accent—that he has in every language I can vouch for. Maltese had been on his wish list for a while, along with Uighur and Sanskrit. “What happens is this,” he said, over dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Nijmegen, where he was chatting in Mandarin with the owner and in Dutch with a server, while alternating between French and Spanish with a fellow-student at the institute. “I’m an amoureux de langues. And, when I fall in love with a language, I have to learn it. There’s no practical motive—it’s a form of play.” An amoureux, one might note, covets his beloved, body and soul. […]

People who live at a crossroads of cultures—Melanesians, South Asians, Latin-Americans, Central Europeans, sub-Saharan Africans, plus millions of others, including the Maltese and the Shawi—acquire languages without considering it a noteworthy achievement. Leaving New York, on the way to the Netherlands, I overheard a Ghanaian taxi-driver chatting on his cell phone in a tonal language that I didn’t recognize. “It’s Hausa,” he told me. “I speak it with my father, whose family comes from Nigeria. But I speak Twi with my mom, Ga with my friends, some Ewe, and English is our lingua franca. If people in Chelsea spoke one thing and people in SoHo another, New Yorkers would be multilingual, too.” […]

[Read more…]


This ancient post got revived, and I enjoyed rereading it, but this time I wondered how you say “Duino Elegies” in Russian, so I looked it up in my formerly invaluable copy of Adrian Room’s Dictionary of Translated Names and Titles (now largely replaced by the internet, but still fun to use) and found Ду́инские эле́гии, which made me suspect that Duino might have the stress on the first syllable, an idea which had never occurred to me. So of course I googled, but the Wikipedia article didn’t indicate stress. It did add (Slovene: Devin, archaic German: Tybein), which didn’t help but was certainly intriguing. I learned that Duino is a frazione of Duino-Aurisina, and that article has the parenthetical (Slovene: Devin-Nabrežina, German: Thübein-Nabreschin, also Tybein; Triestine: Duin-Aurisina). The Italian article on Aurisina adds the following overwhelming mass of variants:

Nelle registrazioni tergestine, riferite a vigne e oliveti sulla costiera, sotto il ciglione dell’altopiano carsico, compare tra, il 1308 ed il 1349, come Lebrosina, Lebresina, Lobrosina, Labresina, Liurisina ed Aurisin, Aurisins, Auresinis, Auresinum, Aurexinum, Aurixinum, Aurisinum; le menzioni riferibili al villaggio danno Laurisina, Liusirina, Liurixina, Luirisinum.

L’utilizzazione ufficiale del toponimo italiano, attuale, è del 1927 (fino a tale data veniva utilizzato un toponimo italiano ricalcato da quello sloveno, ovvero Nabresina).

In sloveno le forme in uso ufficiale Nabrežina, affiancata dalla forma dialettale Nabržin, pur derivando dal medesimo antico toponimo, risultano modificate per influenza dell’espressione linguistica na bregu (ovvero sul ciglio).

All of which seemed worth a post, but I’m still wondering whether it’s /ˈduino/ or (as I’ve always said) /duˈino/. Do we know?

The Eternal Husband.

I had a little fun with Dostoevsky’s Вечный муж [The Eternal Husband] in this post, and I hadn’t intended to make a separate post for a short novel that most people have never heard of, but the more I read the better I liked it, and once I finished it I discovered it has been called “a small masterpiece” (Joseph Frank) and “technically perhaps the most accomplished of Dostoevsky’s works” (William J. Leatherbarrow), so I decided I should try figuring out what I thought and what other scholars have said and report back.

The plot is straightforward: Pavel Trusotsky, after the death of his wife Natalya, learns she had had lovers, and goes to Petersburg to confront them. One of them is Aleksei Velchaninov, with whom he had been friendly a decade earlier, and it is Velchaninov who is the point-of-view character — the book opens with his catching glimpses of Trusotsky and becoming increasingly paranoid (he doesn’t remember who he is) until the cuckolded husband barges drunk into his apartment in the wee hours of the morning, acting oddly, assuring him of his undying affection while hinting at darker things. Eventually Velchaninov learns of the existence of a daughter Liza, who he assumes must be his (she is around eight), and he begins plotting to take her away from the increasingly unhinged-seeming and hostile Trusotsky; there are, of course, further complications and developments, some tragic and some comic, and Velchaninov calls Trusotsky an “eternal husband” — one who has to have a wife and will be slavishly subservient to her, turning a blind eye to her infidelity.
[Read more…]

Annals of Capitalization.

I thought I was used to the New Yorker‘s stylistic quirks, having read it for many decades now, but two words in this week’s Talk of the Town flummoxed me. From Jill Lepore’s lead Comment: “Serious malfeasance really began with Jackson, reached a pitch with Buchanan, then quieted down until the Presidencies of Grant and Harding, but all these shenanigans, he thought, seemed quaint compared with what Nixon stood accused of.” And from Tyler Foggatt’s piece: “From Queens, the tour might proceed to the Pierre hotel, in Manhattan […].” I can imagine an editorial theory under which one might talk of the Grant Presidency (though I would deprecate it), but “the Presidencies” just looks wrong. And I can’t wrap my mind around “the Pierre hotel” — is the idea that it is a generic hotel that happens to be qualified as Pierre, parallel to “the big hotel”? Is that really New Yorker style? I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be hoping something was a misprint, but here we are.

Superscripts in Chinese Texts.

This might seem a picky issue, but the Hattery is the Home of Pickiness, and as an editor (emeritus) I’m all about things like where to place superscripts. So with no further ado, Sijin Xian’s On the Placement of Superscripts in Chinese Texts:

As an English-Chinese translator serving mostly nonprofit and research institutions, I’ve had the distinct honor of working on a wide range of publications, including research papers, policy recommendations, and international organization submissions. Naturally, I deal with a lot of footnotes (or endnotes) and, consequently, the superscripts that hold their places in the texts. While the placement of superscripts in English texts follows a conventional and consistent practice, things tend to be more lax and vague when it comes to Chinese.

Below are a few screenshots I made of Chinese translations of English-language reports by international organizations. Notice where the superscripts are placed in relation to the neighboring punctuation. […]

I opt for the practice where superscripts precede the punctuation. This is how I was taught to write Chinese-language reports in school and the style adopted by Chinese academic journals. (I had a hard time adapting to the superscript placement rule in English when I attended graduate school in the US).

While of course I am used to the superscript placement rule in English, I have to admit that her chosen solution looks pleasing in Chinese. Thanks, Bathrobe!