A Silly Man, Though Lewd.

James Harbeck, “a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics),” has some fun with the etymological fallacy, “the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it ‘originally’ meant,” creating a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:

Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.

“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”

“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”

As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”

The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.

At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.

For “a translation into the words people would usually use now, ‘wrong’ though they may be,” visit the linked post.

The Four Thieves.

Still reading Veltman’s Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life), also called Саломея [Salomea], I hit one of those linguistic-cultural mysteries that took enough unraveling I thought I’d make a post of it. The titular Salomea Petrovna has returned in unexpected circumstances to her parents’ house and her mother has fainted; her father “спрыскивал ее водой, натирал виски спиртом, подносил к носу четырех разбойников и, наконец, возвратил к жизни” [sprinkled her with water, rubbed her temples with spirits, brought four thieves to her nose, and finally returned her to life]. (It is amusing that виски [viskí] ‘temples’ looks exactly like виски [víski] ‘whiskey,’ which is a kind of spirits.) Naturally, the phrase in italics puzzled me, but for a long time googling was fruitless, turning up only references to actual thieves. Then I found a quote from Daniil Mordovtsev, “Четыре поименованные генерала напоминают мне письмо Вольтера: он пишет, что уксус, называемый «четырех разбойников», самое есть действительное средство от заразы” [The four named generals remind me of a letter of Voltaire; he writes that the vinegar called "four thieves" is the most efficient remedy against contagion]. Armed with that, I found an actual recipe in William T. Brannt’s A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Vinegar: With Special Consideration of Wood Vinegar and Other By-products Obtained in the Destructive Distillation of Wood …, 2nd ed. (H. C. Baird, 1900), p. 174 (image):

Vinaigre des quatre voleurs. Fresh tops of common wormwood, Roman wormwood, rosemary, sage, mint and rue each ¾ ounce, lavender flowers 1 ounce, garlic, calamus aromaticus, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg each 1 drachm, camphor ½ ounce, alcohol or brandy 1 ounce, strong vinegar 4 pints.

There are plenty of references to it, like this from Jonathan Pereira’s The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Vol. 2 (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1857), p. 499 (image):

In the former Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia there was contained, under the same name, a somewhat similar but weaker preparation, made with diluted acetic acid (i.e. distilled vinegar), in imitation of the celebrated Marseilles Vinegar, or Vinegar of the Four Thieves[fn. 2] (Vinaigre des Quatre-Voleurs; Acetum quatuor Furum), once supposed to be a prophylactic against the plague and other contagious diseases. It was a very useless preparation.

The footnote (image) reads:

“The repute of this preparation as a prophylactic in contagious fevers, is said to have arisen from the confession of four thieves, who, during the plague of Marseilles, plundered the dead bodies with perfect security, and, upon being arrested, stated, on condition of their lives being spared, that the use of aromatic vinegar had preserved them from the influence of contagion. It is on this account sometimes called ‘Le Vinaigre des quatre Voleurs.’ It was, however, long used before the plague of Marseilles, for it was the constant custom of Cardinal Wolsey to carry in his hand an orange, deprived of its contents and filled with a sponge which had been soaked in vinegar impregnated with various spices, in order to preserve himself from infection, when passing through the crowds which his splendour of office attracted. The first plague raged in 1649, whereas Wolsey died in 1531.” (Paris, Pharmacologia, 6th edit. vol. ii. p. 18, Lond. 1825.)

If you google [vinaigre "quatre voleurs"] you can get plenty more; it’s one of those things that was common knowledge in the nineteenth century but has since been utterly forgotten. (Or has it? If anyone is familiar with it, do speak up.)


My brother, perhaps out of sheer sadism, sent me a link to this NY Times piece (by Eric Hynes) about Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi, a Film Society of Lincoln Center series starting tomorrow. When I lived in NYC I was a member of the society when I could afford it, and if I were there now I would be attending all of these movies, and I would go twice to Kin-dza-dza!, the only one they appear to be showing twice. As it is, I can only urge those of you in striking distance of the city to take advantage of this rare opportunity; it sounds like some of the films are pretty silly, but I’ll bet they’re all fun to watch, and Kin-dza-dza!, which I have only seen on my computer screen, must be a blast in a theater. To prove its linguistic interest (and thus provide the hook for this post), I will copy the relevant section from its Wikipedia article:

Plukanian language

Koo — All words, with the following exceptions:
Kyu (pronounced kyew) — any profanity
Ketseh (pronounced “keh-tseh”, emphasis on the second syllable) — matches (or, rather, the chemicals ordinarily used on Earth for match heads)
Chatl — a currency unit
Tsak — a small bell worn on the nose to indicate the low social status of the wearer
Tentura and Antitentura — two opposite parts of the Universe. Some planets and galaxies exist in Tentura and some (including Earth) in Antitentura
Pepelats — an interplanetary spacecraft (from the Georgian word “pepela” for butterfly)
Tsapa — a component for different machines. A big tsapa is a very important component for the pepelats. A small tsapa is a component for the gravitsapa; without the small tsapa, a gravitsapa will not work. Tsapa is similar to a very rusty screwnut
Gravitsapa — a component for the pepelats which allows intergalactic travel (from ‘gravity’ + ‘tsapa’)
Tranklucator — a weapon
Visator — compact device, detects difference between Patsaks and Chatlanians
Kappa — a button or lever
Luts — the fuel used by the pepelats, it is made of water
Ecilop — a policeman (“police” spoken backwards)
Etsikh — a box for prisoners; also the imprisonment in such box (as a penalty); also the Ecikh is a jail with many such boxes (“Ecikh” is from the Georgian word “tsikhe” for prison, castle). Ecikh with nails is extremely hard punishment.

At least one of these words, pepelats, is widely used in Russian, and would be in all languages of Earth if this were a better world. Anyway, I have given timely notice. Don’t miss it if you can, like the man said.

Trading Reeds and Stems.

Christopher Culver has a post on a nice little linguistic find; he starts off with Eastern Mari omə̑ž ‘reed,’ a borrowing from Chuvash xămăš ‘bulrush,’ found in the Skvortsovs’ Chuvash-Russian dictionary, and continues:

But a few lines above it, one finds an entry for a remarkably similar word: xămăl ‘stubble (of cereals)’. Fedotov compares this to Tatar and Bashkir qamïl ‘bulrush’.

These must be the same words, both going back to Proto-Turkic *kamïš ‘grass stalk (or the like)’ and showing the ‑š ~ ‑l distinction that divides the family in two. Outside of Chuvash, the ‑l variant has no cognates outside of Volga Kipchak, and thus can be regarded as a Volga Bulgarian loan into Tatar and Bashkir. The ‑š variant, on the other hand, must be a loan from Volga Kipchak into Chuvash.

An amusing bit of trivia, two distantly related languages trading cognates with different meanings.

This is the kind of thing that makes me love historical linguistics.

Who Speaks Wukchumni?

A nice little NY Times story by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee about the efforts of the family of Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language of Central California, to preserve the language and the dictionary she worked on for years; it’s accompanied by a short documentary where you can hear her tell bits of a story with onscreen translation (I could watch that sort of thing for hours). I know a lot of people think it’s futile as well as impractical to try to preserve dying languages, but most of what’s truly important to humans beyond basic food and shelter is impractical and probably futile, so I say good for the would-be rescuers. (Thanks, Bonnie!)

Newfangled Spelling.

As I wrote here, I’m reading Veltman’s novel Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life, 1846-48), and I just got to a bit of dialogue that made me laugh, so I’m sharing it. Grigory Ivanovich and Lukyan Anisimovich are paying a visit to their old friend and former coworker Pamfil Fedoseevich and Lukyan has complained about modern literature, ending with “…and there are always some kind of peculiar words” [да всё слова какія-то особенныя]. Grigory responds:

No, Lukyan Anisimovich, don’t say that. True, there are words you can’t make sense of right away, but when you think it through, it’s the same old word, just with a new spelling. For example, we used to say Kishot [Quijote], but now they write Kikhot, which is quite a bit more delicate. In our day we called a certain astronomer Nevton [Newton], but now it’s Nyuton. All the other words are like that. For instance, yesterday as I was reading: “Pathos, what could that mean?” I thought and thought, and finally I guessed that it was Bacchus.

Нѣтъ, Лукьянъ Ансимовичъ, не говорите. Правда, есть слова, вдругъ и въ толкъ не возьмешь, а какъ подумаешь хорошенько, такъ это то же слово, да по новому правописанію; примѣромъ, по-нашему былъ Кишотъ, а теперь пишутъ — Кихотъ: гораздо нѣжнѣе; въ наше время Невтономъ называли одного астронома, а теперь — Ньютономъ, такъ-то и прочія всѣ слова: примѣромъ, вотъ я вчера начиталъ: Паѳосъ, что бы это значило? Думалъ, думалъ, наконецъ догадался, что это Бахусъ.

Incidentally, in an earlier scene we learn that Pamfil’s wife can’t take advantage of her husband’s new riches to hang out with a better crowd because she never learned French.

Fun with Latin.

A couple of bits of Latinity that mix amusement and edification:

1) “I am almoost beshytten”: A 16th Century English to Latin Textbook. Phrases “excerpted from an English to Latin textbook printed in the early 16th century (Auct. 2Q 5.9(4)), which has been digitized by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford as part of an ongoing project. You can read the whole thing here or learn more about the project here.”

2) Corruptae Latinitatis Index: Or, a Collection of Barbarous Words and Phrases, which are Found in the Works of the Most Celebrated Modern Writers in Latin. With an Alphabetical Table, Shewing, what Words and Phrases, Taken from the Classics, Would Have Clearly and Fully Answered Their Purpose. By William Massey, Master of a Boarding-School at Wandsworth. The Preface gets quite censorious:

After the Roman Empire began to decay, their Language likewise was soon debased by an Inundation of foreign and new-coined Words. * The African Latin Writers, both ecclesiastic and profane, such as Tertullian, Apuleius, Arnobius, &c. are justly charged with greatly debasing the Roman Language in the Decline of that Empire, by introducing a Multitude of Words and Phrases, that would have been disgusting to a pure Roman Ear.

In the words of the excellent Conrad, who sent me the link: “Prescriptivism ca. 1755.”

Too Many Books, Part Umpteen.

I’ve linked to essays about this sort of thing before (e.g., here and here); now I present for your perusal Alice Fishburn in the Financial Times (of which she is an editor):

It was as I tried to squeeze all 784 pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – my final purchase of 2013 – on to an already overcrowded bookshelf that I realised I had a problem. Piles of books were all over the house, many of them unread. There were unopened political doorstops; texts from the undergraduate canon with embarrassing student notes on 10 pages – “heteronormative cliché!” was a particular favourite – before my attention petered out; stacks of classics consigned to the “one day when I have time” category. Clearly my supply and demand assessments were way, way off.

And so the pact began. My rules were simple. Books could be accepted as gifts or used when needed for work. They could be purchased for others, but not as a backhanded way of smuggling them into my own library. My fellow Brits may have spent £2.2bn on books in 2013 but I was no longer going to be one of them. Every page I turned in 2014 had to come from those already inside my house.

She mentions that “My new tactic of reading only what I already own turns out not to be new at all: Susan Hill wrote a whole book on the subject, Howards End is on the Landing, in 2009,” and some of the commenters on those earlier LH posts seem to successfully maintain policies of never buying more books until they’ve read all the ones they own already; I don’t know if I find such restraint admirable, but I know for sure that I could never emulate it. And I’m pleased to say that I have in fact eventually gotten around to many of the books that years ago no one, including myself, believed I’d ever read. But it’s true I’m adding very few these days, and the ones I acquire are usually for the Kindle. Even I am abashed by the groaning shelves and growing piles… (Thanks, Paul!)

Slang of the Times.

Megan Garber, Adrienne LaFrance, and Ian Bogost have a delightful post at Citylab on how the Gray Lady has dealt over the years with the jargon of the young and/or underclass, presumptively unintelligible to its well-bred readership. They open with a quote from a recent article about a $25 penalty for pot possession in Washington, D.C.:

“A ticket when you just have a jay or something?” said Clifford Gray, a lifelong District of Columbia resident who is in his 20s, using a slang term for a marijuana cigarette. “I’m good with that.”

And they continue thus:

This—”a slang term for a marijuana cigarette”—was so delightfully, perfectly Timesian. Not a joint, mind you, but a marijuana cigarette! (In related Times-speak, a whip isn’t just a car but an automobile.)

And it made us wonder: What other terms had the paper of record decided to wordsplain in this way? What else, in the Times‘s more than 150-year history, had writers and editors decided to clarify as “a slang term for X”?

We decided to find out. We searched the paper’s archives—a corpus of news articles from 1851 to the present—for any and all instances of “a slang term for,” “slang for,” and “a slang word for.” We LOLed at the results. (“LOL” is a slang term for “laugh out loud.”)

Below, our random generator of 73 pieces of Times-defined slang, many of them long forgotten, many of them deserving of resurrection, and all of them revealing about the place and time that gave rise to them.

We marveled at the way these expressions—the ones we understood, anyway—captured the spirit of the era in which they were defined. It makes sense, for instance, that the Times defined acid (“a slang term for the drug LSD”) in 1970, grunt (“a slang word for an infantryman”) during the Vietnam War, diss (“a slang term for a perceived act of disrespect”) in 1994, and macking (“a slang term for making out”) in 1999.

One particularly memorable example is how the Times unpacked “punk” in 1977: “Slanguist Eric Partridge speculates that punk is hobo lingo to describe very stale bread, perhaps from the French pain. Punk, applied to a person, began as a slang term for a catamite, or boy kept by a pederast, and later extended to cover young hoodlums.”

You don’t have to click their link to know that the last quote is from William Safire; the first word gives it away. Needless to say, the first sentence is utter balderdash (to use a word Bill would have enjoyed), and you should never take Eric Partridge’s word for anything. Anyway, enjoy the random generator; Yoram, who sent me the link, also sent the full list (thanks, Yoram!), and for your delectation, here is the earliest citation:

1855. “I have found by [associating] of late with [criminals] and other low people, that Marianne is argot for guillotine, just as wipe is slang for handkerchief.”

(I have added the words in brackets from the original article, which is a very enjoyable read in its own right.) As Yoram says, it’s a pity they didn’t search for “argot” as well.

Are the World’s Languages Consolidating?

That’s the title of a paper (pdf) by David Clingingsmith of Case Western Reserve University; the abstract says:

Scholars have long conjectured that the return to knowing a language increases with the number of speakers. Recent work argues that long-run economic and political integration accentuate this advantage, leading larger languages to increase their population share. I show that, to the contrary, language size and growth are uncorrelated for languages with ≥35,000 speakers. I incorporate this finding into an evolutionary model of language population dynamics. The model’s steady-state follows a power law and precisely fits the size distribution of the 1,900 languages with ≥35,000 speakers. Simulations suggest the extinction of 40% of languages with <35,000 speakers within 100 years.

It looks interesting and well written but quickly gets into more statistics than I can handle, but I’m sure some of my readers will have no problem with it. (Incidentally, if you’re curious, as I was, about the name Clingingsmith, there’s a book called Klingensmith, Klingelsmith, Clingingsmith, Etc, which is suggestive if not very enlightening.) Thanks, Kobi!