No, Totally.

Kathryn Schulz has a nice New Yorker piece, “What part of ‘No, totally’ don’t you understand?,” that focuses on the odd affirmative use of “no” seen in this snippet of conversation:

MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.
DUNHAM: No, totally.

She finds some similar examples (“No, definitely.” “No, exactly.” “No, yes.”) and writes:

At first blush, “no” does not appear to be the kind of word whose meaning you can monkey with. For one thing, there is its length. At just two letters and one syllable, it lacks the pliable properties of longer words. You can’t stuff stuff inside it. (You can say “unfreakingbelievable,” but you cannot say “nfreakingo.”) You can’t mangle it, à la “misunderestimate” or (the finest example I’ve heard lately) “haphazardous.” On the contrary, it is so simple and self-contained that it is a holophrasm, a word that can serve as a complete sentence.

She discusses its odd part-of-speech status and explains the four-form system English used to have (which I learned about from John Cowan), using some excellent examples:

Shoot, there aren’t any open pubs in Canterbury at this hour.
Yes, there are.

Is Chaucer drunk?
Yea, and passed out on the table.

Is the Tabard open?
Nay, it closed at midnight.

Isn’t Chaucer meeting us here?
No, he went home to bed.

When it comes to explaining the affirmative-no phenomenon, however, things get murky. She quotes unnamed “linguists I spoke with” as claiming that “this use of ‘no’ might be a response to an implicit or explicit negative in the preceding statement,” but this strikes me as so clearly wrong I’m surprised any linguist would suggest it. And “the theory I like best”—that “No, totally” is really a contraction of “I know, totally”—is just silly. But the whole thing is enjoyable and worth reading, and there’s more discussion at the Log.

Edith Aldridge’s Publications.

I can’t improve on Matt Treyvaud’s No-sword post, so I’ll just quote it:

Your East Asian (and Austronesian!) treasure trove of the day: Dr Edith Aldridge’s “Publications” page. Her two papers on Chinese historical syntax are a great 80-page overview of the topic and a fine complement to Pulleyblank’s invaluable but more lexeme-centric Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Her papers on word order in hentai kanbun also make worthwhile reading if you care about that topic (and I do!). And she’s put it all online for free, because she’s on the side of good.

Three cheers for Edith Aldridge and all others who put their work online for free, because they’re on the side of good!

As lagniappe, speaking of free online resources: the complete contents of the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia, originally published between 1901-1906. (Thanks, Paul!)


Thanks to recommendations from John Cowan and Brett in this thread, I’ve started Brian W. Aldiss’s Cryptozoic! (which turns out to have been waiting on my shelves to be read for almost fifty years, a new record); it occurred to me to wonder whether the title was a real word—I thought I’d seen it, but couldn’t remember what it meant—so I checked the OED, and it turns out there are two such words, Cryptozoic adj.1 and n (Geol.) “Designating the eon before the beginning of the Cambrian period (about 542 million years ago), equivalent to the Precambrian period; of or relating to this eon, which is characterized by a lack of obvious fossils (as contrasted with the Phanerozoic eon)” and cryptozoic adj.2 (Ecol.) “Designating animals that live in concealed habitats where they remain hidden from view, as in crevices or caves; of or relating to such animals.” That seemed annoying at first, but then I realized there would be few contexts in which the homonymy would cause confusion.

Incidentally, I learn from Wikipedia that the original U.K. title of the book was An Age. I guess that didn’t sound zippy enough for the U.S. market.

A Visit to Troubadour/Grey Matter Books.

Last October I wrote about the merger of Troubadour Books with Grey Matter Books; today my wonderful wife drove me thither so I could enjoy the end of their spring sale (and reward myself for finishing the copyediting of a book on athletics in Ancient Greek history and poetry), and here is what I came back with:

Dictionary of Russian Literature Since 1917 by Wolfgang Kasack (1988)
Novel Epics: Gogol, Dostoevsky, and National Narrative by Frederick Griffiths and Stanley Rabinowitz (1990)
The History of Polish Literature, 2nd ed. by Czeslaw Milosz (1983)
Decentralization and Self-Government in Russia, 1830-1870 by Frederick S. Starr (1972)
Readings in Russian poetics: Formalist and structuralist views ed. by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska (1978)
The Positive Hero in Russian Literature by Rufus W. Mathewson (1975)
The Literature of Roguery in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Russia by Marcia A. Morris (2000)
Through the Russian Prism by Joseph Frank (1989)
Fifty Years of Russian Prose: From Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn (2 vols) ed. by Krystyna Pomorska (1971)

Oh, and I got Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, because I’m more than halfway through Wolf Hall and I know I’m going to want to plunge right into the sequel.

American Colonial English.

A reader writes: “I am writing a story which takes place in colonial America. Do you know of any resources for someone interested in the dialect and grammar of American Colonial English?” My answer: “I don’t, but it’s an interesting question, and I’ll post it.” So, anybody know?

Porthmeor and MAGA.

Mark Woods is featuring Ben Nicholson’s painting Porthmeor Beach at wood s lot, and I wondered how to pronounce Porthmeor. I couldn’t find anything in a brief Google search, and was about to give up when I clicked on this page (the ‘Cornwall and Cornish’ category at John Maidment’s Blog, which seems to have a good deal of language-related material), which has both an aerial view of St. Ives that mentions “Porthmeor (‘great cove’)” and a link to the Standard Written Form Cornish dictionary online, published by the Cornish Language Partnership (MAGA). I used the search feature to look up porth “port/gate/harbour/haven, porch” in the Cornish section; since “meor” gave no results, I looked up great in the English section and found meur “great/grand/large/substantial,” pronounced [mø:r] in Middle Cornish and [me:r] in Late Cornish. So I not only learned that Porthmeor is (presumably) porth-MARE in an anglicized version, I found another fine online lexicographical resource to add to the sidebar.

France Gives In to the Hashtag.

William Alexander in the NY Times has fun with “the stunning announcement that France is giving up the fight to keep English words out of the French language”:

This sudden reversal of four centuries of French linguistic policy was issued by the minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, who declared that France’s resistance to the incursion of English words was harming — rather than preserving — the language. “French is not in danger, and my responsibility as minister is not to erect ineffective barriers against languages but to give all our citizens the means to make it live on,” Ms. Pellerin told an audience assembled for the opening of French Language and Francophonie Week in March, acknowledging in one sentence both the futility and misguidedness of the battle. [...]

Most of the debate today centers on dealing with English technology terms such as “hashtag” and “cloud computing.” But in fact the backlash against English encroachment into French started in the pre-computer age, when officials became alarmed over the country’s infatuation with “le jogging” and eating “les cheeseburgers” on “le week-end.” [...]

Yet despite these many laws and commissions (at least 20 that govern the French language) there’s still that vexing “hashtag” (or as the Ministry of Culture would have you call it — at least up until a couple of weeks ago — mot-dièse) problem. The ministry relies on specialized terminology commissions for finding French replacements for new words of foreign influence, and in theory the task is straightforward: take a foreign term such as “Wi-Fi” and come up with a French equivalent other than “le Wi-Fi.” Unfortunately, the tendency of the French to be verbose works greatly to their disadvantage, especially in the Twitter age. The recommended replacement for “Wi-Fi” (which the French so adorably pronounce “wee-fee”) was the mouthful “accès sans fil à l’Internet,” literally “access without wire to the Internet.” Which is why you see signs for “Wi-Fi” all over France.

I suspect that the French don’t realize that “Wi-Fi” doesn’t even make sense in English.[...]

Thanks, Paul!


Back in 2008, Philologos of the Forward wrote about one of the best words I’ve ever seen:

Khnyok — it’s pronounced as one syllable, a feat best managed by pretending to clear your throat and blow your nose at the same time — is Yiddish. In my own enlightened Orthodox, English-speaking New York family (my father was born in Belarus, my mother in Lithuania), a khnyok was a sanctimonious religious prig, and this is what the word means to most of its users today. Rarely found in the vocabulary of American-born secular or non-Orthodox Jews, it is for the most part disparagingly used by Jews who are religiously observant themselves for the holier-than-thou super-observant. The plural of khnyok is khnyokes (two syllables, please), the adjective is khnyokish, and the past participle is farkhnyokt, which denotes someone who has become a khnyok or more khnyokish than he or she once was.

So far, the case of khnyok seems simple enough. But when one delves into the word’s origins and history, the plot thickens considerably. [...]

We can now come to some tentative conclusions. As Langer was writing about the years 1913 and 1914, his use of khnyok must reflect an early meaning — and, unexpectedly, the word seems to have started out not as an anti-Hasidic slur but as a term used by some Hasidim to disparage other Hasidim who went to ascetic extremes of personal hygiene and dress to demonstrate their contempt for worldly existence. [...] From there, the word left the confines of the Hasidic community and went off in different directions: Because unkemptness is associated with oafishness, it came to mean a bungler or schlimazel; because schlimazels are often doormats for others (it’s on the schlimazel, you’ll recall, that the schlemiel spills the chicken soup), it came to mean a whiner or mollycoddle, and because its original meaning of an extreme Hasid was picked up by misnagdim, or anti-Hasidic Jews, it eventually became a derogatory term both for Hasidim in general and for a religious fanatic of any stripe. Today, it survives only in the last of these meanings.

Still unanswered is the question of khnyok’s etymology. Harkavy’s suggestion of Russian khnyika does not really explain anything and needs, I think, to be discarded. If any of you has a better idea, let’s hear it.

I just wish my friend Allan were still alive, because he could have given me some great reminiscences about this word, and if he didn’t already know it, how he would have loved it!

Half Man, Half Book.

I’m running behind in catching up with my NYRB subscription, so I’m still making my way through the issue from last Dec. 4, and I’ve gotten to Christian Caryl’s review (paywalled, I’m afraid) of Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East; I feel compelled to pass along this striking passage:

In Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Russell steeps himself in the works of E.S. Drower, a British scholar from the 1930s who managed to record the esoteric beliefs of the Mandaeans, a group from the marshes of southern Iraq. Russell is particularly impressed by the figures who populate their legends:

There is Krun, the flesh mountain, who sounds a bit like Jabba the Hutt; as Drower wrote, “The whole visible world rests on this king of darkness, and his shape is that of a huge house.” There is Abraham, who appears as a failed Mandaean guided by an evil spirit to leave and found his own community. There is the dragon Ur, whose belly is made of fire and sits above an ocean of flammable oil. There is Ptahil, “who takes souls to be weighed and sends his spirits to fetch souls from their bodies.” My favorite was the demon Dinanukht, who is half man and half book and “sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself.”

My favorite too; I’ve told my wife that that’s how I hope to be reincarnated.


Monumenta altaica is a cornucopia of everything Altaic-related; the site language is Russian, but if you look down the books and articles page you’ll see plenty of titles in other languages, e.g.,G. Doerfer, Türkische und Mongolische Elemente im Neupersischen (3 vols.); V. Drimba, Syntaxe Comane; S. E. Martin, Dagur Mongolian: Grammar, Text, and Lexicon; and Nicholas Poppe, Introduction to Altaic Linguistics. Thanks, Trevor!