Masonic Script.

Victor Mair has a Log post about an intriguing puzzle:

Michael Carasik, on behalf of NAPH (National Association of Professors of Hebrew), has forwarded to me a letter that was written to O. P. Schaub in the 1920s. Can anyone identify the script and/or translate it for him?

I urge you to visit the link and see if you can identify the writing; the two leading contenders in the Log thread are Samaritan script and what the commenters are calling Masonic script, which Wikipedia calls pigpen cipher: “The pigpen cipher (alternately referred to as the masonic cipher, Freemason’s cipher, Napoleon cipher, and tic-tac-toe cipher) is a geometric simple substitution cipher, which exchanges letters for symbols which are fragments of a grid.” It’s vaguely familiar to me from my childhood, when (like many kids) I was fascinated by codes and ciphers, and I was glad to have it brought again to mind.

Buddies and Bros.

Katherine Connor Martin at OUPblog takes a look at the many offshoots of the word brother; this paragraph gives a brief summary:

The word brother has generated a whole passel of such derivations. The OED now records at least ten distinct words based wholly or in part on regional or colloquial pronunciations of brother: bra (often spelled brah in the United States), bredda, Brer, bro, bruh, bruv, bruvver, bud, buddy, and Buh. Although they share little in common besides their first letter, all of these spellings are in some way attempts to reflect the way brother was pronounced in a particular type of speech. (Bro and buddy have slightly more complex stories, in that the former was used as a straightforward graphical abbreviation before it came to represent a regional pronunciation, and the latter may be influenced by other dialect words and by the suffix –y.) These ten words all have a connection to brother but they have developed in different ways, not all of which overlap with the meanings of the word brother itself.

But it’s the details that make it so much fun, with quotations ranging from “Ah how you do buddy” (1788, Charles Dibdin, Musical Tour) to “Look brah, this game right here’s going to be your breakout game” (2014, Y. Post) and a useful chart. The conclusion:

Although ultimately derived from brother, bro and buddy have by now developed completely independent identities, effacing their original meaning. Their brethren, the other words discussed here, represent many different stages in the life cycle of words. Buh and Brer seem to be calcified in their folklore use, and are relatively rare, even moribund. In contrast, bra, bruv, and bruh are on the rise—they may go on to develop their own unique meanings, to be covered in future updates of the OED.


My sister-in-law gave me a bottle of sriracha sauce, which made me happy because I’d been curious to try it ever since I first heard about it (probably within the last couple of years). I once lived in Thailand, after all, and I like spicy food (though my tolerance has diminished over the years). It turned out to be not that spicy, and (as I wrote her) it had an interesting flavor and left a pleasant buzz on my palate.

But we’re not here to talk about sauce but about the word itself, which is very odd indeed. The spelling is misleading; it’s pronounced (per Wikipedia — it’s too new to be in any of my dictionaries) [sǐː rāː.t͡ɕʰāː] in Thai and /sᵻˈrɑːtʃə/ in English, which makes sense, because it’s “named after the coastal city of Si Racha, in Chonburi Province of eastern Thailand, where it may have been first produced for dishes served at local seafood restaurants.” So why is that -r- there? Because it’s from the Sanskrit honorific sri (familiar from Sri Lanka), which winds up in Thai, lacking the consonant cluster /sr/, as /si/. You would think, since the name of the town is written without the -r-, that the name of the sauce could be as well, but for reasons unknown to me it is not, meaning that to the already mind-boggling English repertoire of spelling/pronunciation mismatches is added the new, and unique, sr- pronounced s-. Even I, a fan of irregularities and of unpredictability, think this is absurd.

La Patisserie.

This story, which Anatoly (from whose post I translate it) calls “somehow very Israeli,” brightened this gray morning for me, and I hope it will amuse you, however your day may be going:

A couple of years ago an amazing bakery appeared in our city. It was opened by a Frenchman who had flown here to conquer the Israeli market, spoke strongly accented Hebrew, and knew how to make stupendous vatrushkas, otherwise nonexistent in Israel, as well as divine pastries, quiches, eclairs, tortes, and so on and so on. The shop was in tiny premises located between a vegetable seller and a barbershop, in a boring neighborhood, not in the center of town, not on a main street, not in a commercial center, but who knows where, if you didn’t know to look for it you’d never find it. It was called La Patisserie. We started going there, and we told our friends about it.

Well, half a year or so ago the Frenchman sold his shop. The new owners kept the name and pretty much the same selection, but the trade secrets had clearly not been passed on. They did not know how to make vatrushkas, and didn’t even understand what they were. The eclairs were now the standard Israeli version. We went there a couple of times, then stopped. What can you do, everything flows, everything changes, everything goes downhill, yada yada.

But our punctilious friends, who were even more hooked on those vatrushkas than we were, discovered the other day that the Frenchman had not disappeared, had not gone back to France, but had opened a new bakery in the next town over, just a ten-minute drive from us. And everything there was just like before! The vatrushkas! The eclairs! And the pastries, and the quiches, and the tortes, and there was even a little more room. And as before, the bakery was in a quiet neighborhood, between some local pizzeria and a vegetable seller. The only thing that had changed was the name, and it is because of the name change that I am telling you this story.

It had been, as I remember, La Patisserie.

The new place was named Shmulik.

The man had found his Israel and his Israeli self, in short.

Go to the link to see a photo of a “divine vatrushka” from Shmulik. (And I still mourn the hash browns that were for a brief, glorious period made a few blocks away from my Astoria apartment by the only man in New York City who knew how to make real hash browns. As cooks go, he went, and I was never able to learn whither.)

Wharf Quay Pier Jetty.

I found this diagram posted on Facebook; it’s a simple 2X2 according to which a wharf is built on piles and parallel to the shore, a quay is built on fill and ditto, a pier is built on piles and extending out from the shore, and a jetty is built on fill and ditto. Does that correspond to your understanding? I confess that my understanding of these words has been very vague, although I probably could have provided a similar definition of a pier.

Chekhov–Saunders Humanity Kit.

The Chekhov–Saunders Humanity Kit (assembled by Maria Bustillos) is a remarkable thing, a website representing George Saunders’s MFA classes at Syracuse, and specifically the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – “usually the best class of the year.” The linked page is the intro:

I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.

In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.

To navigate it you click on the tabs under the images of Chekhov and Saunders: “How to Use,” “Syllabus,” and so on. I still haven’t read everything in it, but I find it fascinating and thought-provoking, and maybe some of my readers will too. The Coda quotes Chekhov’s famous letter to Pleshcheyev — “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves” — and Saunders says that he agrees:

I understand this idea to mean: We are our best (most complex, generous, ambiguity- and contradiction-friendly) when we are writing or reading – in that very particular mode. I also understand it to mean that a human being’s highest state is one of non-judgement. It doesn’t have to (maybe can’t) last forever but we learn so much in that mode, when we are just openly accepting data, even if that data contradicts our existing view.

Words to live by.

With Interjected Finger.

My wife, after reading me numerous bits from Ford Madox Ford’s memoir Memories and Impressions: A Study in Atmospheres, told me I had to read it myself, and so I am doing, with immense pleasure (reading her in turn numerous bits, sometimes the same bits she had previously read to me). The following passage, from the end of the chapter on Pre-Raphaelite poets, is not only LH material in and of itself, it is very relevant to the discussion now going on in this thread:

But they took themselves with such extreme seriousness — these Pre-Raphaelite poets — and nevertheless I have always fancied that to my mind they are responsible for the death of English poetry. My father once wrote of Rossetti that he put down the thoughts of Dante in the language of Shakespeare, and the words seem to me to be extremely true and extremely damning. For what is wanted of a poet is that he should express his own thoughts in the language of his own time. This the Pre-Raphaelite poets never thought of, with perhaps the solitary exception of Christina Rossetti.

I remember once hearing Stephen Crane — the author of The Red Badge of Courage and of The Open Boat, which is the finest volume of true short stories in the English language — I remember hearing him, with his wonderful eyes flashing and his extreme vigor of intonation, commenting upon a sentence of Robert Louis Stevenson that he was reading. The sentence was, “With interjected finger he delayed the motion of the timepiece.” “By God, poor dear!” Crane exclaimed. “That man put back the clock of English fiction fifty years.” I do not know that this is exactly what Stevenson did. I should say myself that the art of writing in English received the numbing blow of a sandbag when Rossetti wrote at the age of eighteen The Blessed Damozel. From that time forward and until to day — and for many years to come! — the idea has been inherent in the mind of the English writer that writing was a matter of digging for obsolete words with which to express ideas forever dead and gone. Stevenson did this, of course, as carefully as any Pre-Raphaelite, though instead of going to medieval books he ransacked the seventeenth century, But this tendency is unfortunately not limited to authors misusing our very excellent tongue; for the other day I was listening to an excellent Italian conferencier who assured an impressed audience that Signor d’Annuncio is the greatest Italian stylist there has ever been, since in his last book he has used over 2,017 obsolete words which cannot be understood by a modern Italian without the help of a medieval glossary.

Which chimes with this passage from Pound’s obit of Ford:

And he felt the errors of contemporary style to the point of rolling (physically, and if you look at it as a mere superficial snob, ridiculously) on the floor of his temporary quarters in Giessen, when my third volume displayed me trapped, fly-papered, gummed and strapped down in a jejune provincial effort to learn, mehercule, the stilted language that then passed for “good English” in the arthritic milieu that held control of the respected British critical circles, Newbolt, the backwash of Lionel Johnson, Fred Manning, the Quarterlies and the rest of ’em.

And that roll saved me at least two years, perhaps more. It sent me back to my own proper effort, namely toward using the living tongue (with younger men after me), though none of us has found a more natural language than Ford did.

The Last Bridge.

Working my way through Tsvetaeva’s collected poems, I’ve gotten to 1924 and the astonishing sequence Поэма конца [Poem of the end] she wrote for Konstantin Rodzevich, an unremarkable young man “with strikingly pink cheeks” (according to a fellow émigré). They had three passion-filled months together, then she broke it off — according to her biographer, Viktoria Schweitzer, “so as not to allow love to become debased, so as not to allow the mountain to be transformed into a suburb.” She wrote to her former lover and involuntary confidant Alexandr Bakhrakh:

Dear friend, I am very unhappy. I have parted with him, still loving and still beloved, at the height of love; no, I haven’t parted from him, I’ve torn myself away from him! . . . With him I would have been happy . . . I should have liked a son from him . . .

It’s a long sequence; I liked section 8 so much I thought I’d try a translation, which I present below (followed by the Russian). You can compare a translation by Elaine Feinstein here (scroll down); I think it’s awful, but Feinstein is well regarded, and tastes differ.

It’s the last bridge
(I won’t give my hand, or pull it back!)
It’s the last bridge,
the bridge’s last plank.

Water and earth.
I lay out the coins.
Money for death,
for Lethe: Charon’s pay.

The shadow of a coin
in a shadowy hand. Soundless
these coins. So,
into a hand of shadow —

the shadow of a coin.
With no reflection, no ring.
The coins — to them.
Poppies suffice for the dead.


The original:

По – следний мост.
(Руки не отдам, не выну!)
Последний мост,
Последняя мостовина.

Во – да и твердь.
Выкладываю монеты.
День – га за смерть,
Харонова мзда за Лету.

Мо – неты тень.
В руке теневой. Без звука
Мо – неты те.
Итак, в теневую руку

Мо – неты тень.
Без отсвета и без звяка.
Мо – неты — тем.
С умерших довольно маков.


(Tsvetaeva uses dashes as liberally as but differently from Emily Dickinson, frequently putting them between the syllables of a word, as here.)

Reinventing the Canon for Free.

The newly published book Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry: Reinventing the Canon, edited by Katharine Hodgson, Joanne Shelton and Alexandra Smith, is an interesting-looking collection of essays available in paperback for £25.95, in hardback for £36.95, and as a pdf download for free! Just go to the Open Book Publishers book page and click the appropriate link (there’s also a description of the book if you scroll down). I approve of this sort of thing!

Everybody Loses.

James Somers has an infuriating article in the Atlantic describing the collapse of a great dream:

You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.

It’s a long, depressing tale in which there are no villains, just people variously overambitious, naive, and trying to get a decent deal, but it’s well worth the read. Here are a couple of paragraphs to whet your appetite:

The irony is that so many people opposed the settlement in ways that suggested they fundamentally believed in what Google was trying to do. One of Pamela Samuelson’s main objections was that Google was going to be able to sell books like hers, whereas she thought they should be made available for free. (The fact that she, like any author under the terms of the settlement, could set her own books’ price to zero was not consolation enough, because “orphan works” with un-findable authors would still be sold for a price.) In hindsight, it looks like the classic case of perfect being the enemy of the good: surely having the books made available at all would be better than keeping them locked up—even if the price for doing so was to offer orphan works for sale. In her paper concluding that the settlement went too far, Samuelson herself even wrote, “It would be a tragedy not to try to bring this vision to fruition, now that it is so evident that the vision is realizable.”
[ . . . ]
“The greatest tragedy is we are still exactly where we were on the orphan works question. That stuff is just sitting out there gathering dust and decaying in physical libraries, and with very limited exceptions,” Mtima said, “nobody can use them. So everybody has lost and no one has won.”

Via Helen DeWitt at paperpools.