I’m about halfway through Marcus C. Levitt’s Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880, one of those books that sounds deadly boring when you see the title but is unexpectedly fascinating when you actually read it — it saddens me that I have the only copy listed on Librarything. In Chapter 3 Levitt describes the serendipitous way the celebration came together (there was no reason to expect it to be any more significant or memorable than any other of the literary commemorations in vogue at the time, and it might very easily not have happened at all), and on p. 74 he has a quote from the conservative newspaper Bereg attacking the radicals (aka “the demented pinkos of our periodic press”) for allegedly misusing Pushkin’s hallowed memory to further their subversive agenda: “Instead of rendering the proper honors to the memory of the great poet, they are ready to dance a cachucha over his grave.” Cachucha: what a wonderful word! Of course I googled it, and Wikipedia gave me the basic information: the dance was created in Cuba (though Russian Wikipedia says Cádiz, Spain) and popularized by a Rossini opera in the 1830s, and the word is “From Spanish cachucha, small boat. Possibly from diminutive of cacho, shard, saucepan, probably from vulgar Latin cacculus, alteration of Latin caccabus, pot, from Greek kakkabos, a small container.” The Real Academia dictionary gives several definitions (a boat, a cap) besides the dance, but they prudishly omit the sense prevalent in the Cono Sur, which is ‘cunt.’

So I used the invaluable Национальный корпус русского языка (Corpus of the Russian Language) and found that Russian качуча was first used by Botkin in 1847, had a spell of popularity in the 1850s (it occurs frequently in Pisemsky’s excellent short novel Комик [The comic actor, 1851] — one of the highlights of the planned artistic evening is that Fanny will dance the cachucha) and again in the 1880s (in Chekhov’s Ворона [The crow, 1885] the drunken clerk in the brothel demands “Я желаю, чтоб танцевали! Вы должны мой характер уважить! Качучу! Качучу!” [I want people to dance! You have to respect my character! The cachucha! The cachucha!]), and has occasionally been used since (Darya Simonova, Сорванная слива [The plucked plum, 2002]: “танцуя на Аниной могиле качучу” [dancing the cachucha on Anna’s grave]). The word sounds irresistibly funny, and it should be used more often.
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Untranslatable Gronas.

I encountered Mikhail Gronas as a literary theorist (see this LH post and its first two links) and therefore thought of him that way, even though I knew he was a poet. Now, having read Lev Oborin’s review of his new collection and delved into his poetry, I will be thinking of him primarily as a poet. The review starts:

Gronas’s last collection, Dear Orphans, came out 17 years ago. As I see it, it was the most important book of Russian poetry of the first twenty years of the 21st century, and there’s not much you can set beside it. A Short History of Attention has been eagerly awaited.

Fortunately, the earlier book is online in its entirety, so I was able to dive in, and the first poem blew me away. Here’s a link to the poem on its own (with a photo of the author), and here’s a slightly adapted Google Translate version (which was surprisingly accurate):

what was acquired – burned: coals

I’m going to rake the ashes I might find an iron ruble (not in use for a long time) or a top
in the former children’s corner
and don’t poke into the former kitchen, it will collapse: weak ceilings, foundation, risers

we my children my old people were on the street not knowing where to poke around
however, the Lord does not spare either a warm winter or free food
it turned out that the house was not needed outside is no worse

and everything is quietly arranged

our neighbors are also fire victims
are rebuilding a house
I don’t really believe in the success of this new fuss: they’re not builders, but like us are fire victims, it’s not even that, it’s just not clear why they need a house – it will be a reminder about the house

houses about houses people about people hand about hand meanwhile in our language forgetting means starting to be forgetting means starting to be nothing is brighter and I need to go but I will say goodbye several times so that you forget well:

to forget is to begin to be
to forget is to begin to be
to forget is to begin to be

I used GT so as not to drive myself crazy trying to render it into poetry, because I could spend way too long and not succeed; in Russian it’s magical. To give you one example of pure untranslatability, the last line, repeated several times, is “забыть значит начать быть” [zabyt’ znachit nachat’ byt’]. The play of sounds (z – b – t – z – n – ch – t – n – ch – t – b – t) is bad enough, but the crucial element is the fact that забыть ‘forget’ looks like the prefix за- ‘begin’ (as in залаять ‘to start barking’) plus быть ‘to be.’ I don’t know if I had ever noticed that; if I did, it didn’t stick with me — it would be like analyzing forget as for + get: mildly curious, but what’s the point? Except of course when a poet sharpens the point until it pokes right through you, and there’s absolutely no way to convey it in English (or indeed any language outside of East Slavic, since the other Slavic languages have different forms for ‘forget’). Another example from the second poem in the collection: the line “родство и сиротство” [rodstvó i sirótstvo] ‘kinship and orphanhood’ gets its effect from the striking assonance of the two words. That kind of linguistic play is something I crave in poetry, and I’m glad to have found a mother lode of it.


I always thought Beyoğlu, the name of a section of Istanbul, was ‘son of the bey,’ but apparently that’s a folk etymology. Wikipedia:

According to the prevailing theory, the Turkish name of Pera, Beyoğlu, is a modification by folk etymology of the Venetian ambassadorial title of Bailo, whose palazzo was the most grandiose structure in this quarter. The informal Turkish-language title Bey Oğlu (literally Son of a Bey) was originally used by the Ottoman Turks to describe Lodovico Gritti, Istanbul-born son of Andrea Gritti, who was the Venetian Bailo in Istanbul during the reign of Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512) and was later elected Doge of Venice in 1523.

And if we follow that Bailo link, we learn:

Bailo or baylo (plural baili or bayli) is a Venetian title that derives from the Latin term baiulus, meaning “porter, bearer”. In English, it may be translated bailiff, or otherwise rendered as bailey, baili, bailie, bailli or baillie. The office of a bailo is a bailaggio (sometimes anglicised “bailate”). The term was transliterated into Greek as μπαΐουλος (baioulos), but Nicephorus Gregoras translated it ἐπίτροπος (epitropos, steward) or ἔφορος (ephoros, overseer).

Huh, thought I, “bailiff” looks suspiciously similar, and sure enough it too is from Latin bāiulus. So Beyoğlu = Bailiff!


I was reading a NYRB article by Hilary Spurling about Alexander Calder when it occurred to me to look “mobile” up in the OED. I was very surprised to find there were five separate entries for it as a noun:

mobile, n.1 Brit. /ˈməʊbʌɪl/, /ˈməʊbᵻli/, U.S. /ˈmoʊb(ə)l/, /ˈmoʊbəli/ “In the medieval version of the Ptolemaic system: the outermost of the concentric spheres supposed to revolve around the earth (Obsolete); A body in motion or which is capable of movement (Now archaic and historical); A cause of motion; a motive for action (rare).”

mobile, n.2 “The mob, the rabble; the common people, the populace (Obsolete).”

Mobile, n.3 Brit. /məʊˈbiːl/, U.S. /moʊˈbil/ “A member of a North American Indian people formerly inhabiting the Gulf Coast of Alabama and areas nearby; The unattested language of the Mobiles.”

mobile, n.4 Brit. /ˈməʊbʌɪl/, U.S. /ˈmoʊˌbil/ “A sculpture consisting of hanging or pivoting pieces of metal, plastic, etc., in abstract or (more recently) representational shapes, connected by wires and threads so as to be able to move and rotate in response to air currents or when propelled by an internal mechanism; A small-scale decorative structure resembling this, used as a domestic ornament or to provide visual entertainment for young children; Music. A composition consisting of units or sections which can be performed in any of a number of different orders according to the performer’s choice or to specified parameters.”

mobile, n.5 Brit. /ˈməʊbʌɪl/, U.S. /ˈmoʊb(ə)l/, /ˈmoʊˌbaɪl/ “colloquial. A mobile canteen. Also (Australian): a large trolley from which food is served; Horse Racing (Australian and New Zealand). A foldable barrier used in trotting races to facilitate a flying start.”

Number 4 is, of course, the one I was looking for; the first citation is from 1932 (Art News 21 May 11/2 “Mr. Calder..calls his newest phase, ‘Mobiles’. This brand new art form, signifying abstract sculptures which move..were [sic] first shown in Paris in February”), and the etymology says “< French mobile mobile n.1 (1931 in sense 1a) […] The French noun was apparently first used in this sense by Marcel Duchamp, French artist (1887–1968), to denote the moving abstract constructions of Alexander Calder, U.S. sculptor and painter (1898–1976).”

As for the adjective (which is from Latin mōbilis ‘capable of being moved’), the “Pronunciation” section is interesting:

N.E.D. (1907) gives the pronunciation (mōu·bil) /ˈməʊbɪl/. This agrees with the majority of late 19th-cent. dictionaries, but the pronunciation clearly varied widely: Cent. Dict. (1890) gives the variant /ˈmɔbɪl/, while D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. (1917), alongside /ˈməʊbiːl/ and /ˈməʊbɪl/, recommends /ˈməʊbaɪl/ as its preferred variant. By the end of the 20th cent. this variant, apparently originally a spelling-pronunciation, had become universal in British English, while North American English continued to show variation.

“N.E.D.” is the first edition of the OED (then called the New English Dictionary); I myself say /ˈmoʊb(ə)l/, to rhyme with “noble,” except in the Calder sense, for which I do not have an established pronunciation. Fortunately, I rarely have occasion to talk about Calder mobiles.


Another quote from A History of Russian Literature by Victor Terras (see the previous post):

The Igor Tale has some epic traits, though it is in prose. In fact, the preamble prepares the reader for an epic, as it invokes the memory of an ancient bard, Boyan. But the many lyric digressions, the absence of continuous action, and the density of the text are not epic […]. The Igor Tale is called a slovo by its author (or by the scribe who copied it). A slovo (literally, “word”) is in Old Russian usage any discourse, pamphlet, orison, sermon, or speech — a rhetorical work addressing itself to a specific topic.

I found that last sentence very helpful; I’ve never been sure what exactly slovo meant in that title, usually translated “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” or “The Lay of the Host of Igor” (though Nabokov, who always had to be different, called it “The Song of Igor’s Campaign,” and the long-forgotten Leonard A. Magnus rendered it “The Tale of the Armament of Igor“). We discussed the work itself here, and while I’m on the topic of slovo, the journal of that name is still online free and still publishing new issues (see this LH post).

The Monk Who Relearned Reading.

I hadn’t been to Troubadour/Grey Matter Books (“Hadley’s premier hard-to-find bookstore for hard-to-find books” — see this post, where I discovered Troubadour, and this one, where I bade farewell to it) in too long, so my lovely and generous wife dropped me off there this morning. I limited myself to a few purchases, the main one being A History of Russian Literature by Victor Terras — I now own all the major such histories in English, from Mirsky to Kahn, Lipovetsky, Reyfman, and Sandler, which gives me great satisfaction. Of course I started on it immediately, and I loved this anecdote in a footnote on p. 19 (where he also mentions the gospel manuscripts called aprakos — see this LH post):

The Russian Middle Ages had a decided bias against the Old Testament. The Kiev Patericon tells the story of a monk who knew all the books of the Old Testament but could not stand the sight or sound of the gospels and epistles of the New Testament. Through the prayers of his brothers in Christ he eventually forgets the Old Testament entirely, so that he has to learn how to read again. He becomes meek and obedient and is rewarded by being made bishop of Novgorod.

Tsvuak, chuvak.

Steven Lubman wrote me as follows:

A funny posting by a Lithuanian poet and translator Marius Burokas made me fall into a rabbit hole of Yiddish etymology. One of the commentators asked if “Tsvuak” and “чувак” were related (they’re not) and I was surprised by the Romani origin of “чувак” which is apparently related to “chav”!

Most of the comments are in Lithuanian, but I enjoyed this macaronic verse:

Татэ, татэ, wos i dos?
– О! Dos is’ паравоз.
– Wos i dos паравоз?
– О! Dos is aine mashyne, mitte pružyne, mitte пар, puff, puff, puff und пошол.

[Papa, papa, what is that?
Oh! That’s a steam engine.
What’s a steam engine?
Oh! That’s a machine with a spring, with steam, puff, puff, puff and it goes.]

At any rate, the first thing I did was go to Vasmer, where I was surprised not to find чувак ‘fellow, guy, dude’ listed; then I went to the Национальный корпус русского языка (Corpus of the Russian Language), where I learned that both чувак and its feminine equivalent чувиха are first attested in Kornei Chukovsky’s 1962 Живой как жизнь [Alive as Life; I wrote about it back in 2004], so no wonder it’s not in Vasmer. (Chukovsky says “Студент Д. Андреев в энергичной статье, напечатанной в многотиражной газете Института стали, громко осудил арготизмы студентов: ценная девушка, железно, законно, башли, хилок, чувак, чувиха и т. д.” [The student D. Andreev in a forceful article printed in the factory newspaper of the Steel Institute loudly condemned student slang: tsennaya devushka, zhelezno, zakonno, bashli, khilok, chuvak, chuvikha, etc.] — I’m not translating the terms because I’m not familiar with student slang of c. 1960). In his comment, Lubman says:

Tsvuak is not ‘chuvak’, it’s ‘hypocrite’ from Hebrew tsviyut, in Yiddish pronounced as tsviyes. Wiktionary suggests Romani origin of chuvak, similar to English “chav”

That Wiktionary article says “Possibly of Romani origin. Compare English chav“; I’d like to see more documentation, but it’s not implausible. One oddity is that my Oxford Russian-English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1992) includes чувиха but not чувак!

Cuneiform in Unicode.

Robert Mesibov, of Tasmania, Australia, posts about a pleasing conjunction of old and new:

If you were wandering the streets of a busy city in the Fertile Crescent a few thousand years ago, you might have run across someone jotting down a few notes on a small clay tablet […] The jotting-down was done with the cut stem of a reed, and the result is today called cuneiform writing, after the wedge shape of some of the written elements (Latin cuneus, “wedge”). Cuneiform writing on clay was around for at least 3000 years and was adopted for use in a range of languages. […]

Like many people, I’m fascinated by this ancient solution to the data storage problem. Archivists in the digital era have to cope with bit rot and frequent changes in media and format. Clay is clay, and today there are still hundreds of thousands of ancient cuneiform tablets, their data content unaltered after thousands of years.

If you’re interested in cuneiform writing, you’ll be pleased to hear that the major cuneiform symbol groups have been assigned blocks in Unicode. There are also online resources for everyday computer users who want to learn more about cuneiform and the cuneiform-using cultures. The Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (ORACC) project not only welcomes new participants, but is also strong on FOSS and open data.

Some cuneiform TTF fonts are available. The best-looking I’ve found are the four Old Persian fonts built by “Fereydoun Rostam”, the pseudonym of a Brazilian graphic artist: “Behistun”, “Kakoulookiam”, “Khosrau” and “Zarathustra”. Fereydoun includes a keymap and a Unicode chart in each font package. All four fonts play well with LibreOffice […] and look great in a terminal […]

(The Mesibov post has links to the fonts as well as images.)

Glokaya kuzdra.

I recently ran across the meaningless Russian phrase Глокая куздра, which has its own English-language Wikipedia article for some reason; the text is short enough I might as well just reproduce it here (in case some overzealous Wikian deletes it for non-notability):

Glokaya kuzdra (Russian: Глокая куздра) is a reference to a Russian language phrase constructed from non-existent words in a grammatically proper way, similar to the English language phrases using the pseudoword “gostak”. It was suggested by Russian linguist Lev Shcherba. The full phrase is: “Гло́кая ку́здра ште́ко будлану́ла бо́кра и курдя́чит бокрёнка” (Glokaya kuzdra shteko budlanula bokra i kurdyachit bokryonka). In the phrase, all word stems (glok-, kuzdr-, shtek-, budl-, bokr-, kurd-) are meaningless, but all affixes are real, used in a grammatically correct way and — which is the point — provide enough semantics for the phrase to be a perceived description of some dramatic action with a specified plot but with unknown entities. A very rough English translation (considering no semantic information is available) could be: “The glocky kuzdra shteckly budled the bocker and kurdyaks the bockerling.”

Shcherba used it in his lectures in linguistics to emphasise the importance of grammar in acquiring foreign languages. The phrase was popularized by Lev Uspensky in his popular science book A Word about Words.

It turns out Sashura mentioned it in a comment back in 2012, but given that I had since completely forgotten it, I thought I’d give it its own post. I’ve been fond of meaningless sentences in other languages ever since I read a selection of them as a wee lad in some popular text on language, perhaps by Mario Pei; for years I could rattle off the ones in pseudo-Japanese and pseudo-Italian, but alas, no more.

Sulfur, zhupel.

A Facebook post by Lev Oborin links to this fascinating Polka article about the histories of a dozen words and their referents in Russian life and literature: автомобиль [automobile], бананы [bananas], велосипед [bicycle], граммофон [record player], джинсы [(blue) jeans], кеды [sneakers], компьютер [computer], метро [subway/underground/metro], телевизор [television], телефон [telephone], унитаз [toilet (bowl)], and фотография [photograph] (the nativizing form светопись ‘light-write’ never caught on). I learned about all sorts of things, from the Soviet-era differentiation between «кеды» (cheap, worn for grubby activities) and «кроссовки» (higher-quality sneakers suitable for wearing in the street), a Moldavian dessert wine with the brand name Трифешты [Trifeşti] seen as a classy thing to drink by Soviet youth, and the origin of the word унитаз (not in Vasmer!) — a blend of the company name Unitas and the Russian word таз [taz] ‘basin’ (probably from the same Arabic source as French tasse, Italian tazza, etc.).

Those of you who read Russian should head on over and enjoy it; for those who don’t, I’ll provide an etymological appendix. One of the quotes for ‘automobile,’ by a Petersburg reporter in 1907, was «Скоро слово «автомобиль» станет для обывателей чем-то вроде «жупела» и, чего доброго, няньки станут пугать им маленьких детей»: “Soon the word ‘automobile’ will seem to the ordinary person something like zhupel [‘bugaboo, bugbear’], and — who knows? — nursemaids may start frightening little children with them.” Now, the original meaning of zhupel was ‘sulfur,’ and OCS жоупелъ (alternate form зюпелъ) was apparently borrowed from OHG swebal or sweval (modern German Schwefel), from Proto-Germanic *sweblaz, for which Wiktionary says “Etymology: Unknown. Cf. Proto-Indo European *swelplos (whence probably Latin sulfur), from the root *swel– (‘to burn, smoulder’).” And for Latin sulfur it says “From Hellenization of sulpur, of uncertain origin, but probably from Proto-Indo-European *swelplos, from the root *swel- (‘to burn, smoulder’). Compare Sanskrit शुल्बारि (śulbāri, ‘sulfur’). Also compare Old Armenian ծծումբ (ccumb, ‘sulfur’).” For English sulfur, AHD just says “Middle English, from Anglo-Norman sulfre, from Latin sulfur”; they don’t try to take it back to PIE.