Thanks to a Facebook post by Steven Lubman, I have discovered the excellent site Полка (polka.academy), which has nothing to do with dancing (‘polka’ in Russian is полька, with a palatalized l) — полка is the Russian word for ‘shelf,’ in this case ‘bookshelf,’ and when you go to the site you are confronted with a stylized row of Russian book spines and one face forward (at the moment it’s showing me Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, which is a good choice). If you click on the “books” link, you see the heading Главные произведения русской литературы, выбранные экспертами «Полки» [The main works of Russian literature, chosen by the experts of “Polka”], followed by a list in order of rating (the top one is Hero of Our Time, followed by Anna Karenina). You can have them listed chronologically, by title, or by author, and there’s a search box; as I wrote on FB:

I searched on Nabokov and was surprised to see they included Lolita, which wasn’t written in Russian! But I’m certainly not going to quarrel with that. The search function doesn’t work too well (when I searched on Gazdanov, I got only Призрак Александра Вольфа [The Spectre of Alexander Wolf], but then elsewhere I ran into my beloved Вечер у Клэр [An Evening with Claire]), but somehow that seems fitting for Russian literature. Very much looking forward to exploring this.

There are discussions (by the experts) of each book included. Highly recommended for anyone who reads Russian.

Famous Poems Rewritten as Limericks.

This Wordorigins thread (derived from a Facebook post, shown as an image) is giving me so much pleasure I have to share my two favorites from it (so far). By NotThatGuy:

“Utnapishtim,” cried Gilgamesh, “Why
Do you get to live, while I die?”
“I can see that you’re vexed,”
[There’s a gap in the text]
The walls of Uruk are quite high!

By Dr. Techie:

There once was a king, Ozymandias,
Who no one had triumphed as grandly as.
But his statue fell down
In shards on the ground,
And now, nothing left but the sand, he has.

Mine isn’t as good (to be fair, I dashed it off pretty hastily), but what the hell, I’ll quote it anyway:

I was off to a wedding one day
When a crazy old man blocked my way.
As he clutched at my coat
He said “Once, on a boat…”
And I missed the whole wedding. Oy vey!

Artefacts of Language.

Peter Manson, a Scottish poet and translator, has a fine blog (and god bless the bloggers who keep stubbornly blogging despite the temptations of Facebook and Twitter); a couple of years ago he posted “An essay on poetry and language,” which starts with the proposition “All language is ambiguous” and quickly segues into a discussion of poetry (“Poetry is what happens when a reader can no longer refer a piece of language back to a speaker to unpack its ambiguities”). He describes Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Soliloquy, “an unedited 500-page transcript of every word Goldsmith spoke during one week in 1996,” and provides an excerpt (beginning “I got. I got every I get all my attitude from him too, my outlook on life. Yeah. I wish I had a sunnier temperament. I’m a little dark, you know. Slightly dark. I don’t know where I would get that from. Yeah. I tell you, aw, I’m gawna sit out here all day and watch the goddamned fisherman. Why not?”) that makes me want to read the whole thing. He ends with an excerpt from a book of his own, Adjunct: an Undigest, which “began in 1993 as an attempt to gather together those interesting or funny examples of found language to which my reading habits had begun to sensitise me”; I’m afraid my eyes glazed over reading the excerpt, but I may just not have been in the mood for it. In between, he has this passage, which I like very much:


Artefacts of language are the most human objects in the world, other than those objects which are human beings. Indelibly marked by human consciousness, they are nevertheless clearly not alive. To interact with such objects on their own terms is to confront our own mortality in a way not open to us by other means, and can be a significant test of our humanity. It’s reasonable to expect a human being to accept other humans for what they are: not rejecting or doing violence to their physical person, not imagining a narrative for them then restricting our sense of their potential to the limits thus placed upon them. The practice of accepting texts for what they are, in the fullness of their potential for branching off into realms of meaning unforeseen by any author, is analogous to the practice of human tolerance, and might be considered a useful rehearsal for it.


The writer who accepts this as a fact of life must accept the consequences. Her writing will no longer feel like an act of communication: she may even come to fear the act of writing, dreading the moment when, Midas-like, her living thought freezes into dead matter on the page. If it’s unlikely that such a writer could experience her work as in any simple sense expressive or confessional, there are nevertheless levels on which it can still be a profound act of reconciliation with our status as material beings in a material universe, animate only for the time being.

Thanks, Trevor!

The Origin of so long.

Anatoly Liberman has an OUPBlog post in which he describes various theories about a common phrase and comes to no conclusion, but I think the facts and conjectures he adduces are interesting enough to pass on:

So long is amazing, because it emerged no one knows where and why, and showed unexpected tenacity. A correspondent from New York wrote in 1880: “This is a queer expression [queer meaning “strange, odd”], used in the sense of ‘good-bye’, often heard in the United States, but always by uneducated people. Sailors, on bidding you good day, say ‘So long’. Coloured people in the Midland States employ these words. It is not of recent adaptation, being fully seventy-five years old.”

This note is remarkable from several points of view. First, the writer’s memory proved to be unusually accurate: so long indeed surfaced approximately when he thought it did. As a rule, such observations cannot be trusted, for words and expressions usually turn out to be much older than people think, which is natural: quite some time separates the first occurrence of a word in print from the time it is appropriated by the speaking community, and of course, an indefinitely long “oral” period precedes the date of the word’s appearance in a book or even in a newspaper article. Second, reference to sailors will recur in our records more than once. Finally, the social strata in which the phrase originated is characterized as low, and this observation will also be confirmed by others.[…]

According to another note in my database, so long was frequently heard in Liverpool, a great sea port. According to a statement by a man from Grahamstown, South Africa, so long was also “a common salutation in [that colony] amongst the English and Dutch.” He added: “I remember hearing it amongst the Blue Noses of Nova Scotia and the New Brunswick.” Nova Scotia is a maritime province of Canada, and for the reason unknown to me, Bluenose is the nickname of an inhabitant of that province. […]

The next note at my disposal, written twenty years later, also deserves our close attention: “There seems to be a consensus of opinion… that this is peculiarly a sailor’s phrase…. Mr. Frank Bullen, at the conclusion of the ‘Cruise of the Cachalot’, says, ‘And now, as the sailor says at parting, ‘So long’, and it would appear to be a farewell peculiarly appropriate to the vicissitudes of a sailor’s life…. It is common not only on the coasts of South America (among the English), but also in South Africa among the English and Dutch, and in London.” Frank Thomas Bullen—The Cruise of the Cachalot is his best book—knew what he was talking about. Now, more than a century after the publication of that letter, I am afraid, there is no consensus on the origin of so long. Yet, despite all doubts, the idea that we are dealing with a sailor’s phrase seems right. If this idea is acceptable, so long is, most probably, a garbled version of some foreign word (compare the history of galoot). […]

Thus, we are invited to choose among several improbable and several suspicious hypotheses. If the etymon of so long is Arabic, then in what part of the world and under what circumstances was the English formula coined? Somewhere, seamen may have greeted one another by saying something that sounded to the English ear as so long. If so, the phrase was brought to the bars frequented by sailors, quite possibly in the New World, spread from there, and later made its way to the British Isles. As time went on, it lost its slangy tinge. Not much of a conclusion, but so long as (= British English as long as) we have no solid facts, it is wiser to stay away from irresponsible guesses. “Fare thee well, and if for ever,/ Still for ever fare three [sic] well,” or, in less Byronic words, so long!

Liberman sometimes annoys me, but I am in agreement with his principle about facts and guesses.

Sententiae Antiquae.

How have I overlooked the existence of the blog Sententiae Antiquae all these years? From their About page:

Through this blog, and the accompanying Twitter feed (@sentantiq), we aim to bring you some of the most famous (and also most confounding) quotations from the ancient world. In addition, we also take pleasure in shining lights on some of the forgotten shelves and corners of classical heritage. You’ll find tidbits from the Archaic Age in Greece all the way through imperial Rome and up to the fall of Byzantium. By Jove, if there is something somewhat classically oriented later than that, you might find it too.

In the real world, we are teachers and compulsive readers. At times, we even dabble in some forms of scholarship as well (longer translations, commentaries etc.). So Sententiae Antiquae is something of a digital commonplace book, replicating all the delights and horrors of ancient authors like Aulus Gellius, Aelian, Macrobius and Philostratus. We are not saying we are anywhere near as good as these guys. But we do quote from them…

I found out about it when the eagle-eyed Trevor Joyce sent me this recent post, an extended quote from Hugh E.P. Platt’s A Last Ramble in the Classics (1906). The passage is about English words for which there are no classical equivalents; I’ll excerpt the same bit Trevor did in his e-mail (he always knows how to get my attention):

With the rise of bigotry, hypocrisy naturally increased also. There is, I think, no Latin word which carries the same associations as our ‘hypocrite.’ Simulator, dissimulator correspond rather to the English ‘dissembler.’ But by a hypocrite we generally mean not merely a dissembler, but a person who pretends to maintain an unusually high standard of morals or of religion. This vice is alleged by the rest of the world to be peculiarly English, I fear not without reason. Certainly the bank directors, the solicitors, the company promoters, who have distinguished themselves among us by their frauds, have almost without exception been persons who made a conspicuous profession of piety. When a famous French actress first appeared in England, the late Mr. Edward Pigott, then examiner of plays, warned her : ‘Remember that whenever you play in this country you will have before you five hundred Tartuffes.’ But the ancient world also had its hypocrites. Cicero more than once draws a lively picture of such a character in Piso, consul b. c. 58; and when Aeneas explains to Dido that his shabby treatment of her was due to high conscientious motives, one thinks for the moment that Aeneas must really have been an Englishman.

Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

Exeter Book as Cutting Board.

Anne Ewbank describes a tidbit of book trivia for the annoyingly named Atlas Obscura:

The Exeter Book, inscribed in the 10th century, is a rare treasure. Many scholars consider it one of the building blocks of English literature. But it’s suffered damage along the way that goes far beyond the usual wear and tear. For one thing, one of the book’s previous owners used it as a cutting board. And an entirely different person used the book as a coaster, which left a literal lasting impression: a ring that soaked through the pages.

To understand how horrifying that is, it helps to know what the Exeter Book contains. Though the Anglo-Saxon period in England lasted for roughly six hundred years, not many Old English (think Beowulf) manuscripts from that era survived. As the longest and oldest of four manuscripts that contain poetry, the Exeter Book is a particularly crucial remnant of a once-rich oral tradition. […]

But it seems that at several points throughout history, the book fell into the hands of someone who didn’t appreciate it that much. While the first few pages of the book are missing, the opening pages that are intact have deep knife marks—which suggests that the book may have been used as a cutting board. Several folios of the book are stained with a circular ring that bled through the pages, too.

The most popular theory to date holds that someone set a beer down on the book’s unbound pages, staining it irreparably. Alternatively, it could have been a pot of glue.

It’s unclear who the culprits were, especially given that the book has spent most of its existence in the Exeter Cathedral library. According to Anglo-Saxon scholar Patrick W. Conner, Anglo-Saxon writing would have been incomprehensible to most people by the 13th century. The book went unread for centuries, and its large size apparently made it a useful countertop.

I confess I’ve set the occasional beer down on a book in my day, but hopefully not on any irreplaceable cultural treasures. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Vera Dunham’s Big Deal.

Vera Dunham’s 1976 In Stalin’s Time is one of those books that routinely gets called “seminal”; apparently for a year after it was published people talked about little else at gatherings of Russianists. Her theoretical point was about “the relationship between the Soviet regime and the Soviet middleclass citizen,” which she called the “Big Deal.” Her analysis of the complexities of that relationship and the way it changed after WWII dropped like a thunderbolt into the stagnant, simplistic assumptions about “totalitarianism” and the like that ruled American academia in those days, but it has long been assimilated and the field has moved on. What makes the book worth reading today — and it is very much worth reading — is its illustration of her points by lots and lots of quotes from the formulaic official literature of the late Stalin period (from 1945 to his death in 1953), novels and poems and plays that were avoided with a shudder by other scholars who preferred to concentrate on “real literature” (Dunham proudly said she had waded through mountains of elephant shit to write the book), and explication of the plots in terms of the changing relations between party officials and the managers of factories and farms (and between men and women, and between front-line veterans and those who had spent the war trying to keep the country functioning). Those things seem dry when presented theoretically, but when you have seen them in action (in her summmaries and quotes, of course — nobody wants to replicate her work of reading the stuff in full!) you will understand them in your bones.

Nevertheless, I have complaints (when do I not have complaints?), and I am here to share them with you. First off, the book needed a copyeditor — even more than most books do, since English was not the author’s native language (she was born Vera Sandomirskaya in Russia, came to the United States in 1940, and married H. Warren Dunham in 1942). The very phrase “Big Deal” is unfortunate, and somebody should have suggested a replacement; she was presumably thinking of FDR’s New Deal, but the ironic slang sense of “big deal” makes it problematic. Her English is good but occasionally shaky, and I’m not sure whether “scroundrel” on p. 188 is a typo or her own charming mangling. To my mind, her obsession with “meshchanstvo” (usually translated “petty bourgeoisie” or “philistinism”) betrays a typically Russian intelligentsia contempt for the pursuit of the pleasant things of life, whether potted plants, canaries, a television, or whatever, and she should have been urged to rethink that bit of rhetoric. But to be honest, the thing that most annoys me about the book is her insistence on replacing the names of most of the characters in the works she discusses by cutesy English nicknames; it’s bad enough when she at least provides the original Russian form — “Mrs. ‘All-or-Nothing’ (Kraineva)” — but it’s infuriating when she doesn’t, as when on page 190 she calls a particular type of pedantic party functionary a “talmudist” (itself a very unfortunate term when discussing this period with its anti-Semitic campaign against “cosmopolitans”) and then calls a character in Ocheretin’s Pervoe derzanie (First daring) “Comrade Talmudist,” even maintaining that pseudonym in a quote from the book (“You work, Comrade Talmudist, from nine to five…”)! For that, I want to call her in and give her the sort of dressing-down the experienced party officials in these books give young hotheads who are messing up kolkhoz production.

But now that I’ve gotten that off my chest: it’s a really good book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the period.

Napoleon’s Englich Lessons.

The Public Domain Review describes a phenomenon which, if I ever was aware of it, I had forgotten — Napoleon I’s grudging but dogged study of the English language:

The British had agreed to provide Le Petit Caporal with plentiful wine, meat, and musical instruments, but he could not have what he most craved — family, power, Europe. To make matters worse, he had virtually nothing to read. Newspapers were banned, and those he did manage to get his hands on were nearly all in English. That was the main reason why, on January 16, 1816, three months after landing on the island, he decided to learn the language of his captors. For the following three months he studied nearly every afternoon. The daily labour produced a mixed bag of verbal fruit; a sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet taste of his time on the island where he would end his days, six years later, aged 51.

Far more than rote learning conjugations, declensions, and articles, Napoleon enjoyed scribbling his thoughts in French and then translating them into English. The results were often wistful:

When will you be wise
Never as long as j should be in this isle
But j shall become wise after having passed the line
When j shall land in France j shall be very content…

My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong if he will be able to trink a bottle of wine at dinner j shall [toast] with him… / The women believe they [are] ever prety / The time has not wings / When you shall come, you shall see that j have ever loved you.

His English teacher was Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, an historian and loyal supporter who had been allowed to voyage with him to Saint Helena. The Count would later turn their fifteen months of conversations into a publishing sensation, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (1822–23). The book recorded Napoleon’s day-to-day life on the island, his sentiments on religion and philosophy, his argument that the ideals of the French Revolution had lived on in the empire. It would be printed and reprinted throughout the century, and do much to turn the perception of Napoleon from a dictator into a liberator — a slayer of tyrannical dynasties more than a founder of his own. It is also the primary window through which we can view the development of Napoleon’s English.

According to Count Las Cases, his pupil “had an extraordinary intelligence but a very bad memory: this latter particularly upset him.” As a result, Napoleon grasped English grammar with an impressive ease but vocabulary with a painful slowness.

When it came to speaking English, the Count relates, “The pupil wished only to recognise [French] pronunciation.” Perhaps the former emperor could not bear to do his vanquishers the honour of speaking their language their way. Perhaps his approach to English mirrored his general approach to foreign territory — he liked to make it his own:

Even in his own language, [he] had a way of garbling proper nouns; as for foreign words, he pronounced them just as he pleased. Once they left his mouth, whatever way he had pronounced them, they remained forever that, because he had, once and for all, lodged them in his head in that way.

Out of this situation arose a completely new language, Las Cases tells us, only comprehensible to pupil and teacher.

There are more examples of his English writing, as well as a copy of Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène open to a page where you can read about the ex-Emperor’s mathematical prowess as well as the beginning of the section on his English. Thanks, Trevor!

Translating Drag into Russian.

Ben Cohen writes for Global Voices about the linguistic (and other) issues involved producing a Russian version of RuPaul’s Drag Race:

Since forming three years ago, the RuPaul VKontakte group has attracted a dedicated team of 10 translators and has expanded to reach an audience of over 5,000 regular viewers across the former Soviet Union. They’ve translated over 70 episodes of the show (now in its ninth season), in which men assume female personae, dress as women, and compete for the title of “America’s Drag Superstar” through a series of grueling performance challenges. […]

Translating one episode of the show can take anywhere from four days to two and a half weeks. As soon as an episode becomes available, the translators communicate through a group chat and decide amongst themselves who will take which section, usually a 10-20 minute clip of episodes that run up to 45 minutes long. Everyone sends in their translations to a designated editor who then splices together the subtitles. “Everyone does as much as they can,” Nikita said.

Still, sometimes the translators get stuck. Take, for example, the rap challenge in season 6, during which contestant Joslyn Fox (whose real name is Patrick Joslyn) used the word “motherfishin.’” In drag culture, “fishy” describes a drag queen who has such a feminine appearance they could be mistaken for being female in real life. And to a native or near-native English speaker, the play on words with a certain expletive would not be lost. But without such a vocabulary in Russian, the play on words could be lost to foreign viewers. Nikita explained, “The biggest problem with translating RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lack of developed drag culture in Russia, and with that, a lack of vocabulary associated with it.”

“I thought about [motherfishin’] for two months and then I had an epiphany,” Elizabeth Rusakova, one of the group’s primary translators, told RuNet Echo. “There is a fish called sterliad’ (sterlet), and it sounds like a combination of the word sterva (witch) and bliat’ (f***)…In my head, something clicked, and I realized that is the perfect word.”

Sometimes, it’s a little less complicated. When one of the contestants wins a challenge, RuPaul always tells them “Condragulations!” which the team on VKontakte routinely changes to pozdragliayu instead of the usual pozdravliayu (congratulations), thus creating an equivalent vocabulary for Russian viewers.

I applaud their ingenuity! (I should note that although blyad’ is the functional equivalent of fuck, its literal meaning is ‘whore.’ For “sterlet,” see this LH post.) Thanks, Bathrobe!

Taboo Deformation and the Bear.

Dan Nosowitz has an Atlas Obscura piece on what linguists call taboo deformation; he starts and ends with “dagnabbit,” along the way discussing the idea that “if someone finds out your true name […] that person will have all sorts of power over you,” the Jewish name of God, and “mother-in-law languages,” but the bit Trevor excerpted, quite understandably, when he sent me the link is this:

“Bear” is not the true name of the bear. That name, which I am free to use because the only bear near where I live is the decidedly unthreatening American black bear, is h₂ŕ̥tḱos. Or at least it was in Proto-Indo-European, the hypothesized base language for languages including English, French, Hindi, and Russian. The bear, along with the wolf, was the scariest and most dangerous animal in the northern areas where Proto-Indo-European was spoken. “Because bears were so bad, you didn’t want to talk about them directly, so you referred to them in an oblique way,” says Byrd.

H₂ŕ̥tḱos, which is pronounced with a lot of guttural noises, became the basis for a bunch of other words. “Arctic,” for example, which probably means something like “land of the bear.” Same with Arthur, a name probably constructed to snag some of the bear’s power. But in Germanic languages, the bear is called…bear. Or something similar. (In German, it’s Bär.) The predominant theory is that this name came from a simple description, meaning “the brown one.”

In Slavic languages, the descriptions got even better: the Russian word for bear is medved, which means “honey eater.” These names weren’t done to be cute; they were created out of fear.

It’s worth noting that not everyone was that scared of bears. Some languages allowed the true name of the bear to evolve in a normal fashion with minor changes; the Greek name was arktos, the Latin ursos. Still the true name. Today in French, it’s ours, and in Spanish it’s oso. The bear simply wasn’t that big of a threat in the warmer climes of Romance language speakers, so they didn’t bother being scared of its true name.

Of course, the idea of a “true name” of the bear or anything else is untenable (and the PIE word itself may have been a taboo deformation or euphemism), and the hypothesis that “the bear simply wasn’t that big of a threat in the warmer climes of Romance language speakers, so they didn’t bother being scared of its true name” shouldn’t be presented as settled fact, but hey, it’s just a blog post, and it’s a fun roundup. Thanks, Trevor!