STARTING THE YEAR OFF RIGHT.

My New Year’s resolution was to be a nicer, more positive language blogger. No more slapping Safire around, no more holding journalistic slips up to public ridicule, none of that stuff; instead I’d praise the praiseworthy and let the broom of time sweep the rest away. Well, make ‘em big and break ‘em fast, I say, and having read Baloney Bill’s year-end column, it’s time to start slapping!
The Mooncalf Maven begins with a riff on the suffix -stan:

“Sometimes I get confused with all these stans,” said Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, then the military dictator of Pakistan, “but as long as I don’t say Hindustan” — a Persian name for India that once included what is now Pakistan — “I’ll be O.K.”
That 1982 citation of the suffix -stans in the form of a noun — rooted in the Persian for “home of” — was dug up by the phrasedick Paul McFedries of wordspy.com.

So far, so good; “home of” isn’t exact, but it gives the general idea. (“Place of” would be better; it’s from the Indo-European root *stā- ‘stand,’ and in Persian it’s also used in words like registan ‘place of sand, desert’ and gulistan ‘place of roses, rose garden.’) But he goes on: “Zia picked up the suffix used by critics of South Africa’s proposed black African homelands in 1949; they had nicknamed the impoverished areas bantustans after the Bantu language spoken by the tribes.” Why on earth would you link Zia’s use of an old Persian name for India with a modern South African term Zia might or might not ever have heard of? Zia “picked up” a word that was lying around in his language; if you’re desperate to make a transition to bantustans, make it yourself, don’t foist it on Zia. Furthermore, since all other quotes in the column are from much later, Safire leaves the impression that 1949 is as far back as we can trace the suffix, whereas the first cite in the online OED is from considerably earlier:
1932 Times 7 Sept. 13/6 When all the land in the Stans is collectivized in cotton plantations, say the Soviet governors, then the wheat, meat and vegetables are to come over from the Ukraine, Siberia, and the Caucasus.


Having confused everyone on that score, he moves on to surge, one of those temporarily popular words he loves to put into pun-filled contexts (“We are now inundated by the billowing wave of surge. Put the words Iraq and surge together in a splashy Google search and you can wade into nine million usages of that swell noun and verb…”). In the midst of that harmless fun, he perpetrates this incomprehensible piece of misinformation:

Surge may spring from spring, source of fountains, streams and seas, and in a mysterious undulation of the English language, seems to share a root with the Latin surgere, “to rise,” as the source of the French surgeon.

So (if I’m reading this magniloquent gibberish correctly) he’s saying that the word surge “may” come from the word spring and “seems to share a root” with surgere; I’ve read the sentence multiple times and still can’t figure out whether the last phrase says that the source of the French word is the English word or the Latin one, but let’s be charitable and assume he meant the latter. Now, it’s true that surge shares a root with surgere; this is because it’s from surgere (probably via Catalan and French), so it “shares a root” with it in the same way sushi shares a root with Japanese sushi. Surge has nothing to do with spring. Why he mentions the extremely obscure French word surgeon, meaning ‘sucker, shoot thrown out from the base of a tree or plant,’ is beyond me unless he is under the impression that the French word is the same as the English word surgeon, which of course it’s not (the French for that is chirurgien, and the ultimate source is Greek kheirourgos, literally ‘hand-worker’). His eye presumably caught the OED’s “the earliest examples (sense 1a, b) transl. OF. sourgeon (mod.F. surgeon)” and his magpie nature said “ooh, surgeon, what fun!” and he stuck it in without giving a moment’s thought to what this “mod.F. surgeon” might be.
While I’m breaking my resolution, I might as well commit a multiple offense, so let me add a brief swipe at a sentence in Peter J. Boyer’s “Downfall: How Donald Rumsfeld reformed the Army and lost Iraq” from the Nov. 20 New Yorker. In the context of discussing the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (a proposed reformation of the U.S. armed forces), Boyer writes: “But the last thing the Army was inclined to do while facing cutbacks under the Clinton Administration was tinker with its revered divisional structure, and the Navy was no less inclined to reduce the number of its aircraft-carrier battle groups.” I think if you read that sentence carefully, you’ll see that he should have said “the Navy was no more inclined…” This is an example of what Language Log calls “overnegation as obfuscation,” and the crack editorial staff should have caught it.

Comments

  1. Adele Stan of the American Prospect is, apparently, one of those Stans.
    Bantustan is an English word composed of roots (components?) from two completely unrelated non-Indo-European languages. Are there others (excluding Hebrew, perhaps?)

  2. A lovely resolution, and well-broken too! Win-win!

  3. Ah yes, happy new year, resolute or otherwise.
    Is -stan called a suffix with strict propriety? Do we say that -swain in boatswain is a suffix? The case would seem to be parallel. How about -land in homeland?

  4. John Emerson: “-stan” comes from Persian, which is indeed an Indo-European language (from the Indo-Iranian branch).

  5. Damn it! I thought it was Turkish, because it’s seen so often in Turkish names. My life has been ruined.

  6. Although it’s not from two unrelated non-Indo-European languages, the etymology of futsal is wonderful.
    Once upon a time I played indoor soccer here in Australia, but now on Sunday afternoons I play futsal.
    In Brazil, the game of soccer or football is called futebol. “Fute” and “bol” don’t actually mean anything in Portuguese, so their use of the word is a straight copy from English.
    Nonetheless, when playing the game of futebol indoors, the Brazilians decided to call the game the portmanteau “futsal”, combining “futebol” and “salão” (the Portuguese version of salon, which itself comes from French or Italian).
    Now no one is quite sure whether the word actually originated in Brazil or another country of the Southern Cone, but regardless, by substituting the Spanish words for the Portuguese, the same portmanteau is formed.
    Over time, and especially with Brazil’s round-ball prestige, “futsal” has come to be used more and more in English-speaking nations instead of “indoor soccer”.
    But of course, unless someone has an interest in etymology and language, “fut” and “sal” don’t mean anything to an English speaker, much like “fute” and “bol” didn’t mean anything in Portuguese. The complete word is a straight copy from a foreign language, retaining its orthography for the joys of etymology but to the detriment of phonetic spelling, even though the English “foot” is how the “fut” came about, and “salon” is used, although not in the same way, in English as well.

  7. I take Safire to be saying simply that Zia had picked up a suffix (from the general pool of the English language) that was the same as that used by critics, etc — not that he picked up that very instance of the use of -stan. In that case, the 1949 date would be the first use of bantustan, not of -stan.
    Remember that the guy has to keep severely within a strict word count, unlike those of us in the pajamastans, and he may occasionally cut himself, or be cut, not only to the bone but well beyond it.
    As for the surge/spring sentence, it’s got to be garbled beyond recognition; again, I rather suspect an editor than the author.
    On Hindustan, I believe that Jinnah originally proposed that the Hindu parts of British India use this name, and that Nehru refused and insisted on keeping India as the English name.

  8. You’re very generous, John; I admire that. On the other hand, to make that work you have to assume a remarkable degree of consistent idiocy on the part of a presumably changing crew of editors over the years. I think Occam would point his razor at Safire.

  9. That would not be impossible if there was one single stringent, undeviating Idiocy Censor supervising the various editors during that period.

  10. Roger Depledge says:

    one single stringent, undeviating Idiocy Censor supervising the various editors
    Aha-Erlebnis! This ties together the journalistic phenomena recorded at length by Mark Liberman and others at Language Log and an otherwise cryptic remark by the Guardian‘s “Bad Science” correspondent Ben Goldacre last Saturday
    PR agencies know news editors are powerless to resist a silly science story.
    Could Occam find a simpler explanation than the Idiocy Censor for what goes on in the MSM? There are so many watches that there must be a watchmaker.

  11. Perhaps our Lord God himself is the Idiocy Censor. Think about it, it explains a lot, though it would force Emerson to revise his “God is Dead” piece.

  12. Brendan McKinney says:

    I can’t defend the apparently nonsensical surge comment, but I have to agree with John Cowan about Zia and “stan.” I think Safire is trying to segue from Zia’s comment about the profusion of stans to his example of an early use of “stan” as a creative suffix. It’s clumsy to be sure. But I don’t think he means to imply that Zia picked up on the South African usage.

  13. On what other site does philology mutate so quickly into theology? (εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος…) I love you guys.
    I think Safire is trying to segue from Zia’s comment about the profusion of stans to his example of an early use of “stan” as a creative suffix.
    I realize that, but I don’t see how “Zia picked up the suffix used by critics…” can be read in any other way than as saying that Zia got the suffix from those critics. If he had said “Zia’s suffix also turned up in…” or “Before Zia, the suffix…” all would have been well (except that cramming Zia and bantustans into the same sentence seems pointless to me, but never mind).

  14. I believe that the Idiocy Censor God has been described in different ways by Plato, the neo-Platonists, the Manichaeans, and Descartes. (Descartes pretended not to believe in the Lying God, but he was a very sly fellow.)
    My belief in that Idiot Censor God in no way reduces my atheism. The God that I don’t believe in was not the Eternal Font of Stupidity, more malicious than which nothing could be conceived. What I don’t believe in is the God than which nothing more excellent can be conceived; I simply can’t conceive of such a thing. It’s like the man fatter and hairier than which no man can be conceived — you can always add one more hair or one more fat globule.

  15. εν αρχη ην η πρηφιξ

  16. To run with the whole Stan thing: here in Malaysia, Bollywood movies are usually referred to (by the Malays at least) as Hindustan movies.

  17. “On what other site does philology mutate so quickly into theology?”
    Philologians, all.

  18. 旧年中大変お世話になりました。本年もよろしくお願いいたします。

  19. Ah, Bathrobe. May LH thrive from year to year, indeed. And all of us, with him.*
    *Translation available on request.

  20. Oh, I know that Uncle Bill writes plenty of lunacies all by himself. But suppose he had written “Zia picked up the suffix that had been used by critics”, and the Idiot Copy Editor God, who never sleeps, and whose (noodly) tentacles are pluripresent, deleted the “redundant” words I have italicized? Wouldn’t that satisfy the case?
    Nothing, nothing could be worse than what the ICEG did to Geoff Pullum to make him appear to attribute an idea to the wrong Stampe in a scholarly article. Nothing. Look it up in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. It’s beyond shocking.

  21. Siganus Sutor says:

    Banané Language Hat ! Banané* zot tou !
    * no, I am not speaking about any banana-thing

  22. OK, I’ll need some explanation/translation. Is it Morisien? It’s pretty much impossible to google “Banané” because it gets lumped in with “banane.”

  23. Siganus Sutor says:

    Yes, it’s Morisyen. (There was even a séga about “banané”.)
    It simply is the equivalent of the French “bonne année”… :o)
    (We really speak a monkey language, don’t we?)

  24. Ah, bonne année! Bien sur! Mille remerciements.

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