Varia III.

Some interesting stuff I’ve run across:

1) The Un-X-able Y-ness of Z-ing (Q): A List with Notes: Sean Cotter reports on a translated title that “like a spot of dye, dropped into the flow of culture and altered the hue of English as it diffused downstream.” I had not realized that Milan Kundera didn’t want to use “the unbearable lightness of being” as the title of the English translation of his Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí; he told Michael Heim, the translator, that “for you Americans the title will be a bit hard-going.” Heim said, “We’re not children. If The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the title, so be it.” And a meme was born.

2 De Vulgari Eloquentia: Not Dante, but a board game based on Dante (Suggested Ages: 14 and up; Playing Time: 120 minutes):

Italy, late Middle Ages. The fabric merchants need to write down their contracts in a language that everyone can understand and the literates are looking for an alternative to the elite of the traditional Latin language. So, the Volgare, the language spoken by the common people, taken from the dialects spoken in the various Italian regions, starts to gain relevance. … The players will have to do their part in the creation of this new language! But who will provide them the proper knowledge to understand the manuscripts in the different dialects? Who will succeed to uncover the secrets of the books inside the Papal Library? Who will embrace the religious life and who will remain a merchant? Some of the players can become a famous banker, someone else can climb the church’s hierarchy to be the next Pope! But in the end, who will be the most appreciated and respected for his status and his culture?

3) The Space between Languages is a talk by Herta Müller, a writer born to a German-speaking family in the Banat region of Romania who “learnt Romanian quite late in life, when I left my small village for the city at the age of fifteen to go to high school.” The discussion of her relationship to that language is interesting (“There is not a single Romanian sentence in any of my books. But Romanian is always with me when I write because it has grown into my way of seeing the world”), but the main reason I’m bringing it here is to correct an irritating error. She writes:

A swallow suddenly appeared in a different light in Romanian, where it is called rindunica, “sitting-in-a-row”. The bird’s name suggests how swallows perch on a wire, close together in a row. I used to see them in my village every summer, before I knew the Romanian word. I was amazed that a swallow could have such a lovely name. I became more and more aware that the Romanian language had words that were more sensuous, more in tune with my perception, than my mother tongue.

No. The Romanian word rândunea or rândunica ‘swallow’ is not from rând ‘file, row,’ it is from hirundinella, a diminutive of Latin hirundo. I hate to burst such a poetic, sensuous balloon, but there it is.

4) The ever-readable Gasan Guseinov has a brief post saying that all those who use the blatantly foreign бабуин for ‘baboon’ instead of the good Russian word павиан (which, as of course Guseinov knows perfectly well, is borrowed from German Pavian, which ultimately goes back to the same source, French babouin, as бабуин) should be made to repeat the palindrome А НИ У БАБУИНА НИ У БАБУИНА (something like ‘and neither at the baboon nor at the baboon’). I note that Wikipedia has separate articles for бабуин and павиан. Can my Russian-speaking readers tell me whether these two words are distinguished in ordinary use, and which of them is commoner?

Comments

  1. Wikipedia has separate articles for бабуин and павиан

    properly used, the former is a genus, the latter a species. It doesn’t mean that the two words can’t be improperly used, to the prescriptivists’ horror. But they are different, and both are valid terms.

  2. Thanks! But would an ordinary Russian, who doesn’t know or care about biologist’s distinctions, be more likely to use one than the other when pointing to a baboon?

  3. To be fair, Müller only says “suggests” (“mitgesagt” in the original); she’s not making a claim about etymology.

  4. Hmm, I guess you’re right, and I should be more charitable in my readings.

  5. Neither word sounds ordinary Russian. I don’t think people would use anything other than обезьяна in the ordinary contexts until they want to sound fancy or educated.
    In other situations where both more general and more specific words exist, isn’t it anybody’s guess why sometimes a general word takes over common usage, and sometimes more specific one? Why the evergreens are all pines in English but all spruces in common Russian? I don’t think Gasan Guseinov’s peeve has any claim to truth…

  6. Thanks, that makes things clear. And Guseinov isn’t serious in the least about his peeve, he just wanted a funny introduction to the palindrome.

  7. In ordinary Russian бабуин, павиан, and гамадрил are metaphors (if that’s the word) for unpleasantly sexually overactive (human) male as Russian national corpus readily attests. How often is either of the words in the everyday speech I cannot tell.

    And Varia is, of course, Russian for Barb.

  8. In ordinary Russian бабуин, павиан, and гамадрил are metaphors (if that’s the word) for unpleasantly sexually overactive (human) male as Russian national corpus readily attests.

    Thanks, that’s extremely useful!

  9. John: To be fair, Müller only says “suggests” (“mitgesagt” in the original); she’s not making a claim about etymology.

    It’s the immediately preceeding sentence that contains a kind of etymological claim. Müller’s German is: Welch ein anderer Blick auf die Schwalbe im Rumänischen, die rindunica, REIHENSITZCHEN heißt. This says exactly what the English translation says: “A swallow suddenly appeared in a different light in Romanian, where it is called rindunica, ‘sitting-in-a-row’”. The apposition indicates unmistakeably that Müller thinks rindunica means ‘sitting-in-a-row’.

    The expression X heißt …, where X is a word mention, is used interchangeably with X bedeutet .. to answer a question of the form was heißt X ? or was bedeutet X ?:

    Q: Was heißt ‘Brandung’ ?
    A: Es heißt ‘die an der Küste sich brechenden Wellen’

    Q: Was bedeutet ‘Brandung’ ?
    A: Es bedeutet’die an der Küste sich brechenden Wellen’

    Was bedeutet Y ?, on the other hand, cannot be used to ask what the name is of something nameable, to ask what it is called. To ask this question, heißen is used, never bedeuten:

    Q: Wie heißt dieser Vogel ?
    A: Er heißt ‘Schwalbe’

    Now let’s look at the next sentence, which makes even more explicit what Müller thinks rindunica means: Im Vogelnamen wird mitgesagt, daß die Schwalben in Reihen, eine dicht an der anderen auf dem Draht sitzen. The English rendering is: “The bird’s name suggests how swallows perch on a wire, close together in a row”.

    It was a good move on the part of the English translator to ignore that German passive, pesky as passives can be in English. Unfortunately, “suggests” in the sense of “[tentatively] propose” is not what wird mitgesagt means. wird mitgesagt means “is among the things that are being said”. In English we might use “contains the idea that swallows …” to render that.

    Müller is clearly in full control of her words. If she had wanted to say “suggest”, she would have written something like: Im Vogelnamen wird angedeutet, daß …. But even that would reinforce the impression that she thinks rindunica means “sitting-in-a-row’.

  10. One may wonder what else besides “sitting-in-a-row” is being mitgesagt, given that mitgesagt means “is among the things that are being said”. Well, there are at least two things that people mean when they say rindunica, according to Müller: 1) the particular type of bird (swallow), and 2) the “sitting-in-a row” behavior of that type of bird.

  11. Thanks, Stu! Now I can revert to being uncharitable.

  12. Hat, that was exactly my intention ! One should be chary with charity.

  13. Oh, I don’t know — of hasty tone with dames unknown you ought to be more chary.

  14. No pasty Joan shall bate my tone, nor Eleanor nor Mary.

  15. GT bombs on “hasty congress”, giving the German as the ungrammatical eilte Kongress. It has analyzed “hasty” as the past tense of “haste”. I imagine many people, native speakers included, might understand the phrase to mean “a congress planned in haste”.

  16. Whereas not the planning, only the execution is hasty.

  17. In ordinary Russian бабуин, павиан, and гамадрил are metaphors (if that’s the word) for unpleasantly sexually overactive (human) male as Russian national corpus readily attests. How often is either of the words in the everyday speech I cannot tell
    In my unscientific survey, no respondents ever heard of it. Could it be obsolete or specific to some region or some school? The only reason I see about why these Russian baboon names could be used to denigrate a human male is simply the fact that all 3 are names are grammatically male in Russian, while the gender of the words for macaque or monkey is female. But then there are so many animal names one can pick to cuss at some stupid guy, they don’t have to be grammatically or scientifically correct or commonly known at all.

  18. павиан, as for the other two they are probably more rare and in the case of гамадрил it’s possible that sexuality has little to do with it, but it’s more like a savage, ruthless etc. man.

  19. I think even a claim that ‘rindunica’ means Reihensitzchen / sitting-in-a-row might be defensible, depending on whether folk etymology has played a role in its development, or how salient ‘sitting-in-a-row’ is to contemporary Romanian speakers (I have no idea on either count). ‘Pickaxe’ is formed by folk etymology (OED gives its ‘real’ etymology as < Anglo-Norman pikeis, picheise, picois, pichois, picoise and Old French, Middle French, French regional (Normandy) picois pickaxe (second half of the 12th cent.) < pic pickaxe), but I wouldn't take issue with a claim that 'pickaxe' means – or suggests, or evokes, etc. – a kind of axe.

  20. Or, staying ornithological, if your word for ‘asparagus’ is ‘sparrowgrass’, I think it would be fair to say the word means, for its users, sparrow + grass.

  21. Excellent point, and I agree. I am also curious about the Sprachgefühl of Romanians.

  22. From the first link, which I really enjoyed:

    Two fields share exceptional devotion to plays on the title: sports and politics. What is their connection? Both demand important, often hurried decisions regarding complicated information, and both subject these decisions to lengthy scrutiny by Monday-morning quarterbacks and armchair generals. Commentators in both fields are motivated to find their leaders’ fallibility, their lightness, particularly unbearable. Perhaps such tension generates a spiritual need.

    The first half of this comes nearer to what I suspect is the actual reason: so much writing on sports and politics boils down to so little actual new information that sub-editors have little choice but to recycle formulas and snowclones for the headings.

  23. I agree with D.O., pavian is probably more common than the other two, babuin and gamadril. I’ve heard pavian used in the sense many times. Maksimov has an entry on pavian which amusingly gives two definitions, first, an elderly lovelace, and second, a member of an aggressive youth gang.
    As for baboon – бабуин or бабон, it’s also used to describe a coarse, gig-mouthed woman, similar to English fishwife, because it sounds close to baba [coarse, common, low-class] woman.

  24. Is there anyone living who says “sparrowgrass”? I suspect its continued currency as *the* canonical example is a triumph of neatness over obsoleteness.

  25. I don’t know, but it is of course dangerous to make assumptions about what is and is not current based on one’s own, necessarily very limited, experience. It may well be the normal term in some out-of-the-way valley in the US or UK without impinging on the consciousnesses of the likes of you and me. In any case, John Ayto says this in The Diner’s Dictionary: Word Origins of Food and Drink:

    But [asparagus] was evidently not felt to be a completely pukka English word, and by 1650 what no doubt started as a casual witticism, sparrowgrass, had become established as the normal term for the vegetable (in 1667, for instance, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary ‘Brought with me from Fenchurch Street, a hundred of Sparrowgrass’). It remained so throughout the eighteenth century It remained so throughout the eighteenth century, and indeed in 1791 John Walker, in his Pronouncing Dictionary, wrote ‘The corruption of the word into sparrowgrass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry’. Asparagus began to make its presumably definitive comeback at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

    I had no idea (or I once knew and have since forgotten) that it was so universal.

  26. lovelace

    All the OED’s examples of this word (whose sense, apparently, is ‘seducer’) are capitalized, after Robert Lovelace from Richardson’s novel Clarissa. Other dictionaries only give encyclopedic references to Ada Lovelace the Protoprogrammer or Richard Lovelace the poet.

    Baboon is in common use (in my family, at least) to mean ‘posturing idiot’, with extreme prolongation of the /u/: ba-booooooooon! It has also crossed with moron to generate ma-rooooooon! in the same sense.

  27. All the OED’s examples of this word (whose sense, apparently, is ‘seducer’) are capitalized

    But in Russian it’s a common (and quite common) noun, ловелас ‘lady-killer, seducer,’ so Sashura’s use is understandable.

  28. Maksimov has an entry on pavian which amusingly gives two definitions, first, an elderly lovelace, and second, a member of an aggressive youth gang

    Both suggested uses there were informed by adjectives, while the known “baboon” is perfectly replaceable by almost any other male animal name (try “boar” or “billy-goat” and the meaning won’t change): the old perv who still paid attention to women was “a mold-covered baboon” (and the world mold is a classic Russian way to diss older people), while the young and dangerous guy was a “baboon who reached sexual maturity”.

    What about mandrill (мандрил) BTW, was used alongside with the baboon species names as well?

  29. perfectly replaceable by almost any other male animal name

    In English, at least, such an animal must be anciently known, either by being domesticated or by being well-known to hunters. You don’t call someone an eland, still less a stegosaurus, as an insult without taking time to think about it.

  30. J. W. Brewer says:

    Completely off-topic here (except this is “Varia” + the Hattery) but now I am afflicted with curiosity (arising from hat’s comment in a LL thread where this question would have been too off-topic) as to exactly which bookstore hat was working in circa ’79-’80, because if it was the same one at which the quondam girlfriend I’d referred to in the same LL thread worked about seven years later that would be a little eerie.

  31. I worked at one time or another at almost every joint in town, but the bookstore in question was Book Haven. And my God, I learn, very belatedly, from a Google search that it was “purchased by Labyrinth Books of New York City” in 2005, and closed in 2011. Another chunk of my life is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

  32. J. W. Brewer says:

    So my premonition of eeriness was accurate, as Book Haven is exactly where the lady in question worked a bit later on . . . and come to think of it is probably where she acquired the copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being she gave me as a present on another occasion.

  33. Another chunk of my life is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

    OK, so Nineveh is gone, but Tyre is still very much with us.

    Tinned (aka canned) olives sold in Israel sometimes carry the Latin-script description “Souri.” For years I assumed this was a transliteration of Hebrew סורי Syrian. Turns out it’s the name of the common Souri cultivar, named after that city in quasi-Turkish guise.

  34. How is it that Tyre and Sidon, so often spoken of together in the Bible, begin with different consonants in Greek (and so in Latin and English) when the Hebrew names both begin with tsade? At least in Turkish they both begin with S.

  35. George Gibbard says:

    It is because the Greek names are older than the Biblical Hebrew; Tyre began with /θ̣/ (Arabic ظ) while Sidon began with /ṣ/ (Arabic ص), but these consonant subsequently merged in Hebrew.

  36. Lovelace
    yes, and Scrooge too seems to be capitalised but cardigan and raglan are not. Is it because the first two are for human character and the latter two are for inanimate objects?

    billy-goat
    Kozel (козёл) doesn’t really fit anymore because over the past two decades or so it has acquired, from criminal argo, a derogatory connotation of homosexuality. I’d rather use кобель (male dog) in that sense.

  37. Is it because the first two are for human character and the latter two are for inanimate objects?

    Almost certainly.

  38. Rodger C says:

    @John Cowan: It was always my impression that “maroon” as an insult (Bugs Bunny used it a lot) came from the sense “member of an escaped-slave community,” hence isolated and ignorant.

  39. That’s something people say, but I have my doubts as to whether it’s warranted by facts. I know there are excellent reasons to be alert for hidden racism, but the fact is people do go overboard and seize on any perceived possible origin, whether or not it’s backed up by anything.

  40. J. W. Brewer says:

    I am rather skeptical that the sort of people who wrote dialogue for the Bugs Bunny shorts were so cosmopolitan as to know that particular sense (surely not in common usage outside the West Indies?) of “maroon,” esp. when “comical mispronunciation of ‘moron’” is a more parsimonious way of accounting for the data. (Phonological mixture with “baboon” may explain the idiolect of the Cowan household, but is imho not necessary to explain the Bugs Bunny usage.)

  41. Yes, exactly.

  42. Thanks. I suppose it might be, however, that by ca. 1940, three-quarters of a century after the end of American slavery, the original meaning of “maroon” had been forgotten by people who used it as an insult (in which case phonetic association with “moron” and “baboon” might have helped keep it alive).

  43. J. W. Brewer says:

    I assume people in the 1940′s as thereafter knew the related verb/participle maroon/marooned, in the sense of being castaways stuck on some tropical island, and/or more metaphorically left stranded or high-and-dry. But by that point I think the persons marooned would be assumed by default to be white, whether old-timey white (pirate stories) or contemporary white (Gilligan’s Island), so the fact that the etymology of that sense of maroon was tied up with runaway slaves and their descendents would be totally opaque to non-specialists, who if anything were probably busy inventing folk etymologies about why the same word should be associated with a shade of reddish-purple.

    You know how there are people who get offended by “niggardly” and “eenie-meanie-miney-moe” and things like that? Enough schools/colleges out there have maroon as one of their sports-team colors (my own racially-mixed high school’s colors were maroon and, um, white) that if anyone thought “maroon” in that sense was racially-insensitive-by-folk-etymology there ought to have been some ridiculous public controversy about it. If I’m right there has been no such controversy, that’s sort of dog-that-didn’t-bark evidence.

  44. J. W.: ‘eenie-meanie-miney-moe’ was extraordinarily offensive in the version current in my 70s Irish childhood, though the whole thing was gobbledy-gook to me. The version my young daughter knows is cleaned up, but until recently I certainly used to get a bit tense when she got to the second line, which is now ‘catch a tiger by the toe’. Was the offensive version already a distant memory when/where you were a kid?

  45. The Italian version “inimini maini mo / chissania baistò / effiala retingò / inimini maini mo” is directly borrowed from the older English version, but as it is entirely gibberish in Italian, it remains innocent.

  46. Rodger C says:

    Well, I’m certainly offended by “eeny-meeny-miney-mo”–at least the second line I learned as a child (aren’t you?)–and I no longer use “niggardly” because, though its etymology is perfectly innocent, it just sounds so jarring. But I don’t know how racism got into this discussion in the first place, especially since I wasn’t objecting to the use of “maroon.” For that matter, if it originated in the way I proposed, its first users might well have been African Americans. At any rate I have no commitment to any theory of its origin. I’m only continuing this discussion because my intention seems to have been misconstrued.

  47. I learned the “tiger” version of “eenie, meenie, minie, moe” when I was in preschool, in the American midwest circa 1980. However, I suspect it’s decades older. I don’t think my parents knew the racist original, and neither my wife nor I had any inkling that there was another version until quite recently (when I found the racist version in an old book). However, when I was about eight or nine, I do remember noticing that the words would make more sense with a person than a tiger, but I didn’t think much of it, since childhood rhymes don’t really have to make sense.

  48. I learned the “tiger” version, too, and that was in the ’50s. I didn’t know anything about the other version until I was an adult (and then I think I encountered it as a British thing).

  49. Brett, LH: thanks – that’s another lesson for me about blithely extrapolating from personal experience. I assumed the ‘tiger’ version was an innovation if the last twenty or thirty years, and the racist one was a universally-familiar Urtext. The Wikipedia article has lots of variations, and says the ‘tiger’ version was used in the early 20th century.

  50. J. W. Brewer says:

    Breffni: yes. I am guessing I probably knew it by 1968, at which point racial relations were rather tense in the United States and my mother took me to nursery school in a city under post-rioting semi-martial law with National Guardsmen with M-16′s on the street corners. But the canonical-and-only version known to me and my fellow children in that time and place was “tiger” and I was quite surprised to learn at some considerably more advanced age of the more vulgar and offensive variant text. There is lots of evidence (including e.g. the history of titles of Agatha Christie books) that that particular racial slur became strongly taboo in (much of, at least) the U.S. earlier than it did on the other side of the Atlantic. Not only did I never hear it out of my parents’ mouths, I can’t recall hearing it out of the mouth of any other white adult in the neighborhood, many of whom must have been less fervently devoted to a certain norm of respectability than my parents were, and some of whom presumably must have used it in private – indeed some of the other adults my parents’ age whose kids I played with had grown up in the Jim Crow south and even retained mild bits of e.g. North Carolina phonology in their speech but they had scrubbed the no-longer-respectable racial lexicon of their upbringings out of their lexicon and prevented it from being incorporated into their kids’ lexicons so thoroughly that I am sitting here many decades later being surprised that I was never previously surprised at how thoroughly they had done so. I don’t think I heard the word out of the mouths of any other white kids of my own generation until at least such age as we were generally experimenting with taboo vocabulary when adults were safely out of earshot. The idea of hearing it in a children’s playground rhyme is as alien to my experience as hearing “fuck” in that context would have been.

    Rodger C. is a bit older than I am and grew up in a somewhat different part of the country; if his childhood experience was different I don’t know how much of that difference should be ascribed to time-period versus region/class. Looking at google books, it seems like the “tiger” version was out there in the U.S. at least by circa 1946, although many of the hits from the first decade after that are discussions in learned periodicals like “Negro Digest” or “Journal of Nursery Education” explicitly contrasting it with a prior and more problematic version.

    On the pure question of etymology, if there is evidence that the runaway-slave sense of “maroon” was commonly used on the mainland of North America in addition to the British West Indies I’d be interested in learning of it.

  51. Rodger C says:

    if his childhood experience was different I don’t know how much of that difference should be ascribed to time-period versus region/class.

    Both, I’m sure, or rather all three. In my teenage years my father once bellowed at me across the kitchen table never to use any word except “the n-word.” I believe it was in the same conversation that he dropped the line “Well, supposing slavery was wrong…” He was, of course, a man of his place and time. I have never, I think, heard the “tiger” version of the rhyme actually spoken.

    if there is evidence that the runaway-slave sense of “maroon” was commonly used on the mainland of North America in addition to the British West Indies I’d be interested in learning of it.

    So would I. There’s the rub, of course.

  52. David Marjanović says:

    OK, so Nineveh is gone, but Tyre is still very much with us.

    I kept pointing that out, for several months, to a Biblical literalist in the innertubes. (It’s relevant to Ezekiel 26:21.) He completely ignored it for months, and when he finally responded, he tried to claim that its temporary destruction by Alexander the Great was enough… Everyone laughed at him for the short while it took for him to get banned by boring the blog owner too much.

  53. bud driver says:

    growing up in texas-1940-1962, i never heard anything but the n-version. i’ve been in australia ever since and your discussion is the first time i’ve encountered the tiger version

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