I just ran across one of those etymologies that I must have seen before but that is so weird it went right out of my head and surprised me all over again: wiseacre (‘wise guy, smart aleck’) is (to quote M-W) from “Middle Dutch wijssegger soothsayer, modification of Old High German wīzzago; akin to Old English wītega soothsayer, witan to know.” It goes back to at least 1595 (“Shall he run vp and downe the town … accompanied with some such wise-akers as himselfe”), which is surprising as well; the Old English wītega became Middle English witie, whose last citation in the OED is from 1225 (“þen muchele witti witeȝe ysaie”). Now that I’ve written it down here, I may actually remember it.
Also, I just got a box from my favorite Russian bookstore, the St.Petersburg BookStore in Brighton Beach (I used to take the subway there regularly), which always feels like Christmas; this one contained И дольше века длится день…, by Chingiz Aitmatov, which I’ve wanted to read for years; Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward), by Solzhenitsyn, which I’ve wanted to read in Russian for years; Взятие Измаила (The Taking of Izmail), by Mikhail Shishkin, an author recommended by Sashura; and Растратчики; Время, вперед! by Valentin Kataev, a pair of classic works (The Embezzlers [1926] and Time, Forward! [1932]) by a Soviet author I didn’t have a burning desire to read, but it was on sale for three bucks, so how could I resist? (I badly wanted to get Boris Zhitkov‘s Виктор Вавич (Viktor Vavich), which Pasternak called “the best thing that has ever been written about 1905,” but they didn’t have it in stock and their special-order system is being revamped, so I’ll just have to wait. Curses!)


  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    I seem to remember reading that the West German politician Richard von Weizsäcker’s surname was in that etymological family.

  2. And here I thought “-acre” was a euphemism for “-ass” (I guess I assumed “wiseass” was an old version of “smartass”). The real explanation is a lot more interesting.

  3. I read that Aitmatov in English; I thought it was a fabulous novel. Despite that fact that the second-hand copy I read was full of someone else’s stupid underlinings.

  4. Bill Walderman says:

    “Shishkin’s language is wonderfully lucid and concise. Without sounding archaic, it reaches over the heads of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whose relationship with the Russian language was often uneasy) to the tradition of Pushkin.”
    From the Wikipedia article, quoting TLS. Reaches over the heads of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky’s relationship with the Russian language was often uneasy? What’s that supposed to mean?

  5. Hoo boy. I don’t know, and I’m tempted to delete it; it sounds like pure POV to me.

  6. Oh, wait, it’s a quote from a published source. I can’t delete it, I can only roll my eyes.

  7. it reaches over the heads of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whose relationship with the Russian language was often uneasy)
    The parenthesis might be intended to refer only to Dostoevsky. If so, then from Svetlana Geier has said I think the sentence might mean

    Dostoevsky’s relationship with the Russian language prescriptivists was often uneasy

  8. Boris Zhitkov’s Виктор Вавич (Viktor Vavich), which Pasternak called “the best thing that has ever been written about 1905,”
    Other best things have been written about 1905, the annus mirabilis of physics.

  9. Hrumbly, Hrumbly, Hrumbly (sorry, the proper key is stickin’). The true annus mirabilis of physics was and always will be 1666.

  10. There are several, none of which is “the true one”. That’s why I wrote an nus mirabilis.
    As the Wipe sez, the expression

    … was used originally to refer to the year 1666, but is today also used to refer to different years with events of major importance such as 1905 when Albert Einstein published his breakthrough four articles on Physics.

    In the section on Newton, there is only this:

    In the year 1666, Isaac Newton made revolutionary inventions and discoveries in calculus, motion, optics and gravitation. As such, it has later been called Isaac Newton’s “Annus Mirabilis.” It is this year when Isaac Newton observed an apple falling from a tree, and hit upon gravitation (Newton’s apple). He was afforded the time to work on his theories due to the closure of Cambridge University by an outbreak of plague. Going to his country home, he thought about many things that, in Cambridge, he did not have the opportunity to do with such devotion.

    I don’t see anything miraculous about witnessing an apple fall. The article says that 1666 was “later called Newton’s annus mirabilis”, not “the annus mirabilis of physics”.
    “Annus mirabilis” is the title of a poem by Dryden in which Newton is not even mentioned. This is not surprising in view of the associated lifelines. Of course “annus mirabilis” is a clapped-out trope that anyone can use, like “the greatest (writer, mathematician …)”, so who cares.

  11. I know it’s not the same as a print book, but Zhitkov’s Victor Vavich is avaiable online from several sites, here
    for example.

  12. Hat, I think there’s an achipyatka in Aytmatov’s title: И дольше – And longer lasts the day than century doth last.
    The title is a quote from this poem by Pasternak.
    After Mandelstam, this may seduce you too – to translate, I mean.

  13. I know it’s not the same as a print book, but Zhitkov’s Victor Vavich is avaiable online from several sites, here for example.
    Thanks very much, I’ve bookmarked it! Reading entire novels online isn’t my favorite thing to do, but if I can’t get hold of the physical book, it will be great to have that possibility. And thanks also for noticing the typo, which I should have caught myself; I’ve fixed it.

  14. Thanks!
    I meant to use DOEST in the title – archaic second person singular present of do. Did I mistype it or did you just change it? or is it incorrect here?

  15. Oh, sorry, I changed it because I assumed it was a typo — if you wanted to be archaic, it should be third-person “doth.” Shall I change it to that?

  16. Doh!
    of course third person, silly me. (он-она – he-she-it).
    Yes, change , please. Though it doesn’t fit with the poem’s measure, as a separate sentence it sounds right to me.

  17. Done!

  18. David Marjanović says:

    …uh… so the obvious derivation of modern German Weissager “soothsayer” from weise “wise” and Sager “sayer” is a folk etymology? A reanalysis? So weissagen “to prophesy” is a back-formation?
    Wouldn’t be the first time, though. Weißbier isn’t white beer, it’s wheat beer.

  19. Weißbier isn’t white beer, it’s wheat beer.
    Yeah, but Weißbier could be a linguadynamic form of Weizbier, because the former goes down smoother. Oder nicht ? Think of Kreischsaal -> Kreißsaal.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years
    Is it only me who finds that title flatter than the literal translation in the WP article, And longer than a century lasts a day?
    The Norwegian translation is titled
    Og dagen varer lenger enn et århundre, lit. “And the day lasts longer than a century”.
    (I’m supposed to have read and thoroughly enjoyed that book, but when I just picked it out from my bookshelf and looked through the first couple of pages, the opening image of the hunting vixen surprised me. Not that I hadn’t seen the passage before, but it’s not what I remembered as the start of the novel:
    I dette landet gikk togene fra øst til vest og fra vest til øst.
    That line first occurs when the trail of the vixen has led us to the railway line.)

  21. Tim May says:

    I missed the mention when I first saw this post, but actually I’ve read The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years too (in English). It had been shelved in the science fiction section of a used bookstore, and I picked it up for that reason… as it turned out, I don’t think it’s worth reading for that aspect at all, but other strands of the novel were much more interesting.

  22. Sashura says:

    Dostoevsky’s relationship with the Russian language was often uneasy?
    Bill, in case you’re still here: D’s Russian is nowhere as polished as that of Tolstoy’s or Turgenev’s, it sometimes comes through as rough and hasty, in need of additional editing. Some blame it on him not having the luxury of having an assistant or wife who’d go through drafts and brush them up, but I think it only adds to D’s value.

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