Duas Verpas.

Laudator Temporis Acti posts a wonderful little inscription from Sardinia (Meana Sardo, 2nd century AD, Iscrizioni latine della Sardegna I 183):

[vides d]uas berpas
[ego sum] tertius qui

You see two pricks.
I, the one reading this, am the third.

berpas = verpas. On verpa see J.N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982; rpt. 1993), pp. 12-14.

The confusion between b- and v- is interesting, and I should really get a copy of Adams. For verpa, see Wiktionary:

Possibly borrowed from a Germanic language, related to Proto-Germanic *werpaną (“to throw”). More likely from Proto-Italic source for “to turn round, to roll” (as in ‘unfurl, peel back, or retract foreskin’) via Proto-Indo-European *welw-, *wel- (“to turn, wind, round”).

1. (vulgar) a penis with the foreskin retracted, especially when erect
2. (vulgar) an erection, a hard-on


My wife was celebrating the diminishing amount remaining on our mortgage, and she asked me if the mort- part of the word meant ‘dead,’ and if so why. I said yes it did, but I didn’t know why; I’ve looked it up a number of times because it’s so opaque, but I can never remember the answer. So I turned to the OED, which updated the entry in December 2002, but the etymology is surprisingly unsatisfactory from the semantic point of view:

< Anglo-Norman and Middle French mortgage, mort gage (1283 in Old French; also as gage mort (1267); French mort-gage (now archaic)) < mort mort adj. + gage gage n.¹, after post-classical Latin mortuum vadium (from 12th cent. in British sources) < mortuum, accusative of mortuus dead (see mort adj.) + vadium pledge (see invadiate v.). Middle French mort gage > post-classical Latin morgagium (from 14th cent. in British sources), mortgagium (a1564 in a British source).

Yes, yes, but why is it called a ‘dead pledge’? (They later quote in small type “the etymological meaning of the term current among 17th-cent. lawyers,” but they clearly consider that merely a historical curiosity.) Fortunately, the AHD comes to the rescue:

Word History: In early Anglo-Norman law, property pledged as security for a loan was normally held by the creditor until the debt was repaid. Under this arrangement, the profits or benefits that accrued to the holder of the property could either be applied to the discharge of the principal or taken by the creditor as a form of interest. In his Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae (1189), Ranulf de Glanville explains that this latter type of pledge, in which the fruits of the property were taken by the creditor without reduction in the debt, was known by the term mort gage, which in Old French means “dead pledge.” Because of Christian prohibitions on profiting from money lending, however, the mortgage was considered a species of usury. The preferred type of pledge, in which the property’s profits went to paying off the debt and thus continued to benefit the borrower, was known in Old French by the term vif gage, “living pledge.” By the time of the great English jurist Thomas Littleton’s Treatise on Tenures (1481), however, the mortgage had evolved into its modern form—a conditional pledge in which the property (and its profits) remain in possession of the debtor during the loan’s repayment. This led Littleton and his followers, such as the influential jurist Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), to explain the mort in mortgage in terms of the permanent loss of the property in the event the borrower fails to repay, rather than of the loss of the profits from the property over the duration of the loan.

I certainly won’t remember the details, but at least I can now refer to this entry when curiosity strikes again.

Manx: Feeling Much Better.

Back in 2009 I reported that Manx was not extinct; now Megan Specia in the NY Times has an encouraging piece (archived) on the progress it’s making:

The squeals of laughter echoing from the playground sound like any other elementary school in its first week back in session. Listen closely, though, and there’s something rare in the children’s chatter: the Manx language, an ancient tongue once feared forgotten.

But thanks in part to these students at Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, a school on the Isle of Man, the language that was deeply intertwined in hundreds of years of local history is now becoming a part of the island’s future.

It was a little over a decade ago when UNESCO declared the language extinct, and students then studying at the school took strong exception. To make their case that the language was anything but dead, they wrote a letter to the U.N. body — in Manx.

“It sort of was on the brink, but we’ve brought it back to life again,” said Julie Matthews, the head teacher of the school, who noted that her students’ determined effort prompted a new UNESCO categorization of Manx as a “revitalized” language. […]

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Adrift in Google Translate.

I follow a guy named Ivan Ivanovich Puzyrkov on Facebook, and I liked this post so much I thought I’d bring it here (my translation — ironically, GT doesn’t do a very good job):

Nov. 20, 2022, a beautiful sunny day. MEANWHILE, the future has arrived, and Google fucking Translate already translates so well that sometimes you can’t tell the difference. Man is lazy; why waste energy, which isn’t there anyway, on wading through foreign texts when it’s more convenient to speed-read them in your own language? (Just don’t tell the students.) Besides, I’m probably not going to learn, for example, Hungarian in this lifetime, and now just look at the prospects that open up, as long as there’s a pdf with the text.

I’ve gotten addicted to it lately; I put whole little libraries into it, and zippity bop, you have another monograph translated into the language of our native aspens and you can read to your heart’s content. You keep the original at hand, of course, but on the whole, it’s a normal translation, normal. That’s when the card, as they say, burst into my hand.

That gives rise to another problem: more and more often I catch myself thinking “I think I’ll put this text into the translator, it’s really complicated,” I start looking for the button, and then I realize, oh, it’s already in Russian! So it seems that Google still has a lot of work to do.

Some notes (I always pick up bits of culture and language from his exuberant posts):
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Pelevin’s Werewolves.

Having read Victor Pelevin’s Священная Книга Оборотня (2004), translated by Andrew Bromfield as The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, I’m not sure what to say about it. The narrator and protagonist, A Khuli (狐狸 huli is Chinese for ‘fox,’ and хули khuli is Russian for ‘what/why the fuck?’), was born in China a couple of thousands of years ago and is now working as a prostitute in Moscow; she looks like a girl in her early teens but is actually a werefox who uses her tail to hypnotically convince her clients they are having sex with her. She meets a high KGB (excuse me, FSB) officer named Alexander who turns out to be a werewolf with powers that enable him to find the oil his country needs in the Far North. They fall in love, and she explains to him the nature of reality, which is of course illusion, as in all Pelevin’s novels (the Heart Sutra is referred to more than once). As I wrote Lizok, “it’s standard-issue Pelevin (sex, drugs, computer games, corrupt business/power nexus, fancy brand names, plus a dollop of Eastern mysticism), but hey, I enjoy that mix, and he sure does know how to tell a story.” If you enjoy such things, I can recommend the novel; it’s longer than it needs to be, but it’s fun. Of course, there’s always the academic take on it, as in A History of Russian Literature by Kahn et al. (see this post):

The fox embodies the invigorating and restorative component of postmodernist cynicism descended from the long lineage of Soviet tricksters. The wolf reveals the underlying cynical foundations of post-Soviet negative self-identification and the neo-traditionalist politics of the 2000s and 2010s.

So there’s that too, if you like social significance. But I’m going to discuss some of the details I enjoyed.
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Wie man sich bettet…

In »Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagony« (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1930), Brecht used a German proverb, “Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man” (as you make your bed, so you must lie in it), as the basis for the rousingly cynical first-act finale, “Denn wie man sich bettet” (text and translation, with a clip of a Lotte Lenya performance). Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti posts the chorus with two published translations and his own (he confusingly calls it “Jenny’s Song,” which normally refers to this song from Threepenny Opera):

Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man,
Es deckt einen da keiner zu
Und wenn einer tritt, dann bin ich es,
Und wird einer getreten, dann bist’s du.

tr. H.R. Hays:

As you make your bed you must lie
And no one denies it’s true
And if anyone does any stepping, that’s me,
And when anyone’s stepped on, that’s you.

tr. W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman:

As you make your bed, so you lie on it,
The bed can be old or brand-new;
So if someone must kick, why, that’s my part
And another get kicked, that part’s for you!

He writes, “The insistence on rhyme obscures the meaning of Brecht’s German in these translations” and says he thinks the lines mean:

For as you make your bed, so must you lie,
And no one tucks anyone in there
And if anyone kicks, then I’m the one,
And if anyone gets kicked, then it’s you.

So my question to German-speakers is, is he right? Does “Es deckt einen da keiner zu” mean “And no one tucks anyone in there”?

Code Talkers.

I expect many Hatters are familiar with the basic story of the use of Navajo as an unbreakable code during WWII, but Yoonji Han’s Insider story has some details that were new to me:

In May 1942, 29 Navajo men arrived at Camp Elliott, the original Marine Corps training base during World War II. Stretching 32,000 acres in San Diego, the base contained encampments, bivouac areas, and 41 firing ranges. But the small unit of Navajo men weren’t there to learn how to fight, at least not with guns. They had instead been tasked with creating an unbreakable code to help defeat enemy forces.

In the early months of the war, Japanese intelligence experts had easily broken every code devised by the US military. A man named Philip Johnston proposed the idea of recruiting Native Americans to develop a code that would be indecipherable to enemies. The son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston had grown up on the Navajo reservation, and realized the language was almost impossible to master without early exposure.

The program proved a success, and expanded to include around 400 Native American code talkers in WWII. […] The US military picked the Navajo as its main source of code talkers since they were “the only tribe in the United States that has not been infested with German students during the past 20 years,” commanding general Clayton Vogel wrote in a March 6, 1942 letter.

After the US successfully used the Choctaw language to transmit secret messages during World War I, Germany and Japan had sent students to the US to study Native American languages. Navajo was one language they did not pick up.

More details (and photos) at the link; I hadn’t been aware of the earlier use of Choctaw or of the students from Germany and Japan. Thanks, Bonnie!

Also, check out WOBO: Words from Old Books, with subsections on Vintage dictionaries of Word, Phrase, and Fable, Thieves’ Cant and Slang, and printing and type, inter alia. Thanks, Stu!


I was reading along in Patricia Lockwood’s overheated but enjoyable TLSLRB review (6 January 2022) of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star (translated by Martin Aitken) when I got to this:

It is another kind of narrative temptation, actually, to write about The Morning Star without ever mentioning that its author is one of the most endlessly disseminated writers of the age, a man whom most of us encountered staring back at us from the first volume of My Struggle like something both ancient and fresh: a stone-tablet model, a yassified Noah.

I was completely befuddled by “yassified,” but of course the internet came to my rescue, turning up Shane O’Neill’s year-old NYT Style section piece (archived) explicating it for befuddled old-timers like me:

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” in a full face of makeup. The first Queen Elizabeth contoured from her neck ruff up. Severus Snape with jet-black hair extensions. Sasquatch sporting a smoky eye. These are just a few of the altered images that have been shared by YassifyBot, a Twitter account that started popping up in people’s feeds this month.

To “yassify” something, in the account’s parlance, is to apply several beauty filters to a picture using FaceApp, an A.I. photo-editing application, until its subject — be that a celebrity, a historical figure, a fictional character or a work of fine art — becomes almost unrecognizably made up. […]

The word “yass” — which can also be spelled “yas,” “yaas” or with any number of A’s and S’s for emphasis — has been circulating in L.G.B.T.Q. vernacular for more than a decade. The word was further popularized by a 2013 video of a fan admiring Lady Gaga. The Comedy Central show “Broad City,” in which Ilana Glazer’s character frequently deploys the phrase “yas queen,” also helped to bring the word into wider use.

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Stiff Drink.

Dave Wilton investigates the origin of the phrase stiff drink, something I’d never thought about. He writes:

A stiff drink is a strong, alcoholic one. The idiom is odd to present-day ears because stiff once had a sense meaning strong that isn’t used much anymore, except in the context of booze.

The adjective stiff, meaning rigid, unbending traces back to Old English stif. And the word retains that as its primary meaning through to the present day. But in the Middle English period, stiff began to be used to mean strong. For instance, the word is used in that sense to describe the physical prowess of William the Conqueror in the Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, c.1300:

Suiþe þikke mon he was · & of grete strengþe
Gret wombede & ballede · & bote of euene lengþe
So stif mon he was in armes · in ssoldren & in lende
Þat vnneþe enimon · miȝte is bowe bende

(Such a stout man he was and of great strength
Great bellied and bald but well proportioned
So stiff a man he was in arms, in shoulders and in loins
That scarcely any man might bend his bow)

Stiff starts to be associated with alcohol by the end of the sixteenth century, at first in the phrase stiff drinkers, that is to say hard or inveterate drinkers. […] We see stiff applied to the booze itself by the end of the eighteenth century. […] And we have stiff drink of grog in Parson Weems’s 1808 edition of his biography of George Washington. […]

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Lyre’s Dictionary.

Lyre’s Dictionary is a computer program that generates novel English words based on existing roots and patterns. For example:

futurarium · noun
a place for the future

It also exists as a bot on Twitter and on Mastodon, where it posts several new words every day.

Via MetaFilter, where an example posted is bibible “able to be drunk” (“According to Grammarist this should be bibable, because new words always take -able, not -ible”).