The Bookshelf: Homeward from Heaven.

I’m always griping about publishers commissioning the umpteenth translation of Anna Karenina rather than looking for something interesting that hasn’t appeared in English yet, so I’m especially appreciative of Columbia University Press’s Russian Library series (see this post on their Krzhizhanovsky edition, with prior links), which does exactly that, and does it very well. They have now published Boris Poplavsky’s Homeward from Heaven, translated by Bryan Karetnyk (see this post), and have been kind enough to send me a copy. As is usual with Russian Library, it comes with an informative introduction by the translator and a full set of end notes that not only explain the realia of the novel (“The Paris-Midi was a midday newspaper in daily circulation between 1911 and 1944. It enjoyed wide popularity and catered principally to a working readership at a time when two-hour lunch breaks were still common…”) but quote long chunks from the typescript (the textual history of the novel is complicated) and French lyrics used in the text (in both French and English). The publisher’s summary says:

The novel’s protagonist and sometime narrator is Oleg, whose intense love for two women leads him along a journey of spiritual transfiguration. He follows Tania to a seaside resort, but after a passionate dalliance she jilts him. In the cafés of Montparnasse, Oleg meets Katia, with whom he finds physical intimacy and emotional candor, yet is unable to banish a lingering sense of existential disquiet and destitution. When he encounters Tania again in Paris, his quest to comprehend the laws of spiritual and physical love begins anew, with results that are both profound and tragic.

Taken by Poplavsky’s contemporaries to be semiautobiographical, Homeward from Heaven stands out for its uncompromising depictions of sexuality and deprivation. Richly allusive and symbolic, the novel mixes psychological confession, philosophical reflection, and social critique in prose that is by turns poetic, mystical, and erotic. It is at once a work of daring literary modernism and an immersive meditation on the émigré condition.

You can read an appreciative review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Karetnyk’s Englishing is eloquent and convincing, and I’m glad he’s chosen to focus on little-known writers like Gaito Gazdanov, Yuri Felzen, and now Poplavsky rather than on the usual suspects. Kudos to him and to CUP!

Rushin’ to the Bone.

Jose Vergara (see this LH post) did an interview with Mo Rocca which focused on Rocca’s early work as a writer for the PBS show Wishbone, which “retold classic stories, introducing them to children by dropping the eponymous dog with an instantly classic theme song into their plots.” Introducing the interview, Vergara says:

Rocca wrote on the show’s two seasons, including the episode “Rushin’ to the Bone,” which was based on Nikolai Gogol’s play of mistaken identities, The Inspector General. Given my own interests, I was eager to speak to him about this Russian connection in particular.

A relevant exchange:
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Faima Bakar writes for HuffPost about the eternal problem of bad language:

A series of Tesco mobile adverts which used food puns to allude to commonly expressed expletives have been banned after receiving a lot of complaints. The ads used words such as shiitake, pistachio and fettuccine in place of popular phrases. One of them said ‘what a load of shiitake’ with an image of a mushroom, while another featured a nut next to the words ‘they’re taking the pistachio’. A third revealed pasta uncovering the words ‘for fettuccine’s sake’. And naturally, 52 people complained. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) declared the images “were likely to cause serious and widespread offence” and told Tesco to stop using the ads. Tesco Mobile claimed it didn’t actually use any offensive words or images, but agreed to the ban and apologised nevertheless. […]

We spoke to Tony Thorne, a lexicographer and language consultant at King’s College London, who tells us we’ve learned to associate swearing with personality and morals. “Many Brits still affect to be shocked by bad language because they think it fits an image of respectability,” he tells HuffPost. “In fact scientists have proved that swearing is therapeutic and most people do it, even if not publicly. “Lots of brands have tried to use plays on rude words, since FCUK, but younger consumers often find these cringeworthy while older consumers may find them offensive – or obscure if they don’t get the reference.”

He points to Claudine Davi’s Letters from the linguists: the evolution of swearing, which shows that profanity came from blasphemy – against God, against royalty. Then in the 18th and 19th century, it evolved into a social taboo which elevated its status. Forbidden words had more power to shock and disgust, something that somewhat remains. But now, we have more commonly accepted obscenities that won’t cause anyone to cast a second look. Unless they’re on a Tesco advert, maybe.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the power of words to cause such reactions. Thanks, Trevor!


Balashon has a post about the star name Betelgeuse, quoting the explanation in American Heritage:

The history of the curious star name Betelgeuse is a good example of how scholarly errors can creep into language. The story starts with the pre-Islamic Arabic astronomers, who called the star yad al-jawzā’, “hand of the jawzā’.” The jawzā’ was their name for the constellation Gemini. After Greek astronomy became known to the Arabs, the word came to be applied to the constellation Orion as well. Some centuries later, when scribes writing in Medieval Latin tried to render the word, they misread the y as a b (the two corresponding Arabic letters are very similar when used as the first letter in a word), leading to the Medieval Latin form Bedalgeuze. In the Renaissance, another set of scholars trying to figure out the name interpreted the first syllable bed- as being derived from a putative Arabic word *bāṭ meaning “armpit.” This word did not exist; it would correctly have been ibṭ. Nonetheless, the error stuck, and the resultant etymologically “improved” spelling Betelgeuse was borrowed into French as Bételgeuse, whence English Betelgeuse.

Balashon links to Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales entry for more information and goes on to discuss the etymology and possible Hebrew cognates of Arabic jawzā’; I was struck by the odd entry in Andras Rajki’s Arabic Etymological Dictionary (see this LH post):

jauz : pair [zauj]

Balashon writes: “it would seem that jauz and zauj (also the Arabic word for ‘husband’, one member of the pair), are related through metathesis.” But Arabic doesn’t work that way, does it?

However, what most surprised me (“shocked” might not be too strong a word) was going to the OED and finding (along with the unhelpful etymology “< French Bételgeuse, < Arabic”) this list of pronunciations:

Brit. /ˈbiːtldʒəːz/, /ˈbɛtldʒəːz/, /ˈbiːtldʒuːs/, U.S. /ˈbidlˌdʒus/, /ˈbidlˌdʒəz/, /ˈbɛdlˌdʒəz/.

It would never in a million years have occurred to me to use ə for the last vowel, though in a French loan it makes sense. Sort of. It sounds weird and foreign to me, and I’ll stick with “beetlejuice.”

Fellowships Open Book Program.

Via Anne Lounsbery’s FaceBook post, I present the Fellowships Open Book Program:

The Fellowships Open Book Program supports the conversion of recently published books funded by NEH into eBooks that are freely available online. This page lists all books that have received a Fellowships Open Book award and includes links to the eBooks that are currently available. Other open access books can be found at the NEH-Mellon Humanities Open Book Program website.

It’s some mitigation of the outrageous prices charged for academic books that more of them are being made freely available online. Two that immediately attracted me are The Other/Argentina: Jews, Gender, and Sexuality in the Making of a Modern Nation by Amy K. Kaminsky and American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream by Julia L. Mickenberg; among the “Forthcoming eBooks” is Anne’s Life is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917, which I highly recommend (LH, The Millions).

Stalin’s Library.

Amelia Gentleman (a striking surname I hadn’t run across before) reviews Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, by Geoffrey Roberts:

Stalin was a voracious reader, who set himself a daily quota of between 300 and 500 pages. When he died of a stroke in his library in 1953, the desk and tables that surrounded him were piled high with books, many of them heavily marked with his handwriting in the margins.

As he read, he made notes in red, blue and green pencils, underlining sections that interested him or numbering points that he felt were important. Sometimes he was effusive, noting: “yes-yes”, “agreed”, ‘“good”, “spot on”, “that’s right”. Sometimes he expressed disdain, scribbling: “ha ha”, “gibberish”, ‘“nonsense”, “rubbish”, “scumbag”, “scoundrels” and “piss off”. He became extremely irritated whenever he came across grammatical or spelling mistakes, and would correct errors with his red pencil.

During his life he amassed a personal library estimated at about 20,000 books, but he also read widely from the collections of friends. The Soviet poet Demyan Bedny complained that Stalin left greasy fingermarks on the books he borrowed. After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, plans to preserve the library in his dacha were abandoned and his books (which included volumes on child psychology, sport, religion, syphilis and hypnosis as well as works by Turgenev and Dostoevsky) were dispersed, so it has become challenging to make an exhaustive study of what he enjoyed reading. […]

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Esthetics of the Future.

I’ve finally started a long-planned retrospective of the movies of Jean-Luc Godard, accompanying my reading of Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema (a very welcome birthday gift from a few years ago — I didn’t want to start it until I’d accumulated a critical mass of DVDs, and now that I’ve got fifteen, I figure it’s time). After watching his early shorts on YouTube (god bless the internet!), I popped Breathless into the player and loved it as much as I did the first time I saw it all those decades ago (my wife and I are currently enjoying the many extra features included in the package — god bless Criterion!). I’ll doubtless be making a number of posts out of the retrospective, Godard being perhaps the most language-oriented of directors (see this 2003 post about 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle and this one about Le Mépris, both still among my favorite movies), and this is the first of them.

I called it Breathless, but its French title is À bout de souffle, which literally means ‘out of breath’; I used to be mildly annoyed by the slightly-off translation, but I’ve come to realize that Breathless makes a far better movie title, so good for whoever made the change. (In one of the extras, we see the original letter of agreement from the producer, where the title is in fact translated ‘out of breath.’) That’s not what I’m posting about, though. Like all of Godard’s movies, this one is a tissue of quotations and references, and Godard ascribes two of them to Lenin: “We are all dead men on leave” and “Ethics are the esthetics of the future.” Obviously the idea that Lenin, the most practical and materialist of men, could have said either of those is ludicrous, but my question was: who did? The first was easy enough — it turns out to be by Eugen Leviné (and one can see how the similar-sounding name helped with the misattribution). But who the devil came up with that pretentious quote about “the esthetics of the future,” which both Laurie Anderson and James Monaco have trustingly followed Godard in putting in the mouth of the Great Mushroom?

Another minor linguistic mystery is Michel Poiccard (Belmondo) ordering a coffee as “un direct.” The French noun direct has several meanings, but none involve coffee; this very question was asked at the Language Forums, but nobody seems to know (one person says “I’ve since found a few references to ‘un direct’ in online articles about Tunisia […] explaining it as a local name for un café au lait,” but in the first place Poiccard isn’t in Tunisia and in the second place he takes it black). I’m guessing it’s a very local term from Godard’s youth in Geneva — there are a number of such references in the film (e.g., Poiccard says huitante and nonante for 80 and 90) — but if anyone knows, do share.


My wife is unusually susceptible to cold, and I have often regretted that there is not a word in English for this quality — the French have frileux and the Russians зябкий, so why should we be deprived? Now I learn that such a word actually does exist, though only at the fringes (“Now regional,” says the OED in its 2003 entry), and I am posting about it to encourage everyone to start using it. Unlike so many of the words eager logophiles propose for adoption, this one fills an actual need. I want people to be able to say “I’m nesh” and have it understood.

Since you’re surely wondering, here is the OED’s etymology:

Cognate with early modern Dutch, Dutch regional (West Flemish) nesch, nisch soft (of eggs), damp, sodden, foolish (16th cent.), Gothic hnasqus soft, tender. A connection with Old High German nascōn and its cognates in sense ‘to eat dainty food or delicacies’ (see nosh v.) has been suggested, but seems unlikely.
The further etymology of the word is unclear: it has been suggested that it is related to Sanskrit kiknasa particles of ground grain (of rice), flesh of rice (represented in only one corrupt late Vedic text, with variants caknasa, cikkasa, in context implying an unattested compound piṣṭa-cikkasa particle of flour, from which some have posited a Sanskrit root cikk- to hurt) and further with Latvian regional knost, knosīt to peck at plumage with the beak, pluck, beat (compare Latvian knosīties to scratch oneself), but the connection between the two is difficult to make, and their joint connection with the Germanic word is not generally accepted.

And here’s a selection of citations:
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Andrew Dunbar wrote me:

I wonder if you have seen this in the wild yet. We all have seen the noun spellings of phrasal verbs like “work out”, “break up”, and “knock out” etc being more and more spelled as single units when there is also a related noun “workout”, “breakup”, and “knock out”, etc.

I often point out that a new class of irregular verbs has emerged, since not many people complain about this like they still do the established proscribed “errors” like split infinitives. The result being that the infinitive and present non-third persons now have a spelling as a single word where all other inflected forms retain their two-word spellings.

And I also joke about how the regular versions if we wanted to avoid introducing many new irregular verbs would be like “I workouted”, “they are breakuping” (or breakupping?), “he knockouts the other guy”, etc. But what I’ve actually seen in the wild, two times now, is internal inflection! The new third person present form of “to break down” is “he breaksdown”: Colion Noir Breaksdown Gun Laws & Gun Crime Statistics.

To be fair, the previous time I saw it was also in the title of another Joe Rogan podcast video. So maybe it’s just a quirk of one person on his team. Maybe they’re intentionally playing with the language? I wonder if you or anyone in Hattery has seen other examples yet?

I hadn’t noticed it, but Andrew’s right, it must be new if people haven’t been peeving about it yet.

Another Pair from Laudator.

1) Bloods, quoting from Jacob Wackernagel, Lectures on Syntax:

In the earliest period, Christian texts in Latin are almost exclusively translations from Greek texts, translations, moreover, which were made not by the intellectual elite but by simple people of limited education and learning, for whom the wording of the original was surrounded by a sacred halo. As a result, when they produced versions of holy texts, they committed gross infringements of the rules of their own language. For example, in an old translation of the New Testament, which is known in fragments—i.e., not in the Vulgate—we read at Mark 4:11 omnia dicitur, ‘all things (pl.) is said (sg.)’. In Latin it is a glaring solecism to use a singular verb with a plural subject. This is explained by the fact that the Greek original has πάντα γίγνεται ‘everything (pl.) comes to pass (sg.)’, with the familiar Greek construction (neuter plural subject with singular verb; cf. I, 101–3 below). Similarly, in the so-called Clementina, Greek participles in the genitive absolute are rendered with genitives in the Latin, e.g. §43 contendentium tribuum, ‘while the tribes were disputing’. Or again, in just the same way it can happen that in texts of the Bible even Hebraisms enter Latin. Several times in the Old Testament we have the expression ἀνὴρ αἱμάτων (lit. ‘man of bloods (pl.)’: 2 Kings 16:7, 8; Psalms 5:7, 25:9, etc.; Proverbs 29:10). From a Greek point of view the descriptive genitive is anomalous and so, too, is the plural, ‘bloods’ (αἵματα occurs only in poetry). Both features are conditioned by the Hebrew original, and accordingly the phrase used in the Latin text is uir sanguinum. This is particularly striking because sanguis in Latin has otherwise no plural at all; the grammarians, who take no notice of Christian Latin, make this an explicit rule (Servius on Aen. 4.687; Priscian 5.54 = GL II, 175).

Even though I studied Latin before Greek, I took to the latter so avidly that I have been known to make the same error of using “the familiar Greek construction (neuter plural subject with singular verb)” in Latin.

2) Professors and Clods, quoting Andrew T. Weil, “Joshua Whatmough,” Harvard Crimson (May 3, 1963):
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