Marianna Giusti reports at Financial Times on a guy who is engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, attacking purist myths:

The man I’m dining with is Alberto Grandi, Marxist academic, reluctant podcast celebrity and judge at this year’s Tiramisu World Cup in Treviso. (“I wouldn’t miss it, even if I had dinner plans with the Pope”.) Grandi has dedicated his career to debunking the myths around Italian food […] Grandi’s speciality is making bold claims about national staples: that most Italians hadn’t heard of pizza until the 1950s, for example, or that carbonara is an American recipe. Many Italian “classics”, from panettone to tiramisu, are relatively recent inventions, he argues. Some of DOI’s claims [“DOI” is Grandi’s 2018 book Denominazione di origine inventata (Invented Designation of Origin) — LH] might be familiar to industry insiders, but most are based on Grandi’s own findings, partly developed from existing academic literature. His skill is in taking academic research and making it digestible. And his mission is to disrupt the foundations on which we Italians have built our famous, and famously inflexible, culinary culture — a food scene where cappuccini must not be had after midday and tagliatelle must have a width of exactly 7mm. […]

“It’s all about identity,” Grandi tells me between mouthfuls of osso buco bottoncini. He is a devotee of Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian who wrote about what he called the invention of tradition. “When a community finds itself deprived of its sense of identity, because of whatever historical shock or fracture with its past, it invents traditions to act as founding myths,” Grandi says. […]

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Whiz Mob.

A decade ago, the New Yorker published a profile by Adam Green (January 7, 2013 issue; archived) of “a pickpocket of almost supernatural ability” named Apollo Robbins; the following passage is full of Hattic goodness:

In pursuit of his craft, Robbins has ended up incorporating principles from such disparate fields as aikido, sales, and Latin ballroom dancing. He is a devotee of books like Robert B. Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” and has also immersed himself in the literature of criminal lore. The book that made the greatest impression on him was a paperback, published in 1964, called “Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Patterns,” by David W. Maurer, a professor of English who devoted his life to the study of raffish subcultures, before apparently killing himself, in 1981. Robbins loved the vivid trade lingo in “Whiz Mob,” and he continues to pepper his conversation with such terms as “pit” (inside jacket pocket) and “prat” (side pant pocket), “skinning the poke” (removing the cash from a stolen wallet and wiping it off before tossing it) and “kissing the dog” (the mistake of letting a victim see your face). Reading about how street pickpockets operated, Robbins was gratified to discover that he had arrived at similar methods intuitively.

Street pickpockets generally work in teams, known as whiz mobs or wire mobs. The “steer” chooses the victim, who is referred to generically as the “mark,” the “vic,” or the “chump,” but can also be categorized into various subspecies, among them “Mr. Bates” (businessman) and “pappy” (senior citizen). The “stall,” or “stick,” maneuvers the mark into position and holds him there, distracting his attention, perhaps by stumbling in his path, asking him for directions, or spilling something on him. The “shade” blocks the mark’s view of what’s about to happen, either with his body or with an object such as a newspaper. And the “tool” (also known as the “wire,” the “dip,” or the “mechanic”) lifts his wallet and hands it off to the “duke man,” who hustles away, leaving the rest of the mob clean. Robbins explained to me that, in practice, the process is more fluid—team members often play several positions—and that it unfolds less as a linear sequence of events than as what he calls a “synchronized convergence,” like a well-executed offensive play on the gridiron.

If a crew of pickpockets is like a football squad, then its star quarterback is the “cannon,” an honorific generally reserved for pickpockets skilled enough to ply their trade without the help of a team. This is also known as “working single o.” Robbins works single o. He is his own steer, stall, shade, and duke man, though, unlike street criminals, he lets his victims know that he will be picking their pockets.

Thanks, Trevor!

Good Old Mantuan.

Laudator Temporis Acti posts a passage from Basil Gildersleeve’s reflections on Pindar (American Journal of Philology 32.4 [1911], starting at p. 480) which includes this:

Commonplaces? Yes, there are commonplaces, but do we not all live by commonplaces? What gave ‘good old Mantuan’ his vogue for two centuries except his copy-book sentences? ‘Semel insanivimus omnes’ has become as familiar a quotation as any in the whole list of household words, though few of us stop at ‘semel’.

The phrase “good old Mantuan” meant nothing to me, and I was unfamiliar with that familiar quotation “Semel insanivimus omnes,” so I did a little googling. Baptista Mantuanus, traditionally known in English as “Battista the Mantuan” or simply “Mantuan,” was “an Italian Carmelite reformer, humanist, and poet” whose posthumous reputation was based mainly on his Adulescentia, a collection of Latin eclogues, and in the first of these we find the line “Id commune malum, semel insanivimus omnes” (118; in Lee Piepho’s translation, “’Tis a universal evil. We have all been crazy once.”). Horace Furness says rather unkindly in his notes to Love’s Labors Lost (1904, 2nd ed. 1906, p. 150, referring to the passage where Holofernes says “Ah, good old Mantuan!”):

As to the cause of his popularity in the schools of the sixteenth century, — I think it is not utterly incomprehensible; his verse is very smooth, — almost too smooth, — and, being no poet, his ideas are common-place, and, expressed in lucid language, quite suited to teachers of moderate intelligence and Latinity. One phrase, — it occurs in this very Eclogue quoted by Sir Nathaniel, — is become one of our hackneyed quotations: — semel insanivimus omnes.

Le pauvre vieux Mantouan…

Heyday of Heyduks.

Joel at Far Outliers is posting quotes from The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth, and the following passages from his latest post seem to me of LH interest:

The Turks had long used a variety of paramilitary forces (armartolos, derbentsy, akinji, vojnuki, etc.) as auxiliary troops, frontier raiders, mountain-pass guards and the like; as we have seen, the Hapsburgs had followed suit; and the Cossacks constitute a parallel in Ukraine and southern Russia. Such troops usually received some pay and also rations or plots of land, but by no means always. There was an Ottoman category known as deli, young men noted for their dare-devilry who would take part in campaigns and sieges for no reward whatsoever, except the opportunity to share in any plundering. Another such type of predatory soldiery was known as haramia. These had an equivalent on the other side of the frontier in the unpaid heyduks and uskoks (venturini) attached to the ‘official’ groups of heyduks and uskoks employed by the Habsburgs to garrison frontier forts and stations, and the unregistered Cossacks of the Ukraine who were to play such a prominent role in the Khmelnytsky rising of 1648. […]

The subsequent economic difficulties and the onset of disorders no doubt increased the flow. In any case the numbers of heyduks called ‘Racz’ registered in Eastern Hungary (and there were units in which nearly two-thirds of the men bore that name) points to a sizeable migration northwards from the Balkans, for racz in Magyar (rat in Romanian) means ‘Serb’. Their names also indicate that, although most were or became linguistic Hungarians, some heyduks had originated in Slovakia (toth), Romania (vlach, olah) and Ukraine (kozak, rusnak) as well as in Hungary and the Balkans. And there were Hungarian, Romanian and Tatar names among the Zaporozh’e Cossacks, though most had migrated from Belorussia, Ukraine and Russia. Circumstances suggest that a proportion of these were peasants escaping serfdom, and this was also the case with the recently enserfed Szekels whose support for Michael ‘the Brave’ when he invaded Transylvania regained them their freedom as frontier servicemen.

As always, I am troubled by the issue of italicized foreign words with English plurals — technically, it should be (e.g.) heyduks, but that looks lousy and would add to the already considerable difficulties of proofreading such a text. In addition, it bothers me that he arbitrarily stops italicizing after a couple of usages. But never mind, there are some great words here; anybody know the history of racz/rat? (We got into the Székely in this peachy thread from 2004.)


A great story posted on Facebook by Bill Poser:

I happened on an article that mentioned a non-native man named Timothy Barrus who claimed to be a Navajo named Nasdijj, allegedly meaning “to become again”, and published several works, well-received until the hoax was revealed, about his fictional life. His publishers and the literary world were criticized for accepting his claims without any investigation. His fake Navajo name would have been a clue. There is no word <nasdijj>; in fact, no Navajo word ends in <jj>. There are no infinitives, so no Navajo word could mean “to become again”. But Barrus didn’t actually make up his name. There is a real Navajo word násdlį́į́’ meaning “(s)he has become again”, and at least one dictionary glosses this as “to become again”. Barrus evidently chose his Navajo name from such a dictionary and misread dlį́į́’ as dijj. If you’re going to pretend to be from another culture, you should probably learn its writing system.

Fakers beware!

Also, via Slavomír Čéplö (bulbul) on FB, a snarky video (3:39) called If YouTube Polyglots Were Honest in which a “hyperpolyglot alpha male gigachad” tells you about how he’s going to tell you about a bunch of languages he doesn’t know anything about. Fakers everywhere!

54 Irish Curses.

I’ve long been a fan of Irish curses (2003, 2015), so how could I resist Éanna Ó Caollaí’s 54 Irish curses you won’t have learned in school (archived)? It starts:

One question I am sometimes asked as a native Irish speaker is why Irish has no swear words or slang associated with it. The answer of course is that it does, but such words and sayings are rarely, if ever, taught in our schools. Rightly or wrongly, the degree to which we are able to curse and swear with any degree fluency will never be measured in an exam.

And maybe we are the worse for it. I can’t think of many better ways of learning a language than by celebrating its aesthetic characteristics. Of course in most cases, the swear words, curses and slang many of us encountered in our formative years first reached our ears outside the classroom.

I remember as a child returning to school after our summer holidays in the west of Ireland armed with an arsenal of words such as crabadán, bobarún and búbaire and, to the amusement of the teachers, phrases such as buinneach shíor ort and a dhiabhal de phogaí among others.

Then he gets to Brian/Flann/Myles:
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Another of those projects the internet makes possible, eRomLex:

The First Romanian Bilingual Dictionaries (17th century). Digitally annotated and aligned corpus (eRomLex)

Project Abstract

The expansion of Catholicism and Protestantism in Eastern Europe in the first half of the 17th century determined a strong reaction of the Orthodox clergy, which led to the emergence of numerous Slavonic linguistic instruments, among which the Slavonic-Ukrainian Lexicon by Pamvo Berynda (Lexikon slavenorosskij i imenь tlьkovanije, Kiev, 1627). Considering the close relations between the Romanian states and Ukraine, Berynda’s lexicon had a strong impact in the Romanian space, which resulted in six Slavonic-Romanian dictionaries, all manuscript. Although they are the oldest Romanian bilingual dictionaries, and thus of great importance for Romanian culture.

The project proposes an online comparative edition of these Slavonic-Romanian lexicons. The lexicons will be displayed online, in a digital comparative edition, with an interface that will allow complex queries, combining the information available in lexicons and searching for parts of words. The comparative approach will allow establishing the relations between them, whether they are independent or copies of the same source. This online edition will be a very useful tool, easy to reach by lexicographers, specialists interested in old Romanian corpora and other aspects pertaining to their exploitation and will make available to those interested, as open access corpus, this important and almost unknown part of the Romanian cultural heritage.

The lexicon begins here. Hurray for this kind of thing!

Polite Numbers.

Wikipedia says:

In number theory, a polite number is a positive integer that can be written as the sum of two or more consecutive positive integers. A positive integer which is not polite is called impolite. The impolite numbers are exactly the powers of two, and the polite numbers are the natural numbers that are not powers of two.

But it says nothing about why such numbers have the odd name “polite,” and that usage is not in the OED entry (updated September 2006). Anybody know?

Sharov’s Holy Children.

I’ve now read another novel by Vladimir Sharov, Будьте как дети (translated by Oliver Ready as Be as Children), and I’m feeling much as I did after finishing his Репетиции (The Rehearsals; see this post): “I’m not clear what he’s doing here or why he’s doing it, or (which is perhaps another way of putting it) what kind of a novel it is.” Now, of course, having read two of them, I have more of an idea of what he’s up to, but I’m still (like so many of his characters) wandering through the wilderness toward an uncertain destination. Fortunately, I don’t have to try to describe the plot (such as it is), because the detailed review by M.A. Orthofer at the complete review does that for me; this paragraph will give you an idea:

There are three main strands to [the narrator] Dmitry’s compilation. One involves his godmother, Dusya, the woman who gave him his name. She is the dominant figure in the novel, and played a significant role in Dmitry’s own life and path, as do some of the important characters close to her, her spiritual father, Nikodim, and her son, Seryozha. Another strand involves Lenin, and the story of the last years of his life, when he suffered repeated strokes. And, finally, there are the Enets, a Samoyedic group whose history Dmitry — who becomes an ethnographer — takes an interest in.

The basis of the novel, as well as its title, comes from Jesus’ words at Matthew 18:3: “Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Everything in the book revolves around the idea that we are pure and innocent and holy as children, but as soon as we start growing up (adolescence seems to be the turning point) we become sinners, and pretty much worthless. This idea is repugnant to me, but I’m willing to accept it as the framework for a work of fiction; the trouble is that this is not so much a work of fiction as a dramatization of the theological idea, with characters I find it impossible to care about (or, in some cases, to keep straight without flipping back and forth). Furthermore, as with the earlier novel, I fear Sharov expects me to take the theology seriously and to care as intensely as the characters do about (say) the alleged murder of the four-year-old girl Sashenka by Dusya, who prayed to God for her death (this occurs only a few pages into the novel, so is not a spoiler). I’m sorry, but you can’t kill someone by praying, so all the angst related to that plot line is wasted on me; it wouldn’t be if, as in Dostoevsky, the characters were so real to me that their concerns became mine, but Sharov (like Shishkin) apparently doesn’t believe in lifelike characters — they would distract from the grand points he wants to make. He once described Russian history as a commentary on Scripture, and that’s certainly what his books read like. But if I wanted a commentary on Scripture, I’d read a commentary on Scripture.
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Dave Wilton of has a new Big List post about the word blackmail, to whose etymology I don’t recall giving any thought. Dave writes:

The mail in blackmail is unrelated to either a type of armor or the postal service. It comes from the Old Norse mali meaning contract or payment. This use of mail, meaning a payment, appears in Scots from the late fourteenth century. The black probably comes from the unsavory nature of the practice.

Blackmail was first used to refer to protection rackets run by Scottish clan chieftains against farmers in their territory. If the farmers did not pay the mail, the chiefs would steal their crops and cattle. The earliest record of the practice that I’m aware of is from the trial of one, Adam Scot, who was beheaded in 1530 for blackmailing the people of the Scottish-English border counties […] Eventually, blackmail generalized to refer to obtaining payment through threat of force.

His “mali” should be máli, with an accent to show the long vowel; the OED (updated June 2000) has a fuller etymology s.v. mail, n.¹:
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