Lame.

My wife was looking at an ad for one of these things and asked me “How do you pronounce that?” while pointing to the word lame. I said “…I dunno,” and dashed for the dictionary. But it wasn’t in M-W or AHD, though they had lame (lām) ‘thin metal plate’ and lamé (lă-mā´) ‘shiny fabric woven with metallic threads, often of gold or silver’; it wasn’t even in the OED. Fortunately, any number of online sites, like this one, explain that it’s pronounced “LAHM” and that it’s from French; presumably it, like the words above, derives from Latin lāmina ‘thin plate.’ This has been a public service announcement, and a nudge to lexicographers.

Gone to Pot.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from John Jay Chapman’s letter to Robert and Nora Nichols of December 23, 1925:

It looks on all the surfaces as if the intellect of this country had gone to pot through the operation of the natural laws of wealth and prosperity — (and one sees no end or limit to them). I read Horace all the time and see much likeness between the luxury, riot, and folly that went on in the proconsular era, and our own epoch, but nothing of the blaze of intellect that accompanied the breakdown of the old Roman institutions and left behind it a shelf of books.

Of course, the 1920s is now looked back on as a great era of modernist literature, and “this country” (the USA) was a major part of it, with Pound, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Scott Fitzgerald only a few of the more prominent names. Reflecting on this sort of thing should make people hesitant to pronounce in similar doomy terms on their own times, but it rarely does.

Unrelated, but I have to put on the public record one of the worst typos I’ve ever seen. I just came across the Russian word лимб and couldn’t figure it out from context; it wasn’t in my trusty Oxford, so I looked it up in my three-volume bilingual dictionary, and found the following definitions: 1. limb; 2. dial, graduated circle; 3 paleontol border; 4 zool & bot limbus. None of those seemed to fit, so I turned to Wiktionary, where all became clear: the fourth sense listed there is “в католицизме: состояние или место пребывания не попавших в рай душ, не совпадающее с адом или чистилищем” [In Catholicism: the state or place of residence of souls who do not get into heaven; not the same as hell or purgatory]. In other words, limbo. Not only is “limb” wrong, it looks all too plausible, being an exact transliteration of the Russian. I give this typo 10/10!

A Year in Reading 2021.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year, and once again my contribution is the first in the series, a tradition which I am honored by and enjoy shamelessly. This year I discuss Yuri Trifonov’s House on the Embankment, Valentin Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora, and Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools, the three great 1976 novels I read last year; José Vergara’s wonderful All Future Plunges to the Past, which I wrote about here; Anne Lounsbery’s Life Is Elsewhere and Jonathan Waterlow’s It’s Only a Joke, Comrade!; three Ann Patchett novels (write a new one, Ann!); and Monkey, the Waley version of Journey to the West. There were plenty of other books I could have added — it’s been a good year for reading.

Vocabulary above Their Station.

From Michael Dobson’s LRB review (2 July 2020; archived) of Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s Shakespeare’s Englishes: Against Englishness (which sounds like a good book):

The villains of the piece are a group of 16th-century writers whose combined assault on foreign loan words, terms newly invented from Latin, imported fashions and outlandish cuisine add up to what Tudeau-Clayton calls a ‘cultural reformation project’. They include George Gascoigne (‘the most auncient English words are of one sillable … the more monasyllables that you use, the truer Englishman you shall seeme’), Thomas Nashe (who accused the academic Gabriel Harvey of ‘supplanting and setting aside the true children of the English, and suborning inkehorne changlings in their steade’) and Thomas Wilson, who invented the phrase ‘the King’s English’ in his Arte of Rhetorique (1553), thereby invoking royal sanction for the ‘plainness’ he prescribed. Their campaign inevitably had particular problems with the cultural legacies of the Norman conquest. John Green, with exactly the bluntness he advocates, longed for the linguistic and ethnic purity of Anglo-Saxon England. ‘Before the Conquest by Bastard William that the French came in,’ he claimed in 1615, ‘our English tongue was most perfect,’ but nowadays ‘a plaine man can scarce utter his mind.’ Even the greatest English writers of the Middle Ages, when the court habitually spoke French, were now under suspicion. In 1605 Richard Verstegan scorned Chaucer as ‘a great mingler of English with French’, and Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique had earlier lamented that the educated upper class was still following his example: ‘the fine Courtier wil talke nothyng but Chaucer.’ Spenser, though happy to invoke Chaucer in Book IV of The Faerie Queene (1596) as the ‘well of English undefiled’, had some sympathy with this position, or at least seems to have distrusted those who continued to add French-derived words to English vocabulary instead of contenting themselves with established practice. The preface to Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (1579), very much in the mode of the cultural reformers, criticises those who have been ‘borrowing here of the french, there of the Italian, euery where of the Latine, not weighing how il those tongues accorde with themselues, but much worse with ours: So now they have made our English tongue, a gallimaufray or hodgepodge of al other speches.’

‘Gallimaufry’ and ‘hodgepodge’ are both culinary terms (and ultimately of French origin, as Tudeau-Clayton points out), and the question as to whether English should be a linguistic fusion cuisine or homogeneous as ship’s biscuit came to a head in the Elizabethan playhouses, which both attracted and depicted a heterogeneous miscellany of social classes. As venues where crowds could hear new vernacular dialogue exemplifying all sorts of registers and social situations, the newly established commercial theatres were recognised as exerting an immense influence on English usage, for better and worse. The author of the university play Albumazar (1615) [Google Books (1634 ed.), Internet Archive (1944 ed.)], for instance, regards public playhouses as places where the lower orders might pick up vocabulary above their station. In a subplot a farmer hopes to win his mistress with ‘complements drawne from the Plaies I see at the Fortune, and Red Bull, where I learne all the words I speake and understand not’.

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A Judaeo-Persian Letter from Dandan-Uiliq.

The British Library’s Asian and African studies blog, which I’ve posted about more than once (e.g.), has An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq (originally posted there by Ursula Sims-Williams 19 June 2020):

[…] The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner (Margoliouth, pp. 742-3) which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.

The letter proved to be written in Judaeo-Persian, i.e. Persian written in Hebrew script. However since the beginning and end of each line was missing, there was only a limited amount of contextual information to be deduced (for an edition and translation see Utas, 1968 below). Mention of sheep trading and cloth indicates the document’s commercial nature and a reference to the author having written “more than 20 letters[1]” attests perhaps to a thriving trade. There is also an intriguing request for a harp required for instructing a girl how to play (see Yoshida, pp. 389-90 for a possible explanation of this).

In 2004, however, an almost intact leaf (BH1-19) of a similar document was acquired by the National Library of China. Published in 2008 (Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang), it appears to be the initial page of possibly the same letter and gives a more detailed historical context by referring to the defeat of the Tibetans at Kashgar which happened around 790.

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Remember the Van Wagenens.

Ange Mlinko reviews Lydia Davis’s collections Essays One and Essays Two in the latest LRB and has interesting things to say. Mind you, I often find Davis irritating even though she’s clearly a good writer, and I found Mlinko’s versions of classical Arabic poetry irritating a decade ago, but never mind, I’ll quote some chunks that you may or may not find stimulating:

Essays Two places us at the intersection of two pleasures: ‘(1) the pleasure of writing; and (2) the pleasure of solving a puzzle’. This is translation. It all goes back to a first-grade classroom in the Ursuline Cloister School in Graz in 1954, where Davis found herself, aged seven, without a word of German. Her father, an academic, had uprooted the family for a year. ‘I theorise now that I must have gone through a few weeks, at least, of some frustration and bewilderment,’ she writes:

Then, this frustration must have been followed by gradual enlightenment as I became progressively more familiar with the meaning of what I was hearing, and eventually it must have implanted in me a hunger to repeat the experience, or at least a strong desire, at the sight of words that mean nothing to me, to find out what they mean.

As the mongrel child of immigrants who moved to the US less than a decade before my birth, I have also always thought my ‘experiences of incomprehension, of opacity’ led to my obsession with verbal arts (although, perhaps to my shame, it expressed itself in poetry rather than translation). […]

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Deck or Pack?

I was trying to decide whether to say “deck of cards” or “pack of cards” when it occurred to me to wonder which was older. It turns out they both go back to the late 16th century — first OED cite 1583 for “pack” (H. Howard Defensatiue sig. Hh4ᵛ “Some marke Cardes, and some the dealing of the Cardes, some sette theyr rest vppon the packe..when all the packs, are shuffeled”) and 1594 for “deck” (1st Pt. Raigne Selimus sig. F4ᵛ “If I chance but once to get the decke, To deale about and shufle as I would”) — but the interesting thing is the distribution; the “deck” entry says “Since 17th cent. dialect and in U.S.” But that entry is from 1894, and I’m curious if the situation is still as described there: do Brits say only “pack”?

Serial déboires.

I’m always interested in the ragged edges of the English wordhoard, where borrowed terms and foreign ones mingle uneasily. I just ran across an example in Perry Anderson’s LRB review (2 December 2021) of Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union, by Stella Ghervas:

[Ghervas] rarely loses sight of the imperialist plunder that accompanied continental peace and war alike, from Utrecht to Geneva and beyond. Unlike Schroeder too, she highlights the blindness of the pentarchs at Vienna to the realities of decaying Ottoman rule in Balkan lands excluded from the precincts of Christendom, and the indifference of the Great Powers of Europe to the fate of its subjects, which had so much consequence in the serial déboires of the Eastern Question: a pointed lesson in realism.

Now, déboire is by no stretch of the imagination an English word, and it’s not one that was familiar to me as someone who reads French decently. Wiktionary defines it as “(figuratively and literally) unpleasant aftertaste, bad taste” (and says it’s from dé- +‎ boire ‘to drink’), my ancient Concise Oxford French Dictionary (a reprint of the 1935 edition) says “Nasty after-taste; (fig.) vexation, disappointment,” my Collins Robert bilingual (2nd ed. 1987) has it as plural déboires ‘disappointments, heartbreaks; setbacks, reverses; trials, difficulties’ (note that there’s no mention of aftertaste), and the Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French by René James Hérail and ‎Edwin A. Lovatt has “‘Heaving’, vomiting (after a bout of heavy drinking” (presumably not what is intended here). The general sense is clear enough — the Balkan situation caused a lot of problems — but what precisely was intended by déboires is impossible to discern, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Anderson is simply showing off. English has a capacious vocabulary, people; use it!

Some [Numeral].

Anatoly Vorobey (Avva) wrote me as follows:

Stephen, what do you think of “some [numeral]” construction?

In this article we find two instances of it:

“Some 6.26 million Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine, 5.76 million at least two and 4.05 million have had the booster shot.”

“Some 682 corona cases were registered on Monday, the highest number since the end of last month, as the Health Ministry reported on Tuesday, 463 of whom were schoolchildren.”

What exactly is different, to you, about these sentences compared to bare numerals, i.e. “6.26 million Israelis have received…” and “682 corona cases were registered…”?

I suddenly realized I’m not exactly sure what’s the semantic nuance here, and how to render it e.g. in Russian. What’s more, on checking dictionaries it seems that they don’t carry this meaning at all! (I checked M-W, the OED, and American Heritage). All dictionaries have “some” to mean “approximately”, but that’s precisely not what’s happening here. “682 cases” is not approximate, it’s in-your-face exact.

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Undeciphered Inscription.

John Cowan sent me Francesco Perono Cacciafoco’s The Undeciphered Inscription of the Baptistery of Pisa, whose abstract reads:

This short communication is aimed at popularizing the puzzle of the undeciphered inscription engraved on a wall of the Baptistery of Pisa (Tuscany, Italy), which appears also in other religious monuments in Tuscany. The inscription is written in an unknown script and, being very short and without other examples with the same symbols all over the world (apart from some equivalent epigraphic documents from the same area), is still undeciphered.

The goal of the following note, which absolutely does not aim to be original, and which is just recapitulative, is to trigger a discussion about the inscription and to encourage possible interpretations and, ultimately, new deciphering attempts.

John adds: “Whodathunkit? Looks to me like something the Hattic polymaths could use as a chew toy.” So chew away! (And Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it today; in a few hours I will be too preoccupied with turkey and visiting family to mind the store, so if a comment gets held up in moderation, be patient.)