Pullet Surprise.

Yes, this is silly stuff, and it’s four decades old to boot, but it’s hot and muggy for the umpteenth day in a row and I can’t come up with anything serious, so enjoy Jack Smith’s “‘Pullet Surprise’: Years later, student’s coincidence is still, uh, malapropriate” (L.A. Times, Feb. 18, 1985; archived):

I have been troubled by an Associated Press story out of Orange Park, Fla., reporting what seems to me an incredible coincidence. I wasn’t going to take note of it here, but several clippings of it have been sent to me, from various newspapers, and I feel obliged to comment.

The story said that Jim Mattson, an English teacher at Orange Park High School, had been collecting his students’ malapropisms over a period of four years–both at Orange Park and during his previous assignment in Exeter, N.H., and it gave some examples. […] What troubled me, though, was a student’s malapropism that Mattson gave as one of his favorites: “In 1957, Eugene O’Neill won the Pullet Surprise.”

“I literally fell out of my chair laughing,” he said. “I was laughing so hard I was crying. I showed it to my wife and tears came down her cheeks.”

Alas, a dedicated schoolteacher named Amsel Greene, years before, and way out in Helena, Wyo., had had pretty much the same reaction when the same sentence turned up in one of her students’ papers: “In 1957, Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise” (the only difference being an a instead of a the). Like Mattson, Miss Greene was fascinated by these strangely logical errors, and had been collecting them with the idea that someday she would publish them in a book. But what to call it?

“Here was the term,” Amsel Greene wrote in her preface, “for which I had been groping. I had jotted down hundreds of classroom misinterpretations for which I had found no name. The terms boners, bloopers and booboos imply stupidity or inadvertence, whereas student errors are often marvels of ingenuity and logic. But Pullet Surprises sparked a Eureka response. Its rightness had the impact of revelation!”

See the link for more examples and the rest of Smith’s story; I generally roll my eyes at such lists, as I wrote here:

[…] bullshit forms reminiscent of those “Kids say the darndest things!” pseudo-mistakes some people e-mail lists of (Old-timer’s disease, a blessing in the skies, Carpool tunnel syndrome—this is the title of a book, and it’s a deliberate pun, for Chrissake!, Heineken remover—which they as good as admit is bullshit, &c &c)

But I have to admit, “Pullet Surprise” made me laugh. Thanks, Trevor!


Their About page says:

Why share untranslatable words?

They’re fun! They shed light on other cultures, reveal different patterns of thought, and spark our curiosity. Sometimes, they influence how we analyze and classify the world around us.

When they compiled their dictionary of Nootka, Edward Sapir and Morris Swadesh need not have included šiˑšaˑwiɬtaqyo “powered by a monstrous supernatural porcupine-like creature” because its meaning is predictable from its parts. But we think Sapir and Swadesh knew what they were doing as lexicographers, and that they chose to include this word because its meaning is so comical to westerners, and because it teaches us that “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached” (Sapir, 1929, The status of linguistics as a science, p209). So, following the example of Sapir and Swadesh, the linguists contributing to this site want to share more of these `untranslatable’ words, and in the process, show why these small languages are distinctive, valuable, and powerful, each one a treasure for all the world.

After a couple of quotes about “Shamelessly exoticising others,” they say: “We walk a fine line: we celebrate popular interest in the exotic and while challenging the racism that lies behind it. This fascination with the exotic is the hook. We go further and invite visitors to this site to learn about real words, and the careful scholarship of the linguists who work so tirelessly to collect them.” The blog itself is here, and it’s very well done. The top entry at the moment is warr! [wa:] ‘an exclamation of surprise, to draw attention to something,’ from palawa kani, “the revived language of Tasmanian Aboriginal people,” and it includes a succinct description of how the language came to be and the history of the word. It’s nice to see someone doing something interesting with the tired concept of untranslatability; thanks, Y!

War Words.

A generous Hatter was kind enough to send me a birthday gift that arrived today and immediately demanded to be posted: a copy of War Words: Recommended Pronunciations (Pub. for the Columbia Broadcasting System by Columbia University Press, 1943), by W. Cabell Greet. You can see a HathiTrust copy of this first edition here (read-only) and an Internet Archive copy of the greatly expanded 1944 second edition here (Full text). It’s a kind of reference work I dearly love, done by a single person with care and a vigorous, sometimes cantankerous, style. From the Introduction: “The boldness and good humor of Australian pronunciations will please most Americans.” (The NY Times review gives as an example: “Their town of Wagga Wagga is to them simply Wogga.”) Under “The English Pronunciation of Foreign Names”:

Just as the names of the older countries and the principal regions of Europe have English variants — as Germany, Italy, and Spain for Deutschland, Italia, and España — many European cities, provinces, and rivers have, during the centuries, acquired English pronunciations and even English spellings, which are commonly preferred in English contexts. But of course for the most formal occasions and for musical programs, and also in the case of foreign speakers, the nuance of foreign pronunciations may be desirable. Announcers should know both.

Although the English forms are stable, there is here, as in all other aspects of language, the possibility of change. Nowadays the “French” pronunciations of Marseille and Lyon are probably better American usage than the Anglicized Marseilles and Lyons. We now pronounce Prague in the French style, ignoring the time-honored English variant, as well as the Czech and the German. One sign of the falling off of classical studies is a general ignorance of the English pronunciation of Greek place names. The press reports usually give English spellings which don’t quite make sense if they are pronounced as modern Greek, as, for example, Piraeus and Athens. If the classical traditions grow even weaker, such forms may be displaced. Piraeus, especially, gives trouble now.

News announcers when faced with the necessity of choosing between English and foreign pronunciations should of course use the pronunciations commonly employed in the comfortable English of educated people acquainted with the place and the subject. Names that are not on these lists probably have no English pronunciation, and they should be pronounced in foreign style. We cannot be so conservative (or so radical?) as the English family who, according to Mr. Calmer, spoke of happy holidays in Brittany and pronounced Saint Michel as if it were English Saint Mitchell.

One does not, of course, go to an eighty-year-old guide for help with current usage, but it’s an endless source of fascination if you want to know how things were said in earlier days, and Greet’s obiter dicta make great reading. Some examples:
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The Pittsburgh second person pronoun yinz has come up here before (e.g., in this 2005 thread); now Ed Simon has a whole LitHub essay about it (apparently an excerpt from his The Soul of Pittsburgh: Essays on Life, Community, and History), tying it to the Glaswegian yins:

The city center of Glasgow, Scotland—that iron-and-glass-forged, cobblestoned fortress of a hilly, rainy, foggy metropolis—is bisected by the dueling high streets of Buchanan and Sauchiehall. There are any number of landmarks to draw your attention if ambling down either of these bustling thoroughfares as the last squibs of Caledonian light fight their losing battle of attrition during a brisk November afternoon.

For six months in 2006, Glasgow was my home across the Atlantic, and I often spent those glum Scottish afternoons in precisely this sort of aimless wandering […] Glasgow, I thought, is kind of like Pittsburgh. And then, walking through Glasgow again, I hear it: “There was a couple other of yins as well.” What? […]

There is more than a spiritual congruence between Glasgow and Pittsburgh, as Kelman’s “yins” would indicate, the s that ends that word so perilously close a sibilant to the z in yinz and the words so nearly used identically. For those unfamiliar with yinz—though I imagine if you’re currently reading this book, you most likely know what it means, albeit it’s becoming increasingly rare in usage—it’s simply the Western Pennsylvania second-person plural, the Pittsburgh equivalent of y’all down South or youse in Jersey and New York.

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Alexander Germano.

Alex Foreman, in a Facebook post, linked to Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov’s “Beginning of Romani literature: The case of Alexander Germano” (Romani Studies 5, 30.2 [2020]: 135-61), and said:

This is the article in which I learned that Alexander Germano, the famous Russian Romani poet, was not a Rom. […] Not only was he not a Rom but the Roma around him apparently didn’t care and were completely unbothered by him participating in Romani literary and cultural life as a non-Rom. Even the one private negative remark from Pankov that Marushiakova and Popov found seems like it could just as easily be a negative assessment of his writing rather than his choice to write in Romani. He seems to have just felt no need to claim such an identity. It was a non-issue. A Rom identity was constructed for him after his death. […]

The situation with Romani in the early Soviet Union reminds me a bit of Yiddish in the US today in that there are prominent non-Jews who do things like perform in Yiddish theater, and no Yiddish-speaking Jew seems to have a problem with it. There was a level of security and self-confidence that Roma enjoyed in the early Soviet Union (complete with using Romani as a vehicle of primary education) whose attempt to incorporate them while respecting their difference was briefly pretty successful. Such a thing has simply never happened anywhere else, at least not on that scale. I think Macedonia may get there though.

I think one legacy of this brief period is the fact that the traditional exonym for the Roma, Tsygan, is generally not considered offensive in Russian, and is the term typically preferred by Russian-speaking Roma in Russian. Even attempts to use the terms “Rom” and “Romskiy” in Russian may be mocked. Lera Yanysheva has a very funny satirical poem “The Activist” where her Russian-language self-translation puts the term “Romskiy” in a guy’s mouth to make him sound ridiculous.

On the “briefly pretty successful” attempt to incorporate them while respecting their difference, see this 2010 post describing the brief heyday of linguistic korenizatsiia; Alex expanded on his feelings about the Romani situation in a comment:
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Nonverbal Communication in Early America.

A few years ago Céline Carayon’s book Eloquence Embodied: Nonverbal Communication among French and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas (UNC Press page; Amazon) was published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press; the publisher’s blurb says:

Taking a fresh look at the first two centuries of French colonialism in the Americas, this book answers the long-standing question of how and how well Indigenous Americans and the Europeans who arrived on their shores communicated with each other. French explorers and colonists in the sixteenth century noticed that Indigenous peoples from Brazil to Canada used signs to communicate. The French, in response, quickly embraced the nonverbal as a means to overcome cultural and language barriers. Celine Carayon’s close examination of their accounts enables her to recover these sophisticated Native practices of embodied expressions.

That certainly sounds interesting, and Thomas Wien’s review (Early American Literature 57.1 [2022]: 313-20; JSTOR) provides a helpful summary on pp. 314-15:

Eloquence Embodied is an exercise in rehabilitation. From the begin-
ning: in the two initial, scene-setting chapters, Carayon presents Native
American and European paralinguistic practices before contact, finding
them equally complex—and equally effective. In the face of the traditional
devaluation of the nonverbal and its emerging association among educated
Europeans with the “uncivilized” at home and abroad, she discerns a basic
symmetry that would make possible the colonial connection to come.
Chapter 1 sketches out traditional Native multimedia communication
technologies, moving back and forth between early European visitors’ ob-
servations and current knowledge on kinetic communication in general.
Taking “multimedia” seriously, Carayon explores the ties of Indigenous
conventional or nonconventional sign languages—unequally distributed
among the peoples encountering the French—to oratorical traditions and
pictographic writing. Chapter 2 cobbles together a nonverbal tradition à
la française
out of monastic sign language, rediscovered gestures of clas-
sical oratory, Jesuit theater, (non-Jesuit) street performance, and emerging
naval signals. While they were far from congruent, the cultures of other-
than-verbal communication that had taken form on the two continents
were equally sophisticated, predisposing the members of both parties
to the American encounter toward reading bodies and their signs. They
offered “remarkable platforms for mutually meaningful cross-cultural ex-
changes” (156)—the possibility of a gestural middle ground, so to speak.

The remaining four chapters rescue from obscurity the nonverbal in
Franco-Indigenous relations. Communication without words, Carayon in-
sists, remained crucial throughout the two centuries under study; it was
just as indispensable once increasing numbers of French and Indigenous
people engaged in often halting verbal conversation, as during the early
phase of gesticulating on the beach that comes spontaneously to mind.
The nonverbal even gained in importance over time: “The more the groups
became acquainted with each other over the next two centuries, the more
manual and kinetic communication came to define their relations, both
friendly and violent” (158).

Wien concludes:
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Polovetss and Ants.

I just ran across an article that combined so many of my interests (e.g., Russian history, translation comparisons, bad scholarship, proofreading) that I wanted to share it here: Donald Ostrowski’s “What Makes a Translation Bad? Gripes of an End User” (Harvard Ukrainian Studies 15.3/4 [December 1991]: 429-446; JSTOR), which compares reviews of the five volumes of Serge A. Zenkovsky’s The Nikonian Chronicle. I’ll excerpt some good bits, but anyone sufficiently intrigued will want to read the whole thing:

One would expect that such a major contribution and increase in the amount of Rus’ian material translated into English would be welcomed by the English-speaking scholarly community. As instructors, we are, after all, always looking for materials that can be used for introductory courses in early East Slavic history. Instead, the review literature indicates a rather chilly and negative reception to this translation of the Nikon Chronicle. Why? What are the criticisms? Is this chilly reception deserved? And, if so, can we learn from the criticisms to produce better translations, especially those that are on a similarly large scale?

First, let us take at look at the review literature. I will be using seven reviews of the Zenkovskys’ translation. […]

Of the reviewers, Michael Flier finds the most to praise. […] However, he does question a number of editorial decisions involving the translation. He notes that the Zenkovskys did not translate all the text, that they excluded “certain stories and theological discussions of Byzantine or South Slavic origin with no information on Russia per se.” […] Flier goes on to point out some inconsistencies in the rendering of proper names, a number of apparent typographical errors, as well as errors of information, and the infelicitous pluralizing of the names of certain Rus’ tribes: the Krivichs, Polovetss, and Ants (instead of Krivichi, Polovtsi, and Antes).

I love “Krivichs, Polovetss, and Ants”!
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I recently heard a splendid Magnificat by Tomás Luis de Victoria that was said to be in “octavi toni”; I had heard similar phrases (such as “primi toni”) before, and this time I decided to get to the bottom of it. So I did some googling and wound up at Stack Exchange. The questioner asked:

In XVI century, there was a composer called Girolamo Cavazzoni. He wrote (amongst other pieces) a couple of Magnificats – in primi toni, quarti toni, sexti toni and octavi toni. [details and speculation omitted — LH] However, if the assumption above is correct, the octavi toni would end up in Ionian mode. Hence my question – could someone shed some light on the naming conventions of these times, and how is octavi toni different from primi toni?

A long and detailed answer began:

As you’ve probably deduced, the assumption is incorrect. In fact, this question is based on a couple of incorrect assumptions. The first is the identity of the first mode, which is Dorian, not Ionian. Ionian didn’t even exist when the modes were initially numbered and named.

The second is the relationship of the numbering scheme to the tonic notes. There are two modes per tonic, not one. This is possible because each of the modern modes corresponds to an authentic and a plagal mode. The authentic and plagal modes come in pairs that have the same tonic, but they have different ranges and different reciting tones (or “dominants”). In particular, the authentic reciting tone is a fifth above the tonic (sometimes a sixth in Phrygian), while the plagal reciting tone is a third above (sometimes a fourth in Hypophrygian and Hypomixolydian).

Now my attention was diverted to that word plagal, which I was sure I’d seen before, but (unsurprisingly, since I am not a musicologist) whose meaning I could not keep in my head. (For one thing, it reminds me of the Latin verb plangere ‘to strike; to bewail, lament,’ which turns out to be entirely irrelevant.) So I turned to AHD, where I found:


Of or being a medieval mode having a range from the fourth below to the fifth above its final tone.

[Medieval Latin plagālis, from plaga, plagal mode, from plagius, plagal, from Medieval Greek plagios (ēkhos), plagal (mode), from Greek, oblique, from plagos, side; see plāk-¹ in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

The definition is basically gibberish to me, but the etymology is interesting, especially when you go to the Appendix and discover that the Greek etymon also gives rise to French plage and Spanish playa ‘beach’! Maybe it will help if I think of the plagal modes as beach music.


Ferris Jabr’s NYT Magazine piece “The Mysterious, Deep-Dwelling Microbes That Sculpt Our Planet” (adapted from his book Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life; archived) blew my mind, as we used to say: I had no idea that “a majority of the planet’s microbes, perhaps more than 90 percent, may live deep un­derground” (though of course biology-oriented Hatters will have long been aware of it, and will probably pick holes in the article). I’m going to quote a couple of paragraphs; the final word is what prompts me to post:

Among all living creatures, the peculiar microbes that dwell deep within the planet’s crust today may most closely resemble some of the earliest single-celled organisms that ever existed. Collectively, these subsurface microbes make up an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the biomass — that is, all the living matter — on Earth. Yet until the mid-20th century, most scientists did not think subterranean life of any kind was plausible below a few meters.

The oldest scientific reports of subsurface life date only to the 1600s. In 1684, while traveling through central Slovenia, the naturalist Janez Vajkard Valvasor investigated rumors of a dragon living beneath a spring near Ljubljana. Local residents believed the dragon forced water to the surface every time it shifted its body. After heavy rains, they sometimes found baby dragons washed up on rocks nearby: slender and sinuous with blunted snouts, frilled throats and nearly translucent pink skin. It was not for another century that naturalists formally identified the creatures as aquatic salamanders that lived exclusively underground in water flowing through limestone caves. They are now known as olms.

Olms! One would have expected some Greco-Latin polysyllable; of course I had to investigate, and happily the OED revised its entry in 2004. The definition:

A large, blind, aquatic salamander, Proteus anguinus (family Proteidae), with a whitish eel-like body, very small legs, and reddish gills that are retained throughout life, found only in limestone caves from Montenegro to north-east Italy.

The first cite:

1871 The Olm, which only casually comes to the light of day, along with the overflowing waters of the Cirknitz Lake, was first discovered in 1814, in one of its permanent subterranean abodes.
G. Hartwig, Subterranean World 165

(The Second Edition only took it back to a 1905 textbook.) And the etymology:

< German Olm (first used in this sense by L. Oken Lehrb. der Naturgeschichte (1816) iii. 189; 11th cent. in Old High German as olm, glossing classical Latin stelliō a kind of lizard: see stellion n.), of uncertain origin; perhaps a variant of Old High German molm newt, salamander (see mole n.³). Compare (< German) Swedish olm (1861 or earlier), Dutch olm.

The German word is used in early modern German dictionaries of the mid 16th cent. in sense ‘newt’.

Not an exciting word, but a good, solid one (like mole and newt).

The Critic as Friend.

Merve Emre has a Yale Review essay (from the Summer 2024 criticism issue) that discusses the history of criticism and its various forms in lively fashion (“This vision of the critic as a pig, an uncouth, if mildly intel­ligent, animal rolling in his own sweet filth, has resonated with writers across the centuries”); I’ll excerpt the part that explains the title, an image of the critic that is appealing to me:

But inherent in the image of the critic as judge were the unsa­vory ideas that the critic was superior to the text and that criticism was a matter of crime and punishment. As Northrop Frye put it in the 1980s, trying to play the role of judge was a “preposterous ego trip for the critic to attempt.” It turned the critic into an “intel­lectual thug” who uttered only “clap-trap”: “I approve of this,” or “I am disappointed by that.” What was needed instead, Frye argued, was a different figure, an image of “understanding” and “deep con­cern for literature” that captured “the subjection of the critic to the uniqueness of the work being criticized.”

This figure who meets Frye’s criteria of concern and subjection is the critic as a friend to the text. To appreciate her, we must pull on a parallel thread in the history of criticism, different than the one that leads to the judge’s chambers. This thread runs through essays in which the writer interrupts his lengthy rebuke of the state of criticism by invoking the friend as “the real helper of the artist, a torch bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother,” as Henry James writes—a friend whose presence, like the sun breaking through the clouds, can make a gray and inhospitable world suddenly seem expansive and warm. William Hazlitt’s “On Criticism” (1812), James’s “Criticism” (1899), and Marcel Proust’s “John Ruskin” (1906) represent the high points of this tradition, although its ori­gin is surely Alexander Pope’s 1711 “An Essay on Criticism,” which hails the critic as “the Muse’s judge and friend.”

[…] One should not expect mutuality from a text. It would be absurd for its themes or its style to accommodate who the critic is or what she desires, morally, politically, or emotionally. The text is what it is. It cannot be otherwise. It owes us nothing. We can demand nothing in particular of it. It is easy to lash out in the face of such vast indifference, to surface a disappointment so intense, a desire for gratification so bottomless, that it eclipses everything other than the drama of its own emergence. The challenge, as Pope elaborated it, is to meet the text with generosity—with a readiness to give more of one’s gifts than is necessary or expected. “Just as propriety finds figu­rative expression in the image of the judge,” Harold Bloom wrote, “generosity for Pope also calls forth its representative figure: the critic as friend.”

After a discussion of Pope’s Essay on Criticism, she continues:
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