Archives for June 2003


Having recently posted about the AHD‘s extension of the etymology of “ginger” back to Dravidian, I am now equally delighted to have them trace “souk” back beyond the obvious Arabic to Aramaic shuqa ‘street, market,’ from Akkadian suqu ‘street.’ And of course, bless their little hearts, they provide the protoform in their Semitic appendix. Thanks to The Discouraging Word for alerting me to this!


Andrew Krug, responding to my recent (and not very serious) query about Ladino blogs, has come up with the next best thing: a Ladino newspaper online. Well, actually a newspaper for the Sephardic community of Turkey, mainly in Turkish, but with a column in Ladino (in Latin characters). Thanks, Andrew!

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So I was reading the Sunday paper and came across Ron Rosenbaum’s description of the infamous “Salic law speech” at the start of Shakespear’s Henry V and the way in which a director can use it to establish his approach to the whole play. Henry is thinking of invading France and wants the blessing of the Church; he calls in the Archbishop of Canterbury and asks him to explain “Why the Law Salique, that they have in France,/ Or should or should not bar us in our claim.” The Archbishop, doubtless thrilled to have a willing royal ear for the kind of detailed historico-legal exegesis which usually sends his auditors running for the transepts, begins “Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers…” and continues for a mind-numbing (or enthralling, according to taste) sixty lines unraveling the tangled history of the kings of France, full of peppy bits like “In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant” and “Of Blithild, which was daughter to King Clothair.” It can be played as farce or as conspiracy, or even straight. At this point Rosenbaum says:

The fact that those who take the Salic law sequence seriously need blackboards and placards on easels accompanied by illustrations to make sense of it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s nonsense. Read closely, the speech is a kind of spiraling black hole of self-cancellation.

This made me put down the paper and furrow my brow. A spiraling black hole of self-cancellation… what did that remind me of? Ah yes, of course, Finnegans Wake. (This recognition was a result not so much of my fondness for Joyce, extreme though it is, as of my youthful immersion in science fiction, believe it or not—in this instance James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.)

On page 572 of Finnegans Wake Joyce interrupts the stream of dreamtime worldspeech for the one passage of straightforward (not to say clinical) English in the book. It begins:

Honuphrius is a concupiscent exservicemajor who makes dishonest propositions to all. He is considered to have committed, invoking droit d’oreiller, simple infidelities with Felicia, a virgin, and to be practising for unnatural coits with Eugenius and Jeremias, two or three philadelphians…

and continues with a complex explication of the manifold immoral interrelationships among a group of people we have not met before and shall not meet again. At the end comes the simple question, “Has he hegemony and shall she submit?” This parallels nicely the King’s question at the end of the Salic Law speech, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?”

Blish’s protagonist, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, expends much anguish of mind and soul on the first question. The Archbishop, per contra, has a ready answer to the second, which boils down to “Sure!” But he has been bought off by the king’s favorable attitude to the quashing of a parliamentary bill imposing confiscatory tax rates, so we can hardly take his reply as representing an honest resolution of the problem. In fact, the passages that lead up to the questions are both of them spiraling black holes of self-cancellation, and I think it’s fair to say that both cases remain open. Therefore, any readers sending in a detailed analysis of both, with clear and convincing answers to both questions, will receive a certificate proclaiming them Doctor Philosophiae, Divinitatis, et Legis Salicae and a letter authorizing them to resolve any and all of life’s problems, by writ of Languagehat University. Or, if you prefer, you could always propound a fresh Gordian knot, your own case of conscience, and let it inspire plays, novels, or at the very least blog entries.


A funny, if inadequate, essay on Spanish swearing, via Avva. (I say “inadequate” because, although it basically concerns itself with the swearing of Spain, it includes a digression on the Argentine variety; this, although accurate as far as it goes, might lead unwary readers to suppose that they now have at least an overview of the international situation, whereas in fact swearing varies richly from country to country, as might be expected, and the most striking fact about Argentine swearing—the replacement of joder by cojer, which in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world is the common verb for ‘take’—is not even mentioned.)


I somehow missed wood s lot yesterday, and now I find that he consecrated the day in large measure to one of my favorite modernist poets, Blaise Cendrars (self-chosen name; he was born Frédéric-Louis Sauser). He wrote quite a bit, but the poem you need to know (if you don’t already) is Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (“Trans-Siberian Prose and Little Jeanne from France”), which reflects his trip across Russia during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) and the Russian Revolution of 1905; a full translation by Ekaterina Likhtik is online here, beginning:

I was in my adolescence at the time
Scarcely sixteen and already I no longer remembered my childhood
I was 16,000 leagues from my birthplace
I was in Moscow, in the city of a thousand and three belfries and seven railroad stations
And they weren’t enough for me, the seven railroad stations and the thousand and three towers
For my adolescence was so blazing and so mad
That my heart burned in turns as the temple of Epheseus, or as Red Square in Moscow
When the sun sinks.
And my eyes shone upon the ancient routes
And I was already such a bad poet
That I didn’t know how to go all the way to the end.
The Kremlin was like an immense Tatar cake
Crusted with gold,
With great almonds of cathedrals all done in white
And the honeyed gold of the bells…
An old monk was reading to me the legend of Novgorod
I was thirsty
And I was deciphering cuneiform characters
Then, suddenly, the pigeons of the Holy Spirit soared above the square…

The original French is here, and you can see an image of the exceedingly rare first edition (multicolored, printed on a single sheet of paper that unfolded is two meters long) here. The whole last century is contained therein. All aboard!


I had known that the complicated etymology of the word “ginger” took it back to the Indian subcontinent; it’s from Middle English gingivere, borrowed (like Old English gingifer, which may itself be a source of the Middle English word) from Old French gingivre, which is from Medieval Latin gingiber, from Latin zingiberi, from Greek zingiberis, from a Middle Indic form (my Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins says “Prakrit singabera“) akin to Pali singiveram, which has been said to come from Sanskrit s’rngaveram, a compound of s’rngam ‘horn’ + vera- ‘body’ (supposedly applied to ginger because of the shape of the root). But I learn from the American Heritage Dictionary that the Middle Indic form is “from Dravidian : akin to Tamil iñci, ginger (of southeast Asian origin) + Tamil ver, root.” Now, although I Am Not a Dravidianist, I happen to know that the South Dravidian languages, including Tamil, lost Proto-Dravidian *c- (e.g. il ‘not be’ from *cil-, iy- ‘give’ from *ciy-, aRu ‘six’ from *caRu), so I wonder if the protoform was *cinci-, which would account for the initial s- in the Middle Indic form. In any event, I am pleased to see a Dravidian etymology for an English word. Nancy, this one’s for you!

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Anyone with a flair for the lyric might mosey on over to Open Brackets and try their hand at Englishing this little will-o’-the-wisp by Victor Hugo:

On doute
La nuit …
Tout fuit,
Tout passe;
Le bruit.

My attempt is in the comment section there, as are a growing number of others. What have you got to lose?


Payvand means ‘joining, link, connection’ in Farsi; it is also the name of an excellent website that promotes the Persian internet. It has news, stichomancy (or Sortes Hafezianae if you prefer; in Farsi it’s faal-e Haafez), HTML help, a web directory, and (closest to my heart) a page of books, a couple of which I have and most of which I want to read. One that immediately caught my eye is The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi: Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric, a collection of essays edited by Kamran Talattof et al; Nizami is one of the great figures of Persian literature. From an online bio:

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I could have sworn this moldy hipsterism was a Beat saying, dating back certainly no earlier than the late ’40s, but it turns out it was used as the title of a song in Pal Joey in 1940, meaning it dates back at least to the ’30s. Now I’m wondering how far back it goes, and in what social circle it was coined. Anybody know?


Alisa, at Alisa in Wonderland, says in this entry: “This blog is in Yiddish, and it provides an extesive linkage to other sites in and on Yiddish, as well as to some other blogs in Yiddish. I hope it can disprove the common wisdom that this is a dying language.” Mind you, I can’t see it, any more than I could the Vedic site in the previous entry; I guess this is my day for taking things on faith. But I like the idea of Yiddish blogs so much I had to tell the world about them. (Now, are there any Ladino blogs?)