Archives for June 2004


In his fine Threepenny Review essay French Without Tears, Luc Sante (whose last name is pronounced SAHNT [according to the author himself, who was kind enough to drop by the comment section to correct my mistaken two-syllable version]) reminisces about the process by which, as a young immigrant from Belgium, he settled into English without losing French; it contains the following delightful passage on the glories of French as used in comics:

But I had a fortuitous link to the world of francophone children: my father’s sister and her husband, small-town newsagents, subscribed me to my favorite Belgian comic magazine. I read Spirou every week for ten years, and through it subcutaneously absorbed not just the living language but also a sense of daily life in a Belgium that was then changing much more rapidly than my parents realized. The comic weeklies (the others were Tintin and Pilote, the latter published in France) had no American equivalent; they combined about a dozen serial comic strips, on double-page spreads, with a handful of single-page gags, along with games, contests, educational tidbits, and some prose fiction I never so much as glanced at. I didn’t care much about stories; I cared passionately about graphic style, and this affected my reading—I disdained the ostensibly serious yarns, with their conventionally realist draftsmanship, in favor of the wildest and funniest drawings. The funny strips also happened to be the most unbridled in their use of language, reveling in the singular ability of French to generate wordplay, puns in particular.

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Another great resource added to the internet: The Jewish Encyclopedia.

This website contains the complete contents of the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia , which was originally published between 1901-1906. The Jewish Encyclopedia, which recently became part of the public domain, contains over 15,000 articles and illustrations.

This online version contains the unedited contents of the original encyclopedia. Since the original work was completed almost 100 years ago, it does not cover a significant portion of modern Jewish History (e.g., the creation of Israel, the Holocaust, etc.). However, it does contain an incredible amount of information that is remarkably relevant today.

Of linguistic interest is, for example, the immensely detailed article on the Hebrew alphabet. Obviously any remarks about the “earliest” this or that should be taken with a grain of salt in a century-old source, but it’s full of information, like the discussion of how the cursive script developed. (Via plep.)


Having gotten back to Isabel de Madariaga’s Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great after a long layoff, I ran across this sentence at the bottom of page 350: “Inevitably Potemkin and the pro-Austrian party at court planned to take the slightest advantage of any carelessness on Paul’s part and to watch his correspondence with his friends in Russia.” (Paul was Catherine’s sullen son, sent off on a European tour against his will.) This illustrates the kind of problems with negation the folks at Language Log are so fond of dissecting (example). It’s perfectly in order to say “I wouldn’t dream of taking the slightest advantage,” but it only works in the negative; what she means is that Potemkin et al planned to take maximum advantage of any carelessness. But there’s something about negation that can throw a monkey wrench into our linguistic factories unless we keep a close eye on the assembly line.


An earlier entry lamented the fact that there is no Arabic etymological dictionary; a Russian LJ site picked up on this and a commenter provided the following list of alleged counterexamples:

Murad Faraj
Multaqay al-lughatayn al-`Ivriyah wa-`al-`Arabiyah [The unity of the two Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, an etymological comparative dictionary].
Cairo: Al-Matba`ah al-Rahmaniyah, 1930-1937. 3 v.
Abd Allah Bustani
al-Bustan, oahoa mujamoun lugaouioun [The garden: an etymological dictionary].
Beirut: El matbaa el amrikia, 1927-1930. 2 v., 2784 p.
Jubran Mas`ud
mu`jam lughawi `asri rutibat mufradatuh wafqan li-hurufiha al-ulá
Beirut: Dar al-`Ilm lil-Mallayin, 1965. 1637 p.
Avraham Shtal; Avraham Robinzon
Milon du-leshoni etimologi le-`Arvit meduberet ule-`Ivrit [Bilingual etymological dictionary of spoken Israeli Arabic and Hebrew].
Tel-Aviv: Devir, 1995. 2 v., 711 p.

I wrote Professor Alan Kaye (who’s done etymological work on Arabic) asking “if any or all of these are genuine scholarly works,” and he responded “None of these are scientific etymological dictionaries as exist for other languages, such as English, which give the Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European etyma.” So the problem still stands: there are no reliable/scientific etymological dictionaries for Arabic.


PF, in the course of his troubadouresque wanderings, has washed up for the night here in Peekskill, where he has brought to my attention the remarkable Douglas Young translations from Greek into Scots, in particular his translation of The Frogs [which he called The Puddocks] by Aristophanes:

Aeschylus will heave his verses,
  ruit and word, and gar them flee,
breenge, and skail the monie stourbaths
  whaur he rowes his poesie.
C’wa then, begin, and gie us your crack. And mak it braw and witty;
nae similes and siclike stuff; nae sentimental ditty.

(It turned out he had mentioned this translation in the comments to this entry, which would have embarrassed me except that I’ve grown impervious to embarrassment at my own negligence and/or forgetfulness; besides, PF says that the comment had slipped his own mind.) Young sounds like someone well worth investigating:

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I am a dreamer of words, of written words. I think I am reading; a word stops me. I leave the page. The syllables of the word begin to move around. Stressed accents begin to invert. The word abandons its meaning like an overload which is too heavy and prevents dreaming. Then words take on other meanings as if they had the right to be young. And the words wander away, looking in the nooks and crannies of vocabulary for new company, bad company.

    – Gaston Bachelard

Via wood s lot, where you will find a number of Bachelard links under 06.27.2004.


A charming NY Times story by Melissa Sanford on the perilous flight training of urban falcons (the NY Times link generator won’t give me a blogsafe link for some reason, so this link will rot in a week) says “It takes a young falcon, known as an eyas, a week or so to learn to fly,” which of course sent me to the dictionary to find out how to pronounce eyas. It’s EYE-as, and the etymology turns out to be worth knowing as well: Middle English eias, from an eias, alteration of *a nias, an eyas, from Old French niais, from Latin ni:dus, nest; see sed- in Indo-European roots (AHD). So eyas, like orange and umpire, is the result of metanalysis (false division of the article + noun unit: “a nias” > “an eyas”). Another piquant fact: the French word niais, which once had the same meaning as the English word, now means ‘silly’ (or, in the words of Larousse, ‘simple, un peu sot’).


OK, I’m the last blogger on earth to get around to writing about Louis Menand’s scathing New Yorker review of the hot new language-scold best-seller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (whose title, as everyone points out, needs a hyphen after “Zero”). But I’m not going to let it go unmemorialized here, because Menand is an excellent writer with no patience for ignorant cant, and people keep asking me about the book. Since I have no intention of actually reading the damn thing, I’ll quote enough Menand to convince any doubters that she’s not worth bothering with. He begins with a catalog of her own misuses and mistakes:

The preface, by Truss, includes a misplaced apostrophe (“printers’ marks”) and two misused semicolons: one that separates unpunctuated items in a list and one that sets off a dependent clause. About half the semicolons in the rest of the book are either unnecessary or ungrammatical, and the comma is deployed as the mood strikes. Sometimes, phrases such as “of course” are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not. Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases (“Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions”), before correlative conjunctions (“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t”), and in prepositional phrases (“including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’”). Where you most expect punctuation, it may not show up at all: “You have to give initial capitals to the words Biro and Hoover otherwise you automatically get tedious letters from solicitors.”
Parentheses are used, wrongly, to add independent clauses to the ends of sentences: “I bought a copy of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage and covered it in sticky-backed plastic so that it would last a lifetime (it has).” Citation form varies: one passage from the Bible is identified as “Luke, xxiii, 43” and another, a page later, as “Isaiah xl, 3.” The word “abuzz” is printed with a hyphen, which it does not have. We are informed that when a sentence ends with a quotation American usage always places the terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks, which is not so. (An American would not write “Who said ‘I cannot tell a lie?’”) A line from “My Fair Lady” is misquoted (“The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning”). And it is stated that The New Yorker, “that famously punctilious periodical,” renders “the nineteen-eighties” as the “1980’s,” which it does not. The New Yorker renders “the nineteen-eighties” as “the nineteen-eighties.”

He continues with a complaint about the absurd decision “not to make any changes for the American edition, a typesetting convenience that makes the book virtually useless for American readers,” and goes on to a hilarious dissection of her motives in writing the book:

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No, that’s not a multicultural dinner menu, it’s a couple of interesting etymologies I ran across in my research for my last post.
Fajita is an American Spanish diminutive of faja ‘band, strip,’ from Latin fascia ‘band, bandage,’ which is the source of fascism. Would Mussolini have liked fajitas?
And falafel is from Arabic fala:fil, no surprise there, but that’s the plural of filfil ‘pepper.’ I had no idea.


Mark Liberman of Language Log has an enjoyably discursive post on the use and misuse of the word fakir, properly ‘a Muslim religious mendicant’ (it’s from Arabic faqi:r ‘poor’) but with an extended meaning ‘Hindu ascetic or religious mendicant, especially one who performs feats of magic or endurance’ (in the words of the AHD definition); when I asked my wife what image she associated with the word, she said “a guy lying on a bed of nails,” which fits the second sense exactly and I think would be the most common answer if you took a poll.
But Mark seems to think the meaning has been broadened even farther, to overlap with faker; his entry begins:

In connection with a post on Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to learn Gaelic, I read an interesting paper by Jack Lynch entitled “Authorizing Ossian”, in which he calls James MacPherson “history’s most perfidious literary fakir”. Lynch is being unfair to fakirs — though in a characteristically American way. Fakirs were not fakers, before a series of 19th-century American shifts of meaning.

After an excursus on Edmund Wilson, he goes on: “Wilson was reflecting a common usage that arose out of the American spiritualism craze of the 19th century…” The implication, it seems to me, is that ‘faker’ is not just an occasional misuse but a common US meaning, and I don’t agree. It’s certainly an easy mistake to make, and I’m sure one could come up with more citations than the OED’s four, but I would interpret each as an individual confusion rather than a feature of American English. But I’ll throw the floor open for discussion; my awareness of the Arabic and of the Indian use may be blinding me to vox populi. (I’ll add also that it’s possible the word is a simple typo in the online paper.)