The Ghost Dog Principle.

Translator Lily Meyer writes about her process for Bright Wall/Dark Room (archived):

Not too long ago, I spoke to a writer acquaintance who is learning to translate. He was worried about a sentence that, as he put it, did not want to go from French to English. All his translations of it either changed the original’s meaning or were too ugly to tolerate. He was looking for permission to change the meaning. I gave it to him. I’d like to say I helped him give it to himself, but the truth is that I just told him to change it. Afterward, though, I walked him through the thought process to which I return every time I decide, as I often do, that a scrupulously or fundamentally correct translation of meaning is hideous, clunky, or in some other way unacceptable, and cannot remain in the English text I am creating.

My process has four parts, three of which I shared. […] First, I remind myself that my intentions toward the project I am translating are fundamentally good. I respect it and want to share it; I understand it; I want my translation to do the work and its author justice. Second, I remind myself—I wish this one were no longer necessary, for me or for anyone else—that translation is an art, and I am, therefore, an artist. My aesthetic judgment matters. Bearing those ideas in mind, I then test myself for literary bias. Do I dislike the sentence at hand because it is too far from the conventions of contemporary English-language prose? Does it make me itchy because it wouldn’t fly in a workshop, or because it might freak a publisher out? If the answer is yes, or could be yes, or if I have the slightest doubt that the answer might not be no, the sentence stays, to be revisited down the line. If I feel in my bones that the answer is no, it goes.

[Read more…]

If These Knishes Could Talk.

Last night my wife and I watched If These Knishes Could Talk: Story of the New York Accent, on YouTube here. It’s pretty scattershot, and some of the choices of accompanying music are… odd, but it’s a lot of fun (especially, of course, if you’re NYC-adjacent), and I learned some things, for instance that not only is there a “New York accent” in ASL, but it has a special slang term for Harlem. I chuckled at Pete Hamill’s favorite El Diario headline, SERRANO DICE: YO NO SOY UN SCHMUCK. Oh, and the title is from a line of dialogue in a knish shop: “If these knishes could talk, they’d have a Brooklyn accent.”


The radio show A Way With Words had an episode last year called Gradu or Gradoo, an Unusual Word Meaning Gunk or Schmutz; this interested me greatly, because my wife’s family uses it (I have never heard it from anyone else). It’s only five minutes long, but if you don’t feel like listening, all the actual information is contained in this summary:

Kelly from Cincinnati, Ohio, says her father uses the word gradoo to mean “clutter” or “a bit of litter.” Also spelled gradu or gradeau, our listeners report using this word in a variety of ways, to mean “gunk,” “grime” and even “bits of meat left in a skillet used to make gravy.” It might be related to French gadoue, which once meant “manure.” It might also be somehow connected with the French Canadian expression gras dur [which] literally means “really fatty,” or figuratively “happy” or “lucky” or “fulfilled,” as in Il est gras dur, “He is happy,” although how that sense might connect with gradoo’s negative sense is unclear. What is clear is that it’s not just Kelly’s family who uses the word.

Both the lack of a good etymology and the sparse and seemingly random distribution are interesting, as is the fact that Green’s Dictionary of Slang has it only as “an excl. of frustration or disgust”:

1973 [US] Eble Campus Sl. Nov. 2: gradoo […] (literally bird faeces) : Gradoo, when is he ever going to grow up.

Anybody know anything about this satisfying but mysterious word?

Colorado Place Names.

My wife and I are reading Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose at night and enjoying it greatly; at the point we’ve reached, the narrator’s grandmother (whose story he’s telling) has joined her husband at the remote and brutal town of Leadville, Colorado, in 1879, and there is a mention of the nearby Sawatch Range. Naturally, I wanted to know how “Sawatch” was pronounced, so I googled and found that Wikipedia article, which said /səˈwætʃ/. That sounded a little implausible, so I thought I’d check the reference, which was “Merkl, Dameon (February 26, 2013), “What’s in a Colorado name pronunciation?”, The Denver Post” (archived version). I was glad I looked, because that piece is a treasure trove of unexpected pronunciations and has an amazingly descriptive point of view; some excerpts:

In a diversely populated state where place names stem from English, Spanish, French and American Indian origins, it’s hardly surprising that certain geographical pronunciations vary as much as the languages from which they sprang. But which pronunciations are correct? According to the University of Colorado’s Department of Linguistics chair, professor Andrew Cowell, there are two answers to that question.

“If you’re an academic purist, you might want to say that the pronunciation in the original language is correct. But in reality, I think most people realize that if you move to a new state or a new city, and you start saying something the wrong way, people start looking at you funny, and you eventually say it the way everybody else says it, right?”

Take Louisville, for example. “In Colorado, we say ‘lū ĭs vĭl’ for that town near Boulder,” says Cowell. “But if you go to Kentucky, they say ‘lū ē vĭl.’ If you try to say ‘lū ĭs vĭl’ in ‘lū ē vĭl,’ you’re going to get corrected every single time. So I think the existing local usage is really what has to be considered the correct pronunciation.” […]

[Read more…]

The Bookshelf: Dutli’s Mandelstam.

One of the glaring gaps in biographical literature has been the lack of a good life of Osip Mandelstam, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Two decades ago Ralph Dutli, a Swiss translator of Russian and French poetry, published his Meine Zeit, mein Tier: Ossip Mandelstam; now Ben Fowkes has translated it into English as Osip Mandelstam: A Biography. It’s officially available as of today from Verso Books (whose Red May sale extends through tomorrow, if you want to stock up), and they were kind enough to send me a review copy, which I’ve spent the last week or so reading with absorbed fascination — though I slowed down toward the end as the events described became more and more awful.

Donald Rayfield, in the Literary Review, calls the biography “thorough and fair,” and that’s accurate. Dutli intersperses translations of the poetry with discussions of what was going on in the poet’s life, and I learned a lot of useful background. The chapter that opens with Mandelstam’s birth in Warsaw includes this excursus on his family:

The Mandelstam family had emigrated in the eighteenth century from Germany to Courland. Now part of present-day Latvia, the area lay between the Baltic Sea and the lower reaches of the River Düna (Russian: Dvina; Latvian: Daugava). Artisans had been invited into the country by its duke, Ernst Johann Biron (1690–1772). One of them was a Jewish watchmaker and jeweller who was descended from a rabbinical family, and still retained his ancient Hebrew name. The Mandelstams regarded this man as their ancestor. Osip only learned this fact of genealogy many years later, in the summer of 1928, in the Crimean resort of Yalta, when he brought Nadezhda’s watch to be repaired. The watchmaker’s wife was also a Mandelstam. As if by magic, she produced his family tree.

The Mandelstams, therefore, did not belong to the branch of Polish Jewry that had experienced its ‘Golden Age’ under the Polish–Lithuanian kingdom, the period of economic prosperity and rich erudition which preceded the catastrophe of 1648, when the Cossack forces of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky made an incursion into Ukraine, slaughtering over a hundred thousand Jews during their uprising against Polish rule. It was a frightful anticipation of all the later pogroms. At that time, though, Mandelstam’s ancestors were still living in Germany, in a ghetto located in a town whose name we do not know.

Those ancestors may well have travelled to Germany along the Central European route. They were Ashkenazim (a name which derives from ‘Ashkenaz’, the word coined to describe Germany in medieval rabbinical literature). It is also possible that they did not start to move north until 1492, when the Jews were driven out of Spain (‘Sefarad’) by Queen Isabella of Castile. That is what Mandelstam himself preferred to believe. When he was in exile in Voronezh in 1936, he read a book about the victims of the Inquisition, and he picked out the name of a Hispano-Jewish poet, insisting that ‘at least a drop of his blood’ ran in his veins. Nevertheless, Mandelstam’s attitude towards his own Jewishness was not determined by ‘the call of the blood’. As we shall show, it was complex and variable. […]

[Read more…]


As a quondam embassy brat I was amused by Katie Lange’s DoD News piece on the phrase “military brat” (more familiar to me as “army brat,” which is what I generally heard growing up in Tokyo). She writes:

It pertains to those children who grew up in military families. “Brats” wear the name like a badge of honor, often because of the moves, stressors and cultural experiences that make them more resilient than their civilian counterparts. But outside of the military, the word brat is often considered derogatory. So it made me wonder – where did the term “military brat” originate?

To find out, I reached out to the folks at National Defense University Libraries, who did some research for me. It turns out the origin of the term is still pretty unclear, but there are a lot of interesting theories behind it, and most of them originate in Britain.

The first “theory,” that “BRAT could be an acronym for British Regiment Attached Traveler,” is obviously absurd, but it demonstrates people’s ineradicable love for acronymic origin stories. The third, that it is a contraction for “barrack rat,” is just as silly but a little more inventive. In the middle, there is a passage of actual information:

Dr. Grace Clifton, a professor at Open University in the UK, has done research with the U.S. Army’s Dr. Becky Powell into the origins of the term. Clifton found reference to a song written in 1707 for a satirical play called “The Recruiting Officer” that described soldier life and that of their dependents. Back then, married soldiers were divided into two categories: the lucky few who were allowed to have their families live in the barracks and be taken care of by regimental funds, and those whose families had to live outside the barracks. The song referenced the latter as being “brats and wives.”

The lyrics may have been the first reference to brat in relation to military families. But it also may have referred to any children. So, that’s still a bit of a mystery.

I mean, no, it’s not a mystery at all: the brats of members of the military are by definition military brats. The actual mystery is the origin of the word brat itself. The OED, in an ancient (from 1888) entry, says: “Of uncertain origin: Wedgwood, E. Müller, and Skeat think it the same word as the brat n.¹ [“A cloth used as an over-garment, esp. of a coarse or makeshift character”], but evidence of the transition of sense has not been found.” (First cite ?a1513 W. Dunbar Flyting “Iersche brybour baird, wyle beggar with thy brattis.”) The AHD says “Possibly from brat, coarse garment, from Middle English, from Old English bratt, of Celtic origin.” And that’s all that can be said on the subject without resorting to flights of fancy. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Knowing the Lay of the Land.

A recent Laudator Temporis Acti post makes a good point about the occasional usefulness of having physically visited the spot described by a poem. The post starts by quoting Goethe:

Poetry if you would know,
To its country you must go;
If the poet you would know,
To the poet’s country go.

Wer das Dichten will verstehen,
muß ins Land der Dichtung gehen;
wer den Dichter will verstehen,
muß in Dichters Lande gehen.

It goes on to cite an instance from Leopardi’s “L’infinito,” which begins:

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.

Ian McGilchrist translated those lines thus:

Always dear to me has been this lonely hill,
and this line of trees which, from so much
of the furthest horizon, hides my view.

And his brother Nigel comments:

It is conventional to translate siepe as a hedgerow, which is exactly what it means in current Italian usage. But in older garden-design tracts siepe is often used to mean a “break of trees”. Since the land drops sharply below the spot in Recanati where Leopardi is said to have composed the poem, only a line of tall trees rising from further down the slope, rather than a hedgerow, would effectively occlude his view.

There’s a photograph that “gives a hint of the declivity involved.” I have to agree that a hedgerow would not fit the situation of the poem.

Update. But as Biscia points out in the comments, poets twist the facts just as much as novelists do: “Here, for instance, is a paper – which I find rather convincing – that suggests there was no actual hedge or line of trees, and that if there was any concrete element inspiring the poem it was probably a wall.”


I recently used an old family (Ozark) word, “catawampus,” and my wife looked at me all catawampus, so I thought I’d better post about it. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has (as I would expect) a splendid entry, with the following succession of senses:

1. fierce, pitiless; thus adv. catawampously.
2. excessive.
3. ill-tempered, crotchety; in a tantrum.
4. out of order, wrong.
5. (also cattywampus) askew; thus catawampously, catawamptiously.
6. (also cattywhompus, (US campus) eccentric.

The first two are alien to me; the third is not my usage, but I think I would understand it if I heard it. My basic senses are ‘out of order’ and ‘askew,’ and I can think of no better way to express them. The OED, in its ancient (1889 vintage) entry (s.v. catawampous), says “Fierce, unsparing, destructive. Also, askew, awry. (A high-sounding word with no very definite meaning.)” (You have to love that parenthetical obiter dictum.) Its etymology reads “A humorous formation, the origin of which is lost: the first part of the word was perhaps suggested by catamount, or ? by words in Greek κατα-.” Green says “[ety. unknown; ? SE cater-/catty-cornered, diagonal]”; for what it’s worth, I’ve always associated it with catty-cornered (or, equally familiar to me, kitty-cornered).

In other interesting lexical news, I just discovered that French ornière ‘rut’ is “Alteration, under the influence of orne, of Old French ordiere, inherited from Vulgar Latin *orbitaria, from Latin orbita.” (That Latin word, meaning both ‘track or rut made in the ground by a wheel’ and ‘circuit, orbit,’ is of course from orbis ‘ring, circle, orbit.’) Whodathunkit?

Warlpiri Dictionary.

Great lexicographical news from The Conversation:

The first large dictionary of the Warlpiri language began in 1959 in Alice Springs, when Yuendumu man †Kenny Wayne Jungarrayi and others started teaching their language to a young American linguist, †Ken Hale. Sixty years in the making, the Warlpiri Dictionary has been shortlisted for the 2023 Australian Book Industry Awards – a rarity for a dictionary.

Spoken in and around the Tanami Desert, Warlpiri is an Australian Aboriginal language used by around 3,000 adults and children as their everyday language. […] From the start of this project, Hale tape-recorded and transcribed many hours of Warlpiri people talking about language, country, kin and diverse aspects of traditional life.

The Warlpiri people he recorded came from different parts of Warlpiri country, speaking their own distinctive varieties of the language. From this material, Hale hand-wrote the words and meanings on small slips of paper that could be sorted in different ways. […]

[Read more…]


In my family we have always said “Gesundheit!” in response to a sneeze, and it occurred to me to wonder how far back that went. The OED takes it back to 1914 (Everybody’s Feb. 484 ‘Saved your life,’ he murmured mechanically, as one suffixes ‘Gesundheit’ to a sneeze), but the entry is from 1972, and I figured I could antedate it with Google Books. But a search limited to 1800-1913 turned up only references to German uses. 1890:

Oh! the sneezing that year in Germany. The upper ten thousand sneezed (Genesung!); the middle hundred thousand sneezed (Gesundheit!), and the lower thousand thousand sneezed (Helf Gott!)


people often wish good health to the person sneezing: Ihre Gesundheit ! or Gesundheit ! or (less respectfully) wohl bekomm’s ! or prōsit !


A German sneezes with all his might, and if there is a compatriot within hearing he says, ‘Gesundheit.’


Few of us realize when we say “God bless us”, or “Gesundheit” in German, when a person sneezes, that it is the evolution of an old superstition

So 1914 would seem to be at least close to the origin of the use in English; the question is why did it become so widespread when World War I put paid to so many items of German influence? You’d think anyone who said “Gesundheit” during the war would have gotten the “kaiser-lover” treatment and desisted forthwith.

Also, I discovered the Wikipedia article Response to sneezing, which is full of interesting things — not least that in Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean, “nothing is generally said after a sneeze except for when expressing concern when the person is sick from a cold or otherwise.” Areal feature!