Dave Wilton of has a new Big List post about the word blackmail, to whose etymology I don’t recall giving any thought. Dave writes:

The mail in blackmail is unrelated to either a type of armor or the postal service. It comes from the Old Norse mali meaning contract or payment. This use of mail, meaning a payment, appears in Scots from the late fourteenth century. The black probably comes from the unsavory nature of the practice.

Blackmail was first used to refer to protection rackets run by Scottish clan chieftains against farmers in their territory. If the farmers did not pay the mail, the chiefs would steal their crops and cattle. The earliest record of the practice that I’m aware of is from the trial of one, Adam Scot, who was beheaded in 1530 for blackmailing the people of the Scottish-English border counties […] Eventually, blackmail generalized to refer to obtaining payment through threat of force.

His “mali” should be máli, with an accent to show the long vowel; the OED (updated June 2000) has a fuller etymology s.v. mail, n.¹:
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Merz and i.

I’ve always liked Kurt Schwitters — too weird for the conservatives, too staid for the dadaists — and I was pleased to see Hal Foster’s LRB review (10 March 2022; archived) of two Schwitters-related books; I extract some passages on his invented words and idiosyncratic usages:

Schwitters gathered all his activities under the banner of Merz, a term he first used in 1919 and went on redefining for the rest of his life, which after 1937 was spent first in Norway and then in England, in impoverished exile from the Nazi authorities. He stumbled on the neologism in a collage from 1919 ‘in which the word MERZ, cut and pasted from an advertisement for KOMMERZ UND PRIVATBANK, remained legible underneath the abstract forms’. Thereafter Merz became a prefix that Schwitters added to his poems, pictures, assemblages and constructions, a ‘special brand’. ‘Pure Merz is art, pure Dadaism is non-art, and both are intentionally so,’ Schwitters announced in Merz 1. ‘Whereas Dadaism merely asserts oppositions, Merz balances out oppositions by evaluating them within the artwork.’ Note that he positions Merz as a double overcoming: a sublation not only of found capitalist rubbish in the interest of a final balanced artwork, but also of Dada, which is at once cancelled, preserved and transcended (‘merz’ is contained in ausmerzen, to negate). Or that is how Schwitters wished Merz to be received, which is not quite how it is experienced: again, as viewers we oscillate between the trash and the form, between Merz as crap (we hear merde in the word) and Merz as composition (Freud and his colleagues speculated on the relationship of shit to art not long before Schwitters explored it in his own way). And this struggle between sublimation and desublimation gives Merz its intensity to this day (perhaps we hear Schmerz – pain – as well). […]

Although Merz is an activity of excessive addition, Schwitters also presented ‘a special form’ that he simply called ‘i’ (after ‘the middle vowel of the alphabet’, rather than Ich), and its operation is radically subtractive. Take an old tram ticket, he suggests by way of example, ‘cut a square from its right-hand corner and you have an i-drawing.’ ‘This describes the discovery of an artistic structure in the non-artistic world and the creation of an artwork from this structure through delimitation alone.’ An ‘i’ composition is collage at its purest, a simple cut (‘delimitation’) that connects like a copula, a montage that offers a ‘distinct expression as a composition’. Writing of ‘the path’ of the artistic idea in 1922, Schwitters claims that ‘“i” sets this path to = zero. Idea, material and artwork are identical.’ In 1915 Kazimir Malevich had called his Suprematist abstractions, such as Black Square, a zero degree of art; here Schwitters proposes his own version, which, contra Malevich, opens out to the world. Produced ‘through the act of seizing alone’, ‘i’ is also an early instance of the artistic appropriation of media images, a strategy with an important afterlife – in the détournement of found pictures and texts by Situationists, say, or the piracy of the same by postmodernists. Unlike these practitioners, however, Schwitters had only a limited interest in critique: art remained his primary aim.

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Long-Lost Letters.

Bryn Stole writes for the NY Times (archived) about a treasure trove of old mail:

In a love letter from 1745 decorated with a doodle of a heart shot through with arrows, María Clara de Aialde wrote to her husband, Sebastian, a Spanish sailor working in the colonial trade with Venezuela, that she could “no longer wait” to be with him.

Later that same year, an amorous French seaman who signed his name M. Lefevre wrote from a French warship to a certain Marie-Anne Hoteé back in Brest: “Like a gunner sets fire to his cannon, I want to set fire to your powder.”

Fifty years later, a missionary in Suriname named Lene Wied, in a lonely letter back to Germany, complained that war on the high seas had choked off any news from home: “Two ships which have been taken by the French probably carried letters addressed to me.”

None of those lines ever reached their intended recipients. British warships instead snatched those letters, and scores more, from aboard merchant ships during wars from the 1650s to the early 19th century.

While the ships’ cargoes — sugar from the Caribbean, tobacco from Virginia, ivory from Guinea, enslaved people bound for the Americas — became war plunder, the papers were bundled off to so called “prize courts” in London as potential legal proof that the seizures were legitimate spoils of war. […]

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Tracey Teo writes for BBC Travel about a little-known language:

[Cedric] Watson is part of a grass roots resurgence to revive Kouri-Vini, a historical name for the Louisiana Creole language that has been reclaimed to prevent confusion with other things “Creole”, such as ethnicity, musical styles and culinary traditions.

Watson’s next album, slated for release this summer, will be sung mostly in Kouri-Vini. Today, the language has fewer than 6,000 speakers, but at the beginning of the 20th Century, it was spoken by much of the Creole population in the 22-parish region of south-west Louisiana known as Acadiana.

This unique cultural pocket of the US is sometimes called Cajun Country, but long before the arrival of the Francophone Acadians, or Cajuns, from Nova Scotia in 1755, there was a much larger population of French-speaking Creoles – people with roots in Europe and Africa born in Louisiana.

Thanks in large part to a generation of musicians devoted to preserving it, a Kouri-Vini renaissance is underway. Watson, who performs all over the world, considers himself an ambassador of Creole culture and language. […]

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Women in the History of Linguistics II.

A couple of years ago, I posted about a new and very welcome book, Women in the History of Linguistics, edited by Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Helena Sanson. Now OUPblog posts some thoughts about the book by Ayres-Bennett and Sanson:

Words matter: a broader definition of linguistics allows women across the centuries to be included in this scholarly field. Given the cultural and practical limitations imposed on their access to education across all cultures, we need to look outside more institutionalized and traditional frameworks to discover the contributions made by women to the study of language structure and function.

Classic histories of linguistics, very rarely, if ever, include women scholars. We set about uncovering the contribution of women linguists—from European and non-European traditions— and their ideas and writings to give them the recognition they deserve. […] We decided to challenge categories and concepts devised for male-dominated accounts and expands our field of enquiry: we turned our attention not only to pioneers and exceptional women, but also to those non-exceptional women who nevertheless quietly moved forward our knowledge of languages, their description, analysis, codification and acquisition. Painstaking research in archives and libraries, looking at manuscripts and printed sources, gradually unearthed rich, fascinating, and often unexpected evidence of women’s contribution.

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Pontia’s Persian Idioms.

I read a rave New Yorker review by Hannah Goldfield (archived) of a Persian restaurant in Brooklyn called Eyval, and of course I wanted to know what the name meant. I checked my Persian dictionaries and couldn’t find it, but a little googling turned up 11 Simple Persian Words That Will Make You Sound More Fluent at Pontia’s site My Persian Corner, and one of the entries there was:


Eyval (or eyvallâh, as it’s sometimes said) is an informal word that means “bravo” or “well done”, much like damet garm. In fact, it’s often combined with damet garm, as in [bâbâ] eyval, damet garm!

And eyvallâh was in my Persian-English dictionary (though not the Persian-Russian one), so I added the shorter form in the margin. At any rate, Pontia’s page is delightful and a real help to anyone trying to master the language (which I’d like to make another try at someday); here’s another entry:

Khasteh nabâshid

Literally “don’t be tired,” khasteh nabâshid can be used as a greeting or a goodbye. Typically, when I sit in a taxi, I’ll say salaam, khasteh nabâshid. And between classes, us teachers are always telling each other khasteh nabâshi as we come in and out of the breakroom.

So ubiquitous is this phrase that my students can’t get over the fact that there is no English equivalent.

“So what did your students in the US say to you?” they ask.

“Nothing. At best they said, ‘Thanks, bye.’”

Now, some of my students tell me khasteh nabâshid after class while others tell me “Good job.” I’m not sure where they got that one from, but it’s cute. And who am I to pass up a compliment?

Also, I wish I could visit the restaurant — I do love Persian food.

Something You Hadn’t Planned.

Jon Pareles’s NY Times obit (archived) for the peerless Huey “Piano” Smith has a paragraph with a quote about the creative process so compact and pungent that I am compelled to post it:

Mr. Smith’s lyrics were full of droll wordplay and irresistible nonsense-syllable choruses. “I use slangs and things like that,” he was quoted as saying in John Wirt’s biography, “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rockin’ Pneumonia Blues” (2014), “When you put the music with words and things together, the songs just make themselves. And after you listen at it, it says something its own self, that you hadn’t planned.”

For those not familiar with his work: “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” is pure perfection (as is his daughter’s name, Acquelyn Donsereaux).

Tschann on Food Words.

Kim Severson writes in the NY Times (archived) about an appetizing new book:

Used judiciously, the snappy tidbits of food etymology in “Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day,” a new book by the medieval scholar Judith Tschann, could make you a hit at dinner parties.

Say someone shows up in a seersucker suit. You could inform her that the British took the word seersucker from the Hindi sirsakar, which itself came from a Persian word meaning milk and sugar. The smooth stripes are the milk, the bumpy ones the sugar.

Over the Caesar salad, you could casually mention that the English word romaine comes from the medieval French laitue romaine, or Roman lettuce, which possibly arrived in France along with the popes who moved to Avignon from Rome to escape some nasty politics in the early 1300s.

But here’s a pro tip: When sharing food lore at a meal, it’s easy to cross the line. Do your friends dipping into a bowl of guacamole need to know that the word avocado started out as ahuacatl, a Nahuatl term that the Aztecs likely used as slang for testicles? Or that soufflé comes the French word for blown, which stems from the same root as the word flatulent?

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The Uncompromising Hebraism of the Septuagint.

Laudator Temporis Acti posts a striking passage from F.C. Conybeare and St. George Stock, Selections from the Septuagint (Ginn & Company, 1905):

Josephus, it has been asserted, employs only one Hebraism, namely, the use of προστίθεσθαι with another verb in the sense of ‘doing something again’ (see Gram. of Sept. Gk. § 113). For the accuracy of this statement it would be hazardous to vouch, but the possibility of its being made serves to show the broad difference that there is between Hellenistic Greek, even as employed by a Jew, who, we know, had to learn the language, and the Biblical Greek of the Septuagint.

The uncompromising Hebraism of the Septuagint is doubtless due in part to the reverence felt by the translators for the Sacred Text. It was their business to give the very words of the Hebrew Bible to the Greek world, or to those of their own countrymen who lived in it and used its speech; as to the genius of the Greek language, that was entirely ignored. Take for instance Numbers 9¹⁰ — Ἄνθρωπος ἄνθρωπος ὃς ἐὰν γένηται ἀκάθαρτος ἐπὶ ψυχῇ ἀνθρώπου, ἢ ἐν ὁδῷ μακρὰν ὑμῖν ἢ ἐν ταῖς γενεαῖς ὑμῶν, καὶ ποιήσει τὸ πάσχα Κυρίῳ. Does anyone suppose that stuff of that sort was ever spoken at Alexandria? It might as well be maintained that a schoolboy’s translation of Euripides represents English as spoken in America.

One of our difficulties in explaining the meaning of the Greek in the Septuagint is that it is often doubtful whether the Greek had a meaning to those who wrote it. One often cannot be sure that they did not write down, without attaching any significance to them, the Greek words which seemed to be the nearest equivalents to the Hebrew before them. This is especially the case in the poetical passages, of which Deuteronomy 33¹⁰ᵇ will serve for an instance — ἐπιθήσουσιν θυμίαμα ἐν ὀργῇ σου, διὰ παντὸς ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριόν σου. We can account for this by aid of the original: but what did it mean to the translator?

Another obvious cause of difference between Biblical and Alexandrian Greek is the necessity under which the translators found themselves of inventing terms to express ideas which were wholly foreign to the Greek mind.

The result of these various causes is often such as to cause disgust to the classical student. Indeed a learned Jesuit Father has confessed to us what a shock he received on first making acquaintance with the Greek of the Septuagint.

Few, alas, are those students who can feel such a shock today…

Unrelated, but irresistible: Avva posts a screenshot from the Israeli Ministry of Health that has a Russian-language list of countries including Идти (Idti), between Denmark and Ireland. The puzzle is resolved once you realize идти is a Russian verb meaning ‘to go.’ Computer translation is convenient, but it will betray you at the most unexpected moments!

Grammar Noir.

Thirteen years ago, old-school copy editor John McIntyre had what I called “a delightful hard-boiled detective story celebrating National Grammar Day”; now he’s got a follow-up, Grammar Noir: The Old Editor grilled, which begins:

I was at the bar sipping an afternoon boulevardier when some rando came in and asked, “Are you the Old Editor?” When I owned the soft impeachment, he handed me a piece of paper and said, “You have been served.”

The paper was a summons to testify before the House Subcommittee on Governmental Travesties, chaired by one Representative Browbeat, with regard to challenges to my book, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.

My attorneys at Dewey, Cheatam & Howe assured me that there was no option but to appear, so I selected a dark suit, a somber bow tie, and a humble demeanor, taking my seat in the chamber.

The Old Editor acquits himself nobly, and I learned a new cocktail name (“The boulevardier cocktail is an alcoholic drink composed of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Campari”). Thanks, John!