Over the weekend I downloaded Mozilla and started using it for various tasks (including eliminating pop-ups, which was a thrill). Eventually I got around to updating Languagehat. As soon as I hit Publish and checked the front page, I croaked in horror: the typeface was too large, the layout was wrong, links didn’t work, the whole thing was farfoylt, farblondzhet, farkuckt. I tried everything I could think of; nothing helped. And of course today I have a record number of visitors, 179 so far. It’s like having everyone in the neighborhood drop in on the very day your house has been savaged by the Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde. I hope you will take a look at the archives to see the clean, pleasing look of Classic Languagehat, and bear with me until order is restored. This will definitely happen in the next couple of weeks, because Jan. 31 marks the six-month anniversary of Languagehat, and I am determined to change to Movable Type by then. In the meantime, I don’t want to leave you with nothing but bitching and moaning, so here are a fine discussion of Entish and a general query.
Query. There is an interesting thread on MetaFilter about collective terms for animals, from the normal (a pride of lions, a flock of geese) to the fanciful (an unkindness of ravens, and of course the famous “exaltation of larks”). S. Cody asked “whether this phenomenon occurs in other languages,” and I said I wondered myself. More specifically:

I’m sure hunters elsewhere had comparable terms, but they would have stayed within the professional circle (so to speak) and never have penetrated the wider world of literature, and thus would have died out with the premodern culture of hunting. But it’s possible that other languages have comparably specific terms (though probably without the facetious additions) that simply don’t show up in bilingual dictionaries, like other rare words that aren’t of much use to anyone but specialists.

So… anybody know? (Avva, if this exists in Russian, I’m sure you know or can find out.)
Update. As you can plainly see, the template has been unfarblondzhet. I owe Songdog several beers.


Phil Gyford has had the brilliant idea of starting a Pepys’ Diary blog; the diary begins on Jan. 1, 1660 (or 1659 if you want to be technical, since in those days the new year didn’t start until March 25), and on Jan. 1 of this year Phil began posting an entry at the end of each day. To his surprise, the site has been getting a lot of attention, both from the press and from people (like me) who always intended to read Pepys but might never have gotten around to it without this stimulus. I should add that one of the best features of the site is that, like most blogs, it allows comments, which means that people who tend to look things up and enjoy sharing what they find can leave annotations for the general good.
So I encourage everyone to join in the fun—but I also want to warn against linguistic complacency. Some usages are unfamiliar, so that if we don’t look them up we are at least aware of our ignorance (like “a collar of brawn“), but it’s easy to glide over words that look familiar without realizing they are being used in a very different sense. As a sample of what one has to be on the lookout for, herewith some faux amis of the seventeenth century (modern meanings after the colon):
able: wealthy
affect: be fond of, be concerned (similarly, affection: attention)
amused: bemused, astonished
approve of: criticize
beard: any facial hair
blur: innuendo, charge
caress(e): make much of
cheapen: ask the price of, bargain
club: share expenses (also as noun: share of expense, meeting at which expenses are shared)
cosen, cousin: any collateral relative
daughter-in-law: stepdaughter (similarly mother-in-law, etc.)
dress: cook, prepare food
effeminacy: love of women
family: household (including servants)
grief: bodily pain
ingenious, ingenuous: clever, intelligent
lean: lie down
light: window
meat: food
nearly: deeply
owe: own
policy: government; cunning; self-interest
ready: dressed (similarly, unready: undressed)
resent: receive
sewer: stream, ditch
speed: succeed
strangers: foreigners
tale: reckoning, number (similarly, tell: count)
ugly: awkward
vaunt: vend, sell
warm: comfortable, well off
watch: clock
For further information, see the Latham and Matthews edition of the Diary (condensed list after each volume, full description in the Companion volume).


From a thread at Avva I learned that the Russian family name Chaadaev (well known because of the nineteenth-century Westernizer) comes from the Mongolian name Chaghatai (well known because of Genghis Khan’s son, who inherited Central Asia and founded a dynasty). This was interesting enough, but in the course of the discussion someone asked if the name was Turkic or Mongolian, apologizing for his bukvoedstvo. This was a new word to me; it means ‘pedantry’ but is literally ‘letter-eating’ (bukva ‘letter (of the alphabet)’ + ed- ‘eat’). I love it, and will henceforth proudly identify myself as a bukvoed.

(Bukva, incidentally, is ultimately borrowed from Germanic boko ‘beech tree,’ which is also the source of English book. And while I’m at it, the plural of book should historically be beech, which is the result of applying the regular sound changes to the Old English plural bec, with long e. Isn’t linguistics fun?)


Yesterday I realized that it was the last day Kurosawa’s 1952 movie Ikiru (To Live) would be showing at the Film Forum, so I dashed down after work and saw it. I knew it was considered one of his best, but I didn’t realize it was going to wind up on my short list of Greatest Movies Ever Made (along with Rules of the Game and Mirror and A Brighter Summer Day… but that’s a list for another entry). Takashi Shimura gives the performance of a lifetime as a government bureaucrat who’s been effectively dead for twenty years and only learns to live when he discovers his time is about to run out. The scene in which a dissolute writer shows him how to carouse and spend money rivals the “Nighttown” episode of Ulysses, and his drunken basso profundo rendering of “Life is Short” (“that old song from the teens,” ie, from the days when he was courting his long-dead wife) silences the nightclub and lacerates the viewer’s heart. Since this is Languagehat, I should provide the lyrics:

Inochi mijikashi
Koi se yo otome
Akaki kuchibiru
Asenu ma ni
Atsuki chishio no
Hienu ma ni
Asu no tsukihi wa
Nai mono wo

(“Life is short; fall in love, young maiden, before the colour in those crimson lips fades, before that passionate blood turns cold—for there is no tomorrow.”)
But my appreciation for the movie is influenced by a couple of extraneous factors. For one thing, the movie shows the time and place in which I spent my earliest years, which may add to its effect on me. And for another, a hat is one of the main characters; in fact, I consider it a travesty that it did not win a Best Supporting Actor award.


From wood s lot comes this remarkable exhibit on the craggy poet Robinson Jeffers, who much preferred hawks to people. “Shine, Perishing Republic” is famous and unforgettable, but like Mr. Woods, I will quote another poem that is all too timely:

Ave Caesar
No bitterness: our ancestors did it.
They were only ignorant and hopeful, they wanted freedom but wealth too.
Their children will learn to hope for a Caesar.
Or rather—for we are not aquiline Romans but soft mixed colonists—
Some kindly Sicilian tyrant who’ll keep
Poverty and Carthage off until the Romans arrive,
We are easy to manage, a gregarious people,
Full of sentiment, clever at mechanics, and we love our luxuries.


In the 3 October issue of the London Review of Books, Daniel Soar reviews Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel Middlesex. The novel’s protagonist comes from a village near the city of Bursa in Asia Minor, and this village is “on the slopes of Mount Olympus.” The reviewer gets a good deal of mileage out of this mythologically rich name: “Olympus is a reasonable location for a view of the beginnings of a disaster that is the story’s catalyst… the reflective parts of the narration that follows deal in Odysseus, the Minotaur, and Zeus creating the world from an egg…. One advantage of Olympus for the storyteller is its mythical altitude… ” and, bringing it back for an encore at the end, “It’s a great pity that this type of very un-Olympian compression… has to be so resolutely disguised in the book.” The only problem is that the Olympus with the gods is in Thessaly, in mainland Greece. This one is in Mysia, in what’s now Turkey; its modern name is Ulu Dagh.

Just as I was saying to myself “What can you expect from those slackers at the LRB, you have to go to the TLS for real expertise,” I picked up the September 27 issue of the latter and began reading Stephen Abell’s review of Ben Okri’s latest novel, In Arcadia. He mentions the famous Poussin painting that “shows three shepherds and a shepherdess standing before a tomb marked with the inscription ‘Et in Arcadia ego’: ‘I too lived in Arcadia’.” This is a common misunderstanding, but the Latin will not bear the interpretation; it means rather ‘Even in Arcadia am I [ie, death].’

I’d say “O tempora, o mores,” but the good people at LRB and TLS would probably think “Right, eels fried in batter.”


Via Plep comes this wonderful site presenting the classic Chinese poetry anthology in bilingual versions. The translations are mostly by Witter Bynner, who isn’t my favorite but will do; I can’t actually get the characters (I see gibberish on my screen), but I will bookmark the site in the expectation that someday I will be able to see the originals, and I assume that some of my readers can do so already. Give it a try.


Languagehat is the #2 hit for a Google search on Gangs of New York Gaelic language. This did not surprise me; what did surprise me, and very much please me, was that the page with the search results was in Irish! “Cuardaíodh an gréasán le haghaidh Gangs of New York Gaelic language. Torthaí 1 – 10 as timpeall 319. Mhair an cuardach 0.24 soicind.” Love that Google… (And may I take this opportunity to express my relief that people seem to have finally stopped looking for “nvde R0manian g&mnasts,” which looked like it might one day replace “Charlie Ravioli” as my all-time referral king.)


Last June there was a ruckus when an eagle-eyed parent named Jeanne Heifetz noticed that literary excerpts on the Regents’ exam her stepdaughter brought home had been altered, apparently with the intention of removing anything that might possibly give offense to anyone (including all references to religion), in the process seriously altering the meaning of the passages. After prolonged and well-deserved ridicule, the Department of Education caved and promised that changes would be made. The story faded from view.
Now Michael Winerip reveals in today’s NY Times that (as might have been expected by anyone with a healthy degree of cynicism) nothing has in fact changed.

Ms. Heifetz, bless her, recently got a look at August’s English exam. In new guidelines, the state promised complete paragraphs with no deletions, but an excerpt from Kafka (on the importance of literature) changes his words and removes the middle of a paragraph without using ellipses, in the process deleting mentions of God and suicide.
The new state guidelines promised not to sanitize, but a passage on people’s conception of time from Aldous Huxley (a product of England’s colonial era) deletes the paragraphs on how unpunctual “the Oriental” is.
But the saddest example of how standardized testing is lowering academic standards (as a recent national study by Arizona State University reports) can be seen in the way New York officials butchered an excerpt from a PBS documentary on the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Like any good historical work, the documentary on this epidemic, which killed half a million Americans, included numerous interviews with historians, novelists, medical experts and survivors, and quoted primary sources of the era. But the three-page passage read out loud to students on the state exam is edited to make it appear that there is only one speaker.
Though the new guidelines promised to identify the authors of any excerpts, the state does not identify the documentary’s author, Ken Chowder. It does identify the narrator, although — oops! — incorrectly: the narrator was Linda Hunt, not David McCullough. As Ms. Heifetz says, any student who melded the words of a dozen people into one and then misidentified the narrator would surely be flunked.
The state version cuts out the passages with the most harrowing and moving accounts of the epidemic, as when children played on piles of coffins stacked outside an undertaker’s home. It removes virtually all references to government officials’ mishandling the epidemic. It deletes the references to religious leaders like Billy Sunday, who promised that God would protect the virtuous, even as worshipers dropped dead at his services.

Furthermore, “Ms. Heifetz believes that one test question based on the influenza reading has three correct answers”—and the professor featured in the documentary agrees:

To get a second opinion on Question 2, I tracked down Dr. Alfred Crosby, a retired University of Texas professor who was featured in the PBS documentary and has written the book “America’s Forgotten Pandemic.” I sent him a copy of the state’s sanitized excerpt and the multiple-choice questions. Dr. Crosby loves history’s complexity and was offended by the state’s single-speaker vision of the past.
He believes all three answers to Question 2 were implied in the state excerpt and said that if he were marked wrong for responding with Answers 2 or 3, he’d be angry. “That’s the problem,” he said, “with a multiple-choice test.”

Visit the National Coalition Against Censorship site for more information on this and other stories, and suggestions on What You Can Do.


Wood’s Lot has directed my attention to The Literary Encyclopedia, a work in progress that aims to “provide profiles of the lives and works of literary authors whose works are valued in the English language, and to do so within an electronic publication which will enable readers to explore literary history as never before.” A noble goal, and I wish them every success; having found the entry on Ezra Pound (a useful test case in several respects) properly appreciative and occasionally severe (“Guide to Kulchur (1938) is a less controlled prose diatribe, more of a political and cultural rant”), with a link to a useful Pound page from Kobe University, I have already bookmarked the site and will be following its progress.
There is, however, a caveat. The writing, while acceptable from academics (and mercifully free of Judith Butler–style jargon), is not of a particularly high order (as can be seen from the above quote: “…works of literary authors whose works are valued in the English language…”). This would not be especially significant except that they have chosen to write and include a style book, a “Guide to the Writing of Scholarly English” (I can’t take you to it, thanks to their use of frames, but the link is in the left-hand column below “Make a Timeline”). Not only is this not required, or even expected, of such a site, it seems a pointless superfluity in a world where style guides are in plentiful supply online, from good old Strunk & White to the alt-usage-english FAQ. The bad writing, however, renders it not only otiose but obnoxious; what is the point of a style guide written in a manner that violates the very rules it wishes to inculcate? Here is the first paragraph of the Introduction:

I have written this guide to help explain why a feature of written English is incorrect. As many colleagues and students have found this guide useful, I have posted it in a public place, but I am anxious neither to set up as expert nor pedant. Like many teachers of English, I learned my grammar through foreign languages, and then through encountering problems in my teaching, rather than being properly taught. No one who takes language seriously can want to impose a procrustean idea of ‘right language’. Language grows and changes, but it does have to make sense. My aim has been to provide a reasoned check-list of good practice, and to do this in numbered paragraphs so that I (and others) can use it rapidly and effectively to help students when correcting essays. The reference numbers by each section point to an explanation of a common fault and provide examples of good and bad practice. If you find this guide useful, I will be very pleased. I will also welcome suggestions of improvement. If The English Style Book reduces the time spent puzzling about what someone might have been trying to say, and gives us more time to discuss the complexities of writing and experience, I will be very pleased.

To the first sentence I respond “which feature would that be?” I leave as an exercise for the reader the faults of grammar, style, or logic that pervade the rest. And if the good people at the Encyclopedia ultimately decide to junk the section (referring their students, perhaps, to the better-written and infinitely livelier Guide to Grammar and Style by fellow member of the professoriat Jack Lynch)… well, in their favorite locution, I will be very pleased.