Today wood s lot quotes a well-known poem by Gary Snyder, and I’m going to quote it too, partly because I like it and partly because I have something to say about the chain of quotes within the poem:

Axe Handles
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
     the pattem is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.-
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

It’s a wonderful image, and the chain of transmission back to the fourth century is impressive, but it actually goes back much further than that. Lu Ji was probably quoting the neo-Confucian Doctrine of the Mean, which Pound translated as The Unwobbling Pivot; Pound says of it: “It is divided into three parts: the axis; the process; and sincerity, the perfect word, or the precise word; into Metaphysics: ‘Only the most absolute sincerity under heaven can effect any change’; Politics: ‘In cutting an axe-handle the model is not far off, in this sense: one holds one axe-handle while chopping the other. Thus one uses men in governing men’; Ethics: ‘The archer, when he misses the bull’s-eye, turns and seeks the cause of the error in himself.'”

But the actual quote from The Doctrine of the Mean (I.XIII.2) is: “In the Book of Poetry, it is said, ‘In hewing an ax-handle, in hewing an ax-handle, the pattern is not far off.’ We grasp one ax handle to hew the other; and yet, if we look askance from the one to the other, we may consider them as apart. Therefore, the superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.” So we see that it actually goes way, way back to the Shih Ching, I:15; Legge translates the relevant lines as “In hewing an axe-handle, in hewing an axe-handle,/ The pattern is not far off,” and Pound himself, in his vigorous version, has “To hack an axe-haft/ an axe/ hacks;/ the pattern ’s near.” And the pattern continues.

Incidentally, note in the Snyder poem the unusual phrase “And go gets it” (an extension from the normal imperative “Go get it!”); if you google it, you get almost entirely references to this poem, but there are a few others—in a comment on this blog, for instance, we find “To me, he is a smart man, black or white, he see’s the money and go gets it.”


  1. ‘go gets it’ reminds me of Bickerton’s ‘serial verbs’ in creoles. I can’t think of other examples in ‘standard’ English; are there?

  2. While go get is indeed the closest we come to a serial verb, it usually fails to be so classified because it’s equivalent to go and get or go to get and so evidently just the zero case of the multi-verb patterns (coordinated / subordinated) we do have.

  3. I like this very much, but there’s something more at Wood s Lot: a link to an interesting site about workhouses, by someone called Peter Higginbotham. He’s written several workhouse-related books, including The Workhouse Cookbook “(at times…) the fare on offer included such items as beer, chocolate, cheesecake, and nettles”. About the Marylebone Workhouse, built in 1900 it says:

    Amongst the new facilities was state-of-the-art kitchen. One observer described it as:
    A large lofty room, lined with whie glazed bricks, and with a score of steam-jacketed coppers, tea coppers, roasting ovens, and the like… here they make sixty-gallon milk puddings, have three teapots of eighty gallons capacity each, cook a quarter of a ton of bacon and a ton of cabbage at an operation, and steam potatoes by the ton.

    A quarter of a ton of bacon? A ton of cabbage? 80 (Imperial) gallons of tea?
    Apparently you can also buy a book of English wartime recipes from WW2. Is this the direction that the culinary arts are taking? A sort of backlash?

  4. I meant to say, nettles — I think this is something for Dearie me.

  5. The London Vegetarian Society (sometimes Association) published a Food in War Time in 1918 and then another in 1940. The older one has been reprinted by one of those vintage cookbook publishers, presumably as it went out of copyright; the WWII one shows up on AbeBooks.

  6. marie-lucie says

    AJP, that Workhouse site is indeed very interesting. Some of the later-built (and run) institutions had up to 1000 inmates sometimes, hence the enormous quantities of food mentioned.
    Wartime cookbooks: by necessity these had to present recipes using locally obtainable foods, so nowadays with the movement for preferring locally grown food (and perhaps anticipating possible shortages of other foods) these recipes are in demand. This is in addition to historical curiosity.

  7. I’m reminded of Richard Wilbur’s “Junk”:
    An axe angles / from my neighbor’s ashcan;
    It is hell’s handiwork, / the wood not hickory,
    The flow of the grain / not faithfully followed.
    The shivered shaft / rises from a shellheap
    Of plastic playthings, / paper plates,
    And the sheer shards / of shattered tumblers
    That were not annealed / for the time needful.
    At the same curbside, / a cast-off cabinet
    Of wavily warped / unseasoned wood
    Waits to be trundled / in the trash-man’s truck.
    Haul them off! Hide them! / The heart winces
    For junk and gimcrack, / for jerrybuilt things
    And the men who make them / for a little money,
    Bartering pride / like the bought boxer
    Who pulls his punches, / or the paid-off jockey
    Who in the home stretch / holds in his horse.
    Yet the things themselves / in thoughtless honor
    Have kept composure, / like captives who would not
    Talk under torture. / Tossed from a tailgate
    Where the dump displays / its random dolmens,
    Its black barrows / and blazing valleys,
    They shall waste in the weather / toward what they were.
    The sun shall glory / in the glitter of glass-chips,
    Foreseeing the salvage / of the prisoned sand,
    And the blistering paint / peel off in patches,
    That the good grain / be discovered again.
    Then burnt, bulldozed, / they shall all be buried
    To the depth of diamonds, / in the making dark
    Where halt Hephaestus / keeps his hammer
    And Wayland’s work / is worn away.
    This is usually called Old-English-style alliterative verse, but only seven of the thirty lines are actually normative for that style: 6, 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, and 21.
    The rule of alliteration is that the third stress must alliterate with one or both of the first two stresses, and not with the fourth stress. But Wilbur’s lines often have the first, second, and fourth stress alliterating, or all four, and there are some false alliterations like “things themselves” in line 17, or “halt Haephestus” in line 29.
    As for “go X”, where X is the bare form of a verb, there are lots of Xs permitted: go run, go see, go tell (it on the mountain), go figure (why that is), go try, etc.

  8. Thanks, Wilbur is one of my favorites!
    As for “go X”, where X is the bare form of a verb, there are lots of Xs permitted
    The point here is not the “go X” formula, but the bizarre present “go gets it.” You can say “go tell it on the mountain,” but you can’t say “He go tells it on the mountain.”

  9. marie-lucie says

    halt Hephaestus”?

  10. I first met Gary when I was a new prof teaching Korean and East Asian area studies courses at Indiana University and got to have Gary come and read and sing to my Traditional East Asian Studies class. Several years later, I was teaching Japanese language and literature at Colby College in Maine and caught Gary passing through. He came and read to my class and then we killed a lot of wine while he read and poems and played a drum on the floor of my apartment together with a bunch of students–absolutely delightful! Gary is not only a fine poet, but a great translator as his “Cold Mountain Poems” by Han Shan clearly evidence. Garrison Keillor read Gary’s “What I Have Learned” from his collection _Axe Handles_ today on his radio show, “The Writer’s Almanac.” A great day for axe handles!

  11. halt = ‘lame’

  12. marie-lucie says

    Thanks, iakon, the word is new to me.

  13. I imagine you might find it labeled ‘poetic’, m-l.
    ‘Wayland?’ A tiny bell rings ‘Scandinavian mythology’ — ah, Odin’s alias?

  14. Wayland — the Smith from Scandinavian myth. Also Weland, Weyland, Völundr. Appears in Old English and Old Norse.

  15. Off-topic, but I couldn’t resist this famous episode from a very popular British TV programme:

  16. I was enchanted by go gets it. Reminds me of Van Morrison’s strikingly effective use of everything she gots in “Madame George” on Astral Weeks:

    And immediately drops everything she gots
    Down into the street below

    Works so well after drops.
    … but you can’t say “He go tells it on the mountain.”
    I’m not so sure about that. I think it might fit with the impassioned and inspirational rhetoric of an MLK-like speech:

    O, but HE … that GREAT MAN … HE go tells it on the MOUNTAIN, as the SONG SAYS we HAVE to DO …

    [No mockery intended.]

  17. Learn something every day with LH. I always assumed (without knowing the definitions) that there was a difference between halt and lame, because of the expression “the halt and the lame”. There seems to have been, for some people, and not so long ago, because of i.e. this quote:
    The blind, the halt, and the lame among the slaves certainly could not have obtained employment in an economic situation in which an abundance of cheap free labour
    which comes from
    The slave systems of Greek and Roman antiquity By William Linn Westermann
    a publication in 1955 of the American Philosophical Society found on Google Book Search.
    A couple of sentences previously he says:
    The halt of foot, the lame of hand, even the blind …

  18. Noetica, I wouldn’t have taken you for a Van fan. Astral Weeks is pretty old, but so am I.

  19. The stock phrase “the lame, the halt and the blind” seems like it ought to be a translation of Luke 14:21, except that it isn’t a well-known one and doesn’t really distinguish ἀναπήρους and χωλοὺς right. Where did it start?

  20. @iakon: Aside from “go X”, the only other standard example I can think of is “come X”, which is similarly restricted to bare X. (For some reason the OED gives this as obsolete, but it’s actually quite common, at least in some regions.)

  21. Noetica, I wouldn’t have taken you for a Van fan. Astral Weeks is pretty old, but so am I.
    1. Assumptions about the ages of LH’s salonniers are unsafe.
    2. Same for their tastes in music.
    3. Astral Weeks is a masterpiece. I know nothing about Van’s later work. I have some CDs of his, but have not yet listened to them. I’m working through a pile of minor 18th-century symphonists and composers of chamber music, for the forseeable future. Which brings me to a plea for help:
    How can I get hold of any string quartets – as mp3, CD, vinyl, Edison cylinders – by Jan Křtitel Vaňhal or Karl von Ordoñez?
    Both are listed among the most important and popularly acclaimed composers of their time, ranking just below Mozart, and especially J. Haydn, as pioneers of the string quartet. But recordings are as rare as mammoth’s milk. Why? Who can say! One can get any number of Vaňhal’s violin or double bass concerti, symphonies, quartets for oboe and strings, you name it. And the Naxos serving of Ordoñez symphonies is worthwhile. But string quartets? Get another hobby.
    I speculate that our age is addicted to the extremes: plain-populist vanilla (symphonies) or bizarre-populist variegated (Concerto in F major for Two Bassoons & Orchestra), so that a traditional élite genre like string quartet is ignored. Still, I am amazed that among the legions of competent chamber ensembles out there not one has spotted the opportunity. Apart from discontinued short-run CDs from the Kubin Quartet and the Stamic Quartet, and one Vaňhal quartet in an expensive boxed set? Nada.
    Trust me. I’ve even tried ordering from Slovakia, in Slovakian. No luck. Any help gratefully received.

  22. I too love Astral Weeks, and now you’ve got me curious about those obscure pioneers of the string quartet.

  23. I saw Van Morrison play in Oslo a few years ago; he was very good, more important, why do he and Bono wear the sunglasses? Are they still not used to the sun after all these years in the limelight — sort of like groundhogs? Joyce and Beckett didn’t wear sunglasses, nor does Sinnead O’Connor.

  24. I meant …for the forEseeable future.
    LH, I suppose Vaňhal is no longer “obscure”, because he is quite well surveyed on CD except for his many string quartets. So frustrating! There are supposed to be at least fifty-three of them.
    I have one of the four Naxos CDs of his symphonies in my collection, along with several other fine recordings and performances. These are generally quite stylish. Naxos has done us a valuable service with its tagged series “The 18th Century Symphony” (now broadened, I think, to include other genres in that era). The Cannabich, the Benda – they’re all worth sampling or snapping up.
    Naxos offers the only CD in captivity dedicated to the symphonies of Ordoñez, with several miscellanies here and there including the odd one or two. Yet in the literature we are continually told of his ingenuity, taste, and influence with the quartets. I have and relish Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet (Reginald Barrett-Ayres, 1974), which shows generous excerpts not only from Haydn and Mozart but from Vaňhal, Ordoñez, and a cast of many extras. Tantalising. New Grove:

    Of Ordonez’s 27 string quartets, the six published as op. 1 by Guera of Lyons in 1777 were the most widely distributed. All begin with a slow movement, in the sonata da chiesa manner, and contain fugal procedures in either the second or the fourth and final movement, thereby linking them with works by Gassmann and Wagenseil which were designed to appeal to the conservative taste of Joseph II. Ordonez’s interest in thematic unity between movements is nowhere more apparent than here.

    Such thematic unity was a major concern of Haydn’s, at various points in his development as a Kammermusikist. I think that is one matter in which he influenced Mozart’s approach to the genre.
    Vaňhal, Mozart, Dittersdorf, and Haydn played string quartets together. We should have been there to witness that, don’t you think, LH?
    What about you, Körőny? Ah, but you did manage to see Van Morrison, if not Vaňhal. He has re-done Astral Weeks live, in recent times. I heard a part of “Madam George” from that. Love to catch the rest of it sometime.

  25. jamessal says

    John Cowan: Thanks for posting the Wilbur poem and your comments on Old English verse.

  26. Goddag mand økseskaft.

  27. Vaňhal, Mozart, Dittersdorf, and Haydn played string quartets together. We should have been there to witness that, don’t you think, LH?
    Indeed! Well, the Million Dollar Quartet recordings finally turned up, so who knows…

  28. “Wayland — the Smith from Scandinavian myth. Also Weland, Weyland, Völundr. Appears in Old English and Old Norse.”
    It survives as a personal name in the Midsouth – Waylon Jennings.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Wayland — the Smith from Scandinavian myth. Also Weland, Weyland, Völundr. Appears in Old English and Old Norse.

    Wieland der Schmied – though don’t ask me if he was known in German before, like, Richard Wagner.

    Waylon Jennings.

    Oh. I know a Waylon and used to think that was just another case of Americans picking a surname at random and giving it as a first name to their children…

  30. David Marjanović says


    Doesn’t exist. Try Kammermusiker or, more fitting for someone who fiddles in the streets and thus derogatory, -musikant.
    Even better, though, would be to stop running away from the word monster: Kammermusikkomponist.

  31. What about you, Körőny?
    The one Haydn work I play a lot is the string quartets, opus 20. My favourite piece by Haydn is Brahms’s St. Anthony Chorale /Variations on a Theme by Haydn (not the piano verson) that used to get played a lot when I was young (7 -10). So I like it for nostalgic reasons, though it’s not really by Haydn.

  32. jamessal: You’re welcome.
    Paul, MMcM: halt historically meant ‘lame’, whereas lame had the original meaning of (per the OED) ‘crippled or impaired in any way; weak, infirm; paralysed; unable to move’. The OED says of this sense “obsolete except archaic”; the last use is 1878, but other than that nothing since 1604: “A Germaine…who was lame of halfe his body, and simple.”

  33. Doesn’t exist. Try Kammermusiker or …
    I knew it! Truly, I both knew that Kammermusikist “didn’t exist” (from Google research) and knew that David would intervene. It warms my heart and brightens my brain that he does so.
    But note: it exists now, ill-conceived though some may judge it; and it will soon get a Google hit, just as voyeuseship now exists, since my own intervention on its behalf.

  34. halt historically meant ‘lame’, whereas lame had the original meaning …
    Well, yeah, except note how the KJV translates χωλούς within just a few verses of one another:

    14:13 ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν ποιῇς δοχὴν κάλει πτωχούς ἀναπήρους, χωλούς τυφλούς
    But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
    14:21 καὶ παραγενόμενος ὁ δοῦλος ἐκεῖνος ἀπήγγειλεν τῷ κυρίῳ αὐτοῦ ταῦτα τότε ὀργισθεὶς ὁ οἰκοδεσπότης εἶπεν τῷ δούλῳ αὐτοῦ Ἕξελθε ταχέως εἰς τὰς πλατείας καὶ ῥύμας τῆς πόλεως καὶ τοὺς πτωχοὺς καὶ ἀναπήρους καὶ χωλοὺς καὶ τυφλοὺς εἰσάγαγε ὧδε
    So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.

    My question is where specifically the cliché “the lame and the halt” (or vice versa, and esp. with “the blind”) arose. The OED has a quotation from John Adams. It’s in The Spectator. It’s in an older Roget’s Thesaurus. There are a plenty of occurrences in Time or Mencken or Supreme Court opinions. So, well established over a wide period of time.
    I’m inclined to suspect an lesser translation of that verse (which Johnson used to illustrate halt), respecting the historical distinction just as you say. But whose and when?

  35. marie-lucie says

    Years ago I remember learning a little German song which started Wir sind die Musikanten, und komm’n aus Schwabenland.
    Could it be that Musikant has the same relationship to Musiker as fiddler to violinist in English, or French violoneux to violoniste?.

  36. marie-lucie says

    the lame and the halt
    Could this be one of the many “double reinforced”, as it were, English phrases consisting of two synonyms or near synonyms, as in “kith and kin”, “far and wide”, “cease and desist”, “to have and to hold”, and many others? Such phrases are most noticeable when they have one native and one French or Latinate word (and the repetition is justified for MIddle English by the need to explicate the foreign term by a more common native word), but the habit of repetition may be older than ME.

  37. Wow, at last an explanation for ‘cease and desist’. I have come to loathe that phrase.

  38. “Halt” in Danish specifically refers to lameness of the leg – “at halte” roughly means “to drag (on?)the leg”. “Lam” more generally means paralysed “lam fra halsen og nedefter” ~ “paralysed from the neck down”.
    Funny – without looking it up I’d say that “far and wide” isn’t ‘just’ a doubling or a pleonasm. It describes both depth and breadth (there’s an “a” in that?!! who the frag made this language?!). Similarly “cease and desist” comes across to me as meaning stop what you’re doing right now, and don’t start doing it again. Now looking up “desist” I see that I have indeed inferred meaning where none may be. Funny how brains work.
    Doesn’t “kin” mean family whereas “kith” includes friends an the like?
    Many other? “Chalk and cheese”?

  39. Gosh. Lam in Norwegian means lamb.

  40. So in Norwegian ‘Lam fra halsen nedover’ means ‘Lamb from the neck down’.

  41. marie-lucie says

    Sili, English seems to like pairs: some of the paired words are antonyms, others are often synonyms or near-synonyms (there are actually very few exact synonyms in any language). “Chalk and cheese” is a pair of antonyms (on opposite ends of a scale between inedible and edible) but they are still linked by their initial sound (plus, at a certain stage of cheesemaking the white mass is similar to a mass of chalk). “Fair and square” is another pair of near-synonyms, which are also linked by rhyming. Sometimes only one member of the pair is in common use, as in “kith and kin” where only “kin” has an independent existence outside of the pair.

  42. Pairings that rely on similarities in sound, whether they strengthen sameness or sharpen difference, have always been a major resource in English:

    friend or foe
    hearth and home
    “or in the heart or in the head” (Shakespeare)
    King (or Queen) and country

    Though they seem to be more common with nouns, we have seen above examples with other parts of speech, to which I add:

    waste not want not
    love it or leave it
    to kill with kindness
    be cruel to be kind

    They remind me of those larger semantic doublets that are so much a part of the Hebrew Bible and of its legacy in English, whether through the vicissitudes of early translation or already present in the Hebrew. They’ve changed the ways we use our native tongue / and much enriched our English rhetoric.

  43. marie-lucie says

    As Noetica’s examples show, alliteration (similarity of initial sound) seems to be much more frequent than rhyme (similarity of final sound) in the paired words. This is in keeping with the oldest, Germanic-based poetic tradition (as in Old English verse relying on alliteration within each line) as opposed to the later French tradition of rhyme.

  44. Maybe that’s all there is. halt and lame were closely associated from the start, possibly tending toward pleonasm. So, an OE homily. And in ME, Cursor Mundi, Hoccleve and Lydgate. All along, but particularly after the Reformation, it was seen as an echo, if not a translation, of the Gospel. And so used in lists of the unfortunate, as in Shakespeare or Bunyan and on to today.

  45. marie-lucie says

    Opposite to the pair halt and lame is its antonym hale and hearty where the synonymy is reinforced by alliteration. There are dozens of examples in English.

  46. David Marjanović says

    Could it be that Musikant has the same relationship to Musiker as fiddler to violinist in English, or French violoneux to violoniste?.

    Yes. And there is also Fiedler in German.
    Did “kith and kin” once mean “illegitimate and legitimate relatives” ( = “the entire extended family” = “absolutely everyone”)? Because that’s how etymologists explain the German mit Kind und Kegel: “with the legitimate and the illegitimate children”. Today, BTW, Kegel means “cone”; probably not the same word…
    Like English, German is chock full of fixed phrases that alliterate two or sometimes three singular nouns (here’s another: mit Mann und M Maus untergehen/(ver)sinken: of a ship: “to sink without anyone or anything being rescured”), and like in English, rhyming ones are rare (Sein und Schein: “reality and [misleading] appearance”).

  47. David Marjanović says

    mit Mann und M Maus untergehen

    See, that’s how DNA polymerase mistakes turn into mutations. <confident nodding> I didn’t try to imply that Mickey Mouse sinks or anything. I doubled the M and then somehow, on autopilot, inserted a space between them… ~:-|

  48. Yes, most such pairings involve alliteration, in the time-honoured Germanic way. But not all; and many of these others  – characterised by assonance, half-rhyme, or rhyme – do tend to be more modern and “occasional”, rather than deeply embedded:
    Fair and square.
    [As Marie-Lucie points out.]
    By hook or by crook.
    [Ancient, with a different meaning; preserved because of the rhyme.]
    More arse than class.
    [Or: More ass than class.]
    A need for speed.
    Neat, sweet, petite.
    Make or break.
    O, and look at all these!

  49. marie-lucie says

    Noetica, the “deeply embedded” ones are those which have stood the test of time. A few of the modern ones will no doubt survive, but not all.
    “by hook or by crook”: in a way, a “crook” (not a person) is a more fancy type of hook, no?

  50. Yes Marie-Lucie: or perhaps, those that have stood the test of time are of necessity deeply embedded, but others may also prove to be. Hmmm … or come to be?
    Yes, of course a crook is a kind of hook. But in the dominant account of the origins of by hook or by crook, one implement for legally collecting dead wood for fuel was a crook and the other was not. Competing accounts are given at that same location; for still more see here. See also David Crystal’s book By Hook or By Crook: A Journey in Search of English, which he discusses illuminatingly here.

  51. Doesn’t ‘Bricklehamptons‘ count?

  52. marie-lucie says

    one implement for legally collecting dead wood for fuel was a crook and the other was not
    Noetica, thank you for the references. According to Crystal’s definition the (bill)hook was used to cut off dead branches from a tree and the crook to gather the wood which had fallen on the ground naturally or not, so either “by hook or by crook” was legal, unlike with the present meaning which implies “by any means whether legal/moral or not”. The other “origins” seem contrived after the fact.
    This explanation reminds me of the fact that in older French, le bûcheron (now “logger”) was not only the man who made des bûches (logs for the fire) by cutting down trees but also the gathered other types of wood. There is a fable by La Fontaine beginning with Un pauvre bûcheron, tout couvert de ramée “A poor logger all covered with small leafy branches”. These small branches would have been tied into fagots for transportation and as units for selling the wood. That the branches were still leafy may mean that laws were less restrictive in France than in England, or that the stricter laws applied in royal forests but not everywhere.

  53. Christophe Strobbe says

    Could it be that Musikant has the same relationship to Musiker as fiddler to violinist in English, or French violoneux to violoniste?

    Sidenote: “muzikant” (with ‘z’ instead of ‘s’) is Dutch for “musician”, but the Van Dale German-Dutch translating dictionary only mentions “musicus” as a translation for “Musiker”. (And “Musikerin” is translated as “(vrouwelijke) musicus; musicienne”.)

  54. David Marjanović says

    From the post itself:

    Pound says of it: “It is divided into three parts: […] into Metaphysics: ‘Only the most absolute sincerity under heaven can effect any change’ […]”

    That’s not wisdom, it’s bullshit. History is chock full of example where half-hearted attempts at great lies effected lots and lots and lots of change.

  55. David Marjanović says

    Regarding postmodernism… I read a blog that has any of a large collection of random quotes popping up every time a page is loaded. Here’s a parody of postmodernist interpretations of science.

    The shape of DNA, it is popularly said, owes its discovery to the chance sight of a spiral staircase when the scientist’s mind was just at the right receptive temperature. Had he used the lift, the whole science of genetics might have been a good deal different. Although, possibly, quicker. And only licensed to carry fourteen people.
    (Terry Pratchett, Sourcery)

  56. Actually David, a better topological example than a spiral stair would be scissor stairs. These are two interlocked double fire stairs that are used in buildings (especially high rise ones) that need two means of egress. They’re used because they take up the least amount of space.
    Take a look here. It’s really hard to explain in words or 2-D drawings.
    It works on the same principle as a double helix. For each staircase, each floor-to-floor change in level requires two flights, with landings at both ends. As one flight goes down, immediately underneath it is a flight of the second staircase coming up. The 2 sets of stairs have a fire separation ( a wall) between them.
    It’s a brilliant solution to subverting the firecode. It’s quite obvious that two means of egress within 15 feet of each other in the centre of the building don’t address the REAL reason why 2 means of egress are required in the first place. They are an interesting monument to city bureaucracy.

  57. marie-lucie,
    My apologies. I won’t try to make a funny again (at least not one that’s disparaging of cheese).
    Yes, “at være lam fra halsen og nedefter” means “to be lamb from the neck down” in Danish, too. I think it has something to do with Afghans.

  58. Haven’t seen an afghan for several decades, didn’t know they were still going. Why don’t they show up on the news? I suppose they really come from somewhere else, like the dhogs.

  59. marie-lucie says

    Sili, what have you done to me that would require you to apologize?

  60. Nothing much. I just hadn’t expected you to take my claim that “chalk and cheese” was a reduplication at face value. My cheeks must be too big for people to notice that my tongue is stuck in them (where does that expression come from anyway?).

  61. marie-lucie says

    Sili, I did not realize that you meant to suggest (humorously) that “chalk” and “cheese” meant the same thing, so I did not in fact take this interpretation at face value, but I wondered exactly what you meant.
    Technical linguistic note (skip if uninterested): “reduplication” is not the right term here. Phonologically (from the point of view of sound) they are an instance of alliteration, semantically (from the point of view of meaning) they have nothing obvious in common (at least to the modern speaker unaccustomed to the details of cheese preparation). Reduplication refers to a repetition of sound(s) for the purpose of forming a single word (as in crisscross or zigzag) or more commonly a form of a word (as in the Latin past form pepelli ‘I pushed’ instead of just pelli), it does not apply to a phrase consisting of alliterating words, like chalk and cheese.

  62. I knew reduplication wasn’t right, but pleonasm didn’t sound right either (and even if it did, I know that chalk and cheese are meant as a sort of antonyms – in Danish we say “skidt og kanel” – dirt and cinnamon).

  63. In Danish we say “skidt og kanel” – dirt and cinnamon
    Wow, no skidt! Ski is pronounced shi, so ‘shit’ comes from the Vikings? Were the saxons and celts using ‘shit’ euphemistically, like ‘merde’ or ‘do-do’?

  64. *skīt- is common all over the Germanic languages.
    The phrase that a toddler on the subway was repeating endlessly the other day (as they will) was an Old English conjugation “scit scat.” I assume it comes from some harmless children’s song.

  65. marie-lucie says

    Sili, pleonasm would be more like “cease and desist” or “theft and larceny” where the two words mean approximately the same thing. Of course I understood that you knew that chalk and cheese were a sort of antonyms, my point was that these sorts of expressions are often either synonyms or antonyms (approximately).
    AJP: ‘shit’ comes from the Vikings?
    No, otherwise it might be “skit” (English “scat” as in “bear scat” is related). But both must be derived from the same Germanic ancestor, which started with sk. Most English words beginning with sk are from the Vikings, and sometimes there are two, English and Norse, versions of the same original word, as in “shirt” and “skirt” which both refer to a garment.

  66. marie-lucie says

    AJP: merde might be a euphemism in English (since the use of foreign words is well-known for that purpose), but it is certainly not one in French, anymore than mierda in Spanish.

  67. No, that’s right. I was talking about English. Although in fact it’s not so much a euphemism as a sort of joke, it’s usually said with an Edward Heath French accent.

  68. marie-lucie says

    What is an “Edward Heath French accent”?

  69. ‘shit’ comes from the Vikings?
    m-l: No, otherwise it might be “skit”
    The spelling is a bit misleading here, m-l. ‘Ski-‘ is pronounced ‘shi-‘ in Norwegian (and, I’m assuming, in Danish too). So ‘skidt‘ is probably pronounced roughly ‘shi’ by a Dane, the ‘dt’ being (I’m guessing) silent (-ish).

  70. Ah, I’ll have to see if I can find one on You tube. It’s hilarious to listen to if you’re British — although his French was actually quite good. Heath was the British PM who brought us into the Common Market in the early ’70s.

  71. marie-lucie says

    AJP: ‘Ski-‘ is pronounced ‘shi-‘ in Norwegian
    Sure, but that is the modern pronunciation, not the Old Norse one. Reread the rest of my comment. The Old English ancestor switched from [sk] to [sh] much earlier than its Norse cousin. The Vikings who settled in England still said [sk] while the English had long switched to [sh], and the Norse words in [sk] were adopted into English with their then current Norse pronunciation. (Phoneticians, forgive me if I put sh in square brackets, but everyone will know what I mean).

  72. Here’s Heath talking English. When he spoke in French he didn’t change his accent at all.

  73. Fascinating, m-l. I’d never thought of ‘shirt’ and ‘skirt’, there must be others…

  74. marie-lucie says

    AJP: Thank you for the vide. He just sounds British to me, but no doubt the little subleties (coming from what or where?) are immediately recognizable by other Englanders.
    Any history of English will give a list of “Viking words”, and I think there are other such “doublet” pairs.

  75. Sorry – “sk” is /sk/ in Danish. No fancy schmancy postalveolar fricatives for us.
    I wonder is this might be the reason I much prefer /sk/ in “scheme”, “schedule” and so on.
    More fascinating is the evolution of Norse /hr/ – in Danish we lost the fricative, but Norwegian enforced it to /kr/ – so “Kringsat av fjender” is more correctly “Omringet af fjender” – but noöne sings that.

  76. …’shirt’ and ‘skirt’, there must be others…
    Yes. Look for a start at the triplet ship, skiff, skip[per], in Partridge.

  77. marie-lucie says

    Well done or well found, Noetica. I had wondered about skipper but never thought of connecting it to the other two.
    Sili: the evolution of Norse /hr/ – in Danish we lost the fricative, but Norwegian enforced it to /kr/
    I don’t have a comparative Scandinavian or Germanic grammar handy, but is it demonstrated that Norwegian changed the fricative (h) back to the stop (k), or could it be that Norwegian had preserved the original stop all along? Because of the geographical situation of Norway, one could expect the language to be more conservative than Danish or German which have both reduced /hr/ to just /r/. A regression from /hr/ to original /kr/ seems difficult to justify.

  78. Skin and shin are doublets; the fundamental meaning, says the OED, is ‘thin, narrow’. Scale and shale/shell fit here too; skull may also be a member of this group, although the OED is doubtful.

  79. I discovered today that the French for by hook or by crook is à bis ou à blanc, lit. ‘by beige or by white’, but I don’t know why (can’t get any love from the TLFI). The only thing I can think of is the fact that bis < Late Latin bysseus ‘color of (unbleached) cotton’ (etymology unknown), suggesting that it means ‘with bleached or unbleached cotton’ = ‘any old way’.

  80. I discovered today that the French for by hook or by crook is à bis ou à blanc

    ITYM “an antiquated, probably long-forgotten French phrase that might be translated ‘by hook or by crook.'” The normal modern equivalent is coûte que coûte. (Pain bis is ‘brown bread,’ by the way. Bise is the feminine; the homophonous noun is either ‘north wind’ or ‘a kiss.’)

  81. Kringsat av fjender — this is not the same word family as Danish ring, ON hreng, but is cognate with E crank and more remotely ‘crook’. Some sources venture an IE *greg- or *greng-, but most seem to restrain themselves to claiming a common Germanic origin. Note that Danish also has omkring = ‘around’ and kringle = ‘pretzel’.

  82. Having learned to ski in Norway in 1945, my grandfather always pronounced it “shee” and slightly looked down on anyone who pronounced the k, as not being real skiers.
    He also disdained the use of ski-lifts and cable cars. You climbed the hill with your skis over your shoulder, and then you skied down. That way you appreciated it more.

  83. marie-lucie says

    JC, LH : à bis ou à blanc, lit. ‘by beige or by white’

    As a child I remember reading novels in which pain bis was often mentioned. It took me years before I understood the meaning of bis, or even heard the word pronounced (as [bi]) since brown bread was not in common use at the time. As for the phrase above, I had never seen it.

    About Latin bysseus, if it did apply to cotton it may have originated in Egypt, via Greece. In Europe the common washable textile was most likely to be linen, made with flax fibres.

    The colour of unbleached linen is brownish rather than beige, and exposure to the sun (or frequent washing) causes it to become bleached, after which treatment it is white and can then be dyed to any colour. The French term for the unbleached state is écru, which covers a range of beigeish colours but is not a synonym for beige.

    coûte que coûte

    This phrase means whatever it may cost, at any cost. This is not a modern substitute for the saying about breads: the syntax is archaic as it uses subjunctive forms of the verb coûter ‘to cost’ without initial pronouns or the introductory word que, which would all be required in a modern phrase.

  84. This is not a modern substitute for the saying about breads

    I don’t know what you mean by “the saying about breads,” but if you look up “by hook or by crook” in an English-French dictionary you will find “coûte que coûte.”

  85. Trond Engen says

    coûte que coûte

    Koste hva det koste vil.

    Undoubtedly a common European saying at some time. And strange as a translation of “by hook or by crook”.

  86. Yeah, they don’t mean exactly the same thing, but idioms often don’t translate exactly. The point is that there’s nothing closer.

  87. marie-lucie says

    LH: I don’t know what you mean by “the saying about breads,”

    Sorry, I meant the phrase à bis et à blanc which I assumed referred to different types of bread, since for many years I had only encountered bis in the context of bread.

    As far as I know this phrase is totally obsolete, but coûte que coûte is not something modern that has replaced it, it is old too, although still in common use.

  88. Yeah, I didn’t mean it was a modern phrase, I meant it was a modern equivalent.

  89. Wiktionary says that bis means ‘brown’ when applied to bread, but ‘beige’ otherwise. So it might be ‘brown (bread) or white (bread)’ instead of my conjecture ‘unbleached (cotton) or bleached (cotton)’.

  90. David Marjanović says

    Undoubtedly a common European saying at some time.

    Yes – koste (es), was es wolle. (Purely literary, as you can see from the “present subjunctive”.)

    always pronounced it “shee”

    That’s also done in German, where the spelling usually follows suit these days.

    (…If you want to hear an audible [ʃ], I recommend starting after the first 3 minutes.)

  91. > So ‘skidt‘ is probably pronounced roughly ‘shi’ by a Dane, the ‘dt’ being (I’m guessing) silent (-ish).

    Wow, a lot of guessing there! Apart from the ‘sk’ not being pronounced sh, I think it ought to be mentioned that ‘dt’ is not silentish, unless you consider [d̥] silentish.

    Also, we discussed “skide” quite recently:

  92. Am I the only one who associates “by hook or by crook” with the new Number Two?

  93. JC: The TLFI mentions several possibilities but ends up inconclusively.

  94. @dainichi, the original context was ‘Vikings’ — so not only was the guess about modern Danish wrong, we’re talking about 800 years ago… marie-lucie had the correct version a few comments earlier.

  95. So only English has a folk saying meaning ‘by any means necessary’? That surprises me.

  96. Russian has не мытьем, так катаньем [ne myt′yóm, tak kátan′em] ‘if not by washing, then by rolling’ (катанье, with initial stress, is used only in this expression; the normal word is катание [katánie]).

  97. David Marjanović says

    Well… mit Haken oder Kraken would mean “by hook or octopus”, which is awesome enough that I hope it’ll catch on… I don’t think it will, though. ^_^

  98. Krake is ‘octopus’? Delightful!

  99. marie-lucie says


    I don’t remember where I read (a very long time ago – perhaps in Jules Verne?) an episode about mariners ( or even a single one) having a fight to the death with a sea monster called the Kraken. I have a faint memory of a frightening illustration with serpent- or octopus-like limbs entwined around parts of the ship, or perhaps I am influenced by the original Jabberwock picture in Alice in Wonderland (or its sequel).

  100. Sounds like the battle between the octopuses and the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Seas. In the movie versions it’s just one giant squid rather than a pack of octopuses.

  101. JC, you must be right. It’s a very long time since I read the book in French (with illustrations). (I also tried English translations which were unreadable as well as without pictures).

  102. David Marjanović says

    Krake is ‘octopus’? Delightful!

    Yes and yes! It feels a bit like Linnaeus mocking Classical mythology by, for instance, giving the name Siren to this beast.

  103. I think I’m going to start using “mit Haken oder Kraken,” and if anybody asks, I’ll say it’s Yiddish.

  104. Keep us posted on all uses of this neologism (non-Hattics, it was born here!)

  105. Alas, this remains the only ghit.

    I think chalk and cheese alludes to the similarity in color, at least for un-aged cheeses, such that one might mistake a block of one for a block of the other.

  106. David Marjanović says

    If Google knows it, the world will know it sooner or later.

  107. I’ve used it a couple times in conversation, but so far I have not observed any uptake from others.

  108. That’s not wisdom, it’s bullshit. History is chock full of example where half-hearted attempts at great lies effected lots and lots and lots of change.

    Chéng 誠 in Confucianism is usually translated by sincerity, but it really means alignment between one’s feelings and the feelings of one’s society, and only secondarily between one’s speech and one’s feelnings.

  109. John Cowan says

    When the U.S. was trying to decrypt the Japanese diplomatic code[*] during the runup to WWII and the war itself, there was one particular code group they could not figure out: it was applied to persons and countries, like “X is [code], but Y is not [code]”. After much evidence had come in, they tentatively decoded it as ‘pro-Japanese’. When the codebook was obtained after the war, the meaning given was sincere, or so the story goes. I suppose it was this same word 誠, here meaning ‘alignment between the person or country’s views and Japanese views’.

    [*] Ciphers were thought to be either too hard to use or too easy to break from about the 15th century on, so codes were used right up to the 1950s or so, when Russian diplomatic and spy correspondence began to be protected by the “one-time pad” system, which while theoretically quite unbreakable, required as much key as there was plaintext, as the key had to be “both endless and senseless” (Joseph Mauborgne), very hard to generate for anything but low-traffic uses. A code in this sense replaces each word or phrase with a codeword or code number looked up in a codebook, in effect a bilingual dictionary. (Some were even multilingual, being usable between parties who had no common language.)

    So in order to determine the meaning of a codeword such as CHINESISKSLUTNINGSDOM[**], it was necessary to see what the linguistic pattern of its use was, a slow and painful business that could be 90% complete and yet with some codewords remaining completely unrecoverable because they appeared only once. A famous example was a letter sent to the governor of a French prison in Louis XIV’s day, giving instructions about a prisoner identified only by that he was to be closely held except for one hour a day, when he could walk on the battlement of the castle with a —–.

    This last code unfortunately did not appear anywhere else in the corpus of letters, and the person working on the letters a century later (for fun) got the idea that it stood for the rare word masque, and that the unknown prisoner was the Man in the Iron Mask! Unfortunately, the two previous codewords unquestionably were to be read ‘avec un(e)’, and avec un masque would mean ‘with a person in a mask’ in the French of Louis XIV’s day; if the message had meant ‘in a mask’, it would have read en masque. So the codeword is unsolved to this day and will probably remain so.

    [**] This represents an intermediate stage in the development of code telegrams. In the beginning, when telegrams had to be transcribed at both ends by hand, “cipher telegrams” cost ten times as much per word as plain language ones because transcription errors, but “code telegrams” only a few times as much. But how to tell a codeword from a cipher word? Well, codewords were “pronounceable”. But in what language? Pretty much any language of Western Europe would do.

    Unfortunately, codewords like INSUFFERABLEVALETUDINARIAN were perfectly pronounceable even though they were obviously an attempt to cut the number of words (and therefore the tolls) in half or even less. So, new rules: codewords not only had to be pronounceable in one of the standard languages, but also no longer than six syllables, but CHINESISKSLUTNINGSDOM lit. ‘Chinese final judgment’ was still very long despite having only six.

    Next rule: ten letters or less, pronounceable. Then an enterprising person published a book containing, supposedly, a zillion codewords of 10 letters each, with the meanings to be filled in by the purchaser. It actually only contained the square root of a zillion codewords of 5 letters each, all pronounceable, all beginning with a consonant and ending with a vowel, so that they would remain pronounceable when assembled in pairs. Cable tolls halved again!

    By this point telegram transcription was being done by machines on both sides, so the cable companies gave up on pronounceability. Any codeword you want no longer than five letters (the standard size of a cipher group for many years), one price per word. Done and done!

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