Bad Physics in Tolstoy and Dictionaries.

I have volunteered to serve as a Russian consultant for a reading group that is working its way through War and Peace in translation, and today I got a question that wound up teaching me a bit of specialized Russian and is worth bringing to the attention of the Hattery:

OK, Steve, here’s another translation question, perhaps disguised as a physics question. It concerns a passage in P&V [Book 4 part 3 chapter 2] where partisan warfare is described as contrary to conventional military theory:

Military science says that the bigger the army, the stronger it is. Les gros bataillons ont toujours raison.

In saying that, military science is like a mechanics which, considering forces only in relation to their masses, would say that forces are equal or not equal to each other because their masses are or are not equal.

Force (the quantity of motion) is the product of mass time velocity.

In military action, the force of an army is also a product of mass times something, some unknown x.

I read this (with a lifelong immersion in the physical sciences) and am befuddled. It is momentum, not force, that is the product of mass and velocity, and if you have Force = mass times some unknown x, the x is acceleration, as Newton explained in the 1670s. Is Tolstoy treating us to this analogy to demonstrate willful ignorance of The First Law or is he attempting a re-definition of the terms used? His credentials for pulling off some kind of scientific treatment of the mechanics of history are devalued immediately thereby. Clearly words like energy, force, momentum and mass were in common use prior to Newton (who likely wrote in Latin anyway), and continue to have common usage distinct from their precise technical definitions. Taking offense at a common usage in opposition to their technical meaning may merely be the arrogance of the scientist, and not a reflection on the author or the translator. But when posed as such blatant blasphemy as “Force = mass x velocity,” it is as if I were to misquote several of the Ten Commandments in an argument relating Judaism and psychoanalysis, assuming no one would know or care.

My correspondent went on to quote the Maude translation, “Momentum (quantity of motion) is the product of mass and velocity,” which “makes total sense to me,” and added “Briggs renders this passage similarly to the Maude translation, with the misjudgement of momentum by ignoring velocity set up as the mechanical equivalent to ignoring the spirit of an army. […] But Garnett uses ‘force’ in the same way P&V do.” Here’s my response:

Your question made me smile, and would have delighted Tolstoy, who expected (“demanded” might be more accurate) that his readers would take him seriously not just as a novelist (a profession he came to despise) but as a fount of wisdom on all subjects: history, religion, military science, and in the present case physics. I confess I am not such a reader; I love his characters, his stories, and his prose (awkward as it sometimes is), but I ignore his pretensions to outside knowledge on any and all such subjects — I simply assume that like the rest of us he rarely knows what he’s talking about. If I want to learn about history I’ll consult a historian, and similarly for other such matters. It would never have occurred to me to try to figure out if this passage made sense in scientific terms, but of course a scientist like yourself can’t avoid doing so, and since you have brought it up, I’ll try to answer.

The short answer is that Tolstoy was wrong (sorry, Lev Nikolaevich! don’t glare at me!) and translators such as Maude (and Ann Dunnigan, whose translation I am reading to my wife at night) have silently corrected his mistaken physics, while Garnett and P&V simply translate his Russian and let the physics go to the dogs. Mind you, this stuff is not easy for non-physicists; I adduce as evidence my Oxford dictionaries, which although superb examples of lexicography are fuddled when it comes to these terms. My Oxford English-Russian defines ‘momentum’ as “(phys.) инерция,” while the Russ.-Eng. defines инерция as “(phys. and fig.) inertia; momentum”; in fact, инерция [inertsiya] means ‘inertia,’ as you would expect, and ‘momentum’ is импульс [impul′s], which the Oxford defines merely as “impulse, impetus” (I have added “2. (phys.) momentum”). Here are the Russian Wikipedia articles; even not knowing Russian you will see which is which from the equations, and of course the “other languages” section at the left will show you the English equivalents:

I have corrected both the Oxford dictionaries and Katzner, who makes the same mistakes (why don’t lexicographers consult scientists instead of other dictionaries?), and I may actually remember the terms for at least a while. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and for giving me a subject for today’s LH post!

The original text for the disputed sentence is “Сила (количество движения) есть произведение из массы на скорость.” And now I know how to say ‘momentum’ in Russian.


  1. Clearly words like energy, force, momentum and mass were in common use prior to Newton…

    A little googling indicates that ‘momentum’ was not coined until the late 17th C, so I guess it was invented by scientists (as they were not called then) after Newton’s Principia.

    ‘Energy’ existed before Newton, but I don’t know that it would have been a common word. It’s worth noting that the modern scientific use of the word didn’t become settled until the latter half of the 19th C, when Tolstoy was writing War and Peace. (The principle of energy conservation wasn’t spelled out clearly until 1850 or later — there is some debate over who first clearly enunciated it and whether they fully understood what they were saying).

    What Tolstoy says of the ‘physics’ of military force is certainly garbled, but I wonder how clearly and widely the scientific terminology was known at that time.

  2. A little googling indicates that ‘momentum’ was not coined until the late 17th C

    Well, used in the modern sense; the word itself existed in Old English, though it meant ‘the fortieth part of an hour’:

    Byrhtferð Enchiridion (Ashm.) ii. iii. 108 Nu gecyðað we þæt on þam dæge beoð nigon hund and syxtig momenta. Momentum ys gewyss stow þære sunnan on heofenum; þonne he byð feowertig siðon gegaderod, þonne gefylleð he ane tid, and he ys gecweden for þæra tungla hwætnysse momentum (þæt ys styrung).

    I wonder how clearly and widely the scientific terminology was known at that time.

    You and me both.

  3. Obviously, Tolstoy thinks that what he calls сила (for physics) is what we call “momentum” and what in modern Russian is called импульс (количество движения is an old term). And what we call “impulse” is импульс силы in Russian. The most plausible explanation that “impulse of the force” and “impulse = momentum” got mixed up in Tolstoy’s head. Probably aided by confusion of energy, momentum, quantity of motion and such in teaching of physics that may very well persisted into early 19c. when Tolstoy learned about them.

    I would have investigated what Russian сила as a physics term meant in (early) 19c. For example, “horse power” in Russian is лошадиная сила (strength of a horse), which is obviously not a unit of force or even momentum, but energy.

    Mix up between сила and количество движения (= quantity of motion = momentum) is not unique to Tolstoy. Russian national corpus has this quote (from 1908):
    Оставим, ― говорит Авенариус, ― пока в стороне атом, как таковой; мы обратим сперва внимание на то, что приводит его в движение, ― на силу. Вопрос, стало быть, в том, дана ли в чистом опыте сила, ― не как количество движения, не отношение, а как нечто движущееся? (You have to read the whole passage to appreaciate the full degree of farblondzhet)

    DeepL: Let us leave aside for the moment, Avenarius says, the atom as such; we shall first turn our attention to that which sets it in motion, the force. The question, then, is whether force is given in pure experience, not as a quantity of motion, not as a relation, but as something moving?

    If we had SFReader with us, they would have found an old Russian physics textbook in 3 minutes, but I cannot do it (maybe later).

  4. Thanks for that — I knew the earlier usage should be investigated but didn’t have the energy. And yes, I wish SFReader would come back and help out.

  5. Erratum: лошадиная сила = horse power is the unit of power (duh!) not energy.

  6. See, this stuff is hard!

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    I knew you would correct yourself, D.O. 😊 One of the issues is that it is quite standard to calibrate measurements of one physical quantity using another quantity, i.e., your bathroom scale is calibrated in kg/lb (units of mass) but is actually measuring weight (units of force).

  8. David Marjanović says

    We’ve recently discussed the history of technical terms of physics in the usual languages starting here.

  9. I offer this fictional history of momentum terminology for your amusement.

  10. He was an artillery officer which makes some aquitance with mechanics likely (and someone who never studied it/read about it/tried to understand it is much less likely to resort to this kind of a metaphor).

    I agree with D.O. I suspect that it is not blasphemy, but historical usage. To quote WP: Isaaci Newtoni aetate et postea in physica, nomen vis posset esse: celeritas aut energia (vis viva), et massa (vis insita vel vis inertiae), acceleratio (vis acceleratrix) et, quam Newtonus ipse suo die nominavit, vis motrix.

    Leibniz has vis viva and vis mortua.

  11. Now I’ve read some old Russian physics textbooks that Google books makes available (not Lenz, why?) and got the impression that сила is mostly used like in modern Russian and like “force” in English. Some confusion happens when they describe what is going on in collisions. Then some textbooks adopt the view that force changes the momentum (which is true), but write it in a way as if this “force” was residing within the object (like a potential to change the other object’s momentum), which strictly speaking is not true. Then there is some confusion between velocity and acceleration, which again is not a big deal during the collision because the contact time is the same for both bodies. Here’s one example (Mechanics, by Étienne Bezout, transl. by Загорский)

    Мы представили обе силы P и Q через линии MD и MB, которые движимое M по их действию или по сообщенным от них скоростям описывает в одинаковое время; хотя по изъясненному (9), настоящею мерою сил должно быть количество произведенного ими движения. Но как количества движений (10) содержатся в равных массах пропорционально скоростям, что допускаем и в настоящем случае; то можно всегда принимать скорости MD, MB за сами силы.

    Но если даны будут не скорости двух сил P и Q, а количества сообщенного от них движения известным массам, то должно принимать от MD и MB в одном содержании с этими количествами.

    DeepL with my help: We have represented both forces P and Q through the lines MD and MB, which the moving M follows in the same time according to their action or according to the velocities produced by them; although according to (9) the real measure of forces should be the quantity of motion produced by them. But since the quantities of motions (10) are contained in equal masses in proportion to velocities, which we admit in the present case as well; one can always take the velocities of MD, MB as forces themselves.

    But if were given not the velocities of the two forces P and Q, but the quantities of motion produced by them given to the known masses, MD and MB must be taken in the same content as these quantities.

  12. Impulse is one possibility. Even in modern jargon “force” in phrases like “force applied over a period of time has the dimensions of momentum, and is referred to as ‘impulse'” (google) seems to mean… impulse.

  13. What D.O. said. As a boy of 11 or 12 trying to read old mechanics textbooks from my grandfather’s small library, I remember getting confused by these two terms, импульс (тела) (“momentum,” also called the quantity of motion, an odd term for a vector) and импульс силы (“impulse”). The impulse (of a force) over a time interval equals the change in momentum produced by the force during that interval, according to Newton’s second law. In other words, force is the time derivative of momentum.

  14. David Marjanović says

    We’ve recently

    AAAA… RRR… GH. I know that “recently” counts as mentioning a point in time, and the “point in time” meaning of the past tense overrides the “has effects on the present” meaning of the present perfect, but it is not sinking in.

    I offer this fictional history of momentum terminology for your amusement.

    Not bad… not bad at all.

  15. @drasvi, Alex K.: I have seen phrasings like, “force applied over a period of time,” (as a definition of momentum change, or impulse) many times, in older (from perhaps the first half of the nineteenth century and earlier) writing about physics. The intended meaning is clearly, “force multiplied by the time over which it is applied,” but the wording could easily be misconstrued.

  16. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I know that “recently” counts as mentioning a point in time, and the “point in time” meaning of the past tense overrides the “has effects on the present” meaning of the present perfect


  17. DM is pointing out that you can say “We’ve discussed the history of technical terms of physics…” without giving a specific time, but if you do mention one (as implied by “recently”) you have to use the simple past: “We recently discussed the history of technical terms of physics…”

  18. @Brett: To quote from an Indian textbook found online, “The linear momentum of a body is the quantity of motion contained in the body. It is measured in terms of the force required to stop the body in unit time.” Inviting misconstruction.

  19. @David Marjanović: I believe “recently” refers to a time period that began in the past and is still ongoing, similar to “this year” or “this week.”

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Ooh, prescriptive! I didn’t pick up on it originally, and I still don’t find it particularly odd now, although if I think about it too much it starts to sound like the start of a lecture.

    There’s discussion at, mostly about ‘have you’ and ‘did you’, but also vaguely suggesting that Scots may have a longer recent (or relative) present, so maybe I’m just being odd.

    (Although if it’s true that our instincts are different, I’m not sure it’s about length of time so much as about letting ‘effects on the present’ override ‘point in time’. I’ll accept ‘We’ve talked last week about A’ or ‘there’s been an accident here this morning’ as long as we’re going to talk about B this week and the traffic is still messed up. I think.)

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    In Danish, momentum is of course impuls while angular momentum is impulsmoment. And moment is torque, at least in momentnøgle = ‘torque wrench,’ so it all makes sense you see.

    And then the moment of inertia is called inertimoment so it doesn’t.

    I was never brave enough to ask what these were called in Swedish.

  22. Ooh, prescriptive!

    Not prescriptive at all. It’s prescriptive to say “You shouldn’t use this form that normal English-speakers use all the time, because it’s Bad”; it’s not prescriptive to say “This isn’t a form that normal English-speakers use.” It’s the difference between fake grammar (what pedants prescribe) and real grammar (what speakers actually say). Now, if your dialect has a different tense distribution, that’s another matter, but DM and I are talking about standard English grammar. The distinction between “did” and “have done” is a beautiful example of real grammar, because it’s easily maintained by speakers despite being described badly or not at all by traditional “grammars.”

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    “We’ve recently discussed the matter” is fine for me; “recently” isn’t specific-point-of-time enough to rule out the perfect; on the other hand “We’ve discussed the matter yesterday” is Wrong.

    CGEL discusses the exclusion of past time adjuncts with the present perfect on p143; they make the point that the adjunct is (normally) disallowed if it refers to a time “wholly before now” (my emphasis.)

    I remember reading somewhere that Spanish (a language of which I am almost totally ignorant) has a tense very similar in usage to the English perfect, which nevertheless lacks this restriction completely.

  24. “We’ve discussed the matter yesterday” is Wrong.

    I thought that it is because “recently” occupies the position of “already”…

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal (because Kusaal is always relevant) makes a distinction very like that between the English preterite and perfect in standalone main clauses with dynamic verbs (the rules are different with stative verbs and very different in narrative,)

    A perfective verb form without tense marking is like an English present perfect, e.g.

    Saa niya.
    rain.SG rain.PFV.NONSUB
    “It has rained.”
    My best informant explained: “Maybe the grass is wet; or I’m explaining that, despite appearances, the area is not really a desert.” [The -ya, despite the orthography, is actually not a flexion but a particle marking the fact that the clause is not subordinate; it’s dropped if the verb is not clause-final.]

    With a past tense marker, the sense is preterite:

    Saa sa niya.
    “It rained.”

    There is no rule against including a time adjunct; it’s just that it makes the tense marker redundant:

    Saa sa ni su’os.
    Saa ni su’os.
    “It rained yesterday.”

    Kusaal also has a “discontinuous past” which specifically means that the situation is not currently relevant; it’s formed with an enclitic particle -n:

    M ɔnbidin summa.
    “I was eating groundnuts.” (Earlier today; and now I’ve stopped.)

    In practice, it’s usually found in hypothetical/counterfactual senses, which is apparently very common in languages which have such a tense form. Vladimir Plungian wrote a nice paper about it:

    It certainly works that way in Farefare and Mbèlimè, anyway.

    The very scanty materials available for Boulba, the most aberrant Western Oti-Volta language, seem to show the -n form as the usual past tense in narrative in that language. A mystery …

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    What do you say if yesterday is part of a series: yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that? I have a vague feeling that this somehow overrides the ban against the perfect (or maybe the person I imagine saying this is so authoritative that I think whatever she says is right 😊).

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, I can concoct imaginary scenarios in which you could use the perfect like that.
    The ever-fly writers of CGEL have thought of that before us; they cite e.g.

    “She has lived in Berlin ever since she married.”

    as an instance of a continuative (imperfective aspect) reading of the present perfect (equivalent to “has been living”, I guess.) They point out that this is not the default sense:

    “She has lived in Berlin.”

    does not permit the continuative reading, unless it’s been set up from context, e.g. if the sentence is a reply to “Where has she lived since she married?”
    They also point out that the continuative reading is restricted to atelic situations:

    “He has lived here ever since they met.”

    is perfectly cromulent, but

    “He has written another poem ever since he came home.”

    is not.
    Really, it’s a wonder that anybody can speak English at all.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    Really, it’s a wonder that anybody can speak English at all.

    With a little prescriptive guidance, all is possible.

    Apart from that, it has not been demonstrated that anybody can speak any language at all. The notion of “language” is a traditional distraction here. The wonder is that anybody can understand anyone else, by whatever means – such as Significant Glances and Barely Audible Snorts of Deprecation.

    The only criterion I know for concluding that everyone seems to have understood everyone else in a given talkfest, for now, is when silence ensues and nobody has flounced out of the room.

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    The only criterion I know for concluding that everyone seems to have understood everyone else in a given talkfest, for now, is when silence ensues and nobody has flounced out of the room.

    Seems definitive (indeed, quotable.)
    Those of us who remain are surely agreed on this point. Nem con? Okay then.

  30. @David Eddyshaw: I Googled “atelic,” because I remembered there had been something I had found peculiar about that word in the past—yet which I had somehow forgotten. Google found Collins‘ entry first:

    in British English

    1. linguistics
    showing an action or happening as being unfinished
    2. dreadful, revolting or repulsive

    It was the second definition that I must have seen before and found exceedingly strange. I don’t know that I have ever encountered it directly, although atelic is hardly a common word, and if the second sense is not found in North American English, it should no great surprise if I have never read or heard anybody using it that way. However, it did occur to me that I might have seen a negation of this sense of the word, in the most mocked sentence in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Wounded Land:

    They were featureless and telic, like lambent gangrene.

    If a reader has gotten that far into Donaldson, they should be familiar with lambent, but the appearance of telic is simply bewildering. I had thought that perhaps it was an additional, unidiomatic extension of the OED‘s second sense of telic

    Directed or tending to a definite end; purposive.

    1889 St. G. Mivart Truth xxv. 438 The telic series of cyclical changes which are characteristic of all duly organized living bodies.

    It occurs to me now that perhaps Donaldson was trying to indicate that the approaching jheherrin are, in spite of their inchoate physical forms, not to be feared.

    However, if that was his intention, he appears to have erred. The OED does not have an entry for atelic; it seemingly treats it as a derived form of atel, although you can see the OED actually lists atel as obsolete:

    Etymology: Old English atol, atul, atel, cognate with Old Norse atall fierce, dire.
    Terrible, hideous, foul.

    OE Beowulf 848 Atol ýða geswing.
    c1175 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 13678 He.. warrþ till atell defell þær.
    c1230 Wohunge in Cott. Hom. 275 Þa harde atele hurtes.

    So that’s the origin of that strange sense of atelic; unlike the linguistic sense, it not the negating prefix a– attached to telic at all.

  31. Richard Brody says in the New Yorker of the recent movie Licorice Pizza, “Haim brings a constant and instant focus even to riskily inchoate emotions, and Hoffman lends his driven energumen a lambent glow of innocence.” Really, now.

  32. Lars Mathiesen says

    In Danish, FWIW, you can pick Det har vi talt om! or Det talte vi om i går!. Combining the perfect and the adverb is not directly ungrammatical, like in “you’re not from around here eh?”, but it’s marked. It makes the adverb feel like a kind of afterthought: Det har vi talt om! I går!. Or maybe you just really want to remind your interlocutor that the matter is finished, done and over with, so a little pleonasm will hit the spot. (The aggravated register allows multiple sentence stresses per sentence).

  33. Stu Clayton says

    Hoffman lends his driven energumen a lambent glow of innocence

    Another dinothesaurus ! The descendants of Spiro Agnew and William Buckley Jr. still roam the earth.

  34. Crawdad Tom says

    I’m with David Eddyshaw (regarding English, at least) and Jen in Edinburgh in finding “recently” with the perfect acceptable and normal. I also note that COCA has 3,143 instances of “have recently VERB-ED.”

  35. David Marjanović says

    I think about it too much it starts to sound like the start of a lecture

    …precisely because…

    “recently” refers to a time period that began in the past and is still ongoing, similar to “this year” or “this week.”

    It can! It certainly would in a university lecture! But it doesn’t in this case; the discussion I cited is over, to the extent that a discussion in these hallowed cyber-halls is ever over.

    (Until the Stars are Right. Iä! Iä!)

    The very scanty materials available for Boulba, the most aberrant Western Oti-Volta language, seem to show the -n form as the usual past tense in narrative in that language. A mystery …

    I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic again… in any case it would fit fine, because narrative is often about things that are over and have no relevant effect on the present. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic

    Well, perhaps a bit.
    It is is odd, though, partly because (if it’s true), Boulba seems to be the only WOV language that has done this with the -n form.

    The passage I based this on is from Appendix F of

    and I may well have misinterpreted the forms, not least because the transcription of the relevant narrative is in a truly awful French-based ad hoc orthography which makes it hard to interpret anything. If it is cognate with the Kusaal/Farefare “discontinuous past” though, it seems to have actually acquired (or, perhaps, preserved) a different sense: apart from anything else, the story is told in the first person, which you would have thought would work against a “discontinuous” past. Still, language communities can do what they like …
    The French version is in the passé simple, FWIW.
    The Indefatigable White Father André Prost’s rather fuller grammatical sketch of Boulba unfortunately doesn’t include any extended texts at all.

    On the other hand, I can’t reconstruct a narrative tense/construction for Proto-WOV; Kusaal has an interesting system in which successive clauses carrying the action forward resemble subordinate clauses, which is quite common in Africa (Hausa does that too, and Fulfulde), but even quite closely related WOV languages don’t seem to share this phenomenon. If the n-past was originally just the Proto-WOV general past, and its Kusaal/Farefare usage represents a restriction and specialisation of its former sense, then the various non-Boulba branches would necessarily have had to innovate new ways of expressing narrative individually, which would account for how they don’t quite match each other. (Not even the tense markers match exactly across languages, though there are some obviously related sets.)

  37. @David Marjanović: “But it doesn’t in this case; the discussion I cited is over, to the extent that a discussion in these hallowed cyber-halls is ever over.”

    In my mental world, “recently” implies potential repeatability. If I needed to refer to something that’s definitely over, I’d rather use “some time ago” or a similar time marker requiring the simple past.

  38. David Marjanović says

    The Lynneguist thread is quite helpful!

    In my mental world, “recently” implies potential repeatability.

    That blows my mind.

  39. Mine too. What about “He recently died”?

  40. I’ve been recently thinking about Russian verb-initial storytelling. It occured to me that verb-initial order also happens in instructions (and, of course, imperatives).

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    I think “he’s recently died” might indeed have an implicature that the death was not permanent …

    I can imagine a scenario where it’s just a question of current relevance, though:

    “I was going to get this paper looked over by an expert generative grammarian, but unfortunately he’s recently died.”

    (But not * “He’s died this morning.” It’s rather that “recently” is vague enough not to rule out the use of the perfect.)

  42. Stu Clayton says

    I think “he’s recently died” might indeed have an implicature that the death was not permanent … “I was going to get this paper looked over by an expert generative grammarian, but unfortunately he’s recently died.”

    They return as zombies ? Or they return, because zombies ?

  43. Once we realize that communication is impossible, we have a starting point. “Now vee can perhaps to begin. ”

    In revising my own writing I repeatedly find myself shifting tenses sloppily within a paragraph: simple to perfect or to progressive, historical present to past and back, etc. (Tense shifts, as opposed to tensely shifting, which I also do). I am not someone whose first drafts are often presentable.

  44. An excerpt from A Practical English Grammar by A. J. Thomson & A. V. Martinet

    C lately, recently used with the present perfect also indicate an incomplete period of time.
    In the sentences Has he been here lately/recently? and He hasn’t been here lately/recently,
    lately/recently means ‘at any time during the last week/month etc. and in He has been here recently,
    recently means ‘at some undefined time during the last week/month etc.’
    lately is less usual with the affirmative, except for actions covering periods of time:
    There have been some changes lately/recently.
    He’s had a lot of bad luck lately/recently.
    recently, used with a simple past tense, means ‘a short time ago’;
    He left recently = He left a short time ago.

  45. Stu Clayton says

    Once we realize that communication is impossible, we have a starting point. “Now vee can perhaps to begin. ”

    That is exactly what I’m getting at. Thanx, JE.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    They return as zombies?

    Yes. Zombie rules are the creation of regenerative grammarians.

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve been recently thinking about Russian verb-initial storytelling. It occured to me that verb-initial order also happens in instructions (and, of course, imperatives).

    Evidently Western Nilotic influence on Russian.

    Mechthild Reh’s excellent (if somewhat intimidating) grammar of Anywa describes how most clauses begin with a noun phrase, but commands and narrative (“sequential”) clauses begin with a verb phrase.

    (Actually, I think I recently came across a description of another language in which sequential clauses in narrative are verb-initial, unlike most main clauses, but I can’t remember exactly where. I think it may be a fairly widespread phenomenon, though.)

  48. @David Eddyshaw: “I can imagine a scenario where it’s just a question of current relevance, though:

    ‘I was going to get this paper looked over by an expert generative grammarian, but unfortunately he’s recently died.'”

    This one probably falls into the category of “breaking the news.” Here, “recently” seems a less restrictive version of “just.”

    Re: Zombies. Comments from discussion boards on Kim Jong Un’s reportedly dying:

    “Isn’t this the second time he’s died this year?”
    “This is like the 6th time he’s died this year.”
    “Yeah right! That’s about the third time he’s died this year.”
    “Maybe, but it’s the second time he’s died in the last few months.”

    Examples fit for a grammar textbook.

  49. John Emerson says

    I knew I was agreeing with Stu BTW and wasn’t being (as I normally am) ironic or sarcastic. The speaker and hearer never think the same thing.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    The speaker and hearer never think the same thing.

    How could you know that?

  51. jack morava says

    Force, energy, mass, momentum are terms of art, like velocity and acceleration, heat and temperature, dacron and orlon. Arguably they’re matters of culture, not language?

  52. David Eddyshaw says

    Are not all words a matter of culture?

    (Far be it from me to imply that a fellow-Hatter might harbour Chomskyite tendencies. Yet we must always remain alert, Comrades!)

  53. John Cowan says

    “I was going to get this paper looked over by an expert generative grammarian, but unfortunately he’s recently died.”

    That sentence garden-paths me for specificity: the first clause reads to me with an expert generative grammarian as non-specific, as if any e. g. g. would do, but then the specific pronoun he in the second clause forces me to revise my interpretation to ‘a particular e. g. g.’ I thought this was usually discussed using the ambiguous example “My daughter wants to marry a Norwegian”, but I can’t find any instances of this via Google.

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    We all have our particular favourite expert generative grammarian.* It simply never crossed my mind that anyone might be so promiscuous as to accept any old expert generative grammarian.

    * I’m not telling. It’s our secret. Montague/Capulet, nothing.

  55. John Emerson says

    Sorry, David, I have no idea what you mean.

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    Alas, we have failed to communicate …

  57. John Cowan says

    I on the contrary disclaim all favoritism among expert generative grammarians.

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    I admire your moral fortitude.
    But it’s so hard

    Video meliora, proboque …

  59. John, it’s “Bill wants to marry a Norwegian woman.”

  60. jack morava says

    Apologies to esteemed colleague DE re ideological correctness; maybe I should have said register rather than culture?

  61. David Eddyshaw says


    I am sorry I ever doubted your ideological purity. It was probably just my bad conscience from my own Montague/Capulet thing. Quis custodiet? Quis indeed?

  62. ə de vivre says

    Apologies for the completely off-topic comment (I know…), but this is the most relevant post I could find since it has dictionary in the title.

    Esteemed Hatters, do any of you know what the word is that means “(proper) noun that doesn’t take a definite article”? I’m pretty sure it’s a Latinate or Greekish word that starts with “an-.” It’s driving me crazy, and all attempts to Bing it with Google get me pages of grammar help about when English nouns don’t take articles. I figured someone here would probably know.

  63. John Cowan says

    John, it’s “Bill wants to marry a Norwegian woman.”

    Ah, thank you! It is a comfort, as Gandalf says, not to be mistaken in all points.

  64. As I remember, it was Mary, not Bill, and a Swede, not a Norwegian:

    Mary wants to marry a Swede

  65. Radio Erevan strikes again!

  66. Even in the 21st century, American Philistines call Norwegians Swedes (or the other way around). Hamsun complained about this already in the 1890s, and look how he turned out.

  67. ə de vivre says

    Thanks, juha! My mind is at ease now.

  68. John Cowan says

    she simply wants to marry one or another Swede (from the link)

    Of course this reading is nonsense, and I see that I have fallen into the same trap. What Mary wants is that when she settles on someone to marry, that someone is a Swede. Nobody ever wants to marry just any Swede. Swedes just aren’t that uniformly excellent.

    American Philistines call Norwegians Swedes

    Well, the Norwegians could take revenge by calling the Philistines Israelites.

  69. John Cowan says

    Do you mean Israels?

    Update: Ah, now that you edited in a link, I have potentially some idea what you mean. I say “potentially” because it’s a YouTube link and I rarely follow those, YouTube being if anything a worse time suck than, y’know, that site where they collect recurring bits of business from TV shows, movies, books, etc.

  70. I was going to make a joke about rutabaga fetishists, but it doesn’t work without a link to one of the comic strips in which Bill the Cat experimented with vegesexuality. Unfortunately, no Google image search would turn up the strips I wanted.* However, searching for something like “Bloom County vegesexual” did give image results that were almost exclusively Bill the Cat strips. So the engine is smart enough to pick up on the mention of Bill’s vegesexuality (probably from his Wikipedia page) when serving image results.

    * It is appalling that online comic strips, whether new or archived, are uploaded without their full texts as searchable metadata. Among comics I might read, only xkcd seems to do it right. I can’t tell you how often I have wanted to find a specific Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (usually about fetishes again, although it’s the humans with robot fetishes, and vice versa,** that I am typically interested in with SMBC), but even knowing some of the dialogue, I can’t locate it.

    ** I eventually gave up on Google and created my own list, which (although I haven’t gone through the archives exhaustively) I believe now contains every SMBC comic on the sibject of human-robot romance, as well as one on human-trechcoat-full-of-ants romance.

  71. I have potentially some idea what you mean.

    If you’ve missed out on Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” your life is the poorer.

  72. Jen in Edinburgh says

    To me it’s still mostly the Vitalite song…

    (ETA: does anyone know where to find the version with the erratic subtitles?)

  73. Oh No Robot seems to have at least some of SMBC indexed.

  74. @Jen in Edinburgh: Fortunately, in America we were not subjected to this. I hope Decker and the Aces got a good payout at least.

    @Kieth Ivey: Searching for “SMBC trenchcoat ants” yields

    We couldn’t find any comics matching that criteria! Sorry :(

    Even Google has no problem finding that one.

  75. John Cowan says

    Hat: Ars(e) longa, vita brevis.

  76. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    It’s not just in Russian that there is confusion about terms related to energy, it applies to French as well. About 30 years I heard a lecture from a distinguished French researcher who said he was confused about the distinction in English between strength and force as the French word force is used for both.

    I initially wrote sqid instead of said above. I made that sort of error (q for a; z for w) all the time when I first had to use an AZERTY keyboard, as I was used to QWERTY keyboards. I thought I had completely overcome that problem 30 years ago, but recently it’s been returning: old age, I suppose.

  77. I just remembered where I knew the word energumen from. It appears near the end of “The Beast of Averoigne,” one of the finest stories by Clark Ashton Smith:

    Each night the thing had come from the comet to assuage its hellish hunger; and being otherwise impalpable and powerless, it had used the abbot for its energumen, moulding his flesh in the image of some obscene monster from beyond the stars.

    Smith fascination with exoticism led him to some peculiar word choices; in fact, is much more of a problem in Smith’s writing than Donaldson’s. Moreover, sometimes Smith uses words in ways that seem, while not exactly wrong, at least inapt; his frequent use of rune for spoken spells is one example of this. I suspect that part of the reason for these infelicities of diction is that Smith dropped out of school after eighth grade and educated himself thereafter by reading, including unabridged dictionaries and encyclopedias; as a result, he probably used a lot of words in his writing that he had never encountered in real-world usage.

  78. John Cowan says

    his frequent use of rune for spoken spells is one example of this

    Wikt s.v. rune 4 says “A verse or song, especially one with mystical or mysterious overtones; a spell or an incantation” and cites Mary Noailles Murfree, In the “Stranger People’s” Country, (2005): “the fiddle sang and sang as ceaselessly as the chanting cicada without, and the frogs intoning their sylvan runes by the waterside.”

    Likewise, there is “A Celtic Rune of Hospitality” (tr. Kenneth McLeod) from the Carmina Gadelica

    I saw a stranger yestre’en.
    I put food in the eating place,
    Drink in the drinking place,
    Music in the listening place.

    And in the sacred name of the Triune
    He blessed myself and my house,
    My cattle and my dear ones.

    And the lark said in her song,
    Often, often, often,
    Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,
    Often, often, often,
    Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,

  79. Owlmirror says

    Huh. Learn something new every day.


    [ . . . ]
    In sense 2 partly after Finnish runo poem, song of the Kalevala ( < Germanic).

    [ . . . ]


    a. An ancient Finnish poem or a division of such a poem, esp. any of the separate songs of the Kalevala, a runo. Also (occasionally): an ancient Scandinavian or Gothic poem.
    1690 W. Temple Ess. Poetry 38 in Miscellanea: 2nd Pt. Of these Runes, there were in use among the Goths above a Hundred several sorts, some Composed in longer, some in shorter Lines..with many different Cadencies, Quantities, or Feet.
    1780 Crit. Rev. Aug. 143 There are three different species of poetry in the Finlandish tongue: the Finlandish runes, rhymes, and blank verse.
    1820 Monthly Repository Apr. 243/2 The harmony of the Finnish Runes consists not only in their measured syllables, but in the artificial repetition of the same sound.

    [ . . . ]

    b. In extended use. Any song, poem, or verse, esp. a cryptic or magic verse, a spell, an incantation; (also) a lament.
    1841 R. W. Emerson in Dial Oct. 210 But the runes that I rehearse Understands the universe.
    1860 C. Sangster Hesperus 128 My heart would sit and sing Shrillest runes of wintry cold.
    1889 F. A. Knight By Leafy Ways 9 The light-hearted and irrepressible starling..crooning his own quaint runes.
    1908 E. Œ. Somerville & ‘M. Ross’ Further Experiences Irish R.M. viii. 211 She chanted..words in measured cadence… By the time this rune had been repeated three times she was in the hall.
    1922 J. Joyce Ulysses ii. ix. [Scylla & Charybdis] 197 There he keened a wailing rune.—Pogue mahone! Acushla machree!
    a1935 W. Holtby South Riding (1936) i. i. 20 Curses could be lifted by spells. Midge was always trying them, inventing her own runes and incantations.
    1977 P. Fitzgerald Knox Brothers i. 32 Eddie had begun on Kennedy's Latin Grammar; there were more inexplicable runes for Wilfred to repeat in the nursery: ‘Caesar adsum jam forte—Cæsar had some jam for tea.’
    2008 B. F. Torgerson One Witch's Way 30 I lit a single candle atop the northern cairn, and bare-breasted except for amber, sang runes.

  80. John Cowan says

    It’s a poor day in which you learn only one new thing.

  81. Yeah, Smith’s use of rune isn’t wrong; it’s just odd, distracting. He seems to use it too often, rather than more natural-sounding terms (like Donaldson overusing lambent). Compare Dunsany, who restricted rune to three specific and especially powerful enchantments possessed by the King of Elfland.

    I had forgotten the interesting connection to Finnish poetry though.

  82. Since this thread seems to be where I dump (some of) my observations about rare and confusing English coinages, here is another one:

    Having recently mentioned Anabasis, I went back to reread some of Xenophon’s account, and I found myself interested to learn more about Seuthes, the Odrysian ruler whom the Ten Thousand were employed by in Thrace. The linked Wikipedia article for Seuthes II currently states:

    While he looms large in the historical narrative thanks to his close collaboration with Xenophon, most scholars consider Seuthes II to have been a subordinate regional ruler (paradynast) and later claimant to kingship, but never the supreme king of the Odrysian state.

    As I read a bit more about the other members of the same ruling family, the word paradynast frequently cropped up. It wasn’t something that I recalled coming across before, although the meaning was explained in the above quote, and the etymology seemed totally transparent. However, searching a bit further, paradynast seemed to be a term that (at least in online sources that Google can find) is used almost exclusively in two contexts. It is used principally for Odrysian (or perhaps more generally Thracian) rulers in classical and Hellenistic times, most or all of them from the same family. It is also used, occasionally, as an alternative English rendering of the later Byzantine title of paradynasteuon (from παραδυναστεύων).

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