Bring Back Irremediless!

A Thing About Words, the M-W Unabridged blog, is reliably interesting, and I enjoyed the post The Wayward Cousins of ‘Irregardless’ so much I thought I’d quote it here:

Dictionaries, and the people who make them, depend not on the kindness of strangers, but rather on their continued interest in language. Because of this, we applaud a passion for words in all the ways this may manifest itself. That being said, even the doughtiest lexicographer feels a frisson of boredom when receiving yet another whinge about how irregardless is not, or shouldn’t be, a word.

However, if it is your life’s dream to inveigh against words that shouldn’t be, you should follow your bliss, even if you do so in peevish fashion. To help you in such endeavors we thought to provide a short list of other words which bear some passing resemblance to irregardless. Now even the most jaded complainant will have the necessary variety to make each day’s complaints feel fresh and new.

For instance, we enter the word irremediless, with a definition that manages to be both succinct and seemingly nonsensical: “remediless.” Irremediless and remediless (“lacking hope of assistance or relief; being beyond help”) are obscure, or obsolete, and so you are unlikely to encounter either in current writing. […]

Less often found are irresistless (“resistless”) and irrelentlessly (“relentlessly). These are antiquated and rare enough that we do not enter them, but may be found in the works of such 17th century illiterates as John Dryden and Richard Montagu. […]

Moving on from the ir– prefix, there are a number of un– words which appear to contradict themselves. Earlier editions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries had entries for both unremorseless and unmerciless. These words were defined in 1913 as “utterly remorseless” and “utterly merciless,” shortened to “remorseless” and “merciless” in 1934, and removed in 1961. […]

The words listed above are a good way from being in common use, which is why no one is yet complaining about them. If you truly love to hear the phrase “that’s not a word” you will do your part to popularize them, in order that more people may have the pleasure of exclaiming this in the [sic; etwa “future.”]

I looked up irremediless in the OED and found an entry unchanged from 1900:


Used erroneously for remediless adj. and adv.

1602 W. Watson Decacordon Ten Quodlibeticall Questions 230 The most dangerous, infectious, and..irremedilesse poyson.
c1630 Strafford in Browning Life (1891) 70 It is irremediless, and therefore must be yielden unto.
1665 J. Evelyn Mem. (1857) III. 150 Upon these irremediless assaults.
1675 T. Brooks Golden Key 147 This despair effect occasioned by the sinners view, of his irremediless woful condition.

When they get around to updating it, they will of course remove the misguided “erroneously”; if you search Google Books you will find a lot more uses, many of them 19th-century (“a multitude of condemned mortals consigned to irremediless woe,” “a road which ends in wo so irremediless,” “and then he falls into the depth of endless and irremediless torment,” “but it is irremediless, and therefore must be yielden unto”), and it was clearly a word, just like irregardless.

Irregardless of irrelevancy, I have to mention that the Log has a guest post by John V. Day that is so silly I feel vicarious embarrassment for them for treating it seriously: An Indo-European approach to the alphabet. According to the good Mr. Day, the alphabet was not created by non-Indo-European Phoenicians but by Indo-Europeans. If you need any convincing that this is an untenable hypothesis, see the comments there.


  1. If you’re wondering about “must be yielden unto,” I will point out that it is a product of the fertile linguistic imagination of Robert Browning.

  2. David Marjanović says

    Earlier editions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries had entries for both unremorseless and unmerciless. These words were defined in 1913 as “utterly remorseless” and “utterly merciless,”

    and remind me vaguely of the German use of un- as a noun prefix for not logical, but moral negation:

    Wetter “weather”, Unwetter “tempest”
    Kosten “costs”, Unkosten “expenses”
    Menge “amount, set in mathematics”, Unmenge “way too huge amount”
    Tier “animal”, Untier “monster”
    Summe “sum”, Unsumme “way too huge amount of money”
    Sitte “custom”, Unsitte “rude/disgusting habit/custom”
    and the recent coinage Unwort “Orwellian term”, awarded to a buzzword of politics and/or media every year.

  3. AJP Crown says
  4. The Un-word or Non-word of the year (German: Unwort des Jahres) is an annual publication that names a German word or word group that is considered to be the year’s most offensive new or recently popularized term.

    I don’t think “publication” is the word they want there. “Press release,” maybe.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    Unwort des Jahres is a “movement” (Aktion Unwort des Jahres) that issues an annual press release “Unwort des Jahres” naming the Unwort des Jahres that Aktion Unwort des Jahres has decided on. Check out the German WiPe article.

  6. Next they’ll be starting a political party, or Unpartei.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    It may (or may not) be (ir)relevant that the Latin prefix in- is ambiguous, on account of the reflexes of PIE syllabic n having fallen together with en.

    The definitive analysis is here:

  8. John Cowan says

    Unloosen ‘loosen’, as shoe-strings, is a far commoner word of this type. There are 116 kghits, but the first few pages at least are dictionary references.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    “Prof John” V Day is evidently Theodore Beale. And almost certainly from Alpha Draconis.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    This gives me an excuse to quote the opening lines of a poem which is a guilty pleasure of mine, Charles Madge’s The Hours of the Planets:

    The summoning sun, the sun that looks on London
    Sees twice, sees London and unLondon sees
    And leaves the sound unsounded of the leafless sky.

    We’ve all been there, I think.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Mass Observation and periscopes.

  12. AJP Crown says

    Unloosen ‘loosen’, as shoe-strings

    Shoe laces?

  13. John Cowan says

    Them too. But googling for one finds the other as well.

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Stands to reason, shoe laces always come in pairs.

  15. AJP Crown says

    Come on, there are some great Orwellington examples here. I particularly enjoyed 2008’s notleidende Banken or Distressed Banks. You don’t need to know much Cherman, just press the google translate button.

  16. David Marjanović says

    “Prof John” V Day is evidently Theodore Beale.

    I wonder.

    notleidende Banken or Distressed Banks

    Not merely distressed, but suffering!

  17. Won’t someone think of the banks?!

  18. David Marjanović says


  19. I am reminded of HP Lovecraft’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten.

    Unaussprechliche Kulte would be the German for “unspeakable cults”. The form Unaussprechlichen Kulten is the dative case, suggesting a full title of Von unaussprechlichen Kulten (“Of Unspeakable Cults”, as it were de cultis ineffabilibus) or similar.

    Since the German adjective may not only translate to “unspeakable, unutterable, ineffable”, but also to “unpronouncable, tongue-twisting”, the title might serve as a description of the names invented by Lovecraft.

    … Unaussprechlichen Kulten is believed to have been written by Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt. The first edition of the German text (referred to by some as “the Black Book”) appeared in 1839 in Düsseldorf. … Original editions in German have a heavy leather cover and iron hasps. Few copies of the earliest edition still exist because most were burnt by their owners when word of von Junzt’s gruesome demise became common knowledge. An edition is known to be kept in a locked vault at the Miskatonic University library and some book collectors/occult scholars have managed to find copies.

  20. Larry horn 2010 Google books says adjective redundant negation is archaic but not so much for verbs; “Standard examples include such (ir)reversatives as unthaw, unloose(n), unravel, dissever, and disannul and denominals like unpeel, unshell, unpit”.

    irreversatives is a nice term.

  21. Owlmirror says

    The summoning sun, the sun that looks on London
    Sees twice, sees London and unLondon sees

    China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun

  22. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m not sure ‘unravel’ belongs on that list – a ravel in one sense is a tangle, and you have to say ‘ravel out’ to get the same sense without the ‘un’.

    ‘Unpeel’ and ‘unshell’ also fit the pattern of ‘unmask’ and ‘uncover’ – you could argue that it’s ‘peel’ and ‘shell’ that are wrong, or maybe the two forms are just indepedent of each other.

    (If I came across ‘disannul’ I would expect it to mean just what it said – that something had been annulled, but was now being made valid again. So that one is confusing in a way that ‘unpeel’ isn’t.)

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    “Disannul” (including inflected forms thereof) appears multiple times in the King James Version, both in the OT (Job and Isaiah) and NT (Galatians and Hebrews). I haven’t taken the time to investigate if there’s anything distinctive (in the same “double-negative” way) in the underlying Hebrew or Greek and/or the Vulgate renderings that the KJV translators would have been familiar with, but that still seems like evidence that this is a venerable phenomenon with Divine sanction. And while you can minimize the Dryden example of “irresistless” on the grounds of “oh come on, he was a poet and needed an extra syllable for the meter so he just made up a word that would give him that syllable,” I don’t think that critique works as well for the KJV.

  24. Stu Clayton says

    Critique of a KJV translator:

    # oh come on, he was a translator and needed an extra word for the word count so he just made up a word that would give him the larger fee #

    But King James caught on to this. Traditionally, English words that “are not in the original” but help to enhance the readability are rendered in italics. This means they are not to be counted when paying the translator.

  25. I’m amazed that no one on Language Log mentioned the fact that “Prof. John V. Day” is pretty obviously an an alias of Th**d*r* B**l*, and so is “*l*x” in the comments.

    EDIT: Devoweling as to not bring more attention to his toxic narrative.

  26. But David Eddyshaw mentioned the dread name above (June 8, 2019 at 12:50 pm).

  27. I am glad to see the following at the Log:

    [Update by Mark Liberman: Knowledgeable commenters have serious objections to the content of this guest post (e.g. John McWhorter, Sally Thomason), and others cite apparently racist content and publication location in other writings by John Day (e.g. Suzanne Kemmerer, Jamie). It was a serious mistake to have given this work a platform on this blog, which tries to present reputable linguistic perspectives in a public-facing way. I’m not going to delete it, since the comments are worth preserving, but it’s important to put this warning up front. We’ll try to avoid such mistakes in the future.]

  28. That he did, but I am still amazed that it was not commented on in more than a hundred comments at Language Log. V*x D*y, as he calls himself, in-famous nazi.

  29. @V: The best neologism I have heard for excising the vowels from words is “disemvoweling.”

  30. It has a certain inherent charm, but I’m afraid it lost it for me when it cropped up in the context of heavy-handed censorship of “offensive posts” at Making Light some years ago.

  31. I first encountered “disenvowelling” yesterday! (In O. Henry).

  32. Owlmirror says

    I’m amazed that no one on Language Log mentioned the fact that “Prof. John V. Day” is pretty obviously an an alias of Th**d*r* B**l*

    I can make an argument against this being the case.

    1) Looking at other works by John V. Day on Amazon, I find that he wrote about Anthony Ludovici, “The Lost Philosopher”, as he calls him.

    2) Looking at Ludovici’s bio on WP, it is obvious that he was a racist, misogynist, and antisemite, plus whatever other bigotries I might have missed.

    3) Given what was already posted on LLog, and the above book, it’s reasonable to conclude that John V. Day is indeed a racist, misogynist, and antisemite (plus other bigotries, etc) himself.

    4) While TB aka VD is indeed a racist, misogynist, and antisemite (plus other bigotries, etc) himself, he is also an unashamed grifter and self-promoter.

    5) I can find nothing that indicates that VD has ever mentioned or promoted a book about Ludovici, especially in the timeframe that the book was published (Feb 2013). There are two hits on “Ludovici” on VD’s blog, one from 2011, the other from 2018. I didn’t click on the links to find out if the mentions were by VD himself, or by commenters.

    6) Given (4), I am certain that VD would have mentioned the book about Ludovici repeatedly on his blog, and would have probably referenced the man himself a lot more than the two times I found, assuming that it was VD even writing those. But the negative evidence of (5) is, I think compelling: VD did not the mention the book about Ludovici, because he did not write it.

    I also think that if VD were unashamed of his writings, he would use the pseudonym he’s been using, or his real name. In the unlikely event that he were ashamed, I would think that he would not use a pseudonym that so closely resembles the pseudonym he’s already using.

    It may stretch the bounds of credibility that there are two people writing using the name “Day” and with the letter “V”, who are racists, misogynists, and antisemites (plus other bigotries, etc), but there you go.

    [Human nature being what it is, I cannot be certain that I’ve not missed something. But I think the above is reasonably compelling.]

  33. David Marjanović says

    V*x D*y, as he calls himself, in-famous nazi.

    I know him as a creationist, so I’d expect him to come up with a narrative that is more friendly to Christian sensibilities than that ex occidente lux post.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Reading the posts by alex ~ Alex again, I find no evidence he’s the author. I think he’s genuine, and genuinely didn’t understand that racist isn’t a randomly picked generic insult like asshole. The author I’d expect to try to promote “racial realism” or some other such rebranding, or at least to prove himself to be a Not Racist Butt.

  35. I think either Theresa Nielsen Haiden or Yoana (she used to be my supervisor at my first job, and she’s an Esperatist) came up with the term. But it certainly originated at Making Light. Dunno?

    Anyway, Yoana is way cool and she was at the business meeting at Worldcon when they decided on E Plurubus Hugo.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    I should maybe clarify that I wasn’t intending a serious identification (hence Alpha Draconis …)

    Myself, I think Owlmirror is right: the “prof” and the puppy-fancier doubtless share many interests, but seem to be ploughing distinctly different furrows in their attempts to enlighten us poor dupes of the Conspiracy.

    On the other hand, perhaps Day is just a universal genius. Both of him seem to believe so, after all.

  37. David, “Owlmirror” is a sockpuppet for V*x D*y.. Nothing they say should be payed any attention.

  38. Th**d**r* B**l* is a racist. He hates people. He will not stop doing that soon. He needs therapy to get over that.

  39. The John V. Day thing is very weird. His previous publication, the book version of his dissertation, received reviews in a real journal or two, and even a blurb from no less than Victor Mair, as quoted in the Amazon review from “Edward Jones,” who footnotes the Mair blurb as coming “via email.”

    But why would Victor Mair email a blurb about John V. Day’s book to “Edward Jones.” Jones never reviewed anything else at Amazon. Was Edward Jones a sock-puppet for Day? Seems likely. How idiotic, to create a sock-puppet to write a single review, 3.5 years after your book came out. Was he hoping to boost his Amazon ranking from 5,028,536th up to 5,028,313th?

    But it makes much more sense to think Victor Mair emailed John V. Day a blurb about Day’s book than to think he emailed it to “Edward Jones.” The quote is in blurbese. It is not the type of note one would write as a book recommendation to a friend.

    Another reviewer of the dissertation, somewhat more timely, appearing just a year after publication, seems to obsess about Day’s discussion of the relationship between blond hair, blue eyes and Indo-European origins.

    This has me wondering what it was that Mair saw in the book that prompted him to “salute you (Day) for your bravery.”

    Which in turn has me asking some troubling questions about Mair …

    I also can’t help but wonder what the supposed John V. Day was doing in the intervening 20 years between his dissertation and his sudden emergence at Language Log? Other than patiently cultivating his relationship with Victor Mair.

  40. @Ryan: It may not be such a good idea to argue that something supposedly done by Victor Mair could not have happened in quite the way it has been described on the grounds that it seems “idiotic.” I am not saying you are wrong, but Mair has a demonstrated history of not understanding the Internet or how to interact with people via it.

  41. Sure. But I don’t think Mair created the idiotic sockpuppet. I think Day did. And I do think a fair inference from the pointless sockpuppet and from the sampling of Day’s work we get in LL is that Day himself is an idiot.

    My questions about Mair are about why he’s been drawn to Day’s work for decades, since Day seems to have been grounded in Aryan fantasy from the start.

  42. Owlmirror says

    David, “Owlmirror” is a sockpuppet for V*x D*y.. Nothing they say should be payed any attention.

    Your deeply offensive and profoundly insulting trolling is noted.

  43. It’s also interesting to me that the retraction was issued by Mark Liberman, not Mair. And that Mair never hazarded an explanation.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    I very much doubt whether Victor Mair is at all attracted to Aryan fantasy; it’s simply that his crackpot filter is broken, as previous LL guest posts hosted by him have abundantly proven, alas.


    I, too, am a sockpuppet. Internal evidence will readily tell you whose, now that my cover has been blown.

  45. David Marjanović says

    David, “Owlmirror” is a sockpuppet for V*x D*y.. Nothing they say should be payed any attention.

    I’ve known Owlmirror for over 10 years, I even met him in meatspace once. He’s about as different from VD as it gets.

    What is wrong with you?!?

    It’s also interesting to me that the retraction was issued by Mark Liberman, not Mair. And that Mair never hazarded an explanation.

    Mair seems to have a pretty Chinese-like conception of saving face, having often valued style over substance in previous LLog discussions. Now that he must be aware he’s been duped, it seems to me he’s shell-shocked and simply isn’t able to talk about it. He did appear in the comments, weirdly enough, but didn’t spend one word on that issue.

    I very much doubt whether Victor Mair is at all attracted to Aryan fantasy; it’s simply that his crackpot filter is broken, as previous LL guest posts hosted by him have abundantly proven, alas.

    Yes. He’s attracted to exciting (“brave”, as in the quoted “bravery”?) new hypotheses, and not always able to actually evaluate them.

  46. Jen in Edinburgh says

    For someone claiming not to want to bring more attention to a certain disemvowelled person, V has been doing a surprising amount of the mentioning.

  47. David, “Owlmirror” is a sockpuppet for V*x D*y.. Nothing they say should be payed any attention.

    If this is a joke, it’s a bad one. If it’s serious, knock it off. We don’t treat fellow commenters that way around here.

    I very much doubt whether Victor Mair is at all attracted to Aryan fantasy; it’s simply that his crackpot filter is broken, as previous LL guest posts hosted by him have abundantly proven, alas.

    Exactly. I like him, but yeah, he could well be one of those pleasant elderly people who succumbs to one of those calls from obvious scammers.

  48. John Cowan says

    No, I don’t think so. Sino-Platonic Papers, a refereed journal he’s been running since 1986, is explicitly about dangerous visions, stuff that can’t get published elsewhere. You can’t do that without occasionally falling over the line from wacky to downright loony. As the instructions to authors say:

    Although the chief focus of Sino-Platonic Papers is on the intercultural relations of China with other peoples, challenging and creative studies on a wide variety of philological subjects will be entertained. This series is not [emphasis in original] the place for safe, sober, and stodgy presentations. Sino-Platonic Papers prefers lively work that, while taking reasonable risks to advance the field, capitalizes on brilliant new insights into the development of civilization.

    In line with Mair’s other preoccupations, you can submit papers in romanized but not standard-orthography Mandarin and Japanese.

    I’ve read some really interesting stuff in there. Looking at the unified table of contents, I was glad to see that “Are Olmec Scripts Chinese?” conforms to Betteridge’s law. On the other hand, there’s the stuff about how the alphabet is ordered, with consecutive pairs of letters corresponding to signs (including Chinese signs) of the zodiac, which is all I know and all ye need to know about it.

  49. But Language Log is not about dangerous visions, and there’s no indication in the post that he has any idea how ludicrous the idea is.

  50. Lie down with crackpots, get up with a cracked pot, as they say.

  51. I think VM came to this forum by a very different path than many of us, maybe especially those (like me) who aren’t professional linguists. We were young language geeks who hoovered up everything we could read about language, and, when we developed a critical faculty, learned to recognize the signs of crackpottery. I enumerated these in a comment on a previous post about a couple of flakoes he was promoting, and he dismissed my remarks as ad hominem. And now here we are.

    I very much like Sino-Platonic Papers precisely for its willingness to go out on various limbs, but sometimes a limb cracks and it’s time to scoot.

  52. Thanks for the replies about Victor Mair. I think the attracted to exciting, occasionally useful new theories/broken crackpot filter description makes sense.

  53. J.W. Brewer says

    I wonder if it’s the case that the inherited “conventional wisdom” consensus version of the history of Chinese civilization has turned out to be wrong often enough on topics where Prof. Mair may have had some specific scholarly expertise that that has made him unusually open (and perhaps excessively so) to revisionist challenges further afield from areas of his own expertise? Certainly some of the criticisms of Day’s proposal seemed not to amount to much more than “but this is inconsistent with how wikipedia says the alphabet developed.” There were imho already plenty of flags of crackpottery in Day’s proposal (w/o needing to get into his alleged unsavory political affiliations and/or opinions), but putting too much weight on consistency with the conventional wisdom will lead to a crackpot filter that rather than being too loose will be too strict and unhelpfully block access to potentially valuable insights.

  54. Yes, that’s an unavoidable and difficult issue. Everyone has to form their own ideas as to when unexpectedness/unlikeliness falls into crackpottery and can be dismissed, and everyone has their own sense of what they’re willing to accept or at least put up with. For better or worse, I have a very strong reluctance to get near crackpottery; if that leads me to miss potentially valuable insights, so be it. Ich kann nicht anders.

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    I can’t think of any genuine groundbreaking insights which have arisen from the work of people who simply ignored relevant prior work (like the egregious JVD.) Ignorance (whether willed or not) does not lead to conceptual breakthroughs: it’s utterly distinct from creativeness and openmindedness,

    When Feynman said that science is the belief in the ignorance of experts he was not implying that scientific progress therefore arises from the ignorance of the inexpert. And you will never discover the ignorance of experts if you can’t be bothered to do due diligence in finding out what those experts think they know, and why. Assuming the ignorance of experts is the strategy of demagogues, not scientists. And of crackpots. The association of crackpottery with demagogues is not accidental.

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    Mind you, there are crackpots and crackpots, as Auden says:

    Lovers of small numbers go benignly potty,
    Believe all tales are thirteen chapters long,
    Have animal doubles, carry pentagrams,
    Are Millerites, Baconians, Flat-Earth-Men.

    Lovers of big numbers go horribly mad,
    would have the Swiss abolished, all of us
    Well-purged, somatotyped, baptised, taught baseball:
    They empty bars, spoil parties, run for Congress.

  57. I have been dealing with a issue at the fringes of crackpottery today. I got a paper to referee for the second time, after both I and another referee asked for extensive revisions to the explanatory material in the first draft. Many of the changes, the authors (a group of twenty or so experimental physicists) refused to make. However, they did make substantial improvements to the data analysis, and the quality of the underlying experimental work appears to be quite high. Unfortunately, whichever author(s) are actually doing the writing on this paper are trying to apply their data in to a very unconventional problem (I specialize in unconventional problems in particle physics), and they do not appear to understand the problem well enough to place their work in its proper context, and in fact, the theoretical approach they are trying to use appear to be riddled with errors.

    But in the course of reading this long manuscript, I find myself questioning whether the theory and contextualization can really be as bad as they seem to be. After all, there are long stretches of the paper that are quite good. When addressing the details of their experiment and how to tease out a tricky observable, the authors are evidently quite skilled and provide clear and useful explanations of everything they do. It is hard to reconcile this professionalism with the total incompetence of some of the other parts of the manuscript. Can this group of people, who clearly function as a highly competent gestalt when it comes to actual experimentation, be reduced to utter crackpottery in their interpretation? Am I being unreasonable with my expectation?

    I decided I was not being unreasonable, in part because the other referee identified a lot of the same serious issues that as I did. Also, it eventually became clear that the authors had not made any kind of legitimate attempt to digest and process most of the criticism from the first round of reviewing. In short, they were behaving like crackpots. In regard to the specific issue that pushed me to this final conclusion, I included the following sentence in my report:

    The response letter contains a breezy dismissal of the results of [citation omitted], because “astrophysical polarization measurements limiting the space birefringence are very inaccurate,” in spite of the fact that that paper’s bounds on left/right asymmetries in a class of gravitational interactions are more than twenty orders of magnitude sharper than the measurements discussed in the current manuscript.

  58. J.W. Brewer says

    Pace Auden, sometimes the really evil folks also have enthusiasms for the more benign sorts of kookery or even eccentricity, which then potentially get tainted by the association. You would think that some well-established corollary to Godwin’s Law that generates practically-useful conclusions like “just pointing out that Hitler was a vegetarian is not a particularly convincing way to discredit vegetarianism” would be widespread by now, but then you see stories like this:

  59. David Eddyshaw says
  60. Not knowing anything about the history of the alphabet, the strange thing for me is absolutely unbelievable claim that Α symbolizes giving birth and Ω is a tombstone. This sort of claim would require extraordinary evidence to be considered seriously.

  61. J.W. Brewer says

    The conventional wisdom is that “alpha” and “omega” unsurprisingly came to be conventional metaphors for “beginning” and “end.” The innovative claim just reverses the direction of causation. (Pairing them together, however, is maybe neither really about beginnings nor ends but is instead more a metaphor for completeness, evoked perhaps by the Rastafarian belief in King Alpha and Queen Omega, whose backstory, from a secular-outsider POV, is given here:

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve just realised that “Alex” is Boris Johnson. It all fits, I tell you …

  63. David Marjanović says

    Certainly some of the criticisms of Day’s proposal seemed not to amount to much more than “but this is inconsistent with how wikipedia says the alphabet developed.”

    I, for one, angrily pointed to Wikipedia because it presents a few important facts that Day didn’t mention. Like the entire Proto-Sinaitic script, which was discovered long ago but after the sources Day cited.

  64. Yeah, there is literally nothing to recommend Day’s proposal, and pointing to Wikipedia is just as valid as pointing to a dictionary if someone says cat means ‘dog.’

  65. John Swindle says

    It should be added regarding Victor Mair that he’s a scholar and an educator, not a god. As far as I can tell he’s only infallible when speaking ex cathedra about matters affecting Pinyin. As an educator he encourages lively discussion of ideas, and people are allowed to disagree. Were John V. Day’s mistaken ideas about the alphabet too far out to merit discussion, given the context of Day’s apparent racism? Maybe. See above regarding (in)fallibility.

  66. By internal evidence, David E is clearly the sockpuppet of the Welsh Illuminati. Or maybe they just want us to believe that.

    David M, now… or all those people called Lars who claim to be different from other ones.

  67. David Marjanović says

    To finally make my point: 🙂 it’s that if you understand the topic you’re publishing about less well than Wikipedia does, go back and try again! (Or die from shame, or whatever.)

    I actually had this case in mind, where a perfectly cromulent, barely unorthodox, peer-reviewed scientific paper on the High German consonant shift knew less about the facts on the ground than Wikipedia.

  68. David Eddyshaw says


  69. Stephen Carlson says

    I enjoy Victor Mair’s Chinese posts, and I learn a lot from them, but I find he just does not have a good ear for etymological nonsense in IE among his guest posters.

  70. Were John V. Day’s mistaken ideas about the alphabet too far out to merit discussion, given the context of Day’s apparent racism?

    I think JVD’s historical views were absurd on their face. That they were apparently motivated by racism is only the icing on the cake.

  71. J.W. Brewer says

    I was curious to know if there was anyone out there on the internet defending the good name of the Phoenicians, and I was pleased not only to discover a pro-Phoenician website but to learn that they are so committed to wide-ranging discourse and robutst freedom of expression that they are willing to provide links and citations to what they deprecate as the “Greek Supremacist Scholastic Heresy” side of the origin-of-the-alphabet controversy. (From which I infer that if you thought Dr. Day’s ideas came out of nowhere, you may not have been keeping up on your Greek-Nationalist-Crackpottery reading over the years.)

  72. David Marjanović says

    John Day and the Golden Dawn: the internationale of National Socialism?

  73. AJP Crown says

    Try this one Brewer, read the introduction. The author’s no crank (I’m not sure what she says about the alphabet).

  74. J.W. – Phoenicianism is a thing. Lebanese Maronites have adopted “Phoenician Nationalism” as a way to assert that they are the true aboriginals in that land, and Arab culture is a foreign imposition. They even go as far as saying that spoken Lebanese is really a dialect of Aramaic (or maybe ancient Phoenician?), or something, in any case not Arabic, and not descended from Arabic. Nassim Taleb (of “Black Swan” fame) is the most well-known proponent of those views.

  75. John Swindle says

    The alphabet was invented long ago by the Phoneticians. The Greeks soon discovered how to use it to write words.

  76. AJP Crown says

    There’s a discussion of Nassim Taleb’s view here:

    Knowing only that because of the politics there’s a hell of a lot of tendentious, misleading argument, I found this line convincing:

    Nassim does not deny that Arabic and Lebanese are related. Both are descendants from the same family of older languages and there have been many interchanges since (not all direct, an Arabic neologism or other novelty could have been adopted in another language that then influenced Lebanese).

    His primary concern is that Arabic should not be singled out as the main or proper Semitic language, with all other languages called “dialects.” As a point regarding the dignity of Lebanon’s culture, nearly everyone would agree with him. No one calls Hebrew a dialect of Arabic.

    However as a convenient linguistic classification, of the 460 million people who speak Semitic languages today, 300 million are native speakers of some form of Arabic, while only about 10 million are native speakers of Lebanese. The second most widespread Semitic language is Amharic with 22 million native speakers. Moreover Arabic is widely spoken or read by non-native speakers, no other Semitic language except Hebrew can claim that (certainly not Lebanese). It makes sense to describe the family of related languages as “Arabic.”

    Nassim also argues that the name Lebanese Arabic for the language of Lebanon comes from political support for pan-Arabism and Westerners insufficiently discriminating about cultural differences in the Middle and Near East. This is just assertion in the piece. He’s entitled to his opinion, and I find it plausible.

    The rest of his article argues that Lebanese is more distinct from Arabic than most other languages called Arabic. That’s not disputed.

  77. He’s entitled to his opinion, and I find it plausible.

    He’s entitled to his opinion, but I find it absurd. It’s just bog-standard nationalist nonsense.

    That’s not disputed.

    It most certainly is; the Arabic varieties of the Maghrib (Morocco/Algeria/Tunisia) are far, far more distinct from the standard language. A speaker of Egyptian Arabic can understand a Lebanese with not much difficulty, but an Algerian not at all. Furthermore, there is no difference between the varieties spoken in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine; they are lumped together in one of my textbooks as “Eastern Arabic” (a bad name, because Iraqi is not part of the group) and in another as “Syrian Arabic” (all those countries were once part of what is conventionally called Greater Syria). To repeat myself, it’s just bog-standard nationalist nonsense.

  78. AJP Crown says

    That’s good to know. I won’t bother with him.

  79. Excellent choice!

  80. J.W. Brewer says

    Although it may not have been clear from the phrasing of my earlier comment, I was already aware of the “Phoenicianism” thing among modern Lebanese nationalists – I was just amused to find it feuding w/ Greek nationalists about what did or didn’t happen 2500+ years ago as opposed to sticking to its primary function of resisting pan-Arabism and rejecting the notion that Lebanese are “Arabs” in an ethnic sense merely because they have adopted the language of those who conquered their ancestors. But I was more interested, based on some free association from David Eddyshaw’s comment, in whether anti-Phoenicianism (which you might have thought would have become a rather obscure-to-obsolete sort of bigotry, all these millennia on from the end of the Punic Wars) was actually a popular thing in the sort of outre and extremist political circles that Dr. Day was said to be affiliated with.

    So in the spirit of scientific inquiry I found the website associated with the notorious periodical mentioned in connection with the complaints about Dr. Day (the periodical is the Occidental Quarterly but the web-only content is on a site called the Occidental Observer) and typed “Phoenician” into the search box to see what might pop up. And … I was impressed to find two different pieces by two different authors, both of whom I think can be fairly characterized based on reasonable inquiry as overt anti-Semites, that were perfectly happy to agree with the conventional wisdom that the Greeks had borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians. (The possible non-existence of the Phoenicians, as argued in the book AJPC linked to, was apparently not a complication they were cognizant of.) And this was not a grudging concession — indeed the piece by the OQ’s equally and independently notorious editor Kevin MacDonald used it to advantage, claiming that no one in his camp (arguing for the objective superiority of ancient Greek civilization, and thus apparently also of its successor “European” or “Western” civilization, over all rivals*) actually believed the Greeks had been some hermetically sealed society that had created all of their achievements ex nihilo. That, he said, was a straw man caricature made up by his camp’s ideological adversaries. And I agree that it is perfectly consistent for ethnocentric nationalists to concede that foreigners may from time to time have come up with clever ideas and that their own objectively-superior civilization may have then borrowed and improved such ideas. Such concessions actually enhance the credibility of ethnocentric nationalists by making them seem less overtly crackpottish. All of which to say is that Dr. Day’s proposal may actually be unnecessarily and indeed counterproductively crackpottish for the unsavory political needs of his alleged political allies. (I’m not going to post direct links to content on a website that many might find offensive, but MacDonald’s piece can be found easily enough by anyone interested via googling its title “Hybrid Fabrications and Greek Originality.” The other piece mentioning the Phoenician origin of the alphabet is Guillaume Derocher’s “Culture and Nationhood in the World of Herodotus: An Evolutionary Analysis, Part 2.”)

    *I should probably note that versions of that belief remain widely held outside extremist circles, and I don’t want to suggest that that belief as such, as opposed to certain consequences allegedly drawn from it, is the primary thing that might be reasonably found objectionable or extremist in the circles we’re talking about.

  81. David Eddyshaw says

    Wow. As a hybrid myself I am taken aback by this presumably inbred nanocephalic ninny’s notion that “hybrid” is anything but a badge of pride.

    As I remarked a little while ago, the pure-bred hordes will soon enough learn to tremble in the face of our hybrid vigour.

    (I read it because I wondered if he was using the word in its technical Nazi sense, but he’s not: just as a free-floating boo-word. Which gives the game away … or is a dog-whistle, depending on the readership.)

  82. Yes, although of course there are no pure-bred hordes, just fools who deny their hybridity.

  83. David Eddyshaw says

    There’s no real point in using actual facts against the Kevin Macdonalds of this world, who would not be what they were if they cared for facts at all, but for what it’s worth the vigour of the culture of which he is a wholly unwelcome champion is surely largely due to the fact that is a most remarkable hybrid (so to speak) of Greco-Roman (hybrid) culture with an exotic Middle Eastern religion.

  84. David Eddyshaw says

    there are no pure-bred hordes

    Exactly! just as there are no snakes in Ireland (thanks to the Welsh.) That‘ll larn ’em! Take on the Hybrids, would ye?

  85. J.W. Brewer says

    “Jewgreek is greekjew,” as a Dubliner temporarily resident in Trieste famously put it. (I don’t know if he’d been exposed to nationalist tales about the Phoenician antecedents of the Irishry and if so what he thought of them.) My inference from context was that “hybrid” and “hybridity” were part of the vogue scholarly jargon of the writers whom MacDonald was condemning, and that those writers were at least in part celebrating hybridity for modern political-agenda reasons of their own rather than simply using it as a neutral empirical description of a common feature of the human condition. Touting ones supposed hybridity can be (when done by those less sophisticated than the valued contributors to this august forum) just as smugly provincial as touting ones supposed purity.

    The fundamental fallacy in all of these arguments is that the claim “my remote ancestors did more impressive things than yours did” simply does not justify the conclusion “therefore I am, myself, a superior person while you are an inferior person.” (Which among other things means that arguing that the other fellow’s ancestors did do more impressive things X centuries or Y millennia ago than is commonly appreciated more or less accepts the fallacy and just quibbles with the premise.)

  86. David Eddyshaw says

    It was a revelation when it was first pointed out to me that from the vast majority of my ancestors I have inherited no genes at all (once it’s been pointed out, you realise that it’s obvious.)

  87. I would have thought the Cato Institute would be at the vanguard of anti-Phoenicianism.

  88. John Cowan says

    The alphabet was invented long ago by the Phoneticians.

    If only.

    the conventional wisdom that the Greeks had borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians

    Part of the problem is the ambiguity of alphabet in the hands of people who don’t understand the technical terminology. The Greeks borrowed their signs they used for writing from the Phoenicians, but only after the Greeks got hold of them did they constitute an Alphabet As We Know It; to the Phoenicians it was all Just Another 22-Character West Semitic Abjad™, or JAWSA for short (there was a lot of discussion on the Unicore list about these, back in the day). So in one sense the Greeks did “borrow the alphabet”; in another sense they didn’t.

  89. J.W. Brewer says

    Be careful, John Cowan. Who knows what unsavory political agenda you might be giving aid and comfort to by suggesting that the Greek adaptation was transformative and a qualitative improvement?

  90. David Eddyshaw says

    I wish I’d said that …

    It made me wonder which Cato the Koch-front renamed itself after, the ineffectual Republican Younger, or the genocidal Elder to whom you allude, but I discover that the answer is neither, or at least not directly:'s_Letters

  91. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, while the alphabet-stricto-sensu versus abjad distinction is a very useful one in technical discussions, if you check the google books corpus to determine the ratio of usage of “Hebrew alphabet” to that of “Hebrew abjad” you end up with a division-by-zero problem, because the n-gram viewer gives you a one-line graph with the notation “Ngrams not found: Hebrew abjad.” And I would predict that informing someone who is bilingual in English and Hebrew that the so-called “Hebrew alphabet” isn’t actually a proper alphabet at all is comparatively unlikely to provoke a positive or civil response.

  92. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m with the Phoenicians here. OK, they didn’t write vowels, but almost no alphabet writes all phonemes: certainly the Greek alphabet didn’t mark vowel length consistently (or at all, initially) or tone, which are also basic elements of the Greek sound system. It’s surely a question of degree, rather than a radical difference in kind.

  93. J.W. Brewer says

    Come to think of it, it might have been better (might still be better – it’s probably not too late?) if a new technical-jargon word for the sort of script that the Greek/Latin/Cyrillic scripts exemplify were agreed upon, so that that jargon-word and abjad (and perhaps also “syllabary” and some others) could all be understood as subsets of the broader umbrella term “alphabet,” which would then have a technical sense more congruent with its popular sense.

  94. John Cowan says

    Well, perhaps I am merely being pedantic, but I do think a writing system that represents vowels and consonants on an equal footing is different in kind from one that represents consonants by primary means and vowels only by secondary means if at all, and both of them from a system that represents consonants by primary means and vowels by secondary means but makes the vowels mandatory in all cases but one (an abugida).

  95. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not disputing that they’re different and that it’s useful to have a technical vocabulary for talking about the differences — I’m just saying that appropriating the word laypeople may commonly use for the broader category they’re all subcategories of as the technical term for one specific subcategory (and then necessarily needing to claim that contrary to popular usage it doesn’t apply to specimens in the other subcategories) is probably not the optimal approach.

  96. John Cowan says

    I agree in general. But I think that in this case, the nominal confusion is part of why the two parties are talking past one another.

  97. David Marjanović says

    Six posts showing Lebanese is totally Arabic, with tiny amounts of Aramaic and/or Phoenicians loanwords in it.

  98. @David Eddyshaw: That bit about not having inherited any genes from most of your ancestors more than a certain number of generations back is not actually so clear cut as it might seem. See, for example, my answer to this Stack Exchange question about how much elvish ancestry Aragorn had. The key point is that, sufficiently far back, the number of possible ancestors becomes rather small, so the number of times that a given individual appears in you family tree actually becomes exponentially large.

  99. >appropriating the word lay people commonly use …

    Thank you. At the end of the month I’ll be leading a group to see a herd of the American animal that is part of a clade including several specues of buffalo, and it galls me that biologists and snoots now insist it can only be called bison.

  100. David Marjanović says

    Buuuut… bisons are closer to cattle than to African + Asian buffalos.

    There is the idea that the usage of “buffalo” for the American bison is a misunderstanding of bœuf de l’eau, putatively so named because it frolics in the water a lot.

  101. Rodger C says

    Reminds me of the local-historian-type notion that Buffalo, NY is from Beau Fleuve. Uh.

  102. ktschwarz says

    J.W. Brewer: “Jewgreek is greekjew,” as a Dubliner temporarily resident in Trieste famously put it. (I don’t know if he’d been exposed to nationalist tales about the Phoenician antecedents of the Irishry and if so what he thought of them.)

    Yes, he was, and he took them seriously! Or at least he apparently did in 1907, when he gave a lecture in Trieste on Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages, where he first describes the language in an orthodox way:

    The Irish language, although of the Indo-European family, differs from English almost as much as the language spoken in Rome differs from that spoken in Teheran. …

    but then veers off in a Phoenician direction:

    This language is oriental in origin, and has been identified by many philologists with the ancient language of the Phoenicians, the originators of trade and navigation, according to historians. This adventurous people, who had a monopoly of the sea, established in Ireland a civilization that had decayed and almost disappeared before the first Greek historian took his pen in hand. It jealously preserved the secrets of its knowledge … The language that the Latin writer of comedy, Plautus, put in the mouth of Phoenicians in his comedy Poenulus is almost the same language that the Irish peasants speak today, according to, the critic Vallancey.

    (Vallancey was an English military surveyor who was sent to Ireland and wrote several enthusiast works about Irish in the late 1700s.) I learned this from Blooms and Barnacles, which I highly recommend as the funniest Ulysses blog going, providing the Leopold Bloom in cartoon form that I didn’t know I needed. A brief excerpt from the post Is Leopold Bloom Phoenician? on how all this ties into Ulysses:

    The belief that the Irish are descendents of the Phoenicians or another Near Eastern group allows the Irish people a hidden past steeped in nobility and grandeur. It’s sort of like realizing, as a culture, that you’re actually a wizard rather than a sad kid living under a staircase. …

    Additionally, an ancient lineage divorced from English rule meant that the Irish were perfectly capable of ruling themselves and didn’t require their colonial rulers to civilize them, a notion having real-world political implications leading up to 1916. Their civilization pre-dated Britain’s by centuries!

    The post concludes that for Joyce this is an affirmation of cultural hybridity:

    Descent from ancient Phoenicians eliminates the possibility of a racially pure Ireland. … Joyce certainly plays into racial and ethnic stereotypes in Ulysses, but he also envisions a modern Ireland that has room for people like Leopold and Molly who are undeniably Irish, but also just foreign enough for their Irishness to be questioned or qualified by their peers, even by one another.

    (Caveat: they’re discussing the book in chapter order, but they do give spoilers, e.g. when Bloom’s potato is briefly mentioned for the first time, they do a whole episode about the important role it’s going to play eleven chapters later. I’ve been skipping those parts.)

  103. Thanks for reviving this thread; I discovered the original links were broken (after only two years! come on, M-W, you can do better!) and provided an archived link for the first. I thought the second was gone forever, because the Wayback Machine couldn’t find it, but then Prof. Google told me it was now part of a “Word History” series, so I used that version… which adds the final word “future.”

  104. Since there were complaints about Victor Mair in this thread, it seems like a good place to memorialize ML’s finally losing his patience with VM:

    @Victor Mair:

    Um, rather than making uninformed guesses, you could ask Wikipedia. Or ChatGPT itself […]

    A random 3-letter initialism is likely to have many possible references — why not actually figure out the right one one, or wait for someone who knows, rather than flailing around in a long list of possibilities?

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