My wife asked me why the cataracts in eyes are called that, so of course I had to look it up; it turns out Greek καταρ(ρ)άκτης, literally ‘down-rushing,’ could mean both ‘waterfall’ and ‘portcullis,’ both senses were kept in Latin and French (from which we got the word), and the sense ‘an opacity of the crystalline lens of the eye’ (in the OED’s words) is:

[Apparently a figurative use of the sense portcullis. In French, the physician A. Paré (c1550) has ‘cataracte ou coulisse’; and Cotgrave (1611) has coulisse ‘a portcullis.. also a web in the eye’, the notion being that even when the eye is open, the cataract obstructs vision, as the portcullis does a gateway. (But if originally in medieval Latin, it might arise from the sense ‘window-grating’ fenestra clathrata, Du Cange.)]

Mind you, that’s from 1889, but the OnEtDict agrees: “Its alternative sense in Latin of “portcullis” probably passed through French and gave English the meaning “eye disease characterized by opacity of the lens” (early 15c.), on the notion of “obstruction” (to eyesight).”

Unrelated, but I have to share my delight at discovering another source for Russian books; AbeBooks is good for cheap ex-library copies (but of course that’s hit-or-miss), Amazon has some good stuff (but is also hit-or-miss, not to mention quite expensive), and St-Petersburg Bookstore (, which I used to visit in Brighton Beach, concentrates on more popular stuff (and the occasional literary title is quite expensive). Lately I’ve been in contact with José Vergara (who’s got a book coming out that I’m eagerly anticipating, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature, about how Yury Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Bitov, Sasha Sokolov, and Mikhail Shishkin have responded to Joyce’s fiction), and when I complained about having a hard time finding some things I wanted he suggested I try He helped me through the interface (you click on the smiley face on the upper right, have them send you a code via your cell phone, and create a user profile), and I quickly found enough goodies to put together a respectable order:

Лекции по русской литературе XX века. Том 3 | Быков Дмитрий Львович
Алмазный мой венец | Катаев Валентин
Письма к Вере | Набоков Владимир
Иностранка | Довлатов Сергей
Заповедник | Довлатов Сергей
Жизнь и необычайные приключения солдата Ивана Чонкина. Кн.1. Лицо неприкосновенное | Войнович Владимир
Конец света, моя любовь | Горбунова Алла Глебовна

The last was the most expensive (586 rubles, a little under $8); the rest were between 132 and 252 rubles, so practically free compared to how much even English-language paperbacks cost here. The books totaled 1613 rubles (a bit over $21) and the shipping was 1535 rubles (a bit over $20); considering the Gorbunova alone costs $28.00 at Amazon, it was well worth it, and I got the books in less than a week (several days earlier than promised — they use DHL for delivery), much quicker than I would have gotten a package from any of my other, more local, sources. This has been a public service announcement for those who, like me, have an endless appetite for Russian books.


  1. David Eddyshaw says


    Pfui. A mere folk etymology.

    As we have discussed elsewhere, cataracts are really named from the disastrous battle of Catraeth, in commemoration of the strategic vision displayed on that occasion by the Gododdin.

  2. I was aware of all three meanings of cataract, but I had sort of figured that the primordial meaning was “obstruction.” The “waterfall” sense would then correspond to where a waterway became nonnavigable (e.g. the cataracts of the Nile).

  3. marie-lucie says

    les coulisses

    I was surprised to see this word connected with la cataracte in its eye problem context.

    In French this feminine plural word refers to the curtained backstage areas in a theatre, hiding the actors when they are not needed on the stage.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    I had rather poetically thought having a cataract (an experience I have had and which rapidly grows less poetic in practice) was like trying to see through a waterfall or so some antient practitioner of Physick might have thought.

  5. For a poetic response to a cataract, there is this from chapter nine of A Wizard of Earthsea. This is also probably where I first encountered the word cataract in connection with blindness.

    Unlike the shrewd fisherman of Gont, this old man, for fear and wonder of his wizardry, would have given the boat to Ged. But Ged paid him for it in sorcerers’ kind, healing his eyes of the cataracts that were in the way of blinding him. Then the old man, rejoicing, said to him, “We called the boat Sanderling, but do you call her Lookfar, and paint eyes aside her prow, and my thanks will look out of that blind wood for you and keep you from rock and reef. For I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.”

    (Note also the imperative with both an explicit subject and a modal do.)

  6. David Marjanović says

    the disastrous battle of Catraeth

    …which is no doubt named after itself (cat-…?).

  7. les coulisses … curtained backstage areas in a theatre

    Like operatic tenor which is so sweet because it vanishes behind coulisses forever.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Brett’s block quote is of interest to me not so much because of the Earthsea angle or even the ophthalmology angle, but because I have a preexisting interest in that “imperative with both an explicit subject and a modal do” construction. I have from time to time seen it (typically as “do thou VERB”) in translations of liturgical Greek or Slavonic texts into a KJVish style of English, and it has always seemed a bit off to me — clunky translationese and/or an ESLism and/or an attempt to make explicit some nuance of verbal conjugation in the original language that isn’t explicit in English and thus sounds unidiomatic when you try to make it explicit. But whatever LeGuin is doing is probably not driven by those sorts of translation conventions as much as a sense of what sounds like Ye Olde Englisshe Prose Style suitable for paperback fantasy novels. And that sense could be totally bogus, or it could be an archaism but an evidence-based one rooted in actual English prose style of earlier centuries. If anyone has any reliable information to offer on that, one way or the other, I should be much obliged.

  9. This seems to be Ye Olde Englishe O God Do Thou Sustain Me, but I cannot find the original. Wiiliam Penn: “In marriage do thou be wise: prefer the person before money, virtue before beauty, the mind before the body; then thou hast a wife, a friend, a companion, a second self.”, I assume is original.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    From Henry V, Act 1 Scene 4
    But, Ned, to drive away the time till Falstaff come, I prithee, do thou stand in some by-room, while I question my puny drawer to what end he gave me the sugar; and do thou never leave calling ‘Francis,’ that his tale to me may be nothing but ‘Anon.’ Step aside, and I’ll show thee a precedent.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Sorry, correct citation is of course Henry IV Part 1, Act 2 Scene 4.

  12. I know the German version from the wearyingly common saying “hinter den Kulissen”, = “behind the scenes”… so, could cataract mean just plain curtain as well as portcullis, or what?

  13. Regarding Shakespeare and Penn, Early Modern English frequently used pronouns in imperatives, and in these cases the normal SVO order would be changed to VSO, presumably to maintain the emphasis on the verb and the action to be done.

    There are several “do thou” and “do you” imperatives in Shakespeare. Penn would be seem to have been using a slightly (for his time) archaic construction, perhaps deliberately, perhaps not. You’d need to look at his corpus of writings to see if it was a habit of his or if he was trying to imitate the style of the KJV and Book of Common Prayer.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I will admit that while I had been irked/curious about modern translators’ usage of the “do thou VERB” construction for years I’d never bothered to do any corpus-diving to see how it had/hadn’t been used in prior centuries. Shakespeare aside, it does appear to be reasonably common in liturgical-register texts of the 18th and early 19th centuries – a time when that was already a somewhat self-consciously archaic/poetic register to be working in, but still a time when one might assume that the writers were “native speakers” of the KJV/BCP register/style in a way that was much less likely to be the case by the mid/late-20th century. But here’s the really odd thing, it is almost (I say almost) entirely absent from the actual style-defining master texts, viz. the KJV and BCP themselves.

    In the KJV (leaving aside constructions like “Go and do thou likewise,” where “do” is not an auxiliary verb, which sound archaic but not off to my ear — I’m specifically talking “do thou VERB”) it seems to occur only once, in 2 Sam 19:19 (“neither do thou remember that which thy servant did perversely the day that my lord the king went out of Jerusalem”).

    In what you might call the BCP (1662 redaction) Proper, it occurs not at all. It for a while occurred in one of the annexed “State Services,” namely the special propers for the anniversary of the accession of the reigning sovereign, where e.g. a collect for the protection of George III against his enemies read in pertinent part “Do thou weaken the hands, blaſt the deſigns, and defeat the enterpriſes of all his enemies; that no ſecret conſpiracies, nor open violences, may diſquiet his reign.” The form used for the anniversary of the present Queen’s accession does not contain this collect. It survived into at least the beginning of the reign of Victoria and I haven’t done the deeper work necessary to figure out when it was dropped although I know there was a general revision and pruning of those services (which are outside the “BCP Proper” in the sense that they can be amended or deleted without as much procedural agita as e.g. the form of the baptism service) in the late 1850’s and that might have been when. But another source says the accession-anniversary service was separately revised c. 1901 so that might have been when. In any event, it’s gone now.*

    An interesting early American secular use comes from a 1729 piece by the pseudonymous “Busy-Body,” who was Benjamin Franklin writing under an assumed name and with a style fitting a fictitious personality that was not necessarily that similar to his actual personality: “Be advised by thy friend : neglect those musty authors ; let them be covered with dust, and moulder on their proper shelves ; and do thou apply thyself to a study much more profitable–the study of mankind and thyself.”

    I must say that I find it striking-to-puzzling that a construction almost entirely absent from the actual KJV/BCP became for a good while part of the inventory of stylistic archaisms used by those aiming to evoke the KJV/BCP style, but I guess history can be like that. It also (he said defensively) makes me feel better about my own that-sounds-weird reaction, because I have had much more personal exposure to the actual KJV/BCP (those hopefully giving me some meaningful intuitions about what does and doesn’t sound plausible in that context) than to the vast pile of more ephemeral secondary works written in that register in and about the 18th century.

    *Separately, the Psalter is usually included with the BCP, and editions in the 18th century and earlier sometimes used metrical-paraphrase versions of the Psalter instead of the “real” BCP Psalter (which is Coverdale rather than KJV), with the “do thou VERB” construction occurring in some of the metrical paraphrases but not in Coverdale.

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    What I also find strange is the development in the negative imperative. In “don’t you dare”, the word “you” really has to be there, whereas there are other expressions where the word “you” is an optional intensifier or shows sympathy or intimacy, “don’t you come back until…” or “don’t you worry”.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    PlasPad: Well, it must have somehow become a fixed phrase. In modern English you can optionally add “emphatic do” to positive imperatives. “Do stay for lunch!” is more emphatic than “stay for lunch” or a polite rephrasing like “Won’t you stay for lunch.” But “Do tell!” somehow froze into a fixed phrase such that the “do” is not optional. I guess without that you would need an object like “Tell me!” or “Tell us!” rather than bare “Tell!” Maybe the same is true with “Don’t you dare” in that “dare” usually requires a complement (preempting the question “dare what?”), and that can be omitted in a fixed phrase but only if a different typically-optional element is included? As a possible parallel on the negative side, both “Don’t start with me” and “Don’t you start” sound idiomatic to my ear (in a vexed or angry tone) but bare “don’t start” sounds odder, at least in that context where what the addressee is perceived as threatening to “start” is an argument or complaint or self-justification or something contentious like that rather than a more generic task or project.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    “Don’t start!” seems perfectly normal to me in the warding-off-argument sense (perhaps because of the number of times it has been directed at me.)

    I wonder if this is yet another of those cases where the Atlantic makes an unexpected difference?

  18. Well, to this Yank “Don’t start!” seems at least as normal as “Don’t you start.” I suspect this is one of those linguistic side-alleys where very local habits are more important than which side of the pond you’re on.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    Wait, are you guys saying that me introspecting about my own usage and the usage of others (but only to the extent I’ve noticed it impressionistically and anecdotally) is not the sole relevant evidence here? I may need to place a call to someone at MIT to report some suspicious characters.

  20. I find, “Don’t start,” perfectly fine. Bare, “Tell!” also sounds grammatical, but it does seem like characteristic, often deprecated tween-speak. Moreover, and not unrelatedly, it sounds much better as an exclamation; a flat imperative, “Tell,” could easily sound weird or robotic.

    @J.W. Brewer: I only ever called in to report suspicious characters to MIT if they were sleeping in a dormitory lounge or the Infinite Corridor, never for practicing rigorous linguistic inquiry.

  21. “Do thou…” makes me think of the discursive “Look you,” which I have only seen in writing (first time in the English translation of Ubu Cocu, as a stock phrase of the hapless Achras).

  22. David Marjanović says

    It’s lexicalized. Don’t start! is perfectly cromulent, Tell! is odd, Do tell! is definitely emphatic – *Don’t dare! is unattested as long as I don’t google it. (And when I do, it’s at least not on the first page.)

    Part of the reason must be that telling people they shouldn’t dare (to) do stuff, as opposed to just telling them they shouldn’t do it, is a rather archaic thing to do, so there doesn’t need to be a contemporary way of saying it. Once you consciously reach for that obsolete mindset, you also reach for obsolete language to express it.

    Mikhail Shishkin

    What, the paleontologist? …Ah, no, he’s long dead; en.wikipedia instead knows a writer and a soccer player of that name.

  23. I feel “don’t you die on me!” may appear overall in more melodramas than “don’t die on me!”, but the ratio likely varies when broken down by genre.

  24. Mikhail Shishkin. I haven’t started reading him yet, but I have every expectation of liking him a lot. (Interesting: “He also writes in German.”)

  25. Michail Pawlowitsch Schischkin; there’s a list of Deutschsprachige Theater-Aufführungen.

  26. Russian books

    Центральная Азия: традиция в условиях перемен. Вып. 1

    А. Зияев. Базары Ташкента. В прошлом и настоящем

    Из антологии «Ташкент в русской поэзии»

  27. John Cowan says

    “If the Enemie is an Asse and a Foole, and a prating Coxcombe; is it meet, thinke you, that wee should also, looke you, be an Asse and a Foole, and a prating Coxcombe, in your owne conscience now?”

    Apparently these imperatives gave people time to translate from the Welsh they were thinking in to the English they were speaking.

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