On the LibraryThing page for Charles Duff I noticed that alongside Russian for Beginners, the book from which I taught myself Russian, were listed German for Beginners, Spanish for Beginners, French for Beginners, and Italian for Beginners (not to mention A Handbook On Hanging: Being A Short Introduction To The Fine Art Of Execution). How did this guy manage to write textbooks for all those languages? Who was Charles Duff? Well, there’s not a whole lot on the internet, but the NYRB (which republished the hanging book) says “Charles Duff (1894-1966) served as an officer in the British Merchant Navy during World War I and then in the intelligence division of the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service. After retiring, he taught linguistics and languages in London and Singapore while writing travel guides, histories, satires, and a series of text books.” And this Spanish book catalog (pdf) suggested that Carlos Prieto, author of Spanish Front (1936), was a “posible seudónimo de Charles Duff,” which led me to this page of Prieto books, where a copy of Spanish Front is described as “Inscribed To David from Carlos Prieto (Anglican Charles Duff) 8/7/37″—I assume “Anglican” is a misunderstanding of anglicè ‘in English,’ which would tend to support the pseudonym theory. And the first page (all you can read without a JSTOR subscription) of the Oct. 1948 review by Robert J. Clements in The Modern Language Journal of Duff’s 1947 book How to Learn a Language adds more information: Duff “for many years trained language teachers at the University of London” and “was active for eighteen years in the Foreign Office and is author of a series of seven basic and minimal foreign language grammars sponsored by the Orthological Institute.” (The Orthological Institute was a creation of C. K. Ogden, the Basic English guy; I’m glad to see they sponsored more useful things as well.) Duff sounds like an interesting fellow (he seems to have appreciated Finnegans Wake when it was still Work in Progress); too bad there isn’t more available on him.


  1. Regarding JSTOR access, any resident of Massachusetts (even West of 495!) can get a Boston Public Library card and the BPL web site has a proxy that allows a handful of users outside the library through to JSTOR at a time. (I wish they’d do the same for the OED.)
    For people elsewhere, if your library has JSTOR but no proxy, it might be worth asking. JSTOR let Boston do it; probably not for free, but still.

  2. Great — thanks!

  3. Babelfish tells me that “Anglican” is Czech for “English”.

  4. I guess “entirely genial in conception” means “a work of genius”? I need to use that phrase in conversation.

  5. a long time ago in a post far far away …
    Dear folks, came across your interesting part of the web (as usual, whilst looking for something else) and have two brief observations to offer:
    I once designed a ferocious dinosaur-like thing called ‘The Saurus’ for Harper Collins in the early days of multimedia..
    all the dictionaries, reference books etc are quite wrong about the Brass Razoo: They are all out by at least 60 years !! (too modern)
    January 20, 2006
    Roger Caines, of Loftus, has at last given us the definitive origin of the term “brass razoo” (Column 8, Saturday), or at least has referred us to ABC NewsRadio’s Kel Richards’s version, and we don’t argue with Kel when it comes to etymology: “The word ‘razoo’ first appeared in Aussie English in the First World War as soldiers’ slang. The OED defines a brass razoo as ‘a non-existent coin of trivial value’, adding ‘origin unknown’. Some suggest the name might have been based on an Egyptian coin, and others an Indian coin (the word being brought by the British Army from India). Another idea is that ‘razoo’ is a playful variation on the expression ‘not a sou’…. Brass has long been a slang word for money, so it’s hardly surprising the two words came together to give us a brass razoo. Enterprising folk have attempted to plug the gap by manufacturing novelty coins with inscriptions like ‘the one and only authentic brass razoo’. But there never was a real razoo, brass or otherwise.”
    Ross Pearce, of Mittagong, begs to differ. “The brass razoo is a dead-set dinkum Aussie coin. A must for everyone. A brass razoo is inflation-proof, readily exchangeable for unicorns, and unassailable by your creditors or the Tax Office. It’s your right to never have nothing again. At worst, you’ll always have something: your brass razoo. Henry Lawson never had one, Ned Kelly tried to steal one, miners have dug and died without one to their name, but I HAVE ONE.”
    (I produced the one held by Mr Pearce – about 30 years ago – and ‘did my research ‘ first) Some of these have been getting US$40 on ebay recently – no packaging/legend/provenance… and there are some fakes !!
    For complex commercial reasons (i.e. there’s a new one coming for serious charity and it’s a secret) I can’t actually give my ‘unassailable’ citations as yet, but promise to before the year is out (because – like most of you, I love words – and I do ‘argue with Kel when it comes to etymology’  🙂 I actually engaged Ms Angela Ridsdale (OED) way back in the 70s if anyone has heard of her…) But in consolation, I [TRIED To but Can’t] attach some pics and another bloke who was badly wrong… It is in US/Brit & Irish slang, too.
    As well as Kiwi !!
    Do feel free to drop me a line in you’d like more/pics/scans and Babelfischen…
    And yes, it is Maori for ‘testicles’, too 🙂

  6. Were you being ironic with that “too bad there isn’t more available on him” at the end of that long list of details gathered without too much effort from all around the world, or has the web spoiled you as much as it has me?

  7. The web has spoiled me terribly. I expected at the very least a page’s worth of bio, if not a GoogleBooks link to Charles Duff: The Entirely Genial Linguist and Swashbuckler.

  8. What will the world be like when everything is available on the web? The timewasting possibilities will be greater than the total amount of time there is in the universe.
    I just Googled three pretty obscure French poets and was disappointed to find that their complete works are not available on the web, but only a few scattered poems, references, and thembnail bios. A travesty, I tell you! Who can I speak to about this?

  9. John: I bet they’re available via Minitel. Failing that, those French guys (was it the Academy?) who, outraged at Google’s plans to digitize everything, announced that THEY’d digitize all the French stuff, themSELVES, so THERE.

  10. Babelfish tells me that “Anglican” is Czech for “English”.
    It’s “Angličan” in both Czech and Slovak and it would be more appropriately translated as “Englishman”. “Englishwoman” is “Angličanka”.
    And there is also angličák.

  11. Terry Collmann says

    Duff as a surname is probably from Gaelic dubh, meaning black, and prieto in Spanish means, I believe, dark …

  12. Very good indeed, sir! I missed that entirely.

  13. Duff sounds like a fascinating character, representative of an almost mythic breed of British Fifth Columnists which were charmingly fictionalised by the author Sterling E. Lanier in his series of short stories published some forty years ago in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction featuring the mysterious Brigadier Ffellowes, who would hold forth at his gentleman’s club during his well-earned retirement telling tall tales to his spell-bound audience of parvenu Yankees. (I must write shorter sentences, sorry guys.)
    These yarns were later anthologised in the excellent ‘The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes’ from The Garden City Press Ltd for Sidgwick & Jackson publishers. Students of the arcane will profit from hunting down this (probably defunct) imprint.

  14. Charles Perry says

    The linguistic polymath I’m interested in is W(for Washington) Irving Crowley, who published “A Modern Turkish Reader” (1940), “Elementary Romanian” (1944), “A Georgian Grammar” (1945), “Introduction to Literary Mongolian” (1946) and a Catalan grammar as well as “French Poetry in the 17th Century” (1931). The only one of the books I’ve seen is the Georgian grammar, which was published in mimeograph, perhaps because of the unavailability of a Georgian font, by Pangloss Press, Los Angeles (the L.A. Public Library’s copy is now falling apart). He sounds like my kinda guy. Don’t know anything else about him, but there’s a family photo on the internet.

  15. I have a copy of another book by W. Irving Crowley in my collection of Turkish grammars. It’s “A Modern Turkish Grammar”, published in 1938 by Pangloss Publications, listed on the cover as in Hollywood, California, and on the frontispiece as in Middlesboro, Kentucky. My copy of that book, 136 pages, and also in rather poor shape, includes a preface by the author, indicating that it’s “the first Turkish grammar, conceived along conventional lines, to be published in the United States.” It contains no bibliography or any indication as to how he learned Turkish, but does offer thanks to two Turkish officials who provided support and encouragement, and to “two men of tested friendship, the President and the Business Manager of Lincoln Memorial University, who have facilitated the task greatly.” His preface was evidently written at “West View, Harrogate, Tennessee”.
    I’ve always been curious about this guy, and how he came to write a Turkish grammar (as well as the reader cited above), not to mention various other language books. (The Turkish grammar also notes “A Modern Hungarian Grammar”, “to be published in 1944”.)
    The Turkish in his book is a bit confused; some of his example sentences are not grammatical, so his knowledge of the language was a bit deficient.
    Still, especially given the breadth of his linguistic interests, he must have been an interesting character.

  16. Charles Perry says

    There are spelling mistakes in his Georgian grammar, too (the letters all laboriously scratched by hand onto mimeograph stencils). So I guess he was an over-reacher. But heroic, nevertheless.

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