English Was Brilliant.

I’m finally reading Boris Fishman’s novel A Replacement Life (see this 2017 post), and I thought this passage was postworthy (the viewpoint character, Slava, is the only one in his immigrant family who can read English, so the mail is turned over to him for interpretation: “Was this a letter from James Baker III alerting the Gelmans that a tragic mistake had been made and the family would have to return to the Soviet Union?”):

The letter was given to Slava. His fingers were small enough for the Bible font and onionskin pages of the brick dictionary they had procured from a curbside, somebody who had learned English already. As the adults shifted their feet, leaning against doorjambs and working their lips with their teeth, he carefully sliced open the envelope and unfolded the letter inside, his heart beating madly. He was all that stood between his family and expulsion by James Baker III. America was a country where you could have Roman numerals after your name, like a Caesar.

As the adults watched, Slava checked the unfamiliar words in the bricktionary. “Annual percentage rate.” “Layaway.” “Installment plan.” “One time only.” “For special customers like you.” The senior Gelmans waiting, Slava was embarrassed to discover himself mindlessly glued to certain words in the dictionary that had nothing to do with the task at hand. On the way to “credit card,” he had snagged on “cathedral,” its spires —t, h, d, l—like the ones the Gelmans had seen in Vienna. “Rebate” took him to “roly-poly,” which rolled around his mouth like a fat marble. “Venture rewards” led him to “zaftig,” a Russian baba’s breasts covering his eyes as she placed in front of him a bowl of morning farina. Eventually, he managed to verify enough to reassure the adults that, no, it didn’t seem like a letter from James Baker III. The senior Gelmans sighed, shook their heads, resumed frying fish.

Slava remained with the bricktionary. Hinky, lunker, wattles. Taro, terrazzo, toodle-oo. “Levity” became a Jewish word because Levy was a Jewish surname in America. “Had had”—knock-knock—was a door. A “gewgaw” was a “gimcrack,” and a “gimcrack” was “folderol.” “Sententious” could mean two opposite things, and wasn’t to be confused with “senescent,” “tendentious,” or “sentient.” Nor “eschatological” with “scatological.” This language placed the end of the world two letters away from the end of a bowel movement.

Russian words were as stretchy as the meat under Grandmother’s arm. You could invent new endings and they still made sense. Like peasants fidgeting with their ties at a wedding, the words wanted to unlace into diminutives: Mikhail into Mishen’ka (little Misha), kartoshka into kartoshechka (little potato). English was colder, clipped, a brain game. But English was brilliant.


  1. Roman numerals after your name, like a Caesar

    That reminds me of a story I was told around 1980 by a young cosmologist I knew who had been invited to go to a scientific meeting in Eastern Europe (I forget which country). Also in attendance was Y.B. Zeldovich, a giant of Soviet theoretical physics who until then had rarely if ever been allowed out of the Soviet Union because of his involvement with the nuclear weapons program. My friend got talking to Zeldovich, and in the course of conversation mentioned that his PhD adviser had been J. Richard Gott III, whose name always appeared that way in the journals. At this, Zeldovich became very excited. “Tell me,” he said, “what does it mean, this aye aye aye after his name?”

  2. Ha, that’s great!

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I was thinking recently about Jim Baker because I was reading a newly-published (29 years after it happened) war memoir by a high school classmate of mine who as a still-young USAF pilot flew combat missions during the first Gulf War. Which in turn made me remember Jim Baker’s happenstance role in one of the most bizarre-yet-lovely episodes from the end of the Cold War in Europe. (This is June 1991, after the Gulf War was already over. There was plenty of time afterwards for things to go wrong, and they did, but there is still something important in the moment of initial euphoria.)

    Some 300,000 Albanians, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” jammed into the main square of Tirana on Saturday to hear Secretary of State James Baker tell them that “freedom works” and urge them to move forward toward democracy. It was the first visit ever by a senior American official to this tiny Balkan country, which in March became the last in Eastern Europe to begin instituting democratic reforms.

    A sea of Albanians greeted Baker as he drove into town for his one-day visit. Hands reached out from every direction to touch the secretary of state or to pound on the car windows. Albanians kissed the hood and windows, they showered the car with flower petals, and one man threw himself in front of the limousine and kissed the road _ anything to make a link with the representative of America.

    The Albanian police were totally overwhelmed by the euphoric but friendly crowd that crammed into Tirana’s main Skanderbeg Square to hear Baker speak.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    But separately, there’s a stylebook issue. He was always James A. Baker 3d in the N.Y. Times, even if the “III” might have been more common elsewhere. It’s interesting in part because I think this is the sort of thing where publications tend go for uniformity rather than “what does the individual prefer left to his/her own devices.”

  5. This sounds like it’s worth reading.

  6. Speaking of Russian scientific giants. Vlaimir Arnold wrote in his little book on the catastrophe theory that when he asked the leading proponent of the theory Thom (Arnold claimed that he learned the entire theory out of a conversation with Thom) what is the proof of some of the main claims of the theory, the answer was бла-бла-бла, to which Arnold added parenthetically “in French?” (Just to prevent any confusion. As I understand, the entire conversation was in French, though the story would be funnier if it was in English)

  7. Dmitry Pruss says

    We were high school pals with Zeldovich’s grandson, and I visited often. One could get such illicit things as the National Geographic magazine at their place. Anyway the old guy’s favorite social role was the one of an educated simpleton who is much smarter than his smartass interlocutors in the end of the day. He just so much loved pretending to be uneducated (in many ways he was, having not graduated from grade school, let alone college).

  8. I’m envious. I never met Zeldovich but some of his work was relevant to what I was doing in my PhD. Reading his papers (in English, in Sov Phys JETP) was always a bit of a puzzle. He would start with a brief general discussion of the problem he was addressing, set out some general principles and assumptions, and then, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, write down his answer. The bit about how he got from the problem to the answer seemed always to be left as an exercise for the reader. But he was pretty much always right. I think sometimes his insights were not taken quite as seriously in the West as they should have been, because he tended not to explain himself in the typical way, so when it turned out he really did know what he was talking about, it was easy to think he just made a lucky guess. He was an unconventional but truly remarkable scientist.

  9. I like “pulls rabbit out of a hat” stories. I once heard of a mathematician giving a talk called something like “Seven open conjectures in the theory of Banach Spaces” (A Banach space is a kind of a vector space associated with a particular norm; a norm is a generalization of the concept of the length of a vector.) The lecturer discussed each conjecture in turn, its history, its difficulties, filling up all the sliding blackboards. And then, a minute before the end, he wiped all the blackboards clean, wrote down the definition of a certain norm, and declared, “the Banach space defined by this norm is a counterexample to all seven conjectures.” He then sat down, leaving the audience to confirm his statement at their leisure.

  10. @Y: The definition of a Banach space is so general (a complete, normed space) that there are hardly any nontrivial* statements that are going to be universally true. I remember one seminar where the speaker was similarly proposing a conjecture about Banach spaces, and I pointed out that any finite-dimensional Banach space was actually a counterexample. The speaker’s entirely reasonable response was that that wasn’t very interesting and could just be taken care of by just changing the wording slightly, since the prototypical Banach spaces are infinite-dimensional function spaces.

    * Obviously though, this hinges a great deal on what one means by “nontrivial.”

  11. Brett: It’s been a long time since I thought about such thinks. But the way it was told to me (by a mathematician), it sounded like there was drama in demonstrating that all those problems were tied together, and that all could be solved at once with one concise counterexample, and that nobody had discovered that before.

  12. @Y: Oh, I’m sure you’re right. I just personally happen to think that there are really very few interesting properties of Banach spaces in general, because their definition is too broad. Thus, it seems not terribly surprising that a single cleverly constructed but atypical norm could be used to falsify multiple conjectures.

  13. I heard about Banach spaces because of an infamous conjecture called the invariant subspace problem. When a counterexample was claimed to have appeared in the 1970s, it took 10 years for the hundred or so pages of it to appear, which were notoriously difficult to follow, even for specialists in the field.

  14. Feynman’s definition: To a mathematician, a theorem is trivial as soon as it has been proved, no matter how difficult the proof.

    See also Quine on mathematosis.

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