I’m reading Alexander M. Martin’s brilliant Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762-1855 (it’s been on my shelf for several years now, and I’ve been saving it as a treat), and I’ve gotten to this passage on p. 80 (he’s discussing Gerhard Friedrich Müller’s article on Moscow [pp. 182-94] in “Russia’s first geographic dictionary”):

Absent is almost any reference to the people of Moscow. “The people” was no alien topic to Müller. He spoke excellent Russian, and few knew the country as he did. He had traveled vast distances on his decade-long Siberian odyssey, and had written extensively on Siberian ethnography; the very word ethnography originated as a calque of a term, Völker-Beschreibung, that Müller coined in his writings on Siberia.

The etymological claim of course intrigued me, but the OED (entry updated March 2014) just says “after German Ethnographie (1767 or earlier).” Martin references the statement to Han Vermeulen’s “Von der Völker-Beschreibung zur Völkerkunde: ethnologische Ansichten von Gerhard Friedrich Müller und August Friedrich Schlözer,” which is available on, but I refuse to give those people my e-mail address. So if anybody is already signed up with them and wants to check what Vermeulen says on the subject, or happens to already know something about the history of the word, I will be grateful for more information.


  1. Dan Milton says

    From Wikipedia:
    Gerhard Friedrich Müller developed the concept of ethnography as a separate discipline whilst participating in the Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733–43) as a professor of history and geography. Whilst involved in the expedition, he differentiated Völker-Beschreibung as a distinct area of study. This became known as “ethnography,” following the introduction of the Greek neologism ethnographia by Johann Friedrich Schöpperlin and the German variant by A. F. Thilo in 1767.[11] August Ludwig von Schlözer and Christoph Wilhelm Jacob Gatterer of the University of Göttingen introduced the term into the academic discourse in an attempt to reform the contemporary understanding of world history.[11][12]

    Footnotes 11 and 12 refer to Vermeulen”s book.

  2. A couple of readers were kind enough to send me a pdf of Vermeulen’s article, which includes a lot of interesting material; this passage from the introduction seems to be the basis for the claim:

    Der Phase, die Fischer und Stagl als Geburtsstunde der Ethnologie identifizierten, ging nämlich eine Periode voraus, in der sich die „Ethnographie“ oder „Völker-Beschreibung“ in den Arbeiten deutschsprachiger Historiker, die im Dienste der Russischen Akademie der Wissenschaften Sibirien erforschten, herauskristallisierte. Der Entstehung der Ethnographie (oder „Völker-Beschreibung“) in den Arbeiten deutschsprachiger Forscher im Russischen Reich in der Frühaufklärung (1710–1760) folgte eine zweite Phase, die man als die „Erfindung“ der Ethnologie (oder „Völkerkunde“) im deutschsprachigen Raum zur Zeit der Spätaufklärung (1760–1810) bezeichnen kann. In der anschließenden Periode folgte im Wissenstransfer die Übernahme deutscher Ethnos-Konzepte durch Forscher in anderen europäischen Ländern und den Vereinigten Staaten (Vermeulen 2008c, 2009).

    Which doesn’t actually say the later word was based on the German one. But more detail is presumably available in Vermeulen’s 2009 book Early History of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment.

  3. Vermeulen’s PhD thesis gives more detail:

    After Gerhard Friedrich Müller introduced an ethnological program in Russia, it took less than thirty years for the term ‘ethnography’ to surface in the German states. Müller had used the term Völker-Beschreibung (1740), not yet its neo-Greek equivalent. As far as we know now, the concept ethnographia first appeared in 1767, the year Carsten Niebuhr returned from the Orient and Samuel Wallis landed on Tahiti. It occurred in a Latin text published in Swabia (Schwaben), southern Germany, and in a German review of this text. The first text was a short history of Swabia (Prolusio scholastica Sueviae veteris) written by Johann Friedrich Schöpperlin (1732-1772), a historian and head of the Gymnasium (grammar school) at Nördlingen, Swabia. Following a description of the Swabian people in the course of their history, Schöpperlin remarked: ‘This [the preceding] must rather be called the ethnography than the geography of ancient Swabia, which we shall now briefly represent.’

    There is much more from page 200 of that thesis.

  4. Sorry, I probably forgot to link the PhD thesis. Here it is:
    Go to “Full Text” on the right.

  5. Thanks very much!

  6. “Absent is almost any reference to the people of Moscow.”

    Here are Google ngrams for constructions similar to “absent is almost any”. That string itself appears nowhere on Google books outside of Martin’s book. (I get seven other hits, but further investigation suggests that these are false positives.) An unrestricted search on “absent is almost any” turned up just twelve hits, with this present thread at the very top!

    I suspected as much. To me this variant is more defensible, on logical and usage grounds:

    Almost absent is any reference to the people of Moscow.

    I invite Hatters to quibble at that also. I could!

  7. @Noetica: Dear me, no. The version with the “Absent” first sounds distinctly better to my ear.

    The predicative adjective absent is easily transposed to the initial position in a sentence (or full clause; see the example below), in ways that are much less euphonious with other adjectives. Compare these sentences, which are both fine:

    However, other mentions of Russian people were absent from the document.
    However, absent from the document were other mentions of the Russian people.

    with this pair, in which the inverted construction is grammatical, but unidiomatic except in a poetic or archaizing context:

    The days of that particular August were hot.
    ? Hot were the days of that particular August.

    I imagine that part of the reason that absent can be fronted so easily is that it seems to be used primarily as a predicative, rather than a direct (adjectival) modifier to noun heads. Presumably, this also is related to the development in the nineteenth century of absent as a preposition (which the OED describes as being found in “originally and chiefly U. S. Law“).

    However, the farther the adjective absent gets from the absolute front, the less I like the fronting. Inserting things in front of the “absent” makes a sentence sound more and more like the one quoted above that starts with the awkward “Hot.” So a sentence beginning with the adverbially modified “Almost absent” seems significantly worse than one that postpones the “almost” until later in the clause. However, I don’t know if this is just my personal feeling, or whether it is common intersubjective reaction.

  8. Ubiquitous are muted references to the vermin in Moscow. [I’m just making this up.]

    I think you (@Noetica) are picking nits. It’s a construction that’s inverted but not strange. And thereby easy to get the polarity/magnitude confused. It’s clear, though, what the author means.

    Licentious are most Hatters’ tolerance for marginal linguistic constructions.

    (Hmm I might quibble at the number agreement in that last: ‘are’/’is’? ‘tolerance/s’?)

    This is ‘licentious’ sense 2 in wiktionary: “Disregarding accepted rules.”

  9. Brett:

    Dear me, no.

    I’m all in favour of fronting absent. Such things I do all the time, as you might see from the alternative I offer (at which – or with which – I could still quibble):

    Almost absent is any reference to the people of Moscow.

    What I take issue with is not any such fronting, but the exact placement of almost. Consider a non-fronted variant first of the original, and then of my alternative:

    Almost any reference to the people of Moscow is absent.

    Any reference to the people of Moscow is almost absent.

    Discuss, with consideration of this further alternative and others:

    Almost absent is reference to the people of Moscow.

    Unfronted variant:

    Reference to the people of Moscow is almost absent.


    Say you so? Dear me!

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    For me the fronting of “absent” or “almost absent” is difficult because (almost) absent is not complete as a meaningful quantitative or qualitative descriptor, i.e., I would need, e.g., “(almost) absent from Müller’s account” for it to sound/read well. Compare “almost absent was the Cheshire Cat, until finally his ghostly smile faded away”.

  11. Almost any were the absent references [groucho emoji]

  12. I personally have zero problem with “Absent is almost any reference to the people of Moscow.” But different nits for different folks!

  13. Hat:

    In copyediting I would probably let it pass. But it is, I still maintain, hard to defend on logical grounds – and as a matter of usage, as I think my ngrams and other Google evidence suggest.

    How do you feel about its plain unfronted version that I show above? “Almost any reference to the people of Moscow is absent.” I would not be happy to let that pass. Would you? Why the difference, if there is a difference?

    The ways of “any” are dark and crooked.

  14. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    For me, I think the problem is pushing a / the negation into absent. I’m not even sure any is the right quantifier… Both The author does not make any mention of the people of Moscow and The author makes no mention of the people of Moscow are plain and simple, but you can only fit in almost in the second one: The author makes almost no mention of the people of Moscow; the equivalent fronted-adjective construction would be present is almost no mention of the people of Moscow–which sounds just as stilted to me, but at least not because of almost..

  15. But it is, I still maintain, hard to defend on logical grounds

    But (as I never tire of repeating) language is not logical — and cannot be, because people are not logical. If it sounds good, it is good, and that sentence sounds good to me.

  16. Hat:

    And let me repeat that I would probably let it pass, in copyediting. Largely because language and people are not logical: and because to most people it sounds good, and the intended meaning is easy to extract. Still, “absent is almost any” is not demonstrated to occur anywhere else in the vast forest of printed books. Odd, for such an innocent-looking string of very common English words.

    Heard in a philosophy common room, aeons ago: “Is this cake anyone’s?” The two practically opposite interpretations occasioned much discussion.

  17. Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind… where it will all end, knows God.

Speak Your Mind