Gévelot Caps.

I’ve been dipping my toes into Sasha Sokolov‘s famously difficult 1980 novel Между собакой и волком, sometimes called the Russian Finnegans Wake; long thought untranslatable, it was finally rendered into English as Between Dog and Wolf by Alexander Boguslawski and published by Columbia University Press’s Russian Library in 2017. I normally don’t bother with translations, since it usually turns out that if the Russian is too difficult for me it defeats the translators too, but in this case I’m grateful for all the help I can get, and Boguslawski has extremely useful notes.

At any rate, after bulling my way through the first couple of chapters (not looking everything up — I’ll save that for when I really read the book) I decided to concentrate on the poems; there are 37 of them, gathered into five sections called “Hunter’s Notes” or variations thereof, and they’re convenient little packets of enjoyable fun with language. The second one is titled Снаряженье патронов (Boguslawski renders it “Preparation of Cartridges”; I might go for “Cartridge Loading”), and the second section begins:

Есть ящик у тебя!
В нем ты хранишь все то,
Что требует ружейная охота.
Его без дальних слов
Открой и из него
Бери картонных гильз,
Ты капсюлей бери,
Придуманных покойником Жевело,
И в донца этих гильз
Жевела те вживи
И пороху напороши.
За дело!

Boguslawski’s version:

You have a magic box!
In it you keep all things
Needed for hunting with a rifle.
So with no further words
Open it; from inside
Take out some carton tubes,
And also a few caps
Invented by the late Monsieur Gévelot.
And in these carton tubes
Thrust these Gévelot caps
And sprinkle powder there.
Go, fellow!

Not much poetry there, but never mind, it’s good to have any kind of crib. What I’m posting about, though, is that phrase “Gévelot caps.” As a note explains, Joseph-Marin Gévelot (1786-1843) was a French arms manufacturer and inventor; Wiktionary has the Russian word жевело (stress on the last syllable), but renders it “a device for the ignition of gunpowder in hunting cartridges.” The phrase “Gévelot caps” barely exists in English — Google finds only a handful of results, including a talk page for Sherlock Holmes (2013 TV Series) (“Thaddeus Sholto’s revolver is loaded with Gevelot caps, used for pyrotechnical effects”) and an 1892 issue of The Mining Engineer: Journal of The Institution of Mining Engineers (“The shots were fired by Gevelot caps, primed with Schlesinger lighters”) — but it’s clearly indispensable in this context.

You know what’s really fun, though? That Russian word жевело [ževeló], a French loan word, has been nativized with a beautiful stress pattern: the singular is жевело́, genitive жевела́, but the plural is жевёла [ževyóla], genitive жевёл [ževyól], modeled after nouns like колесо ‘wheel’: singular колесо́, genitive колеса́, plural колёса, genitive колёс. So that line “Жевела те вживи” is [ževyóla te vživí], which shows off Sokolov’s nice way with alliteration.


  1. ževyóla te vživí
    You probably know that, but this isn’t the only French word that was nativised that way; in some variants of colloquial Russian (although not in the Standard, where it’s indeclinable) pal’tó “coat” has the plural pól’ta.

  2. Fixed, thanks. And yes, that’s another nice (if non-standard) example.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Loanwords into Kusaal often get imaginatively nativised; I think I’ve already mentioned the alternative plural lɔɔm of lɔr “car, lorry”, modelled (presumably) on the highly irregular plural Mɔɔm of Mɔr “Muslim.”

    Another one I’m fond of is lɔmbɔn’ɔg /lɔmbɔ̰̃:g/ “garden, orchard”, from Hausa lambuu (ultimately from Songhay), which has evidently got reanalysed as a lɔm kind of bɔn’ɔg “paddyfield.”

  4. Delightful! How can people resist studying languages?

  5. Stu Clayton says

    Inertia. Dearth of Advanced Thinking books in a language. I’se got my hands full with the Western Cannon.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Is Kusaal Mɔr for “Muslim” etymologically related to English “Moor” (or Spanish “Moro” etc.) or is that a false-friend chance resemblance?

  7. DE addressed that very question last year:

    In Kusaal, Mɔr means “Muslim”; in the first instance, it may be borrowed from Mooré [no relation], but I’ve no clue as to where the word comes from ultimately. I think that the resemblance to “Moor” is probably just coincidental; synchronically, at any rate, the -r is a singular suffix, not part of the stem; the plural is Mɔɔm.

    It’s the sort of thing Lameen might well know …

    Alas, Lameen never showed up.

  8. To me “carbon tubes” sounds weird in English. I’m wracking my brain for a more natural term, but it has been many years since I hung around with gun people, and it’s not coming to me.

  9. Carton tubes. But it’s a terrible translation; картонная гильза is ‘cardboard shells (cartridge cases),’ though I have no idea what phrase actual gun people would use.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    In AmEng one says “paper shells” in a (semi-archaic) shotgun context, but I’m not sure if the thing being referenced in Russian is the same thing or even a similar thing. https://gardenandgun.com/articles/paper-shotgun-shells-ripe-revival/

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Mɔr for “Muslim”

    I suspect that the corresponding Mooré word Mórè has some connection with Bambara móri “marabout”, but the Mooré plural Moeemba is very difficult to explain; it’s not altogether isolated within Mooré, cf Moeemdo “Islam.” I think the “Moor” words go back to *mawr or *mo:r, which makes it more difficult to link them all together.

    These seem to be the very sort of Sahel/Sahara Wanderwörter that Lameen is an actual certified expert in. Perhaps if we all call together …

    A bit of self-indulgent speculation about the irregular Mooré forms (entirely safe to skip!):

    In Western Oti-Volta, r survives as a distinct phoneme from d only in Mooré and Agolle Kusaal (not even Toende Kusaal), but it must be reconstructed even for the common protolanguage underlying Mampruli and Dagbani, which are almost close enough to be regarded as dialects of the same language even now, so this must be a recent phenomenon.

    The reflexes of this phoneme elsewhere in Oti-Volta are very interesting, but AFAIK nothing whatever has been published on this (unless you count some stuff which worked its way into earlier versions of my Kusaal grammar, which I have long since excised as not being particularly germane to the description of Kusaal itself.) The only Oti-Volta language that preserves it in all contexts as a separate phoneme is Nawdm, which has r; in Moba it has fallen together with l in all contexts; in Western Oti-Volta and Buli it is preserved only in a few environments (but one of these is an extremely common noun class suffix) and usually becomes /j/ elsewhere, including word-initially. Presumably the sound in the protolanguage was some sort of palatal lateral approximant or palatalised rhotic. There was definitely a series of palatals c ɟ ɲ, so there’s (as it were) space for such a consonant.

    The Mooré More/Moeemba could quite regularly go back to a root *moR-, where R represents this original sound, whatever it was; but it’s difficult to imagine Mooré still preserving a Proto-Oto-Volta palatalised rhotic (say) late enough in the day that it could use it in a loanword for “Muslim”; the conditioned split into /j/ ~/r/ seems to have happened already in Proto-Western-Oti-Volta. On the other hand, although Western Oti-Volta looks about as diverse to casual eyeballing as Romance, there’s no law that says the two groups of languages had to differentiate at the same rate, and it would make a neat story if the current spread of the languages had to do with the development of the Mossi-Dagomba kingdoms, which probably only got going about six or seven centuries ago, long after Islam first arrived in West Africa. Moreover, this putative Proto-Oti-Volta palatal lateral/rhotic/whatever has become /j/ independently in several contexts in several not-particularly-closely related Oti-Volta languages, so parallel independent changes within Western Oti-Volta seem perfectly possible anyway.

  12. In AmEng one says “paper shells” in a (semi-archaic) shotgun context, but I’m not sure if the thing being referenced in Russian is the same thing or even a similar thing.

    I would imagine so — it’s not like Russia has an entirely separate gun culture — but it occurs to me that the Russian phrase is not the one actual hunters would use, since it refers to something different (look at the image search); it’s presumably one of the many malapropisms, idiosyncratic usages, and the like that the painter/poet (whose poems are used in the novel much as the doctor’s are in Zhivago) throws around so freely, like епанча ‘mantle’ (images) and салоп ‘(woman’s) cloak’ for the hunter’s raincoat in the same poem.

  13. “Paper shells” is definitely the right term for shotgun ammunition. However, the English translation of the poem says “rifle,” so I was trying to think of the corresponding word for homemade rifle cartridges without metal sheaths. Maybe “paper shells” is right for that too, but I’m not sure.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    See this discussion about “tubes” among aficionados of Civil-War-era firearms; it’s at least possible that that outmoded-for-the-military technology might have remained in hunting use in various parts of the world well into the 20th century. http://castboolits.gunloads.com/showthread.php?364562-What-are-these-cardboard-cartridges-for

  15. By the way, I cannot access John Cowan’s comment tracking page. The message I get is “ERR_CONNECTION_REFUSED”.
    Does anyone else here have that problem?

  16. “Paper shells” is definitely the right term for shotgun ammunition. However, the English translation of the poem says “rifle,” so I was trying to think of the corresponding word for homemade rifle cartridges without metal sheaths.

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in the translation; the Russian word ружьё can mean either ‘rifle’ or ‘shotgun,’ so you’d have to have to know which is meant in a given context, and it seems improbable that Boguslawski is a hunter himself, so I’m not sure how he’d know.

  17. Does anyone else here have that problem?

    Yup; it is, as they say, DOWN for everyone. I wrote JC, who responded: “I sent the sysadmin (who does it for a living) a ping. It’s the web server, not vrici itself.”

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    I cannot access John Cowan’s comment tracking page

    No, it’s not just you. It’ll be the Anti-Lojban Front up to its old tricks, I dare say. Rank Esperantists, most of them.

  19. Thanks, good to know!

  20. @languagehat: So it can mean any kind of handheld long gun? That’s interesting. The poem talks about the cap and the powder charge, but not the ballistic component of the ammunition, so it seems like it’s not really possible to distinguish rifle from shotgun based on the text.

  21. Well, here’s the next three stanzas, in case it helps:

    Using a thick sack cut into small lots,
    Or worn felt boots, or flannel pajamas,
    Insert a plug; follow with some shot;
    And then another plug securely jam in.

    Sir French is sitting headless on a chair.
    My dear field marshal, it seems you’re not well.
    The gentleman became slightly wrinkled.
    Who dared to do this? Maybe Jomini
    Swung his sharp saber from beyond La Manche?

    Sir French is sitting stately on the chair,
    The sizes of the shot are six and five,
    But since the barrel is caliber twenty,
    The shells’ caliber is also twenty-two.

    From the notes:

    Sir French: French coat.
    Jomini: Antoine-Henri Jomini (1779–1869), a Swiss officer who served as a general in both the French and the Russian armies; the author of The Art of War (1838).

  22. @languagehat: That’s definitely a shotgun then. Even if there were some ambiguity about the meaning of “shot,” you don’t put anything in front of the slug in a rifle cartridge; the comparison of the shot sizes with the size of the bore confirms that the load is shot, not a single slug. I had thought, “Go, fellow!” would indicate that the bearer was supposed to be ready to shoot, but apparently not.

  23. Tsk. Another translator bites the dust! Thanks for the explanation.

  24. I believe Boguslawski’s native language is Polish, in which language strzelba can also mean either ‘rifle’ or ‘shotgun,’ so maybe he uses them interchangeably.

  25. Sir French: French coat.

    True, but incomplete. Russian френч is a French coat, but not because it comes from France, but because it’s named after field marshal John French. I don’t see any connection to Jomini.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Alas, Lameen never showed up.

    Maybe posting the question on his blog would help?

    So it can mean any kind of handheld long gun? That’s interesting.

    German Gewehr means “handheld long gun this side of a musket”, and I can’t even think of a separate term for “rifle”. Schrotgewehr “shotgun”, Maschinengewehr “machine gun”, Sturmgewehr “assault weapon”…

  27. I am not a hunter or arms expert at all, but though Russian ружьё may cover both rifle and shotgun it is most used for the latter. For rifle there is a more precise word, винтовка.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve just finally worked out where Kusaal malif “rifle” ultimately comes from: Arabic مدفع midfaʕ “cannon.” The word usually turns up as malfa or the like in the Sahel; the Kusaal variant is easy to account for by the usual final short vowel loss, and evidently also owes something to analogy with mɔlif “gazelle” (plural mali “rifles”, like mɔli “gazelles.”) What I don’t quite get is the l for d, but I think that’s another Songhayism. Another one for Lameen …

  29. I don’t see any connection to Jomini.

    There isn’t any; they’re just two successive notes on the same poem. And the etymology isn’t relevant, so he doesn’t provide it.

    For rifle there is a more precise word, винтовка.

    True, which makes it even odder that he chose “rifle” here.

  30. And the etymology isn’t relevant, so he doesn’t provide it.

    I think it is. French of the poem is a coat, but the poet imagines it as a headless field marshal sitting in a chair. I am sure not many English or Russian (for that matter) readers will make a connection.

  31. On these words for “Muslim”, a previous thread here is worth returning to: Morimen.

    : What I don’t quite get is the l for d, but I think that’s another Songhayism

    Yes; in Songhay, postvocalic d becomes r (except in more recent loans), so mədfaʕ > marfa. I’m less sure about the r > l, but in Dendi they seem to be in something close to free variation IIRC.

  32. Schrotgewehr “shotgun”
    The word I’m more familiar with is Schrotflinte, and Duden even defines simple Flinte as “shotgun”, a definition the German Wikipedia agrees with. So German has an equivalent to “shotgun”.

  33. I think it is. French of the poem is a coat, but the poet imagines it as a headless field marshal sitting in a chair. I am sure not many English or Russian (for that matter) readers will make a connection.

    Good point; he should have given it.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks about the rifle, Lameen!

    Thanks for retrieving the previous thread, too. I see I’m repeating myself yet again …

    The Soninke moodi looks like a very good candidate for the original; I know the Soninke were pretty key in the spreading of Islam in West Africa.

    This all rather makes it look as if the answer to JWB’s question is that: yes, it is coincidence. It doesn’t seem at all likely that Latin Maurus could be of the same origin. Timescale’s all wrong … and the meaning is different, too; the Moors may have been Muslim (eventually) but the ethnonym clearly doesn’t mean “Muslim” (and certainly not “particularly enthusiastic/learned Muslim.”)

    Looks as if my maundering about a possible Proto-Western-Oti-Volta *moR with a palatalised lateral or rhotic doesn’t bear on the question of the provenance of the loanword at all, though now I think about it it might be useful in trying to date the relevant sound changes, if they need to be late enough to have given time for Mooré to have stolen the word from Bambara (or wherever.) Or to think about a more sophisticated model of the interrelationships between the Western Oti-Volta languages, maybe; there are a lot of criss-crossing isoglosses which suggest that several sound changes have spread across already-distinct languages. If you try to make a nice Junggrammatiker family tree out of it all your head is in danger of exploding after a while.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    Certainly Mauri/Μαῦροι didn’t mean “Muslim” in Classical times, but it came to mean that in certain post-Classical European languages after the Mauri/Μαῦροι became Muslim, which I believe had occurred before Islam got down to the neighborhood of present-day Ghana. That said, I don’t know the historical consensus on the route via which Islam got to coastal West Africa and how much of it ran through the historic territory of the Mauri/Μαῦροι and/or people bearing that ethnonym versus a more northeast-to-southwest route that may have bypassed the Maghreb.

  36. John Cowan says

    Surely you jest. Many notable Lojbanists are Esperantists. After all, learning Russian does not make you an enemy of the great and noble Polish language.

    In any case, it’s the web server rather than vrici.lojban.org itself that’s down: I can connect to it via ssh, but then “telnet localhost 80” still fails. I’ve notified the sysadmin (he’s a professional, but vrici is a personal machine), and that’s all I can do.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    the historical consensus on the route via which Islam got to coastal West Africa

    As far as Ghana (and indeed, other countries along the coast) is concerned, it basically still hasn’t (though there are Muslim zongos, trading quarters, in pretty much every town. Islam is strongly associated with trade (to the degree that professional long-distance drivers in the region either need to actually be Muslim or to be able to do a plausible impression of being Muslim to function. The Sufi brotherhoods are still going strong, but are locally much more like mutual aid organisations than the sort of thing “Sufi” conjures up to most Westerners.)

    The story of the spread of Islam in West Africa is quite well known, on account of prime actors in the story being literate in Arabic. In the savanna region it goes back a very long time. The Soninke were very early adopters, as Lameen has said, and Berbers; in more recent times, the Fulɓe have played a key role, notably with Usman ɗan Fodio’s jihad, which created the Caliphate of Sokoto at the beginning of the nineteenth century. “Moors” in the sense of North African Muslims have not really been directly involved (the destruction of the Songhay Empire by the Moroccans not really counting as a way of propagating Islam); although the Sahara was a connecting link rather than a barrier until the Europeans invaded coastal West Africa and disrupted the trade patterns.

    Northern Ghana and most of Burkina Faso are a sort of salient up into the savanna of predominantly non-Muslims, due to the area being the domain of the Mossi-Dagomba kingdoms in precolonial times, with well-organised military aristocracies who fought off the jihadists. The actual ruling clans of the Mamprussi and Dagomba have been Muslim for a long time, but the common people of those kingdoms are mostly animist. Various kings of the Mossi have been Muslims too, but again, most actual Mossi people are not. Not many Kusaasi are Muslim, or Christian, for that matter. They didn’t have chiefs traditionally and in general see no reason to take any nonsense from anyone. They are the Yorkshiremen of Ghana.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely you jest

    It may be so.

  39. John Cowan says

    Since Yorkshiremen are the Texans of England (or the U.K.), that presumably means that Kusaasi are the Texans of Ghana and Burkina Faso. I offer you these two proverbs, recomputed for 10 degrees North Latitude:

    “Never ask a Kusaasi person what their ethnicity is. If they are Kusaasi, they’ll tell you. And if not, why embarrass them?”

    “Why are Kusaasi always smiling [at least when wearing trousers]?” “Because they have long thumbs.”

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s just struck me that the mysterious Kusaal word for “Fulɓe”, Simiis, which has lost an -l- judging by the Mooré equivalent Silmiisi, might easily have originated as a word for “Muslims”; especially as in the Voltaic area, where most people aren’t Muslim, the Fulɓe very much are. Are you still on the line, Lameen?

    If this is a plausible theory, all I need to do is find out why the Hausa are called Zaŋgbɛɛd and I shall be happy.

  41. John Cowan says


    See our 2015 discussion of the multilingual name Jomini/Giomini/Geominy.

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