Gone to Pot.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from John Jay Chapman’s letter to Robert and Nora Nichols of December 23, 1925:

It looks on all the surfaces as if the intellect of this country had gone to pot through the operation of the natural laws of wealth and prosperity — (and one sees no end or limit to them). I read Horace all the time and see much likeness between the luxury, riot, and folly that went on in the proconsular era, and our own epoch, but nothing of the blaze of intellect that accompanied the breakdown of the old Roman institutions and left behind it a shelf of books.

Of course, the 1920s is now looked back on as a great era of modernist literature, and “this country” (the USA) was a major part of it, with Pound, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Scott Fitzgerald only a few of the more prominent names. Reflecting on this sort of thing should make people hesitant to pronounce in similar doomy terms on their own times, but it rarely does.

Unrelated, but I have to put on the public record one of the worst typos I’ve ever seen. I just came across the Russian word лимб and couldn’t figure it out from context; it wasn’t in my trusty Oxford, so I looked it up in my three-volume bilingual dictionary, and found the following definitions: 1. limb; 2. dial, graduated circle; 3 paleontol border; 4 zool & bot limbus. None of those seemed to fit, so I turned to Wiktionary, where all became clear: the fourth sense listed there is “в католицизме: состояние или место пребывания не попавших в рай душ, не совпадающее с адом или чистилищем” [In Catholicism: the state or place of residence of souls who do not get into heaven; not the same as hell or purgatory]. In other words, limbo. Not only is “limb” wrong, it looks all too plausible, being an exact transliteration of the Russian. I give this typo 10/10!


  1. Not clear to me what the typo was. Was the Russian word “лимб” transcribed into English as “limb” rather than “limbo”? (Wasn’t clear to me if you came across the Russian word in Russian or in an English text)

  2. The dictionary has “1. limb” instead of the correct “1. limbo.” (I came across the Russian word in this review of Linor Goralik’s new book: “то ли конец света, то ли лимб.”)

  3. I wonder how many speakers of English think “in limbo” just means in some sort of bureaucratic paralysis/’stuck’; without knowing all that Catholic mumbo-jumbo?

    Urban Dictionary has some disorienting new-age takes on ‘between heaven and hell’.

    Are there folk etymologies linking it to limbo dancing?

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    You like me might have thought that Latin “limbus” (edge, border, hem) would be related to Latin “limes” (limit, border) and/or Latin “limen” (threshold), but wiktionary, at least, seems more confident that the latter two are related to each other than that the first one has anything to do with either of them.

  5. David Marjanović says

    I can’t think of a suffix -b-, other than -b- for the future of some conjugation classes, -bā- for the imperfect, and -bus for the dative/ablative plural of (basically) consonant stems.

  6. It’s been connected with Eng. limp, and with Skt. rámbate / lámbate ‘to hang down limply’ (thus de Vaan, who notes that “In view of the phoneme *b, the very specific meaning of limbus and its absence from the oldest literature, the etymology remains uncertain”).

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    I can’t think of a suffix -b-

    Oti-Volta also lacks a derivational suffix -b-, except for about two possible examples.

    However, Waama conjugates verb stems ending in nasals by adding -bi for the perfective, -di for the imperfective. This may (or may not) shed light on why there is a mysterious set of Western Oti-Volta verbs with stems in -mb- like Mooré zãmbe “cheat” (Kusaal zam) despite there being no obvious way for them to have been derived language-internally (as there usually is, for three-mora stems.)

    Sorry. Reflex response. It’s what comes of spending all day thinking about Proto-Oti-Volta verb conjugation. You know how it is.

  8. January First-of-May says

    For what it’s worth, without further evidence, I suspect that the dictionary did mean “limb”, in the “body part” sense; I’m not aware of this word being borrowed into Russian (and Russian has a perfectly sensible alternative in конечность), but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me. What’s the difference between “limb” and “limbus” again?

    EDIT: looking it up further, and trying to remember where I had seen the word, it might also be “limb” as in lunar limb [EDIT: this is RuWikt sense 2], though if so then the dictionary should have included an “astron.” or something. I wasn’t aware of this spelling for “limbo”; I would have guessed it was лимбо.

  9. For what it’s worth, without further evidence, I suspect that the dictionary did mean “limb”

    That makes no sense, since 1) it does mean ‘limbo’ (as in the passage I was reading), and 2) it doesn’t mean ‘limb.’

    What’s the difference between “limb” and “limbus” again?

    The difference is that the first isn’t used to mean the second.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    I understood that JFoM meant limb in a very specialised sense, e.g., “Earth limb” being the edge of the Earth when viewing from a (possibly high-atmospheric or space-based) telescope.

  11. But 1) that would have been the last definition, not the first, and 2) ‘limbo’ is a significant sense that under that hypothesis would have gone missing. Also, there are plenty of misprints in this particular dictionary. It would take a signed and notarized statement from the compilers to convince me that the ‘limb’ hypothesis is correct.

  12. @languagehat, most Russian speakers are not familiar with “limbo”. (Compare to any Buddhist term of similar significance for Buddhist cultures).

    (not an objection, just a comment on 2))

  13. @languagehat, most Russian speakers are not familiar with “limbo”.

    And yet that was the sense in the passage I was reading. Also, most English speakers are not familiar with “limbo” either (except perhaps in the dance sense); it’s a specialized term.

  14. Note that in the Национальный корпус русского языка the majority of hits are for the ‘limbo’ sense (without further explanation), and the ones for the astronomical sense are defined in parentheses or in a footnote, clearly showing Russian speakers are not expected to be familiar with it.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    most English speakers are not familiar with “limbo” either

    I think the phrase “in limbo” for “not yet decided” is fairly widely known; I suppose people may know what the phrase means without actually understanding its origin, though. Perhaps it would have been eggcorned away by now if there was a limbo-like English word to confuse with “limbo.”

  16. I think the phrase “in limbo” for “not yet decided” is fairly widely known


    I suppose people may know what the phrase means without actually understanding its origin, though.

    You betcha. Anyone who doubts that should go out and conduct a survey. Stop people and ask if they know what it means. Dangerous, but it’s for Science!

  17. I think the phrase “in limbo” for “not yet decided” is fairly widely known; I suppose people may know what the phrase means without actually understanding its origin, though.

    Absolutely. In English.

  18. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I Did Seamus Heaney at school. One of the few lines of poetry stuck in my head.

    Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, smart and cannot fish there.

  19. “a mysterious set of Western Oti-Volta verbs with stems in -mb- like Mooré zãmbe “cheat” (Kusaal zam)”

    A Songhay loan (zamba “tricherie”)? Or vice versa?

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Could well be!

    The verb exists in the northerly WOV languages Kusaal, Farefare and Mooré, but not in Dagaare, and apparently not in Mampruli or Dagbani, although Dagbani does have a noun zamba, glossed as “secret injury” in the dictionary, and Mampruli has zamma, which according to Tony Naden is
    “evil spell or any other use of mysterious forces to destroy a person’s good fortune. This is done out of spite or jealousy in order to restore some kind of equality.”
    These nouns are not fitted into the regular noun class system, and look like loanwords on language-internal grounds in any case.

    I can’t find any Oti-Volta forms outside WOV that look like cognates (you’d most likely expect reflexes of Proto-Oti-Volta initial *ɟ); that would go with it being a loan too.

    These data don’t to point to a direction of borrowing from WOV to Songhay, of course.

    Well, there are other WOV verbs in -mb- … (actually, I think the Waama perfective -bi is a red herring; the actual cluster /mb/ appears only in Mooré, and I think there is some evidence for both *mm -> mb and *nn -> nd in Mooré. There’s also a tempting gap in WOV where verbs of the form CVbm- ought to be …)

  21. Also, most English speakers are not familiar with “limbo” either

    Really? I would think most Catholics are familiar with the term. Not “most” English speakers, granted, but at least a significant minority.

  22. “Well, there are other WOV verbs in -mb- …”

    Now I’m curious whether they’ll turn out to be shared with Songhay too 🙂

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Go for it!

    in Kusaal there’s also lɛm “taste”, tam “forget”, dam “shake” (all -mm- stems, as becomes apparent in flexion and derivation, though not in these citation-form perfectives. The Mooré cognates have -mb-, apart from tam, which has no Mooré cognate.)

    Mooré also has yʋmbe “paniquer et ne pas pouvoir rester en place”*, zombe “monter, s’asseoir sur”, and gɩmbe “stagner, être arrêté.”

    There don’t seem to be many borrowed verbs in Kusaal, compared with nouns (not surprising, from a cross-linguistic perspective.) They are harder to recognise as borrowed, though, because unlike borrowed nouns, they are subject to the same structural constraints as native words of the same category.

    * This looks as if it might be related to Tony Naden’s Kusaal yʋn “be apprehensive”, but I suspect Naden may have misanalysed this form, and that it’s really the imperfective of a verb yʋl “get worried.” It’s not in my own materials, or in the Bible translation.

  24. Not “most” English speakers, granted, but at least a significant minority.

    When I say “most” I mean most. But you may be overestimating the number of Catholics who could tell you what the word means.

  25. David Marjanović says

    At least in countries where being Catholic isn’t contrastive, very few people can tell you what it means.

  26. marie-lucie says

    In French, the equivalent to English Limbo as the mythical underworld location for children who died young enough that they had no opportunity to commit sins is les Limbes (a word I have always thought of as feminine, though Limbo appears to have a masculine suffix, probably indicating location).

    At some point long before he died, Jesus is supposed to have gone down for a visit into a similar place, rendered in French as  Les Enfers, also a masculine word. It is not clear to me whether  les Enfers is the same as the Underworld in general (including (?)l’Enfer, Hell), or if it is Purgatory, where relatively minor sinners past infancy are repenting until the Last Judgment, when their sins will be forgiven and they will join the saints in Heaven.

    This is approximately what I learned in catechism, many decades ago, but I have not tried to verify it since, so the details may not all be accurate.

  27. To clarify: I think most Russian speakers are not (or were not some 20 years ago) familar with usages like that mentioned by AntC: “I wonder how many speakers of English think “in limbo” just means in some sort of bureaucratic paralysis/’stuck’; without knowing all that Catholic mumbo-jumbo?“.

    And when I say “compare to any Buddhist term of similar significance to Buddhist cultures” – I mean exactly things of this sort. Not Buddhist theology or philosophy as such. Just idioms, images, referneces etc., possibly widely known and used by locals.

  28. I wonder if I learned of Limbo as another plane of existence first from reading about The Divine Comedy or from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. However, in AD&D, Limbo is the outer plane of pure chaos (the destination of many chaotic neutral souls) not the first layer of Hell (lawful evil), which is Avernus.

  29. David Eddyshaw says


    This is the doctrine of the


    which features in the so-called “Apostles’ Creed”


    What is actually means is disputed; I’ve always taken it as referring to the liberation of the pre-Christian saints (like Abraham) from Limbo. LImbo is part of Hell.* It doesn’t matter how personally virtuous you are, because of Original Sin, you go to Hell unless you are redeemed through Christ (which in Catholic doctrine, in fact means you have to have been actually baptised, except in extremely exceptional circumstances – like the aforementioned Harrowing.)


    The Anglican of the Apostles’ Creed version has “descended to the Dead” instead of “into Hell”, I think reflecting the current Anglican official position that there is no Hell to descend into.

    * Purgatory is quite different. The point about Purgatory is that the souls there are already saved; it’s basically part of Heaven, but with considerably worse amenities, which is why (if you believe in it) there is a point in praying for the souls there.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Or, to put it in human language, the Anglican version of the Apostles’ Creed …

  31. marie-lucie says

    Thank you! I have not often wondered about those kinds of details.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    I think you’re not alone (Hat’s very point, in fact …)

  33. marie-lucie says

    I agree! Thank you for filling the blanks!

  34. We also discussed the Harrowing of Hell, less completely, five years ago.

  35. From Russian Wikipedia: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Сошествие_Христа_в_ад
    “It should be noted that in Western [art history studies] a term «Христос в лимбе» (Christ in Limbo) is often used, precisely designating the specific circle…”

    The “Western” phrase is given in English: “Christ in Limbo”.

    Meanwhile, in the Enlgish article: “The realm into which Jesus descended is called Hell, in long-established English usage, but is also called Sheol or Limbo by some Christian theologians to distinguish it from the Hell of the damned”.

  36. AntC:
    I wonder how many speakers of English think “in limbo” just means in some sort of bureaucratic paralysis/’stuck’

    I’d guess quite a few, considering how often “stalemate” is used figuratively to mean a situation more accurately described as deadlock or impasse; there is no progress at present, but it is conceivable that someone will make progress later. Stalemate ends the game.

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    The stalemate rules have evolved. If the rule was “opponent of stalemated player moves again”, then the popular usage would be wrong only where it implies both players are “stalemated”.

  38. I wonder how many speakers of English think “in limbo” just means in some sort of bureaucratic paralysis/’stuck’

    I’d guess quite a few

    I’d guess virtually all, unless they’d made a study of theology.

  39. Kate Bunting says

    David Eddyshaw said: ‘Or, to put it in human language, the Anglican version of the Apostles’ Creed …’

    Or, to be accurate, the *current* Anglican version. The Book of Common Prayer version calls it hell.

  40. Thanks David! No obvious loans in there, though I’d consider a connection between yʋmbe “paniquer et ne pas pouvoir rester en place” and Songhay humburu “be afraid”.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m sure there are a good many loans lurking in WOV vocabulary, lying unrecognised because there is nobody with a good enough grasp of potential donor languages to spot them.

    While I’ve got you on the line, Lameen …

    The only two* Songhay loans in Kusaal that I have (previously) spotted are the ubiquitous burikin(a) “pillar of society” along with bauŋʋ, found exclusively as the object of kpɛn’ “enter” (or of kpɛn’ɛs “cause to enter”) as in kpɛn’ bauŋʋ “get circumcised.” Mooré uses it in the same way (kẽe bãongo “get circumcised.”)

    Spencer Trimingham’s book on Islam in West Africa traces this to a Songhay word for “pool”, but other sources say “forest”, in both cases, I think, the implication being of traditional practices associated with circumcision rites.

    Can you shed any light on it?

    * Perhaps also lɔmbɔn’ɔg “garden”, although I think the immediate source of that was probably Hausa lambu (it’s got remodelled by analogy with Kusaal bɔn’ɔg “wet lowland area, ricefield.”)

  42. Likely for many Russians “Limbo” is a girl from Zanzibar (see DE and Lameen above abvout -mb-) form a boring pop song that was occasionarly played 30 years ago.

  43. Bangu means “lake, swamp” (and “circumcision”) in mainstream Songhay, and “well” in the more arid context of Northern Songhay; I don’t recall ever seeing it mean “forest”, appropriate though that might be to the context. In Songhay too the idiom is hur bangu “enter lake” for “get circumcised”. I have a Kaado text on circumcision at home – I’ll have a look and see if it yields any relevant details on why circumcision is like a lake.

  44. @drasvi: Oh, I remember that song. I found the text exceedingly stupid even by the standards of 90s Russian pop.

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Bangu means “lake, swamp”

    By coincidence, I just mentioned Kusaal bɔn’ɔg /bɔ̰̃:g/ “swamp”, which represents bɔn’ɔgʋ, subjected to the usual Kusaal apocope of final short vowels in citation (and most other) forms. The stem has low tone, which I think matches the Songhay forms.

    It seems likely on the face of it that this is pure coincidence; the -gʋ in the Kusaal word is a noun class suffix, not part of the stem (plural bɔn’ɔd(ɩ) “swamps”); although this is not a show-stopper: borrowed nouns are usually fitted into the class system by analogy where possible, e.g. maliak “angel”, plural malia’as.

    However, the complicated long, glottalised and nasalised vowel is difficult to explain on the basis of a straightforward loan from Songhay. Moreover, the word has a clear cognate in Mooré, bãoogo “endroit marécageux, marigot”, which has the impressively unlikely-to-be-borrowed-looking plural bãto (though this is actually regular for Mooré, in fact, and could conceivably be due to analogy.)


    I’ve been wondering about the origin of glottalised vowels in WOV. They obviously aren’t all of the same origin; a small number have developed from /Vɣ/ even since Prost wrote his Toende Kusaal grammar in 1979; others parallel /Vɦ/ sequences in Nawdm (Kusaal bɛ’og “bad” = Nawdm bɛɦgu.)

    But one striking thing is that glottalised vowels are also much more often nasalised than non-glottalised vowels are; in fact, nasalisation of modal vowels is usually explicable from fairly recent loss of preceding or following nasal consonants, but this is not the case with glottalised vowels.

    There are some comparative arguments which suggest that glottalised-and-nasalised vowels derive from /Vŋ/; there is a gap in the system for this sequence in WOV, where /ŋ/ only occurs in the combination /ŋŋ/ resulting from assimilation of word-medial /mg/ or /ng/, or word-initially (unlike /m/ /n/ which can occur anywhere.)


    Kusaal bɔn’ɔg “swamp” (and its WOV cognates) might reflect an original stem *baŋ(u)- …

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    “Limbo” is a girl from Zanzibar

    Again we see that all threads on LH are but manifestations of one, overarching Great Thread which encompasses All.

  47. I love the idea of bangu being a loan from Oti-Volta into Songhay. “Swamp” seems like just the sort of thing people migrating south from the Sahara might very well be expected to borrow, so if it reconstructs for Gur then why not?

    Just read the account of Kaado circumcision, and not seeing the connection at all. Afterwards they go to a _dry_ riverbed to get clay dust to put on the wound to help it heal, but going into the water seems entirely contrary to the spirit of things. Could it be accidental homophony? Or is there some myth behind it that I’m missing?

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    Dunno. The Kusaasi don’t practice circumcision (unless they’re Muslims), and they have no puberty rites at all, for either sex. It’s different with the Mamprussi and Dagomba, who are much more influenced by Islam. On the other hand, Mampruli and Dagbani have an actual verb guni “circumcise”, which doesn’t look like a borrowed word. The Mossi have circumcision (and excision for girls, traditionally, though it is now illegal in Burkina Faso) as part of their traditional (non-Islamic) puberty rites.

    I don’t know anything about Nawdba culture, but the fact that the Nawdm dictionary gives the same word for “circumcise” and “castrate” suggests to my mind a non-Abrahamic understanding of the practice.

  49. The borrowing scenario I’m envisioning is: Gur to Songhay in the meaning “swamp”, then Songhay-internal extension to “circumcision”, then Songhay to Gur borrowing with the latter sense. A bit elaborate, but no more so than “bifteck”…

    Songhay circumcision rites look distinctly pre-Islamic too, at least as described in that text.

    A totally speculative scenario to explain the connection: maybe at some point the circumciser was likened to a crocodile, so that getting circumcised was “going down to the swamp”. That would fit with my very vague recollections of the position of crocodiles in Songhay traditional religion.

  50. PlasticPaddy says

    @Lameen, de
    If the circumcision was pre-Islamic, could the administering priest have worn a crocodile mask or dress? The mask could be removed for the operation…

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    I have absolutely no idea …

    The Bisa (the ethnic group to the immediate north of the Kusaasi) are said to believe that they are descended from crocodiles, and that as a consequence crocodiles won’t eat them. However, my (Kusaasi) source for this titbit said that he had been unable to persuade any Bisa colleagues to submit this belief to rigorous scientific investigation (to be fair, this would presumably also necessitate some non-Bisa volunteering as controls …)

  52. David Eddyshaw says

    If the circumcision was pre-Islamic

    It certainly was, in general (although, as usual, it is unwise to generalise about a place where I crossed a major cultural and linguistic boundary simply by walking into town.) The Kusaasi are quite unusual in those parts for not having it as part of their traditional* culture.

    Spencer Trimingham (who is well worth reading even if you’re not particularly interested in Islam specifically, and seems very reliable on the sadly few occasions where I’m in a position to check) reckoned that the effect of Islam was generally to desacralise the practice, which is obligatory in Islam but not “supernaturalised” (as he puts it.) He says in a footnote “It is significant that no Islamic terminology has been adopted by other peoples whose terms are descriptive or euphemistic.”

    * But this is a can of worms. Islamic influence has been around for a very long time in that part of the world. There are non-Muslim groups who call the Creator “Allah”, and I’ve often wondered if the very notion of there actually being a Creator might have diffused from Islam. Even the Kusaasi call the physical, everyday, visible sky arazana, ultimately from al-jannah “the garden” via “Eden”, to “paradise” and thence “heaven(s).” African “tradition” is no more static and set in stone than European “tradition”, whatever “traditionalists” like to claim/believe …

  53. David Marjanović says

    and that as a consequence crocodiles won’t eat them.

    That’s… not how crocodiles work.

  54. J.W. Brewer says

    The standardized Latin version of the Apostles’ Creed states perhaps vaguely that Christ descended “ad inferos.” However, there was apparently some earlier manuscript variation with “ad inferna” and other variants. Translators and exegetes thus have plenty of room to squabble about whether the reference is to a place (the netherworld, or lower regions, or what have you) or to its populace (“those below”). In the Book of Common Prayer tradition, you can find a note as early as the 1892 American revision that “any Churches may, instead of the words, He descended into hell, use the words, He went into the place of departed Spirits, which are considered as words of the same meaning in the Creed.” I don’t know the specific history of the compromise but one wonders if it was purely in the interest of more accurate translation of murky and ambiguous Latin or if it was a euphemism pandering to rather stereotypical Victorian discomfort with the blunter language of the 16th century.

    You can find references Out There on the web to a Greek version of the Apostles’ Creed with εἰς τὰ κατώτατα for “ad infer__,” but I’m not sure of the age or provenance of this version, since it is not a text ever traditionally used by Greek-speaking churches and could be a more modernish translation of the Latin. κατώτατα apparently pops up once in the LXX, in the equivalent of Nehemiah 4:13, where English translations from the MT generally have “lower places” or “lowest parts” or something like that.

    All that said, any 4th century Latin Father who’d wanted to make sure subsequent English translators said “to the dead” could have and perhaps would have used Latin phrasing that conveyed that more directly. I see that the Reformation-era German (niedergefahren zur Hölle) now has to compete with a more prolix recent rival (hinabgestiegen in das Reich des Todes), which seems somewhat parallel to the shift(s) in English, reflecting the same temptation to explain (perhaps overexplain) rather than just translate.

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s… not how crocodiles work.

    So I am given to understand.

  56. J.W. Brewer says

    Hmm. It turns out Hell-aversion in Apostles-Creed-translations was quite the international phenomenon in the 20th century. From Danish wikipedia: “ordlyden blev ved kongelig resolution af 27. maj 1908 ændret fra Helvede til Dødsriget” (= “the wording was changed by Royal Resolution of 27 May 1908 from Hell to the Realm of the Dead”).

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    While I myself have the natural extremist’s disdain for compromise, it seems to me that the twentienth-century revisers had a good point. Nobody knows, so it seems reasonable enough to keep the translations vague, even if the ultras sneer …

  58. J.W. Brewer says

    “He descended to, um, that place. You know, that place where he went. Where those people that he went to were, at the time, in residence.” You could sell me on “descended to the netherworld,” which leaves open a wide range of filling-in-the-blank possibilities. But I think the practical problem is that the word “hell” (and parallel words in other languages) had developed connotations that made it seem to those in the pews like the Sort of Place That Christ (being an extremely respectable sort of fellow) Would Definitely Not Have Gone To. Which I tend to suspect reflects either bad teaching about hell or bad teaching about Christ on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. If the language of the Fathers or the Reformers makes modern people uncomfortable, I am skeptical that the right solution is to rephrase it until the discomfort goes away.

  59. David Eddyshaw says

    While that is also my reflex response, I think that if the original text is vague (as it is), it’s not necessarily a sign of craven submission to the Zeitgeist to adjust the translation to reflect the original better.

  60. It was a bit unexpected for me, but I do not understand how those swearwords work.

    Russian profanities are all about sex, the religious ones can be found in novels about pirate captains and musketeers as stylizations (and then they are fancy) or in children’s books when a character needs to swear but using an actual swearword (even a mildest one) is impossible, because it is children’s book.

    I thought, their religious referent gives them power. But then using the same words literally (not in a profane way) would be appropriate.

  61. Maybe we should conduct a sociolinguistic experiment, that is, begin beating kids each time they say “apple” and see if it will become a bad word, if it will be euthemized and if they will start selling apples in adult shops …

  62. @drasvi: Oh, I remember that song. I found the text exceedingly stupid even by the standards of 90s Russian pop.

    So did I.

    In one verse it says that rich people see dreams about money, and poor people see this Limbo. Interestingly, two of my friends once composed a song “I dreamt about money today” exactly when they were abroad without money…

  63. I gather from an old Rouch documentary that, in Hombori at least, the circumcision is preceded by washing the whole body; that could be a less speculative explanation for the metaphor of “entering the swamp/lake/etc”. (Link not recommended for the squeamish.)

    That’s… not how crocodiles work.

    Both among the Songhay and among the Dogon, I am told that quasi-domesticated crocodiles have somehow been trained to accept food from people instead of attacking them, as part of traditional religious practices. Perhaps the Bisa have something similar up their sleeve.

  64. I thought DM means: “…occasionally cannibalize smaller crocodiles.” (WP)

  65. J.W. Brewer says

    I do think the Scandinavians have an advantage by having a cool single-word way of saying “realm of the dead,” as Danish/Norwegian Dødsriget is paralleled by Swedish Dödsriket. (Googling suggest that in Icelandic they still use “heljar.”) One finds the parallel “Todesreich” in other German texts, but maybe there’s some stylistic/register reason why “das Reich des Todes” was thought preferable for liturgical use.

  66. Lars Mathiesen says

    I have been exegezed(*) to about Limbo once, to the extent that I knew it was not the place with red dudes with horns and pitchforks but where people like Moses and Socrates were stashed, but if you’d asked me how it differed from Purgatory I would have been at a loss. Until this thread, of course.

    Dødsriget is also used of the place where ancient dead Greeks went, so the current phrasing in the Creed sort of gives the impression that Hades was still running the place but Jesus let all the inmates ascend to heaven. (Literally, since they were being held underground).

    *) ἐξηγέομαι is deponent, but I don’t know any English verbs to analogize from that were formed directly from a middle present stem. (Also I was reminded that analyse is backformed from ἀνάλυσις so the British have a bit more justification for going with S in this case, unlike all the ones patterned on -ίζω verbs. [On the gripping hand, it looks like most of those came through French and the z “just” got restored in America]).

  67. David Marjanović says

    now has to compete with a more prolix recent rival (hinabgestiegen in das Reich des Todes)

    That’s the Catholic standard. Note the questionable word order: the creed is a carefully crafted list of sentence fragments without a single sentence between them.

    If the language of the Fathers or the Reformers makes modern people uncomfortable, I am skeptical that the right solution is to rephrase it until the discomfort goes away.

    The discomfort is somewhere else entirely: the verses in the New Testament this is based on use Hades, and what this term from Ancient Greek religion is supposed to correspond to in Christian terms has never been clear.

    (…except in the Slavic languages of Orthodoxy, where ad was simply borrowed for “Hell”.)

    quasi-domesticated crocodiles have somehow been trained to accept food from people instead of attacking them

    That’s entirely possible. It is possible to become friends with a crocodile.

    I thought DM means:


    One finds the parallel “Todesreich” in other German texts, but maybe there’s some stylistic/register reason why “das Reich des Todes” was thought preferable for liturgical use.

    Todesreich implies that it’s established information – that your audience already knows what you’re talking about, and you’re just mentioning it. Reich des Todes is an explanation. It would be odd to have an established term for a realm of death that is neither Heaven nor perhaps Hell and doesn’t occur anywhere else in all of Christianity.

    Also I was reminded that analyse is backformed from ἀνάλυσις so the British have a bit more justification for going with S in this case

    The OED uses -ize, but only for verbs more or less derived from -ίζω, not for things like advertise or, horribile dictu, analyse. I’ve published in a journal that insists on OED orthography, and this is spelled out in its style guide.

  68. There were crocodiles in Algeria, in 20th century. Presumably since before Sahara was Sahara. (a random comment).

  69. John Cowan says

    I think the idea of Jesus being respectable was pretty well exploded in Blake’s “Everlasting Gospel”, which enumerates the moral virtues and shows how Jesus did not exemplify them. (Warning: lines 208-211 would be read as antisemitic today.)

  70. David Eddyshaw says

    There should be a name for the peculiar heresy that Jesus was respectable. I’d coin it myself, but I can’t think of the classical Greek for “respectable.”

    (I’m very tempted to say “Anglicanism”, but that would not be at all fair to my many unrespectable Anglican friends.)

  71. David Marjanović says

    Interesting rhymes in there. And they’re not all old – He with company is downright newfangled.

  72. J.W. Brewer says

    “Descended into hell” is perfectly clear and correct English for the creedal statement if (but only if?) “hell” is taken to mean the same thing it does as in the eminently traditional phrase “Harrowing of Hell,” which is simply what Christ did once he finished descending and actually arrived there. That has its own potential awkwardness because in other contexts “hell” is conceptualized as having a different or narrower scope that would seem to be inconsistent with the whole harrowing thing, but its not like (AFAIK) there’s a standard nice modern alternative phrasing like “Harrowing of the Realm of the Dead” that anyone actually uses. I guess you could say “descended into Hades” and try to punt that way, but that’s not what the Greek (in the supposed Greek version of the Apostles’ Creed that’s out there) actually says, and to the extent it would be a fair paraphrase in Greek that’s at least in part because “Hades” is likewise a bit ambiguous or polysemous.

    ETA: One possible way of thinking about this is that subsequent generations of ecclesiastical types (in medieval and early modern times) may have came up with much more precise conceptual formulations of various things without being sufficiently self-aware that their precise/refined/technical definition of such-and-such word now meant that earlier scriptural and patristic texts that used the same word no longer quite made sense unless you allowed for earlier and perhaps looser vaguer senses of the word to co-exist with the newfangled precise sense.

  73. John Cowan says

    downright newfangled

    No, it’s an English poetic convention called hudibrastic verse, an analogue of Knittelvers: it features iambic tetrameter couplets, off-rhymes, and (usually) satirical intent. The original Hudibras of Samuel Butler, published in 1663-78 in the wake of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, was a fiercely royalist satire of Puritans, Presbyterians, and Parliamentarians among others, and is a sort of parody of an epic poem. Hudibrastics have been in occasional use since then, notably by Auden in his “Christmas Letter” of 1940.

    Here’s a nice bit from Butler:

    He would an elegy compose
    On maggots squeez’d out of his nose;
    In lyric numbers write an ode on
    His mistress, eating a black-pudden;
    And, when imprison’d air escap’d her,
    It puft [puffed] him with poetic rapture.

  74. So he pronounced rapture same as raptor?

  75. David Marjanović says

    Shakespeare rhymed departure with shorter, AFAIK…?

  76. @David Eddyshaw: The idea (condemned as a heresy by Pope John XXII in 1323) of the absolute poverty of Christ and the apostles was largely a medieval one, popularized by the Franciscans. So it has a Latin name: Paupertas Christi [et apostolorum]. However, the corresponding, “absolute disreputability of Chirst,” seems to be hard to translate into Latin. The Web keeps suggesting translations for disreputable that imply actual immorality, rather than just a failure to adhere to societal norms.

  77. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah. A theological confusion. I do not assert the absolute unrespectability of Christ. Rather, I deny the absolute respectability of Christ.

    This is clearer in the original Greek of the Secret Codicils of the Council of Nicaea, the sole surviving text of which was long concealed (by nefarious Vatican machinations, mostly involving albino assassins*, as usual) in the Lavabo of Kiev. (The word used for “unrespectability” is a ἅπαξ λεγόμενον**, but the text was nevertheless regarded as too inflammatory to be revealed to the world. The course of history might have been very different, but for this fateful decision …)

    * And Templars, but that really goes without saying.

    ** This is a technical term, meaning “not even in the big Liddell and Scott.”

  78. John Emerson says

    Pope John XXII was a political pope in thrall to the French king and the first of the Avignon popes, and his proclamations on the poverty of Christ were directed at the Spiritual Franciscans. He condemned Meister Eickhart , excommunicated William of Ockham, and promoted witchhunting. His views on the respectability of Christ must be viewed in this light. He disgraced the very name of John (!!) and it was over seven cenuries before there would be another Pope John. I remember speculations about the motives of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli when he took the name Pope John XXIII.

    Also, Pope John Paul I was murdered, by the Freemasons, the Mafia , the CIA, et al. There were plenty of motives and plenty of suspects, many of whom also were suspetced in the death of Aldo Moro.

    Italy is a good place to look if you’re a conspiracist. In the case of Moro’s death, everyone agrees that there were about 7 conspiracies involved. The controversy is about which group was on which side and how many double and triple agents there were.


  79. John Emerson says

    This makes everything clear, though there are always skeptics:


  80. David Eddyshaw says

    Is your Vatican infested with Masons? Help is at hand! Call Novus Ordo Watch, +375 666 666.
    Our helpful and impeccably traditional operators* are waiting for your call NOW!

    * Ex opere operato. Terms and conditions apply.

  81. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely anti-Masonic conspiracy theorizing is all an elaborate disinformation exercise intended to keep people from noticing that a behind-the-scenes cabal of Calvinistic Socialists (and/or Socialistic Calvinists) is actually pulling the strings?

  82. David Eddyshaw says

    I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you …


  83. John Emerson says

    I like to joke around, but in Italy the conspiracies were real .The ex-Mason group Propaganda_Due group (expelled 1976) played a sinister role in many different areas.

    One of the problems with conspiracism is that according to conspiracist logic, the absence of evidence is evidence of suppression. The problem with anti-conspiracist logic is that there are actual conspiracies out there. I doubt that anyone believes the official JFK assassination explanation any more, and we just now have learned that the official story of the Malcolm X assassination was false. But any mysterious killing produces a flood of conspiracy theories, only one of which can be true.

    The people who told me about the John Paul I murder were devout Catholics. Catholic factions have been killing one another for over a thousand years.


  84. What is perhaps unusual about Malcolm X’s murder is that the nature of the large-scale conspiracy behind it is well established. He was killed by the Fruit of Islam, on the orders of Elijah Mohammed. What we don’t have a clear understanding of is who actually carried out the assassination.

  85. J.W. Brewer says

    Part of the “official” Malcolm X story (that all three of the three guys who were actually convicted were factually guilty) had been widely doubted for decades. What’s new is that the prosecutor’s office belatedly agreed that the two of the three widely thought to have been misidentified had indeed been misidentified. My impression is that there’s also been a stable semi-consensus belief for a pretty long time (although it does require accepting as credible statements made many years after the fact by the one guy who was concededly involved and correctly convicted) as to who else was involved at the operational level (as opposed to the giving-orders-from-on-high level). Most (maybe all?) of those other credible suspects are now deceased. I don’t know, however, if the cops/prosecutors ever had a strong enough case to belatedly indict any of those other suspects and if so whether they declined to do so to avoid contradicting some of the convictions they’d already gotten. I certainly don’t think they were locked into a theory that the three guys they’d convicted were the *only* three individuals who had any culpability, but as to two of the remaining “real killers” the prosecutors might have had to proceed by explaining that those guys had actually played the specific roles the two eventual exonerees had been wrongly convicted of playing. Maybe it’s also possible that going after the remaining “real killers” in open court might have involved revealing who in the relevant circles had been a double agent or government informant?

    But maybe John Emerson has access to a more divergent alternative narrative, of the “Malcolm was actually killed at the direction of the Mossad/Jesuits/space-lizards via false-flag operatives trying to frame the NOI for the killing” genre?

  86. About twenty years ago, I saw a documentary about Malcolm X, which spent of a lot of time on his later conflicts and eventually break with the Nation of Islam—ultimately leading to his assassination. It included a lot of interviews with people who knew him in the 1960s. However, I missed the beginning and so did not see the parts where most of the interviewees were formally introduced. As I watched, I noticed that one of the interviewees seemed to be singing from a completely different kitab from all the others, giving a much more negative view of Malcolm’s departure from the Nation of Islam. Moreover, it also became clear that the interview with him must have been conducted under somewhat unusual circumstances; unlike the other people who the producers talked to, he was clearly not in the same room as anyone asking him questions, and and the questions were being relayed to him via remote audio. It seemed increasingly strange, until they flashed his name and role on the screen again near the end of the program, revealing that he had been, at the time of Malcolm X’s death, the commander of the Fruit of Islam in New York City (or maybe just Brooklyn)—making him someone who was probably involved in planning the killing.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think it is particularly well known that Malcolm X was killed by the Nation of Islam. I have met plenty of well-informed people who just seemed to have assumed that he had been killed by white supremacists, the way Martin Luther King Jr. was.

  87. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett: Perhaps you meant to type “plenty of otherwise well-informed people”? My impression is that the two guys who were recently exonerated and the four of the guys subsequently claimed by the admitted participant to have also been involved were all (i.e. all six out of six) at the time members of or at least hanging out with the FOI, so while convicting the right specific individuals and not convicting the wrong specific individuals is quite important from the standpoint of individual justice, it doesn’t much change the overall historical narrative.

    Unrelatedly, I am amused to see that the wiki article on Propaganda Due that John E. linked to repeatedly uses the adjective “pseudo-Masonic,” presumably reflecting the input of editors eager to protect the good name of what they view as legitimate Masonry. Perhaps a No True Scotsman thing?

    Both the death of Aldo Mori and that of the former Albino Luciani are referenced in what I think is an extraordinary short “film” from 2011, in the form of a promotional video for a circa 1978 “outtake” Rolling Stones song that (perhaps with some more recent overdubbing) was finally being officially released. 1978 TV-news file footage (mostly of war, violence and/or civil unrest, but not entirely) is intercut with file footage of the Stones’ ’78 U.S. tour, and (speaking as someone who turned 13 that year) I think the whole thing should be shown to high school history classes to give them a sense of the ambiance of those far-off times, with I guess easy extra credit available for figuring out what all the things going on in the news footage excerpts are. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbQaio1aRmU

  88. John Emerson says

    Probably I shouldn’t have mentioned the Malcolm X thing, which happened to be in the news just now. I do not share Mr. Brewer’s confidence that all conspiracy theories ultimately involve space lizards. It would be a nicer world if they did, I suppose.

  89. J.W. Brewer says

    I certainly do not dispute that quite a lot of public figures in Italy were killed by shadowy and conspiratorial organizations during the 1970’s (whose various behind the scenes connections and affiliations and motivations may have sometimes been opaque and/or dissembled about) and that space-lizards are not necessary (although I guess you can never rule them out) to explain this situation. I would also not dispute that perhaps one should be open minded as to whether any given death should be added to the toll of that phenomenon. That said, even if causal responsibility for any given incident was sometimes murky and/or false-flaggy, most/all of those other deaths were by gunshot or bomb or something similar, with none of the participating groups seeming to think it was worth the time and effort to do the “make it look like a natural death” (or even a regrettable car accident) sort of thing. When someone took a shot (ultimately non-fatal) at the next Pope a few years later, it frankly didn’t seem all that weird. Why should a Pope be exempt from a phenomenon that also targets U.S. presidents and ex-Beatles?

    But it’s certainly not as if I can’t conceive of anyone floating around the Vatican and/or Italy in those days being so ungentlemanly as to connive at the death of the new Pope.

  90. a promotional video for a circa 1978 “outtake” Rolling Stones song that (perhaps with some more recent overdubbing) was finally being officially released

    Thanks for that — I had somehow missed it, and it made me happy.

  91. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: you’re welcome. While the video is interesting for the historical point, the song is separately interesting from a linguistic perspective because it’s part of the pseudo-Country-and-Western subset of the Stones canon wherein Jagger switches from his usual singing voice to his impression of a “white-American-hillbilly” voice, meaning he tries to be rhotic but not always consistently so and throws in some other tics that are presumably a British idea of how certain Americans pronounce things.

  92. John Emerson says

    The Mozart-Salieri conspiracy theory was apparently first promoted by Pushkin in a playlet and then made into an little opera by Rimsky-Korsakoff, and Mandelstam developed the Mozart-Salieri opposition into a fundamental principle of art. Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakoff both idenitified with Salieri (identifying Mickiewicz and Musorgsky with Mozart), and Mandelstam probably did too (though apparently no one could ever be quite sure what Mandelstam meant when he said something.)

    Anyway, during my Salieri studies I learned that poisoning was a common method of murder in those days . Impulsive murder with pistols was relatively uncommon because before Colt and Remington pistols were pretty inefficient. The great grandfather of a friend was shot something like 9 times in the Ukraine ca. 1905 and took several days to die.


  93. it’s part of the pseudo-Country-and-Western subset of the Stones canon

    Those are some of my favorites: “Honky Tonk Women,” “Sweet Virginia” … does “Tumbling Dice” count?

  94. John Emerson says

    Jagger always knew he was pseudo. It was part of his game, as a bluesman too. He knew he couldn’t dance either, but he had fun getting people to watch him dance.

    I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
    Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
    And the preacher said, you know you always have the Lord by your side
    And I was so pleased to be informed of this that I ran
    Twenty red lights in his honor
    Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord
    I had an arrangement to meet a girl, and I was kind of late
    And I thought by the time I got there she’d be off
    She’d be off with the nearest truck driver she could find
    Much to my surprise, there she was sittin’ in the corner
    A little bleary, worse for wear and tear
    Was a girl with far away eyes

  95. David Marjanović says

    I guess “pseudo-Masonic” refers to the “Expulsion” paragraph:

    The Grand Orient of Italy officially expelled Gelli and the P2 Lodge in 1976.[13] In 1974 it was proposed that P2 be erased from the list of lodges by the Grand Orient of Italy, and the motion carried overwhelmingly. The following year a warrant was issued by the Grand Master for a new P2 lodge. It seems the Grand Orient in 1976 had only suspended, and not actually expelled, the lodge on Gelli’s request. Gelli was found to be active in the Grand Orient’s national affairs two years later, financing the election of a new Grand Master. In 1981 a Masonic tribunal decided that the 1974 vote did mean the lodge had factually ceased to exist and that Gelli’s lodge had therefore been (Masonically and politically) illegal since that time.[10]

    The whole “let’s take over the media and install a fascist dictatorship” thing isn’t the first thing I think when I think of Freemasons either, seeing as “free” seems like its opposite.

    On John Paul I, the explanation I read too long ago to remember the source seems the best: he wasn’t deliberately murdered, he was just given enormous amounts of bureaucratic work to do, in negligence of a known medical problem (heart or thrombosis or both), so he probably died alone and neglected at his desk, and this was so embarrassing that it was covered up.

  96. @David Marjanović: Freemasons are actually named after the material they worked with: freestone. Freestone (a calque from Latin and/or Old French) means “stone that can be sawn in any direction and readily shaped with a chisel, such as fine-grained sandstone or limestone” (per the OED). Freemasons were thus contrasted with rough masons who worked on cutting and setting larger blocks, and while all masons were considered highly skilled tradesmen in the High Middle Ages, the freemasons were somewhat more highly esteemed than the rough masons.

    It appears that the freemasons eventually managed to parlay their high status among artisans—and, more notably, their somewhat peculiar name—into the “free”-dom to govern themselves and to be exempt from many local taxes. The OED has a fourteenth-century quote from Wycliff about their cartel: “Men of sutel craft, as fre masons… conspiren togidere þat no man of here craft… schal do ouȝt but only hewe stone.”

  97. Freemasons are actually named after the material they worked with: freestone.

    Well, the OED (entry updated June 2008) says “probably.” But still, I knew nothing about that possibility/likelihood, so I am more educated than I was.

  98. John Emerson says

    Mozart was a Freemason and was killed by other Freemasons for revealing Masonic secrets. Not by Salieri. There.


  99. J.W. Brewer says

    In focusing just on the voice/accent Jagger deploys rather than other indicia of country-ness I’m not sure about Tumbling Dice and some of those others. But Dead Flowers is a key early example. And maybe Dear Doctor way back in ’68. And Faraway Eyes certainly a strong later example of the phenomenon.

    EDITED TO ADD: way back in ’65 the Stones covered “I’m Movin’ On,” which had been a #1 hit on the C&W charts for Hank Snow in 1950. But the Stones version made it sound like a typical blues thing, losing the fiddle-based arrangement of the original and adding slide guitar and harmonica. And Jagger used his typical voice which probably started as an affected imitation of “American Negro R&B singer” style, but in due course just became “the way Mick Jagger sings unless he’s self-consciously doing something different.”

  100. John Emerson says

    I’ve felt for a long time that the best way to understand the Stones is to realize that Jagger was a talented, snotty, middle class college dropout (like me) and that irony, sexual innuendo, and rebellious nastiness were his thing. Blues was just the form he choose, and he dabbled in country western forms too. Even the more naive sorts of teenage rock and roll were not really him.

    And that that’s why I liked him.

    And as such, I really felt that he was doing something new, even though the claims for rock’s revolutionary meaningfulness were far overstated. But I remember the moment when I was sitting in a fern bar in Seattle when Brown Sugar came on, and I came to believe that it was pop entertainment and that he was now just turning out product .

  101. J.W. Brewer says

    1. “I don’t wanna be a fucked-up middle-class college student any more.” – Lou Reed, 1978 (that’s certainly not the most outre line in the particular song, which is embracing and/or mocking a hipster POV that goes back to at least Kerouac …)

    2. “I was siting in a fern bar in Seattle” sounds like it just has to be the first line of a hitherto unreleased (and maybe also circa 1978?) Warren Zevon song. But it needs a next line that fits the meter. “And the JUKEbox played some PRODuct by the STONEs” would fit, although it may be of lesser literary merit.

  102. John Emerson says

    Ain’t that pretty at all.


  103. Mick Jagger: is he a nice guy?

  104. So he pronounced rapture same as raptor?

    Maybe, maybe not. But even if he did, raptor (TRAP) doesn’t rhyme with escaped her (FACE).

  105. David Marjanović says

    That’s interesting about freestone.

    There are still people whose FACE vowel is [ɛː], so I figured that might be close enough to TRAP, but TRAP is [a] in the same accent…

  106. I must have learned about freestone and freemasons from either Castle or Cathedral, by David Macaulay—although whether it was from one of the original books or from the televised adaptations, I couldn’t say.

  107. We had a German translation of the Cathedral book at home when I was a boy. Really a marvellous thing.

  108. David Eddyshaw says


    On the topic of West African loanwords, I’ve recently noticed that Mooré pãnga, Kusaal paŋ etc “power”, which are trivially easy to reconstruct* to Proto-Western-Oti-Volta as *pàngá, a nice regular ga/si class word which fits into the phonology of the WOV languages perfectly, are uncannily similar to Bambara fànga** “power”, and similar forms seem quite widespread locally.

    it seems unlikely that this is a loan into Mande from Mooré, even though the Mossi did at one point get as far as sacking Timbuktu (who hasn’t?)

    Have you come across this particular Wanderwort? Does it turn up in Songhay?

    * Algonquian whisky?

    ** As all Hatters know, there is no /p/ in Bambara.

  109. Interesting. I haven’t seen that one in Songhay, but Bambara influence on Gur would hardly be unprecedented. Wonder if it shows up in Soninke? (stops to check…) Yes it does.

    Is there a related verb?

  110. David Eddyshaw says

    Not in WOV, no. It’s a derivational orphan, which makes sense.

  111. It’s of course Congo-Scandinavian; see Danish penge “money”, which, as we all know, equals power.

  112. Some benighted folks think the former Hungarian currency pengő is unrelated to Danish penge. They have not heard of Magyar-Congonavian.

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