Pelevin’s Werewolves.

Having read Victor Pelevin’s Священная Книга Оборотня (2004), translated by Andrew Bromfield as The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, I’m not sure what to say about it. The narrator and protagonist, A Khuli (狐狸 huli is Chinese for ‘fox,’ and хули khuli is Russian for ‘what/why the fuck?’), was born in China a couple of thousands of years ago and is now working as a prostitute in Moscow; she looks like a girl in her early teens but is actually a werefox who uses her tail to hypnotically convince her clients they are having sex with her. She meets a high KGB (excuse me, FSB) officer named Alexander who turns out to be a werewolf with powers that enable him to find the oil his country needs in the Far North. They fall in love, and she explains to him the nature of reality, which is of course illusion, as in all Pelevin’s novels (the Heart Sutra is referred to more than once). As I wrote Lizok, “it’s standard-issue Pelevin (sex, drugs, computer games, corrupt business/power nexus, fancy brand names, plus a dollop of Eastern mysticism), but hey, I enjoy that mix, and he sure does know how to tell a story.” If you enjoy such things, I can recommend the novel; it’s longer than it needs to be, but it’s fun. Of course, there’s always the academic take on it, as in A History of Russian Literature by Kahn et al. (see this post):

The fox embodies the invigorating and restorative component of postmodernist cynicism descended from the long lineage of Soviet tricksters. The wolf reveals the underlying cynical foundations of post-Soviet negative self-identification and the neo-traditionalist politics of the 2000s and 2010s.

So there’s that too, if you like social significance. But I’m going to discuss some of the details I enjoyed.
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Wie man sich bettet…

In »Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagony« (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1930), Brecht used a German proverb, “Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man” (as you make your bed, so you must lie in it), as the basis for the rousingly cynical first-act finale, “Denn wie man sich bettet” (text and translation, with a clip of a Lotte Lenya performance). Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti posts the chorus with two published translations and his own (he confusingly calls it “Jenny’s Song,” which normally refers to this song from Threepenny Opera):

Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man,
Es deckt einen da keiner zu
Und wenn einer tritt, dann bin ich es,
Und wird einer getreten, dann bist’s du.

tr. H.R. Hays:

As you make your bed you must lie
And no one denies it’s true
And if anyone does any stepping, that’s me,
And when anyone’s stepped on, that’s you.

tr. W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman:

As you make your bed, so you lie on it,
The bed can be old or brand-new;
So if someone must kick, why, that’s my part
And another get kicked, that part’s for you!

He writes, “The insistence on rhyme obscures the meaning of Brecht’s German in these translations” and says he thinks the lines mean:

For as you make your bed, so must you lie,
And no one tucks anyone in there
And if anyone kicks, then I’m the one,
And if anyone gets kicked, then it’s you.

So my question to German-speakers is, is he right? Does “Es deckt einen da keiner zu” mean “And no one tucks anyone in there”?

Code Talkers.

I expect many Hatters are familiar with the basic story of the use of Navajo as an unbreakable code during WWII, but Yoonji Han’s Insider story has some details that were new to me:

In May 1942, 29 Navajo men arrived at Camp Elliott, the original Marine Corps training base during World War II. Stretching 32,000 acres in San Diego, the base contained encampments, bivouac areas, and 41 firing ranges. But the small unit of Navajo men weren’t there to learn how to fight, at least not with guns. They had instead been tasked with creating an unbreakable code to help defeat enemy forces.

In the early months of the war, Japanese intelligence experts had easily broken every code devised by the US military. A man named Philip Johnston proposed the idea of recruiting Native Americans to develop a code that would be indecipherable to enemies. The son of a Protestant missionary, Johnston had grown up on the Navajo reservation, and realized the language was almost impossible to master without early exposure.

The program proved a success, and expanded to include around 400 Native American code talkers in WWII. […] The US military picked the Navajo as its main source of code talkers since they were “the only tribe in the United States that has not been infested with German students during the past 20 years,” commanding general Clayton Vogel wrote in a March 6, 1942 letter.

After the US successfully used the Choctaw language to transmit secret messages during World War I, Germany and Japan had sent students to the US to study Native American languages. Navajo was one language they did not pick up.

More details (and photos) at the link; I hadn’t been aware of the earlier use of Choctaw or of the students from Germany and Japan. Thanks, Bonnie!

Also, check out WOBO: Words from Old Books, with subsections on Vintage dictionaries of Word, Phrase, and Fable, Thieves’ Cant and Slang, and printing and type, inter alia. Thanks, Stu!


I was reading along in Patricia Lockwood’s overheated but enjoyable TLSLRB review (6 January 2022) of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star (translated by Martin Aitken) when I got to this:

It is another kind of narrative temptation, actually, to write about The Morning Star without ever mentioning that its author is one of the most endlessly disseminated writers of the age, a man whom most of us encountered staring back at us from the first volume of My Struggle like something both ancient and fresh: a stone-tablet model, a yassified Noah.

I was completely befuddled by “yassified,” but of course the internet came to my rescue, turning up Shane O’Neill’s year-old NYT Style section piece (archived) explicating it for befuddled old-timers like me:

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” in a full face of makeup. The first Queen Elizabeth contoured from her neck ruff up. Severus Snape with jet-black hair extensions. Sasquatch sporting a smoky eye. These are just a few of the altered images that have been shared by YassifyBot, a Twitter account that started popping up in people’s feeds this month.

To “yassify” something, in the account’s parlance, is to apply several beauty filters to a picture using FaceApp, an A.I. photo-editing application, until its subject — be that a celebrity, a historical figure, a fictional character or a work of fine art — becomes almost unrecognizably made up. […]

The word “yass” — which can also be spelled “yas,” “yaas” or with any number of A’s and S’s for emphasis — has been circulating in L.G.B.T.Q. vernacular for more than a decade. The word was further popularized by a 2013 video of a fan admiring Lady Gaga. The Comedy Central show “Broad City,” in which Ilana Glazer’s character frequently deploys the phrase “yas queen,” also helped to bring the word into wider use.

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Stiff Drink.

Dave Wilton investigates the origin of the phrase stiff drink, something I’d never thought about. He writes:

A stiff drink is a strong, alcoholic one. The idiom is odd to present-day ears because stiff once had a sense meaning strong that isn’t used much anymore, except in the context of booze.

The adjective stiff, meaning rigid, unbending traces back to Old English stif. And the word retains that as its primary meaning through to the present day. But in the Middle English period, stiff began to be used to mean strong. For instance, the word is used in that sense to describe the physical prowess of William the Conqueror in the Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, c.1300:

Suiþe þikke mon he was · & of grete strengþe
Gret wombede & ballede · & bote of euene lengþe
So stif mon he was in armes · in ssoldren & in lende
Þat vnneþe enimon · miȝte is bowe bende

(Such a stout man he was and of great strength
Great bellied and bald but well proportioned
So stiff a man he was in arms, in shoulders and in loins
That scarcely any man might bend his bow)

Stiff starts to be associated with alcohol by the end of the sixteenth century, at first in the phrase stiff drinkers, that is to say hard or inveterate drinkers. […] We see stiff applied to the booze itself by the end of the eighteenth century. […] And we have stiff drink of grog in Parson Weems’s 1808 edition of his biography of George Washington. […]

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Lyre’s Dictionary.

Lyre’s Dictionary is a computer program that generates novel English words based on existing roots and patterns. For example:

futurarium · noun
a place for the future

It also exists as a bot on Twitter and on Mastodon, where it posts several new words every day.

Via MetaFilter, where an example posted is bibible “able to be drunk” (“According to Grammarist this should be bibable, because new words always take -able, not -ible”).

Hand of Irulegi.

Several people have sent me links to this Sam Jones story in the Guardian about a surprising find:

More than 2,000 years after it was probably hung from the door of a mud-brick house in northern Spain to bring luck, a flat, lifesize bronze hand engraved with dozens of strange symbols could help scholars trace the development of one of the world’s most mysterious languages.

Although the piece – known as the Hand of Irulegi – was discovered last year by archaeologists from the Aranzadi Science Society who have been digging near the city of Pamplona since 2017, its importance has only recently become clear.

Experts studying the hand and its inscriptions now believe it to be both the oldest written example of Proto-Basque and a find that “upends” much of what was previously known about the Vascones, a late iron age tribe who inhabited parts of northern Spain before the arrival of the Romans, and whose language is thought to have been an ancestor of modern-day Basque, or euskera.

Until now, scholars had supposed the Vascones had no proper written language – save for words found on coins – and only began writing after the Romans introduced the Latin alphabet. But the five words written in 40 characters identified as Vasconic, suggest otherwise.

The first – and only word – to be identified so far is sorioneku, a forerunner of the modern Basque word zorioneko, meaning good luck or good omen.

Javier Velaza, a professor of Latin philology at the University of Barcelona and one of the experts who deciphered the hand, said the discovery had finally confirmed the existence of a written Vasconic language. […]

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Medieval Archive in Romanian Church. (no author named) reports on a recent find:

A team of researchers in Romania has discovered over 200 books and manuscripts in a church in Mediaș. It includes dozens of early printed works and manuscript fragments dating back to as early as the 9th century.

The research team, led by Adinel C. Dincă of Babeș-Bolyai University, found the cache in the Ropemakers’ Tower of St. Margaret’s Church in Mediaș, a town in central Romania. Biblioteca Batthyaneum, a branch of the National Library of Romania, announced the discovery on its Facebook page earlier this month. They reported that the find included 139 printed books dating to between 1470 and 1600, two manuscripts from the early 16th century and about sixty more charters and other documents dating to between the 14th and 16th centuries. Furthermore, they found several manuscripts fragments that were kept inside parish records, the earliest of which is from the Caroliginian era and may date back to as early as the 9th century. […]

St. Margaret’s Church, also known as Margarethenkirche, dates back to the early 15th century and was established by the Transylvanian Saxons, a community of Germans who settled in this region of Romania in the Middle Ages. The collection of books seems to have been left in the church’s tower for at least decades, perhaps to protect them during the First or Second World War. However, Professor Dincă believes they may have been placed here much earlier. […]

These items may have been part of a much larger library collection within the church. Professor Dincă notes that a catalogue published in 1864 lists around 7,700 books held by the library, including dozens of early printed works by Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon. The research team will now be working to match up the discovered books with those listed in the catalogue. […]

The research team is now working to better understand the collection and help with its preservation, and they hope that it can be kept in a local library with digitization to give it wider access. Professor Dincă believes that this discovery will allow historians to better reconstruct the literacy and the intellectual life of the Transylvanian Saxons as well as the local medieval manuscript tradition.

I love stories like this; it’s nice to look forward to more discoveries. (Transylvanian Saxons were featured, among many other topics, in this great 2004 thread.)

Weak Coffee.

The radio show A Way With Words (featured here in 2007) has done a segment on a horrifying topic:

Listeners are sharing their favorite terms for coffee that’s weak, including warm wet, branch water, pond water, scared water, and in the immortal words of Ani DiFranco, just water dressed in brown. One listener has a friend in North Dakota who reuses the same coffee grounds all day and refers to the watered-down beverage as Wabash coffee. This may be connected with the use of wabash as a verb to refer to adding water to a sluggish liquid such as ketchup or shampoo to stretch it out a bit longer. There are plenty of other terms for “weak” or otherwise disappointing coffee around the world. In German, it’s sometimes called Blümchen-kaffee, literally “flower coffee.” In the Hopi language surukaphe means “tail coffee,” or coffee watered down to make it go further. In Brazilian Portuguese slang, chafé means “bad coffee,” a blend of the words for “tea” and “coffee.” Then there’s cholo in Louisiana French, from chaud-l’eau, or “hot water.” A Japanese word takes a dig at American coffee, combining the Japanese word for “American” and the Dutch word koffie.

My Norwegian-American mother used to call it sukkervatn (‘sugar-water’). And I still have flashbacks to a cup of alleged coffee I was served in Chicago in the mid-1980s that you could literally read through (there was lettering on the bottom of the cup). Young People Today have no conception of what the world was like before Starbucks came along; say what you will about how they overroast their beans or whatever refined complaints you have, they made it possible to dependably get a decent cup of coffee anywhere you went.

Adjective Order Redux.

Back in 2013 I posted about Cooper and Ross’s paper “World Order” (“We began the present study by asking, as some linguists have asked before us, why the ordering of certain conjoined elements is fixed”), but the thread immediately turned to the order of the elements in “Watson and Crick”; I’m now presenting Mark Liberman’s very interesting Log post responding to a question about a recent Saturday Night Live sketch using the phrases “big dumb hat” and “dumb little dog”: “Whither English’s rigid adjective order?” Mark says:

There’s a long history of work on related topics, starting with Pāṇini. A classic and accessible reference is Cooper and Ross’s brilliant 1975 paper “World Order“. They focus primarily on the order of elements in conjunctions (“bigger and better”, “fore and aft”, “cat and mouse”, “now and then”, “here and there”, …), and describe a complex web of semantic and phonological influences. They cite Jespersen in support of the idea that such “freezing” also applies “in compound words, particularly compounds involving reduplication” (“namby-pamby”, “razzle-dazzle”, “hickory-dickory-dock”). And they also note (pp. 94-96) that “It seems safe to conclude […] that at least some of the principles governing the ordering of conjuncts and the ordering of prenominal adjectives are the same.”

On the phonological side, they list the following constraints (p.71):

Compared to place 1 elements, place 2 elements contain, other factors being equal:

1.   more syllables (Pāṇini’s law)
2.   longer resonant nuclei
3.   more initial consonants
4.   a more obstruent initial element, if both place 1 and place 2 elements start with only one consonant
5.   vowel containing a lower second formant frequency
6.   fewer final consonants
7.   a less obstruent final segment, if both place 1 and place 2 elements end in a single consonant

It’s complicated, as he says (there are more subtleties at the link), and also a good example of how messy language can be.