Glossary Words.

Some interesting tidbits in this TLS column:

Should you find yourself sat in a crumby crib or a cockloft, a passing spring-cart audible without, with only a glass of negus to drink and toast-and-water to eat – alas, we fear you must have tumbled into the world of The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens.

This collection of sketches began as a series in Dickens’s journal All the Year Round. It roams “now about the city streets: now, about the country by-roads”, its narrator “seeing many little things, and some great things, which, because they interest me, I think may interest others”. It interests us in turn to see that The Uncommercial Traveller has now been published in the Oxford Edition of Charles Dickens, edited by J. H. Alexander (Oxford University Press, £190). This new edition boasts a glossary that could be useful to anyone who wishes to get to grips with the archaic lingo of the 1860s.

Happily (“perhaps”) a bobby has remained a familiar term, even if that’s not what most people would today call a policeman. Most people have no cause, meanwhile, to look out for the once-common drayman (a “driver of low horse-drawn beer cart”), still less a drysalter (a “dealer in articles for dyeing and related products”). We wish we could reintroduce into everyday usage the fine adjective cannibalic (“just awful, shockingly bad”) – not to mention the even finer saponaceous (“soapy”).

[Read more…]

M.I.T. Grandpa.

In Connie Wang’s NY Times review (archived) of Wenyan Lu’s novel The Funeral Cryer (a fine example, by the way, of the benefits of opening up the paper to a more diverse group of reviewers), she talks about the “professional wailers, usually from China, who are paid to cry at funerals”:

While I’ve never personally witnessed a funeral crier, my family comes from the parts of China that still employ this and other local traditions that have endured even as their young people have moved abroad. For example, my American husband finds it confusing that I don’t know the given names of my extended family members despite my closeness to them; he can’t understand why a 36-year-old woman still refers to her friends’ parents as “Soft Tofu” or “M.I.T. Grandpa.”

Observed through a Western lens, this preference for pet names and terms of kinship can seem juvenile, even disrespectful. But for Chinese people with roots in small villages, this is simply the way life is, and has been. The lack of given names is just one of the cultural dissonances that Wenyan Lu employs throughout her debut novel […]

It reminded me of the variety of naming practices discussed in this 2011 post (“In Thailand people have a nickname, that is usually not related to their actual name, and will generally use this name to address each other in non-formal situations. […] Often they will have different nicknames for family and friends.”).

Castor fiber.

A reader writes:

Castor fiber, the Eurasian beaver, is an interesting name. This website wants to connect it to Castor. There is a line of vague defeat: “But the animal did not live in Greece in classical times (the closest beavers were north of the Black Sea), and the name probably was borrowed from another language, perhaps influenced by the hero’s name.”

This is in the wiki entry:

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle described this species under the name λάταξ/ (latax). He wrote that it is wider than the otter, with strong teeth, and at night it often uses these teeth to cut down trees on riverbanks. Ιt’s not clear when beavers vanished from Kastoria (which may have been named after the beaver – κάστορας in Greek), but as late as the 18th century they were still hunted for fur. Buffon wrote that they were very rare in Greece at that time. In the 19th century, beavers could still be found in the Alfeios river and in Mesolongi.

Grateful for any thoughts.

So: any thoughts?

Fossil Words.

Today’s SMBC is pure Languagehattery. Punch line: “My grandpappy weren’t no speaker of Proto-Indo-European!” (Thanks, Sven!)

Antedates, Women, and Aliens in the OED.

David-Antoine Williams (see this 2022 post) wrote me thus:

I thought I might pass along some recent work of mine on OED editions and revisions. The most recent is a short thing on antedating rates in OED revisions, and then there are two older ones on the quoting of female authors in various editions and revisions, and the treatment of non-UK/US English across the long history of the dictionary.

Needless to say, I found it all of great interest, and I hope you will too. I link to his posts, which in turn link to the actual articles.

Antedating (in) the OED, “a short article by me on antedating rates in the OED since revision started in 2000.” Sample tidbit: “The most likely individual sources to be antedated are all nineteenth-century encyclopedias, dictionaries and lexicons, and periodicals.”

Women’s Words in the OED:

Now published in Review of English Studies (Advance Access), an article by me on the ways in which the Oxford English Dictionary has treated texts authored by women in its marshalling of citation evidence for English language lexis, from the first edition (1884-1928) to the current OED3 revision (2000-). […] OED is — as of now — under-citing women authors in every LC class, and in a big way in two of the most common (i.e. where the evidence is plentiful), namely Literature (PN-PZ) and Sciences (Q, R, S, T).

“Alien” vs. Editor: “World English” in the OED 1884-2020:

This article discusses the changing ways in which the Oxford English Dictionary has recorded the vocabularies of ‘World English’—English as spoken outside of the British Isles—from the first to the present edition. Based on direct analyses of the coded text of multiple editions, it documents and compares the practices of successive editors, taking into account various contextual factors, such as editorial principles and policies, institutional resources, and historical language development. Significant attention is given to labeling practices, including the notorious ‘tramline’ mark of the First Edition and Second Supplement, designating ‘alien’ vocabulary; the evolution of the notion of ‘regional’ English within the dictionary; and the contributions of technology to the art of lexicography. The final section details changes in policy and methods in the current revision and expansion, evaluating both its practices vis-à-vis its predecessors, and the picture it gives us of the current state of World English.

Thanks, D-AW!

English Is a New Top Coding Language.

Or so Sarah Butcher reports:

If you’re wondering which coding language to learn for a software engineering job in banking, Goldman Sachs’ CIO Marco Argenti seems to be aligning himself to the people who suggest an advanced knowledge of the English language and an ability to articulate your thoughts clearly and coherently in it, is now up there alongside Python and C++.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Argenti says he’s advised his daughter to study philosophy as well as engineering because coding in the age of large language models is partly about the “quality of the prompt.”

“Ambiguous or not well-formed questions will make the AI try to guess the question you are really asking, which in turn increases the probability of getting an imprecise or even totally made-up answer,” says Argenti. In the future, he says the most pertinent question won’t be “Can you code?,” but, “Can you get the best code out of your AI by asking the right question?”.

Asking the right question will partly depend upon being able to articulate yourself in English and that will depend upon, “reasoning, logic, and first-principles thinking,” says Argenti. Philosophical thinking skills are suddenly all-important. “I’ve seen people on social media create entire games with just a few skillfully written prompts that in the very recent past would have taken months to develop,” he adds.

I know nothing about coding, but Stu Clayton, who sent me the link, does, and since he thinks this is of interest lächerlich, I’m passing it along. Anything that places value on “advanced knowledge of the English language and an ability to articulate your thoughts” is probably a good thing.


Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul) wrote me as follows:

I have a mystery which I was hoping you or one of the Hatters might help me to solve. It involves a Church Slavic translation of a homily by John Chrysostom (see the attached edition by Reinhart). The text is quite trippy and even Reinhart has to admit he can’t figure out two parts (p. 169), of which the first one is the most interesting: чепито? in “и на чепитѣх(ь) | лежахꙋ ѻтроци, и ѻтроковице” apparently describing some sort of bed or sofa

Does this sound like a challenge worthy of the Hatters?

It does, and I am hereby posting it in the sure and certain hope that there will be an interesting discussion if not a convincing solution. Thanks, Slavo!


We don’t seem to have discussed cryptids here at LH, and I’ve just discovered a fine one, the almas, “said to inhabit the Caucasus, Tian Shan and Pamir Mountains of Central Asia and the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia”:

We were told that it had a flat face like that of a human being, and that it often walked on two legs, that its body was covered with a thick black fur, and its feet armed with enormous claws; that its strength was terrible, and that not only were hunters afraid of attacking it, but that the inhabitants removed their habitations from those parts of the country which it visited.

There are a couple of linguistically interesting features of the word; the first is that it doesn’t have a convincing etymology:

The term “almas” and numerous variants thereof appear in Mongolian, Turkic languages and Iranian languages.

Writing in 1964, scholar P. R. Rinčen says that “the origin of the old name is quite unknown … and it does not lend itself for translation in other languages”

The second is the impressive variety of “Other names” listed at that cryptid page:

Abnauayu, almasty, albasty, bekk-bok,
biabin-guli, golub-yavan, gul-biavan, auli-avan,
kaptar, kra-dhun, ksy-giik, ksy-gyik, ochokochi,
mirygdy, mulen, voita, wind-man, Zana

I wonder how they decide which are alternate names of the almas rather than creatures in their own right. (DNA tests are presumably unavailable.)

Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context.

A few years ago I mentioned that RusTRANS was “actively seeking essays for a new, Open Access volume which is aimed at stimulating and consolidating scholarship about the global imprint of Russian literature in translation”; now the volume has appeared, as editors Muireann Maguire and Cathy McAteer explain:

[…] Our edited volume, Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context, studies how literature itself acts as diaspora. In this collection of forty-one essays by three dozen international scholars, we trace how, since 1900, Russian literature has been disseminated beyond its political borders; how individual Russian and Russophone authors are translated and emulated abroad; and how cultures and individuals from the Republic of Ireland to South Vietnam have absorbed Russian cultural influence, from Pushkin to Sholokhov. Our methodology is informed by both sociology and Translation Studies, relying upon Pascale Casanova’s concept of central and peripheral languages, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital, Jeremy Munday’s microhistorical methodology, the focus on literary translators consolidated by Klaus Kaindl and colleagues, and David Damrosch’s erudite yet accessible comparatist analysis. National engagement with Russian literature varies with political as well as geographical climate; successful cultural integration is often pre-determined by the literacy of the target audience, and indeed by the nature of the transmission process – whether voluntary or compulsory, state-funded or profit-driven. Hence the definition of ‘Russian literature’ – and public attitudes towards it – alters sharply with time, place, and politics, as our contributors show.

Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context also explores an equally important issue, much harder to quantify: the influence of Russian literature on individual creative inspiration. This edited volume maps, for the first time, global connections between Russian authors (nineteenth-century classics, Socialist Realists, and even Soviet dissidents) and canon-shaping writers around the world, including Norway’s Knut Hamsun, Germany’s Thomas Mann, Greece’s Ares Alexandrou, the great Hindustani author Premchand and Japanese prose stylist Futubatei Shimei, through to modern-day award-winning authors like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk and South Korea’s Bora Chung. Where Lahiri’s novel [The Namesake] traces the progress of Gogol the reluctant reader, we follow the (global) progress of Gogol the reluctant writer. How did a neurotically anxious fabulist, an ex-pat twice over (he left Ukraine for St Petersburg and St Petersburg for Rome, returning to the Russian Empire only to die), leave such a powerful legacy across so many continents? How could writers like Pushkin and Dostoevsky, their horizons restricted by the rigid social hierarchy and narrow politics of the Russian Empire, reach so far and touch so many readers? There are as many answers to these questions as there are nations where Russian literature is read today. This volume speaks for most of them.

[Read more…]


Today I learned one of the best animal names ever: noolbenger, ‘A small species of nocturnal marsupial, Tarsipes rostratus, of southwest Western Australia.’ It is apparently more commonly called a honey possum, but that’s not nearly as much fun. The OED has it (entry from 2003), with a more descriptive definition:

Chiefly Australian.

The honey possum, Tarsipes rostratus (family Tarsipedidae), a tiny marsupial with a long pointed snout and a prehensile tail that is restricted to south-west Australia and feeds exclusively upon nectar and pollen.

a1845 Nool-boon-goor. Aborigines of King George’s Sound. This little creature inhabits the smaller trees from the blossom of is constantly extracting honey and minute insects.
J. Gilbert in Western Austral. Naturalist (1954) vol. 4 112

1955 Dainty and diminutive.., the honey-mouse or ‘nulbenger’ what Gilbert White would have termed a seclusive animal.
C. Barrett, Australian Animal Book (ed. 2) viii. 39

2001 Honey Possum Tarsipes rostratus. Noolbenger… Unmistakable tiny animal with elongated muzzle.
P. Menkhorst & F. Knight, Field Guide to Mammals of Australia 90

Both Wikt and OED say simply that it’s from Nyungar ngulbunggur; my question is: is that word analyzable?