Going through my Facebook feed, I was struck by this John Emerson post showing the cover of the book Nudibranchs, by T. E. Thompson — not because of the unremarkable design but because of the title. “Shouldn’t it be Nudibranches?” thought I… and then realized I must have been mentally pronouncing it wrong all along. Sure enough, a quick trip to Wiktionary told me that it was /ˈn(j)uːdɪˌbɹæŋk/ (NUDE-i-brank), from Latin nudus ‘naked’ + branchia ‘gills.’ Which made perfect sense, and I had obviously been subconsciously seduced by the totally unrelated word branch. It’s the converse of the “conches” discovery described in this post.

CAHG Culture and Lexicon.

Dmitry Pruss sent me the Nature Human Behaviour article “Deep history of cultural and linguistic evolution among Central African hunter-gatherers,” by Cecilia Padilla-Iglesias, Javier Blanco-Portillo, Bogdan Pricop, Alexander G. Ioannidis, Balthasar Bickel, Andrea Manica, Lucio Vinicius, and Andrea Bamberg Migliano (Open access), and the abstract certainly makes it sound of LH interest:

Human evolutionary history in Central Africa reflects a deep history of population connectivity. However, Central African hunter-gatherers (CAHGs) currently speak languages acquired from their neighbouring farmers. Hence it remains unclear which aspects of CAHG cultural diversity results from long-term evolution preceding agriculture and which reflect borrowing from farmers. On the basis of musical instruments, foraging tools, specialized vocabulary and genome-wide data from ten CAHG populations, we reveal evidence of large-scale cultural interconnectivity among CAHGs before and after the Bantu expansion. We also show that the distribution of hunter-gatherer musical instruments correlates with the oldest genomic segments in our sample predating farming. Music-related words are widely shared between western and eastern groups and likely precede the borrowing of Bantu languages. In contrast, subsistence tools are less frequently exchanged and may result from adaptation to local ecologies. We conclude that CAHG material culture and specialized lexicon reflect a long evolutionary history in Central Africa.

Dmitry quoted this bit:

For example, the word ngbídí (see Supplementary Table 13 for variants) denotes a musical bow with two strings that is played exclusively by female CAHGs in the exact same manner by both eastern (Efe) and western (Aka and Baka) groups living over 2,000 km apart and not found in any other population. Another shared word exclusive to CAHGs is ngombi, denoting the harp present in the Baka, Babongo, Aka and Batwa in the west (the latter being at least 400 km away from the other 3 groups). It is also relevant that Aka (Bantu C10 speakers) and Baka (Ubangian speakers) neighbours speak very distinct languages and yet share various unique words denoting exclusively shared musical instruments, such as haka (ankle rattles), bogongo (zither harp), pole.pole (seed whistle), mobio (flute) and mokinda (single-skinned drum). The presence of these instruments and words shared between different CAHG groups but not with their respective Bantu-speaking and Ubangian farming neighbours nor with other farming groups speaking related languages has previously been interpreted as evidence for their descent from a common ancient population.

What do Hatters think?

Cliffhanger, Pregnant.

Kathryn Schulz has an essay in the New Yorker (archived) on the uses of suspense as a fundamental technique of storytelling; it starts with the obligatory hook from the author’s own life (“Awaiting the birth of a child is a very strange experience”), then widens out:

But the final weeks of pregnancy, with all the uncertainty and anticipation that they entail, also foster a very specific emotional state, one produced only by the experience of waiting, for an indeterminate amount of time, for something momentous to happen. And so lately I have been thinking, in the context of life, about something I have thought about for years in the context of literature: the structure, function, and strange pleasures of suspense.

It’s well worth reading, and I hope the corrections I’m about to make won’t put anyone off it — as usual, these linguistic misunderstandings are the fault of the educational system, not of the individual author. But since part of the mission of this blog is to educate people about this sort of thing, I’m going to point out a couple of blunders. First we get this:
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Jenes Gegenwendige.

Remember my problems with Ricœur a few months ago? Now, for my sins, I have opened Renate Lachmann’s Memory and Literature: Intertextuality in Russian Modernism (University of Minnesota Press, 1997; tr. of 1990 German original), and before even approaching Lachmann’s text I’m tackling Wolfgang Iser’s introduction. He starts off talking about the Russian Formalists, with whom I’m reasonably familiar, and continues with the Czech Structuralists, with whom I have a nodding acquaintance, and Yury Lotman, about whom I at least know something. In short, despite the thickets of jargon and obscure references, I was not completely at sea. Then I hit this patch:

If this argument sets Lachmann apart from the aesthetics of reception launched by the Czech Structuralists, she remains equally distant from Deconstruction, in spite of the fact that the dissolution of the literary work as a self-sufficient entity makes her appear to have deconstructionist leanings. What runs as an undercurrent through all her interpretations of Russian literature comes to full fruition in her last essay, titled “Decomposition—Recomposition,” which sets out to provide a final assessment of what may be entailed in the countervailing movements to be observed in the literary text. The dually coded sign, the constant dissipation of meaning, and even the dismemberment of the patternings to which the referent texts are subjected are not to be identified as the text’s subversion of its own statements. If decomposition is disfigurement, recomposition implies working out the implicit relationships between the truncated referent texts and the manifest text. But as the referent texts do not decompose themselves, recomposition is marked by a double-sidedness: it mutilates the referent text and composes interrelationships between the fragments selected as well as between the manifest text and the cannibalized text. Thus decomposition and recomposition are interlinked by what one might call dual countering.

Such a description carries in its wake all the connotations of Martin Heidegger’s term jenes Gegenwendige, which he considered the hallmark of the artwork. Dual countering highlights the simultaneity of decomposing and recomposing, since the artwork, for Heidegger, pivots around and thus comprises what is mutually exclusive. It is this rift, as Lachmann sees it, within a composition that works through disfiguring, that makes dual countering emerge as the ineluctable condition for enabling by decomposing. With his notion of jenes Gegenwendige Heidegger stressed the rift, which he considered the origin of the artwork, whereas Lachmann emphasizes the operations through which the two basic impulses counter one another, thereby turning into a matrix of productivity. The different slant she puts on dual countering as the constitutive operation of the literary text reflects her intention to highlight intertextuality as externalized memory.

Now, I have no quarrel with things like “If decomposition is disfigurement, recomposition implies working out the implicit relationships between the truncated referent texts and the manifest text”: sure, it’s jargony, but it’s English, and if I put my mind to it I can work out more or less what’s being said. But I draw the line at jenes Gegenwendige. In the first place, it’s not English, and if you’re translating the essay, why not translate that bit? Well, OK, I can handle German, let me get out my dictionary… I worked my way up from pocket dictionaries to the huge Harper-Collins unabridged, and then turned to the internet, and I couldn’t find any entries for gegenwendig. I did find ad hoc renderings like “counterturning” and “antistrophic” and “conflictual,” but they did not help and I am deeply suspicious of them. The deutsche Wortschatz says “Es tut uns leid, Ihre Anfrage gegenwendig ist nicht in unseren gegenwartssprachlichen lexikalischen Quellen vorhanden,” but has one lonely quote: “Als nach unten gewendetes Fluggerät ist er ein Dementi aus Kunststoff, gegenwendig in sich” [Die Zeit, 02.04.1998, Nr. 15], which shows it’s been used by somebody other than Heidegger. But if someone can explain “jenes Gegenwendige” in terms that I can even vaguely understand, I will be forever grateful.


Prompted by who knows what passing vagary of thought, I said to my wife “I always liked that good old insult crumb — people don’t say ‘You crumb!’ to each other any more, and it’s too bad. I wonder when it went out of fashion?” She said it reminded her of another antiquated insult, louse. I decided (inevitably) to look it up, and imagine my surprise when Green informed me that crumb originally meant ‘louse’ (from “the diminutive size of the insects, the infestation of the human being”)! Here are some early cites for that sense:

1848 [Aus] Bell’s Life in Sydney 26 Feb. 1/4: So I gets cummeser, cos of them are crums you no’s.
1863 [US] O.W. Norton Army Letters (1903) 175: Fortunately, I am not troubled with the ‘crumbs’ now [DA].
1898 [US] Scribner’s Mag. XXIII 440/1: And just then I felt something crawling on my neck. It was a crumb [DA].
1910 [US] ‘Ship Out’ in Lingenfelter et al. Songs of the Amer. West (1968) 519: The bunks they are plumb full / Of crums and fleas.

Here are some cites for “2. a filthy person, an objectionable, worthless or insignificant person”:

1914 [US] G.D. Chase ‘Navy Sl.’ in DN [Dialect Notes] IV: ii 150: crumb, n. A dirty sailor.
1915 [US] M.G. Hayden ‘Terms Of Disparagement’ in DN IV:iii 198: crumb, an insignificant person.
1925 [UK] Wodehouse Carry on, Jeeves 168: This old crumb so generally disliked among the better element of the community.
1955 [US] B. Schulberg On the Waterfront (1964) 13: Once in a while […] some crumb forced a meeting of the local.
1962 [US] P. Highsmith Cry of the Owl (1968) 257: You’re such a heel, you wouldn’t know! You’ve wrecked my life, you crumb.
1964 [Aus] ‘Charles Barrett’ Address: Kings Cross 31: To start with that crumb, Greg, didn’t have a car.
2000 [US] B. Wiprud Sleep with the Fishes 74: That crum you just crushed – yeah, his name is Jimmy.

And here are the cites for “3. a cruel, vicious person” (though how you distinguish this sense from 2 is beyond me):

1944 [US] J. Archibald ‘Defective Bureau’ in Popular Detective 🌐 ‘Desertin’ your wife, you dirty crumb!’ the customer yelped.
2001 [US] J. Stahl Plainclothes Naked (2002) 251: Doubtless the crumb who’d mocked him […] was lolling around some swanky office, cackling […] about the rube down in Hicksville, Pennsylvania.

(I don’t know what that 🌐 is doing in the 1944 entry; it’s not on the Abbreviations or How to Use pages.)

Asian Languages Onscreen.

Brandon Yu’s NY Times piece “Found in Translation: Asian Languages[/亞洲語言/아시아의 언어/Mga Wikang Asyano/Ngôn ngữ Á châu] Onscreen” (, Wayback Machine) is a heartening look at how things have changed when it comes to subtitles:

American audiences used to balk at subtitles. But recent hits like “Shogun” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” show how much that has changed. In Hollywood today, not only are Asian and Asian American narratives more prominent than ever, but they are also being told in increasingly dynamic ways through the artful use of Asian languages. […]

Just a few years ago, when his Korean dark comedy “Parasite” won the 2020 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the writer and director Bong Joon Ho ribbed Americans for their aversion to “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” But in 2024, “The Sympathizer” is among a growing number of American works — including the recent prestige films “Minari” (2020), “Past Lives” (2023) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022); the television epics “Pachinko” (2022) and “Shogun” (2024); and the family-friendly series “Ms. Marvel” (2022) and “American Born Chinese” (2023) — that use Asian languages to bring additional depth and nuance to their stories.

“I don’t think it is just a temporary blip,” said Minjeong Kim, the director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at San Diego State University. “The trend has shifted.”

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The Pleasure of Historical Dictionaries.

John Considine’s essay “Why do large historical dictionaries give so much pleasure to their owners and users?” (from the Proceedings of Euralex 1998) is not especially perceptive (“When large historical dictionaries are opened, they may give certain limited kinds of pleasure […] An analogous case is that of etymological information, which is also not particularly useful, but much enjoyed by readers”), but it has a good number of lively quotes, mainly about the OED; e.g. from a New Statesman review c. 1910:

[Large dictionaries] are something more than works of reference … a large dictionary is first-class reading. Murray’s [the Oxford English Dictionary] would be as good a companion on a desert island as a man could hope for, as, apart from the history of the words, the quotations are endlessly entertaining in themselves. It is like having all the birthday books and literary calendars ever written rolled into one.

Or this from Rose Macaulay:

[…] having heaved one of the somewhat ponderous volumes of this mighty work from its shelf (this is one of the [main] ways in which I keep in good athletic training) I continue to read in it at random, since it would be waste to heave it back at once. I need not expatiate on the inexhaustible pleasure to be extracted from the perusal of this dictionary, from the tasting of this various feast of language, etymology, and elegant extracts from all the periods of English literature.

(I supplied “main” from a Google Books snippet of Macaulay’s text; alas, Considine is one of the many writers careless with their quotes.)

And from Arnold Bennett: “I have been buying it in parts for nearly forty years and am still buying it. The longest sensational serial ever written!” Good stuff. (Via an eudæmonist.)

Losing Your Native Tongue.

Madeleine Schwartz has a thoughtful and wide-ranging piece in the NY Times Magazine (archived) that begins with her own background:

My mother is American, and my father is French; they split up when I was about 3 months old. I grew up speaking one language exclusively with one half of my family in New York and the other language with the other in France. It’s a standard of academic literature on bilingual people that different languages bring out different aspects of the self. But these were not two different personalities but two separate lives. In one version, I was living with my mom on the Upper West Side and walking up Columbus Avenue to get to school. In the other, I was foraging for mushrooms in Alsatian forests or writing plays with my cousins and later three half-siblings, who at the time didn’t understand a word of English. The experience of either language was entirely distinct, as if I had been given two scripts with mirroring supportive casts. In each a parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles; in each, a language, a home, a Madeleine.

She moved to Paris in October 2020 and “realized my fluency had its limitations: I hadn’t spoken French with adults who didn’t share my DNA.” She cites Julie Sedivy, who we’ve talked about a number of times, and describes her own difficulties in learning to use French as an adult:

Compared with English, French is slower, more formal, less direct. The language requires a kind of politeness that, translated literally, sounds subservient, even passive-aggressive. I started collecting the stock phrases that I needed to indicate polite interaction. “I would entreat you, dear Madam …” “Please accept, dear sir, the assurances of my highest esteem.” It had always seemed that French made my face more drawn and serious, as if all my energy were concentrated into the precision of certain vowels. English forced my lips to widen into a smile.

But going back to English wasn’t so easy, either. I worried about the French I learned somehow infecting my English. I edit a magazine, The Dial, which I founded in part to bring more local journalists and writers to an English-speaking audience. But as I worked on texts by Ukrainians or Argentines or Turks, smoothing over syntax and unusual idioms into more fluid English prose, I began to doubt that I even knew what the right English was.

She then moves on to more general considerations:
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The linguist Sally Thomason (see this 2017 post) posted this at Facebook:

It wasn’t so long ago that I learned the word pretendian, which refers to a person who falsely claims Native American or First Nations identity. I just re-discovered, in my Salish-Ql’ispe dictionary files, that there’s a word for that: qlixwi7Ci ‘an Indian wannabe, someone pretending to be an Indian’. Now I’m wondering how many indigenous North American languages have a word with that meaning — or, for that matter, how many Indigenous languages elsewhere in the world have equivalent words. Does anyone out there know?

Good question, but I suspect outside of North America there are not many indigenous identities members of majority populations would be interested in claiming, at least in sufficient quantities there would be a word for it. But what do I know?

Swing, Standby, Understudy.

Our bedtime reading these days is Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (one of our favorites); much of the plot involves actors who are putting on a performance of Our Town, a famous play I have somehow managed never to see, and they keep talking about “swings,” a term neither my wife nor I was familiar with. So of course I googled and found multiple sites explaining the difference between a semantically related set of terms, e.g. Swing, Standby, Understudy: What You Need to Know:

A swing is an off-stage performer responsible for covering any number of ensemble tracks, sometimes as many as 12 or more. An understudy is a performer cast in the ensemble of a musical (or a minor role in a play) who is responsible for covering a supporting or lead role. A standby is an off-stage performer whose sole responsibility is to cover the lead (usually a star) in a production.

It’s interesting to me that understudy is a universally understood term, whereas the other two are (I’m guessing) known only to theater aficionados. It’s amusing that the antiquated (1921 vintage) OED entry defines understudy as “An actor or actress who studies a superior performer’s part in order to be able to take it if required; also, the study of a part of this purpose” (I have bolded the harsh and doubtless often inaccurate modifier that will certainly be removed when the entry is updated). And it’s curious that this sense of track (apparently equivalent to what the layman thinks of as a “part”) is not in any dictionary I have access to; perhaps when the OED updates its 1913 entry it will get around to including it.