Japanese Era Names.

Joel at Far Outliers is posting excerpts from Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), and I thought this was interesting enough to share:

As a further step in cementing the ties between the emperor and his people, the emperor’s birthday was proclaimed a national holiday, the Feast of Tenchō [天長節]. Observance of the emperor’s birthday as a holiday had begun as far back as 775, but the custom had long since fallen into abeyance. Its revival at this time was thus another instance of the intention to restore ancient practices.

On October 23 [1868] it was announced that the nengō [年号] had been changed from the fourth year of Keiō to the first year of Meiji and that henceforth there would be only one nengō for an entire reign. The name Meiji was derived from a passage in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination: “The sage, facing south, listens to the world; facing the light, he governs.” The day before the new nengō was announced, the emperor himself had visited the sanctuary (naishidokoro [内侍所 ‘inner samurai place’]) where he drew lots to determine the new nengō from among several names submitted by scholars. Although he probably did not realize it at the time, the emperor had also chosen the name by which posterity would know him; earlier emperors were known by a place-name from the site of their residence or (as was true of Meiji’s father and grandfather) by a posthumously chosen title. The name Meiji [明治], interpreted as meaning “enlightened rule,” came to seem an accurate description of his reign. Names like those of his father and grandfather, auspicious though they were, would have been less appropriate to the era.

It turns out that KDoore explained the basic fact in a 2009 comment, but I had of course forgotten, and this has more detail. I’m curious, however, about how exactly Meiji [明治] is derived from the I Ching; it’s apparently from the Shuogua (an appendix explaining the trigrams), and the passage is translated here as “The sages faced south when they listened to the world (that is, held court), they turned towards the brightness and ruled.” Is “enlightened rule” from “turned towards the brightness and ruled”? I want context!

Babel: GPT-3 and Writing.

Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Babel (n+1 Issue 40, Summer 2021) is an essay about OpenAI’s GPT-3, described “by a friend who works in the industry as autocomplete on crack.” (I posted about it briefly last year.) She has plenty of interesting things to say; here are some excerpts:

From what I could tell, the few writers who’d caught wind of the technology were imperiously dismissive, arguing that the algorithm’s work was derivative and formulaic, that originality required something else, something uniquely human — though none of them could say what, exactly. GPT-3 can imitate natural language and even certain simple stylistics, but it . . . cannot perform the deep-level analytics required to make great art or great writing. I was often tempted to ask these skeptics what contemporary literature they were reading. The Reddit and Hacker News crowds appeared more ready to face the facts: GPT-3 may show how unconscious some human activity is, including writing. How much of what I write is essentially autocomplete? 

Writers, someone once said, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. The question of who said it is not really important. The whole point of the metaphor was to destabilize the notion of authorial agency by suggesting that literature is the product of unconscious processes that are essentially combinatorial. Just as algorithms manipulate discrete symbols, creating new lines of code via endless combinations of 0s and 1s, so writers build stories by reassembling the basic tropes and structures that are encoded in the world’s earliest myths, often — when things are going well — without fully realizing what they are doing. The most fertile creative states, like the most transcendent spiritual experiences, dissolve consciousness and turn the artist into an inanimate tool — a channel, a conduit. I often think of the writer who said she wished she could feel about sex as she did about writing: That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.


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Norwegian Skates.

Alexander Anichkin, who comments here as Sashura, is my go-to guy for the realia of Soviet life, and I wrote him as follows (I’ve excised most of the Russian quote):

I’m reading Nikolai Klimontovich’s Дорога в Рим [The Road to Rome, published in 1994] and I’ve gotten to a part where he’s reminiscing about the early ’60s (he was my age, born in 1951):

Бог мой, как много было хорошего: а напиток «Чудесница», а летка-енка, […] и отцовские норвежки, и дача на Сходне […]…

[My God, how many good things there were: the beverage “Chudesnitsa,” the letka-jenkka [a Finnish dance: see this LH comment from nine years ago], […] and my father’s norvezhki, and the dacha at Skhodnya […]…

I know or can google most of this, but I can’t find anything for норвежки but ‘Norwegian women.’ Do you know what he’s talking about? (Skis?)

His response was so enlightening I couldn’t resist sharing it here:

oh, this brings back so many memories!
Norvezhki were a type of skates. The point here is that they were more expensive and rare, only for grown-ups. Children hardly ever got a chance to have them or even to try skating on them.
In my memory, they are the ones with long straight thinnish blades, designed for speed skating on good clear ice. As opposed to ‘kanadki’ (Canadian skates) with shorter wider blades curved and angled at tips, designed for quick turning and dribbling when playing hockey. There were also ‘figurki’ for figure skating with serrated tips and, for smaller children, ‘snegurki’ (Snowmaidens) with still wider blades and straps to attach to valenki. I had a pair of skates that I sometimes used to go to school. There was one road to cross on tiptoes, and the rest of the way were alleys with packed snow and ice. […] And, for Languagehat purposes, also note the etymology of the word коньки [‘skates’] – little horses! (cf. sea horse – морской конёк) […] And here’s an image for you. Look at this painting from 1952: the skates in the boy’s school bag are probably those very norvezhki –

PS. Skis are near enough. We had Soviet-made long narrow skis made in Estonia. They were called estonki [‘female Estonians’].

It’s really hard to find that kind of information without the help of knowledgeable people, and I’m grateful for them.

Is cearta daonna iad cearta teanga.

Éanna Ó Caollaí reports for the Irish Times:

In what is believed to be a first in modern British political discourse, a Welsh member of parliament addressed the House of Commons in Irish on Wednesday. During a debate on decision-making powers of civil-servants at Stormont, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts called on the British government to introduce legislation protecting the rights of Irish speakers.

Parliamentarians heard the Member of Parliament for Dwyfor Meirionnydd say in Irish that language rights are human rights and that the Irish-speaking community is entitled to equality of treatment: “Is cearta daonna iad cearta teanga agus tá cothrom na féinne tuilte ag lucht labhartha na Gaeilge,” she said.

Continuing in English, she pressed Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley to uphold the British government’s commitment to introduce language legislation as outlined under the St Andrew’s Agreement struck between the Irish and British governments and Northern Ireland’s political parties in 2006.

You can see a video of her speech at the link; a tweet from the Department of Welsh & Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth University (@CelticAber) says:

You can do anything with a degree in #CelticStudies! @LSRPlaid is a graduate of @CelticAber, and we are very proud to see her use Irish in @HouseofCommons

I know too little about the legislation to have an opinion on it, but I’m all for speaking Irish whenever possible. A note to the story says:

A headline on an earlier version of this story stated that Wednesday was the first time Irish was spoken during a debate in the House of Commons in 100 years. The SDLP press office has informed The Irish Times that Mr Mark Durkan, then MP for Foyle, spoke in Irish during a 2015 debate.

And if you’re wondering about the name Éanna, it’s said to be from the Middle Irish Éan dála, meaning ‘similar to a bird, resembling a bird.’ (Thanks, JC!)


I just learned (or relearned — I had probably run across it before) that the Russian word for ‘fluorine’ is фтор [ftor]; as Russian Wikipedia explains:

The name phthore (from Greek φθόριος ‘destructive’), proposed by André Ampère in 1816, is used in Russian, Greek, and some other languages. Many other countries, on the other hand, use a name derived from the ancient names of the mineral fluorite CaF2, which in their turn originated from its ability to decrease the melting point of the metallurgical slag formed during the reduction of metals from ores and to increase its fluidity (Lat. fluere ‘flow’). Ampère, in his letter to Davy of August 26, 1812, proposed the word fluorine, which thanks to the addressee of the letter got a fixed place in the English language.

I was pleased to find in the OED the entry phthore, n.:

Forms: 1800s phthor, 1800s phthore, 1800s phtor.

Etymology: < French phthore (1819 or earlier as phtore) < ancient Greek ϕθορά destruction < an ablaut variant of the base of ϕθείρειν to destroy, to corrupt: see phthartic adj.), so called on account of the corrosive action of hydrofluoric acid.
French phthore is attributed to A. M. Ampère (1775–1836).

Chemistry. Obsolete. rare.

Fluorine. Cf. phthorine n.
1858 R. G. Mayne Expos. Lexicon Med. Sci. (1860) 951/2 Phthore.
1890 Webster’s Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang.   Phtor,..fluorine. (Written also phthor.) [Also in later dictionaries.]

Phthor would make a good name for a superhero.

Flanes Checked for Truth.

I’m not crazy about Robin Robertson’s “Near Gleann nam Fiadh” (LRB, 30 July 2020; archived) as a poem, but it’s got some intriguing vocabulary. It begins:

All night preparing: the pelts oiled, blades whetted, the flanes
checked for truth and sharpness, set loose enough
there in the quiver, before the dawn, before the Becoming.
To hunt the stag with honour, Father said, you must
change your shape and nature: assume his form.
Latching on the headpiece, the skullcap with its horns,
I walked soft into the morning, alert, changed:
no longer man but hart, red deer, fiadh, stag.

Flane is an Old English word for ‘arrow’ (Beowulf 2438 “Syððan hyne Hæðcyn of hornbogan, his freawine flane geswencte”; Battle of Maldon 71 “Þurh flanes flyht”) that was occasionally revived by poets of an antiquarian cast of mind (1724 Poems on Royal Company of Archers 34 “Burnished swords and whizzing flanes”); the OED (entry not fully updated since 1896) says:

Etymology: Old English flán masculine and feminine = Old Norse fleinn (masculine), cognate with Old English flá: see flo n. The word survived longest in Scots; otherwise the normal form would have been flone.

I like that last bit of alternative-history lexicography. As for fiadh, it’s the Irish word for ‘deer’; Wiktionary says:

From Old Irish fíad (“wild animals, game, especially deer”), from fid m (“wood”).

But Buck’s Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages isn’t so definitive, saying:

NIr. fiadh = Ir. fiad ‘wild animal, beast, deer’, W. gwydd ‘wild’ (: Ir. fid ‘tree’ or ON veiðr ‘the hunt’? Walde-P. 1.230, 314. Pederson 1.111 f.). Specialization as in NE deer. Loth, RXC 35.35.

Later in the poem he uses cleuch (Scottish) “A gorge or ravine with precipitous and usually rocky sides, generally that of a stream or torrent” or “The precipitous side of a gorge; a steep and rugged descent”; “stooping him through with my dirk” (apparently the OED’s stoop 11. To plunge (a knife) in a person’s body. Obsolete. 1662 J. Lamont Diary “[He] was strangled in his bed priuately, and, fearing he sould recouered, a knife was stooped in his throat”); inmeat (Now rare exc. dialect) “Those internal parts or viscera of an animal which are used for food; hence gen. Entrails, inwards”; and redd² (Of uncertain origin) “To clear or clean out; To put in order, to make tidy.” In a single line we get:

Acorné, sanglant, fracted.

I can’t find acorné in either my French or English dictionaries (including OED and TLFi), but James Parker’s Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry (1894) has (in the H section) “Horned, (fr. acorné) of the Bull, Unicorn, and Owl, when the horns are of another tincture”; sanglant is of course ‘bloody’; and fracted is “1. (heraldry) Having a part displaced, as if broken; said of an ordinary. 2. broken.” That’s my idea of fun.

Robert Farris Thompson, RIP.

I am saddened to learn of the death of Robert Farris Thompson, one of my intellectual heroes; Holland Cotter’s NY Times obit (archived) is lively and captures why he was so remarkable:

Robert Farris Thompson, a self-described “guerrilla scholar” who revolutionized the study of the cultures of Africa and the Americas by tracing through art, music and dance myriad continuities between the two, died on Nov. 29 at a nursing home in New Haven, Conn. He was 88. […]

Born into an upper-middle-class white family in Texas and educated at Yale, Professor Thompson is remembered by colleagues and students for his energizing thinking and his extravagantly performative presence.

In the Yale classroom, where he taught African American studies for more than half a century, he turned lecterns into percussive instruments. On research trips in Brazil, Cuba and Nigeria, he was known to exchange his J. Press madras shorts for the robes of an initiate into tribal religious societies.

He spoke and wrote of African civilizations as infinitely varied ethical, philosophical and aesthetic systems. To grasp their complexity and sophistication, he said, required a “guerrilla scholarship” that combined art history, anthropology, dance history, religious studies, sociology and ethnomusicology. This hybrid practice repeatedly took him out of the academic ivory tower and into rural Africa, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and hip-hop clubs in the Bronx. In all these environments, he was equally, and exultantly, at home. […]

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Besides English and Spanish.

Back in 2014 I posted about The Most Common Language In Each US State—Besides English And Spanish; now, courtesy of Anshool Deshmukh, I present an update based on the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey:

Tagalog is the second most commonly spoken language in American households (after English/Spanish) with 1.7 million speakers, even though it only reaches top spot in Nevada. Unsurprisingly, Louisiana and states bordering eastern Canada have a healthy number of French speakers.

Further analysis of these common languages reveals a fascinating story. […]

I’ll let you click the link for the map and the rest of the story, but it makes an interesting comparison to the earlier post. Thanks, Bonnie!

Garbage Language.

Last year Molly Young wrote for Vulture about a very familiar topic, corporatespeak (to use what is apparently a dated term), but does so in a lively and useful fashion:

I worked at various start-ups for eight years beginning in 2010, when I was in my early 20s. Then I quit and went freelance for a while. A year later, I returned to office life, this time at a different start-up. […] One thing I did not miss about office life was the language. The language warped and mutated at a dizzying rate, so it was no surprise that a new term of art had emerged during the year I spent between jobs. The term was parallel path, and I first heard it in this sentence: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you parallel-path two versions?”

Translated, this means: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you make two versions?” In other words, to “parallel-path” is to do two things at once. That’s all. I thought there was something gorgeously and inadvertently candid about the phrase’s assumption that a person would ever not be doing more than one thing at a time in an office — its denial that the whole point of having an office job is to multitask ineffectively instead of single-tasking effectively. Why invent a term for what people were already forced to do? It was, in its fakery and puffery and lack of a reason to exist, the perfect corporate neologism.

The expected response to the above question would be something like “Great, I’ll go ahead and parallel-path that and route it back to you.” An equally acceptable response would be “Yes” or a simple nod. But the point of these phrases is to fill space. No matter where I’ve worked, it has always been obvious that if everyone agreed to use language in the way that it is normally used, which is to communicate, the workday would be two hours shorter.

In theory, a person could have fun with the system by introducing random terms and insisting on their validity (“We’re gonna have to banana-boat the marketing budget”). But in fact the only beauty, if you could call it that, of terms like parallel path is their arrival from nowhere and their seemingly immediate adoption by all. If workplaces are full of communal irritation and communal pride, they are less often considered to be places of communal mysticism. Yet when I started that job and began picking up on the new vocabulary, I felt like a Mayan circa 1600 BCE surrounded by other Mayans in the face of an unstoppable weather event that we didn’t understand and had no choice but to survive, yielding our lives and verbal expressions to a higher authority.

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Prose is like Hair.

Julian Barnes has a piece in the new LRB called Flaubert at Two Hundred (archived); it’s a series of more or less random observations done with Barnes’s patented panache, and I’ll quote some bits that seem to belong at LH:


Flaubert is a writer who, more than most, can provoke obsessive devotion and obsessive behaviour. One of the more arcane items of Flaubertiana is Ambroise Perrin’s Madame Bovary dans l’ordre (2012). Perrin is a member of Oulipo, and his project is very Oulipian: it lists, in alphabetical order, every single word, number and punctuation mark that occurs in the 1873 Charpentier edition of the novel. And by ‘list’, I mean list: the book has six vertical columns to a page, and prints out the word each time it occurs. So the word et, which features 2812 times in the novel, is printed out 2812 times, occupying almost nine full pages. La occurs 3585 times, le 2366 and les 2276, elle 2129 and lui a meagre 806 – from which you might perhaps deduce the sexual slant of the novel. Or not. In the same way, you could look up the names of Emma Bovary’s two lovers, Rodolphe and Léon, and discover that Léon’s name occurs 140 times and Rodolphe’s a mere ten fewer.

It is all vaguely witty, yet mind-numbingly useless. For instance, it can tell us that the word ecchymoses (bruises) and the date 1835 each occur a single time in Madame Bovary, but it doesn’t tell us where they, or any other word, occur. For that you have to go to the Flaubert website run by the University of Rouen.

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