A miscellany:

1) A recommendation of scythes as a grass-cutting tool brought to my attention the fact that the shaft of a scythe is called a snath (description and picture here). I don’t know why, but I really like the word. Snath, snath, snath.

2) The OED has an entry “razoo Austral. and N.Z. slang. [Origin uncertain.] A (non-existent) coin of trivial value, a ‘farthing’. Also in phr. brass razoo. Used in neg. contexts only.” (First two cites: 1930 Bulletin (Sydney) 5 Nov. 21/1 The useless graft on patch and flat! They never think a bloke has earned a darned razoo for that. 1931 W. HATFIELD Sheepmates xxx. 268 Richards never has a rahzoo.) They give the pronunciation as RAH-zoo. I looked it up in my Australian Oxford and found the same definition but the pronunciation rah-ZOO, with the stress on the final syllable. How do Aussie/Kiwi readers pronounce it?

3) I recently finished my reading of Dead Souls in Russian (and of all great Russian prose, Gogol is most untranslatable, so I urge readers with any knowledge of Russian to give it a try). To help with difficult passages I kept the Andrew MacAndrew translation handy—it happened to be what I had left over from college days. It’s no worse than any other, but in the final chapter I found a real howler (comparable to Nabokov’s mistaking Khazars for Hazaras). Chichikov’s background is finally being described, and we have reached the moment when he comes up with his brilliant scheme of buying up deceased serfs and mortgaging them to the government. He is considering where he can “resettle” them (since serfs couldn’t be transferred without land); the Russian says “теперь земли в Таврической и Херсонской губерниях отдаются даром, только заселяй. Туда я их всех и переселю!” [They’re giving away land in the Crimea and the Kherson province free to anyone who will settle it; that’s where I’ll resettle them!] But the good Mr. MacAndrew mistook Таврический ‘Tauride, Crimean’ for Тебризский ‘of Tabriz‘ and translated “Today one can get land in Kherson and Tabriz Provinces free,” moving Chichikov’s undead serfs to a hypothetical Russian guberniya in Iran! (I should note for the sake of historical pickiness that Russia did occupy Tabriz in 1827, but they gave it back the next year at the end of the war with Persia.)

Incidentally, while looking up Tabriz I found the remarkable story of Gordon Paddock, the U.S. consul there from 1911 to 1920, told in a well-written article, Rescue at Urmia (pdf) by David D. Newsom (Foreign Service Journal, November 2005). Paddock, a New York fop languishing in an Iranian backwater and receiving poor marks from his superiors, was told in June 1919 that Christians were being massacred in Urmia, 75 miles away across difficult terrain. He decided “that I could not sit still and wait for the Powers to act, but that I must do something myself.” He took a couple of automobiles and some helpers and after a dangerous and prolonged journey through a war-torn land managed, using patience, guile, and exaggeration of how much official support he enjoyed, to get hundreds of Assyrian Christians safely to Tabriz. The situation in Persia continuing unstable, he decided to head back to the States. He had to pay his own expenses because of the breakdown of communications, and when he got back he discovered the government would not reimburse him because he had not done things in the proper bureaucratic way. He eventually retired and lived in France until his death, the date of which is unknown.

Here’s an excerpt from the Newsom article:

Gordon Paddock was an unlikely hero. Born in New York in 1865, he graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School. After practicing law in New York for 10 years, he entered the United States Diplomatic Service in 1901.

On June 5, 1911, shortly after Paddock took up his consular duties in Tabriz, State Department inspector Alfred L.M. Gottschalk described him as “a gentleman, trained to the life of the idle rich in his youth. He has no money left now and is trying, late in life, to learn something of business.” Knowing that background, the inspector sympathized all the more with Paddock’s living conditions.

“He has to live in a mud-walled village where there is practically no social life and where the only fellow countrymen that he meets are well meaning, but certainly not broad-minded, missionaries, where clean or well-trained servants are unattainable, and where the house he lives in is not weatherproof and therefore impossible to heat through the severe mountain-winter of Persia.”

In addition, communications were poor and subject to misunderstanding, as when he reported his marriage on April 29, 1918, in Tabriz to Marie Josephine Irma Lefebvre, a French citizen. In a subsequent letter to the American minister in Tehran, he wrote: “I am entirely obliged to you for the trouble the legation has taken in telegraphing the Paris Embassy in reply to my sister, Mrs. Alexander’s, inquiries. I believe a report of my marriage was changed to my ‘murder,’ a rather amusing mistake when played that way, but which would have been extremely unpleasant for me if it had happened the other way around.”

Another despatch to Tehran, on July 27, 1918, illustrates the problems Paddock faced throughout his tenure in reconciling the demands of the Department of State with the realities of the region. “I regret extremely that it is quite impossible for me to comply at present with the request contained in your unnumbered instruction (File 300) of the 15th instant, to supply the legation with quadruple copies of my despatches. I have, after much searching in the shops here, been able to find but five pieces of carbon paper, of poor quality and at an absurd price ($0.10) per sheet, and unfortunately, there remain but two of these sheets, both of which are worn.”


  1. Pushkin is also untranslatable, they say, and I’m too old to learn Russian (right now I’m deciding which of my existing projects I’ll have to abandon.)

  2. Since Chapter 11 is “the final Chapter”, I take it you’re not going on to read Volume Two? I’ve never gotten to Volume Two myself. I thought the consensus is that the second part is not authentic Gogol but simply whatever scraps could be saved, but my Russian edition includes it with no comment.
    “Most untranslateable” is certainly subjective, but Bulgakov is another great writer that is certainly much better in Russian than in translation. Maybe not “great” but worth reading and nearly untranslatable is “Moskva-Petushki” by Venedikt Yerofeyev.

  3. I think my Australian accent is a bit atypical, but I give both syllables of “razoo” about the same length and stress. OK, maybe a tiny little bit more of each for “zoo” to emphasize the zaniness.

  4. I take it you’re not going on to read Volume Two?
    I may at some point, but it’s not a high priority; the few chapters that remain are authentic Gogol, but the consensus is that they’re pretty bad (with a few good bits). After 1842 he decided he had a duty to uplift humanity, and… well, that wasn’t really his gift.
    I love both Bulgakov and Erofeev (I’ve rarely laughed so hard as when reading Moskva-Petushki), but I think something of their essence comes across better than with Gogol. They’re writing about “real life,” however stylized and exaggerated; Gogol is writing about a purely invented world created from the resources of the Russian language, and when you take those resources away, you’re left with something that looks like a novel but has lost most of what makes it great (and leaves it open to silly interpretations as “social realism” or “wacky humor”).
    Matt: Thanks, that makes sense.

  5. John: Pushkin’s poetry is untranslateable; that’s why I added the “prose.” His prose is crystal-clear and eminently translateable.

  6. I have stress on ZOO of razoo too, and also with a strong secondary stress on the first syllable

  7. John Emerson says

    It’s a darn shame. Even translated, Gogol is a favorite of mine, and I think I’d love Pushkin.

  8. This New Zealander pronounces it raZOO, rhyming with kazoo. I have only ever heard or seen razoo in the phrase “brass razoo.” Often coupled with “I wouldn’t give a …” or “Not worth a …”
    I wouldn’t say this has any currency in conversation with anyone of my parents’ generation or younger (I’m 36). I see it in writing sometimes and I always assume the writer intends deliberate corniness.

  9. ‘Snath’ does indeed have a nice ring to it, and so does the type of scythe handle that has a stiff rotating band down on the business end of it instead of an iron blade to mow with. Of course, the handle of this manual equivalent of a weedwhacker is called a ‘bandersnath’.

  10. From another NZer: I put the stress on the second syllable in ‘razoo’. To me it doesn’t sound like ‘kazoo’ because the first syllable is more drawn out. But as Stephen says, it’s becoming an outdated term in NZ and I always thought of it as Strine in any case.

  11. “paa sned” means “at an angle” or “askew” in Danish. Whether that is anything to do with the angle that a scythe’s blade makes with the snat I would not know.

  12. Maire Smith says

    I’m 32 and have never heard ‘razoo’ before.
    (New Zealander)

  13. What a great story about Paddock, including his marriage / murder!

  14. I (an Ozlander) am with Claire on the pronunciation of razoo.

  15. I’ve heard Andrei Platonov described as the most untranslateable Russian writer, too. I don’t speak Russian, however, so can’t say whether that is deserved.

  16. Cryptic Ned says

    “Snath” is a great word. I’d like to see a list of those short, obscure Anglo-Saxon words…most “obscure word” lists are full of Latinate words that were coined 80 years ago, but the ones that are centuries old and are now only used by a small number of people are more interesting. Like “hasp”, or “placket”.

  17. Ned, I agree – the little, old words like snath are the most fun.
    I nominate: froe, thole, jess, clabber, hob, farrow…….

  18. B. K. Gorse says

    Indeed the central of these sequentially listed coinages bears a certain intrigue and panache about it which recent diversions over correct prosody work rather well to enhance. And fairly handy to boot, in particular cases, such as confrontment with a grocery clerk offering the customary choice (in this specific locale, but probably at nearly any holistic foods store elsewhere) between a $0.05 refund or the more curious “wooden nickel” charity token, in the instance of one bringing one’s own tote. The latter of these would, at the discretion of recipient, get distributed among various donation boxes mounted on the periphery, usually forcing said benefactor of the unknown to puzzle over which of the usual three or four to choose, and the authenticity of such a system overall. In other words, with the phrase well in reach, one would feel urged to exclaim:
    “None of this RAZOO, sir; deduct the half-tenth!”

  19. B. K. Gorse says

    …and that the word “razoo” does appear, at least, to contain a particle akin to that most critical in “razz” (to taunt, rag, etc.) could lend to its capability as rebuff…

  20. B. K. Gorse says

    Cheers (nazdrovia, mazel tav, et cetera) to all, and thanks, Hat, for the chance for comment here (more spacifically, above), and thus a first participational effort!!

  21. A pleasure to have you, eloquent sir!

  22. “Brass razoo” was the usual term in my young days in Oz, with equal stress on both syllables. I would still use it, but then I’m (a) of pensionable age and (b) 40 years out of touch with developments in Oz slang.
    For instance, I only farily recently learned of the term “bingle” for a minor fender-bender. A creation of the past 40 years. I’ve no idea of the origin.

  23. As for obscure parts of common objects, I nominate ‘vamp’.

  24. AllieTheKiwi says

    I’m a New Zealander and grew up with the phrase ‘I haven’t got a brass razoo’, pronounced RAH-zoo. I’m in my mid 30s. However, my parents were widely read and brought me up to be the same. I know I bring things up in conversation that make my husband say ‘What on *earth* did you say?!’
    When we were on holiday in Australia, I bought a mock coin called a ‘brass razoo’, so you could never say you didn’t have one.

  25. Wayne T Pickett has sent me a link to his Quora post “What does ‘Brass razoo’ mean in Australian slang?” which investigates the history of the word and quotes an etymologist who “found a reference in historian Manning Clarke’s history of the goldfields – ‘Razoo’ usage appears in Ireland’s Galway Vindicator, reprinted in the (NSW) Goulburn Herald during the early 1850s about a man who left his home in Ireland ‘without a Rahzoo to his name’ for the NSW Goldfields and returned a wealthy man.” The OED should check it out; if verifiable, it’s a considerable antedate to their first cite (1919 C. Drew Doings of Dave 28 “‘Did you have any bank to kick off with?’ ‘Not a razoo,’ returned his companion”; entry updated December 2008).

  26. Just checked the OED to see if they’d used the antedate; they haven’t, but I discovered this is razoo, n.3. The first is razoo, n.1 U.S. slang “A charge, a sortie. Hence also: a lively or boisterous outing or social occasion”:

    1864 Newark (Ohio) Advocate 19 Aug. The rebs occupy the works we left, and this morning, before we had breakfast, they made a little ‘razoo’ (as the boys say) on us, causing us to get into our rifle pits double quick, but they soon withdrew.
    1911 Coshocton (Ohio) Daily Tribune 16 Feb. 3/2 I’m feeling like having one more rip-roaring razoo with you for the sake of old times.
    2003 Charleston (W. Va.) Gaz. (Nexis) 24 Jan. 9 a Geordie patiently pulled him out of the way, started on the puzzle again, when Neil made another razoo and gleefully scattered the pieces again.

    And razoo, n.2 North American slang “An expression of contempt or derision, a reprimand; spec. a ‘raspberry’ (raspberry n. 4). Chiefly in to get (or give) the razoo”:

    1888 Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Daily Northwestern 5 Jan. 1/7 Mayor Lawson’s veto of the police service bill..has a strong resemblance to what the political toughs would call ‘giving a man the razoo’.
    1908 H. Green Maison de Shine 208 Can’t a man take a flat o’ beer wit’ out gittin’ the razoo?
    1939 R. Chandler Big Sleep xxvi. 235 My information is Apartment 301, but all I get there is the big razzoo.
    1959 Washington Post 22 Dec. c18/5 Yesterday’s hero, Fidel Castro, now gets the lustiest Bronx razzoohs since Adolf Hitler was flipping his wig for the cameras.
    2000 Sporting News 18 Sept. 60 (in figure) A big ol’ razoo to the Red Sox for telling Bret Saberhagen to get lost.

    If they do accept the antedate, this post’s razoo should vault into the first position.

  27. There’s a nice example of “flipping his wig” in there as well.

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