Arnold Zwicky at the Log posts an amusing Doug Savage cartoon that I should try to get the publisher to incorporate into the U.S. edition of my book (which should be out in not much over a year, or so they tell me).

Totally unrelated, but not worth a post of its own: I was mildly annoyed today when in one of the “dictionary game” segments of the radio show “Says You” the word whose definition was to be guessed was kis. The OED says:

Obs. rare—¹.
[a. Gr. κίς.]
A weevil.
1658 ROWLAND Moufet’s Theat. Ins. 1086 The English call the Wheat-worm Kis, Pope, Bowde, Weevil, and Wibil.

I’m sorry, but a borrowing from Greek that some guy in the seventeenth century claimed was used by “the English” (a couple of Oxford dons, perhaps?) and that occurs nowhere else is not a suitable candidate for the game, if you ask me. There should be at least a sporting chance that someone might know the word.


  1. “Call My Bluff” is the same way; whenever I’ve seen it the words are either badly-stuck-together Greek (like those words where someone finds out the Greek for “mother shagging your dog” and sticks -phobia on the end of it) or hopeless orientalist relics like “zarf” or some South American tree. Very irritating.

  2. I agree with Conrad about the pseudo-Greek coinages and the archaic orientalisms, but I will go to bat for the names of South American trees. Those are the correct English words for these species, even if they don’t come up much in conversation.

  3. A.J.P. Crown says

    If you put it in the book for goodness sake write “Give me the fucking ball!’. I hate those star thingies, they’re so old fashioned.

  4. If you put it in the book for goodness sake write “Give me the fucking ball!”. I hate those star thingies, they’re so old fashioned.
    I agree entirely, but the owner of the copyright may not.

  5. How do you know that @!#* doesn’t really stand for something like G-damn, as we say here on Chicago’s South Side, or for that matter, prumphænsn?

  6. A.J.P. Crown says

    the owner of the copyright may not
    Aren’t I right that there’s nothing to stop me redrawing it?

  7. A.J.P. Crown says

    Not that I’d actually do it, with cartoons it would be cheating, but I know someone who has redrawn paintings he wanted to discuss and couldn’t get permission to reproduce. (Now he’s being harassed in Sweden for having drawn Mohammed as a dog.)

  8. But if I remember correctly from the book reviews, one of the points of the book is not that profanity is a language “development” but that it’s produced by a more archaic part of the brain.

  9. Bill Walderman says

    Around 1967 a paper was circulating in the Linguistics Department at Harvard (anonymous, but written, I believe, by George Lakoff) attempting to analyze the utterance “fuck you” according to what was then called “transformational grammar.” Did anyone else see this?

  10. I’ve actually used “zarf” before, and I’m not an orientalist. We had plastic ones in our office, with plastic inserts.

  11. Doug Sundseth says

    >>the owner of the copyright may not
    >Aren’t I right that there’s nothing to stop me redrawing it?
    It seems likely that the resulting work would be a “derivative work” as defined in copyright law. If so, it would be covered by the copyright of the original piece.
    ps. IANAL. Use this comment at your own risk. Talk to a lawyer if you need legal advice (or before getting up every morning, for that matter).

  12. anonymous, but written, I believe, by George Lakoff
    If that was “English Sentences without Overt Grammatical Subjects,” by Quang Phuc Dong of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology, it’s reproduced as the first piece in Studies out in Left Field : Defamatory Essays Presented to James D. McCawley (which is worth grabbing if you see it used) and online here.

  13. Bill Walderman says

    “If that was “English Sentences without Overt Grammatical Subjects,” by Quang Phuc Dong of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology,”
    Yes, that’s it!

  14. A.J.P. Crown says

    Use this comment at your own risk.
    Thanks, but does this mean I can sue you if I use one of the other comments, about which you kind of imply there isn’t any risk, and it explodes, killing my dog?

  15. I know and use the word zarf too. (Well, “use” to the extent of being able to think “that’s a zarf” when I see one.)

  16. I suspect there are many, many words in the big dictionaries that are there merely by virtue of the fact that a mere handful of people in some ivory tower used them on one occasion (maybe even two).
    “Hmmm…let’s call this boosimapafamuss,” said the grizzled professor. “Yes, I quite like the sound of that.”
    “Spot on,” chirped the professor’s starry-eyed assistant. “It is a fine word, sir.”

  17. Totally unrelated, but how often is higher used as a verb, as in:

    A young and beautiful actress, Hermione Corfield doesn’t have a love life creating buzz, which highers the level of curiosity, regarding her dating life among the fans.

  18. That’s pretty weird.

    Also, I don’t know why I didn’t say this a dozen years ago, but I also know zarf and have probably said it at least once.

  19. January First-of-May says

    I can’t recall having ever heard of a “zarf” before, and without context would probably have thought it was an interjection.
    Wikipedia says that this is essentially the same thing as what is known in Russia by the very literal name podstakannik “under-glass-er”.

    The word that I like to use as an example of a technical term that’s not in non-specialized dictionaries but probably still counts as a word is pentanummium – a 6th century Byzantine monetary unit of little relevance to non-numismatists. More relevant discussion here.
    (Even numismatic dictionaries have lots of random entries to the effect of “Schmetterlingsthaler: a commemorative thaler from the 18th century issued by Augustus III the Strong featuring a butterfly”, which always made me wonder whether anyone ever actually used those words outside dictionaries.)

  20. zarf

    Which reminds me of:

    The mulefa (singular zalif) were a species of sentient beings. They were notable for their use of seed pods as wheels and their ability to see Dust with the naked eye. Mary Malone became part of a mulefa society when she travelled to their world.

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    how often is higher used as a verb

    I’ve never heard higher used that way, but my wife systematically uses upper to mean further up.

  22. John Emerson says

    The most voluminous dictionaries of Classical Chinese include hundreds of words that are only seen once outside dictionaries, and many others only seen in a series of dictionaries and glossaries. Often these are just variant graphic forms, but many are presumably real words which did not survive.

    I haven’t seen it mentioned in my books on Chinese language games, but I’d bet that students and scholars now and then wrote texts using only such words.

  23. It’s similar with the Hesychios glosses for Ancient Greek, which contain many words found only there. Many lemmata are non-Greek words, that presumably were used in Greek texts, but there are also Greek words not attested elsewhere; they must have been rare already back then to be included.

  24. >higher as a verb

    I don’t believe that’s a genuine usage i believe that page is on a clickbait that uses AI to grab text from another site and then replace enough words with synonyms to avoid detection. I run into a fair number of such sites.

  25. For higher as a verb; many years ago on a British campsite I heard a small girl say: “you can lower it, you can higher it. or you can medium it”. Which seemed very creative, but I can’t claim to have heard these novel verbs elsewhere.

  26. The name used of one of the two evil wizard minions in The Broken Lands* by Fred Saberhagen is “Zarf.” That is not his real name; powerful wizards don’t reveal their real names. However, it is not clear whether this is supposed to be a pure nonsense word or a randomly chosen lexeme. The other evil wizard in The Broken Lands is nicknamed “Elslood,” but the ones in the two direct sequels mostly go by identifiable words (“Gray,” “Wood”).

    * Saberhagen’s Empire of the East trilogy is one of the least appreciated masterpieces of an explicitly mixed science fiction and fantasy genre—better than Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, in my opinion. However, if anyone wants to read them, I strongly urge you to read the original three-book version, with The Broken Lands, The Black Mountains, and Changeling Earth, rather than the substantially abridged and worsened omnibus.

  27. I don’t believe that’s a genuine usage

    Well, there are more of it:

    The city is working with the Angoon Community Association, a local tribal entity, on various measures dealing with the pandemic, Bowen said, including highering local screeners for arrivals.

    However, for their SS19 collections, Valentino and Chloé turned up the heat by highering the hemlines. So did Prada and Christopher Kane, while Rixo and Ganni followed suit in the high-end, High Street arena.

  28. And more:

    The new test has shifted from a high-beginning and low-intermediate level of English to a low-intermediate and high-intermediate level, and “it will certainly require highering of skills” of language learners who are applying, according to Newton.

    “We should not be lowering and highering the standard of justice based on immutable factors such as race, ethnicity and gender,” Gurtler said.

    I believe highering local screeners should have been hiring.

  29. Twice when reading this page I thought about unrelated question: “sarafan”

    This word is known in Iran, and it means a sarafan. It is said to have Persian etymology. If so it would be a funny reborrowing. But I am not sure if sеrāрā / سراپا is attested in Persian in the sense of a garment rather than “all over”:( Dictionaries have σάραπις (Hesychios).

    I first thought about it, because they have podstakanniks in Persia. I don’t know how they call them, stakan is estekān( استکان) from Russian, which is again from Persian, another reborrowing. Second, when reading: It’s similar with the Hesychios glosses.

  30. In Russia sarafan is
    1. traditional female sleeveless dress worn over a shirt. Pinafore dress/jumper dress, according to Wikipedia.
    2. its modern variants.
    3. (often) very light modern female sleeveless dress worn without a shirt, for hot weather. Sundress, according to Wikipedia, but often loose, often with a square neckline and straps.
    4. (often) variations of 2-3 for children.

    Iranian understanding is not very differnet (Google images), just with a cot and manto (کت, مانتو ) over it and somethign underneath:-) And the rule of sleevelessness is less strict.

  31. A very famous cheesy Israeli nostalgic song, “Oh, where are those girls in the ponytail and sarafan, with the hoe and the dagger, why don’t you see them anymore.” That was supposed to be the working dress of the early farmer/soldier Russian settler woman of the late 19th century.

  32. Only tangentially related to the above comment by Ryan: I am used to seeing those automatically generated clickbait links and article titles on the Web sites I peruse for news. Occasionally, however, I come across a title of a physics manuscript on the arXiv that looks like it was strung together by a computer using buzzwords in an attempt to mimic an actual scientific paper. The most recent one was the very last hep-th preprint in today’s batch, entitled: “Gravitational Bremsstrahlung from Reverse Unitarity.”

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