More snippets from all over:

1) Ned Beauman posts about an amusing former usage exemplified by “1848 J. R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (at cited word), She could eat fifty people in her house, but could not sleep half the number.” He gives a number of other citations (e.g., “[Mr. Dickens] has declined the invitation of the Philadelphians to eat him”), “of which every single example made me laugh.” (Thanks, N.!)

2) The Genizah fragments in Oxford’s Bodleian Library are now online. (Thanks, Paul!)

3) How should Shakespeare really sound?: “The British Library have released the first audio guide to how Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded in the original pronunciation.” (You be the judge of how successful it sounds.)


  1. I wonder if it’s OK to drink people (not).
    I’ve got the makings for 32 martinis, so I can drink no more than 16 people.
    I suspect the issue is about transitivity. Sleep is more intransitive that eat or drink.
    This is historically very interesting. How did eat occupy the slot where we would choose feed?
    The argument structure is something like…
    EAT [AGT RECIPIENT] (She ate 18 people.)
    EAT [AGT PAT] (He ate a burrito.)
    and with “fed”
    FEED [AGT PAT] (She fed him tacos.)
    Something has changed with regard to the verb eat versus feed. What do you think?

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I didn’t initially see anything odd about the “eat” examples, as they seemed parallel to sayings like “Mother Frisbee’s pies: They throw better than they eat”. Now I see that they are not, as they don’t involve making the object of a transitive verb into the subject of the same verb used intransitively. Nonetheless, they still don’t seem all that odd, and despite the attribution to a dictionary of Americanisms they don’t seem especially American either.
    My main reaction to the Shakespeare pronunciation was surprise at how easy they were to understand.

  3. I wonder why this usage of eat died out while sleep “To let: bungalow, sleeps five” did not.

  4. Why would one assume that all Shakespeare’s company would speak in Old Bill’s accent?
    Related? I saw a claim once that many “Irish folk songs” were in fact old English folk songs brought in by Cromwell’s soldiers who settled there. I have no idea whether there’s any truth in it.

  5. mollymooly says
  6. mollymooly says

    @dearieme: Browse the A-Z lists at and you’ll see many Irish titles cross-referenced to English ones and vice versa.
    “Traditional Irish music” is traditional and Irish, but not necessarily pre-English. I don’t know anything about ethnomusicology, much less palaeoethnomusicology, but my wild guess is that it’s harder to trace music back over centuries than to trace languages back so far.
    “Traditional Irish music” is not to be confused with “Celtic music”, which is as authentically pre-Christian as the druids who prance around Stonehenge every solstice.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    The usage “the [building/tent/etc.] sleeps X people” seems fine, but I’m not sure I’ve heard it where the subject is not a place to sleep but the host/hostess. Perhaps it’s that “he/she could sleep 25 people” sounds too close to “he/she could sleep with 25 people”? A verb you could use to capture that might be “accommodate,” where in context “could accommodate X people” clearly means “could provide room for X people to sleep at his/her residence.”

  8. If she was going to sleep with them, you would say ‘she bedded 25 people’.

  9. But in another context, “Miss Trixie Delight could accommodate X people” means something else as well.

  10. As could “eat”.

  11. As Empress, Theodora’s no bore:
    She welcomes a guest at each door.
         And it’s said that the wretch
         Wished her nipples would stretch
    So that she could play host to two more.
              —Procopius, Anecdota 9

  12. eat:feed::drink:?

  13. Yes, English is lacking a verb there, the equivalent of Russian поить, causative of пить ‘to drink.’ The parallel form in English is drench, but of course that’s become specialized in a different meaning.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Could there be a lost prefix involved? Or are these remnants of the old weak causatives, merged into the mother verb but still acceptable usage (I lie it down for you to decide)? Or analogical to merged causatives?
    Anyway, and turning to the nouns: Aren’t we on the path to ergativity here? Or might have been if it took place when the relation between the nouns were expressed by case rather than syntax. Is there such a thing as a “syntactically ergative” language?

  15. Or even a syntactically regurgative language ?

  16. That’s interesting, I didn’t know we were missing a verb. It’s “to pour a drink”? If we had an academy it would create a word for us, free of charge (presumably).

  17. “how Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded in the original pronunciation”
    The endeavour is a fine one as far as it goes — but just how far DOES it go? What always troubles me about these “reconstructed authentic pronunciations” is: are they meant to represent Shakespeare’s own South Warwickshire pronunciation, or that which his London audience would have used, or (if there was indeed such a thing) the “stage accent” of the time? If there are scores of different local and regional accents in England today there surely can have been no fewer in Shakespeare’s day — and to what degree would players raised in different parts of England have retained or modified their native accents on moving to London?

  18. mollymooly says

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t drink it.

  19. Also: you can cause a horse to water, but you wouldn’t want to drink it.

  20. You can lead a horse to water, but it would rather you poured it a gin-and-tonic.

  21. I believe you can water a horse, but you can’t water a person — or even a dog or a cat as far as I’m concerned.
    In our house we water plants, and when I’m adding fluid to the gadget that keeps the piano from suffering from fluctuations in humidity I say that I am watering the piano.
    People can be wined, but maybe only if they are also being dined.
    I can’t find it, but I think that Thurber once joked about how many people the Thurbers’ house could eat (ridiculing the transitive use of “sleep”.)

  22. Water does mean ’cause to drink water’, though.
    “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” —Dorothy Parker
    Kevin: Surely the London accent of the day, which was at that time getting a heavy overlay of East Anglian. Definitely not Warwickshire.

  23. “Definitely not Warwickshire.”
    Surely it should be an Oxfordshire accent!!!!! I hope that site isn’t going to upset the Internet’s legions of conspiracist nutj…I mean, stalwart seekers after the uncensored truth.

  24. You can lead a horse to water, but it would rather you poured it a gin-and-tonic.
    I believe it was Dorothy Parker who said she’d rather decline two drinks than one German noun.

  25. That was Mark Twain (more or less), as discussed in the other post.

  26. If we had an academy it would create a word for us, free of charge (presumably).
    I had the devil of a time obtaining from the internet any information about the emoluments and perks of members of the Académie Française. I found only one article from 2001 in L’Express claiming that they get “between 800 and 1,500 francs per month”. (I thought it strange that the currency is given in francs, until I remembered that Jan 2002 was when non-euro coins and banknotes were replaced by euros in the EU).
    So an académicien in 2001 received a piddlement of between 100 and 200 euros per month. Adding to this a fixed sum of 600 euros per week spent at the occasional meetings of the Académie (a figure I found elsewhere but lost the link to), I conclude this will not finance many exquisite dinners of frog-legs suprême at expensive restaurants over the course of a year.
    So, Crown, it looks as if you would have to pay for any new words you want, if we had an academy, if we needed any new words.

  27. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The quotation from Procopius is not as I remembered it, so I’ve been looking at Richard Atwater’s translation. The closest I could find was this: And though she flung wide three gates to the ambassadors of Cupid, she lamented that nature had not similarly unlocked the straits of her bosom, that she might there have contrived a further welcome to his emissaries. Although this (which does agree with what I remembered) clearly conveys a similar view of Theodora’s character it suggests that the limerick is a very loose translation indeed.

  28. How should Shakespeare really sound?
    Very much like The Archers, apparently. “How did Shakespeare really sound?” would be a more convincing title, not that I believe it.

  29. Most of the ever-recurring discussions about how to translate could be successfully cut off by the simple observation that it is permissible, desirable and useful to have different translations exist side by side. One translation gives prominence to certain features, another to another, yet another to even others.
    There are basically two camps of opinion as to how to translate. One group wants the spirit of the thing, the other group wants the “letter”, i.e. a crib for a foreign language of which they are ignorant. I belong to the first group, and gladly remind those in the other that if they want to learn the language in question, they should buckle down and learn it instead of whining for baby carts.

  30. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I belong to the first group, and gladly remind those in the other that if they want to learn the language in question, they should buckle down and learn it instead of whining for baby carts.
    Very nice. You are right, of course.

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I wasn’t tring to denigrate the loose translation — primarily I was wondering if it referred to a different passage (perhaps an unfortunate word in this context) from the one I remembered (from Williamson in Penguin Classics, incidentally, not Atwater or Dewing).

  32. Well, the two camps, as usual, have got it both half-right. The fact is that both “spirit” translations and cribs have their places, and one person’s translation is another person’s crib is another person’s loose paraphrase is another person’s recontextualized riff.
    In this case, I was inspired to write that limerick some decades ago, after one of my innumerable rereadings of Lest Darkness Fall (1939) finally inspired me to dig out what was behind this joke:

    Padway and Thomasus the Syrian sat, along with several hundred naked Romans, in the steam room of the Baths of Diocletian. The banker looked around and leered: “I hear that in the old days they let the woman into these baths, too. Right mixed in with the men. Of course that was in pagan times: there’s nothing like that now.”

    “Christian morality, no doubt,” said Padway dryly.

    “Yes,” chuckled Thomasus. “We moderns are such a moral people. You know what the Empress Theodosia used to complain about?”

    “Yes,” said Padway, and told Thomasus what the empress used to complain about.

    “Damn it!” cried Thomasus. “Every time I have a dirty story, either you’ve heard it, or you know a better one.”

    Compare also Dewing’s version of 1935, generally more stodgy than Atwater’s of 1927, but in this case more explicit: “And though she made use of three openings, she used to take Nature to task, complaining that it had not pierced her breasts with larger holes so that it might be possible for her to contrive another method of copulation there.”

  33. Well, the two camps, as usual, have got it both half-right. The fact is that both “spirit” translations and cribs have their places, and one person’s translation is another person’s crib is another person’s loose paraphrase is another person’s recontextualized riff.
    Completely right. But only the “spirit” translators will acknowledge that, and are open to disagreement. Cribbers, almost by definition, insist that there is only one right way to translate, and are closed to disagreement.
    This, in a nutshell, illustrates the nature of the disagreement between Habermas and Luhmann as to the function of communication in society. Habermas presents disagreement as a disagreeable hurdle on the road to consensus and right-thinking. Luhmann, in contrast, shows that both agreement and disagreement are constitutive of communication, and cares not a whit about right-thinking.
    Habermas is in the unfortunate position of having so many people disagree with his keystone theory of agreement. People who disagree with Luhmann’s views have dozens of points at which to demur.
    Luhmann brings uninvited people with him to parties. Habermas worries about who he can invite so as not to upset his plans.

  34. Here’s Tolkien defending cribs, though not by name (what he calls a ‘crib’ is plainly something more literal) in “On Translating Beowulf”, written as an introduction to Wrenn’s revision of Clark Hall’s rather literal translation.

  35. John Ronald Ruel Tolkien: that’s an unusual name. According to it is an abbreviation for Hebrew “Reuel”, meaning “friend of God”.
    But in what sense does “Reuel” mean “friend of God” ? Would it be more accurate to call it an eponym, the name of someone who was a friend of God (in some biblical story) ?
    It’s hard sometimes to tell what “means” means. I remember a blog here last year in which the Russian word for a particular kind of tree was being discussed. Someone said that the word refers to “a particular kind of tree that occurs only in Siberia”, or words to that effect.
    Now I find it hard to believe that a Russian using that word means to refer to anything but the kind of tree in question. He surely is not referring to “a particular kind of tree that occurs only in Siberia”.

  36. I hope that whoever takes up this question, if anyone does, has something more enlightening to offer than a rehash of that Morning Star and Evening Star business.

  37. Tolkien’s third given name was in fact Reuel, not Ruel. He gave it to all his children as well: John Francis Reuel, Michael Hilary Reuel, Christopher John Reuel, and Priscilla Mary Anne Reuel Tolkien.
    I think the issue around the Siberian tree name, or for that matter the English word horse, is a problem of definitions rather than of definition: it’s plain hard to write good definitions for such words. Collier’s American Dictionary defined horse as “The well-known quadruped”. Indeed, it uses the same definition for goat, adding “allied to the sheep”, and “the well-known animal covered with wool” for sheep. At the other extreme, the Century Dictionary defined it as “A solidungulate perissodactyl mammal of the family Equidæ and the genus Equus: Equus caballus“, followed by a third of a page of encyclopedic information in small print. The Russian word certainly refers to a particular species (or perhaps higher-level taxon), but since there is no English name, little more can be done to attempt to define it.
    Names in general exist on a gradient between fully meaningful and fully meaningless. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s friend is called Dim, and Alex helpfully explains that this is because he is very dim indeed. So this name is entirely meaningful. On the other hand, Alex’s name probably didn’t mean anything in particular to his parents when they gave it to him, though it’s quite possible that Burgess gave him a name meaning ‘defender of men’ ironically. Certainly my parents did not mean to advertise God’s generosity when they gave me the name John: it was simply my grandfather’s name. Nor did this mean that my father thought there was some continuity of identity between his father and his son, though when one of my uncles saw me in my cradle he remarked “John Cowan … here we go again.” The Lakota warrior Man-Afraid-Of-His-Horses (actually there were two, father and son) had a meaningful name, though its meaning is not what anglophones commonly suppose: it would be more clearly translated as “They-Even-Fear-His-Horses.” Finally, some names are just ideophones: they are purely connotative and have never meant anything to anyone.

  38. I know -el in Hebrew names means ‘God’, and says the first part comes from the root raah ‘to associate with’. So maybe ‘guy who hangs with God’, but that’s not the standard translation.

  39. So late I am, so late.
    Regarding the valency of “eat”, recall Chaucer, from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, line 29:
    And wel we weren esed atte beste.

  40. Isn’t that “eased” (‘refreshed, entertained’)? Am I missing something? (Probably a joke.)

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