My wife and I have just finished reading Life: A User’s Manual, and we’re still reeling and wondering what just happened. (Why were there all those detailed descriptions of paintings and tabletops?) Wonderful book, but we need to let it settle and maybe do some research.

Anyway, from a Languagehat point of view, the standout chapter was undoubtedly 60: Cinoc, 1. First there’s a discussion of his name:

He provided the inhabitants of the building, and especially Madame Claveau, with an immediate, difficult problem: how was his name to be pronounced? … As a result of which, a delegation went to ask the principal person concerned, who replied that he didn’t know himself which was the most proper way of pronouncing his name. His family’s original surname, the one which his great-grandfather, a saddler from Szczyrk, had purchased officially from the Registry Office of the County of Krakow, was Kleinhof: but from generation to generation, from passport renewal to passport renewal, either because the Austrian or German officials weren’t bribed sufficiently, or because they were dealing with staff of Hungarian or Poldavian or Moravian or Polish origin who read “v” and wrote it as “ff” or who saw “c” and heard it as “tz,” or because they came up against people who never needed to try very hard to become somewhat illiterate and hard of hearing when having to give identity papers to Jews, the name had retained nothing of its original pronunciation and spelling…

Then we move on to the really good stuff:

Cinoc, who was then about fifty, pursued a curious profession. As he said himself, he was a “word-killer”: he worked at keeping Larousse dictionaries up to date. But whilst other compilers sought out new words and meanings, his job was to make room for them by eliminating all the words and meanings that had fallen into disuse.

When he retired in nineteen sixty-five, after fifty-three years of scrupulous service, he had disposed of hundreds and thousands of tools, techniques, customs, beliefs, sayings, dishes, games, nicknames, weights and measures; he had wiped dozens of islands, hundreds of cities and rivers, and thousands of townships off the map; he had returned to taxonomic anonymity hundreds of varieties of cattle, species of birds, insects, and snakes, rather special sorts of fish, kinds of crustaceans, slightly dissimilar plants and particular breeds of vegetables and fruit; and cohorts of geographers, missionaries, entomologists, Church Fathers, men of letters, generals, Gods & Demons had been swept by his hand into eternal obscurity.

Who would know ever again what a vigigraphe was, “a type of telegraph consisting of watchtowers communicating with each other”? … Where had all the abunas gone, patriarchs of the Abyssinian Church, and the palatines, fur tippets worn by women in winter, so named after the Princess Palatine who introduced their use into France in the minority of Louis XIV, and the chandernagors, those gold- spangled NCOs who marched at the head of Second Empire processions?

Eventually “he decided to compile a great dictionary of forgotten words, … simple words which still appealed to him. In ten years he gathered more than eight thousand of them…” And the chapter ends with thirty such words, e.g. BEAUCEANT “Name of the Knights Templars’ standard” and VIGNON “Prickly gorse.” Wonderful stuff! (Incidentally, “Poldavian” is an inside joke: Poldavia is the putative homeland of the imaginary Nicolas Bourbaki, the tutelary spirit of the Bourbaki group after which Perec’s Oulipo was modeled.)

Addendum. I knew there must be a site that detailed all the constraints on each chapter and (most importantly from my point of view) identified the numerous quotations within the novel, and here it is. It’s in French, but it shouldn’t be too hard to use even if your French is fairly minimal. [Rats, a little further investigation has shown that in fact hardly any of the quotes are identified; I just happened to hit first on the Borges page, which did identify some. Ah well, I will continue to search; if anyone knows of a good resource, please share.]


  1. Wiki says ‘abuna’ is an erroneous form.

  2. John Emerson says

    This reminds me of the “bousingot” discussion of awhile back. The word is really only needed for a decade or so on either side of 1830.

  3. John Emerson says

    the book lacks an Amazon review.

  4. Perec, of course, was of such stock that his “c” was ancestrally pronounced “tz”, though he pronounced it “k”.

  5. “The book lacks an Amazon review.”
    I was thinking that, too! That was the first place I went to look for a review. The book sounds quite interesting, but I haven’t read it myself!

  6. This portrait of Cinoc sounds very much like a imaginary self-portrait of Perec (whose name is equally hard to pronounce) ; and “dictionary of disappeared words” could be a description of La vie mode d’emploi (which also explains the detailed descriptions…)

  7. It does have Amazon reviews. There’s a world outside your window and all that:

  8. A J P Crown says

    Is Perec, or Peretz, related to the Spanish name Perez?

  9. And — damn the abunas — where have all the linguists gone? (And Sig).

  10. I found this google book extract that seems highly relevant :
    that quotes a passage from W ou le souvenir d’enfance that uses the same kind of transformation for the Perec name as it used on the Cinoc Name, linking (falsely) Peretz with Bretzel and Baruch.

  11. Perec, of course, was of such stock that his “c” was ancestrally pronounced “tz”, though he pronounced it “k”.
    Yes, I meant to mention that—I shouldn’t post so close to bedtime.
    “dictionary of disappeared words” could be a description of La vie mode d’emploi (which also explains the detailed descriptions…)
    Yeah, there are a lot of self-descriptions in the book, but (perhaps because I’m not primarily a visual person) the many elaborate descriptions of paintings and such didn’t do much for me.

  12. According to wikipedia, his father was named Peretz orignally, and Francised his name to Perec. An important point of Perec’s life is that both his parents died in the war – his father as a soldier, his mother in Dachau – and in W, Perec claims to have no memories of his childhood with his parents. So the imprecision in his name was quite important to him, too.
    Descriptions and enumerations are pretty important to Perec – Les Choses, too, has plenty of them.

  13. marie-lucie says

    LH, some of these questions came up when you first started the book, a while back. Perhaps you could link to that earlier thread?

  14. Good point; here ’tis. (Incidentally, I’ve just finished Part III of W&P: I’m now three-quarters of the way through!)

  15. How come you never post about W&P anymore? Those were some of your best posts, i thought. I especially liked your analysis of Tolstoy’s writing style, and the history of the battles.

    They either have opened restaurants in DC or are working parking lots in Seattle.

  17. How come you never post about W&P anymore?
    I’m planning to do so very soon!

  18. where have all the linguists gone? (And Sig)
    Doesn’t he usually turn up on Saturdays? That’s another guy who needs a web page. Then if for instance you had some burning question about French and he didn’t turn up here you could go over there and light the bat signal.

  19. Is Perec, or Peretz, related to the Spanish name Perez? Sam

  20. Sam, you took the words right out of my mouth.

  21. marie-lucie says

    Sam, AJP, go back to LH’s link, a few comments above, to find the answer.

  22. I read the post and all 250 comments — that was the one where Stew and Codfish gave us the pastrami recipes and Stu’s /Sidney Morgenbesser’s ‘Kant’ joke first appeared, not to mention some fine linguistic offereings — but I couldn’t find anything about Perez, the Spanish name.

  23. ‘Offereings’ is a kölnisch word. Ask Grumbly Stu what it means.

  24. marie-lucie says

    AJP, sorry, I must have remembered wrong, perhaps Perez was not in the discussion, although Peretz and Perec were. There was plenty of info in the 250 comments though, so I hope that was not time wasted.
    Anyway, here is my tentative explanation: Peretz and Perec are alternative spellings of the same East European name (same pronunciation, different languages and spelling conventions), but Spanish Perez is probably unrelated (at least not directly). (I can’t comment on the origin or meaning of Peretz/Perec).
    Many Spanish family names end in the suffix -ez, replacing the final -o of a male name which must have been originally that of an ancestor: Fernandez or Hernandez (Fernando or Hernando), Gonzalez (Gonzalo), Rodriguez (Rodrigo), Sanchez (Sancho) and many others. My guess (without doing more research) is that Perez corresponds to Pedro. (The loss of [d] before [r] is not universal in Spanish and other Romance languages but still quite common, eg Spanish and Italian padre, Catalan pare, French père, all of them meaning “father”).

  25. A J P Crown says

    Thanks, M-L. Lots of interesting information in your comment.

  26. Yes, marie-lucie is correct: Pérez is a patronymic from Pedro, whereas Peretz is of Hebrew origin. It’s just another of those darn coincidences.

  27. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, LH. I was going by my linguistic knowledge, without a reference, so do you have one I could quote?

  28. The Hebrew name is that of one of the twin sons of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38:27ff); it literally means ‘breach.’ The story of Perec’s name, including its origins in the Bible, is well told here (David Bellos, Georges Perec: A Life in Words, David R. Godine, 1993, pp. 3-4).

  29. Sounds stupid but I remember saying Abunya (They way it sounded to me when I was young).

  30. Perec in Croatian means pretzel. The Croatian Encyclopedic Dictionary derives it from Hungarian and ultimately from German “Brezel”.

  31. marie-lucie says

    LH, thank you for the Hebrew reference, but actually I meant Perez from Pedro. Perhaps all I need is a history of Spanish, which I should be able to find.

  32. Military Wrist Watches says

    As far as i can remember, Abuna is an Arabic-speaking Christians. It was discussed during our history class years ago…

  33. I think Abu Watches is onto something there. According to the “Abuna” wiki:

    Abuna (Arabic: أبونا ’abūnā, literally ‘our father’) is also a title used among Arabic-speaking Christians to refer to a priest. The title is used either by itself, or with the priest’s given name, for example ‘Abuna Tuma’ for ‘Father Thomas’. This title is not used in self-reference, rather the priest would refer to himself as al-Ab (الأب al-’ab, literally ‘the father’).

    Al-Ab is also the way to refer to the “father” portion of the trinity. A small benediction I once wrote down in a bar in Amman is “b’ism al Ab wa al Ibn wa al-ruaH al koodoos-ilahin wahad-amee” (In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit-one god-amen.)
    Abu W’s Turing program must be quite complex with extra capitalization and verb-object number agreement subroutines to approximate a non-native speaker.

  34. Oh, dear, the superscript 3 in the above shows as an accent with the notation “private use” in my character map.

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