David Liss, like many authors who feel themselves wronged by a review, has written a letter to complain about it; the whole thing is pretty convincing (I remember reading the review and thinking it was tendentious), but the last paragraph is especially devastating:

Though I do my best to keep my language true to the period, like any historical novelist, I will make some concessions to current style. Nowhere do I claim to be a historian, and all novelists, historical or otherwise, take liberties with their material to serve their own ends. Olson’s ”gotcha” criticism of what he claims are historical inaccuracies is petty in the extreme. This pettiness is evident when he writes that he knows that people in the 1790s ”didn’t boast of reading Macaulay, as does the heroine, since that historian wasn’t born until 1800.” If the character in question were referring to T. B. Macaulay, as the reviewer presumes, then surely this would be an anachronism, but she is speaking of Catharine Macaulay. Born in 1731, she published her celebrated eight-volume history of England between 1763 and 1783. Anyone conversant with the history of ideas in the 18th-century Anglo-American world will be familiar with Catharine Macaulay, even if Olson is not.


  1. Zing!
    [Though I’m surely not the only one who was reminded (by your title) of this perhaps less-distinguished, living & breathing Macaulay.]

  2. If anything this demonstrates that being a book reviewer is harder than people generally assume. I have long been fond of this story told by Neil Gaiman about James Branch Cabell:

    The letter from Cabell to the Times, after pointing out a dozen places in Maurice Hewlett’s review of Figures of Earth where he had complained of Cabell making up ineptly things which Cabell had actually accurately reproduced from classical sources, ends,

    Still, it is not fair that I should profit by Mr. Hewlett’s lack of such elementary erudition. Plain honesty compels me thus publically and modestly to admit that when Mr. Hewlett accredits me that invention of (and blame for) all these, and other, matters he honors me beyond my due. And while these deficiencies in Mr. Hewlett’s knowledge are interesting, why, after all, should his naive confession of them be printed as a review of a book by someone who does happen to know about these things?

    Yours faithfully, James Branch Cabell

    For most authors, not being James Branch Cabell, it’s probably wisest after reading a particularly stupid or vicious or bad review to mentally compose your letter to the editor, fill it with your sharpest and most cutting and brilliant bon mots, and then, having made it up, to successfully resist the urge to put it to paper, and to return cheerfully to work.

    Of course, generally an author always looks like a childish fool when replying to bad reviews.

  3. I’ve written book reviews and they ARE hard to do. But I figure if the author has gone to the considerable trouble to write the book, the reviewer should at least go to the less considerable trouble to check a few facts. BTW, to jump postings, the reviewer of The Whisperers got a number of things wrong. Makes me grumpy.

  4. To be honest, I thought of this Macaulay first:

  5. Lord Macaulay (from the Wiki entry, bottom quote): “…when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre.”
    M&W online:

    Middle English, from Medieval Latin camlopardus, from Latin camlopardalis, from Greek kamlopardalis : kamlos, camel; see camel + pardalis, pard (so called because the giraffe has a head like a camel’s and the spots of a leopard).

    Yeah, yeah, everyone knows about camelopards. Now you’re going to say you always call giraffes ‘camelopards’. In fact, Language is going to refer me to his post on how bored he is with camelopards. Anyway, I’d never heard it before.
    “And bearded like the pard”, from Jacques’s Seven Ages of Man speech, means ‘as hairy as a leopard’, according to this. He wasn’t talking about the camelopard, then. ‘Tall, like camelopard’, might have worked.

  6. I have to admit that, though I was vaguely familiar with the word camelopard, I did not know (or had forgotten) that it referred to the giraffe (the subject of my favorite Nikolai Gumilev poem, one of those rare foreign works that modifies your sense of a word in your own language—I can never think of giraffes without smiling because of that poem).

  7. If anything this demonstrates that being a book reviewer is harder than people generally assume.
    While that is, of course, true, you need to be particularly careful of your facts if you’re going to write a snotty hatchet job accusing the author of lamentable ignorance.

  8. This is not intended as a defence of the reviewer.
    I wonder if the author should have left more clues about the Macaulay reference. I would expect that the average reader, even the average reader of historical fiction about the 18th century, knows nothing of C Macaulay.
    It’a almost as if David Liss set a honeypot for unwary readers.

  9. ЖИРАФ — ho, ho, ho, boy, that was funny. Come on, Language: can’t you give us Slavonically-challenged audience members a translation?

  10. SnowLeopard says

    Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, is a constellation in the Northern Hemisphere in close vicinity to the Pole Star. Generally hard to spot, though, because it has such bright neighbors: Draco, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Perseus, Cassiopeia, and Auriga all include some of the brightest stars in the sky.

  11. I think Catharine Macaulay sounds very interesting and if I had access to a library in Britain I’d go to the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography I’d look her up there. I bet there’s a good article.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Medieval Latin camlopardus, from Latin camlopardalis, from Greek kamlopardalis :
    This does not sound right in historical linguistic terms. It must be the opposite: the alleged Latin camelopardalis is an adjective (ending in -alis) derived from cam(e)lopardus which looks like a Latin-Greek hybrid. Since this word is rare, it is possible that the adjective (borrowed from Latin into Greek, not the opposite)) is attested in a written source earlier than the noun, hence the “from” in the wrong direction.
    “And bearded like the pard” [from Shakespeare quote] … means ‘as hairy as a leopard’, according to …
    Leopards are not particularly hairy compared to other felines, and they are not more obviously “bearded” either: most felines have a tuft of hair where humans have a chin. Shakespeare could have used leopard if he had wanted to: the felines on the heraldic arms of England are not “lions” as I thought earlier, but “leopards”, so the word (borrowed from French) was known in English long before Shakespeare.
    The old word pard is from Latin pardus supposed to mean ‘panther’ (an African animal). It occurs as part of the names of some non-European felines, in words which were originally compounds, together with another word (or what is left of it) also designating an animal. Besides leopard (from Latin leo pardus “lion pard”) there is the Italian gattopardo (lit. “cat pard”) and its two French equivalents, chat-pard (now obsolete) and guépard, all meaning ‘cheetah’. “Bearded feline” might apply more specifically to a wild cat or a tiger: even male domestic cats have a kind of beard making their faces look very wide, and the Siberian tiger (a remnant of a much more widespread population of tigers in Eurasia in earlier centuries) similarly has a half-circle of white fur around the lower part of its head, that also gives the appearance of a beard. (On the other hand the pard rather than a pard may suggest that this animal is a mythical one such as the manticore, which is represented as a feline with a man’s head, including a luxuriant beard).
    camelopard “camel pard” for the giraffe is an exception to the feline meaning but the giraffe shares its colours with the leopard and cheetah (not to mention other felines not known to European antiquity). There is a French word fauve which is both a noun for ‘wild feline’ and an adjective referring to the typical background colour of those animals (the colour meaning is actually the original one). The reverse extension of meaning, from an animal to its colour(s) may have been involved in the formation of the ancestor of camelopard.

  13. Newspaper reviews of nonfiction usually take the form:
    – synopsis of the subject-matter, written without reference to the particular contents of the book under review, to establish the reviewer’s pre-existing expertise and thus credentials to review it
    – point out several mistakes in the book, to establish that the reviewer has actually read it
    – a final sentence to say either that the mistakes are minor blemishes in an otherwise excellent volume or that the mistakes are indicative of its egregious thoroughgoing deficiency.
    Stars out of five would be more ergonomic.

  14. marie-lucie says

    p.s. after reading SnowLeopard (an apt name here), this from Wiki:

    Camelopardalis … from Greek καμηλοπάρδαλις … The constellation was first described by Jakob Bartsch in 1624, but was probably created earlier by Petrus Plancius. In older astronomy books, one will sometimes see an alternative spelling of the name as Camelopardus.

    So the Greek name must be adapted from the Latin one, even if the story is a little more complex than what I described above. (Camelopardus is not an alternative spelling but an alternate name, since the two words would not be pronounced alike).

  15. The noun καμηλοπάρδαλις is attested in the hellenistic geographers (Agatharchides and Callixinus, if LSJ can be trusted) as well as in Deuteronomy 14.5.

  16. marie-lucie says

    NG, in that case would the Latin Camelopardus be a back-formation from Greek? what is Greek πάρδαλις? is the root πάρδ- otherwise attested?

  17. SnowLeopard says

    My Liddell & Scott defines πάρδαλις as “the pard, whether leopard, panther, or ounce” in Homer. It finds καμηλος in Herodotus.

  18. SnowLeopard says

    — “ounce” is apparently a synonym for “Snow Leopard”.

  19. I claim no expertise, but it occurs to me to wonder whether a contemporary really would have spoken of reading Macaulay and not Mrs. Macaulay.
    It’s telling that her History isn’t online; not even in ECCO. But since the BPL and the Internet Archive have this fantastic new “scan on demand” feature, where you can request something public domain go into the queue, I did.
    The Wikipedia does not make it particularly clear that she wrote it expressly as a republican counterpoint to Hume’s Tory analysis of the Stuarts. It’s also rather coy about Graham: she was a fiftyish widow and he was twentyish; there is no question but that men her age married younger women without an eyebrow being raised. Graham’s older brother, James, enjoyed some fame with his electro-magnetic cures.
    IIRC, Hume wrote a rather condescending letter (editions still in copyright, it appears) to her, though his reputation was by no means solid yet and he wasn’t above pinching some of her research for subsequent volumes of his History. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the Whig, compared them to Hume’s advantage (but not without qualification), as has history, in his Milton.
    It was Mrs. Macaulay of whom Boswell relates the story of Dr. Johnson challenging her to dine with her footman.
    AJP Crown, you can read her entry in the classic DNB. The author seems to be G. C. Boase; Virginia and Vanessa’s dad takes the more famous Macaulay for himself. She doesn’t get a mention in his English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, which isn’t too surprising.

  20. But since the BPL and the Internet Archive have this fantastic new “scan on demand” feature, where you can request something public domain go into the queue
    Wow, that’s great. Is there an easy link? I’m too lazy and coldy to go look for myself.

  21. marie-lucie says


    πάρδαλις as “the pard, whether leopard, panther, or ounce” in Homer

    Thank you for looking it up. I withdraw the first paragraphs of my previous comments.
    So pardus and πάρδαλις may be related through their root pard- alone. The name of the constellation must have been standardized as the Greek form at some point. But “pard” seems to have been a generic designation for these related animals. Is the word still actually used?
    “ounce”: this is a borrowing and adaptation from Old French once (fem), a medieval word for the same animal (probably not known “in the flesh” at that time, but through its beautiful thick fur, traded from the East). According to the Petit Robert, the French word comes from a misunderstanding of lonce (mistaken as l’once, with an article), from a presumed Late Latin lyncea, a derivative of lynx, yet another medium-sized wild feline. (In both languages the resemblance with “once” ‘oz’, from latin untia, is coincidental).

  22. Go to openlibrary.org. As you search, it’ll list things as “available” (in IA) or “scannable” (in the BPL, but not yet online). You’ll need to make an account to submit a request, but that doesn’t even require a real name and just sets you up for an email notification when it’s done.

  23. marie-lucie says

    MMcM: she was a fiftyish widow and he was twentyish; there is no question but that men her age married younger women without an eyebrow being raised.
    Men still do, and not that many eyebrows are raised, not enough to put serious social obstacles in the way of the practice. The opposite did occur in those days, much more than now, especially for economic reasons. In French literature before the 20th century there are numerous instances of a relationship between two young people being thwarted when the man’s family arranges for him to marry a rich older woman.
    Not long ago I visited a historic site where the personnel reenacted the lives of people known to have lived in the place in the 18th century. One team was impersonating a 28 year old man married to a woman in her seventies. It was a mutually beneficial arragnement: he got a secure economic situation (a house and property which he would inherit since she had no children) and she got someone to do the hard work and look after her.

  24. I’m married to a woman fifteen years older than me, though certainly not for economic reasons. It’s interesting, since we are speaking of pards, that the current slang term for women in such partnerships is cougar, though at 51 and 66 we are now rather too old to be prototypical. Back when I was 21 and she 36, there was no reasonably positive and well-known name for it; we borrowed chickenhawk from the gay community.

  25. John, I mentioned it on another thread, but your mother’s Nietzsche translation was one of the most important books of my early years. Hope you’re still here.

  26. John, I mentioned it on another thread, but your mother’s Nietzsche translation was one of the most important books of my early years. Hope you’re still here.

  27. marie-lucie says

    On the other hand, French literature of the 19th century is full of young men falling in love with secure and accomplished women older than themselves, and those women are not (usually) considered predatory as the word “cougar” seems to imply.
    The idea that love can only exist between persons of the same age (within a couple or so years) and is otherwise suspect (in spite of many counter-examples) seems peculiarly American.

  28. rootlesscosmo says

    “Ounce,” generally with a clue like “big cat,” is familiar to crossword solvers.

  29. And we can now abbreviate “Snowleopard” to “Oz.”, or maybe “Wizard”.

  30. And we can now abbreviate “Snowleopard” to “Oz.”, or maybe “Wizard”.

  31. marie-lucie says

    “Ounce,” generally with a clue like “big cat,” is familiar to crossword solvers.
    Yes, I have run across it occasionally, but not “pard”, I think.

  32. “Sard” and “nard” are other good medieval puzzle words.

  33. “Sard” and “nard” are other good medieval puzzle words.

  34. marie-lucie says

    “Sard”? Is that an inhabitant of Sardinia?

  35. A sard is a red gem, like the אדם of Exodus, named for Sardis, the capital of Lydia. It’s possible that both this and Sardinia are named for the Srdn Sea People.

  36. marie-lucie says

    MMcM, fascinating. I am afraid I am not much of a Bible reader, let alone in Hebrew. I had never made the connection between Sardis and Sardinia, but it is plausible.

  37. Why “peculiarly American” M-L? Could you be kowtowing to sterile French stereotypes?

  38. marie-lucie says

    Hozo: perhaps. To me it is strange that even a difference of five years between adult partners should raise eyebrows or induce gossip.

  39. MMcM:
    That’s funny, because I don’t get anthing if I search for Catharine Macaulay at the old, Leslie Stephen DNB.
    I too thought the Wiki reference to her ‘scandalous’ marriage was weird, and I said so in their discussion. I don’t understand why anyone would write such a thing.

  40. You have to search for Macaulay, Mrs. Catharine. That’ll get you the index entry; the actual page is mis-OCR’ed as MACAULAY, MES. CATHARINE.

  41. MMcM: Thanks. I see at Abe books you can get a 2 vol. double-elephant edition of the old DNB for $68 +p&p (magnifying glass included).

  42. Preachy Preach says

    Apropos of the cameleopard, Gibbon refers to the giraffe pretty much exclusively by that name (while acknowledging, IIRC, that some call them giraffes.)
    The interesting thing is that, even in the mid-18th century, and with his startlingly wide range of readings, he was obviously unable to lay his hands on a reliable contemporary description of the beast…
    (One of the delights in reading him unabridged are the little insights into the wider world of his time – he refers, for example, to (at the time) very speculative links between Tibetan lhamas and this Buddha chap some of his sources go on about.)

  43. I notice that “sardonic” is related, via a plant, grown in Sardinia, which when eaten causes one to expire with a particularly wry expression on one’s face, the “risus sardonicus”.

  44. But what does Giraffe call gibbons?

  45. marie-lucie says

    ajay: “sardonic” is related, via a plant, grown in Sardinia, which when eaten causes one to expire with a particularly wry expression on one’s face, the “risus sardonicus”.
    Do you know more about the plant? It seems that the name (Greek sardonios is known, but not the identity of the plant. The closest I can find is nux vomica, a plant the seed of which contains strychnine, which produces similar facial spasms, but that plant is from India, not the Mediterranean. But if the people who gave their name to the island of Sardinia came from Asia Minor, perhaps the plant grows/grew wild in Asia Minor rather than Sardinia?

  46. pard = paard, pferd = horse

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