Saturday, May 31, 2008


From My Inbox

A correspondent sent me the following email. The first paragraph makes me blush, but I let it stand as written:
Hi Mike,

Glad to see Laudator is going strong. It's one of my favorite islands of culture in the vast & boundless cyber wasteland. "Worthless reading", indeed. Worthless perhaps to those whose lives are utterly consumed with money-grubbing and ladder-climbing and tail-chasing, but as Plato and Aristotle agree, nothing is valuable or good to a man whose soul is ruined by vice and base pursuits. Be happy, I think, that your labours are worthless to such people.

I can't fathom Nietzsche's strange allusion to Plato on Philoktetes. Nowhere that I recall does Plato speak by name of the play or the character, though the passage in REP 10 you cite certainly fits that play. Aristotle, on the other hand, is fond of the play and discusses it at several places, including NE VII. NE VII gives us Aristotle's account of malakia and truphe and akrasia, and their opposites. I wonder which of these terms/concepts best fits our notion of emotional incontinence. The key opposites are karteria and enkrateia, which it seems reasonable to translate as "toughness" and "self control".

One of the strangest features of Greek tragedy is the obligatory lamentation scene(s). We hear that the Greek (male) audiences loved these scenes and joined in, weeping and wailing. I envision the actors on stage pausing while the audience gets control of itself. Just bizarre to our sensibilities, but a clue that Aristotle's theory of katharsis is one the right track in explaining the intended incontinent response of the audience to the play. We allow women their soap operas these days, but let a man get got up in AS THE WORLD TURNS, and we unhesitatingly abuse him as effeminate. The Greeks were different.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Caesarian Section

Thanks to Eric Thomson for adding this passage from Lucan's Pharsalia (3.399-401, 422-437, tr. J.D. Duff) to the series on "sad ravages in the woods":
A grove there was untouched by men's hands from ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, and banished the sunlight from above.


The people never resorted thither to worship at close quarters, but left the place to the gods. For, when the sun is in mid-heaven or dark night fills the sky, the priest himself dreads their approach and fears to surprise the lord of the grove.

This grove was sentenced by Caesar to fall before the stroke of the axe; for it grew near his works. Spared in earlier warfare, it stood there covered with trees among hills already cleared. But strong arms faltered; and the men, awed by the solemnity and terror of the place, believed that, if they aimed a blow at the sacred trunks, their axes would rebound against their own limbs. When Caesar saw that his soldiers were sore hindered and paralysed, he was the first to snatch an axe and swing it, and dared to cleave a towering oak with the steel: driving the blade into the desecrated wood, he cried: "Believe that I am guilty of sacrilege, and thenceforth none of you need fear to cut down the trees."

lucus erat longo numquam violatus ab aevo
obscurum cingens conexis aera ramis
et gelidas alte summotis solibus umbras.


non illum cultu populi propiore frequentant
sed cessere deis. medio cum Phoebus in axe est
aut caelum nox atra tenet, pavet ipse sacerdos
accessus dominumque timet deprendere luci.

hanc iubet inmisso silvam procumbere ferro;
nam vicina operi belloque intacta priore
inter nudatos stabat densissima montis.
sed fortes tremuere manus, motique verenda
maiestate loci, si robora sacra ferirent,
in sua credebant redituras membra securis.
inplicitas magno Caesar torpore cohortes
ut vidit, primus raptam librare bipennem
ausus et aeriam ferro proscindere quercum
effatur merso violata in robora ferro
'iam nequis vestrum dubitet subvertere silvam
credite me fecisse nefas'.
Eric remarks:
I like the idea of axes rebounding on those that wield them, like the kickback of a chainsaw. If only the cohorts of illegal loggers worldwide could feel their hands tremble - moti verenda maiestate loci. As for Caesar, eco-warriors would see some retributive justice when he was felled in the senate. Nemus, nefas and nemesis may be related, poetically at any rate.

Mersoferrally, Caesar didn't suffer long.

You said you liked bad puns. They don't come much worse.
Mersoferally is a delightfully bad pun on Lucan 3.435 (merso ... ferro).

Related posts:

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Nietzsche on Emotional Incontinence

Friedrich Nietzsche, Morgenröte § 157 (tr. R.J. Hollingdale, Daybreak):
Cult of 'natural sounds'. - What does it indicate that our culture is not merely tolerant of expressions of pain, of tears, complaints, reproaches, gestures of rage or of humiliation, but approves of them counts them among the nobler inescapables? - while the spirit of the philosophy of antiquity looked upon them with contempt and absolutely declined to regard them as necessary. Recall, for instance, how Plato - not one of the most inhuman philosophers, that is to say - speaks of the Philoctetes of the tragic stage. Is our modern culture perhaps lacking in 'philosophy'? Would those philosophers of antiquity perhaps regard us one and all as belonging to the 'rabble'?

Kultus der "Naturlaute". — Wohin weist es, dass unsere Kultur gegen die Äußerungen des Schmerzes, gegen Tränen, Klagen, Vorwürfe, Gebärden der Wut oder der Demütigung, nicht nur geduldig ist, dass sie dieselben gut heißt und unter die edleren Unvermeidlichkeiten rechnet? — während der Geist der antiken Philosophie mit Verachtung auf sie sah und ihnen durchaus keine Notwendigkeit zuerkannte. Man erinnere sich doch, wie Plato — das heißt: keiner von den unmenschlichsten Philosophen — von dem Philoktet der tragischen Bühne redet. Sollte unsrer modernen Kultur vielleicht "die Philosophie" fehlen? Sollten wir, nach der Abschätzung jener alten Philosophen, vielleicht samt und sonders zum "Pöbel" gehören?
But where does Plato ever mention Philoctetes? The name Philoctetes doesn't appear in the index of Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, edd. The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961). On the Greek expedition to Troy, Philoctetes was bitten by a snake. The Greeks could not stand his cries of pain and the stench of his wound, so they marooned him on the island of Lemnos. Sophocles' play Philoctetes survives.

Perhaps Nietzsche was thinking of Plato, Republic 10.7.605c-e (tr. Paul Shorey):
I think you know that the very best of us, when we hear Homer or some other of the makers of tragedy imitating one of the heroes who is in grief, and is delivering a long tirade in his lamentations or chanting and beating his breast, feel pleasure, and abandon ourselves and accompany the representation with sympathy and eagerness, and we praise as an excellent poet the one who most strongly affects us in this way.

I do know it, of course.

But when in our own lives some affliction comes to us, you are also aware that we plume ourselves upon the opposite, on our ability to remain calm and endure, in the belief that this is the conduct of a man, and what we were praising in the theater that of a woman.

οἱ γάρ που βέλτιστοι ἡμῶν ἀκροώμενοι ῾Ομήρου ἢ ἄλλου τινὸς τῶν τραγῳδοποιῶν μιμουμένου τινὰ τῶν ἡρώων ἐν πένθει ὄντα καὶ μακρὰν ῥῆσιν ἀποτεί νοντα ἐν τοῖς ὀδυρμοῖς ἢ καὶ ᾄδοντάς τε καὶ κοπτομένους, οἶσθ’ ὅτι χαίρομέν τε καὶ ἐνδόντες ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς ἑπόμεθα συμπάσχοντες καὶ σπουδάζοντες ἐπαινοῦμεν ὡς ἀγαθὸν ποιητήν, ὃς ἂν ἡμᾶς ὅτι μάλιστα οὕτω διαθῇ.

Οἶδα· πῶς δ’ οὔ;

῞Οταν δὲ οἰκεῖόν τινι ἡμῶν κῆδος γένηται, ἐννοεῖς αὖ ὅτι ἐπὶ τῷ ἐναντίῳ καλλωπιζόμεθα, ἂν δυνώμεθα ἡσυχίαν ἄγειν καὶ καρτερεῖν, ὡς τοῦτο μὲν ἀνδρὸς ὄν, ἐκεῖνο δὲ γυναικός, ὃ τότε ἐπῃνοῦμεν.
Related posts:

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Worthless Reading

William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, translates some aphorisms of Hermann Hesse, among them this one:
Life is short and no one will be asked hereafter how many books he has mastered. It is therefore harmful and unwise to waste time in worthless reading.

Das Leben ist kurz, und es wird im Jenseits keiner nach der Zahl der Bücher gefragt, die er bewältigt hat. Darum ist es unklug und schädlich, mit wertloser Lektüre Zeit hinzubringen.
Ouch! You should probably not be wasting your time with this blog, dear reader.

On the other hand, Pliny the Younger (Letters 3.5.10) reported about his uncle Pliny the Elder:
He used to say that no book was so bad that profit could not be gained from some part of it.

Dicere etiam solebat nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset.
Cf. also Cassiodorus, Institutes 1.1.8:
While Vergil was reading Ennius, he was asked by someone what he was doing and he answered, "I'm searching for gold in dung."

Vergilius, dum Ennium legeret, a quodam quid faceret inquisitus respondit - "Aurum in stercore quaero."
and Donatus auctus, Life of Vergil:
When Vergil was holding Ennius in his hand and was asked what he was doing, he answered that he was collecting gold from the dung of Ennius.

Cum is aliquando Ennium in manu haberet rogareturque quidnam faceret, respondit se aurum colligere de stercore Ennii.
I have not seen Georges Folliet, "La fortuna du dit de Virgile Aurum colligere de stercore dans la littérature chrétienne," Sacris Erudiri 41 (2002) 31-53.


Identity of Opposites

Eric Thomson, in an email about hoi polloi and auto-antonyms, drew my attention to W.V. Quine, Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 51-52:
Faltering etymologists of an in some ways less favored century than our own based a number of etymological conjectures on a desperate hypothesis to the effect that some things were named for what they lacked. This explanatory principle is denominated by one of its own irresponsible instances: lucus a non lucendo—'A grove is called a lucus because there is no shining there.' My own untenable example of lucus a non lucendo is dastard: so called because he dastn't.

Hills offer tempting cases of the same. The word hill itself and the word low are the same in origin: Anglo-Saxon hlaw. Or I should say a word low; for I must spoil the story by adding that it has nothing to do with the adjective low. The low from hlaw is an obsolete noun that survives only in Ludlow and other place-names.

There is a companion piece in another word for hills: down, as in the Berkshire Downs. This word, which is cognate with dune, does bring us a step closer to the perilous lucus non lucens, for it is indeed related to the adverb down. The adverb is traced to the Anglo-Saxon of-dune, 'off hill'.

A distant kin of lucus a non lucendo is occasionally encountered today in an owlish allusion to "identity of opposites." The two examples about hills would be pat illustrations, but we have seen that each of them is accounted for without appealing to any mystical principle. A case for identity of opposites that is invariably cited is altus, Latin for both 'high' and 'deep'. What we actually have here, however, is a case rather of parochial outlook on our own part. What is objective about height and depth is distance from top to bottom. We call it height or depth according to our point of view; Latin simply tells how it is, with no thought of opposites.

Another tempting case for the identity of opposites is cleave: 1. adhere, 2. sever. However, Skeat argues that this is a convergence of two words, independent in origin. A rather weak case is dispose in two senses: 1. get rid of, 2. have at one's disposal. Another is sanction: 1. approval, 2. penalty. Another is enjoin 1. order, 2. forbid. Another, perhaps, is unqualified: my support of a proposal may be unqualified either because it is whole-hearted or because I lack the requisite qualifications. A further example, it would seem, is fast: static as in holding fast and dynamic as in moving fast. The dialectic can be aufgehoben, however, as Hegel would have had it, on a par with altus above: fast in both cases connotes a quality of intensity.

May identity of opposites be manifested not only by sameness of word for opposite senses, but also by sameness of sense for opposite words? Well, there is fast, again, and its opposite loose: there are fast women, I am told, and loose women, and no clear distinction between them. A little and a lot are opposites, but quite a little is quite a lot. Again goals and targets come to much the same thing in figurative speech, though we like our goals and shoot our targets. But I stray progressively from my declared topic, etymology.
Oddly enough, there really is a connection between lucus and lucendo, according to Julius Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Bern: Francke, 1959), s.v. leuk-:
lūcus, alat. Akk. loucom 'Hain', eigentlich '(Wald-)Lichtung' (vgl. collūcāre 'in einem Wald eine Lichtung vornehmen', interlūcāre 'Bäume auslichten').
Related post: Lucus A Non Lucendo.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Snob and Hoi Polloi

Among the definitions of snob in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are these:
3.a. A person belonging to the ordinary or lower classes of society; one having no pretensions to rank or gentility.

b. One who has little or no breeding or good taste; a vulgar or ostentatious person.

c. One who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank or wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance.

d. One who despises those who are considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste.
Senses 3.a and 3.d are effectively opposites, so that snob is an auto-antonym, a word that means the opposite of itself.

The OED gives only one definition of hoi polloi ("the majority; the masses"), but another is unfortunately widespread, at least in spoken English. According to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, some people use
hoi polloi to mean "the snobby elite," a sense which is almost directly opposed to the term's original meaning, A few commentators (as Bernstein 1977, Bryson 1984, Garner 1998, and Heritage 2000) mention and censure this sense. It rarely occurs in print. Our earliest example is this one:
I could fly over to Europe and join the rich hoi polloi at Monte Carlo — Westbrook Pegler, Times News-Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.), 25 Sept. 1955
Since Pegler's time we have found only three or four more examples (Garner has a 1997 example). It appears, however, that this sense of hoi polloi is extremely common in speech.
See also R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 363:
By an overturning of the true sense, hoi polloi has, since the 1950s, come to be used in parts of America, to mean 'high society, the upper crust'. Substantial evidence of this unwelcome use is presented in vol. ii (1991) of DARE: e.g. How can a night-club comedian go on Broadway? ... I'm a street corner character, and Broadway audiences have a hoi-polloi attitude—New Yorker, 1988. And not only in America it would seem: e.g. I know our Terry's much too grand for the likes of us nowadays—too busy consorting with the hoi polloi at all those literary soirées—S. Mackay, 1992.
DARE is the Dictionary of American Regional English, and the New Yorker quotation is from Jackie Mason.

This shift in the meaning of hoi polloi parallels the shift in the meaning of snob. It is hard for a purist to accept that hoi polloi can mean "the snobby elite," however. The etymology of snob is obscure. Anatoly Liberman, Snob Before and After Thackeray, speculates on its origin, but comes to no firm conclusion. The origin of hoi polloi, on the other hand, is clear. It meant the same in ancient Greek, 2500 years ago, as it does in English today. Plato, Republic 6.17.505b, contrasted οἱ πολλοί (the many) with οἱ κομψότεροι (the more refined).

I'm indebted to Brandon Watson at Siris for the following quotation from William Whewell, On the Principles of English University Education:
Those who are familiar with Greek and Latin cannot but feel, in every sentence they read and write, that the whole history of the civilized world is stamped upon the expressions they use. The progress of thought and of institutions, the most successful labours of the poet, the philosopher, the legislator have, in thousands of cases, operated to give a meaning to one little word. Those who feel this have a view of the language which they speak far more intelligent, far more refined, than those who gather the force of words from blind usage, without seeing any connexion or any reason. What does intellectual culture mean, if it does not mean something more than this? What does it mean but that insight, that distinctness of thought with regard to the terms we employ which saves us from solecisms, not by habit but by principle, which shows us analogy where others see only accident, and which makes language itself a chain connecting us with the intellectual progress of all ages. In what a condition should we be if our connexion with the past were snapped — if Greek and Latin were forgotten? What should we then think of our own languages? They would appear a mere mass of incoherent caprice and wanton lawlessness.
For another point of view, see an anonymous article on Superfine English in The Cornhill Magazine, new series, Vol. V (July to December 1885), pp. 626-635:
Your true prig of a pedant goes immensely out of his way to be vastly more correct than other people, and succeeds in the end in being vastly more ungrammatical, or vastly more illogical, or both at once. The common pronunciation, the common idiom, the common meaning attached to a word, are not nearly good enough or fine enough for him: he must try to get at the original sound, at the strict construction, at the true sense, and he always manages to blunder upon something far worse than the slight error, if error it be, which he attempts to avoid in his superfine correctness....And this leads us on to a second habit of the microscopic critic, which I venture to describe as the Etymological Fallacy. Your critic happens to know well some one particular language, let us say Greek or Latin; and so far as the words derived from that language are concerned (and so far only) he insists upon every word being rigidly applied in its strict original etymological meaning. He makes no allowance for the natural and beautiful growth of metaphor, and the transference of signification, which must necessarily affect the usage of all words in the course of time....For the truth is, it is quite useless for any one man to set himself up single-handed against the irresistible march of nations. Languages grow and are not made; they are the outcome of deep-seated popular forces, and the meanings which the people impose upon words are the meanings they have got to bear in the long-run, whether the pedants like it or no....One word as to the general underlying principle which pervades all these manifestations of superfine English. They are all alike the result of taking too much trouble about mere expression. Just as self-consciousness in manner produces the affected airs and graces, the poses and attitudes, the laughs and giggles, of Miss Jemima, so self-consciousness in modes of expression produces the absurd over-particular nicety of the national schoolmaster and the educated pedant.
In the case of hoi polloi, I plead guilty to the etymological fallacy and to over-particular nicety.

Related post: Snob.


Monday, May 26, 2008


Agassiz Again on Wasting Time

Another early account of Louis Agassiz's view of wasting time, from Edwin Percy Whipple, "Recollections of Agassiz," in Recollections of Eminent Men (1886; rpt. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin: 1893), pp. 78-79:
From him came the most notable of all the maxims which illustrate the disinterestedness of the chivalry of science. At the time he was absorbed in some minute investigations in a difficult department of zoölogy, he received a letter from the president of a lyceum at the West, offering him a large sum for a course of popular lectures on natural history. His answer was: "I CANNOT AFFORD TO WASTE MY TIME IN MAKING MONEY." The words deserve to be printed in capitals; but Agassiz was innocently surprised that a sentiment very natural to him should have excited so much comment. He knew that scores of his brother scientists, American and European, would have used the words "afford" and "waste" in the same sense, had they been similarly interrupted in an investigation which promised to yield them a new fact or principle. Still, the announcement from such an authority that there was a body of men in the United States who could not afford to waste time in making money had an immense effect. It convinced thousands of intelligent and opulent men of business, who had never before thought a moment of time devoted to the making of money could be wasted, that science meant something; and it made them liberal of their money when it was asked for scientific purposes. It did even more than this, — it made them honor the men who were placed above the motives by which they themselves were ordinarily influenced.
But this is still more than a decade after Agassiz's death in 1873.


Black Bile

Ogden Nash, So Penseroso:
Come, megrims, mollygrubs and collywobbles!
Come, gloom that limps, and misery that hobbles!
Come also, most exquisite melancholiage,
As dark and decadent as November foliage!
I crave to shudder in your moist embrace,
To feel your oystery fingers on my face.
This is my hour of sadness and of soulfulness,
And cursed be he who dissipates my dolefulness.
The world is wide, isn't it?
The world is roomy.
Isn't there room, isn't it,
For a man to be gloomy?
Bring me a bathysphere, kindly,
Maybe like Beebe's,
Leave me alone in it, kindly,
With my old heebie-jeebies.
I do not desire to be cheered,
I desire to retire, I am thinking of growing a beard,
A sorrowful beard, with a mournful, a dolorous hue in it,
With ashes and glue in it.
I want to be drunk with despair,
I want to caress my care,
I do not wish to be blithe,
I wish to recoil and writhe,
I will revel in cosmic woe,
And I want my woe to show,
This is the morbid moment,
This is the ebony hour.
Aroint thee, sweetness and light!
I want to be dark and sour!
Away with the bird that twitters!
All that glitters is jitters!
Roses, roses are gray,
Violets cry Boo! and frighten me.
Sugar is diabetic,
And people conspire to brighten me.
Go hence, people, go hence!
Go sit on a picket fence!
Go gargle with mineral oil,
Go out and develop a boil!
Melancholy is what I brag and boast of,
Melancholy I mean to make the most of,
You beaming optimists shall not destroy it.
But while I am at it, I intend to enjoy it.
Go, people, feed on kewpies and soap,
And remember, please, that when I mope, I mope!

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Titty-Ree Too Patty-Lee

James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, chapter VIII:
Only one laborer in this temple of Minerva, however, was known to get so far as to attempt a translation of Virgil. He, indeed, appeared at the annual exhibition, to the prodigious exultation of all his relatives, a farmer's family in the vicinity, and repeated the whole of the first eclogue from memory, observing the intonations of the dialogue with much judgment and effect. The sounds, as they proceeded from his mouth, of
"Titty-ree too patty-lee ree-coo-bans sub teg-mi-nee faa-gy
Syl-ves-trem ten-oo-i moo-sam, med-i-taa-ris, aa-ve-ny."
were the last that had been heard in that building, as probably they were the first that had ever been heard, in the same language, there or anywhere else.
The original Latin, from the beginning of Virgil's first Eclogue, is:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena.
In English:
Tityrus, reclining beneath the cover of a spreading beech tree, you practice a woodland melody on the slender pipe.
Virgil was not unknown elsewhere in the wilds of North America. See Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (1907), chapter VII:
One evening my Father took down his Virgil from an upper shelf, and his thoughts wandered away from surrounding things; he travelled in the past again. The book was a Delphin edition of 1798, which had followed him in all his wanderings; there was a great scratch on the sheep-skin cover that a thorn had made in a forest of Alabama. And then, in the twilight, as he shut the volume at last, oblivious of my presence, he began to murmur and to chant the adorable verses by memory.
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi,
he warbled ; and I stopped my play, and listened as if to a nightingale, till he reached
                            tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
Formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
Related post: Patulae Recubans Sub Tegmine Fagi.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


American Redstart

Yesterday afternoon, not far from my house, I saw an American Redstart. The following photograph comes from Wikipedia:

The scientific name of the American Redstart is Setophaga ruticilla. The first half of the binomial (Setophaga) is straightforward. It means moth-eater, as Greek σής (genitive σητός) is a moth, and φαγεῖν (infinitive of ἔφαγον, used as 2nd aorist of ἐσθίω) means to eat.

The second half (ruticilla) is more problematical. Edmund C. Jaeger, A Source-book of Biological Names and Terms (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1959), p. 225, says that ruticilla comes from "L. rutilus, red+dim. suffix -cilla, a small tail." But the Latin word for tail is cauda.

Apparently Theodore of Gaza was the first to use the word ruticilla, in his Latin translation (1476) of Aristotle's Historia Animalium. It was the Latin equivalent of the Greek φοινίκουρος at 632b28. Greek φοινίκουρος (transliterated phoinikouros) is a compound meaning redtail. The -start in redstart also originally meant tail (Middle English stert, Old English steort).

Edward S. Gruson, Words for Birds: A Lexicon of North American Birds (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1972), p. 217, discusses the suffix -cilla, with a quotation from R.D. MacLeod, Key to the Names of British Birds (London: Pitman, 1954). Neither book is available to me, although a snippet view of Gruson's book is visible through Google Book Search, enough for me to see that he regards -cilla as a spurious suffix, adopted by ornithologists "who have imagined that cilla is Latin for 'tail' and have even invented new names on that supposition, e.g. albicilla, white-tailed (eagle), the name of a species of Haliaëtus, and Bombycilla, waxwing, a name that refers to the bird's yellow-tipped tail."

I own a few volumes of Arthur Cleveland Bent's Life Histories of North American birds, but unfortunately not his Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers. Among my books, the fullest description of the American Redstart is in Ludlow Griscom et al., The Warblers of America (New York: Devin-Adair, 1957), pp. 240-242 (quotation from p. 240):
The vivacious, and strikingly-patterned black and orange-red male fanning its tail, drooping its wings, whirling from limb to limb and fly-catching in skillful pursuit of insects demands attention wherever it appears. I have heard people from Maine to Florida refer to it as the butterfly-bird. Anyone who has seen a male Redstart in tropical jungles and hammocks flashing orange-red each time the sun strikes its plumage readily can understand why so many Latin Americans call it Candelita or little torch.
The American Redstart was a favorite bird of Charles Conrad Abbott, who wrote in his Bird-Land Echoes (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1904), pp. 79-80:
The redstart is a warbler, but it has always seemed to me to represent the highest type, the culmination of evolutionary effort, among birds, and that no other bird, taking everything into consideration, could excel it....It would be hard to find in all our avi-fauna, or in that of any other country, a more attractive form of bird life.
See also John Burroughs, Under Apple-Trees:
Whitman asks:—
"Do you take it, I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?"
The redstart, with his black-and-orange suit, and his quick, lively motions, does not astonish, but few birds give the eye more pleasure. How gay and festive he looks, darting and flashing amid the gnarled and scaly branches of the decaying apple-trees! It seems as if all his motions were designed to show off his plumage to the best advantage. With tail slightly raised and spread, and wings a little drooping, he springs and swoops here and there in the trees — a bit of black holding and momentarily revealing a flame of orange.
Many observers note that the American Redstart is a fidgety bird, always on the move. Thoreau, for example, described it as "very lively and restless, flirting and spreading its reddish tail" (Journal, May 17, 1856). But the one I saw stood still for over a minute, preening, at the foot of a tree.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Puu and Pee

Any Latin teacher can tell you about the giggles that erupt in the classroom the first time the vocabulary word homo is introduced. The same thing happens in German class with fahrt.

I am just as immature as beginning students of Latin and German. Yesterday I could not suppress a laugh when someone who works with immigrants told me that, among the Karen of Burma, the terms of respect for elderly men and women are poo and pee respectively. With reduplication, my informant said, these terms become poo poo and pee pee. I give the phonetic spelling.

Not wanting to be the unwitting victim of a joke, I sought independent verification. According to Sandy Barron et al., Refugees from Burma: Their Backgrounds and Refugee Experiences (Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007), p. 39, pu means grandfather in Sgaw Karen, and pi means grandmother.

See also p. 77:
Karen commonly do not call each other by name, but use instead titles like Grandfather, Auntie, Sister, and so on. It is startling for a Karen to be addressed by name only. Here are a few common titles...
In the table that follows on p. 77, puu is the Karen equivalent of English grandfather, pee of grandmother.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Somewhere Else

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Nov. 20, 1857):
The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself. If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them. Many a weed here stands for more of life to me than the big trees of California would if I should go there. We only need travel enough to give our intellects an airing.
Related posts:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Greener Ground

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Sunday):
All the distinguished writers of that period possess a greater vigor and naturalness than the more modern,—for it is allowed to slander our own time,—and when we read a quotation from one of them in the midst of a modern author, we seem to have come suddenly upon a greener ground, a greater depth and strength of soil. It is as if a green bough were laid across the page, and we are refreshed as by the sight of fresh grass in mid-winter or early spring. You have constantly the warrant of life and experience in what you read. The little that is said is eked out by implication of the much that was done. The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience, but our false and florid sentences have only the tints of flowers without their sap or roots.
"That period" is the Elizabethan.



John Clare, Home Pictures in May:
The sunshine bathes in clouds of many hues
And mornings feet are gemmed with early dews
Warm Daffodils about the garden beds
Peep thro their pale slim leaves their golden heads
Sweet earthly suns of spring—the Gosling broods
In coats of sunny green about the road
Waddle in extacy—and in rich moods
The old hen leads her flickering chicks abroad
Oft scuttling neath her wings to see the kite
Hang waving oer them in the springs blue light
The sparrows round their new nests chirp with glee
And sweet the Robin springs young luxury shares
Tuteling its song in feathery Gooseberry tree
While watching worms the Gardeners spade unbears

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Both ... And

Grammarians classify Latin -que and Greek τε as correlative conjunctions. "Both ... and" is the usual literal translation. The number of conjunctions and the number of things joined are usually two, but there are exceptions. In a list that is not intended to be exhaustive, Richard John Cunliffe, A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (1924; rpt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), s.v. τε, cites the following triplets (tr. A.T. Murray, with italics representing the things joined by τε in Greek):Liddell τε Scott τε Jones τε give some more examples:
τε may be used three or more times, ἔν τ' ἄρα οἱ φῦ χειρί, ἔπος τ' ἔφατ' ἔκ τ' ὀνόμαζεν Od.15.530, cf. Il.1.177, 2.58, A.Pr.89sq., B.17.19sq., Lys. 19.17, X.Cyr.3.3.36.
A Latin example with -que is Terence, Adelphoe 300-301: auxili nihil adferant, / quod mihique eraeque filiaeque erilist (they would bring no help [for the trouble] that is upon me and my mistress and my mistress' daughter).

Similarly in English, "both ... and" usually join pairs of nouns, but with an extra "and" there can be a triplet. See R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 114:
If language behaved like a simple mathematical system, the illogicality of using both of more than two items would be immediately apparent. In practice, both is almost always used with two homogeneous words or phrases: both the people and the land; both by day and by night; he both loves and hates his brother; both now and evermore; etc. From the 14c. onward, however, it has been used 'illogically' in conjunction with more than two objects: both man and bird and beast (Coleridge, 1798) and both Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton (De Quincy, c1839) form part of an array of examples presented in the OED.
Related post: Either ... Or.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Death of a Noble Pine

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Dec. 30, 1851, with some paragraph divisions added by me):
This afternoon, being on Fair Haven Hill, I heard the sound of a saw, and soon after from the Cliff saw two men sawing down a noble pine beneath, about forty rods off. I resolved to watch it till it fell, the last of a dozen or more which were left when the forest was cut and for fifteen years have waved in solitary majesty over the sproutland. I saw them like beavers or insects gnawing at the trunk of this noble tree, the diminutive manikins with their cross-cut saw which could scarcely span it. It towered up a hundred feet as I afterward found by measurement, one of the tallest probably in the township and straight as an arrow, but slanting a little toward the hillside, its top seen against the frozen river and the hills of Conantum.

I watched closely to see when it begins to move. Now the sawyers stop, and with an axe open it a little on the side toward which it leans, that it may break the faster. And now their saw goes again. Now surely it is going; it is inclined one quarter of the quadrant, and, breathless, I expect its crashing fall. But no, I was mistaken; it has not moved an inch; it stands at the same angle as at first. It is fifteen minutes yet to its fall. Still its branches wave in the wind, as if it were destined to stand for a century, and the wind soughs through its needles as of yore; it is still a forest tree, the most majestic tree that waves over Musketaquid. The silvery sheen of the sunlight is reflected from its needles; it still affords an inaccessible crotch for the squirrel's nest; not a lichen has forsaken its mast-like stem, its raking mast—the hill is the hulk.

Now, now's the moment! The manikins at its base are fleeing from their crime. They have dropped the guilty saw and axe. How slowly and majestically it starts! as if it were only swayed by the summer breeze, and would return without a sigh to its location in the air. And now it fans the hillside with its fall, and it lies down to its bed in the valley, from which it is never to rise, as softly as a feather, folding its green mantle about it like a warrior, as if, tired of standing, it embraced the earth with silent joy, returning its elements to the dust again. But hark! there you only saw, but did not hear. There now comes up a deafening crash to these rocks advertising you that even trees do not die without a groan. It rushes to embrace the earth, and mingle its elements with the dust. And now all is still once more and forever, both to eye and ear.

I went down and measured it. It was about four feet in diameter where it was sawed, about one hundred feet long. Before I had reached it the axemen had already divested it of its branches. Its gracefully spreading top was a perfect wreck on the hillside as if it had been made of glass and the tender cones of one year' s growth upon its summit appealed in vain and too late to the mercy of the chopper. Already he has measured it with his axe, and marked off the millions it will make. And the apace it occupied in the upper air is vacant for the next two centuries. It is lumber. He has laid waste the air. When the fish hawk in the spring revisits the banks of the Musketaquid, he will circle in vain to find his accustomed perch, and the hen-hawk will mourn for the pines lofty enough to protect her brood. A plant which it has taken two centuries to perfect, rising by slow stages into the heavens, has this afternoon ceased to exist. It sapling top had expanded to this January thaw as the forerunner of summers to come. Why does not the village bell sound a knell? I hear no knell tolled. I see no procession of mourners in the streets, of the woodland aisles. The squirrel has leaped to another tree; the hawk has circled further off, and has now settled upon a new eyrie, but the woodman is preparing to lay his axe to that also.
Related posts:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Buckled Lips

Emily Dickinson, Reticence:
The reticent volcano keeps
  His never slumbering plan;
Confided are his projects pink
  To no precarious man.

If nature will not tell the tale
  Jehovah told to her,
Can human nature not survive
  Without a listener?

Admonished by her buckled lips
  Let every babbler be.
The only secret people keep
  Is Immortality.
Related posts:


A Remarkable Medicine

From a television commercial for the pimple cream Proactiv (emphasis added):
I put it on in the evening, when I go to bed, and when I get up in the morning, you don't have acne.


Tits Honored

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has decided to award the Abel Prize for 2008 to John Griggs Thompson, University of Florida and Jacques Tits, Collège de France. This was announced by the Academy’s President, Ole Didrik Lærum, at a press conference in Oslo today. Thompson and Tits receive the Abel Prize "for their profound achievements in algebra and in particular for shaping modern group theory".


Wasting Time

An attitude I admire is expressed in this saying attributed to Louis Agassiz:
I cannot afford to waste my time in making money.
I can't find a written source. Perhaps it was recalled and handed down from a remark he made in conversation. Cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Topical Notebooks, vol. 3 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994), p. 50 (on Agassiz):
When they tempted him once with high prices for lectures he said, "Sir, I can't waste my time in making money."


Euripides, Suppliant Women

These are notes to myself after re-reading Euripides' Suppliant Women. Translations are by E.P. Coleridge unless otherwise indicated. I don't have access to Christopher Collard's commentary.

Adrastus exhibits "survivor's guilt" at 769 ("Ah me! how much rather I had died with them!") and 821 ("Would God the Theban ranks had laid me in the dust!"). On this phenomenon see Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Athenaum, 1994), chapter 4 (Guilt and Wrongful Substitution).

The ways to settle disputes between states are either by words or by force of arms (ἢ λόγοισιν ἢ δορὸς / ῥώμῃ, 25-26). In hindsight Adrastus knows which way is preferable (748-749):
Ye cities likewise, though ye might by parley end your ills, yet ye choose the sword instead of reason to settle all disputes.
See also the words of Adrastus at 949-954:
O wretched sons of men! Why do ye get you weapons and bring slaughter on one another? Cease therefrom, give o'er your toiling, and in mutual peace keep safe your cities. Short is the span of life, so 'twere best to run its course as lightly as we may, from trouble free.
The Theban herald (486-493) likewise expresses a preference for peace:
And yet each man amongst us knows which of the two to prefer, the good or ill, and how much better peace is for mankind than war,-peace, the Muses' chiefest friend, the foe of sorrow, whose joy is in glad throngs of children, and its delight in prosperity. These are the blessings we cast away and wickedly embark on war, man enslaving his weaker brother, and cities following suit.
The Theban herald at 485 uses the word δοριμανής (spear-mad, spear-crazy), a form that seems to occur only here, although Liddell & Scott cite the Palatine Anthology 9.553 for δουρομανής. Cf. also Ἀρειμανής, Ἀρειμάνιος and Horace's bello furiosa (Odes 2.16.5).

The Greeks thought that shame was a good thing, as a brake on bad behavior. See 911-912 (in David Kovacs' translation):
A noble upbringing produces a sense of shame. Every man who is trained in good deeds is prevented by shame from becoming base.
On this theme see K.J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality (1974; rpt. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), V.B (Honour and Shame), pp. 226-242, esp. pp. 236-242 (5. Causes and effects of shame).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008



Anu Garg, A.Word.A.Day, May 12, 2008 (sideburns):
The words barb, barber, rebarbative, and beard are derived from the same root: Latin barba (beard).
This is inaccurate. English beard is related to, but not derived from, Latin barba. Both share the same Indo-European ancestor. See Calvert Watkins, Indo-European Roots, s.v. bhardhā:
Beard. Possibly related to bhar-, projection, bristle. 1. Germanic *bardaz in Old English beard, beard: BEARD. 2. Germanic bardō, beard, also hatchet, broadax (the association of beard and ax is attested elsewhere in the Indo-European family; both were symbols of patriarchal authority), in Old High German barta, beard, and bart, ax: HALBERD. 3. Latin barba, beard: BARB1, BARBEL, BARBELLATE, (BARBER), BARBETTE, BARBICEL, BARBULE, REBARBATIVE. [Pok. bhardhā 110.]
Walter W. Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), s.v. halberd (p. 251), compares Icelandic skeggja (halberd), derived from skegg (beard).

Garg's mistake is minor compared with Robert Hendrickson, QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd edition (New York: Facts on File, 2004), s.v. barbarian (p. 53):
Barba means "beard" in Latin, and when the Romans called hirsute foreigners barbarians they were strictly calling them "bearded men," though the word shortly came to mean, rightly or wrongly, "rude, uncivilized people." A barber was, of course, one who cut beards or hair. The barber pole outside barber shops today has its origins in the ancient barber's duties as a surgeon and dentist as well as a hair cutter. It was first the symbol of these professions — a blood-smeared white rag. However, barbarian may have Greek origins.
Henderson is way off base here. The derivation of barbarian from Latin barba is totally bogus, a folk etymology. The word barbarian is indubitably (not just possibly) Greek in origin, and it has nothing to do with beards. The Romans didn't regard bearded men as barbarians. The Romans themselves wore beards during certain historical periods and were clean-shaven in others. In general, they wore beards before the second century B.C. and after the 2nd century A.D.

Related post: Barbarians and Beards.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Nonsense Botany

Today is the birthday of Edward Lear (1812-1888). Here are some of his illustrations of rare botanical species:

Phattfacia stupenda

Manypeeplia upsidownia

Piggiawiggia pyramidalis

Related post: Profollias downhoki.


Weekdays of Unfreedom

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (tr. R.J. Hollingdale), § 283 (Principal deficiency of active men):
As at all times, so now too, men are divided into the slaves and the free; for he who does not have two-thirds of his day to himself is a slave, let him be what he may otherwise: statesman, businessman, official, scholar.

Alle Menschen zerfallen, wie zu allen Zeiten so auch jetzt noch, in Sclaven und Freie; denn wer von seinem Tage nicht zwei Drittel für sich hat, ist ein Sclave, er sei übrigens wer er wolle: Staatsmann, Kaufmann, Beamter, Gelehrter.
Op. cit., § 284 (In favour of the idle):
But there is something noble about leisure and idleness. — If idleness really is the beginning of all vice, then it is at any rate in the closest proximity to virtue; the idle man is always a better man than the active. — But whan I speak of leisure and idleness, you do not think that I am alluding to you, do you, you sluggards?

Es ist aber ein edel Ding um Musse und Müssiggehen.— Wenn Müssiggang wirklich der Anfang aller Laster ist, so befindet er sich also wenigstens in der nächsten Nähe aller Tugenden; der müssige Mensch ist immer noch ein besserer Mensch als der thätige.— Ihr meint doch nicht, dass ich mit Musse und Müssiggehen auf euch ziele, ihr Faulthiere?
Op. cit., § 285 (Modern restlessness):
From lack of repose our civilization is turning into a new barbarism.

Aus Mangel an Ruhe läuft unsere Civilisation in eine neue Barbarei aus.
Op. cit., § 289 (Value of illness):
The man who lies ill in bed sometimes discovers that what he is ill from is usually his office, his business or his society and that through them he has lost all circumspection with regard to himself: he acquires this wisdom from the leisure to which his illness has compelled him.

Der Mensch, der krank zu Bette liegt, kommt mitunter dahinter, dass er für gewöhnlich an seinem Amte, Geschäfte oder an seiner Gesellschaft krank ist und durch sie jede Besonnenheit über sich verloren hat: er gewinnt diese Weisheit aus der Musse, zu welcher ihn seine Krankheit zwingt.
Op. cit., § 291 (Prudence for free spirits):
He too knows the weekdays of unfreedom, of dependence, of servitude. But from time to time he has to have a Sunday of freedom, or he will find life unendurable.

Auch er kennt die Wochentage der Unfreiheit, der Abhängigkeit, der Dienstbarkeit. Aber von Zeit zu Zeit muss ihm ein Sonntag der Freiheit kommen, sonst wird er das Leben nicht aushalten.
Related posts:

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Pilcrow and Octothorp

Pilcrow is the paragraph symbol (¶), and octothorp is the hash mark or number sign symbol (#) on touch-tone telephone keypads. I knew octothorp from my years working in the telephone business, but I just learned pilcrow from Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, Issue 586 (May 3, 2008, also available here):
The word is delightful, not least because it gives no clue at all to what it means or where it might come from. The recently revised entry for it in the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is "now chiefly historic", which I rather dispute, since it's easy to find examples in current books on typography and it continues to be used in standards documents that list character sets.

What makes it truly weird is that the experts are sure it's a much bashed-about transformation of paragraph. This can be traced back to ancient Greek paragraphos, a short stroke that marked a break in sense (from para-, beside, plus graphein, write). The changes began with people amending the first r to l (it appeared in Old French in the thirteenth century as pelagraphe and pelagreffe). Then folk etymologists got at it, altering the first part to pill and the second to craft and then to crow. The earliest recorded version was pylcrafte, in 1440; over the next century it settled down to its modern form.

The paragraph symbol, by the way, isn't a reversed P as you might guess. It's actually a script C that was crossed by one or two vertical lines. The letter stood for Latin capitulum, chapter.
On the Greek paragraph symbol, see William A. Johnson, "The Function of the Paragraphus in Greek Literary Prose Texts," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 100 (1994) 65-68.

Walter W. Skeat, Notes on English Etymology: Chiefly Reprinted from the Transactions of the Philological Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), pp. 215-216, describes in detail the phonetic development of the word pilcrow:
First of all, the Lat. paragraphus became F. paragraphe. This is given by Cotgrave, who has: 'paragraphe, a Paragraffe, or Pillcrow; ... as much as is comprehended in one sentence or section.' The next form is paragraffe, just cited as an E. word from Cotgrave. After this, the middle a was dropped, and an excrescent t added at the end. This is quoted by Way from the Ortus Vocabulorum: 'Paragraphus, Anglice, a pargrafte in writing.' The next step is the corruption from pargrafte to the form pylcrafte in the Promptorium. This is rather violent, but we must remember that the change of r to l is the commonest of all changes in every Aryan language, that the prefixes par- and per- were convertible, and that the change from per- to pil- occurs in the common English word pilgrim, in which per- passes into pil- through the Ital. pell- in pellegrino. This shows the precise process; pargrafte became *pergrafte, then *pelgrafte, then *pilgrafte, and finally pilcrafte, with c for g. The change from g to c easily took place when the original form had become entirely obscured. After this, a further corruption took place, from pilcrafte to pilcrow. This was due to mere laziness. The excrescent t was again dropped, giving pilcraf, and then the -craf became -crow. Hence we get the full order of successive forms, viz. paragraphe, paragraffe, *pargraf, pargrafte, *pergrafte, *pelgrafte, *pilgrafte, pilcrafte, *pilcraf, pilcrow. Not all of these forms are found, but a sufficient number of them appear to enable us to trace the complete process; at the same time, it is highly probable that some of these steps were passed over by a sudden leap. We may assume, as sufficiently proved, that pilcrow and paragraph, words used with precisely the same meaning, are mere doublets.
Oxford English Dictionary s.v. octothorp:
Forms: 19- octothorp, 19- octothorpe. [Origin uncertain; perh. < OCTO- comb. form + the surname Thorpe (cf. THORP n.: see note below).

The term was reportedly coined in the early 1960s by Don Macpherson, an employee of Bell Laboratories:

1996 Telecom Heritage No. 28. 53 His thought process was as follows: There are eight points on the symbol so octo should be part of the name. We need a few more letters or another syllable to make a noun... (Don Macpherson..was active in a group that was trying to get Jim Thorpe's Olympic medals returned from Sweden). The phrase thorpe would be unique.

For an alternative explanation see quot. 1996; in a variant of this explanation, the word is explained as arising from the use of the symbol in cartography to represent a village.]

The hash sign (#), as it appears on the buttons of touch-tone telephones and some other keypads.

1974 Telephony 25 Feb. 16/1 A few months ago, a story traveled through the Bell System that the familiar symbol '#' long last had a name: 'octothorp'. 1975 Vancouver Province 15 Nov. (Canad. Mag.) 32 Punch an octothorpe when you reach your desk every morning, and the accounting department automatically registers you in. 1987 Radio & Electronics World Feb. 47/1 As well as the numbers 1 to 9 and 0, you also have buttons marked with a star and square (also known as hash or octothorp). 1996 New Scientist 30 Mar. 54/3 The term 'octothorp(e)' (which MWCD10 dates 1971) was invented for '#', allegedly by Bell Labs engineers when touch-tone telephones were introduced in the mid-1960s. 'Octo-' means eight, and 'thorp' was an Old English word for village: apparently the sign was playfully construed as eight fields surrounding a village.
But for a different explanation and spelling see Douglas A. Kerr, The ASCII Character "Octatherp". Kerr was responsible for the selection of the non-numeric symbols * and # for use on the touch-tone telephone keypad. He attributes the invention of the word to John C. Schaak and Herbert T. Uthlaut:
They told me that they had read with interest the part of my report in which I regretted the absence of a unique typographical name for the character "#", and said they had solved my problem by coining one, "octatherp". They said that it had no etymological basis, but they had been guided by one principle. They said they were irritated that I had rejected some candidate characters they thought were good on the basis of lack of compatibility with emerging international standards (with which the Bell System had a tradition at the time of little interest). Thus, they said, as a way of getting even, they had included in the name the diphthong "th", which of course does not appear in German and several other languages and thus might be difficult for users of those languages to pronounce, which would serve them right.
Kerr started using the word in field memoranda, and he relates:
Before long, we were seeing, in non-Bell System publications, similar notes about the octatherp, sometimes accompanied by fanciful (and of course completely bogus) etymological explanations, such as "the prefix 'octa' refers to the eight tips of the four strokes of the character".

One author opined that "therp" was obtained by corruption of the German word "dorf", meaning village. He said he was not exactly sure of the logical trail there.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


A Forgotten Nature Writer

Thanks to Dave Lull for drawing my attention to Charles Conrad Abbott, The Rambles of an Idler (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1906).

Charles Conrad Abbott (1843-1919) was a contemporary of fellow nature writers John Burroughs (1837-1921) and John Muir (1838-1914). Burroughs and Muir are still read, but Abbott is largely forgotten. Kessinger Publishing has reprinted a few titles, but Abbott doesn't appear in anthologies such as Robert Finch and John Elder, edd. The Norton Book of Nature Writing (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), and Thomas J. Lyon, ed. This Incomparable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), and not one of his works has been transcribed for Project Gutenberg.

Although not a nature writer of the top rank, Abbott is nevertheless lively, genial, observant, and entertaining. Here is the beginning of his essay "In Defence of Idleness," from Recent Rambles, or, In Touch with Nature (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1892), pp. 220-221:
Chesterfield asks somewhere, of some one, "Will you improve that hour instead of idling it away?" That depends. For myself, I hold it most righteous to idle away many an hour, for, paradoxical as it may seem, with folded arms and half-closed eyes we may wax wiser with every hour. An "idle hour" is a contradiction. The world does not pause because your step becomes a shuffle; and where, out of doors, is it empty? Custom is a cruel taskmaster; but when his back is turned it is well to watch a chance and give ourselves over to receptive idleness. It is the enjoyment of such moments in anticipation that makes labor tolerable. One day in seven is every man's by law, and so he values it at far less than its real worth. A stolen week-day hour, for which one plans and struggles, is a tidbit more clearly remembered than a month of Sundays. I never met him yet who had no love for a holiday. Toil is necessary, but it does not charm; labor per se is not man's chiefest aim, but to complete a life-work as soon as possible, that the inactive contemplation of it may be indulged. So universal is a love of such idleness that, it is safe to assume, idleness is the aim of life. Every one disputes this, but it matters not. We all know it as a feeling hidden in every breast; else why every one wishes he was so far rich that he need not labor? Not necessarily to sit with folded hands and dream; but to be able to follow the whim of the moment,—to do as he pleases,—to indulge in idleness.


O Text, Thou Art Sic!

From Eric Thomson, via email, on fact checking and proofreading (with a parody of William Blake):
O Text, thou art sic!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of sooty joy...

Here are a couple I came across recently:

From Anatoly Liberman's An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008): "The authors of etymological dictionaries find it difficult to eliminate errors" (pg. xxx). Two pages later: "After his death, my articles axli ii peared in various journals, miscellaneous collections, and Festschriften" (pg. xxxii).

From Eric G. Wilson's Against Happiness (New York: Sarah Chrichton Books, 2008): "Between 1802 and 1810, Beethoven created several of his most unforgettable masterpieces. These great works included the Tempest Sonata (opus 3), the Eroica, or Third, Symphony; the Waldheim Sonata (opus 53) ..." (pg. 128). The Tempest Sonata is opus 31, and Kurt Waldheim would no doubt have been smug to hear of a Waldheim Sonata, but Count Waldstein less so.

Regarding the 'vast Homerian' (more Batrachomyomachian) movements of chipmunk, marten and sea-lion, I wonder if Patrick Zollner didn't really have the Atlantic in mind (as in L'Inferno, XXVI) instead of the Aegean. Striking out to find new terrritory in that pond-with-stepping-stones doesn't sound like much of an adventure.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


The Dreary Vacuum of Idleness

George Borrow, Lavengro, chapter XIV:
I have heard talk of the pleasures of idleness, yet it is my own firm belief that no one ever yet took pleasure in it. Mere idleness is the most disagreeable state of existence, and both mind and body are continually making efforts to escape from it. It has been said that idleness is the parent of mischief, which is very true; but mischief itself is merely an attempt to escape from the dreary vacuum of idleness. There are many tasks and occupations which a man is unwilling to perform, but let no one think that he is therefore in love with idleness; he turns to something which is more agreeable to his inclination, and doubtless more suited to his nature; but he is not in love with idleness. A boy may play the truant from school because he dislikes books and study; but, depend upon it, he intends doing something the while—to go fishing, or perhaps to take a walk; and who knows but that from such excursions both his mind and body may derive more benefit than from books and school?
Related posts:

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Fact Checking and Proofreading

Evelyn Waugh, quoted by Joseph Epstein, The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), p. 195:
I am told that printers' readers no longer exist because clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.
For whatever reason, printers' readers, or fact checkers, or proofreaders do seem rare these days, if one may judge from the prevalence of typographical errors and mistakes of fact in modern books. The following examples come from Sy Montgomery, The Wild Out Your Window: Exploring Nature Near at Hand (Camden: Down East Books, 2002).
"Meek creatures," as the 18th-century British art critic John Ruskin called them, "the first mercy of the earth," mosses prove again the prophesy that the meek shall inherit the earth, for at the first stroke of spring, the world is theirs. (p. 13)
Ruskin lived in the 19th century, not the 18th.
Despite their questionable palettes, flies make fine pollinators, and some flowers work hard to attract them. (p. 28)
For "palettes" read "palates."
Thoreau, recording his observations of snappers in 1854, compared their journeys to Ulysses' decades-long return home in The Iliad. (p. 121)
I don't see any such comparison in Thoreau's Journal for 1854 (using the index of the Torrey-Allen edition, s.v. turtle). Besides, Thoreau knew his Homer and never would have made such an error. Ulysses' wanderings are the subject of the Odyssey, not the Iliad.
But by studying mammals' movements, researchers are now beginning to discover a whole new way of seeing the landscape—though another species' eyes. (p. 162)
Read "through" for "though."
When a young adult chipmunk or pine martin or sea lion strikes out to find new territory, he points out, "it's like Odysseus striking out over the Agean Sea—these are vast Homerian movements." (p. 163, where "he" is Patrick Zollner)
For "martin" read "marten," and for "Agean" read "Aegean." I'll let "Homerian" for "Homeric" pass, because at least it's in the dictionary.
Three decades ago, when he was a growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, relatives sent his family four baby holly trees one Christmas. (p. 216)
Something ("boy," "child," "lad," or whatever) has dropped out between "a" and "growing." Alternatively, just omit the indefinite article.

Doubtless there are those to whom this is mere pedantic quibbling. To them I reply with the pedant's stock retort, "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much" (Luke 16:10).

Sometimes even a tiny misprint can be important. A few months ago I noticed in a slip opinion that the word "enforceable" appeared in a holding where the opposite ("unenforceable") was clearly called for. I emailed the judge who wrote the opinion, and he was able to make the correction before the official version was released.

I lack the qualification for a printer's reader mentioned by Waugh—I am not an unfrocked clergyman. But, in my humble opinion, I have the sharp eye, the patience, and the general knowledge needed for fact checking and proofreading. Send job offers to me at my email address.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Moderate Gladness

Thomas Hardy, A Private Man on Public Men :
When my contemporaries were driving
Their coach through Life with strain and striving,
And raking riches into heaps,
And ably pleading in the Courts
With smart rejoinders and retorts,
Or where the Senate nightly keeps
Its vigils, till their fames were fanned
By rumour's tongue throughout the land,
I lived in quiet, screened, unknown,
Pondering upon some stick or stone,
Or news of some rare book or bird
Latterly bought, or seen, or heard,
Not wishing ever to set eyes on
The surging crowd beyond the horizon,
Tasting years of moderate gladness
Mellowed by sundry days of sadness,
Shut from the noise of the world without,
Hearing but dimly its rush and rout,
Unenvying those amid its roar,
Little endowed, not wanting more.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Self-Improvement and Learning Greek

Joseph Epstein , Balls-Up, from The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), p. 209:
Within very serious limits I am a self-improvement buff, if only a failed one. Of myself in this connection I can say, every day in every way I stay pretty much the same. A few years ago, for example, I set out to learn classical Greek. Aglow with the luster of self-betterment, I enrolled myself in a course in Greek at the university where I teach—and lasted a cool and inglorious two weeks. Walking into the room on the first day of class, I was taken for the teacher, a natural enough confusion since I was more than twenty years older than anyone else in the course (except for the actual teacher, who turned out to be roughly twenty years older than I). Being the old boy, I felt a certain obligation not be appear stupid. The option taken by a likable fellow named Fred McNally, who more than two decades ago sat next to me in an undergraduate French class, and who whenever called upon answered through an entire semester, "Beats me, sir," did not seem an option open to me. Given my natural ineptitude with foreign languages and my fear of having to avail myself of the McNally ploy, I found myself studying Greek two hours a night. Add to this another hour for class and yet another hour for getting there and back, and nearly one fourth of my waking life was given over to this little self-improvement project. The result was the general disimprovement of everything else in my life. In the end I decided that learning Greek would have to be put on that long list of items I must put off until the after-life.
Related posts:

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Spring in the City

George Orwell, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad:
I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets. But I am aware that many people do not like reptiles or amphibians, and I am not suggesting that in order to enjoy the spring you have to take an interest in toads. There are also the crocus, the missel-thrush, the cuckoo, the blackthorn, etc. The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site. Indeed it is remarkable how Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road. There must be some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds living inside the four-mile radius, and it is rather a pleasing thought that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.

As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters. The spring is commonly referred to as `a miracle', and during the past five or six years this worn-out figure of speech has taken on a new lease of life. After the sorts of winters we have had to endure recently, the spring does seem miraculous, because it has become gradually harder and harder to believe that it is actually going to happen. Every February since 1940 I have found myself thinking that this time winter is going to be permanent. But Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead at about the same moment. Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle happens and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured. Down in the square the sooty privets have turned bright green, the leaves are thickening on the chestnut trees, the daffodils are out, the wallflowers are budding, the policeman's tunic looks positively a pleasant shade of blue, the fishmonger greets his customers with a smile, and even the sparrows are quite a different colour, having felt the balminess of the air and nerved themselves to take a bath, their first since last September.


Good Country

Scott Weidensaul, The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species (New York: North Point Press, 2002), p. 273 (on an area near the Collingwood River in western Tasmania):
This is good country, the kind of place where you see and feel little of humanity.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


Definition of a Scholar

Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1982; rpt. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 158:
Jowett defined a scholar as a man who read Thucydides with his feet on the mantlepiece; by that test he was a scholar, scarcely by any other.
A neatly phrased insult! I haven't been able to locate any such printed definition of a scholar by Benjamin Jowett, who translated Plato and Thucydides. Presumably to pass the test you would need to read the Greek text only, with no help from a dictionary, grammar, or commentary. Thucydides was considered hard to understand even in antiquity. Cicero (Orator 9.30) said, about the speeches in Thucydides, "ipsae illae contiones ita multas habent obscuras abditasque sententias vix ut intellegantur."


Profollias downhoki

Dr. Tom Volk teaches biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He also writes an informative column called Fungus of the Month, which I like to read. The Fungus of the Month for April 2008 is Profollias downhoki---- the missing link between fungi and plants.

Perhaps because it is so obvious, no one seems to have pointed out the obvious, that this is an elaborate April Fools' Day joke. According to Volk, Dr. Gholan Faux discovered the missing link. French faux means false. "When they sequenced the fke region of the DNA of the chloroplasts from the hyphae, they found that it exactly matched the fke region of the DNA of the chloroplasts of mosses and green algae, indicating a common origin," wrote Volk. The fke region is clearly the fake region. The date on the web page is April 1, 2008. These are a few of the clues that lead me to conclude it is an April Fools' Day joke.

Sometimes hoaxes like this are more successful and fool even well-respected scientists. I'm in the middle of reading a fascinating book, Scott Weidensaul's The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species (New York: North Point Press, 2002). On pp. 166-170 Weidensaul tells the story of a trick played by Harvard paleontologist Bryan Patterson on his friend Dr. Eugene S. Richardson, Jr., of Chicago's Field Museum. Patterson and his students sent a series of letters, postmarked from various locations in Kenya, from fictitious people (retired Lieutenant Colonel R.G.L. Cloudsley, merchant Purshottam S. Patel, teacher Joseph N. Ngomo, and schoolboy Akai s/o Ekechalon), to Richardson about sightings of a creature called the Dancing Worm of Turkana. Only when the Field Museum started to make plans for an expedition to Kenya to track down the beast did Patterson finally reveal that it was all a hoax.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Green Solitude

John Clare, untitled:
There is a charm in Solitude that cheers
A feeling that the world knows nothing of
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off
Whose whole delight was crime at good to scoff
Green solitude his prison pleasure yields
The bitch fox heeds him not—birds seem to laugh
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely fields
Which dark green oaks his noontide leisure shields


This Is Real Happiness

John Clare, Taste: the man of dissernment there is happiness in contemplating the different shapes of leaves of the various kinds of trees plants and herbs     there is happiness in examining minutely into the wild flowers as we wander amongst them to distinguish their characters and find out to what orders they belong in the artificial and natural systems of botany     there is happiness in lolling over the old shivered trunks and fragments of a ruined tree destroyed some years since by lightening and mossing and wasting away into everlasting decay—to wander among the hills and hollows of heaths which have been old stone quarrys roman excavations and other matter of fact fancys that the mind delights to indulge in in rambles—this is happiness—to lean on the rail of wooden brigs and mark the crinkles of the stream below and the little dancing beetles twharling and glancing their glossy coats to the summer sun—to bend over the old woods mossy rails and list the call of the heavy bumble bee playing with the coy flowers till he has lost his way—and anon finds it by accident and sings out of the wood to the sunshine that leads him to his mossy nest lapt up in the long grass of some quiet nook—such is happiness—and to wander a pathless way thro the intricacys of woods for a long while and at last burst unlooked for into the light of an extensive prospect at its side and there lye and muse on the landscape to rest ones wanderings—this is real happiness—to stand and muse on the bank of a meadow pool fringed with reed and bulrushes and silver clear in the middle on which the sun is reflected in spangles and there to listen the soulsoothing music of distant bells this is a luxury of happiness and felt even by the poor shepherd boy
William Trost Richards, Into the Woods

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