What X-ists do

October 17, 2014

I spent most of my adult life as a professor of engineering science; I still have the title, with “emeritus” thrown in. My work involved primarily teaching, doing research in, and writing papers and books about the mechanics of solid bodies. Now most people know that mechanics is a branch of physics, usually the first subject matter that is taught in physics classes. But the kind of mechanics that I worked in — classical or Newtonian mechanics — stopped being of interest to physicists early in the 20th century, when relativity theory and quantum mechanics came into play. And so, in accord with the maxim “physics is what physicists do” (of unknown origin, though often attributed to various famous physicists), the work that I did was not physics. Applied physics, perhaps, but not just-plain physics.

Now, of course, most physicists do a great many things in their lives that non-physicists do as well. “What physicists to” has to be construed as “what physicists do when they are doing physics,” which is almost circular, or “what physicists do as physicists”: teach physics classes, perform experiments in physical laboratories,  publish papers in physics journals or present them at physics conferences.

I have often though of “X is what X-ists (or X-ians) do” (with the qualification I just discussed) as a kind of meme that can be applied not only to other sciences but to other fields of activity. For example, religion: one could say “Judaism is what Judaists do,” except that that the saying would have to apply to each of the several Judaisms ( in North America, for example, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform), and one would have to emphasis Judaists and not Jews (who may or may not be Judaists).

Similarly — and this is my main point — one could say that “Islam is what Islamists do.” I used to say “Islam is what Muslims do,” but there are many people who think of themselves as Muslims by cultural heritage but do not practice the tenets of Islam, and so the distinction between Muslims and Islamists becomes useful. But what practitioners of Islam as such do can be used to define Islam; not what a supposedly objective reading of the Qur’an or the Hadith might say, but what those who teach and preach Islam claim it says. And so, whatever political correctness might dictate, I am afraid that female genital mutilation, the execution of Christians on charges of blasphemy, and the various practices of Islamic State are Islam. The fact that IS’s propaganda readily finds recruits wherever there are Muslim communities is only one indication of many.

I have been meaning to write on this topic for a long time. What has spurred me this time is the currently ongoing debate on Islamophobia and “Islamorealism,” which seems to have split the left in the United States into acrimoniously opposing sides. I don’t think of myself as  -phobic in any way: I have no irrational fears that I know of. I do think of myself as a realist: I like to see things as they are. That puts me on the side of “Islamorealism,” I suppose, except that I have no sympathy with Pamela Geller and her ilk, who are the spearheads of the fear-mongering movement brandishing this banner. And, if Islamorealism is what Islamorealists do, then I am not an Islamorealist.

More yanking

September 23, 2014

I live in El Cerrito, California, and I often drive through the adjacent city of Richmond. One of the exits on Interstate 580, along the way to the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge, is Harbour Way. Yes, that’s Harbour, spelled the British way, not Harbor. It’s the name of a street, coined in that form for some reason or other, and the freeway sign reflects it faithfully.

It’s the same way with Centre (not Center) Street in Lower Manhattan, New York. In English, one does not change form or spelling of proper names. If a woman’s name is written Katherine or Kathryn, we don’t change it to Catherine (or vice versa), any more than we would change Antwan to Antoine (or vice versa).

But I am now reading the American edition of a novel by Tana French, titled Broken Harbor. The original title was, of course, Broken Harbour. It is not about a harbor that’s broken; it’s about a murder that took place in a locality that was once called Broken Harbour. The title is, in other words, a proper name, just like that of Tana French’s previous novel, Faithful Place (the name of a street). Why in the world would an American publisher (in this case Viking) change a place name in a novel that takes place in Ireland, not the United States?

I have written about this before, in connection with the Americanization of the texts of the novels of Ian Rankin, which I called yanking so that I could title the post “Yankin’ Rankin.” The process ranges from routine changes of spelling to significant word changes. The extreme was reached in the retitling of Fleshmarket Close by its American publisher (Little, Brown) as Fleshmarket Alley. Now, close is a Scottish word that means, more or less, alley. But Fleshmarket Close is, for God’s sake, the name of an actual alley in Edinburgh. (Tana French’s placenames are fictitious, not that it matters.) If an American tourist tried to find the place and asked someone for the location of Fleshmarket Alley, they might have a hard time getting the information.

As Elizabeth George has shown, it doesn’t have to be this way. She is American, and has gone through several American publishers (Bantam, HarperCollins, Dutton), but they all respect her chosen British usage and even spelling; the only things that marks her original editions as American is the punctuation (double rather single quotes, period before end quote, closed em dash rather than open en dash).

For myself, I prefer to read the original British editions, if I can get them, or else American ones that leave the text intact. Just as I prefer Chinese food cooked by Chinese for Chinese (something that El Cerrito has plenty of) rather than Chinese-American. There’s something about the flavor (or flavour)…

Marxist, chauvinist

August 19, 2014

There is a well-known quote attributed to Jean-Luc Godard: Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho  (I am a Marxist of the Groucho wing). I have long thought that it was said by a character in one of his post-1968 films, but I have just found out that the film in which a character says it is not by Godard but by Claude Lelouch, L’aventure, c’est l’aventure (1972). It must have just seemed to people to be the kind of thing that Godard would say.

I had assumed that somebody, somewhere, might have coined a similar phrase: Je suis chauviniste, tendance Ingrid (I am a chauvinist of the Ingrid wing), that is, a fan of the beautiful French actress Ingrid Chauvin. But a Google search for the phrase came up empty. So I am hereby offering it to the world. And I don’t care to whom it will be attributed.

Arc and Bingen

August 13, 2014

Practically all English-speakers with a smattering of history know that the heroine who help save the French kingdom from the English in the 15th century was Joan of Arc.

English-speakers with some knowledge of medieval culture or with interest in old music may also know of the first known woman composer was Hildegard von Bingen.

Catholics know of both women as saints of the church: Saint Joan of Arc and Saint Hildegard von Bingen, both famous for their celestial visions.

When we encounter a name of the form “X von Y” we usually assume that the name is German, with X as the forename and von Y as the family name: Maria von Trapp, Ludwig von Mises, Wernher von Braun… It’s therefore natural to assume that von Bingen was Hildegard’s family name. But it is nothing of the sort. Everything written by her and about her in the Middle Ages is in Latin, and she is known as Hildegardis Bingensis, because Bingen am Rhein is where she founded the convent of which she was abbess. It’s therefore much more appropriate to refer to her in English as Hildegard of Bingen, and this is how she is listed in Wikipedia and referred to in most scholarly writing. Popular culture, however, prefers the von form, as can be seen below:


If Bingen is the place that  Hildegard is “of” then of course Arc would be the place that Joan is “of”. So where is Arc?

In French (at least modern French), Joan is known as Jeanne d’Arc, and “of Arc” is simply a translation of “d’Arc”. It’s curious that such a translation was made, because there are plenty of British families with surnames beginning with de or d’ (De Courcey, D’Arcy etc.) who have felt no need to replace the French preposition with an English one. Normally such a replacement is made only when “de” refers to a territory of which the family is or was the ruling house, so that there is an implied “king” or “countess” or “prince” preceding “of”. Even the famous French general Maurice de Saxe is usually known in English by that name, even though he was in fact a count of Saxony, being an illegitimate but acknowledged son of the Elector Augustus the Strong.

But in fact there is no place named Arc that Jeanne’s family might have any relation to (cryptic crosswords, in which ARC is sometimes clued as “Joan’s Place”, notwithstanding). The family name was Darc. The apostrophe came into general use in French a century after her death, but even then the name continued to be written without it, for the most part, until the 19th century, as can be seen in the illustration on the left below (from 1753); it is present in the one from 1817 (center), but as late as 1865 the historian Nicolas Villiaumé chose to avoid it (right).


The spelling “d’Arc” was intended to give Joan a cast of nobility; during the reactionary Bourbon restoration (1815–1830) the idea of a commoner like Jeanne Darc (a farmer’s daughter) would not have sat well as a heroic figure. In Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orléans (1803) the surname is also written as d’Arc, specifically in reference to Johanna’s [sic] father who is named Thibaut d’Arc, far nobler-looking than his real name, Jacques Darc.

Vuillamé’s treatise, however, bears the subtitle “Refutation of various errors published until today,” one of which concerns precisely the writing of the name. To this he devotes an extensive note in which he proves convincingly that the apostrophe is erroneous; he points out in particular that, apostrophe or not, if the initial D of Darc had represented an elision of “de” then in Latin texts the name would appear as de Arco, but it does not.

Before the 18th century the heroine was generally referred to as La pucelle d’Orléans (the Maid of Orleans). In Shakespeare’s Henry VI (at least in the editions listing dramatis personae, which the Folios don’t) she is Joan la Pucelle (with the description a Maid pretending to be inspir’d from Heaven, and setting up to be Championess of France); and in the 17th-century poem La Pucelle by Jean Chapelain she is not named at all but called just La Pucelle or La Fille (‘the girl’). In the 1750s, however, Voltaire published a satirical poem (making fun of Chapelain’s opus) titled La pucelle d’Orléans, and there the Maid is called simply Jeanne, except for one instance in which she is Jeanne d’Arc. Since the book was published in London, among other places, it was perhaps from there that the British got the “Joan of Arc” meme.

Anglicizing her name as Joan is, of course, a carryover of old practice, when this was routinely done with the names of prominent personages; but it is no more. Thus the new king of Spain is called, in English, Felipe VI, while his five previous namesake kings go from Philip I (1504-1506) to Philip V (1700–1746). And Felipe’s father is generally known as Juan Carlos, not John Charles.

Now, it so happens that the first four of these Philips were descendants of the Austrian House of Habsburg, the first one being a son of the Emperor Maximilian. But his descendants, forming the Spanish branch of this house, chose “de Austria” as their family name, and those among them who were not royal princes (infantes) became known as “X de Austria”; the best-known among them were two generals named Juan de Austria (one was an illegitimate son of Charles V and the other of Philip IV). They are both known in English, however, as John of Austria, creating the false impression that they were Austrian.

Perhaps its time to apply retroactively the modern style of keeping names original. Then Joan would not even be Jeanne, but Jehanne, as she herself wrote her name.

Irreal Madrid

July 27, 2014

The premier professional league of soccer (association football) in North America (USA and Canada) is known as Major League Soccer (MLS). The name seems to be a calque of Major League Baseball (MLB), but MLB is not a league; it’s an umbrella organization for the two major leagues, the American League and the National League, that have long existed as independent entities. MLS, on the other hand, is the league itself, and the name is therefore both semantically inept and grammatically clumsy.

One of the teams in MLS, located in Utah, is called Real Salt Lake. What is “real” about it? It is not based in the city of Salt Lake City or on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, but in a suburban city named Sandy which is a good 15 miles away from the lake.

No, the Real part of the club’s name comes from its association with what is perhaps the world’s most famous football club, the Real Madrid Club de Fútbol (RM), in which real means ‘royal’ — a qualification given to the club’s name by King Alfonso XIII in 1920 (before that it was just the Madrid Foot-Ball [sic] Club).

Still, real also means ‘real’ in Spanish. But when I went yesterday to the California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley to see a friendly between Real Madrid and Inter Milan, I did not see the real Real Madrid. Here is a news item, dated yesterday, from Real Madrid’s website:

Cristiano Ronaldo has arrived in Los Angeles. The Whites striker arrived at Hotel Montage Beverly Hills, where he was reunited with Casillas, Ramos, Modric, Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso and Coentrão, who were left out of the matchday squad for the first game of the pre-season against Inter Milan.

Now, can anyone say that Real Madrid without Ronaldo, Casillas, Ramos, Modrić, Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso and Coentrão (or Benzema and Di María, for that matter) is the real Real Madrid that people (supposedly 62,500 of them — a sellout — though there were some glaring empty seats in the shade), many of them wearing the famous (and famously expensive) white jersey, paid $100 or more to see?

I noticed that something was wrong when RM took the pitch with the players’  jerseys showing no names above their numbers. And most of the numbers were in the high 20s and 30s, while on the squad as shown on the website no one has a number higher than 25.

Yes, there were some recognizable first- and second-stringers whom I remembered from the Champions’ League: Pepe (3), Bale (11), Carvajal (15), Nacho (18), Isco (23). And having Diego López and Jesús Fernández in the goal might have been meant to cover up Casillas’ embarrassing performance as Spain’s goalkeeper in the World Cup. But who in the world are Diego and Marcos Llorente (not Fernando, who plays for Spain and Juventus), Álvaro Medrán, Raúl de Tomás, Derik, Sobrino?

The stars will, apparently, play in the upcoming matches of the series of friendlies bearing the grandiose title of International Champions’ Cup: against Roma in Dallas, against Man U in Ann Arbor (by which time James Rodríguez may have joined th team)… But what we in Northern California saw was the Unreal Madrid. Or, in Spanish, Irreal Madrid.


June 23, 2014

There is a certain similarity between the decolonization of Africa in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and the breakup of the USSR in 1991. In both cases, new sovereign states were formed on the precise territories of existing political divisions — the colonies in one case and the Soviet Socialist Republics in the other — with no adjustment of borders to account for ethnic imbalances.

The Western European powers that colonized Africa, of course, did not really care about “tribal” identities, except when it was convenient for them, as when the Belgians preferred to have the native administrators in Rwanda and Burundi (I’m using the present-day forms of the names, for simplicity’s sake) be Tutsi rather than Hutu. Traditionally Somali districts that had been previously incorporated in Ethiopia or Kenya, for political or administrative reasons, remained that way. In what is now Nigeria, existing political entities with vastly different cultures and histories were merged, at first (in 1900), into the two colonies of Northern and Southern Nigeria, and then (in 1914), into one Nigeria. Many of the bloody civil wars and other conflicts that have raged in Africa ever since can be attributed to this colonial disregard of ethnic identities.

In the Soviet Union it wasn’t quite like that, at first. Each of the SSRs was formed as the homeland of its leading ethnic nation, with provisions for minority nationalities, so that, in principle, the borders between them were reasonably representative of ethnic divisions. But the central role played by the Russian nation in the government of the Union made it desirable for the Kremlin to introduce Russians into the non-Russian republics, both as members the ruling elites (nomenklatura) and as settlers in large numbers (continuing a trend begun under the tsars). The current situation in Ukraine, where a large swath of territory inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians (and not merely Russian-speakers, many of whom are ethnic Ukrainians) was absorbed into the sovereign state replacing the Ukrainian SSR, is the direct outgrowth of this stubborn clinging to already-existing borders.


June 15, 2014

It’s Bloomsday again (well, not quite yet in California, but certainly in Dublin), and I want to add my personal little contribution to the tributes being paid to James Joyce and his Ulysses all over the media.

I read Ulysses in one sitting, on a flight from Los Angeles to New York on a DC-6 in the 1950s (the flight took about nine hours then). I laughed all the way across the continent — I found it to be the second-funniest long book I had ever read, after Don Quixote. What made me laugh was, above all, Joyce’s way with the English language, to the extent that I still consider, after all these years (and one or two rereadings), the English language to be the book’s true protagonist.

I have since read two other books that I also feel to be books about language: Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur about French, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante‘s Tres Tristes Tigres about Spanish.

One of these days I’ll try to expand on what I mean.

Brat Worsts Cantor

June 12, 2014

It so happened last night that my wife Pat and I had bratwursts (the little Nuremberg ones) for dinner last night. We first had them when we visited Nuremberg in the course of a long trip through central Europe in 2001, and they memory made us go the photo albums from that trip (at the time we were not married yet and kept separate albums) and relive some of its highlights.

Shortly after dinner we sat down to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where the first bit of news to be discussed was the defeat of Eric Cantor by Dave Brat. And an obvious headline occurred to me: Brat Worsts Cantor.

A few minutes ago I googled “Brat Worsts” expecting to find such a headline somewhere, but all I find was “brat worsts” as a misspelling of “bratwursts”. When I tried “Brat Worsts Cantor” I got nothing!

Have headline writers forgotten about the verb “worst”? It’s in all the dictionaries I have access to (‘to gain the advantage over; defeat’ — AHD; ‘to get the advantage over; defeat or beat’ — Collins; ‘to defeat; beat’ — Random House Kemerman; ‘to get the better of; defeat’ — MWCD). Or have pun headlines gone out of style?

Not for me, they haven’t.

Friendlies and previouslies

June 7, 2014

During the weeks leading up to the FIFA World Cup, the various national teams — whether or not they have qualified for the Cup — play against one another in matches that are known as friendlies. A friendly (short for ‘friendly match’) is the equivalent of what in North American sports is called an exhibition game, that is, one that is not played as part of a competition.

While friendly as an adjective goes back to Old English, the OED dates its first appearance as a noun (pluralized, as a matter of fact) to 1885. In English — unlike many other languages, European and other — an adjective cannot be automatically be turned into a noun. It is usually done by ellipsis: in a noun phrase made up of an adjective and a noun, after some time the noun is dropped. While past appears as an adjective around 1300, it didn’t become a noun (meaning ‘past time’ or ‘past tense’) till after 1500 (preterit was used before that, alongside present and future — these were already nouns in French before being borrowed into English). Temporary can be short for ‘temporary worker’ or ‘temporary crown’ (in dentistry). Danish means ‘Danish pastry.”

Glossonyms (names of languages) may also be thought of as belonging to this category, with “English” short for “English language (or tongue),” but many glossonyms of this type (English, French, Welsh, Danish) go back to Old English, so that the ellipsis is not a conscious one.

Then there are certain ethnic or “racial” designation: black, white, Hispanic… One does not usually say “a black” or “a white,” but “a Hispanic” is not uncommon, and they are pluralized as nouns (blacks, whites, Hispanics). Other ethnonyms (by which I mean not only ethnic but also national, regional or continental designations) may function as both nouns and adjectives, especially those ending in -an (American, German, Italian, Mexican, Asian…), but these are based on the Latin -anus (-ana, etc.) and the nominalization of the adjective already took place in Latin, where it is the norm. Ethnonyms without special endings (such as Greek, Navaho, Yoruba) usually serve as both nouns and adjectives, but here the noun came first, and in English it’s the adjectivization of nouns that is the norm.

Other than such elliptical transformations, an adjective (invariably preceded by the) can be used as a plural noun denoting the class of people characterized by it: the Chinese, the English and the Irish; the rich and powerful against the poor and powerless; The Beautiful and Damned, The Naked and the Dead

The fact that in other languages adjectives can be freely used as nouns can be confusing to translators. In García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad there appears a character, based on a real person, called El sabio catalán. Here both sabio and catalán can be either adjectives and nouns, but the intent is for the former to be a noun meaning ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’ and the latter to be an adjective meaning ‘Catalan’ or ‘Catalonian’ (from Catalonia). But the hapless translator, Gregory Rabassa, translated it as the wise Catalonian. While the prototype, Ramon Vinyes, was known to be a literary scholar, there is no record of any special wisdom on his part. (This is only one of Rabassa’s many gaffes.)

So much for adjectives. Rarer still is the nominalization of adverbs. There are, of course, yesterdays and tomorrows (both quite old), but not many others.

I have recently found the need to nominalize the adverb previously. By this I mean a segment of a multi-episode television show, coming before the current episode, in which the preceding action is summarized by combining clips from a previous episode (or episodes). Invariably one reads the legend — or hears an announcer saying — “previously on [name of show]“. If there is a name for this kind of segment (the converse of a trailer, as it were), I don’t know it. So I have taken to calling it a previously. “They’re showing the previously!” I might say to my wife. And of course she knows what I mean.



May 5, 2014

I immigrated to Los Angeles from Germany with my parents in December, 1950. We settled in Boyle Heights, on the Eastside of Los Angeles (sometimes misidentified with East Los Angeles) and I enrolled in Theodore Roosevelt High School. I was 15½ years old, but I had a strong academic background from my high school (Oberschule) in Germany, especially in science, and so I should have eased into 11th grade, with a prospective graduation in June, 1952. But there was a problem with chemistry: I knew enough of the subject matter to get in at the end of the first semester, but I didn’t know enough of the English terminology, for example the meaning of “solvent”, “solute” and the like. And so I had to wait till the beginning of the next semester to begin chemistry from scratch, and, because a year of physics was to follow it, my graduation was put off to January, 1953, making me (along with the June graduates) a member of the class of 1953.

Had I made it into the class of 1952, I would have started and finished college a year earlier than I did, and my life might have turned out quite different from the way it did. Also, the president of my class would have been a Jewish boy named Don Tokowitz, a star of the boys’ gymnastics team. Boys’ gymnastics was the one sport in which Roosevelt High excelled; in basketball and football we had no one to compete against schools that had the likes of Willie Naulls or Jon Arnett.

Boyle Heights, which is now 95% Latino, was in the 1950s an ethnically diverse neighborhood. Chicanos were already the largest group, but far from a majority; there were significant numbers of Jews, Japanese-Americans and (as they were called then) Negroes, and smaller but notable communities of Armenians, Chinese, Molokan Russians, and even a few Anglos. In student politics there seemed to be in place a Tammany-Hall-like regime that saw a semester-by-semester alternation of student-body offices among the four major ethnicities. It must, then, have been the Jews’ turn when Don Tokowitz was elected president of his class.

Don Tokowitz has been in the news recently; I’m sure you’ve heard or read about him. But not under that name: seven years after his graduation from Roosevelt he changed his name to Donald Sterling.



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