Archive for January, 2013


January 24, 2013

I just read, in the latest New Yorker, Jill Lepore’s remarkable article (“The Force”) about the history of American military spending. And a few days ago I heard, on NPR’s Fresh Air, the rebroadcast of an interview with Cullen Murphy, the author of a book (God’s Jury) about the Catholic Inquisition. And I was struck by a certain resemblance. Both the US military (or, more generally, the security apparatus including the military and “intelligence”) and the Inquisition (or, for that matter, the Catholic Church itself) are typical human organizations in that, whatever their intended function may be, once such an organization becomes established its primary function becomes its own preservation and growth (in power if not in numbers).

This happens even if the intended purpose becomes moot for one reason or another. The March of Dimes, founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to combat polio, did not disband after polio was essentially eliminated but simply changed its mission. And the function of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, whatever its nominal mission (“to improve the lives of people affected by cancer”), was to promote the image of its founder as a philanthropic hero. With that image in shatters, the foundation will just try to live on (as the Livestrong Foundation) and be strong. Live strong, indeed: this could be the motto of most organizations.



Obama’s white men

January 16, 2013

I had thought that the media buzz had died down over the fact that the first four persons to be nominated by Obama for major government positions were all white men. But Stephen Colbert brought it up just the other night, so I though that I might as well add my little buzz to it.

I have two personal issues with the story.

One of them is my disappointment over the fact that none of the four is going to replace a black man. I don’t mean just any black man, but one in particular, and I wouldn’t really care if he were replaced by a white man or a purple hermaphrodite. I am referring to the abominable Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, who has done (I don’t know if through malice or incompetence, nor whether on his own initiative or at the President’s behest) more to pervert the administration of justice in this country than anyone else I can think of. Examples: the disproportionate prosecution of Aaron Swartz which led to his suicide; the dropped investigation of Lance Armstrong despite a mountain of evidence worthy of a polka-dot jersey; the heavy-handed attacks on legal marijuana clubs in California, Obama’s campaign promises to the contrary notwithstanding; Operation Fast and Furious; and the abject failure to prosecute the financial finaglers whose fraudulent flimflam has caused so much grief. It seems to me that the word “justice” had no meaning in Holder’s vocabulary other than the name of the department that he heads.

My other issue is even more personal. The listing of Jacob Lew (the nominee for Secretary of the Treasury) as a “white man” makes me queasy. Lew is, by descent, a Polish Jew like me, and for us actual Polish Jews whiteness as a marker of race is meaningless. We were marked for extermination by Hitler as Jews by race. I am still amazed when I read, in books dealing with the “Holocaust”, references to the religious practices (or non-practices) of the victims. They are irrelevant. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was racial, not religious, and if a Lutheran bishop met the Nuremberg criteria as a Jew, he would be persecuted like any other.

Personally, I experienced being white just once in my life. It was on my first day in America, in 1950, when I boarded (with my mother) a streetcar in New Orleans and went to the back in search of an empty seat, only to be told by the conductor that I was not allowed to sit there – it was the place for colored people. In the 1950s it was not at all uncommon for Jews to experience various kinds of discrimination in the United States, nor was it a coincidence that Jews were so prominent in the civil rights movement at the time (and earlier, going back to the Spingarns and the Leo Frank lynching). While I do not support Noel Ignatiev‘s theories of whiteness, or critical race theory, I feel that characterizing an American Jew as simply a “white man” is a historical inaccuracy.

Goodbye, Two-Buck Chuck

January 16, 2013

As of today, January 16, Two-Buck Chuck is no more. Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s in California now cost $2.49 a bottle, not $1.99. In other words, Two-Buck has been replaced by his twin Two-and-a-Half-Buck.

The fact that the price remained at $1.99 for over a decade – one of the great bargains in the history of wine and drink – is quite astounding in itself. But then, a price increase of 25% makes up in one fell swoop for the inflation that averaged 2.5% over the past decade. It’s still a bargain, but Two-and-a-Half-Buck Chuck is more of a mouthful than the old name, and I think that the affectionate name will pass out of folklore.

Annals of anglicization

January 14, 2013

For some reason, I have always been fascinated by the subject of topographic exonyms, that is, the names by which places are known in languages other than the local ones. Perhaps it’s because, in my multilingual upbringing, I had to learn what places were called in the various languages around me. Or perhaps not.

About year ago I wrote a post proposing that the city that until the 1920s was known in English  as Lemberg should continue to be  so called, rather than by the hard-to-pronounce Slavic alternatives Lwów, L’vov or L’viv. And a number of years ago (in 2007) I wrote one surveying the pattern of English names of cities in Europe, and finding that, except in northern Europe (approximately north of the 52nd parallel), historically important cities are often known by names derived from French, from Bruges to Belgrade, from Lisbon to Prague, from Seville to Athens.

I want to explore two aspects of this nomenclature, one having to do with the form of the name and the other with the shift over the years from French-based to native names, specifically in German-speaking territory.

The formal aspect I want to look at has to do with names that, in French, have a “silent” e in the final syllable. In most cases this e is retained in English: Seville, Rome, Naples, Florence, Belgrade, Prague. In a few cases it is dropped: Lisbonne → Lisbon, Ratisbonne → Ratisbon, Athenes → Athens, Brusselles → Brussels. Note, in the last two examples, that I am using the older French spellings (Middle French) from which the English forms are derived: no accent marks, and no replacement of ss by x (which is due to a misreading of a Medieval scribal symbol). Such dropping is consistent with what also happened with many common nouns: charte → chart, masse → mass, and so on.

And in a few other cases the final -e became –a. The most obvious examples of this are Geneva, Saragossa and Vienna; but it may well be that such names as Barcelona and Padua are derived from French Barcelone and Padoue by this process. Now, I am not aware of any common nouns that got changed like this, but several French princesses named Mathilde, Isabelle or Henriette Marie turned, on becoming queens of England (or Great Britain), into  Mat(h)ilda, Isabella or Henrietta Maria. I am not sure why this happened, but the process may have been the same as the one operating on place-names.

Now, the number of French-derived names of German cities was once much larger than today. Nowadays, in Germany proper, only Cologne, Munich and Nuremberg are still used, perhaps because the German names all have umlauts and, in the days before computer typing, inserting umlauts was too much trouble. There is also, of course, Vienna, which is too well-known to undergo a name change, and, in Switzerland, Berne and Lucerne. (Strasbourg, while historically German, is actually French; Fribourg is primarily French; and Luxembourg is officially French.)

With the help of the Google Ngram Viewer, it’s possible to follow the evolution of the retreat of the French names of other cities in favor of the German ones. We find, for example, that Leipzig began to surpass Leipsic around 1865, perhaps because, the city being a major commercial and educational center, communication by telegraph was simpler if there was no ambiguity about spelling. Basel becomes commoner than Basle (the old French spelling, modern Bâle) around 1897, possibly because the first Zionist Congress, which was held there in 1896, had German (the language of its organizer, Theodor Herzl) as its working language, and the English-language reporters who covered it were more attuned to German than to French. Mainz passes Mayence in 1900, and Speyer passes Spires (French Spire, but the English addition of –s to French names is also evidenced in Lyons and Marseilles) in 1908. But Regensburg does not beat Ratisbon until 1935, Aachen passes Aix-la-Chapelle in 1940, and Frankfort (French Francfort) doesn’t seem to yield to Frankfurt until the end of World War II, 1945. It may be that Frankfort, Kentucky, added to the popularity of that name; when I set Frankfurt am Main against Frankfort on the Main the former passes the latter in 1925.

It might be interesting to check these results against the New York Times Article Archive, which goes back to 1851 and therefore covers the whole period during which these changes took place. But that’s a task for another day.

Upton Something

January 10, 2013

No, I don’t mean Upton Sinclair, but I’m sorry, I just haven’t been able to come up with a pithy two-word phrase that would encapsulate the opposite or counterpart of Downton Abbey. But it so happens that I watched the first episode of Series 3 (“Season 3” in the US) just as I was finishing Ruth Rendell’s latest novel, The St. Zita Society, and I couldn’t help thinking of it as just such a counterpart.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, and Ruth Rendell are both life peers and hence members of the House of Lords. He is Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, Conservative, and she is Baroness Rendell of Babergh, Labour. Though they are of different generations, they surely know each other. But Fellowes belongs to the literary/show business set that Rendell so often mocks. And he seems to admire nobility: both the hereditary nobility of titles (he was upset that his wife, the niece of a childless earl, could not succeed to the title) and the nobility of spirit that one finds among the loyal servants of the titled. In Downton Abbey scoundrels are few, and they are mostly outside these two sets, like the upstart press lord Sir Richard Carlisle and Bates’s wife Vera. And of the mostly noble rest of the characters, some are excruciatingly so, like Matthew Crawley and Anna Smith-Bates.

The St. Zita Society is also about rich people (titled and not) and their servants, but nobility is not to be found among them. With a few exceptions (all of whom belong to ethnic minorities) they are all mean, or stupid, or both; or else insane. I don’t know any writer who can get into the mind of a mentally disturbed person, and get their thoughts and actions to follow logically from their state of mind, better than Ruth Rendell. Here, as elsewhere, the one crazy person plays a crucial part.

It isn’t that Ruth Rendell does not recognize human decency. In the Inspector Wexford series, the inspector and his family and associates are mainly intelligent, sensitive persons. And in the novels written under the name Barbara Vine, which are invariably in the first person, the narrator is always such a person as well. But as for the world around them, look out!

One thing that made me feel that Ruth Rendell’s book is perhaps an intentional antidote to Downton Abbey is a plot element common to both: a lord’s daughter marrying his chauffeur. But the circumstances are as different as the eras (almost a century apart) and as the two authors.