|The Universe of Discourse|
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Wed, 16 May 2007
Wash on Monday
You bake on Saturday so that you have fresh bread for Sunday dinner. You wash on Monday because washing is backbreaking labor and you want to do it right after your day of rest. You iron the following day before the washed clothes are dirty again. But why iron at all? If you don't wash the clothes or clean the house, you'll get sick and die. If you don't bake, you won't have any bread, and you'll starve. But ironing? In my mind it was categorized with dusting, as something people with nice houses in the city might do, but not something that Ma Ingalls, three miles from the nearest neighbor, would concern herself with.
But no. Ironing, and starching with the water from boiled potatoes, was so important that it got a whole day to itself, putting it on par with essential activities like cleaning and baking. But why?
A few months later, I figured it out. In this era of tumble-drying and permanent press, I had forgotten what happens to fabrics that are air dried, and did not understand until I was on a trip and tried to air-dry a cotton bath towel. Air-dried fabrics come out not merely wrinkled but corrugated, like an accordion, or a washboard, and are unusable. Ironing was truly a necessity.
Anyway, I was at this porch sale, and I hoped that this 1879 housekeeping book might provide the answer to the ironing riddle. It turned out to be a cookbook. There is plenty to say about this cookbook anyway. It comes recommended by many notable ladies, including Mrs. R.B. Hayes. (Her husband was President of the United States.) She is quoted on the flyleaf as being "very much pleased" with the cookbook.
Some of the recipes are profoundly unhelpful. For example, p.106 has:
Boiled salmon. After the fish has been cleaned and washed, dry it and sew it up in a cloth; lay in a fish-kettle, cover with warm water, and simmer until done and tender.Just how long do I simmer it? Oh, until it is "done" and "tender". All right, I will just open up the fish kettle and poke it to see. . . except that it is sewed up in a cloth. Hmmm.
You'd think that if I'm supposed to simmer this fish that has been sewn up in a cloth, the author of the recipe might advise me on how long until it is "done". "Until tender" is a bit of a puzzle too. In my experience, fish become firmer and less tender the longer you simmer them. Well, I have a theory about this. The recipe is attributed to "Mrs. S.T.", and consulting the index of contributors, I see that it is short for "Mrs. Samuel Tyree", presumably the editor's mother-in-law. Having a little joke at her expense, perhaps?
There are a lot of other interesting points, which may appear here later. For example, did you know that the most convenient size hog for household use is one of 150 to 200 pounds? And the cookbook contains recipes not only for tomato catsup, but also pepper catsup, mushroom catsup, and walnut catsup.
But the real reason I brought all this up is that page 253–254 has the following item, attributed to "Moziz Addums":
Resipee for cukin kon-feel Pees. Gether your pees 'bout sun-down. The folrin day, 'bout leven o'clock, gowge out your pees with your thum nale, like gowgin out a man's ey-ball at a kote house. Rense your pees, parbile them, then fry 'erm with some several slices uv streekd middlin, incouragin uv the gravy to seep out and intermarry with your pees. When modritly brown, but not scorcht, empty intoo a dish. Mash 'em gently with a spune, mix with raw tomarters sprinkled with a little brown shugar and the immortal dish ar quite ready. Eat a hepe. Eat mo and mo. It is good for your genral helth uv mind and body. It fattens you up, makes you sassy, goes throo and throo your very soul. But why don't you eat? Eat on. By Jings. Eat. Stop! Never, while thar is a pee in the dish.This was apparently inserted for humorous effect. Around the time the cookbook was written, there was quite a vogue for dialectal humor of this type, most of which has been justly forgotten. Probably the best-remembered practitioner of this brand of humor was Josh Billings, who I bet you haven't heard of anyway. Tremendously popular at the time, almost as much so as Mark Twain, his work is little-read today; the joke is no longer funny. The exceptionally racist example above is in many ways typical of the genre.
One aspect of this that is puzzling to us today (other than the obvious "why was this considered funny?") is that it's not clear exactly what was supposed to be going on. Is the idea that Moziz Addums wrote this down herself, or is this a transcript by a literate person of a recipe dictated by Moziz Addums? Neither theory makes sense. Where do the misspellings come from? In the former theory, they are Moziz Addums' own misspellings. But then we must imagine someone literate enough to spell "intermarry" and "immortal" correctly, but who does not know how to spell "of".
In the other theory, the recipe is a transcript, and the misspellings have been used by the anonymous, literate transcriber to indicate Moziz Addums' unusual or dialectal pronunciations, as with "tomarters", perhaps. But "uv" is the standard (indeed, the only) pronunciation of "of", which wrecks this interpretation. (Spelling "of" as "uv" was the signature of Petroleum V. Nasby, another one of those forgotten dialectal humorists.) And why did the transcriber misspell "peas" as "pees"?
So what we have here is something that nobody could possibly have written or said, except as an inept parody of someone else's speech. I like my parody to be rather less artificial.
All of this analysis would be spoilsportish if the joke were actually funny. E.B. White famously said that "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Here, at least, the frog had already been dead for a hundred years dead before I got to it.
[ Addendum 20100810: In case you were wondering, "kon-feel pees" are actually "cornfield peas", that is, peas that have been planted in between the rows of corn in a cornfield. ]
Tue, 15 May 2007
Ambiguous words and dictionary hacks
I said I was surprised that he thought that was unique to English, and said that probably Spanish had just as many "ambiguous" words, but that he just hadn't noticed them. I couldn't think of any Spanish examples offhand, but I knew some German ones: in English, "suit" can mean a lawsuit, a suit of clothes, or a suit of playing cards. German has different words for all of these. In German, the suit of a playing card is its "farbe", its color. So German distinguishes between suit of clothes and suit of playing cards, which English does not, but fails to distinguish between colors of paint and suit of playing cards, which English does.
Every language has these mismatches. Korean has two words for "thin", one meaning thin like paper and the other meaning thin like string. Korean distinguishes father's sister ("komo") from mother's sister ("imo") where English has only "aunt".
Anyway, Sr. Manzo then went to lunch, and I wanted to find some examples of concepts distinguished by English but not by Spanish. I did this with a dictionary hack.
A dictionary hack is when you take a plain text dictionary and do some sort of rough-and-ready processing on it to get an 80% solution to some problem. The oldest dictionary hack I know of is the old Unix rhyming dictionary hack:
rev /usr/dict/words | sort | rev > rhyming.txtThis takes the Unix word list and turns it into a semblance of a rhyming dictionary. It's not an especially accurate semblance, but you can't beat the price.
... ugh Marlborough choreograph Guelph Wabash Hugh Scarborough lithograph Adolph cash McHugh thorough electrocardiograph Randolph dash Pugh trough electroencephalograph Rudolph leash laugh sough nomograph triumph gash bough tough tomograph lymph hash cough tanh seismograph nymph lash dough Penh phonograph philosoph clash sourdough sinh chronograph Christoph eyelash hough oh polarograph homeomorph flash though pharaoh spectrograph isomorph backlash although Shiloh Addressograph polymorph whiplash McCullough pooh chromatograph glyph splash furlough graph autograph anaglyph slash slough paragraph epitaph petroglyph mash enough telegraph staph myrrh smash rough radiotelegrap aleph ash gnash through calligraph Joseph Nash Monash breakthrough epigraph caliph bash rash borough mimeograph Ralph abash brash ...It figures out that "clash" rhymes with "lash" and "backlash", but not that "myrrh" rhymes with "purr" or "her" or "sir". You can of course, do better, by using a text file that has two columns, one for orthography and one for pronunciation, and sorting it by reverse pronunciation. But like I said, you won't beat the price.
But I digress. Last week I pulled an excellent dictionary hack. I found the Internet Dictionary Project's English-Spanish lexicon file on the web with a quick Google search; it looks like this:
a un, uno, una[Article] aardvark cerdo hormiguero aardvark oso hormiguero[Noun] aardvarks cerdos hormigueros aardvarks osos hormigueros ab prefijo que indica separacio/n aback hacia atras aback hacia atr´s,take aback, desconcertar. En facha. aback por sopresa, desprevenidamente, de improviso aback atra/s[Adverb] abacterial abacteriano, sin bacterias abacus a/baco abacuses a/bacos abaft A popa (towards stern)/En popa (in stern) abaft detra/s de[Adverb] abalone abulo/n abalone oreja de mar (molusco)[Noun] abalone oreja de mar[Noun] abalones abulones abalones orejas de mar (moluscos)[Noun] abalones orejas de mar[Noun] abandon abandonar abandon darse por vencido[Verb] abandon dejar abandon desamparar, desertar, renunciar, evacuar, repudiar abandon renunciar a[Verb] abandon abandono[Noun] abandoned abandonado abandoned dejado ...Then I did:
sort +1 idengspa.txt | perl -nle '($ecur, $scur) = split /\s+/, $_, 2; print "$eprev $ecur $scur" if $sprev eq $scur && substr($eprev, 0, 1) ne substr($ecur, 0, 1); ($eprev, $sprev) = ($ecur, $scur)'
The sort sorts the lexicon into Spanish order instead of English order. The Perl thing comes out looking a lot more complicated than it ought. It just says to look and print consecutive items that have the same Spanish, but whose English begins with different letters. The condition on the English is to filter out items where the Spanish is the same and the English is almost the same, such as:
It does filter out possible items of interest, such as:
But since the goal is just to produce some examples, and this cheap hack was never going to generate an exhaustive list anyway, that is all right.
The output is:
at letter a actions stock acciones[Noun] accredit certify acreditar around thereabout alrededor high tall alto comrade pal amigo[Noun] antecedents backgrounds antecedentes (...complete output...)A lot of these are useless, genuine synonyms. It would be silly to suggest that Spanish fails to preserve the English distinction between "marry" and "wed", between "ale" and "beer", between "desire" and "yearn", or between "vest" and "waistcoat". But some good possibilities remain.
Of these, some probably fail for reasons that only a Spanish-speaker would be able to supply. For instance, is "el pastel" really the best translation of both "cake" and "pie"? If so, it is an example of the type I want. But perhaps it's just a poor translation; perhaps Spanish does have this distinction; say maybe "torta" for "cake" and "empanada" for "pie". (That's what Google suggests, anyway.)
Another kind of failure arises because of idioms. The output:
exactly o'clock en puntois of this type. It's not that Spanish fails to distinguish between the concepts of "exactly" and "o'clock"; it's that "en punto" (which means "on the point of") is used idiomatically to mean both of those things: some phrase like "en punto tres" ("on the point of three") means "exactly three" and so, by analogy, "three o'clock". I don't know just what the correct Spanish phrases are, but I can guess that they'll be something like this.
Still, some of the outputs are suggestive:
I put some of these to Sr. Manzo, and he agreed that some were indeed ambiguous in Spanish. I wouldn't have known what to suggest without the dictionary hack.
Mon, 14 May 2007
Bryan and his posse
A pitched battle was fought..at Rockhill, Missouri, between the Sheriff's posse and the miners on strike.
From the context and orthography, I guessed that it was from Spanish. But no, it's not. It's Latin! "Posse" is the Latin verb "to be able", akin to English "possible" and ultimately to "potent" and related words. I'd guessed something like this, supposing English "posse" was akin to some Spanish derivative of the Latin. But it isn't; it's direct from Latin: "posse" in English is short for posse comitatus, "force of the county".
The Big Dictionary has citations for "posse comitatus" back to 1576:
Mr. Sheryve meaneth in person to repayre thither & with force to bryng hym from Aylesham, Whomsoever he fyndeth to denye the samet & suerly will with Posse Comitatus fetch hym from this new erected pryson to morrow.
"Sheryve" is "Sheriff". (If you have trouble understanding this, try reading it aloud. English spelling changed more than its pronunciation since 1576.)
I had heard the phrase before in connection with the Posse Comitatus Act of U.S. law. This law, passed in 1878, is intended to prohibit the use of the U.S. armed forces as Posse Comitatus—that is, as civilian law enforcement. Here the use is obviously Latin, and I hadn't connected it before with the sheriff's posse. But they are one and the same.