# The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 16 May 2007

Last July at a porch sale I obtained a facsimile copy of Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by M.C. Tyree, originally published in 1879. I had been trying to understand the purpose of ironing. Ironing makes the clothes look nice, but it must have also served some important purpose, essential for life, that I don't now understand. In the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, Laura recounts a common saying that scheduled the week's work:

Wash on Monday
Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday

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
A Mexican gentleman of my acquaintance, Marco Antonio Manzo, was complaining to me (on IRC) that what makes English hard was the large number of ambiguous words. For example, English has the word "free" where Spanish distinguishes "gratis" (free like free beer) from "libre" (free like free speech).

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.txt

This 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
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
McCullough       pooh	    chromatograph           glyph         splash
furlough         graph	    autograph	            anaglyph      slash
slough	      paragraph	    epitaph	            petroglyph    mash
enough	      telegraph	    staph	            myrrh         smash
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
abacterial	abacteriano, sin bacterias
abacus	a/baco
abacuses	a/bacos
abaft	A popa (towards stern)/En popa (in stern)
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]
...

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:

 blond blonde rubio cake cakes tarta oceanographic oceanographical oceanografico[Adjective] palaces palazzi palacios[Noun] talc talcum talco taxi taxicab taxi

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
high tall alto
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 punto

is 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:

 high tall alto low small bajo[Adjective] babble fumble balbucear[Verb] jealous zealous celoso contest debate debate[Noun] forlorn stranded desamparado[Adjective] docile meek do/cil[Adjective] picture square el cuadro fourth room el cuarto collar neck el cuello idiom language el idioma[Noun] clock watch el reloj floor ground el suelo ceiling roof el techo knife razor la navaja feather pen la pluma cloudy foggy nublado

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
Today upon the arrival of a coworker and his associates, I said "Oh, here comes Bryan and his posse". My use of "posse" here drew some comment. I realized I was not completely sure what "posse" meant. I mostly knew it from old West contexts: the Big Dictionary has quotes like this one, from 1901:

A pitched battle was fought..at Rockhill, Missouri, between the Sheriff's posse and the miners on strike.
 Order Me and My Little Brain with kickback no kickback
I first ran across the word in J.D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain books. At least in old West contexts, the word refers to a gang of men assembled by some authority such as a sheriff or a marshal, to perform some task, such as searching for a lost person, apprehending an outlaw, or blasting some striking miners. This much was clear to me before.

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.