Hocus Pocus

I told my students the other day that they should not say “hocus-pocus,” because it’s anti-Catholic, a mockery of “hoc est corpus meum,” the words a Catholic priest uses to transubstantiate the bread into the actual flesh of Jesus. (Actually, I see now that this is only one of several possible explanations of this phrase.) They then asked what words were used to transubstantiate the wine. After explaining just why blood is optional when you’re consuming flesh, I said that it would be “hoc est sanguis…” and balked at the gender of the pronoun. I asked what the gender of “sangre” was, and a Hispanic student said that it was feminine, “la sangre.” But then an Ivorian student pointed out that it’s “le sang” in French, i.e. masculine – and of course she’s right, as the line from the “Marseillaise” is “qu’un sang impur,” not “qu’une sang impure.” This prompted me to look up “sanguis” online, and to discover that in Latin it’s indeed masculine. So the expression logically would be “hic est sanguis meus.” But I have never seen an example of genders shifting like this from Latin to one of its Romance descendants. I wonder what caused this, and how many other words have undergone such gender-bending.

(Of course, I have also discovered in the meantime that my Latin may be logical, but it’s not what was actually said. According to the Medieval Sourcebook, the two Latin rite sentences are:




that is, “for this is my body,” and “for this is the cup of my blood.”)

Things I did not know until this year

• According to a drama major in one of my classes, a theater (-er) is a place, while theatre (-re) describes the acting profession. And here I thought it was just a British variant spelling still acceptable in the US.

• “Thespian” to describe an actor derives from Thespis of Icaria; “Thespian” as a demonym describes someone from Thespiae in Boeotia. These Thespians were with the Spartans at Thermopylae (not that the movie 300 shows them).


From the BBC, via Instapundit:

China’s Zhou Youguang, father of Pinyin writing system, dies aged 111

Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang, who created the writing system that turns Chinese characters into words using letters from the Roman alphabet, has died aged 111.

Mr Zhou and a Communist party committee spent three years developing the Pinyin system in the 1950s.

It changed the way the language was taught and helped raise literacy rates.

Mr Zhou, who was born in 1906 during the Qing Dynasty, later became a fierce critic of China’s communist rulers.

He died in Beijing on Saturday a day after his birthday, Chinese media reported.

As a young man Mr Zhou spent time in the US and worked as a Wall Street banker.

He returned to China after the communist victory in 1949 and was put in charge of creating a new writing system using the Roman alphabet.

“We spent three years developing Pinyin. People made fun of us, joking that it had taken us a long time to deal with just 26 letters,” he told the BBC in 2012.

Before Pinyin was developed, 85% of Chinese people could not read, now almost all can.

Pinyin has since become the most commonly used system globally, although some Chinese communities – particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan – continue to use alternatives.

It is also widely used to type Chinese characters on computers and smartphones, leading some to fear it could end up replacing Chinese characters altogether.

The achievement protected Mr Zhou from some of the persecution that took place under former leader Mao Zedong.

However, he was later sent to the countryside for re-education during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In his later years he became strongly critical of the Chinese authorities and wrote a number of books, most of which were banned.

In a 2011 interview with NPR he said he hoped he would live long enough to see the Chinese authorities admit that the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been a mistake.

He said ordinary people no longer believed in the Communist Party, and that the vast majority of Chinese intellectuals were in favour of democracy.

Interesting. I’m surprised that a Wall Street banker would find employment with the Chinese Communist Party but stranger things have happened. But why did the CCP want to come up with a new system of Romanization? What was wrong with the earlier Wade-Giles system (apart from the fact that it was produced by westerners)? Pinyin isn’t entirely accurate itself – but nothing can be, given that certain sounds in Mandarin simply don’t exist in English or other European languages.

Check this out

My friend and fellow GMG member Sasha Volokh has penned a great piece in the Washington Post:

Secret Iranian Influence in the US Constitution!

Everybody knows that the essence of our structural constitution is checks and balances. “The structure of the government must furnish the proper checks and balances between the different departments,” says Madison in Federalist 51. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

But where does this concept of “check” come from? You might be able to think of a number of meanings of “check”, like to hinder or obstruct (that’s the checks and balances themselves), to verify (check whether something is true), to give up your luggage or your hat, to attack a king in chess, to draw a checkerboard pattern (like a checked shirt), or (as a noun) a financial check that you might draw on your bank. Plus, there’s the Exchequer, which is the British term for the Treasury.

Let me now blow your mind: all of these usages of “check” (including “Exchequer”) come from exactly the same root. Moreover, the root is the game of chess. Yes, the game of chess is primary, and verification, obstruction, the Treasury, and negotiable financial instruments all get their names from a metaphor derived from the game of chess.

Read the whole thing.


An amusing observation from my friend Sasha Volokh:

We call English-speaking people “Anglophones”. But remember that Britain was settled in the 5th century not just by Angles, but also by Saxons and Jutes. Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia were Anglian kingdoms, Kent was a Jutish kingdom, and Wessex, Essex, and Sussex were the kingdoms of the western, eastern, and southern Saxons. (Those seven kingdoms together make up the so-called “Heptarchy“.)

Anyway, as you know if you’ve watched The Last Kingdom, the Vikings wiped out all the kingdoms except for Wessex in the ninth century. So if the last of the surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was the kingdom of the West Saxons, maybe that means we should be…


Actually, given the termination of the names of the three southern Saxon kingdoms, native speakers of English might be called “sexophones,” and speak “Sexish” (not “Anglish”). (Although let us not denigrate the subsequent influence of Danish and Norman French on the development of our great tongue!)

I Went To See the Doctor of Philosophy

I have attained the degree of “Doctor of Philosophy,” but the meanings of both of those nouns have changed from when this degree was first granted. When it was, the words essentially meant “learned lover of knowledge,” but in everyday English the meaning of “doctor” has narrowed, from “learned in an academic field” to “practitioner of the health sciences”; “philosophy” is now a specific academic field studying “the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” (I have taken exactly one philosophy course in my career, and I didn’t enjoy it very much.)

Yet I still get to wear dark blue on my hood, the color of “philosophy” in the wider sense of the word. I’ve often thought that we need to end this practice: by rights I should have a doctorate of history, and wear a color devised for my particular discipline. But with so many already taken, this is probably unfeasible. (I suppose that I could wear white, the color of the humanities – or golden yellow, the color of social science.)

If there’s one thing I dislike, though, it’s when people who hold doctorates of education wear dark blue on their hoods, or on the velvet panels on their gowns. They should wear light blue, as the code, and common courtesy, dictate.

In a similar fashion, I don’t much care for being “Dr. Good.” This is not because I feel that I’m stepping on the toes of cardiologists or radiologists, but because it’s a historical fluke that my credential comes with a title. Sure, I’ll use it on the job, but not outside of that.

The Ultimate Latin Dictionary

From NPR:

The Ultimate Latin Dictionary: After 122 Years, Still At Work On The Letter ‘N’

Stefano Rocchi, a researcher on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the comprehensive Latin dictionary that has been in the works since 1894 in Germany. Researchers are currently working on the letters N and R. They don’t expect to finish until around 2050.

On the second floor of an old Bavarian palace in Munich, Germany, there’s a library with high ceilings, a distinctly bookish smell and one of the world’s most extensive collections of Latin texts. About 20 researchers from all over the world work in small offices around the room.

They’re laboring on a comprehensive Latin dictionary that’s been in progress since 1894. The most recently published volume contained all the words beginning with the letter P. That was back in 2010.

And they’re not as far along as that may lead you to believe. They skipped over N years ago because it has so many long words, and now they’ve had to go back to that one. They’re also working on R at the same time. That should take care of the rest of this decade.

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae was one of many big, scholarly projects taken on by the German government in the late 19th century.

Through two World Wars and German reunification, generations of Latin scholars have been chipping away at the same goal: documenting every use of every Latin word from the earliest Latin inscriptions in the 6th century BC up until around 200 AD, when it was in decline as a spoken language. Befitting the comprehensive nature of the project, the scholars will also include some words up to the 6th century AD.

That means poetry and history and speeches. But it also means every gravestone and street sign. It means architectural works, medical and legal texts, books about animals or cooking.

“If a word is just on a toilet in Pompeii in graffiti, you’ll find it with us,” says Marijke Ottink, who is Dutch. She’s been working on the Thesaurus for 19 years as a researcher and an editor, ever since she came to Munich.

More at the link.

Continuity and Change

“Continuity and Change” is a historical cliché. If you’ve got a collection of essays on a particular topic, the default title for publication is “Continuity and Change [in time and place].” It’s not quite as bad as the classic student thesis for a compare-and-contrast paper (“there are many similarities and differences between [A and B]”), but it is an attempt to encompass every possible perspective on a particular topic, and consequently doesn’t say very much.

But actually examining the whole question of continuity and change is an exceedingly complex exercise. To what extent do things change, and to what extent do they stay the same? To answer this question takes a great deal of research for any particular topic, and even then debates about it often seem to be divided between those who believe the glass is half empty, and those who believe the glass is half full. I think that historians are often biased towards “change” (just as Jack Hexter favored “splitters” over “lumpers”) – “change” being simply more interesting (and justifying the research!) than continuity. Some historians, though, largely associated with France’s Annales School, favor the study of long-term historical structures over events, which they likened to the waves on the top of the ocean.* So “continuity” does have some fans out there.

And, of course, it depends on the topic. Some things change more quickly or obviously than others. For one topic I’m interested in, English nationhood, I favor “continuity.” This is a minority position in the academy. Under the influence of Marxism, nations were seen as bourgeois constructs, and even if academics weren’t Marxist themselves, they tended to see nationalism as a bad thing. Thus, there was an imperative to view them as invented in the nineteenth century, and then projected onto the past. Nations claim to be very old, but are in fact quite recent – or so the theory goes – and if they aren’t inevitable, then alternate political arrangements become more plausible. This view is not entirely wrong, but not entirely correct either, and certainly not for England. Even on the continent, would-be nation builders could not simply invent nations out of nothing – they had to select things that putative “nationals” already believed about themselves.

But for another topic I’m interested in, religion, I favor change – or at least, I am invested in the idea that Christianity was a genuine novelty when it first appeared. This is not quite a minority position in the academy, but at one point it was: under the influence of Frazer, Christianity was seen as paganism warmed over: Christ was a dying god-king (whose death guaranteed a new cycle of fertility), Christian saints were pagan deities, etc. But following Ronald Hutton, I am convinced that:

quite apart from the opinions of its partisans, Christianity was different in kind from pagan religions of the ancient world, offering to everyone a personal relationship with the one true God and the promise of eternal salvation, and actively proselytized by missionaries. Syncretism is a fact of religious history, of course, and it is clear that Christianity did inherit certain practices from the pagan world in which it arose, such as the influence of one or more schools of Hellenistic philosophy or, starting in the fourth century, the use of candles, incense, altars, or clerical vestments in public worship. Such things are exceptional, however, and far more allegedly “pagan” practices arose, over time, within Christianity itself. If Christianity appears, at certain times and places, to have taken on characteristics of other religions, it is usually because Christianity, as a religion, must provide for certain strong and near-universal human desires. The desire for children is one such, and it is only natural that once Christians accepted that saints wielded intercessory power, they should begin to pray to them for children—the continuity here is in human nature, not in religion.

Thus, I was interested to read a BBC News article: Fairy Tale Origins Thousands of Years Old, Researchers Say. Who is right? Tehrani and Da Silva, following Grimm? Or Lindow?

Fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast can be traced back thousands of years, according to researchers at universities in Durham and Lisbon.

Using techniques normally employed by biologists, academics studied links between stories from around the world and found some had prehistoric roots.

They found some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the Bronze Age.

The stories had been thought to date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, said Jack and the Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old.

And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.

A blacksmith strikes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being, such as the Devil, Death or a genie.

The blacksmith exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together.

He then uses this power to stick the villain to an immovable object, such as a tree, to renege on his side of the bargain.

This basic plot is stable throughout the Indo-European speaking world, from India to Scandinavia, according to the research.

The study said this tale could be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European society when metallurgy likely existed and there was archaeological and genetic evidence of massive territorial expansions by nomadic tribes from the Pontic steppe (the northern shores of the Black Sea) between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago.

However, John Lindow, a folklorist at the University of California, Berkeley, casts doubt on the theory in Science News, saying the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary for working with metal was limited and the word “smith” might not have existed.

If true, that would mean the version of “The Smith and the Devil” used in the study may not be that old, he said.

Dr Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written.

“They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.

Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition, having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Dr Jamie Tehrani said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm.

“Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.”

The study, which was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, employed phylogenetic methods to investigate the relationships between population histories and cultural phenomena, such as languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture and music.

It also used a “tree” of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.

Dr Tehrani explained: “We used a toolkit that we borrowed from evolutionary biology called phylogenetic comparative methods. This enables you to reconstruct the past in the absence of physical evidence.

“We’ve excavated information about our story-telling history, using information that’s been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance, so in that sense they embody their own history.

This looks promising. Rather than take (often superficial) similarities and offer these as conclusive proof of transmission, as Frazer did, the researchers seem to have offered further linguistic and genetic evidence as they reconstruct the past.

The debate continues…

* The French expression was longue durée (vs. histoire evenementielle). I was amused to discover the package below for sale in the local Publix. The Annales School lives!