January 8, 2014

"French" fries

I find that the Ore-Ida Potatoes Twitter account (don't ask how I got there) has just published an absurd piece of false etymology:
#DidYouKnow French Fries got their name from U.S. soldiers who tried the crispy treats while stationed in Belgium during WWII #TaterTrivia
The first alarm bell that should go off is the implication that there were no French fries in the USA before 1941.  Of course there were, and the Oxford English Dictionary cites "French fried potatoes" from back in the nineteenth century.  "French fries" shortens that. (I have noticed that pretentious restaurants will occasionally use the three-word "French-fried potatoes" on their menus.  Which brings up--to hyphenate or not to hyphenate "French-fried?")

But why they are French fried is a different question.  The dictionaries and the English translation (1961) of Larousse Gastronomique do not say; but the verb "to French" can mean to cut foods into long thin strips.  So perhaps a French fried potato is Frenched, then fried.

July 25, 2013

Finding Roman laws

I'm working on a paper on a late Roman statute called the Lex Rivi Hiberiensis.  Tonight I settled down to start reading other laws in an important modern collection: Riccobono et al, eds., Fontes Iuris Romani Anteiuistiniani [=Sources of pre-Justinian Roman Law] (1940-43). It goes to show how much you need to learn before you can even use some books.

First, this book usually called FIRA by authors.  Finding FIRA is the first problem, because there is another FIRA (often cited in the same passages), the Fontes Iuris Romani Antiqui (=Sources of Ancient Roman Law), a work by Bruns and others (7th ed. 1909).  But once you've done that, there's many other compilations of Roman legal materials.  The most commonly used are Girard's Textes de Droit Romain--now succeeded by Giuffre's Les lois des romains (1978)--and Crawford's Roman Statutes (1986).  The point of these books is to make legal materials easily available to interested students who don't have the time for or access to the massive publications of Latin inscriptions that have been emerging year on year for nearly 150 years.

But you have to worry about selection bias.  The bias is based mainly on what makes a Roman law--if one accepts Theodor Mommsen's theory that "laws" were only those accepted by the Roman people (leges rogatae) or imposed upon the Roman people by a leader (lex datae) then the Lex Rivi Hiberiensis and statutes that might be comparable wouldn't be included.  The law I am interested in was intended for subjects of the Roman empire, not for Romans (of the city and its surrounds) themselves.  This particular distinction is followed in Crawford's Roman Statutes.

The other collections are more broadly based, and more useful for me.  Riccobono's work, in view of the debated meaning of lex, calls statutes like mine imperial constitutiones (even though many of them call themselves leges).  Riccobono's work is in Latin too, and so you have to read closely to find out the selection procedures--based, I think, mostly on intactness.  Once you've got that, you can start reading.

June 20, 2013


Hispanophone purists are probably concerned about the creep of English into their language; one never sees signs in New York for alquilar (the textbook word I learned for "to rent"), but instead only rentar or renta.  I've heard that carro (= "car" + o) for automobile is used occasionally, and I was especially surprised to see today that someone had turné a paper over to someone else--that is "turned" it over (the word is apparently the 1st-person preterite of turnar = "turn" + infinitive ending -ar).  

But all these words, even if they are adoptions of common and useful English words, seem to have healthy precedents in literary Spanish.  Renta and rentar, carro, and turnar can be found in the official dictionary of the Academia Real Espanola, the royal and more-or-less official source for the Spanish language.  European languages have such broad vocabularies, and they all betray the influence of the same Latin words.

May 23, 2013

Dirty words and the "bunny" problem

You can now tell your friends that you know a dirty word in ancient Greek.  Apparently, in sophisticated writing the Greeks would never use βινέω (bin-AY-o).  In use (as opposed to the dictionary entry) it was βινῶ, (bin-OH), "I fuck."

As you might imagine, the dictionaries of ancient Greek have really lightened up about βινέω in the last century or so.  The 19th-century Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek lexicon defines it with Latin plus a gentle explanation: "inire, coïre, [go in, unite] of illicit intercourse," and the Chantraine Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Grecque (1984-90) adds the more literal Latin futuere.  (For Latin dirty words, see J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary.)  Today, the new ancient-Greek dictionary the Diccionario Griego-Espanol is wonderfully straightforward, defining the word with the infinitive joder, which is also what a Spaniard will say when he stubs his toe.  The DGE contains several excellent quotes such as ὅστις γε πίνειν οἶδε καὶ βινεῖν μόνον, "he only knows how to drink and fuck,"1 and ἥδιστον εστιν ἀποθανεῖν βινοῦνθ᾽ ἅμα, "it is pleasantest to die fucking at the same time."2  The DGE translates the (imperfect-tense) passive form of βινέω as mariconeaba, which I gather means "he was being fucked in the ass."  

The ancient Athenians themselves sometimes softened βινέω for public consumption to κινέω (kin-AY-oh), which usually means "to move."  The LSJ uses "sens. obsc." (sense obscure) for this euphemism, while the etymological dictionary notes the sens erotique.  Moving from β to κ to soften the impact on sensitive ears may have a parallel in the move from "coney" to "bunny" in English to refer to a rabbit.  It's an interesting coincidence.  The Oxford English Dictionary and etymological dictionaries of English all say that "bunny" is a familiarization of "bun" to refer to the animal, based on the little "bun" tail it has.  Hardly anyone now uses "coney" for rabbits.  Yet there is an internet rumor, which has occasionally made it into print, that "bunny" became popular when the earlier word "coney" came (with a vowel shift) to sound very much like "cunny"--the female pudenda.  I have not been able to find evidence for this happening; the printed evidence for it is speculative.  One day I'll look more closely at how the senses developed.

1. HOS-tis geh PINein OY-deh kai bin-EIN MON-on; Aristophanes, Frogs, line 740.
2. HEY-distohn estin apothanEIN binOONT HAMa; fragment 6 of the work of the comic poet Philetaeros

May 5, 2013

Hard work

"Whenever he felt he just couldn't take another chart or equation, he would switch over to verse, and vice versa."

--Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad, trans. Michael Kandel

March 19, 2013

Gems from the ancients

One of the statutes of Numa, from Rome in 7th century B.C., is translated at the link as
"If a man is killed by a thunderbolt the proper burial ritual shall not be performed."  
Because, of course, Zeus wished the man dead and had a good reason for it.

The Greek Aristophanes, in a lost comedy called Daitales, refers to one of a pair of brothers as σώφρων, "the clever." The other is καταπύγων, "the one who takes it in the ass." C. Murphy, "Aristophanes and the Art of Rhetoric," Harv. St. in Classical Phil. 49:69, 71 (1938).

February 17, 2013

Inappropriate description

I'm taking a few classes in dead languages at Columbia University, and reading much more literary analysis by Classics and English department academics.  I read in Frederick Ahl, "Form Empowered: Lucan's Pharsalia" (in Boyle, ed. Roman Epic), p. 137:
"[Roman poet ]Lucan's moral symbol, [the Stoic philosopher] Cato, shares rhetorical ground with the shrewdly apolitical Christ . . ." 
Yes, that Christ.  Regardless of whether Christ was apolitical or not (I don't think he was) referring to the putative Messiah as "shrewd" and "apolitical" is an instance of tapinosis, unintentionally belittling one's subject with descriptive terminology.