December 17, 2007

Languagehat revealed!

After five and a half years of prolific (yet always thoughtful) linguablogging, our esteemed colleague Languagehat has finally divulged his "real-life" identity to the world in a recent post. He's Stephen Dodson, and he's the coauthor of a new book entitled Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs and Curses from around the World. In the past I've been skeptical of compendia collecting putatively "untranslatable" tidbits from the world's languages, since they tend to be sloppy and linguistically misinformed (see here for a takedown of a recent example, The Meaning of Tingo). But Stephen and his coauthor Robert Vanderplank (Director of the Oxford University Language Centre) are just the type of careful and well-rounded scholars that you'd want for such a task, as illustrated by the selection of entries posted on Languagehat.

This satisfying word came over from England as a mere name for an ant, but Americans made it a contemptuous epithet for an “insignificant, contemptible, or irritating person”. From H.L. Davis’s 1935 novel Honey in the Rock, about pioneer Oregon: “Anybody who called owning horses disorderly conduct was a liar and a pissant.”

prumphænsn (PRUHMP-hine-s’n)
This delightful insult literally means ‘fartchicken’.

And a Slovak one they cut from the manuscript:
Pojebali kone voz! (POH-yeh-buh-lee KOH-nyeh VOHZ) (Slovak)
This lively expression, ‘May the horses fuck the carriage,’ illustrates the fact that Slovak cursing makes greater use of sexual terms than that of the Czechs.

Unfortunately the book is not yet available in the US (and the American version of Amazon doesn't seem to know about it yet), but readers in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand can already pick it up. I look forward to Stephen's introduction to the US edition, in which he quotes "Pushkin, Mark Liberman, and [his] nonagenarian mother-in-law"! A formidable lineup indeed.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 17, 2007 10:11 PM