Tuesday, September 29, 2009

WOTD: Hysteropotmos

I was thumbing through a copy of the World Dictionary of Foreign Expressions (which I picked up recently at a library book sale for all of $1), when an interesting word snagged my eye: hystero-potmos, defined as “[a] person who, after being presumed dead, surprisingly comes back home after a long period of absence. A person who, after being presumed killed in battle, escapes from captivity and surprisingly returns home” [1]. Readers of Tolkien will of course remember the following comical scene:

He had arrived back in the middle of an auction! There was a large notice in black and red hung on the gate, stating that on June the Twenty-second Messrs. Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins Esquire, of Bag-End, Underhill, Hobbiton. Sale to commence at ten o’clock sharp. It was now nearly lunch-time, and most of the things had already been sold, for various prices from next to nothing to old songs (as is not unusual at auctions). Bilbo’s cousins the Sackville-Bagginses were, in fact, busy measuring his rooms to see if their own furniture would fit. In short Bilbo was “Presumed Dead,” and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.

.....The return of Mr. Bilbo Baggins created quite a disturbance, both under the Hill and over the Hill, and across the Water; it was a great deal more than a nine days’ wonder. The legal bother, indeed, lasted for years. It was quite a long time before Mr. Baggins was in fact admitted to be alive again. The people who had got specially good bargains at the Sale took a deal of convincing; and in the end to save time Bilbo had to buy back quite a lot of his own furniture. Many of his silver spoons mysteriously disappeared and were never accounted for. Personally he suspected the Sackville-Bagginses. On their side they never admitted that the returned Baggins was genuine, and they were not on friendly terms with Bilbo ever after. They really had wanted to live in his nice hobbit-hole so very much.

This was my immediate thought when I read the definition. Apparently the word survives today (just barely) in narrow legal parlance, used in just such situations as Mr. Baggins found himself! But the origins of the word go back to Greek (and later, Roman) antiquity. Variously translated as “later-fated” or “double-fated” (more properly, the latter is deuteropotmos), the component etymons (so says the WDFE) are ϋστερον “later, latter” + πότμος “fate, death”. (Πότμος, not to be confused with ποταμός “river”.) Now I’m not an expert in Greek, but my recollection is that the usual word for death is θάνατος (as in the poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant, which I still dimly recall from high school English :). Are fate and death really etymology linked, as suggested here? It certainly does makes sense.

The great Liddell / Scott lexicon of Classical Greek formalizes the connection. It defines πότμος as “that which befalls one, one’s lot, destiny, usu[ally] one’s evil destiny, a mishap, esp[ecially] like μοϊρα and μόρος, death”, following which are given a number of references to the literature, including Homer, Pindar, and Euripides [2]. Homer, of course, is the most obvious: what is Odysseus if not the archetypal hysteropotmos? The other two words given here, μόρος and μοϊρα, deserve a footnote. The first is defined by Liddell and Scott as roughly synonymous with πότμος, “fate, destiny, death”, and its etymology takes us, along with μοϊρα, to the proper noun, Μοϊρα “Moera, the goddess of fate [...] often in Hom[er] the goddess of death” [3]. Normally portrayed in the plural, as a Triple Goddess, the Moirae are the Fates, the “apportioners”, measuring out the lives of men. Once they became fixed at three, they were named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the Spinner, Measurer, and Cutter of the thread of life. In the case of hysteropotmoi, perhaps Atropos was taking a well-deserved nap. ;)

I said πότμος was not to be confused with ποταμός, but I wonder, could there be a metaphorical relationship between fate and rivers? Liddell and Scott give no such indication in their entry for the latter [4], but rivers are full of mythological and liminal significance: the Styx (Στύξ) most of all. It makes sense to suppose they might share a common origin, but is there any evidence? Ah well, something for further investigation, I suppose.

The oldest reference I have found to the word hysteropotmos itself (apart from its use in antiquo) is in the Allgemeines Fremdwörterbuch, an 1829 lexicon of foreign words in German. The definition given there is, “ein Zurückgeschiffter, wiederbelebter Scheintodter, vom Tode Erstandener” [5]. If my scant German hasn’t failed me (and if I’m not misreading the Fraktur), this is, “someone who has come back, revived from being apparently dead, risen from death” — German speakers, please feel free to improve on this.

The word has been around for quite a long time, and it’s surprisingly useful (especially for describing the literary motif of the Zurückgeschiffter) — but the word has been all but forgotten. It is essentially dead. Perhaps this word itself should be brought back, made verbum redivivum, to become an hysteropotmos itself. That would be a beautiful irony, wouldn’t it?

[1] Adeleye, Gabriel G., and Kofi Acquah-Dadzie. World Dictionary of Foreign Expressions: A Resource for Readers and Writers. Eds. Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James T. McDonough. Wauconda, Ill: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1999, p. 171.

[2] Liddell and Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1870, p. 1229.

[3] Ibid., p. 943, italics original.

[4] Ibid., p. 1228.

[5] Heyse, Johann Christian August. Allgemeines Fremdwörterbuch, oder Handbuch zum Verstehen und Vermeiden der in unserer Sprache mehr oder minder gebräuchlichen Fremden Ausdrücke [etc.]. Hannover: Hahn, 1829 , p. 361.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Google Language Tools grow again

Over the past year and a half or so (most recently, here), I’ve been providing regular updates on the addition of new languages at Google’s Language Tools site. For those not yet familiar with it, Google provides automated translation between quite a wide variety of languages, easily surpassing the old Babelfish website I used to use before Google (originally owned by defunct search site, Alta Vista, and now owned by Yahoo).

Well, they’re at it again. Google has had Persian in beta testing for some time now, but I didn’t think that alone worth blogging about. But they’ve evidently just rolled out a major release, and those industrious little devils at Google are up to fifty-one languages now! This includes a few of the important oversights I and my fellow commenters mentioned the last time I wrote about this subject. Now I’m not saying we had any influence on the choices, hahae — but at least we’ve got Afrikaans, Swahili, and Albanian now. And I was really pleased to see Irish, Welsh, and Icelandic.

Here is the current list of supported languages:

Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malay, Maltese, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Welsh, and Yiddish.

And that’s not all. You might remember that I complained about the oversight of most of the Indian subcontinent (with only Hindi represented so far)? And you may notice this is still true in the list above. Well, Google is now offering something it’s calling the Google Translator Toolkit, to help you “create content in other languages in an easy-to-use translation editor.” Tucked away inside this new feature (which you’ll find here) is a feature for uploading and translating documents. The languages offered there include a total of sixty!

Some of these are variants and dialects (e.g., Brazilian versus European Portuguese, and simplified versus traditional Chinese), but there are also entire languages, ranging all over India: Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalim, Marathi, Nepali, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu. But I experimented with them a little and couldn’t quite figure out what Google intends here (but I admit I did not RTFM ;). Certain common phrases in my test document were translated, but most weren’t. It seems that full support for these languages isn’t available yet, but in any case, this probably provide a clue as to which languages Google will be rolling out next for machine-translation.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sungon sigebyman: maþþum oþres weorð!

Big news yesterday or the largest trove of Anglo-Saxon artifacts ever discovered, running to more than 1,300 objects so far, many of them gold. Just about everybody seems to be talking about it, so I’ll keep my own comments fairly brief.

The hoard, taken together, adds up to some eleven pounds of gold and more than five pounds of silver. The remark-able discovery was made by one Terry Herbert with his trusty metal-detector in soft soil in the Staffordshire countryside, right in the heart of the English Midlands. The estimated dates of the items — no doubt, these will be refined in time — range somewhere between the seventh to eight (or even early ninth) centuries. The dates and location, therefore, suggest that these treasures belonged to the Kingdom of Mercia during its ascendancy, not long after the Christianization of England. Indeed, one of the items is a gold band bearing a Latin inscription from the Book of Numbers (or Psalms), which seems to read: [.]irge domine disepentu[r] inimici tui et [f]ugent qui oderunt te a facie t[u]a.

What is a discovery like this worth? Let’s not even mention the record prices of gold recently (apophasis, I know; so here you go). Scott Nokes said it best, I think:
This BBC report is unintentionally hilarious […] Worth a seven figure sum, eh? How about “priceless,” instead? It’s rather like saying a lost child was found wandering the streets and “experts say his organs might fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the open market.”
And naturally, it hasn’t taken long for the news sites (so-called) to begin invoking Tolkien with rather more enthusiasm than good sense, as here, where the Times Online compares the row between the landowner and the “metal detectorist” to the struggle for possession of Sauron’s Ring. I suppose such comparisons are inevitable, even if silly, but wouldn’t a better comparison have been made with the hoard of Smaug?

PS. The title of this post is a mash-up of phrases from the Old English Exodus and Maxims I (in the Exeter Book). Feel free to try your hand at translating it if you like, and leave your effort(s) as a comment. :)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Checking in with the Viking Society

About nine months ago, I learned (and shared here) that the Viking Society for Northern Research had taken the decision to put all of its books online for free. As I said then, not all of their books were yet available online. As noted by David Bratman, one of these was Volume XIV (1953–57) of Saga-Book, which has (among many other goodies) Christopher Tolkien’s essay, “The Battle of the Goths and the Huns” (pp. 141–63). Two other publications by Christopher Tolkien were already (and still are) available: his edition and translation of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise (1960) and his introduction to Gabriel Turville-Petre’s edition of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (1956).

Well, Saga-Book, Vol. XIV, with Christopher Tolkien’s essay, is now available online — along with a number of other additions, all of them here. If you haven’t visited the site and filled out your collection yet, now would be a great time. I will probably save more extended comments on the Christopher Tolkien essay for another post, but in the meantime ...

Here’s another essay to which I’ll call your attention: “Thustable” by (again) Gabriel Turville-Petre, from his 1972 collection, Nine Norse Studies. This piece first appeared in the rather hard-to-find English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday (ed. Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn, 1962). It’s a short and fascinating study of the toponym Thurstable, in Essex, and its connection to the cult of Thor (Þunor, in England).

And another: an essay by fellow Inkling J.A.W. Bennett in Saga-Book, Vol. XIII (1946–53), “The Beginnings of Runic Studies in England”. An interesting tidbit: Bennett’s mention of the 17th-century Earl of Arundel, at roughly the same time Tolkien adapted that name for his (sadly unfinished) Notion Club Papers, and roughly the same time when Bennett first joined the Inklings. Coincidence? There’s another essay by Bennett in Saga-Book, Vol. XII (1937–45) on the history of Norse studies in England.

How about one more? Saga-Book, Vol. XVII (1966–69) also contains a very good essay by the eminent Norse scholar, Ursula Dronke, called “Beowulf and Ragnarök”, which is essentially a response to Tolkien’s 1936 lecture, “Beowulf : The Monsters and the Critics”. In that lecture, writes Dronke, “Professor Tolkien offered an interpretation of Beowulf in the light of the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the Fate of the Gods. [...] This interpretation has received criticism on two main grounds [...]. Before commenting upon these criticisms, I should like to add a third [...].” And finally, Dronke concludes:
When early scholars traced the mythological parallels of Beowulf, they did not reckon with the mind of a poet well-versed in Christian apologetic techniques against the pagans, deliberately using, and diminishing the stature of, older myths for his Christian didactic purposes; an imaginative explorer who obliterated most of the tracks of his journey; an ingenious craftsman creating from strangely assorted stones of native tradition a mosaic of symbolic design. Yet the assumption of such a mind, and such a context, would do much to explain the enigmas of Beowulf. [p. 325]
And so on and on. So many treasures, ripe for the plucking.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A treat for Lloyd Alexander fans

In preparation to write a new piece on Lloyd Alexander (the details of which I will announce here soon), I have just spent a week or so re-reading the five-book Prydain cycle (1964–68). At one time, I used to read them every couple of years, but it has now been a decade or more since I last did so. They still hold up! They are, of course, not as dense and absorbing as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but on the whole, I find them superior to Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia — though that opinion may raise some hackles. I have also just read (and for the first time) his How the Cat Swallowed Thunder (2000), a delightful and beautifully illustrated tale for small children. Parents with toddlers (and/or cat-fanciers), do look for it.

By happenstance, not too long ago, I heard from a new Lingwë reader who had enjoyed some of my previous posts on Lloyd Alexander (inter alia). Ed Pierce was kind enough to send me some of his own thoughts and reminiscences on Alexander, as well as a wonderful twenty-minute documentary called A Visit with Lloyd Alexander, produced for Penguin USA in 1994. The film is full of treasures for Alexander fans — including his home in Drexel Hill, his wife Janine, the original harp on which Fflewddur Fflam’s is based, a needlepoint of Hen Wen, Alexander’s Newberry and other medals, the very typewriter on which he typed two letters to me in the 1980’s, and much more. The greatest treasure, of course, is being able to hear him speak about his life, his process, and his books, with all the warmth, charm, wit, and humor that made him one of the greatest writers for young people in the history of letters. I consider that no exaggeration.

The video is in three parts. Its uploader disabled embedding, so I will simply give you the links: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, each around seven minutes in length. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My evil takeover of Wikipedia is almost complete!

Exactly one year ago today, I wrote (inter alia) about having found myself represented as an authority in Google Scholar and in Wikipedia’s major entry on The Hobbit. Today, September 2, is also the 36th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, the 35th observance of which escaped my notice last year. Please raise your glass of English bitter, miruvor, or whatever you’re drinking and toast the Professor with me!

Well, as you can imagine, I have scarcely flagged in my ego-surfing since then, and like Mr. Toad, I come to you today with more to brag about. I hope you will indulge me. Not only has my presence on Google Scholar expanded — to two pages, hahae — but I am now cited as an expert (for what it’s worth) in three different Wikipedia entries. Actually, I am mentioned in a fourth, but that’s just a technicality: the contents, through Volume 5, of the journal, Tolkien Studies.

So, what are these three? (1) I am still in the entry for The Hobbit, with the same two references there as before. (2) An entry I wrote for the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment on “Manuscripts by Tolkien” has been cited and quoted in a Wikipedia entry called “Middle-earth canon”. And finally, at least for now: (3) my entry on the Inklings for the online Literary Encyclopedia has been cited in Wikipedia’s entry for “Edward Tangye Lean”.

I suppose there is still no good reason for me to have my own Wikipedia entry — for heaven’s sake, John Rateliff only recently got one! — but I do have a page on the German Ardapedia. That’s a start! Wikipedia is bound to follow suit one of these days. All in good time.