Napoleon’s defeats

we all possess Napoleon’s features …

This year, I reread Leo Tolstoy War and Peace, for the fifth time. War and Peace is one of my favourite books, and since I first read it at high school, I reread it regularly. This time, I reread it so quickly, I was so absorbed in the narrative, that I turned the last page regretting that there were four volumes only. I would have enjoyed reading twenty of them!

While I was regretting War and Peace was so short, my inner linguist started wondering about expressions related to Napoleon, in any language that springs to mind.

Any language in this case meant English and French, and the two expressions refer to Napoleon’s defeats.

In English, you can meet or face your Waterloo, the expression popularised not so much by the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon indeed did surrender, but by the song Waterloo by Abba, which won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.

Just as I was humming Oh, oh, oh, oh, Waterloo / Finally facing my Waterloo, a French colleague commented on a committee she participated in, with the words c’est la Bérézina. The expression means disastrous and disorganised matter, and refers to another Napoleon’s defeat, this time by the river Berezina, at the hands of Russian army.

Strangely, nothing in Russian came to my mind. There are obviously quotes: Napoleon was a popular figure in the 19th century Russia, which is reflected by ambivalent feelings of the War and Peace male protagonists towards him.

Alexander Pushkin mentions Napoleon in his Eugene Onegin: мы все глядим в Наполеоны (we all aspire to be Napoleons).

We all possess Napoleon’s features;

The millions of two-legged creatures

Are only instruments and tools;

But today, the most famous Napoleon in Russian is a mille-feuille pastry that is called наполеон, although the etymology is unclear, perhaps it is a corruption from Neapolitan, Naples being famous for its pastry.

Winter words

the snow of yesteryear

This winter, we had beautiful snow in the Baltics, and I took up cross-country skiing again, which used to be my favourite sport at school. Now, a thought has crossed my mind that in alternative reality, I would have enjoyed being a professional cross-country skier. Snow, cold, movement, solitude, pure bliss.

While I was daydreaming about skiing championships, my inner linguist was wide awake and was wondering about expressions related to ski, in any language.

I could recall only one, in Russian: навострить лыжи (to sharpen ones’ ski), meaning to try to leave surreptitiously.

Another Russian expression is about sledges: любишь кататься, люби и саночки возить (if you like sledging, you should like to carry the sledge). The closest English equivalents are ‘if you want to dance, you have to pay the piper’, or simply, ‘there is no such things as free lunch’.

What about other winter delights, such as snow, frost, and cold?

In English, many useful expressions relate to the word cold. To come in from the cold, to be left out in the cold, to get cold feet, to get (and to give) the cold shoulder, cold comfort.

Surprisingly, French is quite rich in wintry expressions: ne pas avoir froid aux yeux is the equivalent of ‘not be faint-hearted’ , battre froid à qqn means ‘to give somebody the cold shoulder’, faire boule de neige is ‘to snowball’, and fondre comme neige au soleil is ‘to melt away’, ‘to disappear into thin air’.

My favourite expression is mais où sont les neiges d’antan (where is the snow of yesteryear?), which comes from a poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By) by a 15th century French poet François Villon. In the 20th century, it was made into a song by Georges Brassens.


eleventh hour

I have been learning English idioms with time units, and came across the expression eleventh hour.

To do something at the eleventh hour is to do it at the last possible moment, just before it is too late.

I have heard this expression before, but was never sure of its meaning, even less of its origin. Whereas expressions with numbers are frequent in many languages, some numbers, such as one, two, or seven, are clear favourites. Why on earth the eleventh?

It turns out the expression has a Biblical origin: it comes from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew xx.1-16), where some laborers appeared only at the eleventh hour (qui circa undecimam horam venerant). The eleventh in the expression does not refer to the last hour before midnight, but to the eleventh hour according to the Roman timekeeping, which started at sunrise, and roughly corresponds to the late afternoon, hence the meaning ‘at the last moment’.

Many Biblical expressions have their equivalents in multiple languages, but to my knowledge, not the eleventh hour. Perhaps, the reason is that some vernacular translations, such as Italian, localize the hour, and speak about five in the afternoon.

Speaking of eleven, its etymology is also curious. In English, eleven (and its twin sibling twelve) are odd ones in the sequence starting with thirteen and going to nineteen. Eleven derives from the Old English enleofan, literally “one left” (over ten), and is comparable to the German elf (and its twin sibling zwölf).

I also learned that in Lithuanian (which is an Indo-European language, but Baltic, not Germanic), the cardinal number from 11 to 19 use the same formation: they all end with -lika, which means “something that remains beyond ten”, and that –lika is related to the -leven/-lve in English. Hence, the English eleven has a Lithuanian cousin, vienuolika.

Everything in the garden is lovely

up the garden path

I spent the summer and early autumn in the countryside, where I decided to learn English idioms related to gardens, trees, plans, flowers, fences, and such. (All in a vain attempt to improve my English, stuck on a plateau for the last 15 years.)

The one expression I did not know before is ‘to lead somebody up the garden path’, meaning to deceive on purpose. This expression will surely come handy when I have to deal with a particularly manipulative business partner.

The next expression is ‘to rest on one’s laurels’, which has equivalents in many European languages.

In general, I have a quick rule of thumb: if the same expression exists in the three languages that come to my mind most quickly (English, French, and Russian), it implies a common origin — Classical, Biblical, or literary. Here, the origin is Classical: ‘s’endormir sur ses lauriers’ or ‘se reposer sur ses lauriers’ in French, ‘почивать на лаврах’ in Russian, point out to Ancient Greece and its tradition to crown winners with laurel wreaths.

Several expressions are Shakespearean: ‘to gild the lily’, ‘a rose by any other name / would smell as sweet’, and, the most mysterious, ‘primrose path’, which usually leads to ruin, destruction, or similar unwanted outcome.

But the one I found most congenial is ‘everything in the garden is lovely’, which often implies the loveliness only on surface, perhaps even a lull before the storm.

In Russian, an expression with a similar connotation is Всё хорошо, прекрасная маркиза!, which in turns is a translation from a French 1930s song Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise!

Language Monthly, June 2020, Spanish

puerto de barcelona

Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.

For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.

Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.

So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.

Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.

I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.

Another favourite media is XLSemanal, which publishes balanced articles on important societal topics, interesting interviews, and a series of columns, firmas, of which my favourites are Pequeñas infamias and Mi hermosa lavandería.

Talking about poetry, Desamor by Rosario Castellanos, a Mexican author and diplomat, brought by Zenda, struck me.

Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.

Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.

Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.

I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!

Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.

El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.

In praise of language maintenance

no day without a word

How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.

Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.

For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.

With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.

I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.

The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.

Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.

Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.

The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.

For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.

Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.

For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.

To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.

Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.

For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.

I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.

I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.

At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.

A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.

If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue.  No day without a line, no day without a word.

With flying colours

out of the blue

To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?

It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.

Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.

There are plenty of resources on the English colour idioms. I like this list of 90 colour idioms, this blog post from Cambridge English Dictionary, which is my go-to online dictionary, and this post, complete with a colour quiz and a hilarious colour song, which I immediately learned by heart:

I saw red coz she’d left me in the dark
She’d left me in the dark that we were in the red

Not to sail under false colours, I choose to learn only those expressions which I would naturally use, starting with those which I sort of know yet where I always make mistakes.

Each morning, bright and early, I have been revising and recalling my colour idioms.

The difference between revise and recall has been well explained by Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It:

When you study by reading through a list multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it.

I find both exercises, revising and recalling, useful.

To revise, I indeed read through my list and either say the idioms out loud, write them several times, or invent a story with them, the more colourful, extravagant, and absurd the better.

To recall, I stare at a blank page before me, or lie down at night in a pitch black room, and try to remember idioms in groups by colour.

Once I am done with colours, I will move to English idioms involving animals, food, and weather, until I pass the idiom test with flying colours.

Language Monthly: May 2020, English

proud like an English lion

This May has been a busy month at work. In particular, it involved lots of writing: proposals, technical reports, and similar soulless documents.

Writing in English did not come easily to me, but after years of toiling and moiling, I began to enjoy it. I am not the smoothest writer, neither the most creative, nor the one with a flawless English prose. But I have developed some shortcuts that serve me well.

At work, when something needs to be written, I can sit down, focus, and just write it, claiming proudly better done than perfect. The expression big fish in a small pond truly applies to my English writing abilities, although I prefer a colourful Russian saying на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘when there is no fish, a crayfish would do’), roughly equivalent to better a small fish than an empty dish.

This is to say that after writing for a whole day at work, I did not have any bandwidth to write anything else after work, hence this hiatus.

Now I am back. Given that the focus of the month was English, I share three English-related discoveries I made recently.

I am a huge fan of etymology, and was excited to find a useful and reliable resource on English etymology, Online Etymology Dictionary. It publishes regular posts on language issues, for example, this one on the so-called Janus words, this one on language in a time of Corona, and this one on understanding relations between different languages by Mediaeval Europeans.

The second is also related to English etymology. It’s a website called World Wide Words, dedicated to ‘peculiarities and evolution of English language’. The website is not being updated any longer, but nearly 3000 published articles will keep the reader busy for a while!

The third discovery is an article on Farnam Street blog, about the difference between two words often treated as synonyms, although they differ in meaning, to convince and to persuade: the first applies to reason, the second to emotions.

This one will be helpful next time I have to write something where I both would need to convince and persuade.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait

if youth but knew

Last February, I went to a small Spanish town of Girona, to share with PhD students my own experiences doing a PhD in the early 2000s.

The town was full of young people, local students and visitors alike.

Perhaps because of this youthful crowd, or of nostalgia of my distant student years, or perhaps of my looming birthday, I could not stop thinking of a Russian saying, Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (“if youth only knew, if age only could”).

Wait, suddenly said my inner linguist, but where does this saying come from?

It turns out, it is a translation of a French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, which was attested in the 16th century.

The source is Henri Estienne (1528 or 1531 – 1598), also known as Henricus Stephanus, a 16th-century French printer, humanist, philologist, and Classical scholar. His most celebrated work is the five-volume Thesaurus graecae linguae, or Greek thesaurus, published in 1572 and still in use today.

In 1594, he published a collection of epigrams related to proverbs and other sayings, called Les prémices, ou le premier livre des proverbes épigrammatisés, ou des épigrammes proverbiales rangées en lieux communs. Epigramme Nr 191 refers precisely to the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.

An accomplished philologist, Etienne not only explains the meaning and the usage of the French saying, but analyses its equivalents in Ancient Greek, where a similar saying existed: exploits to the young, advice to the old:

quelques autres languages ont des proverbes correspondants à celui-ci: & notamment le grec: disant,

νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλαὶ (ou βουλὰς) δὲ γεραιτέροισιν.

C’est à dire, aux jeunes les exploits, aux vieux les conseils.
Ils ont encore une autre semblable à cestui-ci.
Mais il me souvient aussi d’un tiers, auquel il est fait mention de ceux qui sont entre deux âges. & quant aux vieillards, il ne fait mention que de leurs souhaits. Car il dit aussi:

ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων

C’est à dire, les exploits des jeunes, les conseils de ceux qui sont de moyen âge, les souhaits des vieillards. Mais il est certain que de ce proverbe n’est pas authentique comme l’autre.

Now, what is the source of the Greek saying? It turns out, Estienne quotes Souda, or Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, a compilation of  30000 entries, many of them using Ancient sources that have since been lost. A lexicographer himself, Etienne must have known and consulted the Suda lexicon.

In fact, the proverb figures in one of the Suda’ entries: Νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλὰς δὲ γεραιτέροισιν (young men should act (but) their elders advise). An English translation explains:

A truncated version (also in Appendix Proverbiorum 4.6) of an axiom attributed by Hyperides (fr. 57 Jensen) to Hesiod: ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων , “Young men’s acts, the middle-aged’s advice, old men’s prayers”.

Here you are. From Russian, to French, to Ancient Greek, with probably some steps lost in between: for example, how a quotation from a learned work in French became so popular in Russian?

Curiously, on English, there is an expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’, but its meaning is different, and I don’t like it. The only English phrase about age I use frequently is ‘old age is not for sissies’, which is the title of a funny book my friends gave me for my 30th birthday.

When in Rome

the Colosseum was not built in a day

Last week, I spent several days in Rome, hence this post. It recalls three common English expressions about Rome and their equivalents in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

The first expression is All roads lead to Rome.

Its Italian version is Tutte le strade portano a Roma.
French, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome.
Spanish, Todos los caminos llevan a Roma.
German, Alle Wege führen nach Rom.
Russian, Все дороги ведут в Рим.

100% correspondence.

The second expression is When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In French, the expression is equivalent, À Rome, fais comme les Romains.

Other languages express the same idea differently. The Italians say, Paese che vai, usanza che trovi. The Spanish, Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. The Germans, Andere Länder, andere Sitten.

And the Russians in similar context use a a picturesque expression В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (‘one doesn’t go to the foreign monastery with own statute’).

The third expression is Rome wasn’t built in a day. In Italian, it is Roma non è stata costruita in un giorno. In German, Rom wurde nicht an einem Tag erbaut.

In Spanish, two versions coexist: Roma no se hizo en un día, and No se ganó Zamora en una hora, which refers to a long siege of a town of Zamora in the 11th century.

In French the usage is similar, two versions coexist: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour and Paris ne s’est pas fait en un jour, the second version referring, bien évidemment, to the French capital.

Finally, in Russian, the similar expression Москва не сразу строилась features only Moscow, which also was not built in a day.