Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Names are more significant than one might offhand assume.  I am thinking of first (or given, or Christian names) names, whose bearers may or may not be concerned with, or even aware of, their derivation and meaning.

Take, for instance, a woman named Chloe, which comes from the Greek for a green or tender shoot. Is she even cognizant of the etiology or epistemology involved, and even if she is, I wonder whether she makes anything of it. Whether it influences her personality and, possibly, even her behavior.

To be sure there is little evidence that a woman would think of herself as a green or tender shoot, or if she did, what that would result in. But what if her name was Spring or a man’s first name were Gardner, would that produce joyous effusions or a green thumb?

What complicates matters is that our English names have foreign or obscure derivations, coming from ancient Greek or Latin, Welsh or Scottish, Romance or Teuton, Hebrew or Arabic or Aramaean? Or when they are so commonplace that neither parents nor children would attribute any individual characteristic to them. When there are millions of Peters and Janes around, they become impersonal by their very ubiquity.

In other words, the more widespread a name is, the less it matters where it comes from and what it means. And heaven knows there are fashions in names. Right now there are Ryans and Jennifers in every bush, and minor variations (Kristin, Kirstin, Kirsten etc.) which only seem desperate measures to improve on Christine or Christina. None of them has that hint of originality that might mold a character—say, Maximilian or Isadora.

I cannot help lodging a complaint against Rachael, made current by that obnoxious TV food guru. This is based on a nonsensical analogy with Michael, which comes from the Hebrew “who (is) like a god,“ complete with the “ae.” that makes the “ch” hard. Whereas Rachel, likewise from the Hebrew, but with no “ae” in it, and thus a soft “ch, ”means “like a ewe,” i.e., gentle. (Years ago, there was a short-lived play that featured an eponymous Rachael.) This is what happens when illiteracy takes over, comparable to pronouncing groceries as “grosheries.”

I am not in the position to start a scientific inquiry into whether the imperial name of Maximilian (from Latin, maximus, the greatest, and long a favorite with European royalty and aristocracy) confers nobility on its bearer. but in “Rebecca,” the novel and movie, it seems to do so on its autocratic protagonist.

German, by the way, appears to have more meaningful names. Take Gottfried, for example, which derives from Gott and Frieden, God and peace, and, appropriately, we don’t find it much among the Nazis. The poet Gottfried Benn may have started out truculent, but ended up very much becalmed. The Swiss poet and prose writer Gottfried Keller was certainly much of a bourgeois naturalist, sometimes of a humorous, god-given kind. Better named yet was the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Gotthold meaning attached to God; the Ephraim, from the Hebrew, doubly fruitful. And, of course, Mozart, whose God-loving Amadeus seems applicable enough.

But to get closer to home, what about Aaron? It seems to come from the Hebrew for “(a) light.” The only Aaron I have ever known was the publishing star Aaron Asher, who was indeed a bright light. But would he have been any less so if, for instance, he had been named Claude? It comes from the Latin Claudius, a name very important throughout Roman history and to Robert Graves. It means in Latin lame, and may well have been initially the name of someone lame. The only Claude I have ever known is Claude Fredricks with whom I was good friends for quite a while. He was or is a charming gay guy, extremely learned (the only person I know to peruse a Latin text as airplane reading,) and when I mounted a play of mine at Harvard, he would call people to invite them to it under the assumed name of Dimitri Merezhkovsky, that of a well-known writer. Claude ended up as a beloved prof at Bennington, and the protagonist of a novel by Donna Tartt, but fame made him drop me. Could he have accomplished as much if named Gus?

I do persist in believing that, as the Latin adage “nomen est omen” has it, a name somehow rubs off on its bearer, or should I say wearer? How about my own John, recently aped by the annoying Jon? As Eric Partridge (my favorite lexicographer) puts it in his delightful booklet “Name This Child,” without which this essay could not have been written, “The name owes most of its vast European popularity to the Evangelist; its brevity and strength have contributed  to make it, in the minds of the majority, the finest of all. m[asculine] ‘Christians.’ From Hebrew: ‘God is gracious.’”

Now I don’t know how gracious God is, or would be if he existed (think Holocaust). but, regretably, I don’t see myself as particularly gracious as a result. What is interesting here, though, is that the names of the three other Evangelists are nowhere near as popular, even if Mark, at any rate, is just as brief and strong. Besides, in many languages John is not all that snappy: Jovan in Serbian, Janos in Hungarian, Janusz in Polish. Giovanni in Italian, Jean in French, and Johannes in German (though usually in abridged forms, Johann or Hans) are all reasonably euphonious. But do they charaterize?

As for me, the only effect I can think of is exercise of my neck muscles, because often in the street behind me someone yells “John!” and I am optimistic or na├»ve enough to assume it meant for me, which it usually isn’t, and turn my head. But it is true that John sounds good in certain languages, like the Spanish Juan, the Portuguese Joao, Jannis in modern Greek, Jokanaan in Hebrew if the opera “Salome” has it right, and several others.

Spanish aristocrats have the most impressive names, because they come in bunches.
A recent Times obituary for Mary Aline Griffith informs that she became a countess by marrying Luis Figueroa y Perez de Guzman el Bueno, Conte de Quintanilla (and later) Romanones. Which reminds me of a true story.

A Hungarian fencing team once came to Madrid to fight a Spanish one. At a reception, they were to get to know one another. A Spanish caballero introduced  himself to a Hungarian with his full complement of a dozen names. The Hungarian was ashamed of having a measly single last name. Not to be outdone, however, he appended in his introduction to the next fellow every Hungarian swearword and obscene insult he could think of by way of self-presentation. “Delighted to meet you” responded the man in perfect Hungarian, “I am the Hungarian ambassador to Spain.”

Spaniards, by the way, are not the only ones with such elaborate nomenclature. Consider the recent Times obituary for a distinguished French writer, academician and aristocrat, Jean d’Ormesson. His full name was Jean Bruno Wladimir Francois de Paule LeFevre d’Ormesson. There is method to it. His diplomat father wanted him to appeal to various nations. Bruno, a name popular In Germany, was a bow to that nation. Wladimir (note the un-French W) was to appeal to several Slavonic nations.
 Francois de Paule is the French version of the name of an Italian saint. Le Fevre, sometimes spelled Le Febvre, was the name of several illustrious Frenchmen, one of them a victorious Marshal of France. Since d’Ormesson  pere was posted to Bavaria, Romania and Brazil, it is surprising that the son had not also Romanian and Portuguese names bequeathed on him.

Names are a fascinating thing. My father, a good Yugoslav, observed that I had only one given name, whereas Americans often had more, so he decided to provide me with the middle name Ivan. This is a tautology, being the Croatian form of the Serbian Jovan, and indeed, my savvy friend Dona Vaughn calls me, as if I were a Kennedy, John John. A favorite chemistry teacher of mine at Horace Mann School uniquely called me Jack, on the basis of which I could have been, like Rousseau, Jean Jacques, or John James.

But what about Simon? Partridge says, “Simeon, Hebrew for obedient, hearkening. Already in the first century A.D. Simeon had been confused with Simon. In Greek, Simon is ‘the snub-nose.’ But as a New Testament name it seems to have been a mere Grecism for Simeon. Diminutive: Si.” Well, I am neither snub-nosed nor particularly obedient, and, thank heaven, no one has ever called me Si.

So I am John Simon, which once earned me a packet of letters intended for John Simon Guggenheim, and I forwarded to that Foundation. It did not earn me so much as a thank you, let alone a grant. But for many years, Yoko Ono generously sponsored my website with a monthly $500, which just now stopped. I wonder whether you blog readers could help support the site with a monthly $50? Yet do I even have ten regulars?

Saturday, December 9, 2017


There is a salient aspect of language that I haven’t handled hitherto--not alliteration, as in these consecutive h-words, but onomatopoeia, Greek for name-making. What it really means is what occurs when a word’s sound echoes or represents the thing that it denotes. I recur to the examples given by J. H. Cuddon in his excellent “Literary Terms and Literary Theory” from Penguin Books, which I strongly recommend to one and all. In it, he offers examples of onomatopoeia that I intend to look closely at. They are: “dong, crackle, moo, pop, whizz, whoosh, zoom,” all well chosen.

Somewhat puzzling is the first one, “dong,” perhaps even embarrassing at first sight. My Heritage Dictionary gives as its first, nononomatopoeic definition, a Vietnamese currency. Pretty obscure, that; but not so the second definition, “a penis, vulgar slang. (Origin obscure.)” The Random House Dictionary, on the other hand (pun not intended), lists also “the deep sound like that of a large bell. (Origin unknown.)” This latter definition, curiously, does not appear in the Heritage. The reason, I would guess, being that in overwhelmingly most cases it is not the intended one. In more recent versions of the OED (the important Oxford English Dictionary), it is part of “ding-dong,” as the imputed alternating sound of a ringing bell..

In “Alice in Wonderland” we get also a person’s nose “with a luminous dong,” and in Australia, a dong may signify a heavy blow. The newer OED also cites Philip Roth’s Portnoy handling his dong. In the penis sense, to be sure, there is no immediate onomatopoeia, so let us stick with the bell sound.

Cuddon next cites “crackle.” This the Heritage defines as making “a succession of short snapping noises as of a fire in a wood stove.” Or, in the verb version, “to show liveliness, energy or intensity as in a book that crackles with good humor.” The first example is clearly auditory, the second more figurative. Either way, a sound or potential sound is implied.

Next comes “moo,” the sound of a cow, which various languages describe thus or in  some similar way. So the verb in French is transformed into the more melodious “mugir.” In German, we get the verb “muhen,” and the noun “Muh.” The M needed to clinch the onomatopoeia, is perhaps a trifle arbitrary.

Next comes “pop,” for which the dictionaries give a number of definitions, some of them visual but enough of them auditory, for a sudden snappy noise. Notable among the many definitions is the one for a male orgasm elicited manually. This so-called “hand job” I had experienced from a Bennington girl specializing in the operation to avoid total commitment, and not generally auditory. (Vide also Bill and Monica.) The sound is largely associated with the uncorking of champagne bottles.

Cubbon’s next is “whizz” or “whiz.” This is defined as “making a whirring or hissing sound” with the descriptive adjectives themselves onomatopoeic. It is often defined as the sound of an object speeding through the air, or, nonauditorily, as any quick movement by a person. Related is the “whizz-bang,” suggestive of the rustling of a fuse leading to an explosion. Notable, too, is the meaning, not always auditory, of something conspicuously effective, successful, or skilled, as, for instance, a good speech, with the onomatopoeia only remotely applicable.

“Whoosh,” next, is defined as “a sibilant sound,” like the whoosh of a high-speed elevator. It is also an onomatopoeia for the darker sound of some liquid violently tossed from a bottle, perhaps at a hostile person’s face.  The “oo” sound is also used for wind, as in the title of “Gone With the Wind,” in translations usually grabbing the U diphthongized as “ui,” thus the Hungarian “Elfujta a szel” (I lack the needed acute accent), or the Serbian “Prohujalo kao vihor.” Oddly enough, the English title has no U in it. which can come either as an “oo” in “room”, or in a diphthong like the English “you,”  or “oui, ” like the French for yes.

“Zoom,” serves similar purposes as whoosh, but it is grander, perhaps referring to an astronomical movement of comets or meteors. It is less likely to denote sound then, alhough it does so, a bit lower, for the buzz of a plane overhead.

So much for Coddon’s examples. But what for other onomatopoeias? How about the song, or the very name of, the nightingale? That name, in English, is not onomatopoeic, merely visual as in “night,” when the nightingale sings, to be replaced by the morning lark. (See “Romeo  and Juliet,” in the bedroom scene.) No word this for onomatopoeia. More so in German, as “Nachtigall,” with the two A’s suggesting a staccato in the song. Hence also the German name for these birds’ singing, “schlagen,” i.e., to beat (a s in Heine’s famous poem), for, to be sure, a rather delicate kind of hammering. But does onomatopoeia lurk in these avians’ very names?

Not much in the unaccented U of the Serbian “slavuj,” But quite a bit in Hungarian, where the bird has two names, the poetic “cselegeny,” with the rising, accented E in the third syllable, and more so in the common name, “fulemule,” with  a treble-making diacritic mark on both U’s, and the internal rhyming repetition making it more avian. This is curiously like the modern Persian or Turkish nightingale, “bulbul,” again with the treble-inducing diacritic mark (or umlaut) on both U’s, and again with the duplication in the name, probably to indicate an aural onomatopoeic flow. But what about “cselegeny”? Here the open E’s of the first two syllables have the same duplicating effect, perhaps all these devices conveying a lyrical, onomatopoeic continuity.

There is, incidentally, a kind of onomatopoeia even in the French term “rossignol,” maybe as a derivative from the Spanish “ruisenor,” with a tilda on the N. The “senor” part confers seigneurial nobility on the bird, while the “rui” may well be a corruption of “rey,” which confers actual avian royalty—all very euphonious as well.

So much from me. But the reader is encouraged to come up with his or her own onomatopoeias. That brings me to the point of this essay: the onomatopoeic musicality of the language the reader may seek out in his or her own verse. For, let’s face it, many people, clandestinely or not, write verse, a charming trait, regardless of whether transparent. Onomatopoeia makes for euphony.

Here then is a spur toward, or a desirable delight in, onomatopoeia--all for your participatory enjoyment or actual active exploration.

Friday, December 1, 2017


Be prepared for vehement disagreement with what follows, but mind that I am not proposing it as a binding universal truth, only as my own certainly arguable private views. What I am asserting, skewed or not, is a sense of the beauty or lack thereof of certain languages, with a considerable middle ground between extremes that I would call the in-betweens.

I am thinking of so-called Western. i.e., European and American languages, for no better reason than acquaintance with them, thus excluding Asian and African languages about which I know nothing. So let me designate Italian, French, and educated British as beautiful, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, Yiddish and Swiss German as unattractive, positing the presence or absence of melody in them as the determining factor.

So lets start with Italian as spoken in Italy, not Brooklyn. Not for nothing are there Italian composers, musicians, opera lovers in superabundance. Clearly a two-way relationship between music and language exists, whichever you consider the chicken and which the egg. I am asking you not to be swayed by dialects or the speech of the uneducated, whom I don’t consider inferior morally or mentally, only wanting aesthetically. But independently from what they mean, I aurally prefer “fa in culo” to “fangul.” Note that I am not thinking Dante, except where it may coincide with the speech of ordinary middle-class people as apprehended by an unprejudiced ear.

To be sure, there may be disagreement as to what is melody, or at least speech melody, but not so much about what is pleasurable. Consider the well-known story, true albeit attributed to different protagonists, whereby a foreigner being transported by truck to a concentration camp, recited some of ‘The Divine Comedy” in such exquisite Italian as to be released by his enchanted Fascist captors.

The basic musicality of a language depends on its presence in everyday speech, much as the melodiousness affects someone listening to music  (please, no rap or hip-hop) and being spellbound by Verdi or Puccini even if unable to read music or recognize a sung high C. This presumes neutrality in the listener and absence of any particular agenda from his or her upbringing in a family awash in music of a particular kind. But to anyone hearing, say, the last line of ‘The Divine Comedy, “ which runs “L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle,” and is not that different from everyday educated Italian, melody ought to be apparent.

It has to do with the large number of vowels of every kind, and also with the frequency of flowing disyllables, whereas in the English translation, “The love that moves the sun and the other stars,” you get heavily accented monosyllables comparable at best to a drumbeat. Even “vietato fumare, “ for “no smoking,” is more melodious, to say nothing of “ti voglio bene,” for “I love you.” And so on, for even the music of ordinary conversational prose.

Now for no lesser melodiousness, though of a different kind, in French. There is a sort of fascinating singsong built into the language that all educated, and even many uneducated, speakers somehow spontaneously fall into. Some of it has to do with nasalization of the an, on. un, in, en variety; some of it with all those endings in mute e’s; some of it with diphthongs in oi or ie, e.g., moi or oie (goose), and hier or pied. Note the diverse e’s, as in ete (I can’t do accents), a kind of soprano, mezzo as in geste, and contralto, as in etre--the latter two with also the mute e ending. But even the mute e is often not really mute, as it follows the preceding consonant in, say, je.

Take a sentence like “Moi, j’ai toujours ete tres fier et meme entete,” and you have a whole gallery of various e’s making music. Then the pretty eu sound as doubled in
 heureux or as diphthong in lieu; and the echoing ou of toujours. Further, the high u, in words like nue, or diphtongized as in pluie. Again, the rhyming repetition of nasals in enfant or the progressively lightening sequence o, i, i in colibri. And bear in mind that such effects come at you full throat in clusters, not just in fortuitously fortunate isolation. Or consider the sequence of vowels in the title of a ballet by Jacques Ibert: “Les Amours de Jupiter,” with even a rhyme on Ibert-Jupiter.

All this does have a lot to do with who is speaking, because the most beautiful languages benefit from a well-spoken exponent. This is where France has produced some exquisite speakers, either from the Academie Francaise, or from the theater (somewhat fewer from the cinema). Gerard Philipe comes to mind, and Louis Jouvet, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Desailly-- even in his exaggerated way, Sacha Guitry. Also Marcel Herrand, Louis Salou, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Dux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jean Marais. I remember the fabulous Iago at the Comedie of Aime Clariond, prematurely deceased like Philipe.. And then the women: Edwige Feuillere.  Maria Casares. Micheline Presle, Renee Faure, Arletty. Berthe Bovy, Germaine Dervoz, Gabriele Dorziat, Valentine Tessier. Danielle Darrieux. and perhaps also Marie Bell and Gaby Morlay. Even merely reciting their names proves melodious.

But melodious too are even the most commonplace utterances casually uttered, take “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” This with the sequence of three ous, interlarded by the three e’s, albeit one differently voiced in “avec.” Or compare the prosaic English “Pull he handle only in case of danger” with “Tirer la manivelle seulement en cas de danger,” where I leave it to you to parse the sundry beauties.

All of which brings me to my third melodiousness, well-spoken British English. I recall, quoted from memory, Bernard Shaw’s brilliant “America and Britain, two countries separated by the same language.” Let’s face it: American English has no discernible melody, whereas upper-class or theatrical British English very much does. Just listen to a recording featuring such actors as, for instance, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave. Or women, such as Judi Dench, Celia Johnson, Edith Evans. Sybil.Thorndike, Joan Plowright, Joan Greenwood, Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Bown.
And still others I can’t think of at the moment.
The extreme form of the British accent, a sort of flute melody rollercoasting up and down,the scales is that of Oxford dons sand some students, called Oxonian. It was most imperiously (or imperially) exhibited by Professor Garrod, and required utmost concentration to comprehend. (Isaiah Berlin also had it.)  I experienced it in a milder form from Professor (later Sir) Maurice Bowra, when he was guest lecturer at Harvard.

He seemed to like me, because he chatted with me in his office. I recall his having experienced Kenneth Burke, and not having understood him (although that may have been less a matter of an American accent than of certain weird neologisms invented by Burke), asked me to provide interpretations. I mostly couldn’t. This is a good, though perhaps extreme, example of how some accents may become problematic.

We come now to what I call the in-between languages, not quite ugly but not quite beautiful. There is, for example, Spanish, where I fund the purest, i.e., Castilian, most accessible, although still not without a certain harshness. The most interesting are the Scandinavian ones, notably Danish, which, though not lovely, have a certain likable droll quality, what with profuse glottal stops and other idiosyncrasies.

I myself first learned as a toddler German, because that was the language of my beloved nanny, Mia, who came from Austro-Hungarian Bielitz, which is now, Bialistok in Poland, as well as in the Broadway musical, “The Producers.” Those speakers are largely Jewish, and subjects of numerous anecdotes, some jovial, some hostile.

I soon added Hungarian, which we spoke at home, my father being Hungarian but, as we lived in the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, a nationalized Yugoslav. My mother came from a Yugoslav minority of Hungarians, and never even learned proper Serbo-Croat, later Serbian, which was the language of that capital where we ended up. It is from that dominant Serbia that, first Slovenia (whence Mrs. Trump), and later Croatia, seceded.

So my next language, which I picked up in the streets, was Serbian, as I preferred to call Serbo-Croat, which was ever so slightly different in Croatian Raciat. So already trilingual, I proceeded to French, the language of most of the intelligentsia. This I learned in private lessons from a charming lady French teacher, the popular Marcelle Raciat. At 13, I was starting English lessons from an Englishman who may well have been a spy, and who regaled me with stories of his female conquests. Then I was sent to public school in Cambridge, England, about which I have already written.

My great regret is that I never properly learned Italian, except from what I picked up in treasured Italian movies, and much, much later from frequent Roman visits to Lina Wertmuller, whose American champion I became. It was her reception on American screens that finally led to Italian critics granting her the well-deserved acclaim they previously withheld for specious reasons.

What I would like to convey is that multilingualism is a wonderful thing, not only because the polyglots get to enjoy and learn from so many more people, but also because certain differences and similarities teach them greater command of the native language. Thus, perhaps, it is that I have no difficulties with “lie” and “lay,” which, largely with the collusion of TV and social media devastates the speech of so many native speakers knowing and using only “lay.”

Or take my avoidance of such pleonasms as “old crone,” or tautologies like “cannot help but,” redundant for either “cannot help” plus a participle, or “cannot but” plus an infinitive. It may also account for proper pronunciation, such as EXquisite rather than exQUIsite, which one hears all over the place and is gaining acceptance from dictionaries. I can see no good reason for it, except that lazy speakers prefer medial accents, easier to handle than initial ones followed by more than one unaccented trailing syllable..

I suppose that in the end the purist or traditionalist cannot win, but I think there is a certain glory in fighting even a losing battle for what one believes to be right. Which brings me to my conclusion: German.

German is basically an in-between language. In its vulgar, Southern form, known as Plattdeutsch, it is downright ugly. But in its well-spoken Northern form, known as Hochdeutsch, it can be very lovely indeed. Consider a fine actor reading out loud a poem by Goethe. Rilke, or Stefan George (or many others), and you can have a musical feast. When I assisted  Archibald MacLeish in a Harvard poetry course, he asked me to recite a Rilke poem to his large class. I did, and was well received. Later MacLeish summoned me to his office and I wondered what did I do wrong this time?  Well, he merely wanted to know the name of the beautiful Radcliffe girl who came just to hear me. It was Christine Bosshard , and though she was impressed, I never even got to first base with her—and neither, I imagine, would have Archie.

I conclude with a favorite passage from Rilke that I may have quoted before, but that can bear repeating. The scene is a riverside afternoon in a Grande Jatte or Sunday in the Park With George setting, with the poet and his mistress present.

Befriedigungen ungezaelter Jahre
Sind in der Luft. Voll Blumen liegt dein Hut.
Und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
Mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.

Hear this and feel it, and its music and meaning may well leave you with tears in your eyes.