NABOKV-L post 0017371, Sat, 22 Nov 2008 02:40:50 +0000

Re: Browning's Skoramis--addendum
Matt: I do feel that you are overlooking some basic linguistic ³truths.²
Take first the notion that ³skoramis² is a ³rare² word, based on your
earlier observation that it occurs only once in Greek literature, namely a
play by Aristophanes. Well now ... (1) relatively little survives of
classical Greek writings, so care is needed in making such judgments (2)
Rare is not the same as obscure/arcane. The noun ³dog² is more common than
the noun ³platypus² simply because there¹s more canines around than platypi!
(3) given that we have this single usage, the object referenced by
³skoramis² is subject to some contextual guesswork. Apparently, Browning and
other translators settled for some type of bedroom toilet artifact -- what
we moderns would euphemistically call a ³chamber-pot² or ³commode² -- or
more bluntly, ³piss-pot.² As a guide to the dangers of assigning ³rarity² by
word-count, not one of these three words occur in the whole of Shakespeare!
(³Piss² alone occurs 11 times.)

We may never know what a playful [sic!] word prankster like Aristophanes
meant by ³skoramis.² We tend to think of Greek and Latin as ³frozen-clean²
but at the time, in their day, they were subject to all the
semantic/idiomatic shifts of living languages. I haven¹t located ³skoramis²
in the Liddle-Scott online dictionaries, nor can I find
³chamber-pot/commode² on the English side of L-S definitions, but I have
sent a query to perseus at Tufts.

I have also downloaded the full 250MB text of Browning¹s English translation
of Aristophanes¹ Apology. This seems the likely source. Stay tooned. As you
know, Browning was a prodigious linguist, a master of Latin and Greek by age
14 or so. And only ³saved² from a donnish Oxbridge fate by parental
religious reservations. I agree with both Matt and A Bouazza that there¹s no
real contradiction in VN¹s source-claim. It¹s indeed plausible that the dons
picked up ³skoramis² from Browning and delighted in using the word as a
naughty donnish ³in-joke.² What we do NOW have as a linguistic FACT, carved
in lexicographic stone: ³skoramis² as a further euphemism for ³piss-pot²
supported by a citation from Nabokov.

Re-²mollitude²: one must distinguish the different levels of
³neologization.² We all know of the influx of ³inkhorn² words in the
17th-18th centuries. Latin roots especially were borrowed and grammatically
Anglicized en masse with obvious meanings (if you knew the Latin!) They were
considered more up-market than their Anglo-Saxon synonyms. But, as a
separate word-forming mechanism, we have many ³rules² in English whereby
parts-of-speech can be transformed: nouns into adjectives; verbs into nouns;
adjectives into adverbs. The resulting words and meanings rarely need a
specific dictionary entry as ³proof of existence.² Similarly, dictionaries
need not be saddled with every word starting with UN- or ending with ­LESS.
I hope this observation will reduce the ³argufaction² over NATURAL variants
such as ³mollitude² (noun) and ³mollitious² (adjective).

Jansy¹s reference to literary ³swans² reminds me that VN would also have
picked up from his Cambridge days the donnish-waspish limerick that was
still popular during my terms (1950-55).

There once was a student from John¹s [St John¹s, the rival college next door
to VN¹s Trinity]
Who was fond of molesting the Swans;
When along came a Porter
Who said ³Take my Daughter,

Stan Kelly-Bootle

On 21/11/2008 14:22, "Matthew Roth" <MRoth@MESSIAH.EDU> wrote:

> As I said, I don't have any evidence to deny that VN heard the word at
> Cambridge. That may be true. My small point was to note that VN avoided
> explaining that his use of skoramis is a direct allusion to Browning, which it
> clearly is. Instead of explaining that, he gave a less enlightening, though
> perhaps true and appropriate, response. So I don't really disagree with you.
> We're just interpreting "dodge" differently.
> Matt
> "A. Bouazza" wrote:
> Dear Matt,
> I don't think it is a dodge on VN's part.
> VN may not have learnt the word "skoramis" from Browning; and what VN meant by
> "English dons in the past" may refer to his Cambridge days.
> When it came to rare words, VN was the first to acknowledge their source, like
> in the case of "mollitude" which he used in his Eugene Onegin translation (and
> later on in ADA, Glory and Ultima Thule), and defended by stating that
> Browning had used that word. In fact, Browning used the adjective "mollitious"
> in Sordello and The Ring and the Book.
> Kinbote believes Shade borrowed the word "stillicide" from the poem "Friends
> Beyond" by Thomas Hardy, but the same word we already encountered in
> Invitation to a Beheading. Besides, VN was a diligent reader of dictionaries.
> Regards,
> A. Bouazza.

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies:
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:"

Manage subscription options: