Hellburners and Philology

a woodcut of a bastioned fort with fireworks in the background and riders and carts in the foreground
Fireworks upon the Entry of Maximillian II into Nürnberg, 7 June 1570, by Jost Amman. Metropolitan Museum of Art c/o Wikimedia Commons,_June_7,_1570_MET_MM26201.jpg

There is now a Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction ( which got started with help from the Oxford English Dictionary. When I encounter a new historical dictionary or encyclopedia, the first thing I do is check some entries to see if they exist and how good they are.

H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History features two weapons, planet-busters and hellburners. Planet-busters are some especially powerful kind of atomic weapon, like a hydrogen bomb but even more destructive, while hellburners are atomic weapons which create some kind of self-sustaining incendiary reaction (Piper alluded to Hans Bethe’s solar phoenix reaction). Planet-busters go back to a popular article on the hydrogen bomb from 1950 and appear in many writers’ stories, but hellburners are rare outside Piper’s works. In a chat with Jesse Sheidlower, I realized where the name ‘hellburner’ may come from.

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Translating Fiore’s Armour Jargon Correctly

as a man in late medeival armour bends down to pull off his coat of mail, another man in armour stabs him in the flank with a sword
BGE Ms. fr. 190/1 Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes (painted in Paris around the year 1410)

The self-taught scholars in the historical fencing world do many things well, but their translations of arms-and-armour terms are not always the best. A story from ancient Persia, how Artabanus murdered the king and his older sons and then was killed in turn by the young son he meant to use as a figurehead, helps us improve our translations. This story is available in the original Latin and in French and Italian translations written and illustrated during Fiore’s lifetime, so we can compare the Latin terms to the French or Italian terms to the paintings.

In Fiore’s sword in armour, both Tom Leoni and Colin Hatcher translate lo camaglio as “the mail coif.” It obviously means “camail: drape of mail hanging from a headpiece to protect the throat and the sides of the head.” Warriors in Fiore’s day no longer wore a complete hood of mail, but they often wore a camail to protect their faces and necks. In the picture above, two soldiers in the background have blue steel camails attached to their grey headpieces. Perhaps the blue indicates that the mail has been quenched in water and tempered by reheating to around 650-700 degrees Fahrenheit (Giambattista della Porta describes this in Natural Magic, book 13, chapter 4).

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We the People

Old Iranian kāra- and spada-, Greek laos, Latin populus, German Heeresvolk, Babylonian uqu “the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the community” –

Manning, Past Approaches, Future Prospects (2021) p. 138

In my first book, I touched on something which is obvious to military historians but might not be as clear to other kinds of people. When people from the Iron Age to the 19th century spoke of <the people>, they meant the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the society. Political change had to be literally fought for- if not by revolution then by a new section of the population doing something so conspicuously useful in war that the people who ran things had to give them a voice. One reason why combined-arms tactics were harder in practice than theory was that they required integrating the poor with stones and darts, the middle sort with bows and spears, and the rich with horses and swords. Often, the thing which was tactically advantageous was politically disadvantageous for the people who were currently living easy on others’ work. The French lost the battle of Coutrai in 1302 because their crossbowmen and javelin-men were breaking up the Flemish pikemen on their own, and the French lords decided that they needed to charge so they could say they had really won by themselves. French aristocrats lost battle after battle which was unfortunate for individual aristocrats, but aristocrats as a class kept control of French society at the expense of the peasants and the burgers. There was a vicious political battle after 479 BCE about whether working-class rowers or leisured hoplites had saved Hellas from the Mede. People who seized power often disarmed their opponents and dissolved their militias. That might make society as a whole less able to defend itself, but it made the losers in the power struggle less able to defend themselves against the winners.

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Semitic Words in Greek

The tube stop just outside the tower of London, June 2019. I don’t entirely understand the topography, but anything higher than the walls is out of bowshot of the moat (currently drained and replaced with a dry ditch, and the water gate is only accessible through a long tunnel).

Back in 2013, Jerker Blomqvist took the time to compare three books on Semitic words in ancient Greek texts. Scholars often disagree about which arguments are “certain,” “probable,” or to be “rejected.” Out of about 400 words which have been seen as loans, he found about 25 which are accepted by all three authorities:

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Our Transliterations are Inconsistent

A photo of a tabbycat sitting on a pathway and staring at a closed door with a white rabbit painted on it
Although a brute beast who does not even know aleph bet gamel, this cat knows exactly what that sign means! A model of clear communication. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2017.

Over on Language Hat, people are arguing about how to pronounce LaTeX, the encoding for mathematical formulas: does it end with <k> like in <tech> or <ks> like in <hex>?

And for me it was worth it just for this footnote: “TeX is pronounced ‘tek’ and is an English representation of the Greek letters τεχ, which is an abbreviation of τέχνη (or technē).” All these years I’ve been saying “tex” (and “latex” for LaTeX) like a doofus!

And LaTeX is pronounced [lɑːtɛk]

If you cast your mind back to “How do you pronounce those accented characters in ancient Near Eastern languages anyways?” two lines on the chart might spring out:

Table 1: Special Characters Used for Transcribing Ancient Languages

Character Name Approximate Pronunciation IPA
H with breve below
Classical Greek chi, <ch> as in Scots loch, German ich x
x n/a
In Old Persian, <ch> as in German auch (not [ks] as in English hex) x

One letter in Latinized Akkadian (ḫ) and one in Latinized Old Persian and the International Phonetic Alphabet (x) have the same pronunciation. But look at which pronunciation it is!

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Some Thoughts on “Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics”

The cover of a book showing a map of Eurasia in the background and a tree of Indo-European languages in the foreground

Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link

A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
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The Meaning of Sariam

Chicago Assyrian Dictionary “S” page 313 (abbreviations are expanded for clarity):

siriam (sariam, siriannu, širiam, širˀam, širˀannu) substantive masculine and feminine; [meanings] 1. leather coat, often reinforced with metal pieces, 2. (a garment); [attested in the following dialects and archaeological sites:] Middle Babylonian, Boghazkuei, Early Assyrian, Nuzi, Standard Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian; foreign word; pl. sarijamāti, širˀamēti.

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