Daily Archives: December 2, 2008

The Correction of Josef Stalin

A blast from a few years ago, worth posting now that I remember it…

A colleague noted the following:

The Moscow Times notes, in a review of Robert Service’s Stalin: A Biography, that “not only was [Stalin] an intellectual, he was a compulsive and professional editor who corrected any manuscript that crossed his desk for style and grammar as well as for ideology.”

My response:

Robert Service wrote a biography of Stalin? I must have missed that one…

There are strange things done ‘neath the Soviet sun
By collective and komsomol…
The GULag trails have their secret tales
Of the once-proud kulak’s fall…
The Moscow nights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest my tovarishch knows
Was that night in the air of the great Red Square
That Stalin corrected my prose.


This word sounds like a name for many things, some of them quite improper. Onanistic gymnastics? With mastication? Is there something about a mast, about tics or other insects, or mass, or sticks, or no-no antics, or John Lennon’s second wife, or… oh, no mas. But, in fact, it is the study of proper names. Visually, this word has two halves with different styles: the rounds and mounds (with combs or fingers) of onom and the snaky shapes and sticks of astics. And in fact in origins it may be disassembled along similar lines: classical Greek onoma, “name,” transmuted into a verb, in past particle was onomastos and that in turn gained an ik for “of or belonging to,” to make onomastikos. The os was dropped to make the English adjective onomastic, which gained an s for the field of study. So when you buy a book of baby names – or wonder “Where the heck did that last name come from?” – there’s a name for that.