I’ve been busy studying in an intensive Arabic program but I found a few moments to provide you with some back-articles of the “Word’s Worth”–a brilliant Russian Culture/Language article published weekly in the Moscow Times. Her articles come out every Friday and the ones from the past can be found at
You can get some of the articles for free if you search in the Saint Petersburg archives, but the Moscow Times one is for subscribers.
I’ve been anxiously savoring and saving every article she has published for the past 6 years–so here are some from my personal, beloved library.
In the meantime enjoy and if anyone knows of this kind of article for Arabic please let me know!
Taking the Tractor to Church
By Michele A. Berdy
Крестьянин: until the 14th century — Christian; now — peasant, farmer
Sometimes people send me questions, which in turn send me to my bookshelves, and then to my computer. Two “little” questions that I recently received sent me ripping through texts, dictionaries and online resources for two days — and even now I’m not sure I’ve got all the answers. I have a feeling that there are about 10 books and 100 doctoral dissertations that I should have consulted.
So thank you very much for your questions, and please stop sending them.
The first question is: Are the words крестьянин (since the 14th century: peasant, farmer) and христианин (Christian) related, and if so, how did the meanings diverge? The answer seems to be that they are related, that in fact крестьянин first meant a Christian, with the spelling confused through the word крест (cross). So how did a Christian mutate to become a peasant working the land? One scholar thinks that people in feudal Russia were identified with their titles, like бояр (boyar, nobleman), and that in addresses to the population and official documents, at the bottom of the list were entries like и прочие крестьяне (and miscellaneous Christians). Since these miscellaneous Christians were the poor, untitled folk in villages, over time they became synonymous with “peasants.”
The other question has to do with the mystery of славяне (Slavs), слава (praise, glory), православие (Orthodoxy, literally “right praise,” i.e., the proper way to worship God) and slave. Значит, славяне — славные? (So are Slavs glorious?) Well, of course they are, but not etymologically.
The best guess seems to be that славяне is derived from a Novgorod tribe called something like the словене. Some etymologists want to believe that the name of that tribe is related to the word слово (word), and meant something like “people who speak.” This contrasts nicely with the old meaning of немцы (mute people), used to describe all those tribes to the West who couldn’t speak “like us.” Other etymologists roll their eyes at this.
So, is the English word slave derived from the word Slav? Sources like the Oxford English Dictionary insist that it is, since Slavs were taken as slaves in great numbers in the Middle Ages. Everyone cites the derivation from the Latin sclavus, and one Russian etymologist cites the spelling (or tribe) склавины to support this theory.
But, operating from the position that it’s good to have an opinion even if you don’t know anything, I say: This is a crock. From the sixth to the 10th centuries, when all this slave-trading was booming, it’s hard to believe that the poor souls from the East identified themselves as Slavs. They would have described themselves in terms of their tribes, which had names like поляне, дреговичи, тиверцы, уличи, кривичи, лютичи, бодричи, тимочане, and кашубы. I can’t imagine that the slave traders in togas took the trouble to chat up a shipment of human chattel, figure out that there were some словене in the mix, and then said: Hmm, let’s use that word to describe all these slaves that we’ve had for millennia.
But hey, what do I know?
Today in Russia if conversation veers to religion, people are most likely to say: Я верующий. This tends to get translated as I’m a believer, which drives me nuts, since no one has said that in English since the Monkees (and they weren’t singing about the church). I vote for: I’m a Christian (Jew, Muslim, etc.), or in some contexts: I believe in God. Someone might also say Он религиозный, which has the sense of being an observant Christian. Or: Она воцерковленная (more often pronounced воцерковлённая), which in common parlance means someone who is church-going and strictly observant (literally “into the church”).
And as far as all that Slav-slave mentality stuff goes, I say: Чушь собачья! (What a load of crap!)
Friday, September 28, 2007. Issue 3753. Page 8.
Avoiding Profanity, Ignorance and Stupidity
By Michele A. Berdy
Глуп как пробка: thick as a brick, dumb as a plank
I have been told that there is one phrase that makes all economists want to scream. “I’m not an economist, but…” After that “but,” the noneconomist goes on to spout total economic nonsense with the sublime confidence that only comes from total ignorance.
In Russian, this kind of person is a профан (an ignoramus). In English, economists might consider his utterances “profane,” but they are more likely to use profanity to describe him.
So how did two words, profane and профан, with the same Latin root, diverge in meaning? Both Russian and English etymological dictionaries tell you that the words come from the Latin pro- (before) and fanum (temple), and they meant people standing in front of the temple — the uninitiated. This meaning still exists in English, but the word “profane” is more commonly used to mean something or someone contemptuous of what goes on in the temple, and “profanity” is most commonly used to mean “bad words” (these were once words that used the Lord’s name in vain). Russian stuck with the notion of “the uninitiated,” and now the word is used to describe anyone who knows nothing about a particular field. Она собирается купить новую машину и поинтересовалась моим мнением. Но я в этом деле полный профан. (She wants to buy a new car and asked my opinion. But I don’t know the first thing about cars.)
Невежество is ignorance of any sort, although it often seems to mean what I call Ignorance-with-a-capital-I: a state of unenlightenment that can be cured only by religion or education. Из-за своего невежества, люди ставят материальные интересы выше духовных. (In their ignorance people value their material needs more than spiritual ones.) But невежество can be down–to–earth, too: По своему невежеству, владелец галереи не придал этому полотну никакого значения, а потом выяснилось, что картина принадлежит кисти Рембрандта. (In his ignorance, the gallery owner overlooked the canvas, but later it turned out that the painting was done by Rembrandt.)
In the case of the incompetent gallery owner, you might sneer: Дилетант! (Dilettante!) Дилетант and дилетантизм (dilettantism) are good words to bandy about when there is a clear lack of professionalism. Любитель can also be used to mean an amateur. Вот что бывает, когда галереями владеют любители, а не профессионалы! (Look what can happen when galleries are run by amateurs instead of professionals!)
If you were the gallery owner’s partner, you might shout: Ты что — только вчера родился? Покупатель не торгуется, и ты ничего не подозреваешь?! (Were you born yesterday? The buyer doesn’t dicker over the price, and you don’t suspect a thing?!) When someone doesn’t even know the basics about something, you can ask if he “fell from the sky”: Ты с неба свалился, что ли? Разве ты не понимаешь, что надо провести экспертизу? (What planet are you from? Don’t you know you have to get an expert analysis?)
When someone is not brilliant, but not totally stupid, you can say: звёзд с неба не хватает (literally, they don’t have all the stars from the heavens.) Он неплохой ученик, но звёзд с неба не хватает. (He’s not a bad student, but not the sharpest pencil in the box.)
If you’ve abandoned politesse, you can resort to simple insults like глупец (dolt) or дурак (idiot). You might add the word круглый (literally, “round”) as an intensifier. Here, the roundness seems to be similar to the English notion of “all-around” — круглый дурак is someone who is a total idiot.
Russians also say someone is глуп как пробка (as dumb as a cork), an expression from a longer saying: Он глуп как пробка — куда ни ткнёшь, там и торчит. (He’s as dumb as a cork — wherever you stick him, that’s where he stays.)
Now that’s really dumb.
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.
Friday, October 13, 2006. Issue 3518.
It’s Awkward in Everyone’s Language
By Michele A. Berdy
It is always hard to find words of sympathy. Everything seems heinously banal or inappropriately personal, overly formal or far too colloquial. You wish to commiserate but fear you are imposing; you want to offer support and comfort, but worry you may be causing more anguish. Regardless of nationality, we all struggle in our own languages to find the “right words.” And it is even harder when we struggle to find the right words in a foreign language and culture, where we risk saying something that is inappropriate or even insulting.
In Russia, as in English-speaking countries, culture has given us a helping hand, providing us with a number of standard phrases and words. They may be somewhat ritualized, but at least we know they are culturally appropriate.
In Russian, as in English, one tactfully tries not to use the word смерть (death). Instead you might say or write: Я слышал, что у вас большое горе/несчастье (I heard that you have suffered a deep sorrow/misfortune.) Or: Вы понесли большую утрату. (I was sorry to hear of your great loss.) In a letter of condolence you might write formally: Вас постигла тяжёлая утрата. (I was sorry to hear of your terrible loss.) Or acknowledge that the loss was irreplaceable: Меня опечалила новость о вашей невосполнимой потере. (I was saddened to hear of your irreparable loss.)
The most common and appropriate expression of sympathy in Russian is an offer of your condolences: Примите мои глубокие соболезнования. (Please accept my deepest sympathy.) Or you could say: Я хотел бы выразить свои искренние соболезнования. (I would like to extend my sincere condolences.) There is also a verb, соболезновать (literally “to grieve together with”), but it is very rarely used, even in formal correspondence: Я вам соболезную. (I offer you my condolences.)
Unfortunately, you can’t easily say in Russian what we most commonly say in English: I’m sorry. In English it conveys profound regret over what has happened and a sense of shared pain and grief. In English-language films badly translated into Russian, you can hear the travesty of “Извините” for “I’m sorry,” which either sounds as if the person is apologizing for the death or asking to be excused from the room: — В прошлом году мой муж умер. — Извините. (– Last year my husband died. — Excuse me.) The closest way to express this in Russian is Я вам сочувствую от всей души (I want to say how sorry I am from the bottom of my heart, literally, “I sympathize with all my soul”). You could also say: Мне так жаль (I’m so regretful), but since you could use this in Russian for misfortunes of far less magnitude, it usually sounds woefully inadequate.
If you want to let someone know that you share their grief, you might say: Я очень переживаю за вас. (I’m so distressed for you.) Or the formal: Я разделяю вашу печаль. (I share your sorrow.) Or the very formal: Я скорблю вместе с вами. (I mourn with you.) Theoretically, you could also say: Я понимаю ваше горе (I understand your grief), but Russians — like English-speakers — hesitate to say this, recognizing that grief and loss cannot ever be truly shared or understood.
In Russian, it is appropriate to simply express horror or sadness. Какое горе! (What a tragedy.) Как печально! (This is so sad.) Какая ужасная потеря! (What a terrible loss.). Or you might commiserate by sharing your own feelings: Я не могу в это поверить. (I can’t believe it.)
If you are sure this would be appropriate, you might say: Я молюсь за вас. (I pray for you.) Or you can simply confess that words fail you: Я не могу найти слов утешения. (I can’t find words of comfort.)
Perhaps the most common Russian expression of commiseration, and the most welcome, is also the most simple: Чем я могу вам помочь? (How can I help you?)