One of the more fascinating articles I’ve read recently is one about “untranslatable emotions” in different languages. I was tickled to find another Russian article about old Russian words that have also become untranslatable. Or rather, their meaning has changed so much that it can cause some rather hilarious misunderstandings (hence my ridiculous title for this post).
So, if you want to know how “I want fat buttocks” actually means “I will inherit a large fortune,” read on!
Here’s the original Russian article. (Thanks to Vitaly Permiakov for unwittingly leading me to it.)
This word is often found in old Russian sources. There, it means “cotton felt” or “padded mattress.” This is probably because the word “bumaga” (paper) comes from the late Latin word bombacium, which means “cotton.” The kind of paper you write on only appeared in Rus in the 15th century, quickly replacing birchbark and parchment. But “paper” in the sense of “official document” appeared in Russian even later.
This word is actually connected to the word “zhyt’”, to live. It used to mean “riches, abundance, excess, luxury.” Fat, as in fatty tissue, used to be called by a different word: “tuk”. “Zhir,” on the contrary, had a positive connotation. That’s why many ancient Russian boys’ names have “zhir” as the root: Zhiroslav, Zhirovit, Domazhir, Nazhir, Zhirochka.
In the “Lay of Igor’s Campaign,” Igor figuratively “drowns the fat of Russia” (zhir) in the Polovetsian river Kayala. In other words, he destroys the riches of the Russian lands in his ill-advised war.
Shades of this old meaning remain in sayings, such as “Ne do zhiru, byt’ by zhivu” (i.e. “Not in luxury, but at least alive”). Of course, any positive association with the word “zhir” is long gone. Take, for example, Osip Mandelstam’s use of the word “zhir” to call Stalin’s fingers “fat, like worms.”
The words “peredny” and “zadny” (front and back, respectively) had metaphorical meanings in old Russian, connected with time. Usually, “peredny” meant “the future,” while “zadny” meant “the past.” However, the opposite was also sometimes true. For example, the word “zadnitsa” meant “that which is left behind a man in his future.” In other words, his inheritance.
This is a characteristically Slavic social term that appears often in the “Russian Law,” the official code of laws of Kievan Rus. There is even a special section “On the Zadnitsa”. Here’s a quote:
If brothers quarrel before the prince concerning their inheritance (zadnitsa)…”
Land that was left without anyone to inherit was called “bezzadnitsa” (in modern Russia, this sounds like “someone without a butt”). Some historians sheepishly change the accent in the word to the second syllable, even though it’s clear from the original manuscripts that the word sounded exactly the same as it does now.
In old Rus, this word meant “successful,” because it’s etymologically connected with a word that means “built from a good piece of wood.” Because of this, we find the astounding quote (to modern ears) in the fourth chronicle of Novgorod:
И приидоша вси здорови, но ранени, а Иван Клекачевич превезен преставися с тои раны. And so came all the wounded from among the triumphant. Ivan Klekachevich, upon being brought, died of his wounds.”
The astounding part is the first phrase “wounded from among the triumphant.” If translated using modern Russian, it would have sounded “And so came all the healthy, but wounded.”
Prinimat’: “to accept”
The old Russian version of this word had many meanings. As with “peredny” and “zadny,” some of these meanings actually contradicted each other. For example, it could mean “to host a guest,” but it could also mean “to arrest.” Interestingly, this old usage can actually be heard in some modern slang: “they’ve hosted (i.e. locked up) the guys” (ребят приняли) appears in some gangster films.
In the Russian translation of Josephus’s history of the Jewish Wars, we find an interesting phrase. A certain person “accepted the best people,” but also “accepted the worst.” This phrase doesn’t exist in the original Greek. If this is a corruption of the text, it shows how easily Russians used the same word in opposite meanings. This may also have something to do with Russians’ uncommon punning ability (but that’s a different article).
Ubit’: “to kill”
This word used to mean not just “to kill until dead,” but “to beat badly.” One of the most horrifying surviving artifacts from old Rus (written on birch) is the letter of a battered woman. She writes “with tears” to a powerful relative:
My stepson has beaten me (the word used is “ubit’”) and thrown me out of the house. Do you will that I come to the city? Or come yourself. I am beaten (“ubita”).”
Khotet’: “to want”
This word used to be a helping verb in old Russian. It indicated future tense or an action that cannot be undone. You could “khotet’” the most unusual of things. In the Chronicle of Past Times, the people in a besieged city seem to be saying that they want to die from hunger, and the prince won’t help them. Of course, they don’t want to die. What they’re actually saying is that their death is an inevitability if the prince does not come and help them.
I’m still working on how these hilarious mistranslations can make it into one of my novels. Maybe you can suggest something?
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