May 01, 2004

From Devushka to Babushka, Non-Stop

From Devushka to Babushka, Non-Stop

A major challenge that students of Russian (and even native Russians) face daily is how to address a stranger (незнакомый человек). As politically incorrect as in may seem, humans have a habit of distinguishing strangers first by their sex. And, right away, problems start to arise.

When addressing a strange woman you can call her дама (lady or madam), which is courteous, but a bit overdone, and, of course, sounds very awkward when applied to anyone under 50. It is best applied to a солидная (respectable) woman sporting a fur-coat (шуба) and diamonds (бриллианты). In fact, sometimes it can sound pretty sarcastic, like in “Дама, вы мне все ноги оттоптали” (“Madam, you have been stepping all over my feet”), addressed to the elephantine woman carrying a dozen plastic bags and muscling against you for space in a crowded metro car.

You may very rarely hear outdated pre-Revolutionary forms of address like барышня (young lady), usually used by older men when speaking to young women, or сударыня (madam). The latter might make the woman addressed feel like she is an entertainer at a kitschy Russian  restaurant, decked out like a live matryoshka in traditional Russian costume. But you may hear this form of address in less likely places as well. I once quit a very good yoga (йога) school after the first class because the guru addressed the women in the class as сударыни. He said something like “Сударыни, больше растяните подмышечные впадины!” (“Madams, stretch out your axillas further!”). Somehow, this linguistic disconnect totally killed my desire to do yoga under his guidance.

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