September 01, 2005

Insults That Taste Russian

Insults That Taste Russian

With so many borrowings entering the language of those who once called themselves russichi, it is getting harder and harder to tell what is a true Russian word, if there even is such a thing. To paraphrase the famous saying: scratch a Russian word and you will find a Turkish, Tartar or a Greek root. Well, except perhaps for authentically Slavic words like Yarilo (the Sun God in pagan Rus).

But let’s forget about etymology – an all-too-serious science for this space. Instead, we will simply consider some descriptive words which sound and look authentically Russian, and which are fun to say and use (if not always a good choice among “educated folk”).

Start with хмырь, which forced its way into the language from criminal argot. How do we translate this? Forget the dictionary. As one of my teachers used to say, “true translation begins where the dictionary ends.” A хмырь is an obnoxious, arrogant and unrefined person whose very appearance makes you cringe. A sleazeball with a slovenly gait who makes passes at your daughter would be a хмырь. An arrogant, ill-shaven tourist, smelling of booze and trying to jump the queue at Sheremetyevo customs? Definitely a хмырь.

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