April 18, 2021

Five Russian Words You May Be Misusing


Five Russian Words You May Be Misusing
Yes, these words are from the Russian language. No, they aren't only used in Russia.  Polina Zimmerman | pexels.com

The good news is that if you don't already speak Russian, you probably already know a few words in the language! The bad news is that you've also probably been using these words wrong.

But don't worry, it isn't your fault. Technically speaking, languages take words from other languages and make them part of their dictionary all the time. Linguists call them loan words, and you probably know more than you realize. Just a few examples include: "tortilla" (from Spanish), "café" (from French), and "bazaar" (from Persian). These words come from other languages, but they are also words in English, now with their own unique definitions and usage. 

While there are many English loan words in the Russian language, there are, perhaps unsurprisingly,  rather few Russian loan words in the English language. The most easily identifiable examples come from Soviet origins (like "intelligentsia," "bolshevik," or "cosmonaut"). The interesting thing about the following five Russian words is that their English usage is actually slightly different from their original Russian usage.

So, let's practice our Russian (and our English) by learning more about these 5 popular Russian loan words. 

A Russian granny stares directly at the camera with a red scarf on her head.
The stereotype is true: babushkas really do often wear babushka scarfs. | Alexandra Curtis

1. Babushka

This is probably one of the best-known Russian-English words today (and most frequently mispronounced by first-year Russian students). In English, we tend to stress the second syllable, but in Russian, the emphasis is strongly placed on the first. Also, while the word simply means "grandmother" in Russian, in English the word has come to take on the style of clothes that Russian grandmas often wear, specifically the adorable head-scarf. Just Google search "cats wearing babushkas" to see what we mean.   

We love babushkas, and so does the fashion world. The best-known influencer of the babushka look is rapper A$AP Rocky, who loves the style so much that he wrote a song titled "Babushka Boi" to honor it (sidenote: the song is definitely not babushka-friendly and contains a lot of curse words; Watch at your own risk). 

A leaflet shows the map of Russia with the locations of all the GULAG work camps.
Solzhenitsyn's collection of stories titled The Gulag Archipeligo helped to popularize the phrase in English. | Elena Genseruk, commons.wikimedia.org

2. Gulag

Most people know that the gulag was the chain of labor camps that formed a part of the dismal Soviet prison system. What people don't usually know is that the word in Russian is actually an acronym, with the "G" and "U" standing for "glavnoye upravleniye" (roughly translating to "The General Administration of") and the "lag" as a shortened form of the Russian word (in the genitive plural) for camps, "lagerey." 

The word gulag isn't actually used all that frequently by Russians; instead, they just call them camps. But in common English, the phrase has become a catch-all phrase for any oppressive labor camp or camp system. 

A satellite floats high above the blue earth.
Even this American satellite is a "sputnik" in Russian. | NASA, unsplash.com

3. Sputnik

Sputnik was the name of the first Soviet (and first ever) satellite sent into space. It is also the name of every satellite ever sent into space, because it is literally the Russian word for "satellite." 

Fun fact: etymologically speaking, the word translates into English as "traveler" or "fellow-traveler." It also happens to be the name of Russia's COVID-19 vaccine

A beautiful stack of bliny sit on the table with a candle and tulip flowers.
Call them "bliny" or "blinis": either way they taste delicious. | Elley Fairytale, unsplash.com

4. Bliny

Looking up a recipe for bliny in English can often give mixed results. Many people imagine bliny as these tiny little pancakes with a dollop of caviar on top, mostly served as a fancy appetizer. But anyone who has dined with a Russian family knows that this treat is nothing of the sort. Bliny in Russia are big, skinny, and delicious pancakes. Meant to be eaten with your hands, they are more peasant food than fancy cuisine. 

Also, like any other Russian word that ends in "E" or "Y," bliny is grammatically plural. So, by Russian language standards, it is redundant to say "blinis." The singular form, blin, is less often used in English (perhaps because people rarely consume just one of these treats alone!). (Sidenote: In Russian, "blin" is also a softened curse word, kind of like "fudge," which refers to a more serious one.) 

A bowl of buckwheat kasha sits on a table with a big glob of butter on top.
Buckwheat is still one of the most popular varieties of kasha, and possibly the most nutritious. | Alexandra Curtis

5. Kasha

Kasha is the most important Russian staple food, next to rye bread perhaps. In American English, most people only associate this word with the (extremely popular) buckwheat version, but in Russian kasha actually covers more territory.

A better translation for the word "kasha" would be "porridge," except it can be made out of just about any grain. Oats, barley, millet, semolina, and even rice are all popular bases from which kasha can be made. Also, unlike porridge, kasha can be served with nearly any meal: breakfast, lunch, or dinner. So go ahead, embrace the variety of kasha (and a variety of Russian vocabulary)! 

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