Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Crimean words in English.

The Thin Red Line.


The Ukrainian crisis has brought back place names and events in Crimea that gave English a number of words and phrases some of which are hardly associated now with the war between Russia and a coalition of Britain, France and Turkey (plus the Kingdom of Sardinia) in 1853-1856. 

Here is a short list of Crimean words and phrases in English.

My top three are:

Balaklava (or Balaclava) — a small port to the East of Sevastopol that served as the main British base during the war. It gave name to the type of knitted hat that covers head, neck and most of the face. Patriotic English ladies are said to have produced them en masse for the troops ill-prepared for the harsh Winter campaign. Beloved of terrorists, robbers and spetsnaz in late 20th Century its name became disconnected from its origins. What's interesting is that 'balaclava' wasn't used in the hat sense in Russian until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was imported in the English sense only recently. (choose from a selection of Balaclava articles on Wikipedia.)

Raglan — Lord Raglan was the commander of the British army in Crimea (and died there towards the end of the war.) The invention of raglan, a type of clothing that has sleeves without seams on the shoulders, is named after him. Seamless shoulders allowed freer movement and prevented rainwater from getting under coats. Raglan is still popular. (wiki article about him)

Cardigan — Lord Cardigan was the commander of British light cavalry during the Battle of Balaclava. The Charge of the Light Brigade immortalised him. Tennyson wrote the poem based on a report in The Times and when Cardigan returned to England before the end of the war he was mobbed as a national hero. Only later doubts about his role and character began to emerge. The type of knitted jacket, buttoned down the front and with thick turn-down collar is said to have been introduced by Lord Cardigan. (wiki article about him, wiki about cardigans.) 

Other Crimean words:

Crimea, Crimean War

Sevastopol (often Sebastopol) — Russian naval base and city on the Western tip of Crimea. Site of two long land sieges, during the Crimean War and during the second world war. Young Leo Tolstoy was a front-line artillery officer during the siege and wrote Sebastopol Sketches about the war. They were quickly published, were a huge success and secured Tolstoy's reputation as one of the foremost Russian writers. His method, that fully flourished in War and Peace, can already be seen in the Sketches.

Charge of the Light Brigade, see above.

The Thin Red Line — the phrase comes from the Times correspondent W.H.Russel's account the Highlanders action against the Russian cavalry charge. They formed a line only two deep. It was their gallantry that saved the day at the Battle of Balaclava. Later the phrase came to mean an overstretched defensive effort. 

Alma — is a river in Crimea, site of the first major battle between the coalition and the Russians, won by the invading army. Alma became a popular name in Britain after the battle. Crimean Alma is of Turkic origin. In Crimean Tartar it means 'apple.'

Potemkin, the battleship and the fake villages are also linked to Crimea but of an earlier period. Prince Grigory Potemkin was a favourite of Empress Catherine II. In 1780s he directed Russian military and political advances in the south against Turkey and the Tartars. He annexed Crimea for Russia in 1783. The episode with the building of fake prosperous villages, sometimes just the fronts of houses, is disputed by contemporaries and later historians. It refers to the visit of Catherine to Crimea in 1787. A German account of the trip described the massive building of fake villages on the orders of Potemkin to impress Catherine. 
The Battleship Potemkin, made famous by Eisenstein's 1925 film, was built at the end of 1890s and named after Prince Potemkin. The mutiny described in Eisenstein's film happened in 1905, during the first Russian revolution. 

There are many other references to Crimea in English. Chekhov, for example, lived in Crimea towards the end of his life. The Lady and the Dog was written there and describes Yalta, the fashionable resort city on the southern coast of Crimea. 

If you have additions to my list, they are most welcome.

Picture: The Thin Red Line, painting, o/c, by Robert Gibb, 1881, National War Museum of Scotland. Image from here.

Read this story in Russian here.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

12 Years a Slave.


Just watched '12 Years a Slave', Best Picture according to the US Academy, three Oscars total.

Never has a film disappointed me as much as '12 Years' had, not for a very long time. It's simply bad. 

Poor, cliched acting, unconvincing characters, hardly any character development and too many characters to make the story coherent, and the story is disjointed, it just falls apart. Benedict Cumberbatch appears as a 'good slave owner' for a short part at the beginning of the film and soon disappears never to come back. Instead, Brad Pitt briefly pops up towards the end, makes a stilted speech against slavery to the face of a slave-owner for whom he is building a strange three-level structure which is later shown finished as a one-level summerhouse-pavilion. Brad Pitt then forever goes off-screen, to arrange Solomon Northup (main character played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) release.

As for the message, racism remains unexplained, unabhorrent and the notions of freedom and equality nearly spurious. 

Complete disappointment. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Vassily Grossman. A TV Documentary.

Elena Yakovich, a well-known Rusian tv-journalist, has just released a documentary on the story of the arrest by the KGB, safe-keeping, publishing and the final return to world-wide reading public of Vassily Grossman's great novel 'Life and Fate.'

It was broadcast on the Russian tv-channel Kultura (Culture). I have written several times about 'Life and Fate' and its story. Here, in the film, it is unbelievably touching to put a face to many of the characters of this drama. It includes daughters and sons of Grossman and his friends, the writer Vladimir Voinovich, who helped to smuggle the manuscript to the West, and finally the KGB/FSB archives chief handing over boxes and boxes of the original work to literary experts.

The film is in Russian but those who followed the story will recognise the characters.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Great Genby.

A little fun with new Russian.

Genby.
Photo: www.kremlin.ru

Digital age and and a country open to outside world created entirely new ways for language creativity.

Take this, for example. Switching from one language to another also requires, when writing, switching your keyboard settings. In the case of Russian, switching from Latin alphabet to Cyrillic. Many Russians soon discovered that typing in Russian when the keyboard is switched to English creates quite a few fun words. And vice versa.

If you type 'Dear' to start a formal letter, in Cyrillic it becomes 'Вуфк' that sounds Woofk. A nonsense word that doesn't mean anything but sounds onomatopoeic both in Russian and in English with 'oof' and 'уф' interjections as the most obvious. Russian 'oof' has the same meaning as in English. I have a friend with whom we use 'Вуфк' as a regular greeting in correspondence.

If you touch-type Putin in Russian with the standard Cyrillic фыва-олдж keyboard in mind but with the Qwerty layout switched on, the name becomes Genby. It is now becoming an internet meme in its own right.

And the most popular reverse word that sprung from the switched keyboard phenomenon is ЗЫ. ZY, pronounced z-yee with the hard Russian ы sound, is nothing but PS, a postscript. But it also has an added weight of introducing a punch line, an ironic or sarcastic conclusion to one's blog post or a social network update. Probably because it sounds similar to 'гы', a Russian interjection, expressing impish glee.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Rabbit Called Sauna.


We have a new cat, a kitten in fact. The name is being deliberated. I put a picture of my old cat Vassily Ivanovich (Vaska - Васька) on Facebook. Unbeatable for traffic. Just as I expected, dozens of suggestions followed. One puzzled me — Banya.

Banya? Баня (Banya) is the Russian word for steam bath. Sauna if you will. But Russian-style sauna, unlike the Finnish one is full of hot steam. Banya was a pet rabbit of my Russian Facebook friends.

Why would anyone call a rabbit Sauna? I asked.

Don't you see, they replied. It's from Bunny. Bunny — Banya.
 
With an added bonus of having a resemblance to Vanya, a common diminutive of the quintessential Russian name Ivan.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Selfie in Russian.

самострел vs селфи
Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

As Obama and Cameron were taking selfies with the blonde Danish Prime-Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt while attending the Mandela memorial service I thought I should mention that selfie the word is battling with the word samostrel (самострел) in the Russian language.

Samostrél (stress on e) literally means self-shot, strel being the noun formed from the verb стрелять - to shoot. Until the recent proliferation of its self-portrait meaning samostrel meant a self-inflicted unjury (self-harming), specifically, of a soldier trying to avoid front line service, with all the negative connotations. Samostrel also means a crossbow or a child's toy — a pistol or a crossbow, or a dart shooting device made of an empty spool with a piece of rubber band attached to it.

Today samostrel competes with the English borrowing селфи or сэлфи in being the word for a digital photo of oneself that Oxford Dictionaries pronounced the word of the year 2013. Google search gives 221 thousand hits for селфи and 358 thousand for сэлфи. For самострел Google gives 483 thousand hits, but considering the overlapping of the meaning, it is safe to assume that the two words are now neck and neck, perhaps with a slight advantage to селфи. Curiously, the Russian Wikipedia has an article on селфи (with an e) which doesn't mention the word samostrel. And there is an article on self-harming that mentions samostrel.

By the way, a Danish editor, who was interviewed today on the radio, said that there was no Danish word for selfie, they just use the English one.

We will see how it works out in Russian. Early in the 20th Century two words were competing for airplane (aeroplane) — аэроплан and самолёт (samolët). Samolet won even though аэроплан is still used occasionally but has a definite archaic flavour.

Photo: Mogens Engelund, from here.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

English Rules, by Andrei Ostalski.


English Rules, first published in Russian in 2006, is a great romp through the misadventures of a hapless young Russian living with his wife and in-laws in Folkstone, England, where he is desperately trying to fathom the tacit dos and don'ts of English etiquette when his life is turned upside down by a series of catastrophic events.


The opening scene sets the note of the absurd which runs through the book, a genre which has powerful antecedents in soviet literature as does the portrayal of the "little man" manipulated by Kafka-esque conspiracies.

Ostalski's observations on his adopted country – a Russian journalist, the author moved to Britain in the early 90s – are spot on but made with great warmth. On a more serious level, this is also a novel about the emigre/immigrant experience of trying to decipher and fit into a society whose rules appear both impenetrable and unpredictable and as such it also raises questions about identity itself.

But this is above all a skilfully written and very funny novel.

- by Miranda Ingram, former Daily Mail Moscow Correspondent. 



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