A Distorted Etymology.

This is a very minor issue, but it amused me, so I’m passing it along: in chapter 4 of Gorham’s Speaking in Soviet Tongues (see this post), he is discussing the difficulty of writers (and beginning writers, in the shape of workers’ and village correspondents) in dealing with the confusing variety of forms of speech available in the early 1920s, specifically the juicy but restricted peasant speech, which had trouble with abstraction and logical sequence, and the high-flown language of Bolshevik officials and propagandists, which was full of abstraction and was basically unintelligible to the average Russian. After providing amusing examples from Zoshchenko, who derived half his material from this confusion, he says, “‘True’ authority remains outside the margins of the perverted text with the implied author,” and his footnote reads:

The Russian term iskazhenie, which I translate in this discussion as “distortion” or “perversion,” nicely reflects the degree to which the act is rooted in language or narration (as suggested by the root -SKAZ-). The term was commonly employed by contemporary critics who complained of the postrevolutionary mangling of the Russian language, Soviet ideology, or both. […]

Alas, there is no root -SKAZ- here (the root of skazat’ ‘say,’ skazka ‘tale, story,’ etc.); iskazhenie is a nominalized form of the verb iskazit’ ‘distort, pervert, twist,’ which is simply a prefixed equivalent of the semantically identical but obsolete kazit’, which as Vasmer says is either a causative of -чезать or a cognate of Lithuanian kežė́ti, kežù ‘acquire a sour taste.’ No relation to -SKAZ- whatever; that’s just a tale, or story, as it were. This should not be taken as a slap at Gorham, who is a fine scholar; anyone can make a mistake, and it’s in a footnote most people won’t even read. But it should serve as a reminder not to neglect the dusty facts of philology even when one is brewing the heady nectar of analysis.


  1. For some reason I’ve always seen “iskazhenie” as a mirror of “obraz” (i.e. pre-obrazhenie). Interesting.

  2. Most Russians would probably fall into the same mistake, as Vasmer’s suggested “kazit'” is unknown, while …kazat’ words are truly ubiquitous.

    (I don’t mean inventing a double prefix i+s+kazit’, but rather assuming that “skaz” & “iskazit'” share the stem)

  3. Yeah, it’s a natural error, and in fact Serbo-Croatian has a verb iskazati that is derived from the “skaz” root — but it means ‘to state, express.’

  4. Daniel N. says:

    There’s an interesting and likely related S/C verb: iskeziti.

    IMHO S/C iskazati = iz + kazati like ukazati = u + kazati.

  5. Yeah, exactly.

  6. @John Cowan That reminds me of an article I read once that talked about George Steiner’s analysis of Dostoevsky’s use of the definite article.

  7. SFReader says:

    Ukrainian has
    сказ -у

    I think the root of these group of words in Ukrainian is indeed ‘skaz’. All these words mean “mad, crazy, rabid, go crazy, run amok” etc.

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