In one sense, this post will be of limited interest, since it discusses a Russian word (or non-word) used only in a single poem. However, even those who don’t know Russian may find it interesting to contemplate the issue of a poet using a word nobody else understands.
Probably Mandelstam’s most famous poem is the “Stalin epigram” that got him in serious trouble and contributed to his arrest and eventual murder by the state. You can see a translation of the whole thing at that Wikipedia link (here‘s the original Russian); what I want to focus on is this couplet:
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет
One [of the “thin-necked chiefs” around him] whistles, another mews, a third whimpers;
He [Stalin] alone babáchit and prods.
You’ll note that Kline, in the translation at Wikipedia, renders the line “He alone pushes and prods”; that’s a copout, but an understandable one, because nobody knows what babachit means. When I first read this poem, there was so much in Mandelstam I didn’t understand, and my vocabulary was so limited, that I didn’t bother worrying about it—it was just one more puzzle I’d deal with later. Well, now it’s later, and both my vocabulary (and my range of resources to supplement it) and my acquaintance with the poet have expanded tremendously, and I figured it was time to deal with it.
So I looked in my three-volume bilingual dictionary, and I looked in Dahl, and I looked in the Dictionary of Russian dialects: nothing. There is a word бабатя [babátya] that Dahl defines as “womanish man; hermaphrodite,” and the verb could theoretically be derived from this, but as far as I know Stalin has never been accused of hermaphroditism, and it’s just too far-fetched. So I turned to Google, and discovered that Russians have been wondering too. In this forum discussion, for example, Vladimir asks what it means; someone cites an irrelevant verb meaning ‘strike,’ someone else suggests it might be related to бабай [babái] ‘bogeyman,’ but it’s hard to see how, and the discussion trails off. I found a story, “Как они бабачили в 1934” [How they babached in 1934] by Vitaly Rapoport (first published in Vremya i my in 1998) which features this very issue; Stalin calls a meeting to ask about the word, Alexander Poskryobyshev (Stalin’s personal assistant) says he couldn’t find it in the dictionary, Aleksei Tolstoy (after making the faux pas of addressing the dictator as “Iosif Vissarionovich” rather than the mandatory “Comrade Stalin”) babbles that “this word, like others coming from the popular lexicon, doesn’t have any definite sense… I think it means having a jolly time, probably playing babki [a children’s game]. Well, I’m not really sure. You could look it up in Dahl.” Poskryobyshev acerbically says that Dahl “gives no instructions on this point”; Tolstoi retreats in confusion. Later, Stalin reads the poem over by himself and thinks “Only Stalin is a Person, the poet got that right. “Whimpers”: of course that’s Bukharin and others like him. Babachit? You can’t figure it out, even if you turn to the Academy of Sciences.”
Now, writers have the right to invent words, but it seems odd to do so in such an opaque way, especially in a political epigram that is intended to skewer a villain unforgettably. Did Mandelstam just like the sound so much he couldn’t resist throwing it in? Did it have some private meaning for him? I guess we’ll never know, but it’s one of the more interesting hapaxes I’ve come across.