BABACHIT.

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.

Comments

  1. “pencil-necked chiefs”?

  2. “pencil-necked chiefs”?

  3. Perhaps it’s the only lexical object that fit into that point of the poem.

  4. j. del col says:

    Think ‘ba-boom.” i.e. only Stalin booms out (can be heard above the rest)

  5. j. del col says:

    I think onomatopoeia may be the answer.
    Mandelstam might also have been punning on the Greek notion of ‘barbarian.’

  6. This reminds me of the terrible irony of the phrase dusha rodnaya in Unmentionable’s poem about You-Know-Who: the standard English translation of the line is “on his lips a family smile”, which doesn’t catch it at all. Is perhaps the smile in this case rodnaya because the speaker thinks of himself as a rod’? Anna Weetabix (I think) wrote an article someplace on rodnoi/chuzhoi and their implications as purely Russian semantic concepts.

  7. “Pencil-necked chiefs”?
    Maybe it’s in contrast to thick-necked thugs and means intellectuals.

  8. I wondered if it might be a non-Russian word – Ossetian, maybe? Stalin’s precise ethnic identity was a subject of debate at the time, wasn’t it?
    I love Pencil-necked chiefs! (And I misread it as ‘chefs’, which gave rise to all manner of curious imagery.)
    NH

  9. No, it’s clearly Russian, even if it’s not a word (if you see what I mean). And Mandelstam certainly didn’t know any Ossetian (he had a hard enough time with Greek morphology).

  10. What about бабчить in Dahl?

  11. Neither the form nor the meaning seem to fit.

  12. maybe it means something like nagging, like talduchit’ for example
    Stalin’s speeches sounding to M boring and threatening

  13. To share a personal opinion of a native speaker, for what it’s worth, no checking done:
    I am almost sure this is an invented non-word, one that is calculated to give a phonetic impression of someone speaking at a distance, too far for hearing what he says, and producing on a distant listener the impression of saying “ba-ba-ba” in low booming tone (while the “thin-necked” crowd produces high-pitched whimpers); “tichit” continues in this phonetic direction, but is also, of course, a normal word that means “to adress informally or condescendingly” (as in French “tutoier”).
    This can be compared to a similar,but much more wide-spread, “word”, “бубучит (bubuchit)” — Google could turn up a lot of examples, including a poem by Slutsky (http://www.litera.ru/stixiya/authors/sluckij/muskuly-myslitelyu-narastil.html).

  14. Thank you, maxim! That’s the best suggestion I’ve seen yet, and (for what it’s worth) it fits with the language sense of this non-native speaker. I’m provisionally adopting that as my official interpretation.

  15. The first thing to come to mind for me is also ‘бабай’, something that is also mentioned several times in one of the ЖЖ discussions (http://alik-manov.livejournal.com/237106.html). I don’t like losing the ‘й’, but the meaning works. It is a strongly semantically marked Turkic borrowing (cf. Tatar dictionary, http://www.suzlek.ru/suzlek/main.show?in_word=babay), and it is less of ‘bogeyman’ than ‘big man’ or ‘old man’, in the sense of a person who has some power and influence, and who may also be a protector to a degree. Today, the Tatar president Shaimiev is occasionally referred to as ‘Шаймиев бабай’ in precisely this sense. (http://www.profile.ru/items/?item=5500)

  16. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t know very much Russian, but given the triad of verbs describing the vocal peculiarities of the three pencil-necked men, the next verb has to be in the same semantic field: would “booms” or “booms out” be a possibility? “only Stalin’s voice booms out” ? I don’t know how those words relate to the next verb though, if it indeed means “prods”.

  17. chemiazrit says:

    Not a native Russian speaker, but I would have assumed Mandelstam was somehow riffing on the word “баба”. The more common meaning of баба is, of course, “peasant woman; wench,” but my dictionary also gives “the ram (of a pile-driver)” as a second definition. Could бабачит then be meant to suggest “he rams like a pile driver”? This may be far-fetched, but, at any rate, it sounds Stalinesque and fits well with “тычет.”

  18. It’s an interesting word because it doesn’t seem to exist but sounds like it does. It might be from бабай which is a bogeyman, the scary creature that comes in the night and terrifies children; also connotations of “Eastern despot” (less certain). In terms of word formation, it’s more likely to be from бабак, which is a kind of ground hog but figuratively a sluggish, lazy person; a landless peasant; an old bachelor. Either fits, but бабак seems to fit better (Stalin’s fat worm-like fingers, the first line of the poem). In either case the image is of someone scary or creepy.
    Some people think the action is pounding (there are other words with phonological similarities for pounding), but to me it makes more sense as Maxim and others suggest (and there are echoes of other words that suggest this). It’s in contrast to the mewling, high-pitched squeals of his entourage. I think there is also a sound association of something not quite intelligible, something muttered or slurred (like a бабак?) – which fits Stalin’s accented Russian. And for me it fits with тычет, which is the gesture of poking your finger at someone (or in his chest) to make a point. The image is of him booming out slurred orders in a basso while poking his scrawny underlings with his fat fingers.
    My two cents.

  19. I’ve always assumed it came from ба-бах, which is the sound a gun makes in Russian when it is fired. Thus, бабачит with his pistol and тычет with his finger conjure up a cartoony image of the mountain man in the Kremlin. He doesn’t kill, he doesn’t even shoot: he simply produces the sound of a gun going off. But having read the foregoing discussion, I’m now having second thoughts.

  20. If Maxim’s suggestion is true, then we have an image of a multitude of feeble babes among which there is only one adult who plays with them by saying “ba-ba-ba” and prodding them with his finger.

  21. I suspect one reason M. liked his invented word is that it had so many useful resonances.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    one adult who plays with them by saying “ba-ba-ba” and prodding them with his finger.
    Then perhaps “ba-ba-ba” is the equivalent of “bang-bang”: Stalin just goes “bang-bang?
    Is “prodding” really the right word?

  23. Yes, Hat, I think so, too. The word is very evocative, in both textual and sound associations.
    I don’t think “prod” is quite right. What verb would you use to decribe someone gesturing adamently with his index finger — kind of jabbing the air?

  24. No, I don’t think prods is a good translation. In this context, it’s clearly “to adress informally” (as in French “tutoier”), as maxim mentioned, AND “to point a finger at someone”, as mab said above. Obviously, both meanings are related, the idea being that of a condescending and impolite manner.

  25. Poke, goad and tap are in my (Oxford) thesaurus.

  26. As for pencil-necked chiefs, note that one of M.’s own versions of the poem substitutes тонкошеих for толстокожих, thick-skinned, which is, it seems to me, almost the opposite of pencil-necked.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    So while the others (= underlings?) just mewl and whimper, perhaps Stalin just pretends to shoot them:
    Stalin just goes “bang-bang” and pokes them in the chest.
    Would that make sense in the context?

  28. marie-lucie says:

    No, I think I misunderstood. The meaning must be more general than I thought: this is the way all of “them” act, Stalin acts this way not just toward the whimperers but towards anybody.
    Stalin just goes “bang-bang” and pokes you??

  29. chemiazrit says:

    Stalin just goes “bang-bang” and pokes you??
    As to how it should be translated, aren’t you missing the point mark if you’re translating a pseudo-Russian word using one or more genuine English words?
    Following Maxim’s interpretation, I’d suggest “Only he blablabbles and jabs.

  30. I am a very poor native speaker, but my interpretation would be as follows:
    - baba = crone
    - babachit = he does something in in the manner of a stereotype of a crone
    - babachit = he nags
    The commenter Read above suggested the same without justifying.

  31. Russian is a great language for playing around with words. In particular, the SOUND of the word conveys a tone without meaning anything in particular. (My father likes to make up Russian words and then speculate about what they should mean.) To this native speaker, “babachit” implies nonsensical action and a playfulness that fits with the rest of the couplet.
    The “nags” interpretation also makes sense, and is quite compatible with the author going for a mischievous tone.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    As I said before, I don’t know enough Russian to be able to have an informed discussion with people who do speak it, but to go “bang-bang” suggests little boys playing, it is not a phrase with a specific meaning (and “bang-bang” is an onomatopeia rather than a real word). but “to nag” suggests an adult keeping after someone (eg to get the children to pick up their socks, etc), not something playful. Among substitutes for “prod”, “jab” seems to be the closest to the image I had in mind.
    However, I am not trying to propose my own interpretation, as I would if an invented word turned up in a French text: I am just trying to figure out what might be implied by the text, taking into account what others have said about it.

  33. M.L.Gasparov (who seems to have known more than everything about Russian poetry) refers to “babachit” as “gorgeous nonexistent verb”:
    http://www.mlis.fobr.ru/science/istorlit/process/gasparov_tri_poetiki2/?template=23

  34. I think there’s a good reason to keep the interpretations and
    translations of both “бабачит”
    and “тычет” (babachit and tichit) to
    descriptions of sound: this is what the whole poem seems to be playing
    with, from the start — starting from the people that are so afraid that
    one can’t hear them and ending with a squeaking crowd around the loud,
    booming boss; so I would keep the choice of the homonym to “address
    informally or condescendingly” for
    “тычет”, not the one that means “prod” –
    it has to be something one can hear. Something on the lines of “he alone
    is bossing around, his voice booming amidst squeaky crowd”. Ideal
    translation would of course use a nonsensical word for “booming”, but
    that seems to be beyond me.

  35. “Stalin booms and shouts ‘You!’”?

  36. > “Stalin booms and shouts ‘You!’”?
    >
    Yes, that’s what I had in mind… Perhaps “shouts” hints at voice strain
    that isn’t consistent with the rest… To risk being ridiculous with my
    English: maybe “he alone boom-thumps and hey-yous”?

  37. Contrary to Hat’s introduction, this thread has been very interesting to those without any Russian. I’ll be so bold as to add it to my list* of triumphant LH threads. I have trouble imagining a better discussion anywhere else in the actual world (except perhaps in an informal discussion among a few of the world’s top Mandelstam scholars).
    *The list is apocryphal; I keep adding threads to it, but I can never remember where the list is.

  38. Contrary to Hat’s introduction, this thread has been very interesting to those without any Russian. I’ll be so bold as to add it to my list* of triumphant LH threads. I have trouble imagining a better discussion anywhere else in the actual world (except perhaps in an informal discussion among a few of the world’s top Mandelstam scholars).
    *The list is apocryphal; I keep adding threads to it, but I can never remember where the list is.

  39. Is this the Russian equivalent of a finger pistol and “bang-bang, you’re dead”?

  40. > Is this the Russian equivalent of a finger pistol and “bang-bang, you’re
    > dead”?
    No, _that_ — playful shooting with finger pistol — would sound like
    “pif-paf” or “kh-kh” in Russian; not too close to the kind of sound
    effect I was thinking about.

  41. Maxim, that’s very interesting. Тыкать means both to prod (poke, jab, shove) or to use ты (the informal “you”). It looks like it can be conjugated two ways Тычу, тычет or тыкаю, тыкает, with (in Ushakov) the first pattern offered first for the poking and the second pattern offered first for the use of ты. Certainly today that’s the way I’ve heard them used (that is, тычет for prod, тыкает for use of ты). But perhaps you are right and the “first” meaning is the speech meaning of тыкать.
    In any case, some people “hear” бабачить as the action of pounding (followed in the next line by the forging of orders like horseshoes). The brilliance is that it is both or either. (Another interpretation of бабачить is from баба in the sense of a healer, an adept at folk medicine. I suppose you could also “hear” the jammering of old women. But if you wanted to explore/add those options, I would think that they are another layer of making fun of Stalin, poking – ha! — fun at his image as the Great Leader, the specialist in everything from industry to agriculture to architecture. That is, he’s really a booming fool, whose pronouncements are little more than old peasant women’s chatter and whose expertise is like folk superstition.)
    I suppose I would call the poem “playful,” at least in contrast to many of M’s other complex and overwhelmingly serious poems. But to me it’s not the playfulness of “bang bang you’re dead”, but rather the witty, dark mockery of the tormentor by his victim. He’s cutting Stalin down to size. Stalin and his underlings were killing millions of people, destroying the country, eliminating its traditions (Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз – hitting them in every place that counts). And yet here they are a bunch of mewling and booming oafs, compared to worms and cockroaches and small animals, making non-human sounds.

  42. ‘Comrade Stalin, “бабачит” is apparently meaningless, but if it has any meaning it is doubtless objectionable.’

  43. marie-lucie says:

    mab, thank you for this very enlightening comment. You too, mollymooly.

  44. > Maxim, that’s very interesting. Тыкать means both to prod (poke, jab,
    > shove) or to use ты (the informal “you”). It looks like it can be
    > conjugated two ways Тычу, тычет or тыкаю, тыкает, with (in Ushakov) the
    > first pattern offered first for the poking and the second pattern
    > offered first for the use of ты. Certainly today that’s the way I’ve
    > heard them used (that is, тычет for prod, тыкает for use of ты).
    >
    I don’t have any hard proof and haven’t done any checking, but it seems
    to me the second form of conjugation (“он тычет”) is indeed more rare
    but stays in use in some cliché expressions (“Вы мне не тычьте”), and
    might come across as more emotionally charged (“тычет”, to me, is more
    readily interpreted as being rude than “тыкает”).
    But, again, I am sharing a native speaker’s impressions, not something
    grounded in… well, in anything. I have been proved wrong on numerous
    such occasions in the past.
    >
    > But perhaps you are right and the “first” meaning is the speech
    > meaning of тыкать.
    >
    Well, my reason for believing this was that the whole poem seemed to
    have the first layer of meaning built on sound. So it seemed natural to
    suppose that “тычет” is more likely saying something than doing
    something in this poem. I even thought that the word is there primarily
    to fit in the same “sound picture” as “babachit”, the actual meaning
    being secondary to Mandelstam’s intentions, but, again, it’s a
    suggestion of a possibility, nothing more, nothing less.
    This made me remember another occasion twenty years ago, when I had
    offered a ridiculously far-fetched historical explanation of “военные
    астры” in another well-known poem by Mandelstam, overlooking the
    obvious meaning…

  45. mab, rankly, the “healer hypothesis” seems way too far-fetched. Even if we associate бабачит with баба, which in itself is not obvious, баба means a woman, not a healer. Sure enough, it’s a very frequently used word and has at least a dozen other meanings, including ‘midwife’ (NOT ‘healer’, pregnancy is not an illness:)). One of the more promising metaphoric uses of баба is to designate a pagan idol.

  46. maxim, I’ve read somewhere that военные астры meant epaulets. Is that what you call “the
    obvious meaning”? Looks like it’s not so obvious – according to Mintz, “смысл первой строки стихотворения О. Мандельштама «Я пью за военные астры…» остается недостаточно выясненным.”

  47. И может быть в эту минуту
    Меня на турецкий язык
    Японец какой переводит
    И прямо мне в душу проник.
    It may be that this very minute some Japanese is translating me into Turkish and is looking right into my soul.

  48. sredni vashtar, I actually don’t like the reading of бабачить as healing with herbs; just passing along what others have proposed.

  49. OT, but today’s Discovering Music dealt with Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. I thought it might be of interest to the slavonophiles around here. Some discussion of the sound of Church Slavonic compared to Latin and its consequences for the musical rhythm.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00k00pj

  50. > maxim, I’ve read somewhere that военные астры meant epaulets. Is that
    > what you call “the obvious meaning”? Looks like it’s not so obvious -
    > according to Mintz, “смысл первой строки стихотворения О. Мандельштама
    > «Я пью за военные астры…» остается недостаточно выясненным.”
    Yes, epaulets. My theory back then was that Mandelstam had been
    remembering the patriotic enthusiasm of August 1914, during the
    short-lived Russian success in East Prussia. Perhaps — it being the
    right season — asters had been the flowers thrown at the departing
    troops… Well, Mintz seems to have found a link to August flowers, so I
    might have been not too far off the mark, after all. And, to think of
    it, gold-stringed epaulets don’t look much like asters, either. Now I
    would be curious to know where the “epaulets theory” comes from — I
    can’t remember where I had been reading about it.

  51. maxim, I’ve managed to find the epaulets interpretation in Morozov’s comments to Nadezhda Mandelstam, which is authoritative enough for me.

  52. s.v., thank you so much for the reference! This indeed settles it as far as I am concerned.

  53. I just read a verse by verse commentary by a spanish speaking translator of the epigram here:
    Verso duodécimo
    sólo él campea tonante…
    (Он один лишь бабачит и тычет,)
    Escogí traducir “campea tonante” por babachit, un neologismo, un verbo inexistente, que sin embargo no presenta dificultad alguna para el ruso parlante por ser una expresión onomatopéyica, ba-ba-ba-chit, es decir, zumba con voz tonante, habla con voz fuerte, de jefe.

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