The mail section of the latest New Yorker is entirely taken up with responses to the recent Erofeyev article on mat. I will reproduce here what is, hands down, the best letter-to-the-editor I have ever read (from a Languagehat standpoint, that is). Warning: it is chock-full of both filthy language and Indo-European reconstructions!
Erofeyev, in his essay on mat, relies in some cases on folk etymologies that have been called into question by academic scholarship. For example, he connects yebat’ (“to fuck”) and bit’ (“to beat”). But the root of yebat’ is *yebh-, with cognates in Sanskrit yábhati (“he fucks”) and probably Greek oipho (“I fuck”). The verb bit’ (“to beat, hit, strike”) and its derivatives, in contrast, are ultimately traced back to *bheiH-, and can be compared with the Avestan biiente (“they fight, beat”), the Old Irish -bith (“was struck”), and the German das Beil (“hatchet”). Likewise, the Russian word pizda (“cunt”) is probably related not to pisat’ (“to piss”) but to bzdet’ (“to fart”), both linked to earlier *pezd- (“to break wind”) and cognate with Greek bdéô (from earlier bzdéô) and Latin pêdô, as suggested in Pokorny’s authoritative etymological dictionary. Although the word mat is, as Erofeyev notes, commonly associated with Russian mat’ (“mother”) because of the ubiquitous yob tvoyu mat’ (“fuck you,” lit. “fucked your mother”), there is no unequivocal (or even convincing) etymology for this word. Folk etymologies have cultural resonance, of course. But mat is, in fact, serious business.
Michael S. Flier
Professor of Ukrainian Philology
Indo-European, represent! If I’d known the New Yorker would one day publish a letter like this, I might have stuck it out and gotten the PhD.
A couple of quibbles: there should be an asterisk before the form bzdéô (unless they have a source unknown to me attesting the form), and I don’t grasp the subtle semantics involved in differentiating “to fart” and “to break wind.” But never mind that. Bravo Prof. Flier, bravo The New Yorker!