BOYM ON POSHLOST.

Like most Russophiles who read Nabokov at an impressionable age, I was hooked by his description of пошлость (póshlost’) and have been seeking further elucidation ever since. I wrote a brief post about the concept back in 2007, and now that I’m reading Svetlana Boym’s Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia I can expand on it, because it is one of the basic elements of her “Mythologies of Everyday Life” chapter, and she goes into both its history and its cultural importance. However, since her discussion is both dense and wide-ranging (the section devoted to the word is twenty-five pages long), I’ll do the best I can to pull out some particularly interesting bits.
She begins her discussion as follows:

After making love with her new acquaintance in the resort town of Yalta, the heroine of Anton Chekhov’s short story “A Lady with a Dog” begins to cry, and then declares that she has become “a poshlaia woman.” Her lover orders a piece of melon brought to him on a porcelain saucer with a golden rim. He is embarrassed by her tears, which are not in good taste for a conventional, cool, and blase resort romance. Yet it is the shame and the lure of poshlost’ that turn this Western-style casual adultery into a typical Russian love story, complete with tears, grey dresses, autumnal landscapes, and nostalgia.
Poshlost’ is the Russian version of banality, with a characteristic national flavoring of metaphysics and high morality, and a peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual. This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and lack of spirituality. This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and lack of spirituality. The war against poshlost’ is a cultural obsession of the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia from the 1860s to 1960s. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has there been such a consistency in the battle against banality. In Dostoevsky, poshlyi is an attribute of the devil (or at least of his dreamline novelistic apparition), while Alexander Solzhenitsyn uses it to characterize Western-oriented youth. In everyday speech a “poshliak” (boor or slob, with a diminutive pejorative suffix) is not a servant of the devil or a “Western spy” but only a man who frequently uses obscene language or behaves like a common womanizer. Poshlost’ has also a broader meaning, close to byt [another hard-to-translate term, meaning 'daily life' but with a negative connotation], when it refers to the incommensurable everyday routine, obscene by virtue of being ordinary and evil by virtue of being banal.

I was surprised by the emphasis on sexuality in this passage—Nabokov’s only nod to that side of things is his sly rendering of the last syllable as “lust”—but she later goes on to support it with citations.
After a summary of Nabokov and a quick survey of the origin of the word (for which see my earlier post), she says, “There is an important connection between poshlost’ and the merchant class—kuptsy, at the higher level, and meshchane at the lower level of urban dwellers (the mythical Russian equivalent of the petite bourgeoisie),” adding the following footnote:

In the Russian cultural imagination, as shaped by nineteenth-century literature, the kupets is an embodiment of conservatism, “the reign of darkness”…. There is an inherent connection between poshlost’ and language: poshlost’ cannot be studied merely thematically; it has as much to do with the style, with the way things are done, as with the things themselves. The metamorphosis of the word is closely linked to the development of Russian and Soviet languages, particularly the omnipotent language of the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy operates on the notions of precedent, custom, order, and their preservation and recycling. The old procedures, rituals, and orders from above remained almost unmodified even after the Revolution.

She quotes Pushkin’s description of Lensky’s “poshlyi madrigal” in Eugene Onegin and says “Although the word is used in the old sense of ‘old and common,’ its context anticipates the modern adventures of Russian banality.” In “The Queen of Spades,” Pushkin has Lisa react to Tomsky’s verbal portrait of Hermann: “having read the newest novels, this already trivial (poshloe) face scared her and stirred her imagination.” Boym says “Yet Pushkin’s attitude toward the commonplace is quite ambiguous; there is a certain nostalgia for the common ways… He is an enemy of linguistic and cultural purity. His common ways are not the ways of national salvation; they are both Russian and European, culturally specific but not exclusionist.”
Going on to compare poshlost’ with French banality, she writes:

At first, the word had to do with the feudal communality and order. Yet the mourning for that lost communality lasted longer in Russian culture than in France, and everyday life was never conceived by the Russian intellectual as something entirely secular. The sexual, spiritual, and artistic spheres are delineated differently than they are in the West, and everyday life, casual love, and spiritual waste remain linked. Poshlost’ and its vehement critique are at the core of the definition of Russian identity, both national and cultural. The usage encompasses attitudes toward material culture and historical change, and it determines ethical values, particularly with respect to sexuality and occasionally with respect to femininity, since poshlost’ is occasionally personified as a salon madame of loose morals.

She says that (contra Nabokov) the concept is not unique to Russia, comparing it to kitsch, and says her discussion “will oscillate between the familiar notion of the banality of evil and the less familiar banality of good, and a third danger, the banality of the discourse about or against banality.” She discusses Gogol and Chekhov at some length, saying “Gogol is largely responsible for the cultural adventures of poshlost’ in Russia” and “In Chekhov, poshlost’ is beyond good and evil… [It] is part of the immutable daily grind. It is what makes life livable but not necessarily worth living.” She ends her discussion of Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog” thus:

Poshlost’ and poetry, poshlost’ and love, are not always on opposite poles; in fact, poshlost’, like love and poetry, has to be continuously redefined and reframed; the old-fashioned frames can acquire a charming aura while the institution of “good taste” can itself turn into a worn-out cliché. What some call poshlost’ and vulgarity are part and parcel of the experience of the everyday, with its minor events and casual trifles, its little pleasures and small hurts. Poshlost’ here has its tender charms; it is described from a lover’s perspective and never reified. This charm in turn imbues poshlost’ with an aura, giving it a poetic potential. After all, it is banal to have an affair with a married woman with grey eyes at a summer resort; it is even more banal to fall in love. Yet, to stay in love, at least for the duration of the story, is beyond banality.

She goes on to discuss the rise of the intelligentsia and their “dream of spiritual superiority,” quotes Sasha Cherny’s poem “Poshlost’” (Russian text) and explicates its version of “Madame Poshlost’” at length, and describes the adventures of the concept in Soviet times (“The fundamental features of early Soviet self-fashioning are the war against banality and the everyday, and the general persistence of military rhetoric in artistic and everyday language. Poshlost’ often refers to reified domestic objects, as well as to sentimentalized human relationships”), from the satire of the ’20s through the romanticism of the ’60s to the stagnation of Brezhnev (“by then the discussion of the banality of life itself began to appear banal and outdated”), but for that you’ll have to turn to the book itself. I hope I’ve given enough material to spur your interest.

Comments

  1. Hat, reading this was fascinating, but my first concern, not being a Russian speaker, was pinning down exactly what poshlost means. She uses ‘banal’, but the first word that came to me was ‘tawdry’, followed by plain old ‘common’. I thought of the young woman having indifferent sex in Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. And yet none of these seem to match either the semantic or emotional range of the Russian word. When I come across words like this, I am of two minds. Either far too much is being made of a word that has a pretty straightforward meaning (‘It just means “common”, don’t know what the fuss is all about’). Or there really is a deeper cultural attitude here that is fascinating to critique.
    With regard to the latter, Néojaponisme recently had a piece On Fake Glasses in Japan which claimed that “lensless glasses don’t work in the Western cultural milieu. Giant hipster glasses with lenses can be explained away under a variety of reasons: medical need, hand-me-downs from parents, … etc. Giant hipster glasses with no lenses are so clearly beyond the pale, so clearly for costume that no excuse would sound remotely plausible. The wearer absolutely, positively woke up that morning and said, today I will wear a pair of giant glasses with no lenses to be fashionable because I am trying to be fashionable.” It is the Western obsession with being effortlessly ‘cool’ that makes the fashion statement of these Japanese gyaru beyond the pale.
    Sorry, off topic of course, but social attitudes are often the hardest part of language to fully communicate — but also the most fascinating — and this sounds like the reason why poshlost is such a rich lode.

  2. That should probably be ‘social and aesthetic attitudes’. The word ‘cool’ strikes me as a particularly interesting word in English. It’s very difficult to be ‘cool’ because there is a kind of tyranny of coolness that dictates what is in and what is out. Judging what that is requires subtle judgement and a sensitivity to trends, which is not easy, even if ‘coolness’ is the determining factor in your life (which it is not for me).

  3. Bathrobe: She uses ‘banal’, but the first word that came to me was ‘tawdry’, followed by plain old ‘common’
    I agree. Everything that has been said about English renderings of poshlost’ here, and in the links, tells us more about the deficient English reading background of the contributors than about the Russian word.
    poshlost’ clearly has exactly the semantic and social connotations of the British word “common”, used by superior people (in novels, essays) up into the 20th century.
    If one knows nothing about this aspect of British social stratification in the 18-20C, then elaborate discussion of the kind quoted will be unavoidable. Another case of people getting carried away by exoticism.

  4. What remarkably opportune timing — just an hour ago I closed the last page of King, Queen, Knave, the first Nabokov I’ve read since too long ago to count. Now that you point it out, the relevance of poshlost’ is obvious to this tale of a country boy who goes to Berlin seeking the excitement promised in magazines and finds himself, metaphorically speaking, transformed into a department-store dummy by an affair with an intensely materialist, intensely sentimental, intensely routine-oriented married woman. But Nabokov deliberately gave this novel a non-Russian cast of characters. In his 1966 introduction he says that the choice of a German setting (once he decided on an international one) was simply due to where he happened to be living when he wrote it, but I wonder if the frequent invocations (discussed in the comments to your earlier post) of German culture as the epitome of banality worked to make it seem particularly suitable.

  5. Needless to say, I didn’t bother to check LH’s earlier post on poshlost before posting my banal comments. Commenters made quite a few stabs at finding an English-language equivalent.
    I’m glad that Grumbly agrees with my rendition as ‘common’. But of course, ‘common’ carries its own peculiar set of values that don’t necessarily carry over to other languages/cultures so easily. It’s not the individual elements, which are easy to grasp, it’s the whole bundle that fascinates.

  6. It’s not the individual elements, which are easy to grasp, it’s the whole bundle that fascinates.
    Oh definitely. I didn’t mean to imply that the widely travelled, severely scuffed portmanteau word “common” contains nothing of interest. My point was that poshlost’ seems to be just another such piece of linguistic baggage. I would buy it at an auction contents unseen.

  7. the frequent invocations (discussed in the comments to your earlier post) of German culture as the epitome of banality
    Such “invocations” tell us more about the invokers than about German culture. They demonstrate ignorance of even the basic elements of European social history. Banality has always been around in various forms. The post-industrial-revolution bourgeoisie is probably the kind meant here.

  8. What were the social functions, in various European countries at different times, of what is being called “banality” here ? Surely it is not merely a matter of being in bad taste in the judgement of today’s commenters on it ? Such a judgement would be so banal as not to be worth issuing.

  9. rootlesscosmo says:

    At first, the word [banality] had to do with the feudal communality and order.
    I remember being startled by “banalité” when I encountered it in Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society as the generic term for the petty services and obligations due from tenants to their manorial landlords.

  10. Excellent, rootlesscosmo ! This Nachweis of the technical term “banalité” should help to elevate the level of discussion. Also, of course, a “petty service” is not a demeaning service – just a small one, like serving cocktails.

  11. Bathrobe says:

    intensely materialist, intensely sentimental, intensely routine-oriented
    I have no doubt that this combination is a plausible one. But what would the opposite be? ‘Intensely spiritual, intensely hard-headed, intensely unpredictable’?

  12. Possibly even: “spiritual without conviction, weakly hard-headed, sporadically unpredictable”.

  13. It’s been awhile since I read Boym, and I don’t have the book with me (at the dacha), but I recall not quite agreeing with her on poshlost’, or rather thinking that she went off on some tangents. The word originally meant (neutrally) something that came into being, and then referred to the usual or ordinary or traditional way of doing something or the way something was. Then it morphed to mean something like “empty ritual.”
    The problem with “what does it mean?” is that the central meaning of poshlost’ – falsity, emptiness of meaning, imitation of true emotions/attributes – remains kind of hidden. That is, it underlies what seem to be very diverse meanings of the word. If you described a painting as poshliy, it would mean that it’s precious, saccharine, prettified (that is, it’s not truly beautiful, deeply moving, capable of evoking deep emotions, but an imitation, manipulative). If you described a joke as poshliy, it means crude or in bad taste (that is, not outright obscene or insulting). If a woman’s dress is poshlaya, it means vulgar. This could mean showing lots of skin, or it could mean tacky – say, overdressed at a casual event (that is, dressed in a way that is not appropriate for the event; a woman could show more skin and cleavage in a ball gown and not be poshlaya). If someone’s comment at the dinner table is poshliy, it could mean trivial, banal (that is, empty of true emotion and meaning). Poshlost’ is always a lack of honesty, of true emotion, of deeply felt, honest feeling. But depending on the context, it might be translated as trivial, banal, crude, vulgar, saccharine, precious, obscene, in poor taste, pretentious, false, tawdry, tacky, or empty.
    I’m not quite sure if it’s the same thing as kitsch. I think of kitsch as more honest – even if it’s in “bad taste.” In any case, the Russian word also has a great moral strike against it. It’s false. It’s dishonest. If you leave your lover and she weeps, throws herself on the bed, flings an ashtray – if it’s honest and deeply felt, that’s okay. If there is an element of show, an imitation of what someone should do when one’s lover leaves – then it’s poshlost’. And morally wrong.
    Not sure if that helps, but… best I can do.

  14. blimey, just looked up the book at Amazon. Why on earth is the kindle edition more expensive, than hardback? crazy.

  15. John Emerson says:

    Poshlost strikes me as a Russian version of the cultural confusion of the modern era, when the aristocracy has lost its wealth and power but still sets the standards as an ideal, while the newly-dominant high bourgeoisie tries to define its own post-aristocratic high culture, distinguishing itself both from the old lazy stupid declining aristocrats, from the parvenu nouveau riche, the greedy, tasteless, extremely petty bourgeoisie, and the parasites and hangers on of wealth.
    In the sexual aspect it seems to apply to cads and bounders.
    One thing that struck me from Nabokov’s autobiography was that he seem to have grown up with an intensive education, but still with the ease of the aristocrat. (He was of aristocratic descent, though his father was a liberal and a modernizer.) The contrast is with Nietzsche, the Bloomsbury people including Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, et. al., who never felt any ease and were often suicidal. The high bourgeoisie treated its children mercilessly and they could never relax.

  16. Poshlost’ is the Russian version of banality, with a characteristic national flavoring of metaphysics and high morality, and a peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual. This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and lack of spirituality.
    This is a fair description of the meaning of poshlost’, but, I agree, it’s very hard, practically impossible to find one word in English that would encompass all the meanings. One would have to look for the best on an ad hoc basis. I suppose it’s the spiritual dimension that makes it so difficult. Equally difficult is мещанство – meschanstvo, not as the third estate, but as the narrow-mindedness.
    One scene is often cited from The Lady with the Dog to demonstrate what poshlost’ is. Towards the end Gurov decides to tell his dining companion about his love for the lady, and the man, having listened to him, replies, after a pause: You were right about the sturgeon, it’s a bit off. Poshlost is where human spirituality clashes with or being undermined by the mundane.
    Poshlost is often used in the narrow sense, of someone or something risqué, of fowl language, of sexual innuendo.
    I have the impression that it has gone out of fashion, both the word and the concept. In the same way as ‘common’ in Britain might be seen as politically incorrect these days.
    Bathrobe: do you know that かわいい has entered Russian as kawai (кавай, кавайный, кавайность)? Kawaii (cute, childishly pretty) partly overlaps with poshly.

  17. John Emerson says:

    The words “crass” and “cheesy” come to mind.

  18. yes, ‘corny’ too.
    isn’t cheesy more American than British?

  19. John Emerson says:

    “Cheesy” is colloquial to me in America.
    One of the things that makes “poshlost” difficult to translate is that in English crassness is not closely associated with kitchiness and corniness. You can easily imagine a crass person who is also corny and kitschy, but a lot of crass people portray themselves as cynics and tough-minded realists. The two are very separable.
    “Cheesy” comes closest; it implies bad taste, or something second-rate standing in for the real thing, but also a sort of vulgar assertiveness and rudeness. So you can say “Barry Manilow is just too cheesy to listen to” but also “He’s a cheesy roommate, he drinks everyone else’s beer and never cleans up”.

  20. John Emerson says:

    Note that this does not mean that Manilow would be a cheesy roommate, or that people who listen to Manilow would be cheesy roommates. Different areas of cheesiness.
    I’m trying to think of bands whose fans would be cheesy roommates. There’s a wealth of possibilities.

  21. I recall not quite agreeing with her on poshlost’, or rather thinking that she went off on some tangents.
    Yes, she does go off on tangents, but I don’t think that’s a bad way to approach such a hard-to-pin-down concept. Her style is probably more diffuse than it needs to be, but better a tangential discussion of an interesting topic than a clear exposition of a boring one, say I.
    blimey, just looked up the book at Amazon. Why on earth is the kindle edition more expensive, than hardback? crazy.
    Yeah, and it’s too expensive in any format. I was lucky enough to find it in a used bookstore for $6.50.
    poshlost’ clearly has exactly the semantic and social connotations of the British word “common”, used by superior people (in novels, essays) up into the 20th century.
    “Clearly” if, that is, you know absolutely nothing about it and are simply riffing for the sake of riffing. I really wish you would restrain yourself sometimes, or at least wait until the discussion has proceeded a bit before doing your clown act (the very one which has some people convinced you’re a troll). Or are you really that convinced that the world has nothing to offer you except the platitudes you’re already bored with?

  22. I know nothing of Russian, but some of the discussion here — the post from mab in particular — makes me think of the English word ‘naff.’

  23. naff is good, but I think it’s mostly about bad taste, in material sense of the word.

  24. “triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and lack of spirituality.”
    The word I first thought of was “trife,” a word that describes the general dirtiness of life, pettiness, incompetence, or rotten behavior that one has almost come to expect, cheapness, narrow-mindedness, and both the attraction and repulsion of the obscene. Of course, it really isn’t the same thing as “poshly” at all, much too negative, but it’s an interesting word, so I thought I’d post about it anyways. Comes from “trifling.”

  25. the cultural confusion of the modern era, when the aristocracy has lost its wealth and power but still sets the standards as an ideal, while the newly-dominant high bourgeoisie tries to define its own post-aristocratic high culture, distinguishing itself both from the old lazy stupid declining aristocrats, from the parvenu nouveau riche, the greedy, tasteless, extremely petty bourgeoisie, and the parasites and hangers on of wealth.
    Could this be considered a bundle of poshliy bromides?

  26. John Emerson says:

    By you, probably. To me it’s a bunch of truisms that happen to be true, but which are not accepted or understood by everyone.
    I just spent a number of months reading 19th c. French literature and biography, and what I saw was a lot of men, mostly non-aristocrats, doing an imitation of the aristocratic wastrel. Included were some aristocrats who were actual, in the sense of being of of aristocratic descent, but not actual in the sense of having lands or power.
    The whole American 1950s was a struggle of this type, as chronicled by Dwight McDonald, Russell Lynes (high middle low brow), Nancy Mitford (U / non-U), and later by Paul Fussell. It’s behind the “liberal elitist” slogan, and upper middle class culture consists of adopting things and then abandoning them when they become popular.

  27. Um, by “materialist” I meant “materialistic”, as in gotta have all the right stuff. Love isn’t properly love without embroidered cushions; the lady in question (though she at first justified herself by saying that she ought to take a lover because everybody does) immediately fell in love with her young paramour and wanted to spend the rest of her life in an expensive villa with him.

  28. Hat: “Clearly” if, that is, you know absolutely nothing about it and are simply riffing for the sake of riffing.
    What’s the beef ? Here is the connected text of what I wrote, of which you quote only part:

    Everything that has been said about English renderings of poshlost’ here, and in the links, tells us more about the deficient English reading background of the contributors than about the Russian word.
    poshlost’ clearly has exactly the semantic and social connotations of the British word “common”, used by superior people (in novels, essays) up into the 20th century.

    In the first sentence I refer to what others have said. “Clearly … ” introduces my summing-up of that. Pretty much everything said about “poshlost’” applies to the British “common”, and vice versa. And yet an English rendering of “poshlost’” is being treated as a big mysterious deal by many.
    But not by Bathrobe, nor by me. It’s just his opinion based on what others have said, and independently just mine on the same grounds, see ? That’s no cause for caustic complaints coram publico.

  29. I dunno, Stu. This readiness to maintain that two words mean exactly the same thing strikes me as being very much opposed to your usual shtick–or rather to one of your usual shticks.
    Bathrobe’s take on the word seems more nuanced than you are making it out to be.
    I do recognize that people sometimes go overboard in trying to convey the specialness, the untranslateability, the one-of-a-kind-ness, of a word, to those who don’t know the language in question. But I’m more interested in hearing the statements of those who know what they are talking about (thanks, mab! for example) than the hasty conclusions of those who (like me) don’t.
    That said, I confess that I also get some enjoyment from watching you and Hat go at each other. It’s not an easy thing to do, irritating Hat.

  30. P.S. I know almost nothing of Russian and not very much of Latin. Thanks for teaching me the phrase coram publico. A quick search suggests that this phrase (and the word coram) is more widely used in the German-speaking world than in the English-.

  31. Horace actually wrote coram populo, though publico is by now a reasonably well established variation.

  32. I don’t think that words in two languages have to be used in the exact same social and cultural situations to be said to be pretty equivalent. Because words within a language are used by all sorts of people who can’t be expected to have the exact same ideas. If two native speakers argue about the finer nuances of a word’s connotations, they’re both right.

  33. Was another contributor to perceptions of poshlost’ the flood of cut-priced imitation luxury goods that became available in the 19th c.? (Which Morris & co. had such a horror of; naturally you can find plenty of imitation Arts-and-Crafts now.) Did critics consider being surrounded by fake luxury conducive to fake emotions?

  34. rootlesscosmo says:

    @Vasha:
    “Of course you will pooh-pooh
    Whatever’s fresh and new
    And declare it’s crude and mean,
    For Art stopped short
    In the cultivated court
    Of the Empress Josephine!”
    Bunthorne, in W.S. Gilbert’s “Patience”
    The character of Bunthorne is a caricature of Oscar Wilde, mostly. If I’m getting some of the nuances right, I suspect Gilbert might have been death on poshlost’, had he known the word.

  35. empty: This readiness to maintain that two words mean exactly the same thing strikes me as being very much opposed to your usual shtick–or rather to one of your usual shticks.
    I think you’ve got the wrong end of the shtick. I’m not aware of being a shtickler for any particular kind of shtick. And I always try to stay good-humored, even when others shed caushtick tears over my humor.
    Those others seem to believe that a comment thread is real. They’ve been taken in by virtual reality, like those first film spectators who ran out of the movie theater in panic. Perhaps I should start using smileys to ensure a higher level of Verfremdung – like those printed warnings on rear-view mirrors. ;-)

  36. Alexei K. says:

    At least when Chekhov’s Lady calls herself a пошлая женщина, “common” does sound like the right word, as in “common and mean” or, as Raymond Williams explains:
    “The common C16 and C17 multitude was steadily replaced, from C18, by mob, though with continuing support from the usual battery of vulgar, base, common and mean.”

  37. Alexei, which of Williams’ books do you refer to ? I’ve never read anything of his.

  38. Well, there’s untranslatable and untranslatable, ya know? I joke that there isn’t such a thing as an untranslatable word, because you can’t hand in a translation with a blank spot on line four, page seven with the explanation that sorry, that word can’t be translated.
    The thing with poshlost’ is that there isn’t one word or phrase in English that can be used every or almost every time the word is used in Russian. Sometimes it can be expressed by common or even obscene (I’m thinking of “spending an obscene amount of money” that’s rather poshly). But you can’t use common to describe a sickly sweet painting or a banal cliche at the dinner table.
    Sashura, it’s an interesting question — has poshlost’ gone out of style these days? For some people poshlost’ is distressingly present everywhere you look. All of TV is poshlost’. Political discourse is poshly. The whole glamurny world is as poshly as poshly can get. But the tv producers, politicians, and glamurnye girls don’t seem to recognize it. But perhaps it was always thus? Probably just the manifestations of poshlost’ have changed.
    Have you all heard about “Ripping it for Putin?” A video clip of “Putin’s Army” just came out. The “army” is made up of sexy babes wearing tight tops with their boobs bulging out… while chaste gold crosses dangle above. After a lot of sex kitten lounging, one of the babes writes “I rip it for Putin” on a T-shirt (in red lipstick, natch), dons it, and rips it down to her $400 lacy bra (with the cross still dangling above). The stunt is based on word play (rip, but also slang for “I’ll rip your head off if you touch Putin,” and also a slight pun with another meaning of the verb — to beat someone in a game). It’s really revolting. And the best visual demonstration of poshlost’ I’ve ever seen.

  39. empty: A quick search suggests that this phrase (and the word coram) is more widely used in the German-speaking world than in the English-.
    Yes, it is beloved of German intellectuals. I often think of procul harum when I see it. Duden gives an “archaic” expression derived from it that I’d never encountered: jemanden koram nehmen = “to reprimand someone sharply”:

    ko|ram: in der Wendung jmdn. k. nehmen (veraltet; jmdn. scharf tadeln; lat. coram = vor aller Augen, öffentlich; vgl. coram publico).

    MMcM: Horace actually wrote coram populo, though publico is by now a reasonably well established variation.
    Prompted by your comment, I found this useful Liste lateinischer Phrasen within the German WiPe. It gives coram populo as “in the presence of the populace” (not citing Horace) and coram publico as “publicly” (also no citation). I guess the distinction meant here was that the populace didn’t count as “public” in the sense of “those who count” ?
    Anyway, I was led on from there to a WiPe article on an aspect of German duelling etiquette (particularly among students) from the 18C: Coramage or Coramieren. This was a formal interrogation of the offending person, carried out by the man who felt his honor to have been offended, or by someone appointed by him (Kartellträger or Beschicksperson). Here we find Revokation and Deprekation with special contextual meanings. There’s even a relevant passage quoted from Lebensansichten des Katers Murr that I remember from having read the book last year.

  40. mab: rips it down to her $400 lacy bra (with the cross still dangling above)
    Pardon my curiosity, but how do you know how much the bra costs ? ;-) The producers could get even more poshlost’ mileage out of the clip by adding product-description-with-price-tag overlays during editing, like the real ones that were propped up on stands in old TV shows such as “Queen for A Day”.

  41. Alexei K. says:
  42. has poshlost’ gone out of style these days?
    Mab, I am talking about the word, its usage, its power, not the manifestations of poshlost.

  43. has anyone a view on yob, yobbish, yobbishness as a notion close to poshlost?

  44. Bathrobe says:

    After making love with her new acquaintance in the resort town of Yalta, the heroine of Anton Chekhov’s short story “A Lady with a Dog” begins to cry, and then declares that she has become “a yobbish woman.”
    I’m sure it might work in some universes, but I suspect not this one.

  45. Grumbly, of course you’re right. I don’t know that the bra cost $400. But judging by the rest of the babe’s duds… and knowing what bras cost in Moscow… that’s my guess.
    Sashura — it would be fun to use the n-gram thing to find out (you can tell I haven’t used it yet). It’s possible that the word is invoked less in general. In my set it’s invoked constantly! As for its power — again, it’s hard for me to say. My guess is that the babes don’t consider themselves poshlye, but would be insulted to hear that word applied to them. In that sense, it still has power.

  46. I guess the distinction meant here was …
    English Wikipedia has a difference, too, though it isn’t really clear to me what it’s supposed to be.
    Google Books says 10,500 for publico, going back centuries, and 55,000 for populo. So not really total dominance.
    Among the top pages that come up for the former is Quentin Bell relating a rumor about his mother and Keynes.
    I often think of procul harum when I see it.
    Gary Brooker’s (or whosever) poor Latin master.

  47. the n-gram thing to find out
    but that’s different, it traces printed, published word, I am asking about how people feel about the word. I remember the time when it was enough to say, in a company, ‘don’t talk poshlosti’ (не говорите пошлости, перестаньте с вашими пошлостями) to make the person shut up in embarassment. I think somewhere in the late Brezhnev period poshlost turned into styob (ironic or sarcastic re-interpretation of established imagery, including in speech) and became part of the protest culture. As a side-effect that diminished the power of ‘poshlost’ as a characterization. And the swinging 90s killed it altogether, or at least marginalised it.
    I was wondering if there are others, students of Russia or native speakers who feel the same.

  48. and while we are on the subject of Chekhov, may I ask the learned community why the Lady’s dog, a Spitz in the original, was translated as Pomeranian in one of the early English versions? The breeds are close, but why change an equally known Spitz to something else? Has anyone an idea?

  49. Well, Sashura, that’s a different matter and you’d have to do some research to find out. But, with respect, I think you exaggerate a bit. If you asked people, “Would be like to be called poshly?” I’m quite sure the vast majority of people would not. It’s hard to say if it has the same power as it did 20 years ago (that’s a different ill kind of research). But the word is certainly stwielded like a sword by teachers, commentators, and babushki.

  50. Hm. “ill” should be matched up with the “st” in “stwielded” to produce “still wielded.”

  51. MMcM: Gary Brooker’s (or whosever) poor Latin master.
    By golly, another revisionist strike against flower power ! I find here that procul is not recorded as taking the genitive. It is used alone (procul attendere), with other adverbs of place (procul hinc stans = at a distance from this place), or with the ablative: with a, ab (procul a conspectu = out-a-sight) or without (procul urbe).

  52. John Emerson says:

    Latin is thus a living language with a 20th century stoner dialect.

  53. Yeah, but the tubes tell me that it was the name of some friend’s cat. And don’t suggest that any members went to public school. Too bad.

    Procul Harum, Mr. Brooker?
    — Yes, sir.
    — Case?
    — Genitive plural feminine, sir.
    — Genitive? Genitive of Possession? Genitive of Definition? Genitive of Quality?
    — Uhm, no, sir.
    — What, then?
    — Place where?
    — What’s that?
    — Separation?
    — Indeed. Beatus ille, qui procul negotiis, Ut prisca gens mortalium, Paterna rura bubus exercet suis, Solutus omni fænore.
    — Uhm, ablative, sir?
    — Ablative. hic, hæc, hoc, …
    (Entire class)
    hunc, hanc, hoc. huius, huius, huius. huic, huic, huic. hoc, hac, hoc.
    — And?
    (Entire class)
    hi, hæ hæc. hos, has, hæc. horum, harum, horum. his, his his. his his his.
    — So, Mr. Brooker, Procul …?
    His?
    Procul His.
    — Yes, sir.

  54. poor Latin master
    Oh, sure, blame the teacher.
    Me, I don’t know exactly what kind of dog a Spitz is, or a Pomeranian, either. But for some reason the latter suggests an elegant lady’s lapdog (that is, the lapdog of an elegant lady) while the former suggests nothing much. It sounds very furry, but probably that’s only because it would need to be if it lived in Spitzbergen.

  55. Actually, the band’s name is Procol Harum.

  56. I’m most familiar with coram Regis, i.e. in the Court of King’s Bench, on which the actual kings formerly sat), and coram monachorum, i.e. in front of the whole body of monks, rather than secretly in the abbot’s office.

  57. My dog is offended, Empty. Spitzes suggest “nothing much” indeed! She’s largely (or perhaps mostly, or maybe even entirely) a Finnish Spitz (she’s a rescue dog, so the details of her birth remain a mystery). All Spitzes have foxy faces, and Pomeranians are little furry mops with tiny pointy faces. They all smile, too. It’s a peculiarity of the breed, although with my dog, it definitely correlates with happiness.

  58. No offense intended, mab. The near-emptiness of the box labeled “Spitz” in my brain is my own damn fault. From your word-picture I am sure that I would like Spitzes much better than Poms if I met them, or even if I saw them. Which is at least consistent with what I wrote, in the sense that I am no fan of elegant ladies’ lapdogs as a group.
    It’s the Spitzes, not the Poms, who smile, right?

  59. JCass: Yes, but the band was named after a cat, who in turn was named by someone whose spelling and perhaps inflecting of Latin left something to be desired. They tell me.

  60. Humpty, Mab, thanks, that’s some clue! I’ve been puzzling and puzzling, but things only got curiouser, now I have a theory at least.
    The Lady is a cute little blonde wearing a beret, and Spitzes are mostly blond too, unlike the Poms. Might that be a little poshly innuendo on Chekhov’s part, a hidden ‘wink-wink’? When she first talks to Gurov, through her Spitz, she says ‘he doesn’t bite’, and blushes. Now, what do you think? Was Garnett into the same frame of mind? Was that why she replaced it with a Pom?

  61. PROCOL is in fact an obscure early 1960s computer language. “Harum” is an interrupted snort of contempt. Not a lot of people know that. Probably because I’ve just made it up.

  62. I haven’t read The Lady with a Lap Dog in a dog’s age, so I’m not sure about the breed. (I’m at my dacha and so don’t have access to Chekhov right now.) But the Pomeranian is a type of Spitz. In my experience (courtyard, park), Pomoranian Spitzes are yappy and bite, so she was right to point out that her dog didn’t bite (and they are more commonly beige or reddish — less commonly black). But yes, it’s a nice way of saying, “I don’t bite” too. They are very furry, but have the Spitz’s thin legs and a foxy face. They are all laiki, Sashura, if you can imagine that breed (although the Siberian laiki are narrow and not very furry) — and related to the Akita in Japan. All Spitzes, including Akita, Finnish Spitz and Pomeranians, have curled tails. And all of them smile. People have stopped dead on the street when I’m walking my very cheerful Finnish Spitz (Finno-karel’skaya laika) and said, with amazement: “She’s smiling. She’s really smiling. That dog is smiling.”
    In Russian the Spitzes are called laiki from layat’ = to bark. I think their name in Finnish translates as the barking dog — that’s what they do when they tree or spot prey. My dog blessedly doesn’t bark much, but when she does, it is the most piercing, deafening bark in the world.

  63. Sorry, I think you supposed to call the breed karelo-finskaya laika. We get weird here about whether the Finnish bit or the Karelian bit gets top billing.

  64. Alexei K. says:

    Actually, if you mention a laika to a randomly picked Russian, he/she would probably think of a polar husky rather than a lady’s lap dog. Apparently, laikas and spitzes are closely related genetically. But say “laika” and I’ll picture a sleigh-pulling half-wolf; say “spitz” and a pointy-eared cutie pops up.

  65. Sorry, Grumbly, I probably came down on you harder than I need have. But damn, if you’re going to start off by insulting everyone else (“Everything that has been said about English renderings of poshlost’ here, and in the links, tells us more about the deficient English reading background of the contributors than about the Russian word”) and then confidently pronouncing about a subject you have just thought about for the first time in your life (“poshlost’ clearly has exactly the semantic and social connotations of…”), followed up with more insults (“If one knows nothing about…”), you can’t expect it to be taken with good grace. It’s as if you came into a discussion about exactly what to call an unusual color and said “You idiots spend way too much time thinking about stupid stuff like this. If it’s not red, it’s blue, that’s all you need to know.” That may not be how you intended your comment to come across, but that’s sure how it reads to me.

  66. I agree with Alexei, I’ve never heard a шпиц called a layka. I know laikas, I had one, of the silver-grey variety called in Russian Западно-сибирская лайка and in English Siberian Husky, friends have two here.
    Oh, I see what you mean Mab – look at this article on wikipedia: http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Карело-финская_лайка Finnish spitzes were registered as ‘laikas’ when imported into Russia and cross-bred with real Karelo-Finnish laikas. As the result in 1984 the breed was ‘closed’. No more Karelo-Finnish laykas, only Finnish Spitzes. What a story! The Finnish revenge for the Winter War.
    In the Soviet film version with Alexei Batalov and Iya Savvina the spitz is white. It must be what is ‘officially’ called the German Spitz. See wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Spitz
    And yes, they have smiling faces.

  67. Smiling Faces Sometimes (they don’t tell the truth…)

  68. Actually, the laika-spitz thing is complicated because the classification systems varied. In some cases laika is simply the Russian word for a spitz; in some cases it isn’t. But if you look at various lists of spitzes and laikas (or look up the Russian name of the various spitzes), you find they are talking about the same dog.
    It’s hard for me to know the general associations in Russian. Now that I have a dog, I hang out with the brotherhood of dog-owners in the park, where the level of dog breed knowledge is rather sophisticated. For example, I now know that there are four types of Sennenhund dogs (all represented in my tiny park)…
    Oh, Sashura, the fights over whether the Karelo-Finnish laika is the same thing as the Finnish Spitz or not… I see they aren’t registered anymore officially, but there are breeders who insist their laiki are different than the Finnish Spitz. Who knows? Mine is either a mix or a “failed” version (she has a black chin) and I couldn’t care less about her bloodline. But she has incredible hunting instincts.

  69. Hat: That may not be how you intended your comment to come across, but that’s sure how it reads to me.
    Well, alright, now I see what you mean. What I wanted to do was nail this particular case of linguistic exoticism: puzzling over a supposedly mysterious word in a furrin language when one’s own has much the same word, with all its semantic complexity. I should have toned down the lead-up to that point, sorry about that.
    Let me say one more thing about this creepy Judenfrage-notion of “I’m convinced he’s a troll”. I don’t know exactly what an internet “troll” is supposed to be, and I can’t be bothered to read up on it in the WiPe, for a simple reason. “I’m convinced he’s a troll” works the same way as “I’m convinced he’s a Jew”, or “I’m convinced he’s a faggot”, or “I’m convinced he’s a Communist”. It admits uncertainty as to the visible, and cancels that uncertainty by postulating an invisible essence that Explains All.
    Somebody who watched The Exorcist at an impressionable age might develop the same symptoms: a belief that there’s something evil that you can’t see, but can eliminate by giving it a name and mounting a ceremony of innocence, supervising the whole with lips grimly pursed. The principle here is: it’s not enough to dislike someone individually, he must also be discredited as one of a kind.
    Would a “troll” write such a comment ? Fragen über Fragen … aber ich finde das schon raus.

  70. Wow, what a very interesting post and comments (esp. Grumpy’s last one).
    I don’t think any sense of poshlost could be translated by yob (“boy” backwards), unless I’m missing something. A yob is a messy-looking, greasy-haired young man with spots and dirty fingernails. The Rolling Stones were yobs roughly until Brian died. Then they became Eurotrash.
    A, ab, absque, coram, de
    palam, cum, ex or e,
    sine, tenus, pro and prae…

    I still remember this, even though I’ve no idea what it’s a list of. Something to do with prepositions that take the ablative, possibly.
    Bertrand Russell was not upper-middle class. As well as being the 3rd Earl Russell, grandson of Lord John Russell, British PM, he was a great-grandson of the duke of Bedford and consequently related to most living members of the English aristocracy, using “living” in its broadest sense.

  71. Bathrobe says:

    Funnily enough, I tend to agree with Grumbly. If he read the Wikipedia article, he would find that it defines a “troll” as:
    “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
    But the article actually covers a broader range of behaviour than suggested by the definition itself, including people who make non-inflammatory, “concerned” comments designed to insidiously push the discussion in a certain direction for political purposes. It also covers people who email grieving families pictures of the corpse of a loved one who died in an accident. Spreading the meaning this thin threatens to make the term meaningless.
    Grumbly would also find that:
    “Application of the term troll is subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. Like any pejorative term, it can be used as an ad hominem attack, suggesting a negative motivation.”

  72. One of the original bones of contention between me and John Cowan was my statement that moralizing is divisive. Recent events have shown clearly how that works.
    I do not appreciate being demonized by such moralizing, nor – as Hat does above – having the qualia of others repeatedly held up to me as if in reproof.
    Nevertheless, whether anyone believes me or no, I have no beef with John, nor with Hat. I would prefer things to return to “normal”, with all of us by turns civilly snapping at, and shmoozing with, the others – and with no further reference to whatever it was that happened.

  73. John Emerson says:

    I’m sorry to keep this alive, and we should leave the word troll out of it, but I have to say that I often find Grumbly’s combination of relentless persistence and a grumpy persona annoying. I would have been happier if he had taken the original hint rather than fighting for vindication.

  74. I agree with JE, and I don’t care for the term “troll” either—I was just trying to get across that some people overreact to what JE accurately calls a “combination of relentless persistence and a grumpy persona.” I hope it’s clear by now that I’m fond of Grumbly and generally enjoy his presence here. And now: the return to normalcy!

  75. it’s not enough to dislike someone individually, he must also be discredited as one of a kind.
    Very good point, Stu. But as far as I am concerned you are one of a kind in the best, and very different, sense.

  76. Thanks, empty. The reactions to all this sure are mixed. There’s food for thought here, including a variety of tasty crow d’oeuvres – and I had been hoping to go on a diet …

  77. To make my meaning clear: I’m talking about an open buffet, a naked lunch: “a frozen moment when everybody sees what is on the end of every fork”.

  78. Ö: as far as I am concerned you are one of a kind in the best, and very different, sense.
    Hear, hear. Grumbly’s contributions are one of the best things about the Language Hat comments.

  79. “a frozen moment when everybody sees what is on the end of every fork”
    when tine stands still

  80. LOL ! (my second at this site – things are getting out of hand)

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