The draznilka is a short, humorous verse used by children to tease, taunt and play pranks on other children (and only rarely on adults). The origins of the draznilka are rooted in adult folklore—in the ancient tradition of nicknames and in traditional taunting rhymes and songs used in wedding ceremonies… Pavel Shein wrote that children’s humorous verse (he called it pribautka) constituted the most authentic examples of children’s folklore, since the child and not the adult was the creator and performer. Shein’s description of the draznilka is still useful today:
[The draznilka is] a pribautka, which mischievous small children use to poke fun at each other and at adults, making fun of their names, … their station and … their physical shortcomings, as well as their non-Russian origins and so on, often without even having any reason, just for the love of word-play.
Most Russian collections of the draznilka present a special problem. They rely heavily on early sources from the nineteenth century, which means that they draw almost exclusively on material collected from villages and the provinces. Soviet collections also tend to favor traditional sources of folklore, the village and provincial towns, and underrepresent large urban centers. Moreover, the draznilka created pedagogical and philosophical problems for Soviet scholars; the crude language and obvious delight children took in inflicting pain on their chosen victims seemed to point to the amoral nature of children. Vinogradov, addressing this very issue in his writing, pointed out that children’s taunts were likely to be more direct and more painful because young children do not use irony to attenuate the attack and because children are more prone than adults to use crude language. Nevertheless, he insisted on unflinching honesty and faithful recording of children’s behavior in their natural environment; he also was against the elision of scatological references and obscenities from children’s speech and the use of dots to replace phrases or ideas offensive to adults…
The draznilka can cover a rather wide range of aggressive behavior: from mild, friendly ribbing to “ritualized taunts” between competing groups of children (similar to the African-American “dozens”) to grievous insults that serve as a prelude to physical violence. Teasing, or a “license to joke,” is based on a “joking relationship” between two individuals (or groups); it can be interpreted as a symbolic inversion of a real message. A teasing draznilka tends to bridge the distance between two players and to emphasize equality between them. A teasing draznilka directed at two friends acknowledges the strong bond between them and can be interpreted as a positive statement:
Boba s Kokoi,
Koka c Boboi—
i izodrannyi sapog.
Boba and Koka
Koka and Boba
are brave lads.
Boba is blind as a bat,
Koka is like a soup bowl,
Boba is like an angel, Boba is like God
and a worn out boot….
The draznilka has a strong rhythmic structure and regular beats. Although many collectors refer to the draznilka as a ditty (pesenka), Vinogradov describes it as “choral poetry”. He points out that children discriminate between chanted texts that rely on precise meter and rhythm, such as counting rhymes, and texts that are executed in a sing-song, such as the draznilka. It is not unusual to find irregularities in the rhythm and meter of the draznilka that would not be tolerated in counting-out rhymes. However a child singing or reciting a draznilka in a sing-song will readily make up for missing beats by adding a syllable or lengthening a vowel. Group performance—chanting in unison—is an important component of taunts, as are special gestures, rhythmic movements and the skipping or hopping that frequently accompany the draznilka.
And finally, as has been demonstrated, the draznilka cannot exist without rhyme. Rhyme binds together absurd combinations and “underscores the unreal, made-up and ludicrous [shutovskogo] elements in the text.” In addition to playing a crucial role in the structure of the draznilka, rhyme acts both as a conservative force, and as a dynamic device, the very feature that allows a child to adapt a shop-worn expression to a particular situation within formulaic constraints. The efficacy of an adult joke depends on delivery and timing. In the draznilka, rhyme plays a similar role; it is what makes a draznilka work. “Zhid parkhatyi” (lousy Jew) is a common insult, but it takes a rhyme to turn it into a draznilka: “Zhyd parkhatyi/Nomer piatyi,” which is realized here as a rhymed couplet. An acquaintance, a redhead, remembers the following taunt as the one that caused her the most pain: “Ryzhaia psina, bez benzina!” (Red-head dog/bitch, without gasoline). She could understand the first part, but “why ‘bez benzina’?” she asked plaintively. Indeed, her tormentor effectively used the rhyme to bring together two semantically unrelated phrases. The unexpected combination and the rhyme heightened both the humor and the derision and increased the pain.
There are many examples, often with cultural contexts that add a great deal.
Incidentally, in googling “Halina Weiss” I discovered a book (in which she has an article) that looks to be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Russian culture: The Russian Context: The Culture behind the Language, from Slavica. From the Foreword by Barry Scherr:
…. the ability to comprehend what one reads or hears requires a knowledge not just of the language, but of cultural referents called forth by various words and phrases [images, and sounds]. The ‘Russian context’ … is infinitely rich and varied; in a way it may be even more difficult to become ‘fluent’ in a language’s context than in the language itself, but this volume will provide readers with an excellent start.
There are articles on poetry, prose, children’s literature, proverbs, Theater in Language, Music and Dance, Art and the Language of Russian Culture, Popular Entertainment, Geography, Government and Language, and Science as Language, as well as various appendices, including one on Finding Russian Content on the Internet. (Via Plep.)