Erunda.

A decade ago I quoted Kornei Chukovsky:

If the youth of those days [the 1840s] happened to use in conversation words unknown to earlier generations such as fakt [fact], rezul’tat [result], erunda [nonsense], solidarnost’ [solidarity; joint responsibility], the representatives of those earlier generations declared that Russian speech suffered no small loss from such an influx of highly vulgar words.

At the time I didn’t realize how chronologically precise he was, but now, reading Nekrasov‘s “Петербургские углы” (Petersburg corners) in his 1845 anthology Fiziologiya Peterburga (The physiology of Petersburg; see this post) I discover that it was exactly at that time, in mid-decade, that the word was coming into printed use:

—Ерунда(*), сказалъ дворовый человѣкъ, замѣтивъ, что я зачитался.

Erunda*,” said the house-serf, noticing that I had been reading for a very long time.

And the footnote says:

(*)Лакейское слово, равнозначительное слову — дрянь.

*A servant’s/servile word, synonymous with dryan’ [trash, rubbish].

I went to the Национальный корпус русского языка and found that the oldest cite was from the same year, 1845: Druzhinin (then twenty, just the right age to be picking up the latest lexical innovations) wrote in his diary for October 11, “Кончил «Дедушку и внучку» Диккенса. Ерунда, но временами довольно милая.” (I finished “Grandfather and granddaughter” [presumably The Old Curiosity Shop] by Dickens. Erunda, but quite pleasing at times.)

The origin of the word is unclear. Vasmer derives it from Latin gerundium (via seminary-student slang), but Vinogradov says this is as much a wild guess as Leskov’s suggestion that it is from German hier und da. But it seems to have started out meaning ‘trash’ and gradually changed to mean ‘nonsense’ (joining synonyms like чушь, чепуха, белиберда, вздор, дичь, and мура — Russian sure has a lot of words for it!).

The house-serf, by the way, is illiterate (he’s in Petersburg on obrok [quitrent]), and at one point he blows up at the narrator, who’s showing him some poetry:

Ты мнѣ этимъ не тычь! Что ты мнѣ этимъ тычешь! Я, братъ, не дворянинъ: грамотѣ не умѣю. Какая грамота нашему брату? грамоту будешь знать — дѣло свое позабудешь.

Don’t poke that at me! Why are you poking that at me? I’m no nobleman, brother: I don’t know how to read. What use is reading to people like me? If you know how to read, you forget your business.

Plato would have nodded in recognition.

Comments

  1. As Marina says in Ada: “Azov, a Russian humorist, derives erunda from the German hier und da, which is neither here nor there.”

  2. Heh. Good old Nabokov; immer le mot juste!

  3. Fascinating. But gerundium has no obvious connection to trash though a lot to nonsense. Also, another current meaning of ерунда is “small, insignificant thing”, which is possible as Druzhinin’s meaning as well. But then again, what gerundium has in common with this meaning is not obvious. Tiny quibble: probably the very last word in your translation дѣло = business should be “trade” instead.

  4. Yeah, probably a better choice. That’s one of those words that can be hard to translate in context.

  5. Etienne says:

    “Gerundium” does have a Latin plural “gerundia”, but I do not understand how the initial /g/ could be lost, or the /i/ or /j/ after /d/. German “Hier und da” does seem a far likelier etymology on purely phonological grounds.

  6. @Ettienne. May be it will be easier for you to imagine if you knew that common-folk Russians managed to transform the word /gənəral/ (general, spoken in Russian with hard /g/, both /g/ and /n/ are palatalized) to /jenaral/. Mind, I actually never heard the word /jenaral/, just seen it written like if it were spoken that way.

  7. German “Hier und da” does seem a far likelier etymology on purely phonological grounds.

    It is not in any sense a likely etymology, it just sounds similar.

  8. Jeffry House says:

    In 2004, you quoted Chukovsky as saying:

    ” I could get as agitated as I liked, but it was impossible not to see that here was a centuries-long, unstoppable process of the replacement of final unstressed -i by the strongly stressed ending -á.”

    But is such a process recognizable today? Выбора and договора with stress on the “a” to make a plural look odd to me. Did the unstoppable process get reversed?

  9. чушь, чепуха, белиберда, вздор, мура

    None of these have transparent etymologies, as a matter of fact (perhaps except белиберда which sounds like pejorative imitation of Tatar?), so perhaps Russian is just prone to nonsensical words about nonsense?

  10. Good point!

  11. ахинея and галиматья (both also ~~ “nonsence”) round the list of the words of unknown / unclear etymologies … to be precise, the latter <= Fr. galimatias but the origins of the French word are just as murky.

    Of course most Russians learn about the weird Gerund thing in middle school, as of something confusingly similar to Russian language’s own weird / archaic form, the деепричастие. So it may be no surprise that “the Gerund => Ерунда hypothesis” is wildly popular / often recited, but few people ever think about the etymologies of its synonims

  12. With English words for ‘nonsense’, the question is not what their etymologies are (dictionaries usually include them) but why they have that sense at all: gammon, spinach, tommyrot, etc.

  13. Gammon? Spinach?? At least I’ve heard of tommyrot, but my Yankee immune system rejects all three.

  14. What, you never saw the Rose/White “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it?” cartoon? :-) Seriously, I don’t use those terms either, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of English.

    (There is a dispute about this cartoon: is the stuff really spinach or not? Those who hold that it is, consider the mother’s “Eat your broccoli, dear” to be a lie or at best a euphemism; those who hold that it isn’t, see the kid as lumping all green vegetables together as vile. It’s kind of a projective test.)

  15. J. W. Brewer says:

    I can’t read the Vasmer because I have no Russian but is the attribution to “seminary-student slang” mean to what we would call seminarians (i.e. priests-in-training) or a broader sense (in the 19th C. “seminary” in English meant all sorts of educational institutions other than divinity schools)? Latin seems a particularly useless language for a prospective Orthodox priest who isn’t going to specialize in reading heretical works in order to confute them, but this may have still been during the period Florovsky rather acerbically called the “Western captivity” of Russian theology.

  16. Yerunda being derived from gurndium or hier und da doesn’t seem implausible. There’s a Russian navy expression ‘hit the rynda’ – рынду бей which is said to derive phonetically from the English equivalent ‘ring the bell.’ Ryndas were the tsar’s bodyguard. And another example of ‘reverse engineering’ is Chekhov’s renyxa, from a joke in The Three Sisters. Teacher’s comment on a students paper read, in Russian, chepukha – rubbish, but the student thought it was in Latin and struggled to understand what renyxa might mean.

  17. There’s a Russian navy expression ‘hit the rynda’ – рынду бей which is said to derive phonetically from the English equivalent ‘ring the bell.’

    Folk etymology first explaining, and then transforming, the foreign words is by no means a unique Russian phenomenon. There are sparrow-grasses everywhere, especially among less educated populations (or more educated but very eager to use slang – as it is among Russian computer users of the XXI c.). For example, the Russian computer slang uses popular familiarized variants of female names As’ka (<= full name Anastasia) or Klava (<= full name Claudia) to stand in, resp., for phonetically similar “ICQ” (a messaging service) and клавиатура (keyboard). A generation earlier, the computer slang is said to have included батон (a loaf of white bread, itself once a foreign borrowing <= Fr. bâton) to stand in for phonetically similar Eng. “button” … which is kind of hard for me to believe given that we usually speak of computer keys rather than of buttons in English, but that’s what the old sources say.

    But how could a folk etymology-driven transformation explain something like gerund => erunda? The purported source word doesn’t share the meaning, and the purported target word doesn’t have a transparent folk etymology. No, I still think that the only reason why we are concerned with the etymology of erunda (but not with any of its numerous, and equally unexplained, synonyms) is the novelty attention trap of the word “gerund”. Essentially, we first encounter “gerund” in school, and can’t help recognizing a familiar “erunda” in it; it is the surprise of coming across a weird word which catches our attention on the phonetically similar, and familiar, word.

  18. In technical English, a button is a clickable area on the screen, like the “Post Comment” button on this page; keyboards as you say have keys.

  19. JC, yes, you’re right, it was about GUI screen buttons rather than hardware keys. As a Russian would say, едрён батон, how I goofed up! BTW there is more on loaves vs. buttons from “Russian Word of the Day”, a source cited on LH before

Trackbacks

  1. […] Петербурга, TOC part 1, part 2, 1845). This is the time when ерунда ‘nonsense’ was a new word, picked up by the 20-year-old Druzhinin as a novelty and given a footnote by […]

Speak Your Mind

*