KIRZA/KERSEY.

In yesterday’s post I mentioned reading a story by Oleg Zaionchkovsky (whose name, incidentally, is the Polish equivalent of Russian Zaitsev, both based on cognates meaning ‘hare’); I had no problem with most of the vocabulary, but I stumbled when I got to this sentence: “В дом из них вела дверь, толсто обитая какой-то кирзой” (‘From [the entrance hall] into the house led a door thickly covered with some sort of kirza‘). When I got home, I consulted my dictionaries and discovered that кирза was “kersey.” Ah, to be sure! (thought I)—now what the hell is “kersey”? Well, according to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a: a coarse ribbed woolen cloth for hose and work clothes b: a heavy wool or wool and cotton fabric used especially for uniforms and coats.” OK, that makes sense.
But I couldn’t let it rest there; no, I had to look up кирза in Russian, and it turns out that’s not what it means. Russian Wikipedia says it’s “material made from a multilayer cloth base saturated with special substances. A kind of oilcloth. The surface of kirza is stamped to make it resemble pigskin. Among the people it has received the name ‘the devil’s hide.’ … It goes mainly toward the manufacture of army boots. It is also used to make rubberized drive belts.” The association with army boots is strong, as you can see from the Google image search; there is also Vadim Chekunov’s “Kirza: A story of army life as it is.” This is clearly not a kind of cloth, and the translation as “kersey” is a classic example of lazy lexicography: find an English word in the same semantic field that sounds similar enough to be convincing and stick it in; never mind that not many people know the English word and its meaning is completely different.
The question arises: how should кирза be translated? In this passage, where its exact nature is not especially important, I suppose you could say the door was padded with imitation leather, but if anybody has a suggestion that could replace “kersey” in a bilingual dictionary, please share it. Also, if you’re familiar with the word “kersey,” in what context do you use it?

Comments

  1. I think I know the substance, although not in a Russian context. I would just translate it as “rubber cloth” or “rubberized canvas” or something.

  2. I would probably call it imitation or fake leather in a translation, though I have a friend who loves to call it pleather.

  3. Well, kirza isn’t really fake leather — it’s basically waterproofed fabric, a predecessor to things like vinyl table covers (клеенка) or vinyl wallpaper. It’s not rubberized canvas.
    In the context of the original sentence, I’d translate кирза as oilskin — it’s a sufficiently precise equivalent (thick waterproofed cloth) and has a bit of the desirable archaic flavor.
    Kaa

  4. John Emerson says:

    Naugahyde?

  5. John Emerson says:

    Naugahyde?

  6. oilcloth or oilskin would do the trick. If it was in a context in which the cultural connotations were important, I would add a brief footnote in the translation.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t have a suggestion for a translation, but “oilskins” currently worn by fishermen are not terribly thick or they would impede movement. The multilayered structure of kirza and its use for army boots (the whole boot, or just the sole?) and drive belts seems to imply a very thick fabric, thicker than oilskin, fake leather or plain rubberized fabric. I imagine that the cross-section would look like that of a thick drive belt or a tire. This is not something one would want to use for a garment.
    But I wonder why such a substance would be used for an inside door. Where does that door lead to? a root cellar?
    This prompts me to ask a question: in numerous English novels I have seen references to a “baize door”, which is always an inner door. Apparently baize is a kind of cloth. In some older French houses I have occasionally seen doors apparently consisting of a rough wooden frame covered (one wouldn’t really say upholstered) with a coarse cloth almost like the jute used for sacks of potatoes and such. I never thought of asking, but perhaps such a door has some substance inside for sound insulation, so that conversations between, for instance, a lawyer and client would not be overheard?

  8. Deep in the semiotics here. Would have to read more, but something akin to “shod like an army boot” may be closer than oilskin, since oilskin suggests to me nautical connotations. It’s tempting to remember Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face forever”.
    I know nothing of Russian literature beyond reading some of the classics when young and stuff like Roadside Picnic sometime later, and always as a monoglot Brit in translation. Before this chain of posts, I’d never heard of Zaionchkovsky either. But I went off and read around him as much as possible onine, and one of his pertinent attributes appears to be a very precise and high-resolution construction of ideas. Writers of that mien are never deaf to connotation.
    But then, for all I know. it could just indicate a particular period of construction – one where the only economic way to make a waterproof door was to cover wooden slats with the 1958 overproduction from the V.A. Malyshev Boot Stock Factory – and all that its continued existence in the world of the author indicated.
    The nicest thing about knowing so little is that one can conjecture so freely, and with so little guilt.

  9. Kaa: Thanks very much for the added detail, but I’m confused—as marie-lucie says, its use for boots and drive belts implies it must be fairly thick stuff. You couldn’t make boots out of oilskin, I don’t think. Also, is кирза really archaic? Is its association with the army purely nostalgic, then?
    But I wonder why such a substance would be used for an inside door.
    Ah, for that you have to know about traditional Russian house construction. You enter via a kryl’tso, a raised porch or landing (Google images); from there you pass into the seni, an unheated entrance hall or vestibule, and thence into the house itself, warmed in the old days by a large oven. Obviously, the more substantial the barrier between seni and house proper, the easier it is to keep the house warm.

  10. I googled “kirza” in English. I don’t have time to go through the results in detail, but this WW2 veteran recalls, “We wore puttees[;] those heavy kirza boots (a high boot using an impregnated tarpaulin fabric in lieu of leather) came only in the end of ’42.”
    “Impregnated tarpaulin fabric” is more of a gloss than a translation, though.
    That may be the best solution — translate it as “kirza,” and then add a gloss if necessary.
    It would be nice to know what the “special substances” are that go into making kirza. Something like linoleum, with linseed oil and sawdust?

  11. J. Del Col says:

    Boots of this stuff are hot and sweaty and cheap to make.
    Before the introduction of the rubber coating, kersey may very well have been a kind of oil-soaked, multi-layered felt. Could there also be a connection here with the traditional Russian felt boot?
    Russian military footgear tended to be crude. As late as WWII, GI Ivan wore foot bandages,(a sort of thin puttee) not socks.
    See Grossman’s –A Writer at War–.

  12. Kersey is an old type of cloth, as well, made originally, perhaps, in the Suffolk (England) village of Kersey.
    By coincidence, I have a copy of Yule and Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson: a Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases open on my lap, as I needed it for my own blog post this evening. Kersey is mentioned under the headword Kerseymere, even though Yule says kersey is not Anglo-Indian (unlike kerseymere, which might be a corruption of cashmere, which does have an Indian origin).
    A very truncated version of the Hobson-Jobson definition is given online http://www.bibliomania.com/2/3/260/frameset.html
    but the book is much more informative.

  13. HP: That’s a great find; I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to google “kirza” in English. (Great war story, too.) I think you’re right: calling it “kirza” (with an explanation) in a context like that makes sense.

  14. I have just reread your post and realise I got the wrong end of the stick first time round. I originally saw ‘kersey’, ‘cloth’ and ‘lazy lexicography’ in the same sentence and jumped to the wrong conclusion. Apologies! It is half past midnight here!

  15. I know Russians are big on remarks about other people’s grandmothers: does one of them by chance also involve this same kirza?

  16. Crown, AJP says:

    The green baize door separates the servants areas in a large house from the public areas. Baize looks and feels like the green wool felt on a card table; apparently it’s woven and unlike felt it can also be made using cotton. You could be right that it was used for acoustic dampening. Rather that softening the lawyer’s remarks it would more likely cover the bangs and crashes coming from the kitchen. It can have padding underneath and is held in place with brass tacks onto a solid-core door. The green baize door always has double-acting hinges — it swings both ways — leading to the classic picture of the waiter with a tray being hit in the face by someone coming through in the opposite direction.

  17. Preachy Preach says:

    This seems to be an interesting example of trans-Atlantic differences I hadn’t realised. ‘Green baize’ is a common-ish cliché in British English, not in connection with doors, but as an allegedly humorous circumlocution for a snooker table.
    http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=green+baize&meta=
    In terms of English translation of kirza – textured lino would seem to me about as close as you can get.

  18. J. Del Col says:

    Kersey also referred to a sort of felt made from scrap or reclaimed wool. In that sense it would be analogous to ‘shoddy.’

  19. “Russian military footgear tended to be crude. As late as WWII, GI Ivan wore foot bandages,(a sort of thin puttee) not socks.”
    Ivan still does. Or, at least, he did in the late 1980s. Reckoned they were better at stopping frostbite – though they take a bit of trouble to put on correctly, until you learn how.

  20. Ivan wears foot-cloths because socks fall down and you can’t easily reach into your boots to pull them up…

  21. I know the word kersey but I don’t think I’ve used it in my life. I’ve probably just read about it in stuff on textile history. (I once used to read quite a lot of stuff about the English late-medieval woollen trade. I forget exactly why…)

  22. In fact, it is only now that cheap kirza boots and foot-bandages – they go together – are starting to be replaced by socks and heavy shoes, which are much more sophisticated to make and therefore harder to make reliable. Kirza is, by now, the symbol of all the backwardness of the Russian army and its traditional disregard for its own troops.

  23. In the:
    Filologicheskīi︠a︡ razyskanīi︠a︡
    By I︠A︡kov Karlovich Grot
    Published by Tip. Imp. Akademīi nauk, 1885
    Item notes: t.1-2
    Original from Harvard University
    Digitized Jul 17, 2007
    939 pages
    from Google books Grot uses kirsei (Germ.), kersey
    (Eng.), and creseau (Fr.) to describe this kind of
    cloth.

  24. He Counts Your Words (Even Those Pronouns)
    By JESSICA WAPNER
    Published: October 13, 2008
    James W. Pennebaker’s interest in word counting began more than 20 years ago, when he did several studies suggesting that people who talked about traumatic experiences tended to be physically healthier than those who kept such experiences secret. He wondered how much could be learned by looking at every single word people used — even the tiny ones, the I’s and you’s, a’s and the’s.
    That led Dr. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, down a winding path that has taken him from Beatles lyrics (John Lennon’s songs have more “negative emotion” words than Paul McCartney’s) all the way to terrorist communications. By counting the different kinds of words a person says, he is breaking new linguistic ground and leading a resurgent interest in text analysis.
    More: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/science/14prof.html

  25. “As late as WWII, GI Ivan wore foot bandages,(a sort of thin puttee) not socks.”
    They were still using foot cloths in the 80′s, and for good reason – they are a lot easier to wash in a filed environment, and clean foot wear keeps your feet considerably warmer than dirty socks will.
    “Kirza is, by now, the symbol of all the backwardness of the Russian army and its traditional disregard for its own troops.”
    This bears on finding a good translation for the term – the closest you could come to a US military would be ” canvas”, but that is not specific enough. “Brown boot [Army]” is the reference in the US that is a match for backwardness in the military.

  26. I’ve been racking my brains all day trying to remember the Russian for ‘foot wraps’. It’s just come to me: портянки (portyanki).
    Here’s an interesting blog post from a podiatrist on Russian army footwear:
    http://foottalk.blogspot.com/2007/12/smelly-feet-win-wars-or-do-they-end-of.html
    and this page (sorry, can’t do links):
    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?t=133843
    has an old Red Army set of instructions (in pictures) for putting them on.

  27. Thanks, VL! Here‘s the podiatrist link (an excellent read), here‘s the one with the instructional poster (scroll down).

  28. J. Del Col says:

    The Russians persisted in using portyanki partly because of what amounted to a folk belief that they were more effective at preventing frostbite. Another reason for their persistence was the sheer inertia of military tradition, a problem universal to armies.
    (In the post-Civil War era the US Army brass didn’t like repeating rifles and discarded the ones they had been forced to acquire during the Civil War in favor of the outmoded,slow and unreliable singleshot 1873 Trapdoor Springfield. When Custer ran into Crazy Horse and Gall at the Greasy Grass, many of the Indians were better armed, having purchased some of the repeaters the Army had disposed of as surplus)
    Portyanki are no easier to wash than socks are, and when they get wet, they are just as likely to promote trench foot.
    OTOH, they are easier to make.

  29. Some clarifications — kirza isn’t used for soles of army boots — it’s used for the uppers. I guess functionally it’s equivalent to fake leather and has the appropriate thickness for boot uppers, definitely thicker than oilskin.
    The primary association for кирза is кирзовые сапоги, which are strongly associated with the army and rural areas (Russian wellies, if you will :-D )
    But getting back to the door, it was quite common for doors in Russia to be covered with some sort of fake leather — дермантин (but not кирза) — over stuffing, typically cotton wool. Дверь обитая дермантином would be a standard, plain-vanilla thing — and I wonder whether in the original text the mention of кирза as opposed to дермантин is meaningful is some way.
    By the way, I think that “толсто обитая” implies stuffing underneath, not the thickness of kirza.
    Kaa
    P.S. I can guarantee that портянки were in actual use in the Soviet army in mid-80s…

  30. Thanks very much, Kaa! This website provides me as good an education as I got in college.

  31. > But getting back to the door, it was quite common for doors in Russia to
    > be covered with some sort of fake leather — дермантин (but not кирза)
    > — over stuffing, typically cotton wool. Дверь обитая дермантином would
    > be a standard, plain-vanilla thing — and I wonder whether in the
    > original text the mention of кирза as opposed to дермантин is meaningful
    > is some way.
    I second that; I can remember both the boots and the doors Kaa is
    writing about; the similarity is in the surface texture, but the
    materials are easily distinguishable.
    I also second his opinion that the misnomer of the patent leather door
    coating as “kirza” is probably meaningful. The material is, at least for
    Russians likely to write books, strongly associated with army boots and,
    by extension, with everything grim, bleak and having to do with
    oppression; the author is likely trying to create a mood that
    foreshadows what the character — and the reader — is going to find
    behind that door (it would have been otherwise as easy for the native
    speaker to call it with the more exact “patent leather” — “дверь,
    обитая дерматином/клеенкой/кожезаменителем”). If I am correct with this
    guess, then the translation would be on the lines of “The door covering was of cheap patent leather, like the tops of a conscript’s jackboots”
    – Maxim

  32. It’s sort of a ghost story, with many details building up an ominous atmosphere, so that makes sense, and I like your addition of “like the tops of a conscript’s jackboots” to reproduce the effect in a translation.
    By the way, the official word is дерматин, but Google tells me that дермантин is extremely common; is the latter considered substandard, or just an alternate form?

  33. J. Del Col says:

    Remember Corfam, the synthetic leather Dupont introduced in the 1960′s? After Corfam failed in the US market—it didn’t ‘breathe’ well and never lost its stiffness– Dupont sold the rights, and the factory, IIRC, to the Poles. A lot of Polish shoes and boots were Corfam for quite a while, including footgear for the Polish army, I think.
    It might be considered a modern version of kirza.

  34. > … but Google tells me that дермантин is extremely common; is the
    > latter considered substandard, or just an alternate form?
    >
    I don’t know, but my best guess would be that it is one of those common
    misspellings (doesn’t look like a _form_ to my lay eyes); would then be
    the kind of misspelling where people change the word they misheard so
    that it “makes sense” in some way… It would be funny if the root that the
    misspelling “associates” it with is “дерьмо” (shit) :-) — the material
    doesn’t quite have a reputation for quality, so this would indeed make
    some sense. :-) Or maybe it goes by phonetic analogy with “карантин”…

  35. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    I’d completely forgotten Corfam. I think skinheads had Corfam shoes in England in the mid-sixties. The skinheads had a revival, but not the Corfam, I think.

  36. it is one of those common misspellings
    So it’s just a misspelling? People don’t actually say the extra n?

  37. > >
    > > it is one of those common misspellings
    > >
    >
    > So it’s just a misspelling? People don’t actually say the extra n?
    >
    Actually, they sometimes do; it’s somehow “natural” to slip in the extra
    “n” for some reason that I wouldn’t know… I probably do it myself half
    the time :-) So, no, not just a misspelling — sorry about the
    confusion. Is there a term for such a thing?

  38. Hmm. The technical term for adding an unetymological sound to a word is epenthesis, but what you want is a term for what results, a common but unofficial alternate form. At the moment, I can’t think of anything but “colloquial form,” but perhaps someone can do better.

  39. Corfam is still around. Apparently it’s used for items of equestrian gear.
    Whether it is still made in Poland, I don’t know.
    The patents would have expired, so anybody who wanted to could make it.

  40. > >
    > > Actually, they sometimes do; it’s somehow “natural” to slip in the
    > > extra “n” for some reason that I wouldn’t know… I probably do it
    > > myself half the time :-) So, no, not just a misspelling — sorry about
    > > the confusion. Is there a term for such a thing?
    > >
    >
    > Hmm. The technical term for adding an unetymological sound to a word is
    > epenthesis, but what you want is a term for what results, a common but
    > unofficial alternate form. At the moment, I can’t think of anything but
    > “colloquial form,” but perhaps someone can do better.
    >
    Another example of something like this happening in colloquial Russian
    (and spilling into lots of texts, too, so it would be googlable) is the
    replacement of “военачальник” with “военноначальник” (“general”); the
    archaic correct form is not intuitive for the modern speaker. I thought
    I had a better example, but I can’t remember it right now…

  41. J. Del Col says:

    One last, at least from me, comment on Corfam. Corfam shoes are still being made. Military personnel like them for the permanent ‘spitshine’ they have.
    I don’t where they are made nor by whom, but they are for sale from outfitters who cater to the military.
    Many years ago I actually owned a pair that I wore for inspections in my ROTC unit.

  42. Hmm… I would consider дерматин и дермантин to be alternative, more or less equally valid forms. The Google measure shows the no-n version to be slightly more common, but not decisively so. My own natural inclination is to use дермантин, but дерматин wouldn’t sound wrong to my ear either.
    By the way, the association with shit is achieved by making the r sound soft — дерьма(н)тин — and again, it’s common in spoken language.
    I think “patent leather” is the wrong translation. Patent leather is shiny and is associated with Hercules Poirot’s shoes :-) By now I don’t like my original suggestion of “oilskin” either. If the whole thing weren’t happening in a Russian village, “leatherette” might be not bad, but it’s from the wrong context. I am tempted to translate it here as a “vinyl cover” — while it may not be technically correct, it would convey the meaning of old, cheap, and somewhat inappropriate for the use.
    Kaa

  43. > I think “patent leather” is the wrong translation. Patent leather is
    > shiny and is associated with Hercules Poirot’s shoes :-) By now I don’t
    > like my original suggestion of “oilskin” either.
    >
    How about “some erzatz(?) material looking like…”? After all, we are not
    trying to come up with the right technical term — the original text
    doesn’t have it, either…

  44. I’m no linguist, but it occurs to me that you could use a word such as “bootcloth” and get most of the meaning across.

  45. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Whether it is still made in Poland, I don’t know.
    The patents would have expired, so anybody who wanted to could make it.

    I think Hercule Poirot’s patents have expired by now, too.

  46. More on the intrusive N.
    The pronunciation инциндент (intsindEnt) instead of the correct инцидент (intsidEnt = incident) is quite common and can be heard even in TV news programs.
    Less common, perhaps, but still occurring from time to time is the pronunciation прецендент (pretsendEnt) instead of the correct прецедент (pretsedEnt = precedent), helped along by the phonetically similar претендент (pretendEnt = aspirant, seeker, pretender).
    And, finally, there is конденционер (kondentsion’Er) instead of кондиционер (konditsioner = conditioner).

  47. John Emerson says:

    By now I can imagine the thing but have no idea what it’s called in English. Frustrating.

  48. John Emerson says:

    By now I can imagine the thing but have no idea what it’s called in English. Frustrating.

  49. Hmm… I would consider дерматин и дермантин to be alternative, more or less equally valid forms.
    Actually, they’re not. The correct form is certainly дерматин, while дермантин is a colloquial version, quite analogous to the aforementioned инциндент and прецендент, as well as имплантант (имплантат=implant is correct), константировать (instead of констатировать=state, ascertain, from French constater), прентендент (претендент=pretender[to smth.]) etc. It also happens the other way round, as in конъюктура (instead of конъюнктура=conjuncture), трансцедентный (instead of трансцендентный= transcendent). All of those are obviously words of foreign origin, as is дерматин, although I’m not sure about the exact etymology of that one.

  50. δερμάτινη σακάκι = leather jacket
    δερμάτινη σόλα = leather sole
    δερμάτινος = leather
    http://rabbit.eng.miami.edu/dictionary/grk-eng-d.html
    In Greek it means the real thing.

  51. For etymology of дерматин consider the word “dermatology” :-)
    Kaa

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