The latest New Yorker has a long and enthusiastic article, “Dirty Words” by Victor Erofeyev, describing the ancient tradition of Russian swearing, or mat. Alas, the article isn’t online, but if you have any interest in the topic it’s well worth the $3.95 to pick up the issue. A few excerpts:

Perhaps more interesting than mat‘s etymological derivation is its psychological origin: why is Russian profanity so firmly rooted in sex? In other languages—even in other Slavic countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland—the vocabulary of obscenity is more or less evenly divided between shit culture and sex culture. All the basic elements of mat, however, relate to sexual activity, which, in Russia, is considered far dirtier than defecation….

In other words, the whole business of sex is both dirty and painful. Yet zhopa, the word for “ass,” has never been regarded as a mat term, and the rear end is of so little interest that Russian has no real equivalent for the word “asshole,” either in the physical sense or in the metaphorical… “Shit” is not too popular, either, and when American movies are dubbed the word is rendered by the Russian equivalent of “damn.”

One theory has it that before Russia became Christian obscene terms were employed by various pagan groups, including a fertility cult. When Christianity arrived, the Church declared war on mat as a manifestation of these cults, thereby turning the language of sexuality into a form of blasphemy….

Baranov, the mat scholar, believes that it has always lent language an element of conviction, facilitating the transition from word to deed. “In the Soviet period,” he says, “the status of the high lexicon was devalued—words such as ‘fatherland,’ ‘motherland,’ ‘truth.’ In the context of Soviet ideology, these words acquired a negative resonance, not only for the general population but also for Party propagandists. In this situation, obscene words began to function as markers of authenticity.” He told me an anecdote from his own past, when he was working as a warehouseman at a shoe factory: “Our production manager was a woman, and one day she called me in and gave me an assignment. And then she looked at me and said, ‘Yob tvoyu mat’ [‘Fuck your mother’]’—’Make sure it fucking gets done!’ I’d never heard her use mat before. She used it to show that she was being straight with me.”

Erofeyev goes on to discuss the eruption of mat into aboveground Russian life since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conservative reaction thereto, epitomized by draft legislation that would crack down harshly on mat, introduced by Kaadyr-ööl Bicheldei (a Tuvan who is a sponsor of other crackpot language legislation as well).

Baranov adamantly rejects Bicheldei’s claim that perestroika triggered “an outrageous decline in morals and language.” “Absolute nonsense!” he exclaimed, as we sat in a cozy Western-style café on Gogol Boulevard. “What actually happened was that Russian political language came under serious pressure from colloquial language. This is a historical fact of democratization. The study of mat is not welcomed in academic circles—it is seen as an immoral way of legitimatizing it—but scholars totally forget that mat is an oral folk tradition.”


  1. Victor Erofeyev’s biggest problem is having the same last name and first name initial as the great Venedikt (or Benedict if you so prefer) Erofeyev. Victor is a smart (or, rather, smart-assed) person who is trying to compensate for his lack of literary achievement by talking about culture and literature. The interview at Russian Archives, despite the occasional lack of articles and a weird translation of intelligentsia as “intelligence” (and the enigmatic “housemate”), has a few impressively made points, but resembles a typical drunk monologue of a “creative” (tvorchesky) Russian intellectual. Judging by the pieces you quote, this one is more coherent but quite controversial, too.
    “All the basic elements of mat, however, relate to sexual activity, which, in Russia, is considered far dirtier than defecation…” What exactly is dirtier than defecation — sexual activity or relating to sexual activity? If the former, the statement is wrong; if the latter, acceptable. “Yet zhopa, the word for “ass,” has never been regarded as a mat term, and the rear end is of so little interest that Russian has no real equivalent for the word “asshole,” either in the physical sense or in the metaphorical…” Well, “ass” is surely weaker than “fuck” in any context, so what’s the problem? The expletive “shit” cannot be translated as “govno” because a one-syllable word is clearly required — hence it becomes “chort”. Overall, Russians are less fixated on anal stuff, that’s right: it’s considered — and indeed is — a German thing (Czechs being Slavic Germans). “Yob tvoyu mat'” may technically mean what Erofeyev says it does, but Russians do not take it as a meaningful sentence — rather, as an extreme expletive.
    “The study of mat is not welcomed in academic circles…” Welcomed or not, Scherba held regular seminars on mat (behind closed doors, they say), and Plutser-Sarno has recently started publishing a dictionary of mat. The Three-Letter Word alone — without derivatives — took a whole volume.
    The rule of thumb with mat is simple: outside of the working class and the bohemia, it is only used in male talk under certain circumstances. The appeal of mat has to do with the synthetic character of Russian: using only five roots, one can form a multitude of terms to use in any real-life situation.

  2. My slender experience is that Catholic profanity tends toward sacrilege (as in English up to the Early Modern era) — “Zounds” “Sblood”, etc. So the shit must be a Protestant or modern thing. Early modern Europe seems to have been the golden age of the toilet joke: Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne, Erasmus all seemed to enjoy that kind of humor. And yeah, Luther.
    P.S. How did “sacrilege” / “sacrilegious” get those spellings? My spelling instinct is usually reliable, but not here.

  3. Sacrilege got its spelling from the Latin, sacrilegus, and the Romans got it from the gods. Not sure what a “Slavic German” is. Are we talking Blut und Boden here?

  4. zizka: To expand on jim’s comment (and perhaps help you remember the spelling), sacrilege/-gious has nothing to do with religion: it’s sacr(i)- ‘sacred (things)’ + legere ‘to gather; to steal.’ Personally, I use the alternate pronunciation sacri-LEE-jus because it reminds me of the proper spelling.
    jim: To expand on Alex(ei)’s comment, I’m pretty sure “Czechs being Slavic Germans” is not an ethnohistorical judgment but a remark on the order of “Dublin is London West”; ie, Czechs are (culturally) Germans in Slavic dress — which has historical weight behind it, since Czechs (or Bohemians, as they were called in those days) were among the most assimilated of the Austro-Hungarian subject peoples.
    Alex(ei): I agree with your remarks about (the lesser) V. Erofeev, and I’d love to see the volume on The Three-Letter Word (khuy ‘cock, prick’ for non-Russophones).

  5. I have fond memories now of a slender book I saved up for and bought when there was still a USSR (when I started Russian in high school there was one; in my second year of the language, there wasn’t one anymore), which was a dictionary of Russian obscenities. And khuy had, as its second definition “ousted Soviet diplomat.”
    No idea as to whether this book is something to be trusted or not.
    The fertility cult explanation seems very specious to me. Everything goes back to “paganism” these days, and “paganism” is always fertility and matriarchical. To an unbelieveable extent, really. (There are other cultures where fecal-related words are not as bad as others as for insults and swearing. I can’t guarantee it, but I’ve heard Mandarin is one.) One wonders what the contributers to Maledicta would have to say about that….

  6. I was too hard on Victor E. — he irritates me for reasons I cannot articulate succinctly. Well, one must be his foreword to Lolita. The first fiction text by him that I read left a lasting painful impression — it was Popugaychik (A Little Parrot), a story beyond good and evil.
    Thank you, Steve, for explaining what I meant. For three generations now, Russians’ idea of Czech obscenities stems from Jaroslav Hasek’s Sveik — a novel that I used to know almost by heart. Both Czech and German-speaking characters in Sveik are prone to gross jokes revolving around the anus — not in a sexual sense. Most of them are actually quite funny within their proper context, but the book is not the kind one would recommend to a girl. One the contrary, Limonov’s Edichka, where the author uses mat both to refer to sex organs and functions and as expletives, is acceptable. So both excrement and sex may be “dirty”, but in two different ways. Note that Hasek disliked refined manners himself and sneered at the hoity-toity ways of Masaryk’s “court”. He would tell — scornfully — the story of St. Alois (I think), who burst into tears at hearing someone break wind. On the contrary, Venedikt Erofeyev, as well as his alter ego, took good manners most seriously (remember “Erofeyev, who has never farted”?). However, Venedikt E. had no problem with mat (e.g., calling Hamlet a khuyeplyot — dick plaiter?).
    I’d say Renaissance writers — Rabelais for sure — focused on all bodily functions. Sex is just one of them, so it doesn’t stand out.
    Alexei Plutser-Sarno is a Tartu school linguist, a disciple of Lotman. Here’s the link to the publishing house’s Plutser page: . We keep this book in the office. 🙂 Here’s Plutser on other mat dictionaries: . And on surrogate drinks and cocktails: . He’s a sort of celebrity/cult philologist.

  7. Sorry for misspeling the title — it should be Svejk — or, rather, (The Adventures of) The Good/Brave Soldier Svejk. “S” in “Svejk” should have a “bird” accent above, to be pronounced as “sh”.

  8. Thanks for the links! (And in English it’s rendered Schweik.)

  9. Didn’t Nabakov or somebody (maybe a Gogol translator) say that the letter theta was ejected from the Russian alphabet because it was used mostly in obscenities?

  10. No, the letter theta (or fita, as the Russians call it) was ejected because it served no purpose besides perpetuating Greek spelling: it’s always been pronounced f by the Slavs. (My Russian girlfriend confused me by writing about “Karphagen” — it sounded like a German town or something — until I realized she was talking about Carthage, which is Karfagen in Russian [from the Latin accusative Carthaginem].)

  11. LH: Thanks for the explanation. I’ve always enjoyed how Hitler’s name comes out Gitler in Russian or Russo-English. I always wondered why they just didn’t use /kh/ instead of /g/ for /h/.

  12. Sometimes they do; Hemingway, for instance, is Kheminguey (cf. this Russian translation of The Sun Also Rises, bearing in mind that the transliteration system used there has h for /kh/ and j for /y/). G is traditional, while kh tends to be used for more contemporary names. I seem to remember a whole thread on Avva about this.
    (I must say that Hemingway sounds rather odd in Russian.)

  13. I suspect the h-g/kh transliteration dilemma has to do with euphony. There is no ‘h’ sound in Russian, so ‘h’ gets to become ‘g’ (pronounced like a voiced ‘h’ in Southern Russian and Ukrainian) or ‘kh’. The trouble with ‘kh’ is that it figures prominently in quite a number of crude and unrefined words (from ‘khuy’ and its socially accepted substitute, ‘khren’, and somewhat dated ‘kher’, to slang words like ‘khabalka’, ‘khaylo’, ‘kharya’, etc.). Turning Hamlet into ‘Khamlet’ would be a disaster: ‘Kham’ is Ham, Noah’s son, and is a generic Russian term for a rude and boorish person. The general trend in the 18th and 19th century was to euphonize last names and Russify first names where possible. English names like William and Walter posed quite a challenge. Eventually, ‘Vilyam’ was accepted for Shakespeare, but Walter Scott became ‘Val’ter-Skott’, inflected as one word. Heine became ‘Geyne’, and even Hugo with his silent ‘h’ got transforment into Gyugo. These transliterations, sanctified by the Russian literary tradition, are used to this day. Some time in the 20th century, transliterations became more phonetic, so a modern writer or musician called Heine would be ‘Khayne’. Note that Nabokov translated Hemingway in the old fashion: ‘Gemingvey’.

  14. Personally I got a huge bang out of Erofeyev’s article. I spent four years in Moscow and picked up the obscene slang very fast. No doubt Erofeyev was chortling all the way through the writing of this piece, describing unmentionable words and phrases with academic language and historical allusions. I for one would like to know what Peter the Great’s 74-word curse was. Can anyone help?
    Erofeyev’s article reminded me of the great takeoff of William Safire that apperared in the parody “Not the New York Times” about 25 years ago. It opened with Safire and Henry Kissinger entering a posh Washington restaurant and encountering a beggar at the door, hand out. When no donation was forthcoming, the beggar yelled, “Thanks for nothing, you fucks!” The article then went on to a 1000-word deadpan discussion of the fine points of “fuck” as an interjection, a verb, adjective, impersonal pronoun and now — to Safire’s horror — a personal pronoun. Brilliant parody.

  15. Transliteration is a messy subject because of the conflicting systems and the freelance translators who make up their rules as they go along. Kh vs. g is one point of contention but misuse of the singular and plural adjectival endings ii, iy, iye also drive me nuts. And how about the rendering of Dostoevsky’s first name as Fedor?
    But my all-time favourite is the English-to-Russian transliteration of Hollywood as Gollywood. At least it retains some of the flavour of the original.
    As Russia opened up in the early 1990s, the transliterators went crazy. Xerox became “Kzeroks” (instead of the simpler “Zeroks”)and Pizza Hut became Pitstsa Khat. When I first saw that I misread it as “Bird Hat”.

  16. So tell me, what do you think of Nabokov’s scorning of translations that keep the Russian feminine endings of names (eg, Anna Karenina)? Me, I’ve never understood his vehemence on this point, and it seems to me that unless we’re willing to talk about, say, Martina Navratil, we should keep Karenina, Tolstaya, &c.

  17. I loved this article. It filled in some blanks about my Russian friends reactions to some American profanity. Can anyone tell me how to get a copy in Russian to pass on to friends who don’t read English?

  18. It will doubtless turn up online eventually; you or they can do a Yandex search and see if it’s available. (Until then, they can read the many remarks he’s made about mat on various occasions.)

  19. This is a belated follow-up to isfogailsi’s comment about Mandarin: I think you may be right, I don’t know any Mandarin swear words that have to do with defecation. Most of them are sexual. Of course (a) Mandarin is a deeply unsatisfying language to curse in (almost any other dialect is better), and (b) I’m probably not the best person to consult on the topic of profanity in any language. So take this with a grain of salt.
    There is, however, an article by Youqin Wang on the incest taboo, which touches on the question of profanity in Chinese. Here is the URL:

  20. When I was teaching in Taiwan, the favorite curse of one of my roommates was Gou sz! ‘Dog shit!’ But I don’t know if that was a standard curse or a personal eccentricity.

  21. The only good reason to transl(iter)ate Karenina as Karenin is because only a precious few place the stress in Karenina where it belongs. Nabokov also suggested that Chekhov become Chehov; I’d rather go for Czechov.

  22. RedScorpi says:

    First of all, I must say that I’ve enjoyed reading this thread more than the article itself. Thank you everyone!
    I noticed that someone wanted to share the New Yorker article with his Russian friends, so I’ve tried to find Erofeev’s original article, but couldn’t. Erofeev often writes for Moscow’s magazine called ‘Ogonyok’. Here’s his interview with Aleksiy Plutser-Sarno, author of the mat dictionary –
    I believe it was last year when New Yorker ran another one of Erofeev’s article on vodka called ‘Russian God’.
    Anyone read Mikhail Weller in either Russian or (if it exists) translated?

  23. One belated thought on Nabokov and the transliteration of Karenina vs. Karenin: many inconsistencies in translation are down to usage. There is little point fighting huge linguistic trends. One risks being thought of a pedantic.
    And Nabokov, for all his wit and irony, is just that. But he is such a big subject he deserves a separate thread. I am irritated, for example, by his monumental study of Evgeny Onegin, which does not include the poem in Cyrillic. All references to points of interest are meticulously, anally, transliterated. He explains his system in seven interesting pages. My favourite is his instruction in the pronunciation of yerih: “a kind of cross between a dull short i and a grunt”.
    To perhaps close out the discussion of the New Yorker Erofeyev “Mat'” article, I encourage all to send emails of support to David Remnick, NYer editor, for having the courage to publish the piece. I was amused to see last week that the article has real legs. The well-known “Johnson Russia List” of daily Russia press coverage finally picked it up. But the editor apologized in advance to subscribers that their obscentiy-screening software might reject it. Isn’t it bordering on the surreal to think that now the New Yorker, once so prissy and starchy, is now being blocked for obscenity?

  24. zizka wrote at September 11, 2003 10:06 AM:

    Didn’t Nabakov or somebody (maybe a Gogol translator) say that the letter theta was ejected from the Russian alphabet because it was used mostly in obscenities?

    language hat responded at September 11, 2003 10:51 AM:

    No, the letter theta (or fita, as the Russians call it) was ejected because it served no purpose besides perpetuating Greek spelling: it’s always been pronounced f by the Slavs….

    This month’s reading for our local library book club was Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Reactions were cleanly split: those who assumed it was a ponderous Russian novel were perplexed by their inability to spot the deep philosophical brooding (or, for that matter, plot); those who took it as a humorous, rambling satire, somewhat reminiscent of Tristram Shandy, loved it and chuckled all the way through.
    Each of us had read a different translation, and I was curious to find out how the author’s footnote in Part One, Chapter Four was handled. In all but one case, the footnote was rendered something like: “The letter f is considered obscene”, with no further explanation.
    The exception is Christopher English’s translation (Oxford University Press, 1998). The footnoted text is:

    ‘Very true!’ agreed Nozdryov. ‘I can’t abide wet rags like him!’ And to his brother-in-law he said: ‘Well, confound you, go and knit stockings with your wife, you thumbsucker’.¹

    ¹ A particularly offensive name to call a man because of the letters ‘th’, considered by some to be indecent (note by N. V. Gogol)*

    The asterisk leads to the translator’s endnote:

    thumbsucker…(note by N. V. Gogol): the offensive word in question — a daunting challenge for the translator — is fetiuk, the name of the letter θ, which was used in words derived from the Greek, but pronounced /f/ and replaced in the orthographic reforms that followed the Revolution by φ. The letter is considered offensive to men because its form suggests the female organ. In addition, the sound of the word fetiuk might suggest, by assonance, certain well-known Russian terms of abuse, such as gavniuk and pizdiuk. I hope that some of the sexual suggestion, as well as the aspersions against the victim’s virility, are carried, albeit obliquely, by the English ‘thumbsucker’.

    This struck me as a brilliant solution to the translator’s “daunting challenge”, incorporating not only the aspersions (oblique and direct) of “thumbsucker”, but also those of the lisping ‘th’.

  25. Actually, the name of that letter, θ, was fitA, from theta; fetiuk must be a derivative then, with a different root vowel.
    Here’s a nice epigram by Pushkin, aimed at Fyodor (Θеодор) Glinka (I wish I had it in the original spelling):
    Наш друг Фита, Кутейкин в эполетах,
    Бормочет нам растянутый псалом:
    Поэт Фита, не становись Фертом!
    Дьячок Фита, ты Ижица в поэтах!
    It shouldn’t be hard to figure out what these letter names mean.

  26. I chuckled on learning what Russian хуй means, because in David Lake’s novel The Fourth Hemisphere the first words the narrator learns on that faraway planet are hon `male’ and huy `female’. (The novel is crap, by the way.)

  27. Owlmirror says:

    [Will this work now?]
    Oh, link rot, will you never end?

    The link under “Victor Erofeyev” is dead; its content has moved here:

    (The issue of New Yorker with the “Dirty Words” article happened to be the same one with the interview with Mel Gibson talking about “The Passion of the Christ”; I wondered if you had commented on the Russian article, and I searched to find that of course you did)

  28. Owlmirror says:

    More from Erofeyev:

    The article on vodka mentioned above.

    An excerpt from “Russian Beauty”

  29. it’s well worth the $3.95 to pick up the issue.

    The cover price is now $8.99…

  30. languagehat said: “No, the letter theta (or fita, as the Russians call it) was ejected because it served no purpose besides perpetuating Greek spelling: it’s always been pronounced f by the Slavs.”

    There was no /f/ as late as Old Church Slavonic in Slavic phonology. And for example in Bulgarian etymological theta is pronounced /t/.

  31. Theta and Phi were _both_ only useful for perpetuating Greek spelling at the time.

  32. Owlmirror says:

    I have to wonder if the existence of “khuy” and this whole thing with f/th make the term “phooey” (Фуй?) seem dirty to Russians.

  33. Not in my experience.

  34. January First-of-May says:

    There was no /f/ as late as Old Church Slavonic in Slavic phonology.

    True, but whatever the actual phonetic value of theta/fita was, it does not appear to have been distinct from that of phi/fert except perhaps at some very early stage.
    (More recent learned borrowings with etymological theta do use /t/, but that’s just because this is what Western European languages did.)

    I suspect that it was (in East Slavic, at least) borrowed as [f] (which might well have already existed by that point as an allophone of /v/, whereas [θ] did not exist even as an allophone), and then either stayed that or diverged as the dialect wanted; as I’ve mentioned before, the Middle Ukrainian reflex of Theodoros was Hvedir.

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