PLATSDARM.

I’ve just finished Grigory Baklanov’s Pyad’ zemli (‘A span of earth,’ available in Russian here). I wrote about his Iyul’ 41 goda (July 1941) here, and noticed an unexpected borrowing from German here; this is another war story, set on the Dniestr in the summer of 1944, when, as that Wikipedia article says, “German and Romanian forces battled Soviet troops on the western bank of the river.” Our narrator is part of the small group of Soviet forces stationed on the west bank and trying to keep from being pushed into the river by the Germans on the heights to the west, and I will never forget the Russian word плацдарм [platsdarm] ‘bridgehead,’ which occurs in the first sentence (“Жизнь на плацдарме начинается ночью”: ‘Life in the bridgehead begins at night’) and recurs eighty-eight times in the 150 pages of the story. The odd thing about the word is that it’s borrowed from the French place d’armes, ‘parade ground’ (influenced by плац [plats] ‘parade ground,’ itself from German Platz); I’m not sure how you get from ‘parade ground’ to ‘bridgehead,’ but stranger things have happened. At any rate, the book, his first, isn’t as good as Iyul’ 41 goda—there’s too much Boy’s Own sentimentality about comradeship and life in general (in the vein of “And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true”), not to mention an implausible and unnecessary love triangle—but on the whole it’s a fine, harrowing description of life on the front line.
I’d just like to get off my chest another complaint about the UK-centricity of bilingual dictionaries; when I looked up штрафник [shtrafnik] in my Oxford Russian-English Dictionary, which I love like a brother (I dread the day when the front cover comes completely off), I found the definition “(coll.) soldier in the ‘glasshouse.’” WTF? I had to utilize other lexicographical resources to discover that “glasshouse” is a British slang term for a military prison. I don’t mind giving a Brit slang equivalent, but for the love of all that’s holy, you need to provide a neutral definition as well, one that we Yanks can make sense of. (Not to mention that a штрафник need not be in prison but can, as here, be in a штрафбат, a punishment battalion.)

Comments

  1. I wonder how many UK readers these days would know ‘glasshouse’ in that sense? I certainly didn’t…

  2. That’s another point—slang is ephemeral, which is a good reason not to use it in definitions.

  3. OT but BBC Radio 3 is doing a dramatisation of the life of Catullus right now.
    It’s kinda interesting how they’re trying to capture the slanginess. “Slavvie” grates, though.

  4. borrowed from the French place d’armes, ‘parade ground’
    I think that this explanation may be confusing it with плац-парад? Not sure what may have been the precise technical meaning of the French word when it was borrowed (early XVIII c) but at a first glance it just seems to mean some generic “place of the military”?
    BTW – beachhead or bridgehead? In WWII it seems to be, overwhelmingly, the former.

  5. Oh yeah, “beachhead” is the other translation given in the dictionary; I guess I think of that word in terms of landing on islands like Iwo Jima, so it didn’t seem appropriate here, but Merriam-Webster says “an area on a hostile shore occupied to secure further landing of troops and supplies,” so I guess I’ve had too restrictive an idea of it.

  6. I learned more British English while learning Chinese (in China) than any BBC I watch (and I watch quite a bit). All the Chinese-English dictionaries use British English in their translations — as do most EFL textbooks in China. It works, till you get to things like “cooker”, and “pants”. For all the frustration, I’m a better person for it.

  7. 23Skidoo says:

    Плацдарм also has a second meaning (more common, IMO) – ‘springboard’.

  8. another complaint about the UK-centricity of bilingual dictionaries
    A quick check of my Oxford bilingual English-Hebrew dictionary shows that while British spellings are preferred, American spelling is also indicated.
    It’s a curious volume though: The front matter says that “(t)he English text . . . is based on the Concise Oxford-Duden German Dictionary and the Oxford French Minidictionary.” The book was published in Israel by Kenerman Publishing. The Oxford logo is nowhere to be seen.

  9. Arguably the best English-Mongolian dictionary, the Monsudar (the best in terms of accuracy of equivalents, at least — unfortunately it’s too slim to rely on completely) is also based on British English. It’s kind of reassuring to see all those familiar-sounding expressions in there, the kind that tend to be shouldered aside in American English, but to be honest, it really does need to broaden its base. The dictionary entries contain quite a few expressions that are restricted to British English. I don’t have it with me to give examples, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it listed only “petrol” and not “gasoline”, for instance. There is something to be said for taking a broader view of a language.
    Of course, this kind of thing isn’t confined to English. I’ve noticed that monolingual Mongolian dictionaries are adamantly Khalkha in their orientation and vocabulary. One project that I would really like to see come to fruition is a pan-Mongol dictionary of Mongolian, one that casts the net widely to include words and senses from at a very minimum the standardised dialects of Inner Mongolia, Mongolia, and Buryatia. But given linguistic and ethnic attitudes prevalent in Mongolia, I doubt that will happen for a long time.

  10. Platzdarm could be a German medical term. It would mean intestines with a tendency to split or burst open. If this were a widespread condition, then Platzdarm could also refer to a case of split intestines: Sie hat einen Platzdarm.

  11. Not to be confused with split infinitives, an equally life-threatening phenomenon.

  12. Odd that the US slang is the ‘cooler’ and UK slang is the ‘glasshouse’. I can imagine covoluted quiz questions involving, GIs, Tommies and extremes of temerature.

  13. @Stu: I had the same instinctive reaction to the word Platzdarm and tried to come up with some metaphorical gut-busting interpretation that would make sense of the meaning. However, when I look at German google, the word Platzdarm seems to mean springboard or salient, but bizarrely it’s only used with reference to Russian affairs. The German citations stretch from the Napoleonic invasion of Russia to the Chechnyan wars. It’s as if the word is used to add local color to descriptions of warfare in or about Russia.

  14. I’m not sure how you get from ‘parade ground’ to ‘bridgehead,’ but stranger things have happened
    If you take place d’armes in a slightly broader meaning of ‘assembly point’ for troops, then you can take it further to mean assembly point before the start of a military operation. Of course, military speak evolves in peculiar ways. Плац separately means just marching grounds – for training and parades.
    D-Day landing areas are commonly referred to as ‘beaches’, dropping either ‘landing’ or ‘-heads’ – Utah Beach, Omaha Beach etc. And it is poignant as they are wonderful beaches and so marked on the French maps.
    Shtrafnik or shtrafnaya also means an especially large drink that someone late to the party is made to drink to catch up with other guests.

  15. In your trip through Great Patriotic War nostalgia, have you reached V. Grossman yet?

  16. I have just gotten up to him, having been convinced by Sashura’ to read him in the original Russian, but I’m feeling a little beaten down (I’ve just finished both Ivan’s War and Overy’s Russia’s War), and I think I need to catch my breath and cleanse my palate first. A book on Shostakovich might be just the thing!

  17. or Casablanca? really good for reloading.

  18. Platzdarm could be a German medical term. It would mean intestines with a tendency to split or burst open. If this were a widespread condition, then Platzdarm could also refer to a case of split intestines: Sie hat einen Platzdarm.

    For the sake of other readers (because Stu is well aware of it!), cf. »Blinddarmentzündung«, colloquial German for ‘appendicitis’, but literally ‘inflammation of the caecum [the part of the large intestine to which the appendix is attached]’. Cf. also the poor translation here, of Leonid Rogozov’s accounts of his appendicectomy on himself on May Day 1961:

    “I worked without gloves. It was hard to see. The mirror helps, but it also hinders—after all, it’s showing things backwards. I work mainly by touch. The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time—I try to work surely. Opening the peritoneum, I injured the blind gut [an English-speaking doctor would have written caecum] and had to sew it up. Suddenly it flashed through my mind: there are more injuries here and I didn’t notice them …”

  19. dearieme says:

    “Not to mention that…can, as here, be in …a punishment battalion”: so a better translation would be “on jankers”.

  20. Jankers (a thoroughly unprofessional article, but one gets the idea). Apparently the origin of the term is unknown.

  21. No, Jankers is very incorrect. Shtrafniki is a very specific form of military punishment, only possible during a war (generally WWII). Their companies or battalions operate on the front lines, usually spearheading the attacks, and are supposed to take heavy losses. The release of the punished servicemen generally won’t happen until they are injured (the concept of blood atonement). Tain’t no peacetime jankers.
    Besides in WWII, a sizable fraction of the shtrafniki were recruited from the civilian prisoners of the labor camps, seeking freedom or death.

  22. Vladimir Vysotsky has a wonderful poem/song about shtrafniki.
    And Russian and English wiki on shtrafniki link, among other stuff, to The Dirty Dozen with Don Sutherland and Telly Savalis, as proof that punishment units were used in other countries. But of course in the Red Army it was a mass phenomena.

  23. … and The Dirty dozen was fiction.

  24. Truth be said, Russian mythology of the penal units is also largely based on fiction. The commanding officers of the штрафники were sworn to silence (just as the personnel of заградотряды, an even more horrific WWII unit also codified by the same infamous Stalin’s Order 227). So preciously little is known about the prisoners and their fight. There is an oft-cited personal account by Mr. Karpov, later a big shot of the Soviet secret services, but he’s been largely discredited for his peddling of WWII forgeries.

  25. PS perhaps a more correct way to put would be, “a myth shaped by gray propaganda and fiction”

  26. How about a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (but perhaps there is a key)?

  27. Churchill’s over-used description probably sounded very cool back then, but today it sort of evokes a healthy deli menu item IMVHO, a wrap of weird ingredients … “tofu covered in linseed wrapped in an organic tortilla” LOL.
    We are moving offtopic fast, just as a neighboring entry would predict :) Still to stay closer to the topic … I’d second Sashura with the recommendation of Vysotsky. Excellent lyrics there, Languagehat! For a person as keenly interested in poetry and WWII as yourself, it’s a must read.
    And of course on the very topic of platsdarm, there’s a great and much venerated period poem, Tvardovsky’s Переправа.

  28. Excellent lyrics there, Languagehat! For a person as keenly interested in poetry and WWII as yourself, it’s a must read.
    I agree. It’s great getting recommendations from such an informed crowd.

  29. Mockba, thanks for mentioning Tvardovsky, another unsung (in the West) hero of Soviet literature. Despite the condescending comments by Prince Obolensky he was a great bridging figure from socialist realism to the new Russian literary Renaissance of the 60s. Besides the war-time narrative poem Vassily Terkin, it was him who spotted Solzhenitsyn and insisted on publishing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovytch and much more more.

  30. Sorry, Hat,
    do my comments about platzdarm going from ‘parade ground’ to ‘brdigehead’ make sense?

  31. Of course most of the young Russian poets who saw action of WWII, and wrote about it, also ended up killed in action. So we won’t ever know how good they would have become. Like Kulchitsky, IMHO the most talented of this generation, dead at 23 (a few of his poems are also on the war poetry site which Sashura linked to). To my surprise, another fav poet, a Siberian upstart Georgy Suvorov, killed at 24, isn’t listed there. An eight-liner sampler for you:
    Пришел и рухнул, словно камень,
    Без сновидений и без слов,
    Пока багряными лучами
    Не вспыхнули зубцы лесов,
    Покамест новая тревога
    Не прогремела надо мной.
    Дорога, дымная дорога,
    Из боя в бой, из боя в бой…

  32. do my comments about platzdarm going from ‘parade ground’ to ‘brdigehead’ make sense?
    Yeah, they make sense to me.

  33. for the love of all that’s holy, you need to provide a neutral definition as well
    Seconded. I had precisely the same experience this week when I looked up the word махонький in the Oxford and was informed that it means “titchy,” a word that drew a complete blank.
    Well, I suppose I learned two new words for the price of one…but when I look up a word in a bilingual dictionary, I’d prefer it if it didn’t require follow up research on the Internet.

  34. махонький in the Oxford and was informed that it means “titchy,
    Is it the only definition? Махонький and titchy are both stylistically coloured, you’d use them talking to children or about something small and cuddly.
    Could it also be that British dictionary compilers allow themselves more fun than others? I’ve read a complaint by a famous French dictionary man who said Dr Johnson was prone to frivolity, for example defining lexicographer as a ‘harmless drudge’.
    You should try Google maps for more fun. If you ask for directions from Japan to America, you get a long list of instructions, but somewhere in the middle Google advises: ‘Kayak across the Pacific’ – complete with the streetview option.

  35. Yes, the only definition. If they’d provided even one synonym, it’s extremely unlikely I’d have had to look it up.
    Remarkably, just now, I discovered LH himself actually posted about looking up the very same word in 2004. I wonder if he, too, was reading Братья Карамазовы.

  36. Huh, that rings a bell… But no, I wasn’t reading Karamazov (which I still haven’t read in Russian).

  37. titch sounds onomatopoeic to me.
    It must be much older than the C19 comedian mentioned in LH’s 2004 post. There is a town Titchfield, popular British TV presenter and naturalist Alan Titchmarsh and 19th Century educator Titchener.
    If you start typing titch in Google search window it gives all sorts of prompts with titch-.

  38. Sashura: Indeed, but the Ti(t)ch- in these names, as in Tichborne itself, must be semantically unrelated to the modern tich < Little Tich < (ironically) the Tichborne claimant. The WP article on Titchfield (in Hampshire) says that it appears in Domesday Book as Ticefelle, but I can find no tice- in any online glossary of Old English. Titchmarsh in Northamptonshire is said to be named after the nearby River Itchen (that is, the marsh at Itchen). I can’t find anything useful on the river’s etymology(often the case with river names, which tend to be highly conserved). After running down a number of other dead ends, I give up.

  39. The Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names says Itchen is “an ancient pre-Celtic river-name of unknown origin and meaning,” for what that’s worth.

  40. something tells me that titch- might be related to tiddlers or diddlers – that’s what my mother-in-law (English) used to call both children (toddlers) and dogs (small creatures, sometimes unsure of what they are supposed to do or how to behave). Anyway, methinks it’s a lovely English word, pity it didn’t make it into American English.
    And I also have an impression that ‘proper’ etymology studies often don’t take into account phonetic changes (Welsh is famous for its mutations) that occur in living languages – and are very hard to unravel.

  41. And I also have an impression that ‘proper’ etymology studies often don’t take into account phonetic changes (Welsh is famous for its mutations) that occur in living languages – and are very hard to unravel.
    Your impression is wrong.

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