POSHLOST.

If you’ve read much Nabokov, you’ve undoubtedly run across the Russian word poshlost’—or “poshlust,” as that incorrigible punster Vladimir Vladimirovich liked to render it. He called it “smug philistinism” and wrote an entire essay, “Philistines and Philistinism,” about it (which you can read here): “Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust.” It’s a useful and appealing word, and it’s been picked up by others, some of whom are to be found in the Wikipedia article.
But it’s more complicated than that. Poshlost’ (пошлость) is the abstract noun from the adjective poshlyi (пошлый), which has a long and winding history, nicely summarized by Michele Berdy in this column:

The original sense was something that had “come into existence,” something customary, the way of doing things. In time it came to mean something “ancient” or “usual.” When Peter the Great was cutting short beards and kaftans, what was customary (пошлый) became negative. For a while it meant “low quality” (in other words, what’s old is no good). And then it came to mean something “devoid of meaning” or “trivial”: meaningless custom observed by habit.

(In Old Russian it was пошьлъ /poshĭlŭ/, derived from the verb ‘to go’ and virtually identical with the modern verb пошел /poshol/ ‘went.’) If you read Russian, there’s a good discussion of the history by V.V. Vinogradov here.
So the Nabokovian meaning is relatively recent, probably not much older than Nabokov himself. In the mid-nineteenth century it meant ‘common, banal, trivial,’ without the implication of philistinism that became attached to it later. When Baratynsky says, in his poem Осень (1836-37), “Глас, пошлый глас, вещатель общих дум” (‘Voice, poshlyi voice, prophesier of common thoughts’), he is using the older meaning, and so are Gogol, Pushkin, and other writers of the day. I fear that the prevalence of the Nabokovian meaning in the modern mind makes it easy to misread earlier writers.
Update. See this 2011 followup.

Comments

  1. I still thank my mom for the time — I must have been about twelve — when we were in a greeting card store and I, pointing to a picture of a round-eyed white kitten sitting in a wine glass, said, “That’s cute” — only to be rebuked, rather sternly: “No, it is NOT cute. It is poshlost.”
    What a great word! I’m glad to know its history.

  2. michael farris says:

    Isn’t there kind of a similar word in German?
    (no, not Kitsch)
    I can’t quite remember it though and it’s going to drive me crazy until I do.

  3. When I was in Russian class in college, I remember a classmate asked the professor what “poshlost’” meant, and, unable to think of an adequate English translation said that “poshlost’” described the entire German culture. Clearly, the professor was no fan of German culture…

  4. Michael, this very serviceable dictionary gives words that all correspond to the pre-Nabokov meaning—I’m not sure if that’s what you meant.

  5. michael farris says:

    No, the word I can’t remember refers specically to a kind of mentality – that of a person who might twitter about “the bard” (meaning Shakespeare) but who would never actually read anything he wrote (and might sincerely think of garden gnomes and hummel figurines as tasteful additions to the home).
    I’m pretty sure it ends in -erei (I’m thinking of the noun form obviously) but a half hour

  6. You don’t mean Yiddish, chazerei, do you?

  7. Jack Womack in his novel “Let’s Put the Future Behind Us” about mid-nineties’ Russia (a bit fictionalized but mostly precise in spirit — a-la Victor Pelevin) uses the noun poshlaia (obviously corrupted from пошлый, пошлость) like this
    He also has a pretty good aside there contrasting Russian paronyms “быт” and “бытие”, though his overall command of Russian mat seems a bit misguided ))

  8. michael farris says:

    “I’m pretty sure it ends in -erei (I’m thinking of the noun form obviously) but a half hour”
    Let’s finish that thought:
    but a half hour of searching through my only print German dictionary (German-Polish, very dated) and similar searches in google haven’t uncovered anything.
    And I’m pretty sure the Yiddish word isn’t it. I keep thinking I’ll recognize it when I see it.

  9. I think I’m thinking of the same word you are, but I can’t come up with it either. Schlamperei came to mind, but that just means ‘sloppiness.’ Great, now you’ve got me frustrated too.

  10. Spießerei?

  11. michael farris says:

    I was also thinking Schlamperei too and also rejected it … arrrggghhh!!!!!

  12. I second Spießerei. If nothing else, Spießertum is what immediately leaps to mind at the mere mention of garden gnomes, and I certainly can’t think of anything closer, though I don’t think it’s a complete fit: there’s rather more emphasis on the social aspect (which is the original meaning) than on the aesthetic.

  13. John Emerson says:

    This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality.
    The word I use in English encompassing all of these is “cheesy”, which is especially appropriate in cases when the cheesy stands in a place where something non-cheesy could quite easily have stood.
    “Cheesy” doesn’t have the sense of “pervasive, widespread, and old”, however. Yet. But with another couple decades of triumphant cheesiness, we will end up with an immortal, multigenerational cheesy tradition, with grandchildren perpetuating their grandparents’ originary cheese.

  14. As long as we’re on the subject of Germans and poshlost, Nabokov did considerably better by the term than “smug philistinism” in his book on Gogol:

    Gogol, in a chance story he told, expressed the immortal spirit of poshlost pervading the German nation and expressed it with all the vigor of his genius.

    The conversation around him had turned upon the subject of Germany, and after listening awhile, Gogol said, “Yes, generally speaking the average German is not too pleasant a creature, but it is impossible to imagine anything more unpleasant than a German Lothario, a German who tries to be winsome… One day in Germany I happened to run across such a gallant. The dwelling place of the maiden whom he had long been courting without success stood on the bank of some lake or other, and there she would be every evening sitting on her balcony and doing two things at once: knitting a stocking and enjoying the view. My German gallant being sick of the futility of his pursuit finally devised an unfailing means whereby to conquer the heart of his cruel Gretchen. Every evening he would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared by him for that purpose. I do not quite know what those swans were supposed to symbolize, but I do know that for several evenings on end he did nothing but float about and assume pretty postures with his birds under that precious balcony. Perhaps he fancied there was something poetically antique and mythological in such frolics, but whatever notion he had, the result proved favorable to his intentions: the lady’s heart was conquered just as he thought it would be, and soon they were happily married.”

  15. Thanks—I had meant to mention the Gogol book, but forgot!

  16. I would translate “poshlost” as “tackiness,” but that’s just me.
    If there’s anything Russian has in abundance, it’s convoluted aestheticizing sneers. For instance, compare “zhlobstvo”: a zhlob is on the same level of contemptibility as someone poshlyi, but he is mercenary rather than philistine. Since Gorky, probably, both poshlost and zhlobstvo are core attributes of “meschanstvo”–literally, “petty bourgeoisie,” but imbued with all the virulence that only a Marxist can apply to that term.

  17. Yes, meshchanstvo is one of those terms for which no translation is adequate.

  18. Throbert McGee says:

    This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality.
    I think that the English word “camp(y)” might potentially cover all of these, but usually with a positive spin.

  19. (to michael farris) “schwa”rmerei”–while not exactly the meaning sought–has wandered to within spitting distance.
    m.

  20. Schwärmerei! I’m sure that’s the word I had in mind, but you’re right, it’s not the same thing: ‘enthusiasm, passion, rapture’ isn’t ‘smug philistinism,’ but it’s frequently exhibited by smug philistines when contemplating the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, and the falsely attractive, so there’s definitely a connection.

  21. I also assumed Spießerei would have been the word you had in mind. But that might really be closer to meshchanstvo. Still, here’s what I found in Wikipedia:
    “пошлость – das schwer übersetzbare russische Wort bedeutet etwa Mittelklassen-Anmaßung, Banalität oder Spießbürgertum.”
    Looking on Google, Banalität seems to be used quite often in German as a translation which doesn’t seem right to me.

  22. My Russian is very shaky, but here in Finland we have learnt to translate poshlost’ as matalamielisyys, which is literally “low-mindedness”.

  23. Maxim Afanasiev says:

    > Yes, meshchanstvo is one of those terms for which no
    > translation is adequate.
    >
    Wouldn’t the French (and also fancy English?) “petit bourgeois”/”petit
    bourgeoisie” be a good one, with both the primary meaning and the
    Marxist connotations being parallel to the Russian мещанство?

  24. Well, it’s a much more specialized term in English—I suspect that very few nonspecialist readers would have any clear idea of what “petty bourgeois” means, and my impression is that мещанство is pretty widely understood in Russian (for obvious historical reasons).

  25. Maxim Afanasiev says:

    > Well, it’s a much more specialized term in English—I suspect that very
    > few nonspecialist readers would have any clear idea of what “petty
    > bourgeois” means, and my impression is that мещанство is pretty widely
    > understood in Russian (for obvious historical reasons).
    I see the problem now: one needs a word that had originally meant
    “townsfolk”, acquired the derogatory sense of the French “roturier” when
    used by a noble, and, finally, got picked up by communist state
    propaganda to mean “one with petty bourgois tastes/habits” in the derogatory
    sense that only a Marxist would fully understand… A puzzle, indeed.
    One probably needs a different Britain or USA to produce a widely used
    word like that :-)

  26. Wasn’t “bourgeois” a fairly common derogatory epithet among American bohemian types in the 50s and 60s? Or am I imagining that? I think the term is fairly well known among educated Americans over 40, although probably less current in the younger generations.

  27. Yes, and I suppose in the ’60s it might have been a pretty good equivalent.

  28. Maxim Afanasiev says:

    Something I forgot to mention: the translation of Mollière’s “Le Bourgeois gentilhomme” into Russian is entitled “Мещанин во дворянстве” — an example of an older sense of the word being still alive but becoming mostly literary and historic.

  29. And (metaphorically) here in China, the literal equivalent of petty bourgeois, xiǎozī, due to a revolt to the derogatory Marxist sense too zealously applied during the “first thirty years”, is now a positive, or mock-positive word.

  30. My wife still uses /buʒwɑ/, a distinct lexeme from bourgeois, in the insulting sense. Like meshchanskii, and unlike philistine, the degeneracy implied is moral as well as aesthetic.

  31. The stress in /buʒwɑ/ is initial, but I forgot to mark it.

  32. “Bourgeois” also had the much more straightforward meaning “boss” in North American French in the context of the fur trade in colonial times: indeed the word (with the meaning “boss”; my source says nothing about its phonetic realization) was a borrowing in the English of the “Mountain Men”, i.e. the pioneers from the United States who initially explored and settled the Rockies.

  33. Boss is itself interesting for what it implies: it was borrowed to replace standard English master because that was the word used in the colonies by slaves. Several forms for servants, including hired-man, hired-girl, and generic help, also avoid the harsh word servant, applied in British America to indentured servants, who were only one up from slaves.
    Per contra, transport displaced transportation outside North America because the latter was used for legalized exile. While transportees were sent here long before they were sent to Australia, it wasn’t as formalized and lost its stigma in the U.S. after the Revolution.

  34. Actually NGram, and associated recent book search option, clearly support what Sashura already mentioned in the 2011 thread, that пошлость has become extinct (peak use during the early XX c. Silver Age, low point reached by 1980, recent books using it are either classics or cultural studies)
    пошляк “foul-mouthed moron” lives on, however, and its recent examples are genuinely recently written.

  35. J. W. Brewer says:

    The loanword behind “boss” also gives us (via Afrikaans) “bassskap” (cognate to boss-ship, I think), glossed by wiktionary as “Dominion, control, especially of white South Africans over non-whites.” Not enough to sully “boss” in the US but I wonder if “baas” is now a more loaded/taboo word in South African English than was once the case.

  36. J. W. Brewer says:

    “Bassskap” was a typo for “baasskap.” Since I didn’t expect my spellchecker to know the word in its correct spelling, I ignored its protests . . .

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