PUFFED UP.

I know I blog about Russian stuff a lot, doubtless too much for some readers, and I apologize in advance for the nature of this post, since unless you actually know Russian it won’t be of interest, but it’s such a surprising and satisfying etymology to me I can’t resist passing it on. I’m getting toward the end of the penultimate chapter of Bely’s Peterburg (the novel known in English as Petersburg), and I just got around to checking out a word I’d noted earlier in the chapter—it looked like a misprint (my copy is riddled with them), but I wasn’t sure. Well, it turns out it wasn’t a misprint, just an unusual word. In the course of one of the lyrical passages sprinkled throughout the book, the свистопляска (svistoplyaska ‘pandemonium,’ literally ‘whistle-dance’) sweeping over Russia is said to “надмеваться оскаленной цифрою,” ‘nadmevat’sya like a numeral baring its teeth.’ Now, nadmevat’sya looks like it should consist of the prefix nad- plus a verb mevat’sya, but there is no such verb (in fact, no word in Russian starts with the letters mev). I finally looked up nadmevat’sya in Dahl, where I found that the prefix was not nad- but na-, and the root verb was дмить (dmit’) ‘to blow,’ first person дму (dmu); furthermore, it was from this verb that the common adjective надменный (nadmenny) ‘haughty, arrogant’ is derived! Again, I’d always assumed the adjective contained the nad- prefix, meaning ‘over,’ but no, the obsolete na-dmit’, like the related and still common na-dut’, means ‘to blow up, puff up,’ and nadmenny is etymologically ‘puffed up,’ which makes perfect sense. And the phrase from Bely that started me off means ‘to be puffed up like a numeral baring its teeth,’ or (in the here overinterpreted and misleading but generally serviceable translation of David McDuff) “to lord it like a grinning cipher.”

Comments

  1. Dan Milton says:

    “To be puffed up like a numeral baring its teeth”.
    Okay, what does that mean, if anything?
    The McDuff translation makes sense, taking “cipher” in its figurative sense “a nobody”, but I don’t think it could be a legitimate translation of the Russian where, so far as I know, ‘tsifra’ is not a synonym of ‘nul’ ‘.

  2. Oh I think McDuff’s translation is very good. It’s a very long sentence in the original. ‘To lord it like a grinning cipher’ refers to black and white striped mile markers jumping out from the roadside at the traveler to remind him of the ‘homelessness and endlessness’ of his journey. So it does makes sense if you take cipher as a sign in digits, a coded monogramme on the marker.
    It is indeed surprising etymology. I’d think it was a neologism, alliterating издеваться (izdevat’sya – humiliate) and насмехаться (nasmekhat’sya – mock, ridicule). A fine example of Bely’s mastery of words.

  3. John Baptist says:

    Interesting. Cognates exist in Czech as dmout and nadmout. The related adjectival participle (if that’s the right term), nadutý, has a secondary meaning as “conceited,” or “swollen-headed,” which makes sense, actually.

  4. So it does makes sense if you take cipher as a sign in digits, a coded monogramme on the marker.
    Quite right, and I hadn’t thought of that; tsifra can indeed mean ‘code’ or ‘cipher’ (or could when Bely was writing—I think it’s now obsolete?). My apologies to Mr. McDuff, except that I think most English-speakers would, like me and Dan Milton, take “cipher” as “zero” and thus figuratively “a nobody”, which is not at all what the Russian means.

  5. I would bet he was influenced by the similarity of the two words; it’s very, very hard to avoid the seductiveness of faux amis when translating.

  6. most English-speakers would, like me and Dan Milton, take “cipher” as “zero”
    The “zero” meaning would never have occurred to me. A cipher to me is a number, and sounds more like a comment on the impersonal nature of twentieth century life, where people are regarded as nothing more than numbers in a computer. Secondarily it would be something encoded, as in cryptography, and even more remotely refer to studying mathematics, as someone in Mark Twain’s era might “larn” cyphering. None of those meanings make sense in the context, “zero” even less. (Although if you look up “cipher” you do find it is cognate with Arabic صفر sifr, “zero”.)
    unless you actually know Russian it won’t be of interest
    Like other non-Russian speaking readers who have remarked on this on other threads, I enjoy the Russian posts, in part because it’s always interesting to see a subject through the eyes of someone who really enjoys it, and in part because of the interesting people who turn up to comment. And of course, the inevitable derailments.

  7. I don’t think I actually knew cipher could mean ‘zero’. I’m used to the ‘digit’ and ‘code’ meanings, though.
    As an amateur speaker of Russian with a Russian husband and in-laws and as a certified language nerd, I think your Russian posts (especially the etymology ones) are a lot of fun. Thanks for another good one!

  8. Dear Hat —
    To puff up” and “bare one’s teeth like an animal” indicate to me hostility, not arrogance. Think of a wolverine raising its hackles and snarling at you… Truly frightening. Now, why a numeral would do this, I have no idea.
    Is there anything in the context of the phrase that precludes “aggressive snarling” in favor of “arrogant grinning”?

  9. Hello Hat,
    I love the close readings of individual words! You are the close reader every writer writes for. Belyi needs nothing if not a magnifying glass (and a full set of encyclopedias!). I tend to agree with Cherie that this sounds more threatening (or like the reaction of a threatened animal) – and actually this fits fully in with a major trope of early Soviet lit in general, the idea of “things coming to life” – numbers coming to life, in this case – as one symptom of the general craziness of russia immediately pre-WWI.

  10. Is there anything in the context of the phrase that precludes “aggressive snarling” in favor of “arrogant grinning”?
    No, the Russian verb is used in both contexts.
    Now, why a numeral would do this, I have no idea.
    Scary numbers are a recurring theme in the novel; one of the villains is a quintillion. And like Annie says, “things coming to life” was a popular trope.

  11. Is there anything in the context of the phrase that precludes “aggressive snarling” in favor of “arrogant grinning”?
    this sounds more threatening (or like the reaction of a threatened animal)
    no-no-no, it’s perfectly fine! ‘Oskalenny’, ‘oskalit’sya’ and ‘skalitsya’ can also mean ‘laugh with one’s mouth wide open’. I’ve just looked it up in my Ozhegov. He gives this phrase to illustrate: “У человека неприятность, а ты зубы скалишь” – ‘The man’s in trouble, and you’re grinning’ (literally: baring your teeth).
    ‘Oskal, oskalenny’ can mean threat, agression, especially with ‘zveriny’ (animal, beastly), and this meaning has become stronger because of its use in agitprop: ‘звериный оскал капитализма’ – ‘beastly snarl of capitalism’.
    it’s very, very hard to avoid the seductiveness of faux amis when translating.
    It is! I agree, especially when a bit of lexi-flexi allows the translator to avoid outright error.
    By the way, much as I enjoy Hat’s Russian posts, myself a Russian I find posts on other languages interesting to me too. You pick up gems where us, others, just glide past.

  12. Pick up germs? Oh, I need my glasses.

  13. Pick up germs? Oh, I need my glasses.

  14. Better scrub them with disinfectant first.

  15. Thank you, very interesting etimology of the word надменный. Now, the verb “дмить” must have the same root as “дым”, Vasmer has a word “надымать” – “blow up”.

  16. No, actually дым is related to Lithuanian dūmai, Sanskrit dhūmas, Latin fūmus, Greek thūmos, and Old High German toum, whereas дмить is related to Lithuanian dumti and Sanskrit dhamati.

  17. Do you think Humpty Dumpty is related to Lithuanian dumti?

  18. Do you think Humpty Dumpty is related to Lithuanian dumti?

  19. no, Humpty is from Kipling’s How A.J.P. Camel Got His Hump and Dumpty is based on Dumpkopff, a character in Strugatsky’s Inhabited Island.

  20. Are the Strugatskys any good? I just googled them, but I couldn’t tell.

  21. Are the Strugatskys any good? I just googled them, but I couldn’t tell.

  22. They are, if you like sort of high-end sci-fi with a philosophical twist. They are sometimes into philosophy and sometimes into satire, often both. Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based on one of their novels.

  23. I’ll give it a whirl, then. Thanks.

  24. I’ll give it a whirl, then. Thanks.

  25. I put this link here only because it’s a Russian topic. I think we recently mentioned Lenin’s wife; here is an article in the Guardian about Krupskaya chocolate. I prefer the “before” label.

  26. I put this link here only because it’s a Russian topic. I think we recently mentioned Lenin’s wife; here is an article in the Guardian about Krupskaya chocolate. I prefer the “before” label.

  27. I like the end of the article: “It is an oddity yet to be explained that someone who was famously renowned as the symbol of sour-faced Soviet womanhood should be remembered as one of capitalism’s most pleasurable indulgences.” Very true; Nadezhda Konstantinovna was a very unpleasant person, and her name would be more appropriate on bottles of castor oil.

  28. Yes. I’d never thought of chocolate being inherently capitalist before, though. If it is, it’s still possible that she was, paradoxically, addicted to it.

  29. It was on Krupskaya’s initiative that Chukovsky’s much loved children’s poem ‘Krokodil’ was banned on counter-revolutionary grounds around 1928. Poor Chuk was on the verge of suicide. Gorky intervened and the ban was lifted.
    But don’t you see the tongue-in-cheek in Leningraders’ request? Munching and licking chocolate Krupskaya? Grigory Oster has ‘chocolate girls’ in his children’s ‘Maneater’s Cookbook’.

  30. It does sound like she was pretty awful. The irony or tongue-in-cheek didn’t occur to me, so thanks for that. Grigory Oster doesn’t seem to have been translated into English, unfortunately.

  31. It does sound like she was pretty awful. The irony or tongue-in-cheek didn’t occur to me, so thanks for that. Grigory Oster doesn’t seem to have been translated into English, unfortunately.

  32. According to this website http://www.elkost.com/grigory_oster/books/best_childrens_books_in_the_wo.html one of Grigory Oster’s stories has been published in English in the anthology Best Children’s Books in the World: A Treasury of Illustrated Stories. It appears to be out of print, but there are used copies for sale via Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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