RAZBLIUTO? NYET!

In a sense, it’s unfair to blame William Safire for the false information he purveys in today’s column, since he’s taking it directly from a published book (by a linguist, no less) rather than making it up or vaguely recalling something somebody once told him. But I’m going to blame him anyway, because if he took more trouble to check his sources, he wouldn’t be so prone to these embarrassing gaffes. The one that gets my goat today is a nonexistent “Russian word” that’s been spreading across the internet like kudzu for years and that Safire has doubtless given vigorous new life to: “razbliuto, ros-blee-OO-toe, ‘a feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but no longer feels the same way about.'” Safire is quoting Christopher Moore’s In Other Words, a collection of “words and phrases that are impossible to translate neatly into English.” [I have deleted a lazy and unfair comment on Moore; now that I am working on a similar book myself, I realize how impossible it is to control every item, and it is clear to me that Moore was the victim, not the perpetrator. My apologies, sir!] In this case, Moore clearly picked up the “word” from another such book (they must be popular, because they keep getting published), I suspect Howard Rheingold’s 1988 They Have a Word for It, where it appears as “razbliuto (Russian): the feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not.” Rheingold (who “writes on subjects involving science, technology and computers”) has the elementary decency to say where he got his entries, and this one comes from J. Bryan III’s 1986 Hodgepodge. There the trail goes cold, since I don’t have a copy of that “literate, lifelong miscellany, illuminated with flashes of comedy and rue” (if any readers can get their hands on one, please let me know if Bryan provides a source), but it doesn’t really matter. The origin is not as important as the basic fact that (listen up, now) there is no such Russian word. When I bought Rheingold’s book I was charmed by the definition but found the word impossible to analyze (the prefix raz- ‘dis-, un-‘ made sense, but the rest didn’t), and it was not in my dictionaries; as I’ve acquired more and better dictionaries, my suspicion grew into a certainty, and has been confirmed by a very funny thread at the group blog dirty.ru, where a member posted the following back in January:

Уважаемые носители русского языка, знаете ли вы, что в этом языке, оказывается, есть волшебное слово razbliuto? Существительное, произносится как [ros–bli:–u:–to]. Согласно буржуйским справочникам по труднопереводимым словам, значает чувство по утраченной любви. И судя по огромному количеству ссылок, которые выдаёт Гугл на соответствующий запрос, весь мир об этом знает. Ну кроме нас, носителей языка.

Which is to say

Dear bearers of the Russian language, did you know that in this language it seems there’s a magical word razbliuto? A noun, it’s pronounced [ros–bli:–u:–to]. According to bourgeois reference books on hard-to-translate words, it means the feeling of lost love. And judging from the immense quantity of links Google returns when given the corresponding query, the entire world knows about it. Well, except for us, the bearers of the language.

The commenters came to the consensus that it was probably a participial form of the verb razlyubit’ ‘to stop loving, not love any more’ mixed up with the extremely common swear word blyad’ ‘whore’; my favorite comment was “‘Разблюто’ — это когда тебе разбили сердце, и ты после этого очень сильно напился, до тошноты. Вот тогда в организме все разблюто.” [“Razbliuto” — that’s when your heart is broken, and afterwards you get drunk to the point of nausea. And then your organism gets all razblyuto.] (The commenter is playing on the verb blevat’ ‘to puke,’ 3rd singular present blyuyet.)
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me “untranslatable words” fall into the same category as “cute things kids say” and “stupid laws”: they’re funny/touching/outrageous only as long as they’re real. If I actually hear a kid say something cute, I enjoy it and may even repeat it; if I see a list of such sayings, it leaves me cold because I know they’re mostly invented by adults. And if I know this particular word is bogus, how can I trust the other examples, like “Chinese gagung (ga-GUNG), ‘bare branches,’ defined by Moore as ‘the men who are unlikely to marry or to have families because of the skewed sex ratios'” or “Arabic taarradhin (TAH-rah-deen), [which] suggests the resolution of a conflict that involves no humiliation: our closest definition is ‘a win-win outcome'”? The answer is, I can’t, and it annoys me.
I don’t want to leave the impression that that’s the only idiocy in the article. The last bit I quoted is followed by this:

Many foreign languages are difficult for the Japanese to learn because their language is written vertically. They have come up with the phrase yoko (“horizontal”) meshi (“boiled rice”), meaning ”a meal eaten sideways.” Yoko meshi evokes the stress that comes from trying to make oneself understood in a foreign language.

Hey, buddy, check out the website of Asahi Shimbun, say, and get back to me about that “vertical writing.” You’re stuck in the Meiji era; the Japanese have long since moved on. I don’t know if foreign languages are in fact difficult for the Japanese to learn, but if so, you’re going to have to come up with another explanation.
Addendum. According to this site (which I found via Елизавета’s comment below), the “word” originated in the ’60s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E.! A commenter there speculates that the word intended was разлюблено (razlyubleno ‘fallen out of love’) but there was a typo in the script. I suppose we’ll never know if that’s how it happened, but if anyone can provide an actual citation from the show, I’ll be eternally grateful!
Update: Dima Rubinstein joins the fun.
Further update: zmjezhd of epea pteroenta does some research in his post “razbliuto [sic]” and discovers that the entry in Hodgepodge reads as follows (under “Words we need in English”):
razliubito (Russian): the feeling you have for someone you once loved, but now no more.
So Bryan III’s slight error of razliubito for razliubit’ gets magnified by Rheingold and (as zmjezhd says) “ripples out across the decades.”

Comments

  1. “ros-blee-OO-toe”? That’s a pretty bizarre pronunciation.

  2. There is a Chinese term 光棍, pronounced in Mandarin as guānggùn (also 光棍儿, guānggùnr). The individual characters do mean “bare” and “stick”, but this had been a term for “bachelor” long before the sex ratio became so uneven. It is used now in reports about the 3000万光棍 – the 30 million men unable to marry who will be running around in 15 years – but I don’t think the word itself has acquired that connotation in other contexts.
    If this is what Moore is using, I wonder which dialect he got his pronunciation from: The readings for 光 here don’t resemble “ga” much; 棍 likewise. Taiyuan seems closest:”kua_̃ kuŋ”. Shanghai isn’t too far off, either.

  3. Actually Hat the Japanese have not entirely moved on – many novels and non-fiction books are still printed vertically. Or at least were until 10 years ago, the last time I bought a Japanese book. And thank God, personally I find it easier to read Japanese and Chinese that way. Still, you’re right that Safire is ridiculous to think that the direction of the typeface has anything to do with language learning.
    This “razbliuto” thing is hilarious. Safire seems to be determined to make a complete fool of himself. I doubt very much that “blad'” has anything to do with it. I think some American with almost no knowledge of Russian miscopied “razliubilo” with bad hand-writing and it eventually got distorted.

  4. Yokomoji (横文字) is an actual old word for European writing, coined when Japanese was still always written vertically. “Yokomeshi” must sound similar enough to be funny.
    Most Google hits on “yokomeshi” either refer to a restaurant of that name in Kumamoto, or are English-language reviews of the book mentioned. There are a couple in Japanese that actually discuss the word, though. “横メシ” gets more Japanese hits, and “横めし” gets a few. “横米” gets mostly Chinese hits.

  5. Vanya, it’s not that Japanese is never written vertically anymore, it’s that it’s no shocking to write it horizontally.

  6. Yeah, although vertical writing is still preferred in literary contexts (including comic books and some self-help books) it’s completely insane to claim that horizontal writing would be even the slightest bit difficult for any literate Japanese perston to read. (With the possible exception of certain very, very old people, I suppose.)
    The modern terms for vertical and horizontal writing are 縦書き and 横書き, respectively (tategaki and yokogaki), btw.
    zhwj, I’m curious about 光 as “bare” — is it a simplified form of some other character? In Japanese 光 almost always means “light” (the electromagnetic kind, not the opposite of “heavy”). Although very rarely it can mean “big” or “full”, I think.

  7. For what it’s worth, Eijiro (www.alc.co.jp) gives 横メシ as ” eating together with foreigners”.

  8. I follow your blog with interest.
    You may like to know the Society for the Preservation of English and Correct Speech (SPECS) is now online.
    Heh.

  9. Matt: It’s mostly used in the sense of “hairlessness”, I believe, perhaps from bright->smooth->bare. Baldness is 光头. Nakedness is 光赤. It’s also used as a resultative complement, meaning that nothing is left: to eat everything is 吃光, to lose everthing is 输光. The meaning of “big, vast” is related to the similar-sounding 广 guǎng (廣、広)
    This page (Baidu cache, in Chinese) claims that it is trendy in Japanese to refer to Western food as “horizontal food”; Japanese food, naturally, is “vertical food”. “今天吃横饭竖饭?” (where 饭 here corresponds to the “boiled rice” of Mr. Safire’s article; 米 in Chinese is raw rice.)

  10. There are plenty of copies of hodgepodge at Bookfinder, an evil site which does a combined search of some 70K booksellers.

  11. I have mysteriously acquired a handbook printed by the Japanese company “Mitsubishi Corporation” entitled “Japanese Business Glossary”: written (no doubt) for English-speaking staff who are learning business Japanese.
    This unscholarly tome (printed in 1983) carries a reference to Yoko-meshi in the following terms:
    “Yoko is lateral or horizontal and meshi is meal (lunch or dinner), but if the word is rendered into English as “horizontal meal” it makes no sense. Here, yoko is a reference to English or European languages which are written on a horizontal line as opposed to the vertical writing of the Japanese. Thus yoko-meshi becomes a business lunch or dinner with visitors from overseas.
    Although the Japanese start learning English at the age of 12 in junior high school and continue through senior high school and part of university. they don’t seem to make much progress. Thus, eating a meal while conversing in English requires concerntration on language, and so they say, “When I have a yoko-meshi I don’t feel as if I had a meal.” Perhaps the readers of this book who are not fluent in Japanese may feel that a tate-meshi (vertical meal) is similarly something on an ordeal”.
    I’d throw this in the post for you if you were interested languagehat – although I’m sure you prefer more scholarly works than this cartoon-riddled document!

  12. Everything Safire does was wrong, so you never need to apologize, LH. If he told me to breathe air I’d be sorely tempted to suffocate myself.
    The “bare stick” term for bachelors is familiar. It refers to a branch without any further branchings, a deadend on a family tree. (I don’t know whether “bare stick” also refers to a permanent erection, which was my first interpretation; that’s not the official version, anyway). In my experience the phrase always refers to involuntary bachelors (from poverty). I don’t know how Chinese deals with men who can marry but prefer not to, but I think that traditionally, at least, that was a rare and shocking phenomenon.
    It sounds like the origin of the Russian word was one individual Russian who made a pretty funny offhand joke in the presence of someone who wrote English novelty journalism.
    Bookfinder is a treasure. It guides you to everyone in the world selling online. I usually search with Bookfinder and then look for an ABE affiliate to buy from, since ABE is a kind of co-op of many small booksellers.
    Bookfinder has French, German, and Italian sections — but no Spanish, so let me ask: does anyone know of a good, cheap, quick online source for Spanish or Portuguese books?

  13. I agree — Bookfinder is an extremely valuable resource. I don’t consider it “evil” to give consumers useful information. Once upon a time I had to haunt used bookstores for years hoping to find a particular title; now I can find it in seconds.
    I’m glad everyone found something to enjoy in this round of Safire-bashing!

  14. See the following discussion, by translators, on these untranslatable words. (One of the first entries being that Razluito does not exist):
    http://www.proz.com/post/151383

  15. Can I offer another version?
    There is a verb “Расплеваться [c кем-то]”, which means “to break up bitterly” and mostly applied to former lovers as well as to other relationships (boss and employee, f.ex).
    Safire: another reason I don’t read New Yorker and NYT.

  16. Off-topic, but Belanger’s link eventually led to a Danush translation of “Jabberwocky”. Paging Desbladet (and Uncle Jazzbeau?).
    “Kloppervok”
    Translated by Arne Herløv Petersen from “Jabberwocky”,
    by Lewis Carroll,
    Copyright 1986 Arne Herløv Petersen
    I glummert lys den slyge spæg
    stod gomrende og glim.
    I børkens dyb stod mamren fjæg
    og bungrede i skim.
    “Vogt dig for Kloppervok, min søn,
    pas på dens tand og klo!
    Hold dig fra fuglen Djubberløn
    og fra den spuge flog!”
    Han tog sit vorpne sværd i hånd
    og søgte fjenden trum,
    Ved tomtetræets smækre vånd
    han ventede så stum.
    Som uffig han i tanker stod,
    den kurpe Kloppervok
    med flammeøjne ret imod
    ham kom og guste spok.
    Men hug på hug! Og sværdfet slog
    så vorpent mod dens hals!
    Dér lå den død; dens hoved tog
    han med sig i gefals.
    “Og, har du fældet Kloppervok?
    Min søs, du est en knog!
    Det er en glamrig dag, og nok
    en spurkel værd, mintro!”
    I glummert lys den slyge spæg
    stod gomrende og glim.
    I børkens dyb stod mamren fjæg
    og bungrede i skim.

  17. More Jabberwockies are to be found at:
    http://www76.pair.com/keithlim/jabberwocky/translations/
    It has another Danish version besides the one John posted, and much much more. (I put the address into the URL-field as well, so you can go there by clicking on my name. Mind you, it is not my page!)

  18. Greg Nafferson also had a post about this ficitious Russian word.
    http://www.livejournal.com/users/mcnafferson/5643.html

  19. Rather than blindly agreeing that the word “razbliuto” isn’t a Russian word and doesn’t exist at all, couldn’t we put the blame where it belongs — on the defects of the Russian educational system, which has failed to transmit the rich Russian heritage to its students?
    And rather than just complaining and feeling superior, couldn’t we make it our mission to re-introduce this excellent word into living Russian? I suppose we’d all have to learn Russian first so we could go around Russia pissing and moaning about our heartbreak until finally everyone knew what the word meant. (But many of us already do know Russian).

  20. Елизавета: Thanks! Your link led me to this one, which led me to another that claims the “word” originated in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.!

  21. By the way: 光 can mean light as well, in the sense of 光亮 (bright) or 灯光 (lighting).

  22. i think this misRussism has been around long enough to qualify as an English word by now. (i’ve rhymed it with ‘Pluto’ in poems.)
    consider the career of ‘ostranenie’. (shouldn’t it be ‘otstranenie’?)
    m.

  23. The Japanese word Safire refers to, “yokomeshi”, also basically does not exist. I discuss this in detail on my blog.

  24. shouldn’t it be ‘otstranenie’?
    There is such a word, meaning ‘pushing aside, dismissal,’ but the word you’re referring to was invented by the critic Viktor Shklovsky to serve the specialized sense he wanted (having the familiar and commonplace made strange or alien) — it’s sometimes translated “enstrangement” in English to give a similar, well, enstranging effect. This guy says “yeah – really wierd word. I think the experiment with alienation, estrangement etc engendered words like ostranenie, but ‘otchuzhdenie’ is the one we use now.” Don’t know if that’s true.

  25. See explanation of the term here (comment of 18.08.03)

  26. I read Howard Rheingold’s ” They Have a Word for It” shortly after it appeared in 1988 and kind of enjoyed it. At the time, he said in the introductory that he hoped to write another book someday on untranslatable words and that he was open to suggestions from readers.
    However, it goes without saying that untranslatable words abound in all languages. For example, the Ancient Greeks had a word ‘thumos’ which has no exact equivalent in English or other modern European languages and it causes problems for classicists trying to translate the word into modern languages from Ancient Greek texts. ‘Thumos’ means something like the guts or courage shown by a girl or a woman. However, to fully appreciate and understand the word you have to be aware of the philosophical nature of the Ancient Greeks and the fact that women had a relatively low status in Ancient Greek society.
    Even today, Spanish words like ‘macho’ and ‘azabache’ are very much part of their culture too and are not easily definable in English although I’ve seen “Virile in a vulgar sort of way” for ‘macho’ and “a pendant made out of jet (a black mineral) to ward off evil spirits” for ‘azabache’. Likewise, American English words like ‘sugar daddy’ and ‘blue collar worker’ don’t translate too well into Spanish and French although French kind of fakes the latter with “ouvrier col bleu.”
    Benjamin Whorf first noticed this phenomenon about a century ago when he wrote about the twenty or so lexical items which Eskimos had for “snow” and the radically different ways the English and Shawnee languages described identical activities like building a fire or cleaning a rifle.

  27. OK, it´s a fair cop… I did put razbliuto initially in my book (Moore “In Other Words”) as the checks I did seemed to suggest it had quite a lively and unquestioned existence. However, now the term has already been edited, and William Safire sadly wasn´t using the latest version.
    That´s how it goes with language, always dynamic, always a challenge, always throwing up new inventions which take on a life of their own. I feel there really ought to be a word “razbliuto,” and to judge from a Google search a lot of other people do too. It now exists whether we like it or not, and the supposed Russian origin maybe gives it an intensity it wouldn´t otherwise have…?
    As for yoko meshi, of course it is a bit of fun, a play on yoko moji, (horizontal eating-horizontal writing), a pun that would be meaningless if Japanese were never written vertically
    So let´s keep a lighthearted view of these things. Language is to be played with and enjoyed in the street, it isn´t just for linguists and lexicographers. Speakers´ common mistakes can even sometimes end up years later in the dictionary.
    Just for the record, I couldn´t possibly speak all the languages in my book, if so I would hold the world record. There are, as well, three pages of acknowledgements in the book, sources, friends and colleagues from all around the world who helped out.
    CJM

  28. CJ: Thanks for dropping by and responding in such a good-humored way; I tend to go off on things that offend me without thinking about the fact that the author might be listening! I agree that “razbliuto” is a nice pseudo-word, and I’d be a lot more willing to accept it if it were from, say, Burgess and openly invented rather than representing itself as a real Russian word. But I’ll try to “keep a lighthearted view of these things”; a light heart is good for the digestion.
    [Further unfair commentary deleted, with apologies.]

  29. A historical anecdote to add to zhwj’s comprehensive explanation of guang光’s ambivalence as ‘bright’ / ‘bare, empty’:
    Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, the –notoriously brutal and barely literate- founder of the Ming dynasty is said to have executed at least one scholar for using guang in an eulogy of his, in application to his excessively strict wenziyu 文字獄 (“literary Inquisition”).
    The unfortunate man had written that the emperor of the great Dynasty of Clarity (明 Ming) had ’embrightened’ the world, but Zhu understood this as a perfid allusion to his ‘barehead’ past as a low-level monk (like many poor peasants, he had entered a monastery as a boy to escape famine). That was certainly not a pleasant memory to him, hence the proscription of both guang and tu 禿, as well as seng 僧 (monk) and its ‘Southern’ homophone sheng 生 (a character that is in fact almost impossible to avoid in official texts and quotes from the classics).
    To be fair, there were other problematic words in the same text, such as ze 則, which sounds like zei 賊, ‘robber’: the anti-Yuan rebellion that lead Zhu to the throne started basically as a bandit organisation. Not a good thing to bring up when addressing someone who pretends to be the legitimate Son of Heaven.
    Wu Han 吳晗’s chapter on the wenziyu in his biography of Zhu (Zhu Yuanzhang zhuan) is based on both official an unofficial historical records, but his contempt for the man, whom he describes as little more than a blood-thirsty bully (or a proto-Red guards leader) doesn’t leave much space to discuss whether his suspicions may have been justified, at least sometimes (attack by allusion being like a second nature for Chinese literati).

  30. Folquerto says:

    “They have a word for it”. Oh dear oh dear, so many misunderstandings. If they have a word for it and you accept that word, then you have it too. Anglosaxon has done it a million times. Oh dear, the simplicity of some minds. About the fake Russian rabliuto, someone obviously made that up from “raz” and “lyublyú” I guess.

  31. Folquerto says:

    I mistyped razbliuto of course.

  32. “The Japanese word Safire refers to, “yokomeshi”, also basically does not exist.”
    Bob Myers has got it wrong. Yokomeshi does exist and is used in Japanese.

  33. Well, it’s really very funny feeling to see my text translated to english. Thanx a lot.

  34. Translinguist says:

    “Согласно буржуйским справочникам по труднопереводимым словам….” was translated in the article as “according to bourgeois reference books on hard-to-translate words…” . Not sure whether it was done intentionally or the translator simply didn’t know the fine difference between буржуазный (bourgeois) and буржуйский, an adjective that can be traced down to the times of Russian revolution with its capitalism/communism schism and had a derogatory meaning originally and was very popular in propaganda slogans. Nowadays it used ironically by Russians (just like in the aforementioned example) to refer to mostly Anglo-Saxon paraphernalia associated with the West in general or poor understanding of Russian matters by the West. Perhaps it is буржуйский that deserves to be classified as hard-to-translate word, unlike the infamous razbliuto? At least it exists….

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Bourgeois is generally derogatory in French, unless in a historical context such as before the Revolution. When teaching French I found it very hard if not impossible to convey this connotation to my students: “What’s wrong about being middle-class?” they would ask (the usual translation of the word).

  36. In that sense, the translation of French bourgeois is English bourgeois [ˈbuʒwɑ], which unfortunately is a little dated. However, philistine covers similar ground. Both of them, like Russian meshchanin, imply severe limitations of taste, intelligence, and morals.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    JC, that’s what the connotation is in French too. (Perhaps not if you belong to the haute bourgeoisie).

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