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.”