I just finished Bulat Okudzhava’s 1961 novella “Будь здоров, школяр,” ‘Stay well, schoolboy’ or, as Edward J. Brown renders the title in Russian Literature Since the Revolution, “Good Luck, Boy!” Brown describes it well:
It sets forth, from the viewpoint of a young volunteer who entered the army before he had finished school, the ugly, monotonous, and dangerous workdays of a front-line soldier. The focus is narrowed to the frame of a single mind, and a rather simple one. The boy’s needs are modest and very basic. He does not want to be killed and he is afraid he will be killed. … The movement of the boy’s thought and the recorded conversations reflect the state of near mental collapse that is the everyday experience of a soldier in combat. He lives in a kind of trance induced by frequent death, noise, and insuperable fatigue. He never knows what he is doing, where he is going, or what the war is all about.
It’s told in a simple and hallucinatory prose, with lots of repetition and near-repetition; Sashura, who helpfully (as always) explained a difficult word to me, wrote: “I love Okujava’s prose more than his poetry, his poetry has to be sung, but his prose – it sings all on its own.” And so it does.
The word he explained was конопушечка [konopushechka], which turns out to be a diminutive of конопушка ‘freckle,’ a word which for some reason is not in my dictionaries. (It’s a colloquial form of конопатина [konopatina], which is also not in my dictionaries.) But the first unusual lexical item that struck me in the story was the title of the first section, Сено-солома [Seno-soloma], literally ‘hay-straw.’ It turns out to be a jovial reference to a (proverbially slow-witted) peasant soldier, and its derivation is exactly that of English “hay-foot, straw-foot”; as the OED says: “with right and left foot alternately (at the word of command). Also as v. In allusion to the alleged use of hay and straw to enable a rustic recruit to distinguish the right foot from the left.” (For further analysis of that phrase and story, see this Log post.) I wonder what other languages have such a phrase?