My last post was about the literary side of the Russian word шалость [shalost’]; this one is about the linguistic side. Further on in Peschio’s book, in chapter 1, he describes three episodes that got Mikhail Dmitrievich Buturlin, a distant relative and childhood friend of Pushkin’s, kicked out of Odessa by its governor Mikhail Vorontsov (who had previously expelled Pushkin for similar shalosti) — arranging for a mass catcalling of a vaudeville singer, running one of Vorontsov’s prize geldings to death at a hunt, and causing a scandal that nearly ended in a duel — and continues:
That Buturlin uses this single word, shalosti, to describe such a broad range of behaviors is typical of nineteenth-century usage. And beyond the simple homonymy of the wide-ranging meanings of the word shalost’, there was also a peculiar kind of polysemy at the level of the morpheme. The Russian language boasts a remarkably productive lexical cluster centered on the root shal-. For example: shalit’ (to misbehave or caper), shalovlivost’ (mischievousness or prankishness), shal’noi (stray or wild), oshalet’ (to be overwhelmed or go mad). This root is a descendant of the Common Slavic roots *shal– and *khal-. In other Slavic languages these roots have shed all but one or two meanings, trending toward monosemy. The Russian root shal-, however, had yielded an exceedingly cohesive polysemous cluster by 1800. This often resulted in the conflation of behaviors as disparate as childish misbehavior (Deti shaliat) and highway robbery (Shaliat po bol’shim dorogam). Thus, in Golden Age Russia, play could be perceived as an act of defiance because the most fearful violence could be perceived as a kind of play. And a combination and conflation of play, violence, and rebellion was exceedingly common. […]
To say that the root “shal-” is productive in Russian would be an understatement. In the pages of this book alone, I quote dozens of usages of words from this cluster. Just in this small sample, we observe a tremendously broad array of meanings and associations. To name a few: practical jokes, mutiny, unauthorized sex, deception, a verse genre, insubordination, insignificance, violent crime, ritual humiliation, inside jokes, mischievousness, a blunder, vandalism, a faux pas … the list goes on.
Despite such diversity, all these usages have in common a single concept, from which (in etymological thinking, at least) all their many, disparate connotations must have derived: defying expectation — not doing what is expected of one. This single, core concept can be broken down into three useful semantic categories: play, dysfunction, and rebellion. […]
Vasmer says that the shal– root has no clear cognates outside of Slavic. I’ll be sorry when the free sample ends, and I may have to spring for the book.