Having finished Alexander Grin’s delightful Алые паруса (Scarlet sails), I’ve moved on to Olga Forsh’s 1931 novella à clef Сумасшедший корабль (The crazy ship), about life in the early 1920s in the Saint Petersburg House of Arts, a refuge during those hungry years for writers like Viktor Shklovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Grin (who wrote Scarlet Sails there), Korney Chukovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Forsh herself. (Anyone know of a source identifying the characters in the story with their real-life counterparts?) A few pages in, a woman called Taisia (
after like Anatole France’s Thaïs) says all the men adore her, and adds “Мне особо идет сомовый абажур” ['The somovy lampshade especially becomes/suits me']. I didn’t know the word somovy, and neither did the first dictionary I checked, but my three-volume Russian-English dictionary had it: it’s the adjective for сом [som], which all my dictionaries define as “sheatfish.” That did me little good (and my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate didn’t have an entry for it), but the internet soon informed me that the sheatfish, apparently more commonly (and certainly more transparently) called the wels catfish (wels being a loan from German, where Mackensen tells me it is “ungeklärter Herkunft” [of unknown origin]), is a large freshwater catfish. In fact, the indispensable Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World’s Wildlife says:
This huge, bottom-dwelling catfish is one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. The biggest specimen on record, caught in the 19th century in the Dnieper River in southern Russia, was over 15ft (4.5 m) long, and weighed over 660lb (300kg). However, it is unlikely that any wels of a similar size exist today since they have been heavily fished in most parts of their range.
With that in mind, you will be able to appreciate this wonderful excursus from the сом entry by the incorrigibly idiosyncratic Dahl, the 19th-century lexicographer still used as a basic source for Russian readers and writers: “акула больших рек; глотает уток и гусей, нередко хватал и купальщиов, поймал за лапу плывшего медведя, который выволок его на берег, и оба были убиты”: “[The som is] the shark of large rivers; it swallows ducks and geese, and not uncommonly seizes/bites bathers; it caught by the paw a swimming bear, which pulled it out onto the shore, and they were both killed.”
The other thing I wanted to pass on from my researches is that the first hit in Google Books for сомовый is from the 1914 World Almanac and Book of Facts; the snippet on the results page is “… И СОМОВЫЙ. …” ['and catfish-'], but when you click through, it turns out to be a scanning error for CONGRESS.
(I wonder what the significance of having a lampshade made of catfish skin might have been?)