A while back, Michele Berdy, who comments here as mab, sent me a copy of her book The Russian Word’s Worth: A Humorous and Informative Guide to Russian Language, Culture, and Translation, thinking I would probably enjoy it—a pretty safe bet, considering that it’s a collection of her Moscow Times columns, which I’ve been plugging here since 2003. I haven’t finished it yet (each column sends me running to the dictionary and the internet), but I thought I’d better post about it in case anyone was looking for a last-minute present for a lover of Russian; I can’t think of a better one. It’s divided into sections called “Life Maintenance,” “Politics as Usual,” “Higher Matters,” “Slang,” etc., and is chock-full of useful information presented stylishly and with a sense of humor. Her modus operandi is to start off with a topic (like goofing off) or a question about how to express a certain idea (like frustration), and then give a bunch of possibilities and examples. Here’s the start of one column:
Time for a pop quiz. For ten points in the category, “Fun Facts About Language,” what do the words complain, pity, grant, salary, pathetic, and welcome have in common? In English—not much. But look at them in Russian: жаловаться, жалость, жаловать, жалование, жалкий, добро пожаловать. Don’t worry if you missed that one—the next question is worth 25 points: how are love and pity related? Answer: in old Russian, and one must presume in old Russia (на старой Руси), they were one and the same.
She goes on to give a history of the word cluster and its associations. On just about every page, I learn something new, even though I’ve been splashing around in the language for quite a while now. I think I can safely say satisfaction is guaranteed.