The Heart’s Hidden Crocodile.

I’ve just discovered one of those literary allusions that were common currency in the 19th century but that have largely been forgotten since. In his once well-known novella Atala (1801), Chateaubriand has his hero say:

Le cœur le plus serein en apparence ressemble au puits naturel de la savane Alachua: la surface en paroît calme et pure, mais quand vous regardez au fond du bassin, vous apercevez un large crocodile, que le puits nourrit dans ses eaux.

The apparently most serene heart resembles a natural well in the Alachua savannah; its surface seems clear and calm, but when you look down at the bottom of the pool, you see a large crocodile, which the well nourishes in its waters.

That’s a great image, and it’s based on fact; in What is the Alachua Savannah? we read: “Upon visiting Alachua Sink, Bartram was amazed by the number and size of the alligators, ‘so abundant that, if permitted by them, I could walk over any part of the basin and the river upon their heads.’” (By the way, although it’s irrelevant to Chateaubriand I can’t resist noting that the modern Florida place name Alachua is pronounced /əˈlætʃu.eɪ/ [ə-LATCH-oo-ay]; according to Wikipedia it’s from a “Native American word meaning ‘sinkhole’ in either the Muskogee or Timucua languages.”) It was more or less translated by Batyushkov in his 1810 poem Счастливец [The lucky man]:

Сердце наше кладезь мрачной:
Тих, покоен сверху вид;
Но спустись ко дну… ужасно!
Крокодил на нём лежит!

Our heart is a dark well:
Its surface appearance is quiet and peaceful,
But if you go down to the bottom… horrible!
A crocodile lies on it!

And it was well enough known in 1859 that Dostoevsky could get a laugh in his Selo Stepanchikovo [The Village of Stepanchikovo] by having Foma Opiskin attribute it to Shakespeare. But does it survive at all? Have any of you heard of it?


  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    Probably unrelatedly, there is a whole genre of Russian religious humor based on the notion that particular Church Slavonic words whose meaning is opaque to modern Russophones sometimes sound (the false friend phenomenon) like modern Russian words with totally different etymology and meaning, leading the laity to mondegreenish misinterpretations of Orthodox prayers/hymns as saying something comically absurd or inappropriate. One such story told me by a Russian priest (I don’t know either Russ or OCS so can’t reproduce the details or vouch for the plausibility of the alleged misunderstanding) involved a nice old babushka who misunderstood some word in a psalm verse as “crocodile” and developed on her own a quite elaborate exegesis of what likening the penitent worshipper to a crocodile in his/her attitude toward the Lord might be trying to tell us for our spiritual edification.

  2. A good guess is Timucua la-čwa, ‘?-sinkhole’, see here.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    @J.W. Brewer:

    With a little bit of googling I almost immediately found the (most likely) quote.

    The original Old Church Slavonic went: “…яко кадило перед Тобою” (i.e. “as incense before Thou”), with the misunderstanding being “…я – крокодила перед Тобою” (i.e. “I’m a crocodile before Thou”, except with an erroneous feminine form of “crocodile”).

    (Note: in modern Russian, the word кадило technically still exists, but refers to a kind of container for incense. However, at least according to Wiktionary, in Old Church Slavonic it just meant “incense”.)

    See also: “мимо крокодил” (Russian memetic alteration of мимо проходил “just passing by”), and “аллигатор с большим стажем” (which should have been ирригатор – a random unfortunate malapropism made famous by Korney Chukovsky).

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Jan F o’ M: Yes, that’s it! The psalm verse it’s in is used ubiquitously at vespers throughout the year and in the Liturgy of the Presanctified during Lent, so it’s one a layperson of moderate-to-high piety would hear chanted quite a lot.

  5. It may be relevant that the erroneous feminine crocodile is not a random linguistic quirk but the famous subject of a jokey Odessa urban folk song:

    По улице ходила
    большая крокодила.
    Она, она
    зеленая была.

    (A big crocodila
    walked along the street.
    She, she
    was green.)

    She goes on to eat some people etc. and comes from the same milieu as the similarly peripatetic fried chicken.

  6. This all also suggests that крокодил is a Russian example of an Inherently Funny Word.

  7. Also, back to English, am I the only one who thinks /əˈlætʃu.eɪ/ is really awkward to pronounce? I imagine it would turn into “a-latch-away” if I had to say it more than once or twice. That said, I’ve only ever seen it in writing, and thought of it as /,ælə’tʃu.ə/, which, now that I think of it, is a very Californian thing to think.

  8. I imagine it would turn into “a-latch-away” if I had to say it more than once or twice.

    The difference is pretty minimal, and I imagine a lot of Floridians actually say it that way.

  9. This all also suggests that крокодил is a Russian example of an Inherently Funny Word.

    Which perhaps is why it was used as the name for a humor magazine.

  10. Yes, an image tres allechant.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Just a small correction:

    Le cœur le plus serein en apparence means The apparently most serene heart, which indeed seems clear and calm on the surface, rather than pure.

  12. Fixed, thanks! I took the start of the translation from a published source, corrected the rest but forgot to go back to the beginning.

  13. Also see Saltykov-Schedrin, Old Times in Poshekhonye:

    Так, например, я помню, в Преображеньев день (наш престольный праздник), по поводу слов тропаря: Показывай учеником своим славу твою, яко же можаху, — спорили о том, что̀ такое «жеможаха»? сияние, что ли, особенное? А однажды помещица-соседка, из самых почетных в уезде, интересовалась узнать: что это за «жезаны» такие?

    The latter comes from the Symbol of Faith, a version of the Nicene creed: “And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried.”

  14. SFReader says:

    I can’t resist quoting this mysterious piece from Russian chronicle:

    «В лето 7090. Поставиша город Земляной в Новгороде. Того же лета изыдоша коркодили лютые звери из реки и путь затвориша, людей много поядоша, и ужасошася людие и молиша Бога по всей земле; и паки спряташася, а иных избиша. Того же году преставися царевич Иван Иванович в Слободе, декабря в 14 день» (ПСРЛ т.30, стр. 320).

    ‘Anno Mundi 7090 (1581 AD). A fort was built in Novgorod. The same year, savage beasts korkodili came out of the river and caused hindrance to river traffic, many were eaten by them and the people were put in great fear and prayed to God all over the land, and many were hiding and many were killed. The same year, on December 14, died tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich in Sloboda’

    Normally, rivers in North Russia don’t contain any crocodiles or any other beasts capable of eating people.

    But surely a chronicler wouldn’t lie.

    It’s Second Novgorod Chronicle, not Weekly World News!

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Crocodiles and Russia, and nobody has mentioned this?!?

    Even though that’s a YouTube video, read the comments. They show its cultural impact and contain two passable English translations – and a Finnish one which rhymes and has the right syllable count.

  16. Rodger C says:

    A крокодила looks a lot like an alligatrix.

  17. Stephen says:

    To make matters more confusing, the “Alachua” in Alachua _County_, Florida, is pronounced /əˈlætʃu.ə/. As a native Floridian, I had never heard the pronunciation /əˈlætʃu.eɪ/ for the town of Alachua until this post prompted me to find someone saying it on YouTube. You can hear the two pronunciations juxtaposed here: (although the first instance of /əˈlætʃu.ə/ is not referring to the county).

  18. @DM: That brings back memories. My daughter watched that so often that I could reproduce all the dialog by heart.

  19. To make matters more confusing, the “Alachua” in Alachua _County_, Florida, is pronounced /əˈlætʃu.ə/.

    That is very confusing indeed!

  20. January First-of-May says:

    The same year, on December 14, died tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich in Sloboda

    Said Ivan Ivanovich being the son supposedly killed by Ivan the Terrible; the traditional date for his death is November 19.

    (Whether his father did, in fact, kill him, and what he did to him at all – if anything – appears to be still an open question; it’s hard to guess anything either way.)

  21. SFReader says:

    Perhaps he was eaten by crocodiles.

  22. feminine crocodile

    timsāḥ, تمساح (Arabic), תמסח (Hebrew) – “crocodile”; ⲉⲙⲥⲁϩ emsaḥ; this subsequently entered Turkish as timsah. It should be noted, however, that Coptic ⲉⲙⲥⲁϩ is grammatically masculine and hence would have been vocalised pemsaḥ or bemsaḥ (Sahidic: ⲡⲉⲙⲥⲁϩ; Bohairic: ⲡⲓⲉⲙⲥⲁϩ). Hence it is unclear why the word should have entered Arabic with an initial t, which would have required the word to be grammatically feminine (i.e. Sahidic: *ⲧⲉⲙⲥⲁϩ; Bohairic: *ϯⲉⲙⲥⲁϩ).

  23. Like 🙂

  24. Which perhaps is why it was used as the name for a humor magazine.

    See now this comment from a later croc post.

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