THE OPAL.

I’m about halfway through Lazhechnikov‘s Ледяной дом (The ice house; see this post), and I’ve come to a very interesting epigraph (all the chapters, of course, in good nineteenth-century style, have epigraphs):

Часто в пылу сражения царь задумывался о своем царстве, и посреди боя оставался равнодушным его зрителем, и, бывши зрителем, казалось, видел что-то другое.
Опал. И. К.
[Often in the heat of battle the king thought of his kingdom, and in the middle of the fight he remained an indifferent observer, and it seemed that he was seeing something else.
Opal. I. K.]

Before the internet this would have been as mysterious to me as it must have been to its first readers in 1835, but judicious googling revealed to me that it was a distorted quote from Ivan Kireevsky‘s story Опал (The opal), which was written at the end of 1830 but not published until 1861. Rosina Neginsky, in her article on Kireevsky in volume 198 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose), calls it “a beautiful fairy tale” that “was a seminal creative work for later Russian writers,” adding that Gogol’s “Nevskii prospekt” owes a debt to it. In the story, Nureddin, ruler of Syria, is about to conquer Origell, ruler of China, when a magic opal ring takes him to another world where he is captivated by a mysterious woman who makes him forget his desire for glory, and the sentence there reads “Часто в пылу сражения сирийский царь задумывался о своем перстне, и посреди боя оставался равнодушным его зрителем, и, бывши зрителем, казалось, видел что-то другое” [Often in the heat of battle the Syrian king thought of his ring, and in the middle of the fight he remained an indifferent observer, and it seemed that he was seeing something else]. As you can see, the only difference is that Lazhechnikov eliminated “Syrian” and had him thinking of his kingdom rather than his ring. The interesting thing to me is that only the friends of Lazhechnikov or Kireevsky had any chance of recognizing the quotation; presumably “Opal. I. K.” was a complete mystery to most readers. It just goes to show you that the date of first publication is not always when a piece of writing starts influencing literature.
Another point of interest to me in the novel is the insertion of anachronisms; Lazhechnikov has Trediakovsky carrying around a copy of his Tilemakhida (a rhymed Russian version of Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque; see this post) and quoting from it, to everyone’s amusement (Trediakovsky had become a figure of fun in the 1830s for reasons having nothing to do with his actual merits), [and has the novel's hero, Artemy Volynsky, making subversive annotations in a copy of Histoire de Jeanne première, Reine de Naples,] even though neither work would be written and published until the 1760s, decades after the period in which the novel is set (1739/40). But it is, after all, a fun read, not a serious work.
Update. It seems I have been unfair to Lazhechnikov on one count: what I took to be a reference to Histoire de Jeanne première, Reine de Naples is apparently in fact a reference to a passage on Joanna of Naples in Justus Lipsius‘s Monita et Exempla Politica (which was a factor in the historical trial of Volynsky). Mea culpa!

Comments

  1. I wonder if L. might simply had quoted an earlier version of the tale, different from what was eventually published?

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    This is related only very tenuously with your post, but I was wondering if you could comment on the evolution of Russian during recent decades. I went to Leningrad (as it then was) in 1960 on a school trip, and was there again ten days ago (with no visits to Russia in between). I once knew some Russian, but have forgotten most of it, so I was not expecting a knowledge of the alphabet to be much help in deciphering public signs, but I found it a huge help, on account of the great number of foreign words that have found their way into Russian, many of them English, of course, like сэконд хэнд шоп, but also many others, like суши бар and магазын. The only one I remember from 1960 is ресторан. Does this change reflect a general evolution of the language, or is it just advertiser-speak? After all, in 1960 they hardly needed a term for суши бар, but once they had the thing they needed to call it something. Something I saw in many places (at least six) around St Petersburg were buildings labelled стоматолия, which didn’t look to my eyes like plausible native Russian word, but also didn’t correspond to any medical speciality that I had heard of. Google tells me that stomatology deals with diseases of the mouth. Do they have a great deal of these in Russia today?

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden: I hope you don’t mind others commenting on your entry as well.
    You’re right in that word-borrowing became much more active since 1990s, but it certainly had existed long before that. Indeed, most of your examples refer to words that have been very widely used in Russian for more than a century (and must have been there on your first visit): магазин (meaning a shop in the most general sense), бар (those were scarce in Soviet Russia, but the word predates the 1917 revolution; actually, in Moscow and Leningrad, places named Коктейль-холл existed – how about that?), or стоматология (meaning nothing more than a dentist’s office).

  4. “Google tells me that stomatology deals with diseases of the mouth. Do they have a great deal of these in Russia today?”
    in the central NJ, every other block seems to have a dentist’s office, must be they all suffer from caries and halitosis too
    regarding the recent russian vocabulary changes, seems like they use a lot of new expressions like kruto, real’no, v smysle etc. something brief and like some ready codes and formulas to use in every situation, sounds too few and always the same sounding to, that, enliven the conversation, though must be convenient

  5. I wonder if L. might simply had quoted an earlier version of the tale, different from what was eventually published?
    In general that would be a plausible idea, but in this case “thinking of his kingdom” makes no sense within the story—the whole point is that he can’t think of anything but his ring. And L. presumably deleted the “Syrian” to make it more universally applicable.
    read, you said you were going to stay away. Please don’t make me start deleting your comments again.

  6. why someone else making stupid debasing comments about other people is okay, but mine is unwelcome?
    treat everybody equally, isn’t it fair?
    it’s up to you of course to have a frequent spammer or infrequent commenter

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    стоматология (meaning nothing more than a dentist’s office).
    Of course. I should have thought of that, and it certainly explains why there are so many around St Petersburg. The Spanish word estomatología exists, but doesn’t seem to be the usual word for dentistry, which is odontología. For some reason my excursion to Google led me to think mainly of “mouth” rather than “teeth”.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Maybe I should add that my wife (a native speaker of Spanish) didn’t think of dentistry when I told her what стоматология spelled.

  9. “For some reason my excursion to Google led me to think mainly of ‘mouth’ rather than ‘teeth’”? ‘Stoma’ is Greek for mouth, so stomatology would be a properly-formed noun for mouth-science, just as odontology (or ‘-ia’ in Spanish) is a properly-formed noun for tooth-science. Neither is attested in ancient Greek, though both are in English. (At least, so says the Shorter OED – I had never heard either.) I wonder if the apparent Russian preference for the less accurate ‘stomatology’ is just a matter of choosing the more impressively obscure term. When I was young, ear-nose-and-throat doctors sometimes called themselves ‘otorhinolaryngologists’, which is a precise definition of their specialty, with the Greek stems even in the same order as in the English word (oto- = ear, rhino- = nose, laryng- = throat). I always assumed the 9-syllable name attracted patients easily impressed by Greek obscurities.

  10. >Athel Cornish-Browden.
    The word the most used to call about this job is “dentista”. There is a difference between “estomatología” and “odontología”: it’s compulsory to study medicine before becoming a “estomatólogo”.

  11. In a country of mighty censorship and equally strong tradition of sharing un-publishable literature, an epigraph from an unpublished book isn’t a totally exceptionable phenomenon (and when one has quote from memory from a text one can’t find one one’s bookshelf, then slight variations and mis-quotes are only natural). For example, Pushkin’s verse has numerous allusions to Barkov, presumably not yet available in print but widely known to the contemporaries.
    But continuing Athel’s query about the evolving vocabulary of Russian which may sometimes be helping us, and sometimes fooling us: does anyone known if the meaning of word “чудесный” shifted in Russian recently? I heard and read it quite a few times this summer, and I can’t help thinking that I may be missing something in the connotation (which in my rusty Russian would have been the one of unequivocal, positive wonder, or religious miracle – but now the word seems to be used far more often, so something must have changed?)
    The only negative connotation derivative I could recall is “чудо из пруда” :)

  12. here is an example … seems positive but there is now way I would have used the word in this context.

  13. Bill Walderman says:

    Didn’t чудесный lose its etymological tether to чудо long ago — being used in the same weak sense as the English words “wonderful” or “marvellous”, or German wunderbar or French merveilleux, i.e., not something or someone involving a religious miracle, but just something outstanding?

  14. in the same weak sense as the English words “wonderful” or “marvellous”
    I’m pretty much sure that a person couldn’t have been called a “wonderful” human being in Russia just a few decades ago (except in a religious context); the correct adjective might have been замечательный or отличный (great or excellent). That’s what must have scratched my ear.
    But now that you mentioned English, my working hypothesis is that the change has been brought by Russian literal translation of English-language movies and TV series.

  15. “When I was young, ear-nose-and-throat doctors sometimes called themselves ‘otorhinolaryngologists’…” – Michael Hendry.
    Great, it solves one old puzzle for me. I was a sickly child until 13 or 14 and was often taken to see an отоларинголог. For some reason, Russian ear-nose-and-throat (ухо-горло-нос) doctors threw the “rhino” out of the triad and style themselves simply “otolaryngologists.” But the “rhino” explains a widely used Russian acronym for this specialization – ЛОР, which is clearly an abbreviation of laryngo-, oto-, and rhino-.
    Lazhechnikov left an interesting memoir on his encounters, or rather non-encounters with Pushkin – they met only once when both were young men and never managed to talk face to face again. Pushkin wrote to Lazhechnikov explaining why Trediakovsky should not be denigrated and Volynsky should not be idealized. Pushkin expected archive documents to vindicate his view later. I think Sergei Soloviev sided with Pushkin in his History.

  16. Dmitry, Lenin called Stalin a “wonderful Georgian” (чудесный грузин) back in 1913(?) in a letter to Gorky. (Here’s the context: “Насчет национализма вполне с Вами согласен, что надо этим заняться посурьезнее. У нас один чудесный грузин засел и пишет для “Просвещения” большую статью, со­брав все австрийские и пр. материалы . Мы на это наляжем.”)
    I don’t really know if Lenin merely wanted to say something nice about Stalin or if he thought Stalin could work wonders.

  17. 1830, ey?
    Probably a coincidence, but the year before, Sir Walter Scott published Anne of Geierstein. The opal in that book belongs to one Lady Hermione, who wears on in her hair. In one dramatic plot twist, a bit of holy water hits the stone and it loses its color. Lady H immediately falls into a swoon and the next day is discovered to have done a Wicked Witch of the West number, turning into a pile of ashes.
    Tragic.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    When I was young, ear-nose-and-throat doctors sometimes called themselves ‘otorhinolaryngologists’, which is a precise definition of their specialty, with the Greek stems even in the same order as in the English word (oto- = ear, rhino- = nose, laryng- = throat).

    German, interestingly, has it backwards: Hals-Nasen-Ohren-Arzt (HNO-Arzt), “neck-nose-ear doctor”.
    Interesting to see all three orders in Russian. :-)

    There is a difference between “estomatología” and “odontología”: it’s compulsory to study medicine before becoming a “estomatólogo”.

    So it’s like in Austria, where “medicine” and “tooth medicine” are separate studies?

  19. Alexei: Perhaps he meant that Stalin was an amazing person for a Georgian.

  20. Alexei: (Re чудесный) second that. Not to mention “Мороз и солнце; день чудесный!” – where the day is clearly called wonderful rather than miraculous.

  21. The FAQ section of mail.ru has the following reader replies (suggesting that it’s about lost marbles at least as much as about being wonderful?):
    когда говорят ты Чудо, имеют в виду, ты чудесная или то, что ты ку ку?=))
    чудо в перьях – практически АНГЕЛ!!!!)))))))))
    Чудесная – это когда ты “чудо в перьях”, а так – не от мира сего.
    чудо-юдо
    из детства помню_чудак на букву*М*
    т.е. чудная, т.е. не как все, т.е. с Луны свалилась)))))
    Говорят снисходительно,думая, что необычная, но серьёзно сомневаются, что все дома..;-))
    Then Lurkmore suggests the following:
    Штирлиц упал с десятого этажа, но чудом зацепился за балкон. На следующий день чудо распухло и мешало ходить

  22. There is little overlap between the semantic territory of “throat” and “neck”. I gather that in German Hals covers all of that.

  23. >David Marjanovic
    “So it’s like in Austria, where “medicine” and “tooth medicine” are separate studies?”
    You study medicine (six years) and then you can become an “estomatólogo”, after three years studying this specialty, like to become a pediatrician (four years more in this case) for example. However, you can study “odontología” during only five years.

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    I do not know Russian (or Church Slavonic), but Russian wikipedia seems to suggest that “Чудотворец” is the ecclesiastical appellation used for saints who are known in English (in Anglophone Orthodox circles, at least) as Saint So-and-So the Wonderworker (thus equivalent to Thaumatourgos/Thaumaturge in ecclesiastical Greek). This sounds like it might be distinct-from-if-related-to some of the other words under discussion (perhaps just as e.g. wondrous/wonderful/wonderworking in English are all related but have different semantic nuances).

  25. JWB, according to Vasmer, the whole cluster of meanings ascends to Goth Þiudа “people” borrowed into Slavic and Finno-Ugric languages in a general meaning “foreign, strange”, and by Baltic languages with a general meaning “foreign, German”.
    Old English the’od (people) and modern Icelandic þjóð (nation) are cognates, as well as ethnonyms such Teutons of Deutsch.
    In Sami/Norwegian/Swedish čutte/cuđđe words designate some murderous invaders from the fairy tales. In Russian chud’ used to designate Finnic-speakers. Russian chudesnik “miracle-mark” is always paralleled with (apparently archaic Novgorod phonetic variation) kudesnik (but Vasmer notes the suffix -es and asks if there could have been a separate borrowing event, from Greek κῦδος “glory, praise” (as in contemp. English kudos), and чужой “strange, foreign” must be related too (Vasmer adds Hittite tuzzi “army” to the list of possible cognates under “chuzhoj”).
    Another Vasmer’s possible link is to the verb чуять.
    In any case, there is a lot of negative connotation derivatives: чудак weirdo, чудить freak, чудовище monstrosity…

  26. If I’ve understood other comments correctly, the stem CHUD in various Eastern European languages has a lot of negative cognates or derivatives or whatever.
    Did the makers of the 1984 horror movie C.H.U.D. know that? I haven’t seen it, and only know it from a Simpsons reference and the IMDB entry, but an IMDB reviewer calls it a “shoddily made, dingy affair . . . that still manages to somehow entertain”. The acronym apparently stands for ‘Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers’, deformed mutants who live in the sewers.

  27. In the sewers of New York City, I should have said, though perhaps that was obvious.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    Dmitry: ah, so it’s sort of like “monstrance” (a good thing, in a religious context) v. “monstrous” (really bad, in a secular context).

  29. “monstrance” (a good thing, in a religious context) v. “monstrous” (really bad, in a secular context)
    and etymologically, these are not just to surprise or scare, but to infer some meaning (also a cognate), as an omen or a divine sign (Polish wikipedia states, omen or cud, as if to convince the ever-present masses of Russian doubters who are ready to argue that чудовище & чудо may not be related). A monster was originally understood as a miraculous sign, an omen, a warning from heaven; not just a mere scarecrow. Probably still does … whenever frogs or snakes with congenital deformities are found, people seek deeper meaning even now.

  30. J.W. Brewer says:

    See also awful v. awesome, although in both cases the religious aspect of the awe may have been bleached out over the centuries.

  31. Trond Engen says:

    As I think I said recently, a loan of Scand. þjóð is my favourite speculation for the origin of Ru. чуд “Finnic people”, but it was duly noted by others that it’s far from being unanimously accepted by scholars. And my speculation is meaningless anyway, as should be obvious from the fact that I didn’t even know about that whole messy set of lookalike words meaning “omen” etc. To me, they make a Germanic loan look less likely — unless a reasonable semantic path can be established for all of them.
    That said (and at the risk of making things even messier), it might be worth noting that Gmc. *þewd- “people, nation, society” is homonymic with (and often identified with) the root of *þewd-ijan- “interpret, read, understand”, so it could have been borrowed with the dual meaning of “people” and “omen”. But while it’s fairly plausible for an ON political term to enter North Russian, I can’t see how and why a different shade of it would come into early Russian Christian terminology. Might they have come from Gothic rather than ON?
    (And now I think of Lat. ‘tutor’.)

  32. early Russian Christian terminology
    Trond, it would seem to predate Russian, as the same cud / čud is attested in Western and South Slavic language (Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian), and also in Hungarian. Slavonic may be the common source of religious usage, of course.
    The -es suffix (as in pl. чудеса or adj. чудесный) which concerned Vasmer, is absent in Serbo-Croatian and Polish, making direct connection with Gr. κῦδος less plausible. These words are typically described as originating in proto-Slavic, without any mentions of Germanics.
    E.g. Polish wiktionary reads, “First attested from 16th c. From Old Polish czud, czudo < Proto-Slavic *čudo < Proto-Indo-European *(s)kēu̯d-es, *(s)kēu̯d-os. Cognates include Ancient Greek κῦδος (kȳdos, “glory”)”. While чуять “feel”(which Vasmer considered to be possibly related) is explained as “Proto-Slavic *čuti < Proto-Indo-European *kow-”

  33. since nobody recalls it, seems like
    the meaning of the word changes with the stress, if chudnOi or chudnAya it means indeed a bit odd, freaky, weird but not that strongly sounding, just a bit different, strange
    but if chUdnyi, chUdnaya, then it’s wonderful, awesome
    i always thought why, it couldnt be two different words and etymologies, maybe it reflects that just something unusual becomes perceived like cool with some change of attitude
    like we have a word zevuun – means literally like off-putting, from zev-rust, but it is used more in the meaning of cool, smart instead

  34. Please go away, read.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    *þewd-ijan- “interpret, read, understand”

    Huh. I had thought deuten “interpret, point” was limited to German and – so I had read – arose around the same time that deutsch came to mean “language of the people”, “not Latin”, “that which can’t be called Frankish anymore because of confusion”.

  36. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, right, I forgot about “point”.
    No. tyde “read, interpret, decipher”, tydelig “clear(ly), easily discernible”. There’s also a set of ON or archaic words for “member of a household”, “thrall” etc. that could be related. The central word seems to be þý. I imagine a series of semantic derivations going something like “member of household; subject” -&gt “household, society, nation” -&gt “make homely, interpret” -&gt “the language, people that can be understood”,
    I’d think that “language of the people” would be the older sense and “Southern West Germanic” a newer specialization.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    tydelig “clear(ly), easily discernible”

    German deutlich fits exactly, I should have mentioned it.

    I’d think that “language of the people” would be the older sense and “Southern West Germanic” a newer specialization.

    That’s true in any case; you’re just saying that the older sense goes back much farther than I used to think.

  38. Trond Engen says:

    I feel that I see this somewhat differently every time I look at it, so take this for what it’s worth: The basic concept might be “belong, be held”. First order derivations would be ON þýr m. and þjá f. “thrall” and þjóð/þýð- “nation etc.”. The verb No. tyde would be second order, a causative meaning “make belong” -&gt “make one’s own”, essentially the same verb as No. ty (til) “seek help/support/shelter (from)” &lt- “make (oneself) subject to”.
    All this could easily be reconciled with the Russian word for Finnic, but doesn’t do much to explain the religious senses.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    re translations of wonderful gaining ground:
    I am currently in France, and merveilleux which used to be restricted to fairy tales and things reminiscent of them is now commonly used as freely as English wonderful, probably, as someone above commented, because of its use in badly translated American films and TV series. When I was young, everything was formidable (formid for short), later sensationnel (sensass) and when my nieces and nephews were children, super.
    Talking about translations, common everyday English sentences translated literally into French often sound very stilted: what the happy new father in the British royal family said, ‘We couldn’t be happier’ was translated into French as
    Nous ne pourrions pas être plus heureux rather than the more idiomatic Nous sommes on ne peut plus heureux which is still representative of very educated speech.
    There are many other changes in current French as a result of slavish translations from English, but I don’t particularly like dwelling on this deplorable subject.

  40. merveilleux which used to be restricted to fairy tales and things reminiscent of them is now commonly used as freely as English wonderful
    As in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Awesomeland, huh? Arrgh.

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