I’m currently reading Journey into Russia by Laurens van der Post, a description of a long journey he was able to make in the Soviet Union during the spring and summer of 1963, alternately interesting (good descriptions of landscape and of people he meets) and irritating (too much claptrap about immemorial racial tendencies and ill-informed speculation about Soviet life). In a good chapter about Siberia he has this little anecdote:
Watching the distant summer lightning from the train my friend said they had a special word for it and he would be glad if I could teach him another as expressive. The word was ‘Zarnitsa‘.
‘You win,’ I answered without hesitation, and to my surprise he thanked me by shaking my hand. I think nobody knows, not excluding the Russians, how hungry they are at heart for some recognition of what is positive and creative in their character.
(I include the final sentence as an illustration of the psychobabble with which the book is larded.) I happen to be very fond of the word зарница [zarnítsa] myself, and I mentioned it last time we saw summer lightning; it’s presumably related to заря [zaryá] ‘twilight’ (a Balto-Slavic word—cf. Lithuanian žarà), but since it’s (oddly) not in Vasmer I can’t be sure. Dahl has it under зарево ‘glow,’ with some alternate forms that have presumably gone out of use: “Зарница ж. зарники м. мн. соб. зореница ниж. зорянка олон. отдаленная молния, когда виден свет и блеск ее, а грома не слышно” [zarnítsa f., zarníki m.pl.coll., zórenítsa Nizhni Novgorod, zoryáka Olonets, distant lightning when its light is visible but no thunder is to be heard].
I decided to look it up in the Russian National Corpus, and found many references to an “игра «Зарница»” [“Zarnitsa” game], which turns out to have its own Wikipedia entry; it’s a children’s game originally created in 1967 to help prepare children for military service, and involves two teams trying to capture each other’s flag under the supervision of a referee. (It is apparently still played, under the sponsorship of military/patriotic clubs.) I imagine a number of my readers will remember playing it, and I would be interested to hear their recollections.
Incidentally, one grammatical feature that struck me (see this 2003 post) was his consistent use of “may have” for the the contrary-to-fact past (where in my dialect “might have” is required); for instance, on page 243: “Had it not been for the energy and ruthlessness with which he [Stalin] carried out these plans Russia may well have succumbed to Hitler.” Since van der Post was an Afrikaner who did not move to England until his twenties, I’m not sure whether that usage reflects South African or U.K. usage, but either way it must go back well before World War II, so what I used to view as a recent development is clearly no such thing.