A Whole Language.

I’m reading Dostoevsky’s Дневник писателя [A Writer’s Diary] with great pleasure — it’s what made him famous in the 1870s to a wider public than read his novels, and I can see why: it’s written in a lively, confiding style very different from the formality common to public pronouncements at the time, which strove rather to impress than to attract, and of course it’s always enticing to feel you’re getting an inside look at the life and thoughts of a famous person. I’ve just finished April 1876 and am already dreading the onslaught of mad apocalyptic prophecy (laced with copious outbursts of anti-Semitism) that’s going to come with the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War. But I’m going to go back to 1873 and quote a passage from the second section of Маленькие картинки [Little pictures] in that year’s Diary, translated by Kenneth Lantz (for the Russian, search that link for “сквернословят вслух” — the passage goes from there to the end of the section); he’s discussing workingmen who get drunk on holidays and stagger in groups around Petersburg on holidays:

They curse out loud despite the crowds of women and children they pass; and this not from rudeness but just because a drunken man can have no other language than a foul one. And this really is a language, a whole language—as I recently became convinced; it is the language most convenient, original, and best suited for one who is drunk or even tipsy, so that it absolutely had to come into being; and if it did not exist—il faudrait l’inventer. I’m quite serious here. Just consider. As we know, the first thing that happens to a drunken person is that his tongue becomes tied and moves sluggishly; however, the flow of thoughts and sensations of a drunken man—or at least of anyone who is not as drunk as a cobbler—increases by almost ten. And therefore there is a natural need to find the sort of language that can satisfy both these, mutually contradictory, states. Ages and ages ago this language was found and accepted all over Russia. Purely and simply, it is one noun not found in the dictionary, so that the entire language consists of but one word that can be pronounced with remarkable ease. One Sunday, quite late in the evening, I happened to be walking some fifteen paces away from a group of six drunken tradesmen; suddenly I realized that it was possible to express all thoughts, sensations, and even entire, profound propositions using only this one noun which, besides, has very few syllables. One of the lads first pronounces this noun sharply and forcefully to express his scornful dismissal of something they had been discussing earlier. Another replies by repeating this same noun, but now in quite a different tone and sense—specifically, in the sense that he thoroughly doubts the expediency of the first lad’s denial. A third one becomes indignant at what the first has said; sharply and excitedly, he gets into the discussion, shouting out this same noun, but now in the sense of disparagement and abuse. The second fellow again interrupts, angry at the third, who’s offended him, and stops him as if to say: “Why do you have to stick your oar in, chum? We’ve been having quite a discussion here; what d’you mean by getting on to our Filka!” And this whole notion he expressed by using this same forbidden word, this same monosyllabic name of a certain object, and raised his hand to take the third fellow by the shoulder. But then, suddenly, the fourth lad, the youngest of the group, who had kept silent to this point but who probably had found the solution to the original problem that had caused the dispute, raised his arm and shouted. . . . “Eureka!” you might think. “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” No, it wasn’t eureka, and he hadn’t got it. He only went on repeating this same noun, not found in the dictionary; just one word, only a single word, but with delight, with a scream of rapture, and, it seems, a little too exuberantly, because the sixth, a morose fellow and the eldest of them, didn’t like the sound of it and at once put a stop to the youngster’s delight by turning to him and repeating in a gloomy, didactic bass . . . that same noun which isn’t mentioned in the presence of ladies and which clearly and accurately signified: “What’re you bawling about?” And so, without having said anything else at all, they repeated this same little word of theirs six times in succession and understood one another completely. This is a fact that I witnessed myself. “Have mercy!” I shouted at them suddenly, without knowing why (I was in the middle of a crowd of people). “You’ve not walked more than ten paces and you’ve used (and I used the word) six times! That’s disgraceful! Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?”

They all stared at me as people stare at something utterly unexpected and fell silent for a moment; I thought they would begin abusing me, but they didn’t. Only the youngest, after walking some ten paces more, suddenly turned to me and shouted as he walked, “So why’d you have to say it one more time when you’ve already heard it six times from us?”

A burst of laughter rang out and the group went on, paying no more attention to me.

I was amused by this early instance of the meme “you can express anything by using the same curse word in different intonations,” familiar in English for fuck; my question is, what is the Russian monosyllable in question? The one I’m familiar with that is used on its own is блядь [blyad’] (literally ‘whore’; see this 2004 LH post), but I suspect that’s a more modern usage; of course the Worst Curse Word in Russian is хуй [khuy] ‘cock,’ but I was not aware that it could be used by itself in the way described, though I know zillions of short phrases using it (хуй тебе or хуй там ‘fuck no’; вот-те хуй ‘are you shitting me?!’; не́ хуй ‘no fucking way [are you/we going to do that]’; etc., etc.). I’m hoping my Russophone readers can enlighten me.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The word is (of course) Ку.

  2. Dostoevsky says that the word designates an object rather than a human being

  3. I guess that you are right about the word in question and that Dostoevsky really observed the conversation with short phrases involving this word, or maybe with this monosyllable dressed with various affixes, which really made all the difference.

  4. David Eddyshaw says
  5. Are cobblers supposed to get more drunk than other people? I don’t quite follow this.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, if nobody else is going to link to it, the duty devolves upon me:


  7. Are cobblers supposed to get more drunk than other people?
    This is a standard Russian saying, “drunk as a cobbler”. Cobblers got a bad reputation in Russia; if someone does a lousy job he can easily be called out “cobbler!” even now. Don’t know why.

  8. That made it to Israeli Hebrew, too (sandlar). I don’t know if it’s still current.

  9. Yes, пьян, как сапожник (drunk as a cobbler) is a proverbial fixed simile, the equivalent of the English expressions “drunk as a lord” or “drunk as a skunk.” (So, Lantz’s word-for-word translation is overliteral.)

  10. Bathrobe says

    I still prefer “blind as a welder’s dog”.


    (Recommended viewing)

  11. In Danish you can be drunk as a pope, a jackdaw, or a hen. Don’t ask me.

  12. (Recommended viewing)

    I second the recommendation (but perhaps not if you have a vivid imagination and a weak stomach).

  13. David Marjanović says

    That made it to Israeli Hebrew, too (sandlar). I don’t know if it’s still current.

    This promises to solve the mystery of Sandler, the colloquial/dysphemistic word for “homeless man” widespread in Austria – it looks like an agent noun formed from a verb, but I’m not aware of any *sandeln.

    …Also, it’s dialectal /a/, so actually corresponds to ä in the standard. No *sändeln either.

  14. >>the Worst Curse Word in Russian is хуй

    can’t resist posting this pic: http://www.netlore.ru/upload/files/19/p18jta2v5p1dvk9fc1p3rtu29qlt.jpeg

  15. That’s great!

  16. David Marjanović says


  17. David Eddyshaw: Кю, you beat me to it.


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