The mail section of the latest New Yorker is entirely taken up with responses to the recent Erofeyev article on mat. I will reproduce here what is, hands down, the best letter-to-the-editor I have ever read (from a Languagehat standpoint, that is). Warning: it is chock-full of both filthy language and Indo-European reconstructions!

Erofeyev, in his essay on mat, relies in some cases on folk etymologies that have been called into question by academic scholarship. For example, he connects yebat’ (“to fuck”) and bit’ (“to beat”). But the root of yebat’ is *yebh-, with cognates in Sanskrit yábhati (“he fucks”) and probably Greek oipho (“I fuck”). The verb bit’ (“to beat, hit, strike”) and its derivatives, in contrast, are ultimately traced back to *bheiH-, and can be compared with the Avestan biiente (“they fight, beat”), the Old Irish -bith (“was struck”), and the German das Beil (“hatchet”). Likewise, the Russian word pizda (“cunt”) is probably related not to pisat’ (“to piss”) but to bzdet’ (“to fart”), both linked to earlier *pezd- (“to break wind”) and cognate with Greek bdéô (from earlier bzdéô) and Latin pêdô, as suggested in Pokorny’s authoritative etymological dictionary. Although the word mat is, as Erofeyev notes, commonly associated with Russian mat’ (“mother”) because of the ubiquitous yob tvoyu mat’ (“fuck you,” lit. “fucked your mother”), there is no unequivocal (or even convincing) etymology for this word. Folk etymologies have cultural resonance, of course. But mat is, in fact, serious business.

Michael S. Flier
Professor of Ukrainian Philology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Indo-European, represent! If I’d known the New Yorker would one day publish a letter like this, I might have stuck it out and gotten the PhD.

A couple of quibbles: there should be an asterisk before the form bzdéô (unless they have a source unknown to me attesting the form), and I don’t grasp the subtle semantics involved in differentiating “to fart” and “to break wind.” But never mind that. Bravo Prof. Flier, bravo The New Yorker!


  1. Bravos are echoing from this corner. I can’t believe they published this, but hooray for them and for the intrepid author!

  2. commonbeauty says

    Are we sure that Sirin has not returned from The Other Place to pull this stunt? I wonder if the suspiciously named “Michael S. Flier” is not an anagram for a Nabokovian character.

  3. You are right, what a cool letter!

  4. In response to commonbeauty: Michael S. Flier is a very well-known and well-respected member of the American Slavics community. He is very real.
    Love the letter. I’ll have to check out the other letters at the library.

  5. I don’t think commonbeauty was entirely serious. I did, after all, link to Flier’s faculty page. But it’s the kind of japery Nabokov enjoyed.

  6. “yob tvoyu mat'” does not mean “fuck you” only in rare cases. Usualy it is way to express emotions, dissapointing ( when person loses a chance to do something ),
    angry ( “I wish you be in hell” ), surprise (“wow”)
    Also this phrase often used as a middle-word and some personse can use it almost after every word. When doing so short form is used “eb tvou”.

  7. So it’s more equivalent to simple “Fuck!”

  8. Well, I should say straight out that I’m only commenting to keep this thread on the front page…
    …but I heard it a lot more often as tvoyu mat’ than yob tvoyu, and it’s absolutely true that it, like blyad is as insensitive to the surrounding grammar as “fuck” is.

  9. Vaguely relevant: I’ve heard that in Mexico you have to use mamá for an actual mother, because the dictionary word madre is so strongly associated with the phrase Tu madre! (= Tvoyu mat’).

  10. In NYC Spanish, to say ‘your mother’ literally, you have to say su señora madre, which in the English of Hispanics comes out your lady mother.

  11. David Marjanović says

    and probably Greek oipho (“I fuck”)

    Indeed. Also Zephyrus.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    I am compelled to remind everyone that “fuck” in the Talni language of northern Ghana is [jɛ̃b], from which it follows as night follows day that Merritt Ruhlen is right, and alle Menschen werden Brüder. Or not. As you may think. Or that Russian influence in Africa goes back farther than is commonly supposed. I blame Kwame Nkrumah.

  13. the Russian word pizda (“cunt”) is probably related not to pisat’ (“to piss”) but to bzdet’ (“to fart”)


  14. Interesting, but I always took Hamp’s theories with a grain of salt. I wonder what Piotr would have to say?

  15. BTW, it seems peace duke has not yet made its appearance en Casa Hat.

  16. Gave me a chuckle. For non-Russianists: “peace duke” is used to imply Russian пиздюк [pizdyúk], which I wasn’t familiar with but which apparently means ‘shrimp, squirt, little fucker.’

  17. Or just a jerk.

  18. The link to Flier’s homepage does not work anymore. Here’s the correct one:

  19. Thanks, I substituted that for the dead one.

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