Anatoly has a hilarious post describing his desperate attempts to figure out what was amiss with his incorrectly remembered Russian word дикозабр [dikozabr]. He saw a picture of one, wanted to know how to say it in English, looked it up, and quickly realized he must be mangling the true word… but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what that was. He tried changing some of the sounds around in his head, but got nowhere. Googling only got four results, but one of them was very promising; a woman wrote: “Сказала слово ‘дикозабр’ и долго не могла понять, что же в нем не так….” (“I said the word ‘dikozabr’ and for a long time couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it…”). However, when he visited the site, he discovered that the end was “…and only by looking through an alphabetical encyclopedia of animals was I able to find it”! He objurgates her for not writing down the word, adding “How are we to build a brighter future with such people?” Then he asks his wife, and she tells him the answer. He ends his post:

In a minute I’ll click on the Publish button, this entry will appear in the journal, and soon it will appear in search results on the word “dikozabr.” I know, I believe—there will be someone tomorrow, or next month or next year, who will be as I am today, rushing around the net to find the correct name of the dikozabr. I can see him opening this post, impatiently scanning the text, getting a sneaking suspicion that I will spite him the way devushka.ru did me and I won’t say the secret, coveted word here… Fear not, future reader! To describe the whole story only to maliciously stand you up in the end—I couldn’t do that. The word you’re craving is дикобраз [dikobraz, ‘porcupine’].

The odd thing is that дикобраз has never seemed a suitable word to me somehow. I absorbed other animal names without a problem: sobaka ‘dog,’ koshka ‘cat,’ loshad’ ‘horse,’ sure… but for some reason dikobraz just didn’t sound like a porcupine.


  1. Funny. I’m a Croatian speaker, and we also use the word “dikobraz” for the same animal (apparently borrowed from Czech). And I’ve always felt that “porcupine” sounds like a grossly unnatural word for this animal — I had to look it up probably ten times over the years before I finally memorized what it means.
    In contrast, I’ve always felt the sound of “dikobraz” as perfectly harmonious with the appearance of the animal in question.

  2. My Russian is non-existant, but: Anatoly is a native Russian speaker, is he? And his story is therefore analogous to me wondering how to say ‘Prokapine’ in Yiddish, and then struggling desperately to figure out what the word in my own tongue is for ‘porcupone’? If so, that’s amazing! Either the porcupine is vastly more prominent in Anglophone culture than in Russophone culture, or the lexeme ‘dikobraz’ really is an astounding neurolinguistic EMP. I couldn’t possibly imagine myself forgetting the word ‘porcupine’.

  3. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    That’s funny: same as Ivan, I could never really accept the porcupine being the word for дикобраз.

  4. Dikobraz seems like a good spiky word. I learn from Google Translate that Russian has a very cute (but not so spiky) two-letter word for hedgehog.
    Does Russia have native porcupines?

  5. an astounding neurolinguistic EMP
    There is a speech disorder, apraxia of speech, that produces such results and is neither a jokey matter nor astounding:

    Apraxia of speech may result from stroke or be developmental, and involves inconsistent production of speech sounds and rearranging of sounds in a word (“potato” may become “topato” and next “totapo”). Production of words becomes more difficult with effort, but common phrases may sometimes be spoken spontaneously without effort. It is now considered unlikely that childhood apraxia of speech and acquired apraxia of speech are the same thing, though they share many characteristics.

    I knew a German who may have had a mild developmental form of it. One word manglement that I particularly remember was his *Deketiv instead of Detektiv (note that the last syllable has the stress, unlike the English “detective”). At the time I thought it was funny, and by trying out *Deketiv I decided that it was in fact easier to pronounce, not at all “astounding”. I sometimes deliberately deploy it in conversations to this day, in order to hold the punters’ attention.

  6. To me, dikobraz sounds better than “porcupine” for such a creature. Why pork?

  7. Dikobraz is probably a compound of dikiy (wild) and obraz (look, image).
    The anagram is so funny because it also sounds like dinosaur – динозавр (deenozabr). It’s probably why it stuck in Anatoly’s mind. It reminded me of how Boris Zakhoder rendered Heffalump in Russian: Slonopotam, a compound of slon (elephant) and gippopotam (hyppopotamus).
    It’s a lovely word, so natural, I shall popularize it to up its google ratings.
    Why pork?
    yea, and what’s hog to do with hedgehog?
    we also use the word “dikobraz” for the same animal (apparently borrowed from Czech)
    Vasmer’s says it is a borrowing from Russian.

  8. hedgehog
    mid-15c. (replacing O.E. igl), from hedge + hog; the second element an allusion to its pig-like snout.
    c.1400, porke despyne, from O.Fr. porc-espin (early 13c.), lit. “spiny pig,” from L. porcus “hog” + spina “thorn, spine.” The word had many forms in M.E. and early Mod.E., including portepyn, porkpen, porkenpick, porpoynt, and Shakespeare’s porpentine (in “Hamlet”).
    Online Etympology Dictionary
    I suppose the allusions were to piglets, not pigs.

  9. I read the original with Google translation. Readable – and FUN!!

  10. marie-lucie, if you happen to pass by this comment thread, could you kindly fulfill this humbly request from a student of the French language and a confused stranger to the Parisian society: do you know of interesting blogs, on language or literature, of the sort that the Hat, John Cowan or you can be an author of them? Living on the French soil, I still surf mostly English and Chinese, which makes me feel disconnected.

  11. Forgotten to specify that I wanted blogs in the French language, of course.

  12. -273, you might enjoy Siganus Sutor’s blog Mauricianismes, about French and Creole spoken in Mauritius (Marie-Lucie & John Cowan comment there).

  13. I can confirm that dikobraz in Czech has indeed been borrowed from Russian by Jan Svatopluk Presl in the 19th century. It comes from ‘dik, dikij’ (meaning wild) and ‘obraz’ (meaning figure, appearance in this case).

  14. j. del col says

    The Crested Porcupine (Hystrix cristata)is the only porcupine native to Europe. It occurs in southern Mediterranean Europe, specifically, Italy. It is much more common in Africa.
    It does not occur in Russia.

  15. Does dyslexia prevents one from memorizing rhymes, too? I would imagine that one is about symbols, the other is about sounds? That’s because a nursery rhyme makes the correct sound perfectly clear:
    Как-то еж в горах Кавказа
    Повстречал дикообраза.
    Ну и ну! – воскликнул еж,
    На кого же ты похож!
    Yes, and it does inhabit the Black Sea shores of Russia’s South, just as the verse suggests

  16. In Dutch a porcupine is called stekelvarken, from stekel – spine and varken – pig.

  17. I’m sure the Dutch and the German Stachelschwein (Thornpig)) are calques from some descendant of the French O.Fr. porc-espin (early 13c.) noted above by Paul.

  18. PS – a classic (and sorta autobiographic) novel “Кондуит и Швамбрания” has a character with similar word issues, and for him, sounds always trumps spelling. As in, (citing off the top of my head)
    папа, а почему этот мужчина в юбке?
    Это не юбка, а ряса … потому что он – священник.

  19. папа, а почему этот мужчина в юбке?
    Это не юбка, а ряса … потому что он – священник.
    ? … ?… ? … ! Освещенник!
    Неужели в такой юбке удобно лазать по фонарным столбам??

  20. j. del col says

    OK, I stand corrected. Russia does have porcupines.
    That’s what I get for relying on Wikipedia.
    In N. America they are animals of the northern forests.

  21. Most European languages use names that mean something like ‘spiny pig’, which makes some sense. But the Chinese and Japanese names are rather more puzzling.
    Chinese: 豪猪 háo-zhū, meaning ‘brave / bold / rich / powerful pig’. I’m really unsure where the 豪 háo comes from. The dictionary gives for 豪 the following meanings: 1) person of extraordinary powers or endowments; 2) bold and unconstrained, magnanimous and forthright, unrestrained; 3) riche and powerful; 4) despotic, bullying, coercive. The different meanings emerge in different combinations — not all of them would be applicable to 豪猪.
    An alternative Chinese name is 箭猪 jiàn-zhū ‘arrow pig’.
    Japanese: ヤマアラシ yama-arashi is even more puzzling. The characters for writing this word are either 山荒 ‘mountain despoiler’ or 豪猪 (from the Chinese). 荒らし arashi means ‘raising havoc, laying waste, disturber’. (It is now also used for the theft from cars or burglary of apartments and on the Internet appears to refer to a troll).

  22. An approximate English equivalent: recently, out of dictionary/Internet reach, I puzzled for an hour over a word going through my mind – “pranticle”, which I vaguely remembered to be an animal. Then it finally clicked that it was “pratincole“.

  23. j. del col says

    The Chinese name makes sense, in a way. Who would mess with a porcupine?
    The answer is the fisher, a large mustelid that preys on porkies by biting their faces until the porky succumbs. Every now and then, an inept, or unlucky, fisher gets killed by the porky’s quills.
    Thomas Pynchon has a character named Porpentine in his novel, V.

  24. I’m really unsure where the 豪 háo comes from.
    From the index, Schuessler only has 彙 hui4. Which elsewhere seems to be ‘hedgehog’. KangXiZiDian glosses that with both 豪豬 and 蝟. (Deep links to images don’t seem to work. It’s page 362. Transcribed here.)

  25. Thanks, MMcM!
    huì is interesting. I mainly know the character from Japanese 語彙 go-i meaning ‘vocabulary’. Does the meaning ‘numerous’ have any connection with the quills of a porcupine, I wonder?
    The 康熙字典 gloss 豪豬 is the conventional contemporary name for porcupines. The glossed character 蝟 is used in Japanese as one way of writing ハリネズミ hari-nezumi meaning ‘hedgehog’. But Modern Chinese uses 猬 wèi (刺猬 cìwei = ‘hedgehog’). The only difference is in the radical (虫 meaning ‘insect’, the radical 犬 meaning ‘dog, animal’).
    Confusion between porcupines and hedgehogs seems to be pretty common. Vietnamese uses Nhím for both animals. Indonesian and Malaysian Wikipedia feature the porcupine at their articles entitled Landak; Sundanese Wikipedia features the hedgehog at its article on Landak.

  26. I had a quick look at Russian wikipedia on dikobraz. It says there is a different name for American species, which I’ve never heard: иглошерст (iglosherst), a compound literally meaning needlefur.
    Could I ask for counsel on pronunciation: [i] in dikobraz is closer to original orthography. Wouldn’t some anglophones say d[ai]kobraz? A character in Le Carre’s latest novel is called Dima, from Dimitri or Dmitri. Would some say D[ai]ma? When is it better to use a more phonetic transliteration in English?

  27. Some Anglophones might say d[ai]kobraz, but in this case it would be plain wrong. Only if ‘dikobraz’ made it into English as an English word would d[ai]kobraz have any validity. Otherwise it would just be an ignorant mispronunciation of a Russian word.
    When it comes to proper names the situation is somewhat different. In this case the Russian spelling is presented to English-speaking readers in an English context, which means that people will pronounce it how they see fit. It’s probably too much to expect people to know the phonetics of every possible foreign language, and when they do try to pronounce foreign languages authentically they often get it wrong, anyway — witness ‘Beizhing’ as a stuffed-up attempt to pronounce ‘Beijing’ properly. D[ai]ma is acceptable in English if that’s how people pronounce it — especially if it catches on and becomes widespread, in which case trying to correct it would be like pissing into the wind. I was horrified to find Kächele brand goods pronounced as /ka:tshel/ in Australia, but that’s how it is. (Sorry, I can’t seem to insert the IPA symbol for /sh/).

  28. Welsh for hedgehog is “draenog” the operative word being “draen” (thorn) and by extension “draenog y môr” (sea urchin).
    Porcupine is either “porcwpin” or “ballasg” which in its older sense is an obsolete term for “husks”. Cornish has “sort” for hedgehog which seems odd and I don’t know whether it’s an old word or a revivalist creation?

  29. I wonder if Anatoly is a fan of Tarkovsky. “Dikobraz” is the name of an unseen character in the film “Stalker”. As a non-native Russian speaker I probably associate the word more with that movie than with the animal. Sashura, your point about “dikozabr” – “dinozavr” is very apt.

  30. ah, really! Vanya, thanks, another entry for my dictionary of Russian words in English.
    Dikobraz isn’t in the novel and isn’t in Strugatskys'[zes?] original script for the film, but he features as the key character (he hang himself) in the final scene when they discuss what might happen in the Room. I wonder who thought him up and the name?
    Dikobraz is used figuratively for someone with wild looks, especially unruly hair, someone like Bakunin.

  31. Bathrobe, thanks for the comment. I was thinking about i vs ee transliteration (deekobraz). I think Russian и in most cases is more like in English needle, longer than i in words like din, pin, sin where it is closer to -y- or Russian ы.

  32. Sashura: The problem probably doesn’t lie in the length.

  33. especially unruly hair
    As Moe called Larry “porcupine.”

  34. Hat, couldn’t you have titled this post with the correct Russian name of the porcupine? Through constant reinforcement of the incorrect name, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to remember the correct Russian name for this animal.

  35. Heh. “Dikozabr” will conquer the world!

  36. google already gives 76 hits for dikozabr.

  37. Gown, it’s Dick O’Bras–or Braz, if you will. What could be easier? Even I can remember it.

  38. Tycho Brahe

  39. Psycho Bra-he.

  40. David Marjanović says

    78 ghits now for дикозабр, including a Twitter user and apparently a mythical being not entirely unlike the Chinese straw-mud horse.

    In N. America they are animals of the northern forests.

    Keep in mind that Old World porcupines and New World porcupines are very different beasts as rodents go. They just both happen to have spines, that’s all.

    The New World ones are New World rodents, close to guinea pigs and agoutis and chinchillas and whatnots. All the New World rodents put together are fairly close relatives of the Old World porcupines.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    Synchronically a monomorphemic stem in Mooré sẽ́emde “porcupine” and its cognates. This one is Hystrix cristata. The -m- turns up in a number of animal (and tree) names and was probably derivational once upon a time.

    Oddly enough, it’s not the porcupine but the humble hedgehog that gets to have arrows in Oti-Volta, e.g. Mooré yʋ́gempende “hedgehog”, cf Mooré péemdé “arrow” and e.g. Kusaal yugudir “hedgehog.”

    The Buli dictionary cites a proverb Yueng-peng a pisi piema kan paai kadek lo-kpak-a “The hedgehog collects arrows but has not got its own quiver.” Unfortunately, like many West African proverbs, this is almost as much a riddle as a proverb, and though I know what it means, I have no Idea what it means. If you follow me.

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