OK, first go read Gary Shteyngart’s The Mother Tongue Between Two Slices of Rye (from the Spring 2004 Threepenny Review). It’s very funny.

When I return to Russia, my birthplace, I cannot sleep for days. The Russian language swaddles me. The trilling r’s tickle the underside of my feet. Every old woman cooing to her grandson is my dead grandmother. Every glum and purposeful man picking up his wife from work in a dusty Volga sedan is my father. Every young man cursing the West with his friends over a late morning beer in the Summer Garden is me. I have fallen off the edges of the known universe, with its Palm Pilots, obnoxious vintage shops, and sleek French-Caribbean Brooklyn bistros, and have returned into a kind of elemental Shteyngart-land, a nightmare where every consonant resonates like a punch against the liver, every rare vowel makes my flanks quiver as if I’m in love…

That was great, right? The man can tell a story. I would have posted the piece for its own sake posted the piece a year ago, but I also want to go on for a bit about this:

Ann Mason’s Bungalow Colony sits on the slope of a hill, beneath which lies a small but very prodigious brook, from which my father and I extract enormous catfish and an even larger fish whose English name I have never learned (in Russian it’s called a sig; the Oxford-Russian dictionary tells me, rather obliquely, that it is a “freshwater fish of the salmon family”).

He’s being disingenuous here, since the Oxford definition is actually “white fish (freshwater fish of salmon family),” but I can understand his ignoring the “white fish” part—written as two words like that, it looks like a description rather than a name. Now, it turns out the English equivalent of сиг (sig) is indeed whitefish, but it took me a while to realize that. First I checked my Russian-French dictionary, which defined it as “lavaret.” Then I found lavaret in my Collins Robert dictionary (something of a miracle, as the much larger Larousse French-English doesn’t have it), where it was defined as “pollan.” This word is not in any of my medium-sized dictionaries, but it is of course in the OED: “A species of fresh-water fish, Coregonus pollan, found in the inland loughs of Ireland.” What on earth is a lexicographer doing using an obscure word almost guaranteed to be unknown to the reader, and moreover referring to an entirely different species, to define the French word? Then I determined that the species was Coregonus lavaretus and googled that, and the first hit confirmed that this was indeed the “common whitefish.” So why did the Oxford Russian-English choose to confuse everyone by separating “white” and “fish”? Ah well, the question was answered. But fish names are confusing. The OED has the following terms whose definitions include the genus Coregonus: ferra, gizzard fish, gwyniad, freshwater herring, lake herring, mountain herring (described in a quote as Coregonus williamsoni but in the OED’s definition as Prosopium williamsoni), houting (Coregonus oxyrhynchus, a name redolent of papyrus), kilch, lavaret (“The houting, Coregonus lavaretus, as it occurs in some European lakes”—now wait a minute, you just said the houting was Coregonus oxyrhynchus!), moon-eye (“a whitefish of the genus Coregonus; a cisco”—but “cisco is “The popular name of several species of North American whitefish belonging to the genus Leucichthys“), omul (“The Arctic cisco, Coregonus autumnalis“), Otsego bass (“The lake whitefish, Coregonus clupeaformis“), pilot-fish, pollan, powan (“It belongs to the same genus as the Vendace and the Pollan, with which it was formerly identified, and is still often confused, under the name Freshwater Herring”), round-fish, shad-salmon (“the whitefish or freshwater herring, Coregonus clupeiformis of Lakes Erie and Ontario”), shad-waiter (“the Menomonee whitefish, Coregonus quadrilateralis“), skelly (“The gwyniad, the fresh-water herring, Coregonus clupeoides“), tittymeg (“A whitefish of Canadian and North American lakes, Coregonus clupeiformis“), tullibee, vendace (“a. A species of small freshwater fish, Coregonus vandesius, belonging to the same genus as the pollan and powan or gwyniad, found in the lake of Lochmaben in Scotland. b. A closely-allied species, Coregonus gracilior, found in Derwentwater, formerly identified with the preceding”), and of course whitefish: “A common name for the fishes of the genus Coregonus, of the family Salmonidæ, found in the lakes of North America, and valued as food.” The combined effect of a plethora of local names, changing standards of Linnean nomenclature, and probably a certain disconnect between lexicography and biology produces a mess that makes me pity anyone who tries to match names from one language to another. But I do very much like the word “tittymeg.”

Getting back to the Shteyngart piece, for those who are interested, here’s the original of the “old Soviet anthem from my youth” (I can’t find an audio file, but here‘s the scanned sheet music—change the 24 in the URL to 25 and 26 for the rest):

Чайка крыльями машет,
За собой нас зовет.
Пионеры, друзья и товарищи наши
Собираются в новый поход.
Плывут, плывут, плывут
Над нами облака.
Зовут, зовут, зовут
Привольные просторы:
Зеленые луга,
Широкая река,
Леса, поля и горы.

And the “old Russian childhood ditty” (mp3):

Пусть всегда будет солнце,
Пусть всегда будет небо,
Пусть всегда будет мама,
Пусть всегда буду я.

(Via wood s lot.)

Addendum. My wife thought she remembered hearing the “old Russian childhood ditty” in English, so I did some googling and discovered that it’s not so old—by Arkady Ostrovsky, it won a song festival in Poland in 1963. And finding that page enables me to share with you a fine resource for Russian music, the Russian Musical Highlights of the 20th Century, with year-by-year accounts of musical events.
I also disovered that Shteyngart had used the “childhood ditty” in his 2002 story Shylock on the Neva. Time to move on, Gary!


  1. Hat, you’re barking mad. Did you just type out all this fishy business for fun? Kooky.
    But, let me now rewind to the beginning of the piece and say that the solidly-monikered Shteyngart’s deployment of English is Nabokovial in its pleasures.
    Wonderful writing. I’m off to 3penny for more of it.

  2. Sport fish are very inconsistently named — the “crappie” is widely known as “crappie bass” even though it is a perch and not a bass. I’m wandering off topic but I was surprised to learn (in the googling for ichthyological information this post inspired) that is the home of the first national organization for crappie fishermen.

  3. Alex Smaliy says

    I didn’t care much for Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, it seemed rather too like an effort on the author’s part to prostitute his “ethnic connection” and harp irritatingly on the foreign/local, native/émigré cliches.
    Some people may care to know that there’s a fish named омуль in Russian, though I’ve never caught it and have a very nebulous understanding of what it might look like (or if it has any connection to the above-cited “omul”).
    «Пусть всегда…» is one of a set of Soviet school songs, obligatorily performed (or played) at recitals, school concerts, на линейке, and so on. Another example would be «Дважды два—четыре».

  4. Hat, you’re barking mad.
    *bows modestly, with a pleased smile*
    there’s a fish named омуль in Russian
    Yes, that’s the source of the English word.

  5. The word “crappie” is pronounced “croppy”, in case anyone was worried. I don’t know the cladistics of it, but it looks more like a sunfish than a perch; so does the “rock bass”.
    The walleyed pike, however, is a large perch; the northern pike is a real pike, as are the pickerel (smaller) and muskellunge (larger). The sauger, which I’ve never seen, is supposedly a smaller walleye, whereas the sucker (same word in English) is a bottom-feeder whose family connections are unknown to me. The dogfish where I come from is either an eelpout, or else not. Suckers and dogfish are trash fish, but they’re actually good to eat. They’re just not sport fish.
    Where I grew up there’s also a bird called the sloughpumper which my brother told me is really a little green heron. There’s nothing like local names for things to get the old nostalgia going.

  6. Tim May says

    I would have posted the piece for its own sake, …

    As, indeed, you did, almost exactly one year before.

  7. OK, that’s it — I am now officially senile. I thought it sounded familiar, but I tried using the LH search box and came up empty; I must have misspelled his name (which is easy to do).
    *shuffles sadly away to the glue factory*

  8. Hm. We’ve lost poor Hat and that pitiful Language Log person in less than a week. There’s a lucrative gap in the language-blog world for some enterprising youngster to fill.

  9. “Так погибал Великий Сиг,” — wrote Klyuev in Погорельщина, and that’s pretty much all I know about the literary usage of the word.
    Alas, I don’t remember “Чайка крыльями машет” but “Пусть всегда будет солнце” is indelible. It’s non-ideological as far as I remember unless “Let there always be me” counts as a heresy. But there’s a much better, late-Soviet song, Крылатые качели (The Winged Swing?), whose refrain admirably resembles Sologub’s Чертовы качели (Devil’s Swing).

  10. My fish references in part agree with you. That is, whitefish usually refers to Coregonidae, which are also by some authors referred to as Leucicthys (OECD Multilingual Dictionary of Fish and Fish Products) and this is a general term. And the Russian word is as you say (also given are D, DK, E, FI, GR, I, N, NL, P, PL and S (although the name is also used for sea trout, but we’ll pass over that).
    There is a lake whitefish or common whitefish in the far north of Canada and Alaska, but that is Coregonus clupeaformis, Russian lapsharyba (according to Claus Frimodt, Illustrated Multilingual Guide to the World’s Commercial Coldwater Fish). It tastes more like salmon than trout. Much more information available.
    The Russian term, like whitefish, is the superordinate term. What is actually meant in Russian is more likely to be C. pollan (EN pollan, freshwater, Europe) or C. lavaretus (EN powan, freshwater, Europe), could even be C. albula (vendace, freshwater, Euroe) or C. artedii (lake herring, freshwater, Europe / N. America).
    If you want to pursue this further, and I sincerely hope not, I can fax you the three relevant pages. I suggest consulting a specialized fish dictionary or two rather than trailing generalist publications, although of course this may all be a load of codswallop.

  11. Please don’t! No, no, I don’t really care about the fish (my wife’s comment: “You don’t even like fish”); I was just annoyed/amused by the complicated path down which the dictionaries led me. If (god forbid) I had to translated an ichthyological publication, I would certainly consult specialized sources.

  12. But I think you are estopped from saying you don’t care about the fish.

  13. Jack Lasky says

    I remember my first visit to Russia,sixteen years after I left it in 1973.Jetlagged, I could not sleep after a very long flight from Sydney and listened to Moscow radio station playing old Soviet songs.What was remarkable was the fact that most of them were either composed or written or performed by Jews including”PUST VSEGDA BUDET SONCE…”. After about fourty minutes a small trickle of complaints about the non-kosher origin of the authors turned into a torrent and the programme was stopped.Like Gary Shteyngart’s MICHIGAN unexpectedly turned into MEESHUGAN,my impression of these complainants slowly changed from MEESHUGUYEM to MEESHUGOYIM.
    When you live in several languages the permutations become limitless(TELOM HIL NO KALOM BUR leads to COETZEE pronounced as in METSIEH)whichever language is used to deliver them.
    If anybody can advise how to use dual alphabet in one blog please let me know(POMNITE:UCHENIE SVET,A NEUCHENIH like me TYMA).

  14. John Emerson corrects me and I am grateful. The crappie is neither a perch nor a bass! It’s a Pomoxis, which doesn’t seem to have a vernacular equivalent (unless that would be “crappie”).
    Name: Black Crappie, Pomoxis nigromaculatus
    Other Common Names: Bream, Mason perch, freckle, slab, grass bass, speckled perch, specks, calico bass, sac-a-lait, speckled crappie
    Name: Yellow Perch, Perca flavescens
    Other Common Names: American perch, bandit fish, calico bass, convict, coon perch, coontail, Eisenhower, jack perch, lake perch, raccoon perch, red perch, redfin, redfin trout, ring-tail perch, ringed perch, river perch, sand perch, striped perch
    All this information is from “fishes of Indiana” on the Purdue University site. Is there someting uniquely confusing in all languages about nomenclature for minor sportfish?

  15. I think that the minor, non-commercial fish (including trash fish) are usually given ad hoc local names within small local communities of fishermen. In the area where I grew up there are 7 or 8 kinds of fish which have names that are even approximately exact, and some of these are generic names, like “sunfish”. But there are lots of other fish in the lakes and streams.

  16. When I started reading this post, I remembered the summer I lived in Moscow and took Russian at one of the institutes for foreigners. We learned a song that had lines bsigda budit conse (pardon my incorrect fake transcription, but Russian speakers get the idea.) And I remember the line about there will always be me. I truly believed that these kind of kitche little songs (there were others) were especially composed for foreigners learning Russian.
    But little did I know that these songs were staples of a good Soviet education for all Soviet children.
    As for Shteyngart’s writing, I love it. Certainly I’m a sucker for his Russian Jewish emigré schtick, as American Jews back in the day supported their freedom to emigrate. Hey, it was supposed to be to Israel but they detoured to New York in Vienna.
    Generally, I’m tired of the poor little immigrant child loses his culture, language, sweet smell of the third world paradise he left behind to come to horrible America and make the alien sounds we call English, but Shteyngart makes it so funny. And BTW, I teach ESL to immigrant children and their parents.

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