Goodies from Labirint.

A week ago I was corresponding with José Vergara about an impenetrable word in Sasha Sokolov’s «Между собакой и волком» (Between Dog and Wolf), which I started reading last year but then set aside, when he mentioned “the Ostanin slovar’” as something he would check when he got a chance. I googled and was thunderstruck to discover there was a published set of annotations to the novel by the writer and translator Boris Ostanin. I love such books (I have them for Lolita, The Brothers Karamazov, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Moskva-Petushki, and probably others I’m forgetting), so I immediately felt the need to have my own copy. Alas, it was sold out at Ozon (see this post), and I despaired… but then I discovered they still had a few copies at Labirint, and now that I had gotten used to ordering from Russia, I was determined to have one. The interface was completely different from Ozon’s, but fortunately Lizok had used them before and was willing to help me through the process. Besides the Ostanin, I ordered two books unavailable at Ozon, Sorokin’s Метель (The Blizzard), which I’ve been wanting for ages, and Pepperstein’s Пражская ночь [Prague night], which I learned about from Lizok’s site; just now the package was delivered, and I am a happy man. As I wrote Lizok:

I’ve been reading Russian for half a century, and at first I got my books from the college bookstore as they were assigned, then I got some at the huge Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki on my 1971 visit to the USSR (needless to say, there were no interesting books for sale in the Socialist Motherland itself), when I moved to NYC I got them at Viktor Kamkin and then at the bookstores in Brighton Beach, then when we left the city in the mid-2000s I started ordering by mail from (the online version of the Sankt-Peterburg bookstore I’d frequented in Brighton), then I discovered I could get cheap ex-library books from Abebooks, and all of it was good, but selection was limited and I was still frustrated — somehow it never occurred to me that I could order from Russia. When José mentioned getting books from Ozon, I was thunderstruck; he walked me through the sign-up process (map and all), and now I feel like I’m in Wonderland. “You mean I can get that… and that… and even THAT??” Fortunately my wife is tolerant, and it’s cheaper and less destructive than a gambling or drug habit…

Oh, and that word I was wondering about? It’s матату [matatu] in “Он, во-первых, изведал семейную матату, но супруга поладила с волкобоем и сжила Угодника долой со двора, во-вторых”; Google searches are hopelessly swamped by Hakuna Matata, and it turns out it’s not in the Ostanin book, so any suggestions will be gratefully received.


  1. I would read it as a tedium, like boring chores, assuming that it’s the same as

    by the rhythm of the phrase, the last syllable is stressed, so the first has a schwa

    Googling “семейной мутоты” or “семейная мутота” returns similar usage, if rare

  2. Beautiful, that must be it — огромное спасибо!

  3. Kamkin! I first set foot in the Viktor Kamkin bookstore on 5th Avenue in 1965, as a beginning high-school Russian student. Was absolutely thrilled to hear господин Kamkin speaking Russian with госпожа Kamkina (if that’s who they were), and awed by the selection of books from the СССР. And upon following your Wikipedia link, I’m saddened to read how it all ended (but happy to see that the author of The Icon and The Axe played a somewhat salvific role).

    My first trip to the СССР was two years after yours, in ’73 — one of Alex Lipson’s 10-week tours. (I led a tour for him the following year, and after he died, sent condolences to his daughter Sonya, whom I vaguely remember meeting at some point.) It was undoubtedly Alex who put me onto Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, and I recall doing a brisk mail-order business with them around that time — but maybe memory deceives with regard to the mail-order part.

  4. Owlmirror says

    matatu mutandis?

    mutota matatu tekel upharsin?

  5. I do not recognize матата at all. I would never think about “мутота”:

    /ʊ/ rather than a schwa, especially clear in such exressive words
    -ota is a suffix,
    mut’ is a synonym (“what a муть!”, “what a мутотень!”…) and мутота is yet another variation.

    But I am not arguing here with DP. The fact is, one speaker is able to see mutota here, and another one is not. There is a tendency of people to substitute unstressed -o- with -a- in various expletives, in writing and often in speech. Particularly with говно* where people are not sure how it is written because it is not written. Also with козёл. I am not tempted to do that with suffixes. But I have seen people doing that.

    *Брежнев, читает по бумажке:
    – Мы идём на га-а-авно. Мы идём на га-а-авно… Мы идём нога в ногу со временем.

  6. Мататá makes sense by analogy with суетá, маятá, тошнотá. Apart from мутота, the reader may also connect it with мотать. How would you interpret волкобой? “Wolfslayer,” obviously, but any ideas beyond that, inspired by зверобой perhaps?

  7. Мататá makes sense by analogy with суетá, маятá, тошнотá. Apart from мутота, the reader may also connect it with мотать.

    Yes, Sokolov is constantly creating nonce words by mixing up two others (разборник = разобраться + сборник; приворотнице = приворотное + привратница), so this fits right in.

    How would you interpret волкобой?

    Here I think волкобой is essentially a fancy variant of охотник or егерь, both of which are used for the character in the text (this section is purportedly written by the uneducated but linguistically inventive grinder Ilya Petrikevich Zynzyrela, who is complaining at great length and with many digressions to the criminal investigator Sidor Fomich Pozhilykh about the theft of his crutches). Also, as is obvious from the title, the wolf is an important symbol in the novel.

  8. Google searches are hopelessly swamped by Hakuna Matata

    Oof, this is one of my biggest frustrations in searching for reasonable help to understand (seemingly) unusual words! I wish I could remember some of the odd overlaps I’ve found that no “minus” setting could effectively remove from search results but of course I can’t.

    In any case, I’m glad your package arrived so quickly (alas, mine is still languishing in Boston) and that we’ve both been able to find books we’ve been looking for!

  9. Dmitry Pruss says

    There isn’t always a u sound in the мутота mutandis. The predecessoris IMHO тягомотина, the verb мотаться in its meaning of something as endless as thread off a spoil. Rather than мутный murky.
    А мотались мы тогда по Алжиру// с делегацией ЦК профсоюза as an ob quote

  10. Пусть что хатять гъварять, а я скажу, миндирюхъ ета усё

    Great find!

  11. Note that it is a dialectal dictionary and the spelling is phonetical. It says nothing about how speakers understand its etymology (and how they would spell it), essentially it is m*t*ta where * is a or o.

    The weird thing is that there are also translations of novels about Congo.

    One has:
    “За словом « матата » может скрываться что угодно” (1968)

    Another has:
    “Видите ли , — сказал он , — началась матата .
    Это конголезское слово обозначает все от простой потасовки до революции ” (1972)

  12. “За словом « матата » может скрываться что угодно” – not visible in the link, but immediately visible if you google the line itself:)

    Then there are several novels from 80s. E.g.:

    Г. И. Бардин, (Геннадий Иванович Бардин, not Гарри Бардин):

    …Часто стоят перед глазами мои дорогие однокашники. Кудрявый и остроумный, настоящая поэтическая натура, Вася Чесноков; дербентский трубач Боря Большаков со своими прибаутками “Елкин гриб” и “Матата”; блестящий шуйский…


    Елкин гриб is transparent. I knew a guy who would say “Ёжкин кот”.
    Владимир Жемчужников “Байкальский блокнот” (Иркутск, в сборнике “Нечаянный интерес”) :

    …К одному борту подводят баржу с углем, к другому — с грузами. Кончим уголь бункеровать, передохнем малость, и снова команда: «Девки! Выходи под мешки!»
    И весь рейс вот такая матата. Уставали сильно, особо на вахте и на погрузке.
    По сорок бочек рыбы подвозили на баркасе….

  13. Валерий Поволяев:

    … Тьфу, матата какая – то в мозгах . Слова истертые , изношенные от частого употребления — « день нынешний » , « день завтрашний » возникают , будто из плохой газетной статьи …

    And Ю. Семёнов.

    P.S. the link won’t work:/

  14. January First-of-May says

    И весь рейс вот такая матата.
    …Тьфу, матата какая-то в мозгах.

    For what it’s worth, I’d have guessed this to be *мотота, from мотать(ся), spelled phonetically for the assonantal implications of being continuous.

    (I almost wrote “of continuity” but that has very different and, in this context, inappropriate connotations.)

    Ёжкин кот

    …that actually literally means “(Baba) Yaga’s cat”*. That said, IIRC, I usually see it spelled ёшкин кот (though admittedly probably with the same meaning).

    *) it’s actually kinda weird how the diminutive of Яга is Ёжка – it’s almost like there’s an underlying *Ёга in there. [That is, *Ёга́, final stress.]

  15. I once shared here my excitement with Tolstoy’s едондер пуп. The filter was not Cyrillic-freindly, the comment was lost and… I do not remember if I wrote another version.

    Anyway; he was trying to convince soldiers not to swear: “You did not do what you said [did not have an affair with someone’s mother], it is just nonsense, so why not to say some gibberish instead: for example yedonder pup“. The soldiers were thought to think that Tolstoy was so virtuous at profane langauge that they can’t even understand him.

    What I loved is that such semi-Germanic euphemisms are still around, meanwhile the word “thunder” is obvious here (cf. разрази меня гром) – and it is likely that we picked this manner up some 400 years ago with other Germanic technical loans.

  16. January First-of-May says

    meanwhile the word “thunder” is obvious here

    Another word that gets into the same anecdote is ерфиндер, which is just straight up German: Erfinder “inventor”. Tolstoy surely would have known German, so I doubt it was accidental.

  17. Tolstoy surely would have known German, so I doubt it was accidental. – For some reason I did not think about Erfinder. Yes.

    Tolstoy, or the officers in his regiment who told the story to Nikolay Alexandrovitch Krylov, or Aleksey Nikolayevich Krylov, his son and a naval mathematician who wrote the memoir. I think I posted it: I vagualy remember sharing this photo of Krylov with Kapitsa’s wife… I love the photo. In 19th century photographs people are usually expressionless – likely because of long exposure and the need to imitate a statue during this time. In the sun it becomes better, especially when they squint.

  18. And I meant 300, not 400 years ago:( 18th century, when Russian was the most exposed to German. The tradition of making up quasi-German swear words is not limited to T., and T. himself felt that these sound appropriate in Russian context. I think edonder pup can be earlier but I do not have many ideas apart of donderbus (>blunderbuss) – and the general habit of using “thunder” for swearing.

    A.N.’s memoir. (search for едондер)

    N.A.’s memoir. P 145. But here his father does not retell this particular story. Moreover he says Tolstoy “has left many witty anecdotes which he told masterly; some [of the] anecdotes are not for print”. Mostly it a memoir about the time when people were discussing rumours about forthcoming abolition of serfdom, it deals with those discussions.

Speak Your Mind