The Macmillan Dictionary Blog has a guest post by Yuliya Melnyk called “The influence of English on the Russian language”; it’s short and pretty superficial, but this struck me: “Many words are produced in Russian slang every day; they have English roots and Russian affixes, e.g.: mastdait, which means ‘criticize’, comes from English must die…” I’m sure glad she told me, because I don’t think I’d ever have figured that out if I saw мастдаить in the wild. It seems it can be used intransitively as well, because one Google hit has “Ну как, рулит или мастдаит?” which seems to mean “So, does it rule or suck?” Are my Russian-speaking readers familiar with this oddly formed loan word? (Thanks for the link, Stan!)


  1. I really want to know more about that etymology—how did must die come to mean criticize, and why, when there are so many more common ways to say that in English? Is/was that a common expression in some variety of English I’m not familiar with? Or did a non-native English speaker coin it and draw it back into his Russian?

  2. Victor Sonkin says

    It doesn’t mean ‘criticize’, at least I’ve never heard it used in that sense. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard it at all as a verb, only as an indeclineable attributive, “мастдай”. IMO, by far the most common usage is with ‘Windows’, ‘Microsoft’ and ‘Bill Gates’, I’m not quite sure why 🙂
    The intransitive example looks quite natural, though.

  3. Victor Sonkin says

    “Чизкейк” is on the menu of every other Moscow cafe, btw.

  4. Victor Sonkin says

    Oh, and – sorry for spamming – “рулит или сосёт” would have been more immediately clear. And it speaks volumes more about the influence of English than loan words.
    (Bill Bryson in his book about the English language claims, hilariously, that a haircut is called “херкот” in Ukrainian, and a pay day “педа” in Serbian. Which is why I’ve never read another of his books.)

  5. I’ve never seen the word in the wild, but it does sound like one of those fly-by-night words that come and go. If you really want to test your ability to understand Russian slang, check out Lately, English computer-related terms are sometimes replaced by those with Slavic roots, for example “личка” – email (e.g. “пишите в личку”).

  6. Mastdait, which means ‘criticize’, comes from English ‘must die’….
    Sounds like one of the bogus English/Russian words invented by Anthony Burgess in “The Clockwork Orange.”

  7. Don’t just give away Bill Bryson’s books, burn them. You never know who might pick up your discarded copy and be infected by his one-error-per-page rubbish.

  8. marie-lucie says

    must die
    This reminds me of a now defunct program on CBC radio about old records. The host had quite a collection of vinyl pop singles, which he and a colleague used to play and discuss, and on every show they chose the worst record and destroyed it – whether they actually did destroy it or not, you would hear a crashing and breaking sound. I wonder if something like that was going on in a certain fashionable group, where someone introduced the phrase “must die” to mean “this (song, show, movie, etc) is so bad it deserves to die”, and then that “must die”, heard as “mastdai”, passed into Russian slang as an expression of criticism.

  9. Can личка be used for “email” generally? I’ve only seen it used for “personal message” e.g. on sites like Livejournal, where one can either leave a public comment to a post, or send a private message to a user. If its meaning has broadened, that’s pretty neat…

  10. One of my favorites is аська, which sounds like it could be Slavic, but is actually derived from the name of the once-renowned instant messaging service ICQ.

  11. Well, аська can’t be quite Slavic since Аська is a familiar form of Ася, which is a familiar form of Анастасия, which is a Greek name of course. But аська, ася, асенька, асечка all sound nice enough for the ICQ protocol, that much I’ll admit. As for мастдаить, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it while мастдай is a common enough negative assessment.
    Личка is typically used at message boards and blogs as a means of sending a private message to a member or host. The good old e-mail is more commonly called simply почта these days while электронка seems popular but sounds provincial somewhat.

  12. You never know who might pick up your discarded copy and be infected by his one-error-per-page rubbish.
    More like one error per word. Bryson is a disgrace to humanity.

  13. I only ever hear “mazdai” (“mastdai”) in reference to Windows products, but here, the Russian Wikipedia already has it as a verb, and with the etymology:
    “Маздай — повелительная форма сленгового глагола «маздать», означающего «бить» (переосмысление крика «Must die!» из рок-оперы «Jesus Christ Superstar»)”Маздай

  14. Thank you all, I am now enlightened. Had I thought to google the imperative мастдай, I would have gotten many, many more hits; that’s obviously the original form, with two different infinitives being formed from it.
    And yes, Bryson is a disgrace.

  15. And yes, Bryson is a disgrace.
    And seems to lack an understanding of irony. In a book on Australia he is booking a ticket to a town called Hay, and says heavily to the ticket clerk: “I want to make Hay while the sun shines.” The clerk replies, deadpan, that the train will get him there before dark. Bryson keeps repeating the line and gets the same response, and concludes the clerk is dim and doesn’t get the joke.
    In fact the clerk has (a) probably heard it a thousand times, and (b)is anyway giving a classic Aussie deadpan to a stupid tourist who is too dim to understand that.

  16. Bryson is not a serious writer and doesn’t try to be. Criticizing his factual errors is beside the point. He comes from a long line of American Midwestern humorists and stands firmly in that tradition. If you don’t get him, that’s not his problem. He’s a damn sight better than Dave Barry or PJ O’Rourke.

  17. Sorry, but that doesn’t hold water. His books are not marketed as “humor” and people don’t read him as a humorist; they quote him as an authority. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen his The Mother Tongue cited as a good source for learning about English. Maybe Immanuel Velikovsky was actually a deadpan humorist and didn’t believe any of the crap in his books; that wouldn’t change the fact that they’re pernicious nonsense.

  18. Here’s the opening of Bryson’s wikipedia entry:
    “William McGuire “Bill” Bryson, OBE, (born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on scientific subjects.”
    My bold. I assumed everyone thinks of him as a humor writer first and foremost. The Amazon review of “Mother Tongue” talks about the “light tone” and the “jokes”. If people quote him as an authority, more fools they.
    I liked his Appalachian book just fine. I’ve never read “The Mother Tongue” as I assumed it would just be home spun wisdom and nonsense. Guess I was right. Books about the English language tend as a general rule to be panegyrics to how unique and special English is and condescending towards other languages, an attitude I find akin to writing a book about how great white people are.
    Is Bryson really any worse than the legions of writers who have come before him to praise our supreme million-word posessing global tongue? I’m not defending Bryson, just a little surprised by the level of venom generated by a guy who seems to me rather unassuming and unpretentious, for a writer.

  19. Bill Val'derman says

    “Maybe Immanuel Velikovsky was actually a deadpan humorist”
    And Immanuel Kant, too.

  20. marie-lucie says

    I have not read “Mother Tongue” , nor do I plan to, but I have read Bryson’s science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which was light-hearted and easy to read. I found the book quite interesting, especially the descriptions of the personalities and lives of the various scientists. The book is directed at the average non-scientist, but it actually won two prizes given by scientists.
    I have read several books by Velikovsky, lent to me by a friend, and chapter after chapter my reaction was “I wish I knew more about the topic, so I had some basis for evaluation”. Some people who seem to have weird ideas are not always 100% wrong: for instance, everyone used to think that Venus was very cold, but Velikovsky deduced that it must be very hot, and that’s what it turned out to be. We need to have some kooks around: often they raise questions to which no one has answers yet. Their solutions might not be right, but they think (and make you think) outside the box, and some people end up making a career in a field that they first heard about through the works of a kook. In a field I don’t know much about, I can live with scepticism better than with blanket condemnation or uncritical acceptance.

  21. “William McGuire “Bill” Bryson, OBE, (born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on scientific subjects.”
    My bold. Even according to your own source, his “books on the English language and on scientific subjects” are not qualified as humorous. Obviously he’s a humorous writer in the sense that he uses humor; so does Isaac Asimov, but I wouldn’t tell people to avoid his books on that account. If you put Bryson in the same category as Dave Barry, good for you, because that’s where he belongs, but again, I assure you that is not the common attitude. He is seen by most as a knowledgeable writer who uses humor to make his points and sell his books. It’s easy to say “more fools they,” but it doesn’t solve the problem.

  22. I agree entirely, m-l. I have a bulging mental file-folder flagged ‘fascinating — wait for more info before deciding pro or con’.

  23. says

    I’m just copying here the whole review by the always interesting Brian M. Scott:
    It is unfortunate that Bill Bryson writes so entertainingly, because the book’s content is disastrously bad. The book is replete with elementary errors of fact. Many of these can be detected with nothing more than a good dictionary: ‘law’ and ‘order’ are not synonyms, ‘swarthy’ is not from Latin ‘sordere’, and ‘bumf’ is not from a non-existent German ‘bumfodden’ but from the self-explanatory British ‘bum-fodder’ (toilet paper). Others are equally elementary: for instance, the High German sound shift took place in the south of Germany, not the north.
    He fares no better when he deals with more technical matters. He loves to count inflectional forms of words in different languages, but most of his counts are wrong. His history of the alphabet from Old to Present-Day English is riddled with errors of fact. His treatment of the sounds of English is hopelessly confused because he fails completely to distinguish phones from phonemes; indeed, he seems to confuse at least one of these with the graphs used to represent them. His discussion of the Great Vowel Shift, a fundamental change that explains many of the apparent oddities of modern English spelling, is partly wrong and wholly confusing.
    Hard as it is to excuse such cavalier treatment of the facts, it is even harder to excuse his logical inconsistencies and muddy thinking. On the one hand, ‘To a baby no language is easier or more difficult than any other’; on the other, Old English was so complicated that ‘[i]t is a wonder that anyone ever learned to speak it’. At one point he lists ‘Celtic’ as a European language that disappeared over time, and in the very next sentence he avers that ‘Celtic … is not dead’. (He appears to have confused languages with language families.) In comparing modern English spelling to that of Old English he applies a double standard in order to make modern spelling seem more arbitrary than it really is. And one wonders what distinction between ‘hair’ and ‘hairs’ made in Shakespeare’s ‘Shee hath more haire than wit, and more faults than hairs’ is ‘effectively lost to us today’.
    But the errors are not the book’s worst feature. Bryson returns again and again to three themes: (1) English is in most respects superior to all other languages, partly because (2) complex inflectional systems are BAD, and (3) English spelling is almost completely chaotic. He has moments of moderation in which he qualifies these assertions, even at one point denying the first altogether, but they are far less memorable than the polemics supporting them, and it is noteworthy that many of his errors and misleading statements reinforce these same themes.
    Bryson’s linguistic chauvinism is appalling. The English range of sounds is ‘pleasingly’ diverse, but Anglo-French was ‘harsh, clacking, guttural’. ‘Italians cannot distinguish between a niece and a granddaughter’? Of course they can. And to say that the meaning of German ‘Schadenfreude’ ‘perhaps tells us as much about Teutonic sensitivity as it does about their neologistic versatility’ is simply insulting. One is not greatly surprised to find that the index has an entry for ‘English, advantages of’ but none for ‘English, disadvantages of’. One can also discover that while foreign words and phrases are ‘adopted’ into English, English words and phrases are ‘expropriated’ into other tongues.
    A reader searching for a readable elementary introduction to the history of the English language would be much better off with Charles Barber’s _The English Language: A Historical Introduction_.

  24. This business about how you’re not supposed to make lots of egregious mistakes is starting to bother me. Is accuracy fun? For you guys, I suppose.

  25. Whenever Hat pans a book, that author immediately goes to the top of my reading list. In this way I have been introduced to Dan Brown and Struck & White.
    And now I have managed to unearth a copy of Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. In reading the first two chapters, I think I see the problem. While Bryson’s books, even the so-called serious works, are described everywhere as humorous, entertaining, and hilarious, I find that he’s just not funny. He’s obviously trying to be humorous, but too often there’s something troubling about his humor, like being invited to laugh at a pratfall or at someone who is disabled. In the first part of the the book, the running jokes are swear words, going to the toilet in the woods, anything scatological, being mauled by bears, not being considered masculine enough, drug addiction, and fat people who eat. True, he is oftentimes poking fun at himself, or at his fears, but jokes at someone else’s expense just make me uncomfortable.
    The reviewers say he gets more serious and talks about the history of the Appalachian Trail later in the book, but given what everybody says about his accuracy, and also that I seem to be allergic to his brand of humor, I don’t know if I will be reading chapter 3.

  26. Does he tell the “Something tells me you’re not here for the hunting” bear joke?

  27. Bryson’s toilet humor.

  28. Thanks – I am now beginning to see why Bryson is so detested here. I had no idea the book was THAT bad. Unfortunately attitudes like “Old English was so complicated that ‘[i]t is a wonder that anyone ever learned to speak it'” is what passes for humor in this part of the world, even on places like NPR. Linguistic chauvinism seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of ignorant prejudice.

  29. JE, drat, now I’ll have to finish the Bryson, but the joke doesn’t appear in this thread of AT bear jokes. I didn’t hear it when I was up there either; the only bear I met was a divinity student whose trail name was White Bear who was researching a dissertation about what people think the Face Of God looks like.

  30. Linguistic chauvinism seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of ignorant prejudice.
    You mean “non-pc prejudice”. It’s still completely acceptable to be entirely ignorant of most art forms or philosophy and be prejudiced against them (artists are just trying to fool you and philosophy is hocus-pocus mumbo jumbo).

  31. Stephen Jay Gould’s early article on Velikovsky originally ended by saying that although his astronomy was complete tripe (as the rest of the article had clearly established), Gould was impressed by the historiography and comparative religion that Velikovsky had assembled, and thought that might indeed point to something in humanity’s past, though not the flatfoot literal interpretation Velikovsky had given it.
    In later printings, Gould added a footnote to the effect that he had discussed Velikovsky with a rabbinical scholar, who said something like “Well, of course all that Talmudic and midrashic pilpul is complete nonsense. But I was impressed by the astronomy.”

  32. marie-lucie says

    We tend to be impressed by things we don’t know anything about. That’s why we need be skeptical – to keep an open mind about what we don’t know, until we can learn more.

  33. We tend to be impressed by things we don’t know anything about.
    Although this can be rephrased to sound old-hat, I think it is a profound observation, especially in conjunction with “a little learning is a dangerous thing …”.
    I am currently in a Java project with a “person responsible for the technical aspects of the application” (TAV, technischer Anwendungsverantwortliche). This person has quite a bit of programming experience, but in languages other than Java. He is quite intelligent and well-spoken, but has lost contact with programming realities after climbing the career ladder. He is now in a position where he can claim to know better than anyone else how things should be programmed in Java, but is unable to validate such claims by programming the things himself. He recently found one book in German about a particular topic relevant to the project (eclipse RCP), and now browbeats everybody with quotes from this single book, which he thinks contains biblical verities.
    On the other hand, some people tend to be non-impressed by things they don’t know anything about. Witness myself and certain previous holdings-forth about “linguistics” and “linguists”, until repeatedly rapped on the knuckles by marie-lucie in particular.
    Then there are people who tend to be depressed by things they don’t know anything about. This may be the same category as the one last mentioned.

  34. It takes serious chauvinism to sneer at Old English in English.
    “They weren’t English at all! They were Frisians! There’s nothing worse than a Frisian!”

  35. Talmudic and midrashic pilpul
    Only yesterday I had occasion to criticize something using the everyday German expression Pille-Palle, which apparently means the same thing.

  36. Okay, I’ve now finished Bryson’s book about the Appalachian Trail and have come back to report on his bear humor.
    I’m actually somewhat less annoyed with Bryson than I was at the end of chapter 2, and am glad I read further. He tells a coherent story, keeps it moving, gives enough detail about the trail so you can picture it (and if you’ve been up there, it brings back nice memories), then moves on to more statistics and some genuinely interesting details about the trail, and an overview about his general philosophy about it. His humor,… well, he’s from Des Moines.
    Here is a section where, in preparation for the trip, he is reading Stephen Herrera’s book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance:

    Herrero recounts an incident that nicely conveys the near indestructibility of the grizzly. It concerns a professional hunter in Alaska named Alexi Pitka, who stalked a large male through snow and finally felled it with a well-aimed shot to the heart from a large-bore rifle. Pitka should probably have carried a card with him that said: “First make sure bear is dead. Then put fun down.” He advanced cautiously and spent a minute or two watching the bear for movement, but when there was none he set the gun against a tree (big mistake!) and strode forward to claim his prize. Just as he reached it, the bear sprang up, clapped its expansive jaws around the front of Pitka’s head, as if giving him a big kiss, and with a single jerk, tore of his face.

    Miraculously, Pitka survived. “I don’t know why I set that durn gun against the tree,” he said later. (Actually what he said was, “Mrffff mmmpg nnnmmm mffffffn,” on account of having no lips, teeth, nose, tongue, or other vocal apparatus.)

  37. More Bryson, still talking about the bear book:

    After noting that just 500 people were attacked and hurt by black bears between 1960 and 1980–twenty-five attacks a year from a resident population of at least half a million bears–Herrero adds that most of these injuries were not severe. “The typical black bear-inflicted injury,” her writes blandly, “is minor and usually involves only a few scratches or light bites.” Pardon me, but what exactly is a light bite? Are we talking a playful wrestle and gummy nips? I think not. And is 500 certified attacks really such a modest number, considering how few people go into the North American woods? And how foolish must one be to be reassured by the information that no bear has killed a human in Vermont or New Hampshire in 200 years? That’s not because the bears have signed a treaty, you know. There’s nothing to say that they won’t start a modest rampage tomorrow.

    So that’s Bryson’s Iowa humor. Very chatty, makes up ridiculous scenarios, inserts an unusual word where you are expecting a conventional one, exaggerates, plays the fool (as they say in AAVE), overstates his case to make a point…
    I can’t say if his facts here are accurate, but since his field is political science, this book might be more accurate than the linguistics one. But if someone thinks they are seeing “linguistic chauvinism” in a statement that “Old English was so complicated that ‘[i]t is a wonder that anyone ever learned to speak it”, having sampled Bryson’s writing style, to me that sounds too conspiratorial–I’m just seeing ordinary Iowa hyperbole, and some humor, or maybe irony, that I consider to be rather sophomoric.

  38. Zythophile says

    I wonder if there’s something we might call “Bryson’s Law” – “anything about a specialism written by a non-specialist for non-specialists is going to outrage the specialists”. No disrespect to specialists – I get furious when I see idiotic/incorrect statements about my own specialism.

  39. Bryson’s forte seems to be making things accessible to non-speicalists. I churned through his book in an evening and still had time to accomplish a bunch of other stuff. But I have yet to read even one of my linguistics titles from cover to cover–even Elements of Style still sits on my bedside table with three or four books on top of it. Maybe if Bryson could explain to me the Great Vowel Shift and the Great Lakes vowel Shift….

  40. marie-lucie says

    Z: “Bryson’s Law” – “anything about a specialism written by a non-specialist for non-specialists is going to outrage the specialists”.
    Apparently, Bryson’s book on science did not outrage the specialists, since they gave him not just one but two prizes for it.
    Perhaps he researched the topic and got advice for specialists for this book, since he is not a scientist at all, but as for linguistics many people feel free to spout things about language(s) just because they can speak.

  41. until repeatedly rapped on the knuckles
    I don’t read any dom/sub subtext into the writing of any of the linguists or educators. It would seem only natural for specialists to correct misconceptions about their field; I don’t see how this could be compared with corporal punishment or assault (which is taken very seriously here and is illegal).

  42. marie-lucie says

    Nijma: Maybe if Bryson could explain to me the Great Vowel Shift and the Great Lakes vowel Shift….
    The best way to explain those is with a diagram. Any linguistics textbook which mentions the history of English will have a diagram of what happened to the long vowels in the Great English Vowel Shift (roughly, around the Elizabethan period – I am not familiar with the Great Lakes one, which is much more recent).
    For accessible books on English, written by a specialist for non-specialists but very readable, look for the works of David Crystal, who has written a number of them.
    As for Elements of Style, whatever its merits I would not call it a work on linguistics.
    Grumbly: myself and certain previous holdings-forth about “linguistics” and “linguists”, until repeatedly rapped on the knuckles by marie-lucie in particular.
    Please, I may be ruthless but I am not cruel. I don’t hold with causing bodily harm as a substitute for imparting information.

  43. I don’t think so, Grumbly. Pille-palle I gather means ‘simple, easy, trivial, einfach‘, whereas pilpul (a Hebrew borrowing into Yiddish and then English) means ‘close textual analysis for the purpose of resolving contradictions’, and when derogatory (as here) ‘abuse of analysis, casuistry, hairsplitting’.

  44. Apparently, Bryson’s book on science did not outrage the specialists, since they gave him not just one but two prizes for it.
    Yes, there are obviously good and bad popularizers.

  45. J Blakeslee says

    Note that the astronomy/pilpul thing is from Carl Sagan, not Stephen Jay Gould. The Velikovsky paper appears as a chapter in Sagan’s book Broca’s Brain.

  46. “Maybe if Bryson could explain to me the Great Vowel Shift”
    …it would probably involve Ex-Lax.

  47. Sagan, indeed. I don’t know why I said Gould, who would be quite irrelevant to it, except that I like both their writing very much.

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