Nabokov’s Eye Spy.

Having read Nabokov’s 1930 novella Соглядатай, translated by his son Dmitri as The Eye, I don’t have much to say about it except that it’s the weirdest thing he’d written up till then and has surprisingly many resonances with Dostoevsky for an author who claimed to despise him (it’s been compared, with reason, to The Double, Notes from Underground, and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” which I wrote about here). What I do have something to say about is the title, which is an obsolete Russian word for ‘spy.’ As I wrote Lizok:

I’m also wondering how one might translate соглядатай if one didn’t want to go with “The Eye.” I checked the Oxford Historical Thesaurus and found a couple of comparably obsolete words for ‘spy’: explorator “A person employed to collect information, esp. with regard to an enemy, or an enemy’s country; a scout; a spy” and otacust “A listener; an eavesdropper; a spy.” I just know that VVN would have used one of those if he’d been translating Pushkin!

I might add that since the Russian word is made up of the prefix со- ‘with, co(n)-‘ and the verbal root гляд- ‘to look,’ one could repurpose the rare Latin word conspector ‘one who looks at, overseer’ (which never seems to have been borrowed into English); Tertullian says “Deus conspector est cordis.” Expand the wordhoard!


  1. VV would not have used just a rare word, but also one that sounded the right color. I guess he’d prefer conspector over the other two.

  2. I agree, and I was pleased to come up with it.

  3. Dmitry Pruss says

    It may be a calque from Greek or Hebrew? Because the word has a decidedly Biblical feel, and is limited to the Old Testament, e.g.
    да по́слемъ мꙋ́жы пред̾ на́ми, и҆ да соглѧ́даютъ на́мъ зе́млю, и҆ да повѣ́дѧтъ на́мъ ѿвѣ́тъ, пꙋ́ть, и҆́мже до́йдемъ є҆ѧ̀, и҆ гра́ды, въ нѧ́же вни́демъ
    (and many more instances)

    (In KJV “We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by what way we must go up, and into what cities we shall come”)

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    “for if you have not to turn a leaf, there can be no suspense, the conspectory eye being swift to pick out proper names; and without suspense, there can be little pleasure in this world, to my mind at least” — part of a parenthetical in a letter from Robert Louis Stevenson to Henry James, dated in some collection to the winter of 1887-88. Context seems to be R.L.S. praising H.J.’s early novel _Roderick Hudson_.

    ETA: R.L.S. used the adjective at least once more: reminiscing about his younger days and his cousin Bob* he said “I am sure that he and I together have, in a brief, conspectory manner, turned over the stuff of a year’s reading in one half-hour of talk.” In the first few pages of google book hits it does not appear that any other writer in English has used “conspectory” even once.

    * I think “cousin Bob” probably =

  5. A great find!

  6. (probably not Hebrew because the Biblical verb for surveying / spying out doesn’t seem to have “look / view” connotations
    and the Greek ἐφοδευσάτωσαν doesn’t seem to be “visual” either)

  7. The only cognate I can think if that is in common (albeit jargon-ish) use in English is conspectus. In principle, it can mean any brief overview of subject matter, but I have pretty much only seen it used to describe investment options. The development of this usage was probably influenced by prospectus.

  8. In principle, it can mean any brief overview of subject matter, but I have pretty much only seen it used to describe investment options.

    Why, it has appeared no less than seven times hitherto on this very blog: Matisoff’s Conspectus of Sino-Tibetan, the conspectus of Slovene dialects on Wikipedia, Whibley’s conspectus of flora and fauna known to the ancient Greeks, Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a technical conspectus of literary criticism, Bruce Mitchell’s conspectus of Old English (said by Noetica to be the finest in existence), Marie-Lucie’s conspectus of tutored vs. untutored rules of grammar, and Stu’s call on DE for a tiny conspectus of belief.

  9. Indeed. Conspectus is familiar to me (though rare). I wouldn’t associate it at all with ‘investment options’ — indeed I’d suspect that was a typo (or marketing bollox) for prospectus.

  10. конспект is an ordinary Russian word meaning “brief summary, outline”. In my days, it was used almost exclusively for “lecture notes”. Not sure how things are now. Presumably from German Konspekt.

  11. January First-of-May says

    конспект is an ordinary Russian word meaning “brief summary, outline”. In my days, it was used almost exclusively for “lecture notes”. Not sure how things are now.

    Still the same in my own university days (~10 years ago), and from what I see online probably still the same today.

  12. OK, now that we started discussing student argot, I see a possibility to direct this thread a little sideways with an etymological mystery of a Russian student word which I apparently haven’t been discussed at the LH before.

    The word is шпаргалка, cheat-sheet / crib which is undoubtedly derived from Polish szpargał

    but beyond that, everything becomes weird. Russian wiktionary says that Polish szpargał stands for papers, possibly old useless papers, while the English wiktionary (linked above) translates it as “knick-knack” and explains it as coming from a Latin word for … a parasitic worm, and the latter, as coming from a Greek word for a baby-swaddle fabric. WTH?

  13. “Knick-knack” is an obvious mistake. Polish Wiki says “stary dokument, papier lub inna zbędna rzecz będąca w nieładzie” (old document, paper, or any other thing in a bad state). Pretty clear connection to swaddles, no?

  14. David Marjanović says

    Presumably from German

    Never heard of it. Lecture note: Mitschrift (from mitschreiben “write along”, “write down in real time”); edited lecture notes that can be given (or sold) to other people: Skriptum; condensed version of the specific pages of a book that you need at the moment: Exzerpt – I’m almost old enough to have learned the art of exzerpieren, but the photocopier saved me.

  15. Never heard of it.
    Me neither. But it’s in the Duden Wörterbuch, so it must have been used somewhere in the German speaking countries in the last 50 years or so. Other than that, to me it sounds like pre-WWII student slang (that was a time when all university students had learned Latin at school). Back in the late 1970s/early 1980s (Vorlesungs-)Skript was a synonym of Mitschrift. They were semi-illegal (violating copyright) and sold by the AStA.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Konspekt … never heard of it

    The DWDS says it was a DDR word, and does not say it was a word used only in the DDR.

    DDR schriftliche, gegliederte Inhaltsangabe, Übersicht, Verzeichnis

    Since David, ulr and I have never heard of it, I conclude that it was in fact primarily used in the DDR (except perhaps in Olden Times), and that the DWDS is trying to be “apolitical”.

    Another instance of the DWDS trying to be AC (apolitically correct) is the article on Sättigungsbeilage. The only meaning given is

    Gastronomie, regional, veraltend sättigende Beilage

    I’ve always known it as one of those words that DDR functionaries invented to make the state of the nation sound scientific rather than boring. A Sättigungsbeilage is a helping of (say) potatoes or rice that fills you up but is unappetizing. It was intended to compensate for the paucity of meat on your plate. Meat was rather expensive in the DDR.

    But the DWDS won’t come clean on this. I don’t believe for a second that Sättigungsbeilage was used in West Germany in any other but a sarky way, to make fun of bad-bunny DDR vocabulary.

    The citations give the game away:

    Auch der alte Westen kannte die Sättigungsbeilage, wenngleich sie nicht so genannt wurde. [Der Tagesspiegel, 06.04.2003]

    Es gibt ja nicht nur den Broiler und die Sättigungsbeilage. [Süddeutsche Zeitung, 20.03.2000]
    (Broiler is another only-DDR word for a roast chicken = Brathähnchen)

  17. David Marjanović says

    But the DWDS won’t come clean on this.

    Maybe that’s because this word is still in use – it used to show up daily when I paid at the Mensa Nord, a few minutes east of where the wall had been.

    (Mensa is an academic cafeteria, in this case for Humboldt university, natural-history museum and Charité hospital people. I only went there 2 or 3 times since the pandemic started; it has become pretty expensive, the menu remains at half of what it was before the pandemic, and if I don’t need to go to the museum there’s no point in making the long trip anyway.)

  18. Stu Clayton says

    it used to show up daily when I paid at the Mensa Nord, a few minutes east of where the wall had been.

    Sure, DDR/East Berlin territory. Now a part of Germany, but not of West Germany as was. Absent historical evidence to the contrary, I continue to believe that the word was invented in the DDR. It reeks of pompous Politbüro speech.

    The addition of Sättigung to the plain old Beilage adds nothing to the meaning, but lifts it into the realm of newspeak. The apotheosis of mashed potatoes !

  19. What I as a West German know is Stärkebeilage (usually potatoes, noodles or rice), which I always took it for an army word, but it is used outside of that sphere as well.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    One of those links expounds on what I would call Schwächebeilagen. Those are potatoes or noodles that you let stand in the fridge for a day or two before eating them cold. See the subsection Resistente Stärke: Der Trick mit der kalten Kartoffel. How to be healthy and disgusted.

  21. It’s not quite so bad. You don’t have to eat them cold: “Dieser Effekt bleibt sogar bestehen, wenn die Kartoffeln oder die Nudeln wieder aufgewärmt werden, da die resistente Stärke chemisch stabiler ist und trotz der Hitze ihre Form behält.”

  22. Stu Clayton says

    They mention warming up only as an alternative, and are evasive about the difference it makes. They don’t say flat out “it makes no difference”, which they could have said if it didn’t. First choice is to eat the stuff directly from the fridge.

    Life is too short to spend time listening to experts holding forth on non-critical subjects.

  23. January First-of-May says

    Absent historical evidence to the contrary, I continue to believe that the word was invented in the DDR.

    …If Konspekt is a DDR-only word in German, I wouldn’t rule out a borrowing from Russian, in (say) the Soviet occupation period. (Though then we’re back to wondering where Russian got it from.)

    The word is much older than that in Russian; the National Corpus has examples (at least in the more generic “brief summary, outline” sense) going back to the 1860s (not counting the two even earlier instances with unclear meaning), including an extended example from 1862/3 [where I italicized the instances of the word] that already appears to refer specifically to lecture notes…

    “Все, что можно допустить, и то в высших классах, — это составление конспекта уже прослушанной лекции. Но к такому составлению конспектов должно приучать детей мало-помалу, и именно запиской содержания рассказов, бывших предметом классной беседы; рассказы эти, естественно, должны быть вначале самые коротенькие. Дитя надо бы приучить открывать в рассказе логическую связь мыслей и выражать ее коротко и ясно. Это и делается в школе Фрелиха, начиная с самых младших классов: зато конспекты лекций в старших классах действительно хороши, и целый обширный курс умещается на маленькой тетрадке, превосходно напоминающей все, что было существенного в лекциях.”
    [К. Д. Ушинский. Педагогическая поездка по Швейцарии (1862-1863)]

  24. @JfoM: the word I was referring to there is Sättigungsbeilage. I have no opinion as to the origin of Konspekt.

  25. January First-of-May says

    @Stu – thanks for the clarification! It wasn’t very clear and I assumed (especially with the university setting) that you kept discussing the same word.

    For Konspekt, DWDS gives a graph that peaks in 1960 and drops to nothing by the 1990s; but their graph also cuts off at 1946, and thus says nothing about the Olden Times period. (Their other graph is useless because it finds a grand total of 0 instances in the entire corpus.)
    Google Ngrams gives a similar 20th century graph (with a peak in 1971 and leftover activity into the 2000s) plus a localized (several years) smaller peak circa 1810, and almost nothing* in between; the provided search results for the 1800s look real (in terms of looking old and actually using the right word), but I don’t know remotely enough German to tell what they’re actually saying.

    …This sounds like we could be dealing with a reborrowing, actually, which would be hilarious if true. Unfortunately Google Ngrams (or indeed Google Books) doesn’t distinguish regions.

    *) and what little is there in the first half of the 20th century could be partially spurious; a search finds a lot of references to Marx, Engels, and Lenin, plus several transliterated titles of Russian works!

  26. @Dmitry Pruss: I’m not convinced by the etymology they give for szpargał. I couldn’t find descendants of Greek σπάργανον (generally attested in the plural) in any of the familiar languages, so where did Polish get it from? Directly from Latin would be possible, but then I can barely find it in Latin either (ignoring the modern scientific term). Du Cange does give spargena meaning ‘infantia’, derived (presumably correctly) by John of Genoa from the Greek, and there is also sparga, meaning ‘pannus’ -which is quite attractive in that in can mean ‘rag’ or ‘swaddling cloth’, amongst other things. But not sure how to link this to 17th or 18th century Poland (I forget which), when the word is first attested. I was convinced I’d be able to find something in German resembling it, but apparently not…

  27. David Marjanović says

    I was convinced I’d be able to find something in German resembling it, but apparently not…

    Spargel “asparagus”.

  28. Wiktionary refers to Wielki słownik języka polskiego which says 16th century and refers to a dictionary of 16th century, which does not seem to have reached this word and…. in the index on its side szpargał is said to have frequency of 0.

    Spargel “asparagus”
    Though I don’t see how we can obtain the right meaning from it…

  29. Spargel “asparagus” -Sure, but unless in some German dialects this can also refer to something depreciated and/or szpargał can also refer to asparagus, it’s not very convincing.

  30. I checked Brückner on szpargał, but he only mentions that the word is attested from the 17th century and doesn’t provide an etymology.

  31. David Marjanović says

    something depreciated

    That does actually make sense in some places: in Berlin, there’s an asparagus season when they practically throw the stuff after you. It’s sold inside and outside the supermarkets, and in the mentioned Mensa it becomes difficult to find dishes without it.

  32. there’s an asparagus season when they practically throw the stuff after you.

    Yeah. That’s on in NZ right now. (Spring has had just the right conjunction of growing conditions.) The asparagi are the size (and woodiness) of tree trunks. The only way to get slim, edible ones is grow them yourself.

    (Or I guess the commercial growers send the choice ones to the freezing works/for export. Frozen/thawed asparagus is revoltingly slimy: why do they even bother?)

  33. I don’t remember seeing asparagus sold frozen here in Germany, but I’ve seen it sold in glass jars in some kind of brine. Never consciously tried it*); I normally only eat asparagus in season when it’s fresh from the field.
    *) I can’t exclude having been served a dish containing asparagus pieces from a jar at one point or another.

  34. Legendary (in either sense) sign in a London men’s club: “Members are kindly requested not to urinate in the umbrella stands during the asparagus season.”

  35. Re Schwächebeilagen: coincidentally, seems to imply that surprisingly and unbeknownst to us all the DDR really and truly only looked after the health of its population after all. Yeah…

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