O Prostipoma!

I’m still bushwhacking my way through Sokolov’s Между собакой и волком (Between Dog and Wolf), with help from various books, the internet, and my pal José Vergara, and when I hit the end of chapter 10 I turned to José as my only hope, e-mailing him as follows:

After the sad story of Orina’s sexual exploitation and the tales of Fyodor/Egor/Pyotr’s suicide by hanging and Kaluga/Kostroma’s suicide by belladonna, we get Karaban’s amazing account, which ends the chapter [I quote the passage starting “Отдыхал я, повествует, под ильмами,” which you can see here]. You’re carried along by the lush, swooning prose, gobsmacked by “это Вечная Жизнь” [it was Life Everlasting], thrilled by “посетила она, посетила” [she visited us, she visited], and then you hit that last sentence, with its triumphant final chord: “и не как-нибудь, а как…” [and not just any old way, but like…] what?! WTF are простипомы? It turns out a простипома is a (pretty unattractive) fish […]. Boguslawski translates it as “pristipomas,” which exists in English, but barely (I learn from googling); it’s certainly not in the dictionaries. But never mind the details, the point is that it’s an extremely obscure word that hardly any reader of Russian can be expected to recognize; what’s it doing here as the culmination of a carefully composed and highly effective lyrical passage? Is it just остранение, to throw you out of your luxurious carriage and make you scrape your skin off on the gravelly embankment of the lexical unknown?

He responded “It’s certainly very obscure to me, and to contemporary Russian readers, but this page suggests it may have been more common closer to the book’s publication,” and that page (from yesaul’s Live Journal) is so funny and enlightening I have to share it here in my translation. The title is “О простипома моя, простипома!” [O prostipoma, my prostipoma!]:

In the previous post, I mentioned the fish prostipoma. At the end of the sixties, along with Notothenia, Macrourus, and some other exotic species, it appeared in abundance on the counters of Soviet stores. The deep-sea inhabitants of foreign countries were summoned to us to make up for the lack of meat in the country. Actually, the fish’s name is somewhat different – pristipoma. However, our people changed it in their own fashion, and on top of that, they made up a bunch of dirty jokes, taking advantage of every possibility.

As the name “pristipoma” took root in Russian everyday life, things weren’t so simple. Let’s get at the root. The fish lives in the eastern part of the Atlantic, approximately from the equator to the coast of Angola. Until the 1960s, it was not caught by Soviet sailors, so it didn’t have any Russian name of its own. But if you’re going to put it on sale you have to call it something!

The generally accepted scientific name for the fish is Pomadasys incisus. And how would you suggest it be served to a Soviet buyer — under what, so to speak, brand? “Pomadazia”? Bad. “Inkizia”? Not a bit better.

Let’s see what’s happening with Latin and English. It belongs to the order Perciformes, the Haemulidae family. Persiform? Khemulida? It won’t do. In English, the Haemulidae family is grunt […]. Well? Do we call it “grumpy-fish”? “Grunter”? “Grumbler”?! It’s all bad! Moreover, the actual fish Pomadasys incisus within the Hemulid family is called in English specifically bastard grunt. “Grunt bastard.” “Khryundel the illegitimate.” It’s not getting any easier.

Apparently Soviet marketers racked their brains and came up with the long-forgotten former Latin name of the fish, which was rejected by scientists in the 19th century, Pristipoma. It really was called that, from the Greek words πρίστης (pristis) ‘saw’ and πώμα (poma) ‘cover, shell.’ And it’s true: the fish is very prickly outside. So that’s what they called it – to the delight of the sellers and the laughter of the buyers.

It seems they soon stopped catching pristipoma. It’s not especially tasty, it’s small and bony, people weren’t accustomed to it, and the name is also … strange. And yet we could have named it something more resonant — “roncador,” say, as the Spaniards and the Portuguese call it — just look, sales would have gone completely differently! “Hey, Matveyevna, fry me up a couple of roncadors for dinner!” Now, that’s another matter entirely! But a word once spoken can’t be called back. Sorry, prostipoma, and goodbye!

So I still don’t know why it’s featured so prominently in the text, but at least it’s clear that in the early ’70s, when Sokolov was composing the novel, prostipoma was a known quantity to Soviet consumers of seafood.


  1. Neither fish nor prostitute meaning (which probably is a later development anyway) are fitting in the context. But because the whole paragraph describes a near death experience, I would suggest that prostipoma is a nonce word created from прости и помилуй — forgive and show mercy — something a dying person may say.

  2. You’re right, that’s got to be a relevant subtext, but the fish is the surface meaning.

  3. Dmitry Pruss says

    Certainly the stuff of many dirty jokes, but D.O. is right, here it must be a different kind of sound similarity.
    Interestingly I don’t remember THIS specific fish as a food object. Unlike Notothenia or Macrourus. Those were the days. No return to the fishes of yesteryear…

  4. Thank you to LH for this great post! (And to the commenters for the additional clarifications!)

  5. John Emerson says

    O Sophinisba!

  6. John Emerson says

    Properly “Oh Sophonisba!”

  7. Особыми вкусовыми качествами не блещет, мелковата, костиста, непривычна, ещё и название такое… странное. – at this point I thought (based on his style) that the author, carried away by fantasy and his fascination with archaicized langauge, is now describing hypothetical rather than real reality and “bony” is merely his own guess based on the picture. And indeed people in comments note that it was not bony.

    If someone (a Russian speaker fluent in English or an English speaker fluent in Russian) wanted to reproduce this effect in translation, that would be a task both meaningful and extremely difficut.

  8. Of course, Sokolov’s passage is more difficult:)
    “Приняли мы тогда, зажевали. Не хлещем, говорит, но лечимся, и не как-нибудь, а как […]”

    This scheme is vaguely familiar to me from the time when I drank more often than I do today*. But простипомы is unexpected.

    *I mean, Soviet apology of drinking, along the lines of Galich’s “поскольку культурный дОсуг включает здоровый сон”. Most of alcohol I ever consumed I consumed in my teenage years. Of course back then I an my собутыльники were exactly curious about drinking and hardly needed an apology, but they enthusiastically cited and played with formulas like those used by Sokolov here.

  9. Yes, and maybe it’s as simple as just “drank like a fish, but not just any fish but a pristipoma.” That’s definitely useful context!

  10. John Cowan says
  11. Denis Akhapkin says

    For the first and only time I heard the word during my trip to Odessa at the end of 90s. I heard it from a waitress in one of those famous beer houses on Deribasovskaya. Carrying five one-pint mugs in each hand she approached and thundered — Мужчины, вам бельдюгу или простипому? I was pretty sure that she is talking about prostitutes, but my friend, native odessite answered “бельдюгу” and the salted fish arrived soon.

  12. That’s great!

  13. One of comments in Yesaul’s LJ references in LH’s post:

    ‘пишу статью для нового киевского журнала о еде, хотел взять эпиграфом одесскую шутку – “Пелядь, бельдюга, простипома украсят стол любого дома” …’

  14. Peled, eelpout, bastard grunt: Put these tasty treats up front!

  15. The first two sound exressive, outside of Odessa at least.
    пилять is a variation of блядь, recognized by Google and… even wiktionary (where it also has a new for me expressive meaning, as a variation of пилить)

    бельдюга is inherently expressive (phonotactically) from the perspective of literary langauge. And it has -юга, that serves in modern Russian as colloquial augmentative (must have worked differently in the dialect that created fish names like севрюга).
    Similar to биндюг(а) that gave rise to биндюжник (as in и все биндюжники вставали, когда в пивную он входил) by the way.

  16. John Emerson says

    Eelpout capital of the world. A freshwater cod, also called burbot.


  17. “It is currently very hard to research eelpout populations because they are very good at slipping through scientist’s nets in their sampling studies”

    But European eelpout and burbot-налим are unrelated.

Speak Your Mind