Pasternak on Poshlost.

I’ve long been fascinated with the Russian concept of пошлость [poshlost’] — something like ‘vulgarity,’ or, according to Nabokov, “smug philistinism” — and have posted twice about it (2007, 2011). Needless to say, I was intrigued by this paragraph from the second chapter of Doctor Zhivago (my translation; Yuri Zhivago’s uncle Nikolai is thinking about the inseparable trio of adolescents Yuri, Misha Gordon, and Tonya Gromeko):

They’re horribly eccentric and childish. The sensual realm which so agitates them they for some reason call poshlost’ and use that expression whether it fits or not. A very unfortunate choice of a word! Poshlost’, for them, is the voice of instinct, and pornographic literature, and the exploitation of women, and just about the entire physical world. They blush and turn pale when they say that word!

Они страшные чудаки и дети. Область чувственного, которая их так волнует, они почему-то называют «пошлостью» и употребляют это выражение кстати и некстати. Очень неудачный выбор слова! «Пошлость» — это у них и голос инстинкта, и порнографическая литература, и эксплуатация женщины, и чуть ли не весь мир физического. Они краснеют и бледнеют, когда произносят это слово!

You can see the changing sense of the word, which is reflected in Nabokov’s “poshlust” and Svetlana Boym’s “peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual.” I’m guessing Nabokov, a decade younger than Pasternak, grew up with the newer sense of the word.

I’ve finished the first two chapters of Zhivago, and I’m here to tell you it’s not easy reading. The very first sentence contains an expression, по залаженному, that is not in any dictionary and that (I discovered, after a half hour of poring over books and googling) Pasternak seems to have created by combining the colloquial заладить ‘keep repeating the same thing’ and лад ‘harmony, concord’ (в лад ‘in tune’), so that the legs, horses, and wind keep up the mourners’ harmony after they stop singing. And he’s very stingy with details; in the first chapter he tells you the funeral is on the eve of the Feast of the Intercession (which is October 1/14, though you’re just supposed to know that), and the fourth chapter starts by saying it’s the summer of 1903, so presumably the opening is set in September 1902. I had to correct the Wikipedia article to reflect that, because whoever wrote it thought the novel opened in 1903 (and I had to find a printed source saying it was actually 1902 — no original research!).

But it’s well worth all the effort to run across passages like this:

From the garden violet shadows stretched out into the study. The trees looked into the room as if they wanted to lay on the floor their branches weighed down by hoarfrost, like lilac rivulets of congealed stearin.

Из сада в кабинет тянулись лиловые тени. Деревья с таким видом заглядывали в комнату, словно хотели положить на пол свои ветки в тяжелом инее, похожем на сиреневые струйки застывшего стеарина.

That immediately reminded me of this stanza from his 1917 poem Зеркало [The Mirror]:

The immense garden bustles around in the hall
in the pier-glass — and doesn’t break it!
It seems as if collodion had flooded everything,
from the chest of drawers to the noise in the tree trunks.

Огромный сад тормошится в зале
В трюмо – и не бьет стекла!
Казалось бы, все коллодий залил,
С комода до шума в стволах.

And this sentence from Детство Люверс [The Childhood of Luvers]:

Hoarfrost came down from the windowframes, and the garden stood right up to the windows, and, getting tangled up in the lace curtains, came right up to the table.

Иней сошел с ее рам, и сад стал вплотную к окнам, и, запутавшись в кружевных гардинах, подступил к самому столу.

That interpenetration of nature and habitation is very Pasternakian.

Incidentally, the Hayward and Harari translation is amazingly good, considering it must have been done in a rush (it came out in 1957); the only howler I’ve found so far is at the start of Chapter 2, section 11, where he translates Петровские линии [Petrovskie linii] as “The Petrovka,” which is an entirely different (though adjacent) street.


  1. Tonya cannot be a boy…

    Why do you think Pasternak’s and Nabokov’s use of poshlost’ is different. After all, the teenagers use this word in an uncommon way.

    Also, it is funny that лиловые is translated “violet”, but сиреневые as “lilac”. And this seems like a good call!

  2. Outside of classical Russian literature and 19th-early 20th century usage, the word now essentially means vulgarity of sexual kind.


    Natasha Rostova invites hussar officers to her house. The colonel warns his officers:
    – Hussars, the mistress of the house is a sophisticated lady, so no curse words and no poshlost!
    The evening goes awkward, hussars sit at the table and remain silent utterly afraid of saying something wrong. Natasha tries to amuse guests with smalltalk:
    – Gentlemen, you know, I ordered candles for the evening, put them in the chandelier, but I still got one extra! I have no idea where to put it…
    Colonel jumps and shouts:

  3. The transition of fear of the sexual to the draw of the femininity is the central line of the development of Tonya character, but I’m not gonna furnish more spoilers. Surely tabooizing adolescents can shift meanings…. and the grownups understandably chuckle. That’s what the cited paragraph is about.

  4. I am not so sure… a few examples form Russian national corpus show that the sense banality or common cynicism was alive through the 20th century. Of course, RNC does not reflect the speech of the street, which is full of (ahem). Hussars!

  5. Tonya cannot be a boy…

    D’oh! One of those late-night sloppy errors; fixed now. Thanks!

  6. rivulets of congealed stearin

    This brought me up short. Is the word стеарин more common in Russian than it is in English? Because in English I’d want to say “rivulets of congealed tallow.” I don’t think the word “stearin” is used outside of purely scientific contexts.

  7. According to the OED, the technical meaning is the oldest in English, having been adopted from the French, where it was used by the chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. Personally I would not expect to see “stearin” in anything but a technical context. The OED does cite meanings that indicate solid fats more generally, but I am unsure whether they are current; the word’s OED entry has not been updated since 1916.

  8. What you call the “Hayward translation” is openly the Hayward and Harari translation. Please don’t erase the contributions of women.

  9. In Danish stearin is specifically a mixture of purified stearic and palmitic acid and is what the better class of candles were made from, so it’s a very common word. It may have been a protected designation at one point, to distinguish from tallow and other less clean burning stuff, but that was before my time. (Though now there are plant-based waxes for candles that give off less soot and are less prone to running, but they still get called stearinlys — and besides we have to watch our carbon emissions so a fake LED candle is better, innit?)

  10. Wodehouse likes the adjective stearine, to describe overwrought romantic literature.

  11. I’d say in modern speech and literature стеарин is mostly substituted with воск (wax) in this context, but having read so much from the Russian classics I understand it perfectly and maybe occasionally use it although a quick look at my chat history doesn’t show any hits.
    Google Ngram says

    I.e. it’s used more often in Russian, but that wasn’t always the case

  12. This brought me up short. Is the word стеарин more common in Russian than it is in English? Because in English I’d want to say “rivulets of congealed tallow.” I don’t think the word “stearin” is used outside of purely scientific contexts.

    Yeah, I wavered over that, but decided if Pasternak had wanted to use a more homely word he could have done so, so I went with “stearin.” If I were translating the book for publication, I might decide differently.

    What you call the “Hayward translation” is openly the Hayward and Harari translation. Please don’t erase the contributions of women.

    Quite right, and thanks for the reminder; I’ve fixed it now.

  13. You are right, Languagehat, that Zhivago is not easy reading! I read it many times (at least seven when I was in grad school, with analysis for papers in Russian) in the Hayward/Harari translation, which I agree is very decent, but even so found it extremely slow going when I read the whole novel in Russian years later. Beautiful passages, though, made it wholly worthwhile.

    As for the question of стеарин, I think “stearin” is the best choice, the only real choice. Stearin is pure white, like snow, making the imagery perfect. That said, when I mentioned stearin to my husband, he gave me a blank look. I wonder if I’m more familiar with it because I used to buy candles.

  14. Thanks for the confirmation of the difficulty and the support for “stearin”!

  15. That said, when I mentioned stearin to my husband, he gave me a blank look.

    Well, this, to me, goes to the heart of the translation question. Was this a word widely known to well-read Russians in Pastenak’s day? Or was it a consult-a-dictionary sort of word, as I’m entirely confident “stearin” would be to most native English speakers in 2018 unless they were chemists or candle-makers (or crossword addicts, which is how the word rang a distant bell for me).

    (This is not to say deliberately employing obscure words for effect in literary fiction is out of place–Hello, Nabokov!–only that I’m not entirely convinced that that is what’s going on here.)

  16. Was this a word widely known to well-read Russians in Pastenak’s day?

    Yes. To well-read and not well-read alike. “Stearin candle” was a common expression.

  17. Trond Engen says

    Norwegian is like Danish here. If it was common in Russian and Danish/Norwegian, we can safely attribute it to shared membership in the German logosphere.

  18. marie-lucie says

    I don’t remember seeing the word stearin in English. In French I only know la stéarine in the context of une bougie de stéarine ‘a stearin candle’, as oppose to une bougie de cire (d’abeille) ‘a (bees)wax candle’. I know that stearin is some kind of artificial wax replacement but had no idea of its composition until now.

    ‘Tallow” is le suif, something no longer used for candles. In literature of the past centuries, cheap candles are des chandelles de suif ‘tallow candles’. La chandelle is the older word, still used in Canadian French. La bougie is a 19th (I think) century innovation, from the name of the Algerian port known in French as Bougie, which was famous for its tapered candles.

  19. They blush and turn pale when they say that word!

    Sump’n wrong there. You can blush and pee in your pants, or cry out and turn pale – but you can’t blush and turn pale at the same time.

    What is meant ? Some blush, others turn pale ? Blush and then turn pale, or the other way around ? Everyone gets hot flashes ?

  20. But nobody said they were doing it at the same time. Could be one followed by the other, could be alternatives (Yura blushes while Misha turns pale).

  21. I have seen my wife ash-pale except for highly red spots on her cheeks, but not from embarrassment.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    It’s the “and” that jars. “Or” makes more sense. Each person does the one or the other.

    Nobody is blushed o’er with the pale cast of thought.

  23. ‘Tallow” is le suif, something no longer used for candles

    Indeed, though we are (notionally) talking about 1902-03 in terms of setting.

    When palm oil stearin might have routinely replaced animal fat stearin (“tallow”) in candles is unknown to me, but I’m guessing it’s a 20th century innovoation. Googling around, some variant of “stearin candles” pops up in many European languages, but I’m not sure the idea really exists in English except as a calque.

    What is meant ? Some blush, others turn pale ? Blush and then turn pale, or the other way around ? Everyone gets hot flashes ?

    I’d assumed blushed and turned pale in very rapid succession, a phenomenon I’ve seen often enough in real life for those in the throes of embarrassment.

  24. Paraffin-wax candles were developed in about 1850, but were too soft for regular use: adding stearic acid hardened them up. Before that, starting in about 1750, spermaceti wax and then rapeseed oil stearin wax were used, replacing the immemorially old use of tallow. Modern candles replace some of the palm-oil stearin with soya-oil stearin.

  25. I’d assumed blushed and turned pale in very rapid succession, a phenomenon I’ve seen often enough in real life for those in the throes of embarrassment.

    Yes, that makes sense.

  26. Stu Clayton says

    I have never experienced someone “turning pale” from embarassment, not even momentarily “in rapid succession”. Pale with anger or fear, yes.

    In contrast, someone can blush with rage, but not in fear.

    If I ever saw someone “blushing and turning pale in very rapid succession”, I would interpret that as emotional turmoil, not embarassment alone.

  27. No matter what happens in real life, “to blush and to turn pale” is a semi-fixed expression in Russian for being embarrassed. And, yes, often times when one cannot express ones hearts desire in an appropriate form, like asking the object of desire on a date or something.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    It’s a relief to have someone else say that. I had nearly remarked that “blush and turn pale” sounds like a combination of English words supposedly describing what a Dostojewski character does, a combination that makes no sense. I’m re-reading a German version of the Karamazov Brothers that manages to avoid that weirdness, for the most part.

  29. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Following up on John Cowan’s remark, I wonder if “rivulets of congealed paraffin” would be more accessible to present-day readers. I’d suppose, quite fallibly of course, that in Pasternak’s time candles were already mostly paraffin rather than mostly stearin; and that many or most readers today will recognize “paraffin” as wax that isn’t beeswax.

    On a related note, I wonder if Pasternak’s contemporaries knew in what way, if any, stearin/paraffin looks different from bleached beeswax. I don’t know myself.

  30. “To blush and turn pale” is regular idiomatic expression in Russian. Usually in first tense.

  31. I remember finding Nabokov’s discussion of “poshlost'” enticing but elusive. It seems to me that he found the most offensive American manifestation of poshlost’ in commercial art, i.e., advertisements. Particularly in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The people in those ads were white, of North European ancestry, middle-class, and above all ostentatiously wholesome. I thought that perhaps the truly poshlost’, by being obsessed with respectability, cast doubt upon how respectable they themselves really are.

    “Middlebrow” may be a similar term. Here the contested values are intellectual, more than moral. The “middlebrow” person wishes to be respectable, and is very insecure about it. There is no complacency about the middlebrow, whereas the poshlost’ are disgustingly complacent — but are they really? Or do they “protest too much”?

  32. Related, the word “livid” in English can mean both blushing and turning pale; you can say that someone is livid meaning very angry, in the sense that they have gone purple in the face with fury; or you can describe a corpse as livid, meaning pale. Or you can talk about a corpse exhibiting lividity, which means bruising, or the bruise-like post mortem lividity beloved of detective story writers, caused by blood settling to the lower part of the body after death.

  33. If I ever saw someone “blushing and turning pale in very rapid succession”, I would interpret that as emotional turmoil, not embarassment alone.

    Really, what I meant to suggest by the phrase is a “fleeting blush”–coloring and then losing color quickly. This is what the Russian phrase suggests to me, rather than blushing and then becoming somehow paler than normal.

  34. “Fleeting blush”, now that takes us back to familiar territory. Here‘s a passage on blushes in Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer.

    I wonder whether the phenomenon of blushing is intelligible only to pale-skinned peoples. As an aside, I’ve noticed that in Japanese animated films on tv (such as Conan the Detective, a rather silly one), blushing is indicated by a few vertical lines on the cheeks just below the eyes, which are opened wide. There is at most only a hint of color, more darkishness than color.

  35. the bruise-like post mortem lividity beloved of detective story writers, caused by blood settling to the lower part of the body after death

    Called “livor mortis,” though nowadays even forensics people commonly turn it into “liver mortis,” presumably because of the color (I’ve just checked this assertion via Google).

  36. @laowai: Is the word стеарин more common in Russian than it is in English? Because in English I’d want to say “rivulets of congealed tallow.”

    The answer is yes – as has been pointed out above – but note that stearine is not tallow. According to Britannica, in 1825 Michel-Eugène Chevreul…

    …obtained a patent for the preparation of stearic acid candles from fat. Chevreul’s candles, unlike the widely used tallow candles, were hard, odourless, and gave a brilliant light. Commercial stearin candles appeared in Paris in the 1830s, and they quickly became the most popular candle in France.

    It also became popular in Russia, although decades later. The title of Hans Christian Andersen’s early tale, Tællelyset, gets translated as La chandelle de suif in French and Сальная свеча in Russian. Cheap, dim, smoky, generally inferor to stearine.

    Pasternak even used the word стеарин in one of my favorite poems, On a Steamboat (1916).

  37. Yes, that’s the problem: stearin is not readily comprehensible the way стеарин is, but none of the potential substitutes mean the same thing. Hayward and Harari render it “candle wax,” which is perhaps the best replacement even though it still doesn’t mean the same thing.

  38. Concerning German, what I grew up with was Stearinkerze being used for candles made of any substance that was not natural beeswax, independent of whether the substance actually was stearine or not.

  39. David Marjanović says

    Huh. I was told the stuff was Paraffin, which later turned out to be an obsolete term for alkanes, i.e. saturated hydrocarbons that don’t react much = “have little affinity” to most of the usual reactants other than hot oxygen. Generally it’s all called “wax”. Stearin never showed up.

  40. In America, paraffin is a colorless wax made entirely from high alkanes. At a going-out-of business sale last week, I got several pounds for less than a dollar. It can be used for candles and to wax things like skis and surfboards. The stuff they sell around here is usually also food safe, so it can be used for things like sealing cans or mixing it into melted chocolate used for dipping things. (The paraffin improves the consistency and shine of the chocolate.)

    However, in British English, paraffin typically means kerosene (or a similar product like white gas). Kerosene is similar in composition, being made mostly of alkanes and cycloalkanes, although they chains are typically shorter and more branched, which is responsible for it being a liquid at room temperature. It’s higher volatility makes it somewhat poisonous, unlike heavier compounds.

    There’s also the term liquid paraffin which is sometimes used for mineral oil or petroleum jelly, which come from in between the paraffin wax and the kerosene in a distillation column.

  41. I was told the stuff was Paraffin
    For all I know, the usage of Stearin I grew up with may have been limited to my family – this is the kind of word that doesn’t come up frequently in conversations with people one doesn’t share a household with, except of course if you’re in the candle trade or a chemist or suchlike.
    I associate Paraffin predominantly with the liquid.

  42. marie-lucie says

    I had never heard of paraffin candles before now. Is paraffin used for the tiny candles used for birthday cakes?

    In my family we kept white candles made of stéarine for emergency lighting during power failures, and my mother used paraffine for sealing jars when making homemade jam. You have to heat the paraffin in a pot to liquefy it, pour it over each jar filled with hot jam, and you just wait until the whole thing cools to put away the jars of jam. Adding a lid is optional. The paraffin does not mix with the jam, and it comes off easily when you want to eat jam, months later.

    Then you save the paraffin as well as the jars for reuse the next year.

  43. All common white candles you get these days are paraffin. The only other common variety is beeswax, which is much pricier.

  44. Well, stearin is one sort of paraffin wax, so that’s been true for almost two hundred years. As JC wrote up above.

  45. Since this the closest thing to a “saturated hydrocarbons” thread, I am leaving this comment here.

    I just got an e-mail ad for homemade lard (raised on a family farm, butchered at an off-site slaughterhouse, but returned to the farm kitchen for rendering). What I found linguistically interesting about the e-mail was that it described the lard as consisting of “monosaturated” fat, and it claimed that this particular kind of fat was especially healthy.

    A quick Google search reveals that the vast majority of appearances of monosaturated seem to be errors, and what is meant is monounsaturated. There are plenty of Web sites that list dietary sources for and purported benefits of “monosaturated” fats, when they are actually describing features of monounsaturated fats. (Of course, the correct term monounsaturated is still vastly more common in such contexts) There are also a few sites that claim that a “monosaturated fat” is a technical term, meaning a fat in which each molecule has only one saturated fatty acid chain (the other two being unsaturated). However, I suspect that this whole term originated as a malapropism (like flammable or EMF) which somebody then tried to reinterpret as something meaningful.

  46. “Monosaturated” doesn’t scan as well as polyunsaturated.

  47. John Emerson says

    Jet fuel and rocket fuel are often kerosene, which doesn’t sound dynamic and futuristic in the slightest. I remember kerosene as what people burned in lamps before rural electrification.

    What I remember about paraffin is that you were supposed to melt it over boiling water, because if it got too hot it would catch fire.

  48. In my childhood (that is, pre-Wikipedia times):

    1. стеарин stearin: What candles are made from. Some say that actually this particular candle is made from paraffin, and most candles are, it is cheaper. Stearin is what they were made of before. I do not know how long before: this candle, for example, is whiter than the first candles I saw. Does it mean those were stearin? Can I still buy a stearin candle (that is a true candle)?

    Anyway, everyone calls canlde material stearin, but there are also white bricks, I don’t know what for, called paraffin. And skiis are paraffined.

    2. пошлость. Two meanings, one from books and educated speach, the other I only learned as a teenager, mostly with reference to jokes (also edicated). Even, mostly IN jokes.
    There is a verb poshlit’ and also an expression to say a poshlost’ – mostly it is what Poruchik Rzhevski does in jokes. This ambiguity is annoying.

    When I am about 20, a freind of mine noted that this poshlost’ is a good thing while that poshlost’ is a bad thing.
    That is, she loves obscene jokes, but has reservations about bad poetry.

    (with time I ceased to use the word in both senses: first I decided that as an euphemism it is really confusing. Then I found that I find the original sense self-referential. )

    3. керосиновая лампа
    Kerosene lamp (aka paraffin lamp:))
    I saw it in a village house but by the time I was a child it was uncommon in cities. Mostly I knew it from books. But it is cool: 1 books, 2 beautiful 3 just cool.

  49. We had a kerosene lamp at home, because my father liked antiques; he acquired it ca. 1980. It hung in our living room, mostly as decoration, but we lighted it a couple of times over the years for the atmosphere.

  50. Dmitry Pruss says


    not to be nitpicking, but hydrocarbons are indigestible. Although “hydrocarbon chain / moiety” may be a correct way to describe a part of a fatty acid molecule.

  51. Wodehouse likes the adjective stearine in the sense of ‘goopy’, as in romance novels.

  52. Before my family installed electricity (which required paying for a private pole to hold the stepdown transformer), the cabins (one-room variety) on our country property were lit only with kerosene lamps, generally called hurricane lamps because even high winds would not extinguish them. This would be in the 1970s, and I might still use one if I wanted to stay in a cabin overnight. Ours, to be sure, were not made of solid brass like this US$170 specimen.

  53. My hydrocarbon nostalgia is for what was called benzin, which in the US is called petroleum ether. It was very common and was used as a solvent. It is much more volatile than gasoline and maybe even acetone but smells more pleasant than either. My mother taught me to use it to trace pictures from books: you get a piece of regular paper and pour a bit of benzin on it, making it as translucent as tracing paper but keeping its integrity, so you can use a pencil on it. You put in on the book or whatever and trace away, refreshing the solvent every minute or so as needed. When you’re done, you have what looks like a drawing on an opaque sheet of paper, though it’s actually a tracing.

  54. For me, the term hurricane lamp is indelibly associated with the (semi-)cursed version of the magical lamp of long burning that appears in Dungeons & Dragons. Before lighting the lamp (which then burns without consuming any oil), the shutters have to be opened, releasing a blast of wind. After the user endures the wind, the lamp can be used freely for a whole day, but after that, the shutters magically close again, and the curse resets. This wouldn’t be particular memorable, except that it was given a full page illustration in The Book of Marvelous Magic—even though the hurricane lamp is not even described in that book, just given a a cross reference to the D&D Companion Set. The author of both The Book of Marvelous Magic and the Companion Set, Frank Mentzer, loved magical items based on puns, and he created a whole bunch of them. Besides the hurricane lamp, The Book of Marvelous Magic introduces (among other peculiarly named items) the anchor man, the (cursed) barrel of monkeys, the bell of ball, the cabinet of ministering, the cue ball, the fan club, feather dust, the gaff of gaffes, the table of contents, wax of waning, and zwieback of zymurgy (although that last one isn’t really a pun, just funny sounding; toward the end of the book’s alphabetical listing, things get pretty weird).

  55. David Marjanović says

    In German, Benzin is what you put in your car unless it’s Diesel.

  56. John Emerson says

    Per Wiki, benzene is also C6H6 (also called PhH), an elementary hydrocarbon.The name is derived from gum benzoin, a natural resin from SE Asia. It was first isolated by Faraday and is highly toxic and highly flammable. It is a component of crude oil and gasoline, the apparent granddaddy of all aromatics, and has been discovered in deep space.

    Organic chemistry has never had the glamor of classical mechanics or evolutionary biology and even the names of the great organic chemists are known. But it’s pretty interesting.

  57. John Emerson says

    Curioser and curiouser: Kekule’s discovery / description of the benzene ring, in fact, does have some glamor.

  58. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish cars run on benzin = petrol = gasoline, even though it hasn’t had benzene in it for ages, but we also have rensebenzin for removing greasy stains from clothes and tablecloths — especially stearin! (Is it purified or meant for cleaning? The compounding is ambiguous. But the main Danish supplier calls it n-heptane with a distillation interval of 80 to 110 [presumably centigrade, could be molecular weight or some obscure measure of density even] — I assume it’s not reagent quality then, but pure enough for catalytic ovens it says. 5l will set you back 20€. On the other hands the product safety sheet just says de-aromatized, hydro-desulphured light crude oil). German has Reinigungsbenzin without the ambiguity.

    In any case, it’s not something you want kids to breathe in too much of… but things were different back in the day; I used pure styrene as a solvent when assembling model airplanes, as I remember it worked much better than glue, more like welding the parts together, and my mom had a bottle of benzene (stenkulsnafta = ‘naphta of bituminous coal’) for those stubborn stains that un-aromatic benzin didn’t help with.

    This all reminds me of why I threw Velikovsky at the wall and never picked it up again — it was when I realized that he conflated hydrocarbons (from meteors) with hydrocarbons (to create manna for Israel in the desert).

  59. David Eddyshaw says

    I’d forgotten (if indeed I ever knew) that Americans make candles out of paraffin. Here in the UK we lack such a hardy frontier spirit. We have grown old and soft.

  60. David Marjanović says

    Wundbenzin is used for cleaning over here. I wonder if it was used to clean wounds in more brutal times.

    Speaking of which, benzene is horribly carcinogenic and basically banned from everything everywhere. In German it’s traditionally called Benzol even though it’s not an alcohol.

    with hydrocarbons

    …with carbohydrates.

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    stenkulsnafta = ‘naphta of bituminous coal’

    Another great French oath for the collection:

    Naphta de charbon bitumineux!

  62. @David Marjanović: Carbohydrates or carbohydrides, does the difference really matter?

    (Don’t accidentally add sodium chlorate to a hot dish.)

  63. An acetylene Baked Alaska can be very special.

  64. David Marjanović says

    Another great French oath for the collection:

    Needs moar espèce de.

  65. David Eddyshaw says

    Very true.

  66. No, Captain Haddock never uses espèce de.

  67. David Eddyshaw says

    True. But then he is obviously Norwegian.

    (His French is very good, but it’s tiny linguistic lapses like this that reveal that it’s not actually his L1.)

  68. English! After all, he is the descendant of one Sir Francis Haddock.

  69. Lars Mathiesen says

    Even though candles are (now) generally called stearinlys in Danish, the cheap ones are made from paraffin and can often burn too fuel rich and be even more sooty than the good ones. (There used to be tællelys from tallow, and vokslys from beesvax are still a thing). We should use LED fakes anyway to avoid COPD and save the climate, though I’m not sure those little button cell batteries are particularly green to produce.

    In my previous, please read carbohydrates for the second occurence of hydrocarbons. I assume the learned reader made the obvious substitution already but was too polite to point it out.

  70. Trond Engen says

    Lars: This all reminds me of why I threw Velikovsky at the wall and never picked it up again — it was when I realized that he conflated hydrocarbons (from meteors) with hydrocarbons (to create manna for Israel in the desert).

    … and later: I assume the learned reader made the obvious substitution already but was too polite to point it out.

    Nah, but I was wondering if and how to add this story:

    Back in university a couple of friends of mine spent Easter at a family cottage in Western Norway. One especially nice and sunny morning they decided put on their skis and climb the closest mountain top before breakfast. When they got there it was still nice and sunny, and they decided it was too bad to return to the cottage already. One top took another, and soon they were making the full round around the valley. But sometime after noon one of them gikk tom as we say — ran completelely out of fuel. When he started taking off his skis in the downhill runs, his companion understood the seriousness of the condition and offered him the skiwax. Negative. They took another top. The ketosian burner reclined another offer. But on their way up the next hillside he gave in and called faintly for the box of wax. They finished the round and came back to the cottage. The hungry one lay down on a dry and sunny spot while his companion filled him up with sugar straight from the package.

    Afterwards they wrote a letter to the skiwax manufacturer Swix, told the story, and asked if emergency provisions could be a new marketing area for their products. They got a reply telling that there were stories of weather trapped skiers surviving for days on skiwax, but on a general note they would recommend carbohydrates over hydrcarbons for a healthy diet.

  71. Great story!

  72. David Eddyshaw says

    he is the descendant of one Sir Francis Haddock.

    Pas du tout!

    Le chevalier François de Hadoque était un capitaine de la marine royale à qui le roi Louis XIV fit don du château de Moulinsart en 1695.*
    Commandant le vaisseau La Licorne, il le fit sauter en 1698 afin de ne pas le laisser aux mains du pirate Rackham le Rouge, qui s’en était emparé. Seul rescapé de l’explosion, il s’enfuit avec le trésor des pirates sur une île tropicale. Son langage, très semblable à celui de son descendant le capitaine Haddock, est appris par les perroquets du lieu, qui vont se transmettre les insultes fleuries typiques du capitaine de génération en génération …

    *So the insultes fleuries may be an archaism, rather than a Norwegianism. Same difference, at the end of the day.

  73. Sorry, but I don’t believe a word of that. Why would the Hadoque family change their name to Haddock while remaining French?

    The Doylist argument, of course, is that Hergé’s wife made him haddock for dinner when he was pondering the Captain, and that she told him it was a sad English fish. The French for haddock is églefin < aiglefin, anyway, a calque of Middle Dutch schelvisch, though why a haddock should be called a shellfish beats me altogether.

  74. Lars Mathiesen says

    recommend carbohydrates over hydr[o]carbons for a healthy diet — but all things in moderation, rabbit starvation is a thing too. (Though strictly speaking animal fats are not hydrocarbons).

  75. David Marjanović says


    Schellfisch m. zur Familie der Dorsche zählender Nordseefisch, mnd. schellevisch, mnl. scelvisc, nl. schelvis. Der Name wird im 16. Jh. ins Hd. übernommen. Er ist auf Grund des schilfrigen, blättrigen, gleichsam in Schichten liegenden Fleisches zu mnd. schelle, schille, mnl. scelle, scille, nl. schel, schil ‘Hülse, Schale, Schuppe’, mnd. schellen ‘schälen’ (s. ↗Schale1) gebildet.

    So, the meat is “leafy” and basically forms layers, aka shells/peels.

    Or maybe the fish is a shill for Big Pharma… oh, wrong thread.

  76. January First-of-May says

    Kerosene lamp

    There’s a hilarious scene in one of the Crocodile Gena books – the first one, I think – where a store is for some reason (forgot why) very popular, and gets sold out of everything except kerosene lamps, which no one is interested in because everyone has electricity (this is set in Moscow, IIRC).

    So the store owner puts up a sign saying something to the effect of “we have kerosene lamps, only today – two per customer!” [the original Russian was catchier: две штуки в одни руки] – at which point the leftover queue buys out the lamps as well.

  77. David Marjanović says

    в одни руки

    …wait, is the plural of “one” a pair?

  78. Trond Engen says

    ‘Hülse, Schale, Schuppe’

    Interesting because of the (Western/Northern) Norwegian name hyse f.. But it turns out that that the h- is recent, The Old Norse word is ýsa f.

    That made me curious about the etymology. Bjorvand & Lindeman don’t touch the word. Good old Falk & Torp add Fi. jukso and says PGmc. *iusion- f. from the Indo-European root *eus- “burn”, probably named for the black spots that also gave its other name kolje. This hardly stands a century later. The root is now *h2ew-s-, and the Gmc. form couldn’t have yielded Finnish -ks-.

    So what could it be? The only idea I have is the IE stem *yewh2s- “(make) broth, soup”, which I suppose could be how the shell-like pieces of meat were used. The Finnish word, if it belongs, would seem to show a laryngeal reflex. Or if it exists at all — my Finnish pocket dictionary is too small, but Wiktionary doesn’t know it either, and “jukso kala” yields nothing in Google.

  79. “jukso kala” yields nothing in Google.

    Fiskar (=fish(es)

  80. Trond Engen says

    Oh, so Sami, not Finnish. I should probably have guessed that. I can’t find it in my South Sami dictionary, but that doesn’t say much. Sami access to fjord fishing decreased (or the integration of Sami fjord dwellers into the Norwegian majority culture increased) with falling latitude.

  81. wait, is the plural of “one” a pair?

    Not really, here it means “the hands of one single customer”. The Russian plural of one is often translated as “only” in English.

  82. One is an adjective, adjectives agree with nouns. krasn-ym glaz-am to-red-s to-eye-s.

    игра в одни ворота “~one-way street”, game into one-s gate-s, ворота gates “gate”, a goal (frame) in football.
    пить в одно рыло – to drink in one snout (rude).
    And, of course
    одни штаны/очки – one-s trouser-s/glass-es:)
    Also “one” – “another”, одни – другие can be applied to eyes. Actually I can say “I looked in ones boxes, they were empty, so I looked in others boxes, they were empty too, so I looked in thirds boxes…” meaning groups of boxes. It does not sound ungrammatical, but rather somewhat silly. With hands it is normal.

  83. the (Western/Northern) Norwegian name hyse f.

    I wonder if the Finnish hyyssä is somehow related. There are not many hits for it, though, plus hyy ‘slush’ in the inessive complicates the picture.

    Kolja eli hyyssä ‘kolja aka hyyssä’

  84. And speaking of fish, whose word was vimma/vimpa originally?

    Vimmans svenska namn (med äldre form vimba), varav även det vetenskapliga namnet, tros vara ett lån från finska vimpa. Dialektalt kallas den även för strävling, särta och ådragare.

    And Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakrija ‘Etymological Dictionary of Modern Finnish’ states that it’s a Swedish loan, related to the verb vimla. Is there a Norwegian name for it?

  85. Trond Engen says

    Kolja and hyyssä look like recent borrowings. An inessive “(being) in the slush” would be a really inspired folk-etymology if the Scandinavian word meant “soupfish”.

    Norw. vimme, I learn, no doubt a nativization of the Swedish name. It’s not found in Norway, but it seems to be on a watchlist of potential invasive species, probably because it would thrive in the southeastern rivers. A closely related fish is the very common brasme “bream”.

  86. We talked about bream here.

  87. Trond Engen says

    Thanks! That saved me a decision. I noticed that ‘bream’ may have several referents and wondered if I should write a long comment about fish names being a tangle.

  88. David Marjanović says

    brasme “bream”

    Verner strikes again!

    (This way.)

  89. Trond Engen says

    Huh. But -sm- instead of -sr-. And note Swedish braxen.

  90. Russian щука ‘pike’ ~ Finnish hauki ‘id.’. – As in the case of Finnish hirsi
    above, the borrowing situation would have been posterior to the First Palatalization
    but anterior to the Common Finnic developments (i.e. Early Slavic
    *skjaukā > Early Middle Slavic *ščaukā → Early Proto-Finnic *šavki > Late
    Proto-Finnic *hauki). Moreover, the borrowing situation would have been anterior
    to the monophthongization of *au to *ō (which later raised to *ū).

  91. В реках Балтийского моря эту рыбу больше знают как вимбу или сырть, у нас же даже специалист задумывается, вспоминая, что где-то на северо-западе страны действительно есть такая – под названием рыбец. Зато при упоминании слова “рыбчик” – этого своеобразного пароля донских казаков – каждый станичник уже будет больше расположен к тебе и обязательно вспомнит времена килограммовых рыбцов.

    Рыбец на Дону редко достигает теперь такого веса из-за постоянного преследования его косяков и рыб-колхозами, и браконьерами. Можно сказать, что эта рыба для южных рек имеет почти такое же значение, что сиг – для северных. Ну, а в вяленом виде рыбец может и поспорить с сигом по жирности и вкусу.

  92. Trond Engen says

    juha: the case of Finnish hirsi above

    I can’t find any hirsi. Did you mean hyyssä, and if so, does that have a Russian etymology?

  93. No, hirsi is not related to fish, it’s another Slavic loan:

    Old Russian жьрдь ‘bar’ ~ Finnish hirsi ‘beam’. – While both of the previous
    examples have unnecessarily been considered anterior to the First Palatalization,
    here the case is the opposite. Namely, the borrowing situation should have been
    posterior to the First Palatalization but anterior to the most characteristic
    Common Finnic innovations, such as *š > *h and *ti > *si (i.e. Early Slavic
    *girdi- > Early Middle Slavic *???? irdi- → Early Proto-Finnic *širti > Late Proto-
    Finnic *hirsi).13 Contrary to the two examples above, therefore, here we would
    have a Slavic borrowing that is clearly earlier than Kiparsky’s so-called Proto-
    Russian loanword stratum. Thus, even open-minded Jalo Kalima (1952: 193)
    came to doubt this loan etymology just because at his time, no other Slavic loanwords
    of the same age were known.14
    More recently, nevertheless, Viitso (1990: 143–144) and Koivulehto (1990:
    151–153) have not only rehabilitated the Slavic loan etymology for Finnish
    hirsi, but especially Koivulehto has put forward more Slavic loanwords of the
    same age:

  94. Juha, thank you for pointing us to that interesting paper by Petri Kallio.

  95. Itkonen’s dictionary (Koltan- ja Kuolanlapin sanakirja / Wörterbuch des Kolta- und Kolalappischen) has this (for Kolan Sami):

    te%sA (Qv. t dæks) (Ρ), g. téusA, l a t . ti%šb, ·
    N te%sA, téusA, ti%sö, (G.) UQ%S, (Qv.)
    tte%s, K té%s(A) (tiks), téusA, l o k . -svšt,
    T tiksa, tiy<šg (-si), -sašt, tlksg »tiusa»,
    »hyysä», eräs turskansukuinen kala (Gadus
    æglefinus) | kohlfisch, ein mit dem
    dorsch vernwandter fisch.

    which is believed to be the source for the Russian тикшуй/пикшуй ‘пикша’ (=haddock).

  96. David Marjanović says

    Swedish braxen

    Also German Brachse, with no trace of *m.

  97. Early Contacts between Uralic and Indo-European: Linguistic and Archaeological Considerations

  98. Trond Engen says

    Juha: Itkonen’s dictionary (Koltan- ja Kuolanlapin sanakirja / Wörterbuch des Kolta- und Kolalappischen)

    Thanks. It looks like a protoform of it might rhyme with the Germanic protofrom of (h)ýsa. Intriguing.

    But the orthography of the dictionary is annoyingly arcane. I gave up on sanitizing the scanning errors. I can add the superscripts <ᴬ>, <ᵞ> and <ˤ> (or maybe it’s <ᵞˤ>), but I don’t even know how to produce consonants with macrons, vowels with caron below or a reverse a with circonflex. For another approach I’m not sure how any of them would translate into the phoneme-grapheme correspondences of the latin-based Finnic orthographies.

  99. David Marjanović says

    consonants with macrons


    vowels with caron below

    Table of diacritics in the Uralic Phonetic Alphabet.

    or a reverse a with circonflex

    Give up and weep.

  100. Stu Clayton says

    Also German Brachse, with no trace of *m.

    And yet, and yet, sez DWDS:

    # Brachse f. Brachsen m. grünlich-blau glänzender Karpfenfisch, ahd. brahsa, brehsa, brahsma f., brahsmo m. (Hs. 12. Jh.), mhd. brahsem, brasme, bresme m., mnd. brassem m. (germ. *brahsmō-), asächs. bressemo, mnd. bressem, bresem m. (germ. *brehsmō-, aus *brahsimō-). #

  101. David Marjanović says

    Ha, I’ve been tricked by a latecomer to the -m > -n shift!

    (Boden, Faden, Besenbottom, fathom, Dutch bessem. Also the endings of ihnhim.)

    germ. *brehsmō-

    Anachronistic. By the time umlaut became fashionable, even West Germanic had already spread and diversified.

  102. Of course, German ihm also corresponds to English him, due to English’s almost complete loss of cases.

  103. Trond Engen says

    David M.: Table of diacritics in the Uralic Phonetic Alphabet

    I know. But it doesn’t tell how any of those might be represented in a workable orthography.

    The reverse (or rotated) may be a “reduced form of the vowel”, or it may be an low back rounded vowel, but either way it may just be the word-final realisation of /a/. Or /o/.

    Stu: DWDS: […] Brachse f. Brachsen m.

    Swedish braxen should have alerted my German borrowing detector. It did, but not enough to make me go check.

  104. John Cowan says

    Also the endings of ihn – him

    This is not sound-change but grammatical change. During the OE period, the accusative pronouns meċ, uncit, ūsiċ; þeċ, incit, ēoƿiċ; hine, hīe ‘me, we two, we; thee, you two, you; him, her’ were systematically replaced by the datives mē, unc, ūs; þē, inc, ēow; him, hiere. Only accusative hit survives, the last relic in English of the IE rule that neuters use the same form in the nominative and the accusative.

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