If you’ve read much Nabokov, you’ve undoubtedly run across the Russian word poshlost’—or “poshlust,” as that incorrigible punster Vladimir Vladimirovich liked to render it. He called it “smug philistinism” and wrote an entire essay, “Philistines and Philistinism,” about it (which you can read here): “Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust.” It’s a useful and appealing word, and it’s been picked up by others, some of whom are to be found in the Wikipedia article.

But it’s more complicated than that. Poshlost’ (пошлость) is the abstract noun from the adjective poshlyi (пошлый), which has a long and winding history, nicely summarized by Michele Berdy in this column:

The original sense was something that had “come into existence,” something customary, the way of doing things. In time it came to mean something “ancient” or “usual.” When Peter the Great was cutting short beards and kaftans, what was customary (пошлый) became negative. For a while it meant “low quality” (in other words, what’s old is no good). And then it came to mean something “devoid of meaning” or “trivial”: meaningless custom observed by habit.

(In Old Russian it was пошьлъ /poshĭlŭ/, derived from the verb ‘to go’ and virtually identical with the modern verb пошел /poshol/ ‘went.’) If you read Russian, there’s a good discussion of the history by V.V. Vinogradov here.

So the Nabokovian meaning is relatively recent, probably not much older than Nabokov himself. In the mid-nineteenth century it meant ‘common, banal, trivial,’ without the implication of philistinism that became attached to it later. When Baratynsky says, in his poem Осень (1836-37), “Глас, пошлый глас, вещатель общих дум” (‘Voice, poshlyi voice, prophesier of common thoughts’), he is using the older meaning, and so are Gogol, Pushkin, and other writers of the day. I fear that the prevalence of the Nabokovian meaning in the modern mind makes it easy to misread earlier writers.

Update. See this 2011 followup.


  1. I still thank my mom for the time — I must have been about twelve — when we were in a greeting card store and I, pointing to a picture of a round-eyed white kitten sitting in a wine glass, said, “That’s cute” — only to be rebuked, rather sternly: “No, it is NOT cute. It is poshlost.”
    What a great word! I’m glad to know its history.

  2. michael farris says

    Isn’t there kind of a similar word in German?
    (no, not Kitsch)
    I can’t quite remember it though and it’s going to drive me crazy until I do.

  3. When I was in Russian class in college, I remember a classmate asked the professor what “poshlost'” meant, and, unable to think of an adequate English translation said that “poshlost'” described the entire German culture. Clearly, the professor was no fan of German culture…

  4. Michael, this very serviceable dictionary gives words that all correspond to the pre-Nabokov meaning—I’m not sure if that’s what you meant.

  5. michael farris says

    No, the word I can’t remember refers specically to a kind of mentality – that of a person who might twitter about “the bard” (meaning Shakespeare) but who would never actually read anything he wrote (and might sincerely think of garden gnomes and hummel figurines as tasteful additions to the home).
    I’m pretty sure it ends in -erei (I’m thinking of the noun form obviously) but a half hour

  6. You don’t mean Yiddish, chazerei, do you?

  7. Jack Womack in his novel “Let’s Put the Future Behind Us” about mid-nineties’ Russia (a bit fictionalized but mostly precise in spirit — a-la Victor Pelevin) uses the noun poshlaia (obviously corrupted from пошлый, пошлость) like this
    He also has a pretty good aside there contrasting Russian paronyms “быт” and “бытие”, though his overall command of Russian mat seems a bit misguided ))

  8. michael farris says

    “I’m pretty sure it ends in -erei (I’m thinking of the noun form obviously) but a half hour”
    Let’s finish that thought:
    but a half hour of searching through my only print German dictionary (German-Polish, very dated) and similar searches in google haven’t uncovered anything.
    And I’m pretty sure the Yiddish word isn’t it. I keep thinking I’ll recognize it when I see it.

  9. I think I’m thinking of the same word you are, but I can’t come up with it either. Schlamperei came to mind, but that just means ‘sloppiness.’ Great, now you’ve got me frustrated too.

  10. Spießerei?

  11. michael farris says

    I was also thinking Schlamperei too and also rejected it … arrrggghhh!!!!!

  12. I second Spießerei. If nothing else, Spießertum is what immediately leaps to mind at the mere mention of garden gnomes, and I certainly can’t think of anything closer, though I don’t think it’s a complete fit: there’s rather more emphasis on the social aspect (which is the original meaning) than on the aesthetic.

  13. John Emerson says

    This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality.
    The word I use in English encompassing all of these is “cheesy”, which is especially appropriate in cases when the cheesy stands in a place where something non-cheesy could quite easily have stood.
    “Cheesy” doesn’t have the sense of “pervasive, widespread, and old”, however. Yet. But with another couple decades of triumphant cheesiness, we will end up with an immortal, multigenerational cheesy tradition, with grandchildren perpetuating their grandparents’ originary cheese.

  14. As long as we’re on the subject of Germans and poshlost, Nabokov did considerably better by the term than “smug philistinism” in his book on Gogol:

    Gogol, in a chance story he told, expressed the immortal spirit of poshlost pervading the German nation and expressed it with all the vigor of his genius.

    The conversation around him had turned upon the subject of Germany, and after listening awhile, Gogol said, “Yes, generally speaking the average German is not too pleasant a creature, but it is impossible to imagine anything more unpleasant than a German Lothario, a German who tries to be winsome… One day in Germany I happened to run across such a gallant. The dwelling place of the maiden whom he had long been courting without success stood on the bank of some lake or other, and there she would be every evening sitting on her balcony and doing two things at once: knitting a stocking and enjoying the view. My German gallant being sick of the futility of his pursuit finally devised an unfailing means whereby to conquer the heart of his cruel Gretchen. Every evening he would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared by him for that purpose. I do not quite know what those swans were supposed to symbolize, but I do know that for several evenings on end he did nothing but float about and assume pretty postures with his birds under that precious balcony. Perhaps he fancied there was something poetically antique and mythological in such frolics, but whatever notion he had, the result proved favorable to his intentions: the lady’s heart was conquered just as he thought it would be, and soon they were happily married.”

  15. Thanks—I had meant to mention the Gogol book, but forgot!

  16. I would translate “poshlost” as “tackiness,” but that’s just me.
    If there’s anything Russian has in abundance, it’s convoluted aestheticizing sneers. For instance, compare “zhlobstvo”: a zhlob is on the same level of contemptibility as someone poshlyi, but he is mercenary rather than philistine. Since Gorky, probably, both poshlost and zhlobstvo are core attributes of “meschanstvo”–literally, “petty bourgeoisie,” but imbued with all the virulence that only a Marxist can apply to that term.

  17. Yes, meshchanstvo is one of those terms for which no translation is adequate.

  18. Throbert McGee says

    This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality.
    I think that the English word “camp(y)” might potentially cover all of these, but usually with a positive spin.

  19. (to michael farris) “schwa”rmerei”–while not exactly the meaning sought–has wandered to within spitting distance.

  20. Schwärmerei! I’m sure that’s the word I had in mind, but you’re right, it’s not the same thing: ‘enthusiasm, passion, rapture’ isn’t ‘smug philistinism,’ but it’s frequently exhibited by smug philistines when contemplating the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, and the falsely attractive, so there’s definitely a connection.

  21. I also assumed Spießerei would have been the word you had in mind. But that might really be closer to meshchanstvo. Still, here’s what I found in Wikipedia:
    “пошлость – das schwer übersetzbare russische Wort bedeutet etwa Mittelklassen-Anmaßung, Banalität oder Spießbürgertum.”
    Looking on Google, Banalität seems to be used quite often in German as a translation which doesn’t seem right to me.

  22. My Russian is very shaky, but here in Finland we have learnt to translate poshlost’ as matalamielisyys, which is literally “low-mindedness”.

  23. Maxim Afanasiev says

    > Yes, meshchanstvo is one of those terms for which no
    > translation is adequate.
    Wouldn’t the French (and also fancy English?) “petit bourgeois”/”petit
    bourgeoisie” be a good one, with both the primary meaning and the
    Marxist connotations being parallel to the Russian мещанство?

  24. Well, it’s a much more specialized term in English—I suspect that very few nonspecialist readers would have any clear idea of what “petty bourgeois” means, and my impression is that мещанство is pretty widely understood in Russian (for obvious historical reasons).

  25. Maxim Afanasiev says

    > Well, it’s a much more specialized term in English—I suspect that very
    > few nonspecialist readers would have any clear idea of what “petty
    > bourgeois” means, and my impression is that мещанство is pretty widely
    > understood in Russian (for obvious historical reasons).
    I see the problem now: one needs a word that had originally meant
    “townsfolk”, acquired the derogatory sense of the French “roturier” when
    used by a noble, and, finally, got picked up by communist state
    propaganda to mean “one with petty bourgois tastes/habits” in the derogatory
    sense that only a Marxist would fully understand… A puzzle, indeed.
    One probably needs a different Britain or USA to produce a widely used
    word like that 🙂

  26. Wasn’t “bourgeois” a fairly common derogatory epithet among American bohemian types in the 50s and 60s? Or am I imagining that? I think the term is fairly well known among educated Americans over 40, although probably less current in the younger generations.

  27. Yes, and I suppose in the ’60s it might have been a pretty good equivalent.

  28. Maxim Afanasiev says

    Something I forgot to mention: the translation of Mollière’s “Le Bourgeois gentilhomme” into Russian is entitled “Мещанин во дворянстве” — an example of an older sense of the word being still alive but becoming mostly literary and historic.

  29. And (metaphorically) here in China, the literal equivalent of petty bourgeois, xiǎozī, due to a revolt to the derogatory Marxist sense too zealously applied during the “first thirty years”, is now a positive, or mock-positive word.

  30. My wife still uses /buʒwɑ/, a distinct lexeme from bourgeois, in the insulting sense. Like meshchanskii, and unlike philistine, the degeneracy implied is moral as well as aesthetic.

  31. The stress in /buʒwɑ/ is initial, but I forgot to mark it.

  32. “Bourgeois” also had the much more straightforward meaning “boss” in North American French in the context of the fur trade in colonial times: indeed the word (with the meaning “boss”; my source says nothing about its phonetic realization) was a borrowing in the English of the “Mountain Men”, i.e. the pioneers from the United States who initially explored and settled the Rockies.

  33. Boss is itself interesting for what it implies: it was borrowed to replace standard English master because that was the word used in the colonies by slaves. Several forms for servants, including hired-man, hired-girl, and generic help, also avoid the harsh word servant, applied in British America to indentured servants, who were only one up from slaves.
    Per contra, transport displaced transportation outside North America because the latter was used for legalized exile. While transportees were sent here long before they were sent to Australia, it wasn’t as formalized and lost its stigma in the U.S. after the Revolution.

  34. Actually NGram, and associated recent book search option, clearly support what Sashura already mentioned in the 2011 thread, that пошлость has become extinct (peak use during the early XX c. Silver Age, low point reached by 1980, recent books using it are either classics or cultural studies)
    пошляк “foul-mouthed moron” lives on, however, and its recent examples are genuinely recently written.

  35. J. W. Brewer says

    The loanword behind “boss” also gives us (via Afrikaans) “bassskap” (cognate to boss-ship, I think), glossed by wiktionary as “Dominion, control, especially of white South Africans over non-whites.” Not enough to sully “boss” in the US but I wonder if “baas” is now a more loaded/taboo word in South African English than was once the case.

  36. J. W. Brewer says

    “Bassskap” was a typo for “baasskap.” Since I didn’t expect my spellchecker to know the word in its correct spelling, I ignored its protests . . .

  37. Though the British core of American employment law (now much overgrown with statute law) is still “the law of masters and servants”, urgh.

  38. Ivan the Terrible once used the term to refer to the Queen Elizabeth in one of his letters.

    He was complaining that he, the tsar, was writing to the queen about matters of the state – possible military alliance, dynastic marriages and staff like that – but, she, the queen, in her correspondence with the tsar was only interested with lowly matters of trade and profit.

    And in irritation, he called her “poshlaya devica” (mercantile merchant girl?)

    Very rude, I know, but he was called the Terrible for a reason…

  39. Yes, well, a bourgeois queen for a nation of shopkeepers.

  40. The contemporary translation of Ivan’s letter apparently skipped the word poshlyj altogether (and also mangled a few more places in the document):

    Wee had thought that you had beene ruler over your lande, and had sought honor to your self and proffitt to your Countrie, and therefore we did pretend those weightie affairs between you and us.
    But now we perceive that there be other men that doe rule, and not men but bowers [boors] and marchaunts [merchants], the wich seeke not the wealth and honnor of our majesties, but they seeke there owne proffitt of marchandize.
    And you flowe [flourish] in your maydenlike estate like a maide”

    The full text of the letter has a long list of protocol improprieties making one doubt Elizabeth’s power, and the instances where the affairs of the state were neglected in favor of trade issues by her representatives, and where merchants rather than statesmen conducted the talks. Ergo, she isn’t a legitimate ruler, just a regular (пошлая) girl, and it is the merchants who rule in her stead:

    Что преже сего не в которое время брат твой Едварт корол некоторых людей своих на имя Рыцерта послал некоторых для потреб по всему миру местом, и писал ко всем королем и царем и князем и властодержцом и местоблюстителем. А к нам ни одного слова на имя не было. И те брата твоего люди, Рыцерт с товарыщи, не ведаем которым обычаем, волею или неволею, пристали к пристанищу к морскому в нашем граде Двины (Richard Chancellor who apparently reached by chances Dvina River after being diverted by a storm, but probably was reconnoitering the Mangazea sea path in order to take over the Siberian fur trade). И мы и туто как подобает государем христьянским милостивно учинили их в чести, привели, и в своих в государских в нарядных столех их своим жалованьем упокоили…брату твоему отпустили. И от того от брату твоего приехали к нам тот же Рыцерт Рыцертов, да Рыцерт Грай (these two Richards may be a fruit of scribes’ confusion, as it was Richard Chancellor who made two more voyages). И мы и тех также пожаловали с честью отпустили. И после того приехали к нам от брата от твоего Рыцерт Рыцертов, и мы послали к брату твоему своего посланника Осифа Григорьевича Непею. А гостем брата твоего и всем аглинским людем жаловалную свою грамоту дали такову свободну, какова и нашим людем торговым не живет свободна, а чаяли есмя то, что от брата вашего и от вас великие дружбы и от всех аглинских людей службы. И в кото…пору послали есмя своего посланника, и в те поры брата твоего Едварта короля не стало, а учинилася на государстве сестра твоя Мария; и после того пошла за ишпанского короля за Филипа. И ишпанской корол Филип и сестра твоя Мария посланника нашего приняли с честью и к нам отпустили, а дела с ним никоторого не приказали (the contemporaries thought that Ambassador Nepeya’s 1557 mission was narrowly to buy weapons from Mary Tudor). А в те поры ваши аглинские гости почали многие лукавства делати над нашими гостьми и товары свои почали дорого продавати, что чего не стоит. А после того учинилося нам ведомо, что сестры твоей Марьи королевны не стало, а Филипа короля ишпанского аглинские люди с королевства сослали, а тебя учинили на королевстве (Doh, she was put on the throne by her people, but at first the Russians didn’t mind). И мы и тут твоим гостем не учинили никоторые тесноты, а велели им по первому торговати.
    А сколько грамот и приходило по ся места, – а ни у одной грамоты чтобы печат была одна! У всех грамот печати розные. И то не государским обычаем, а таким грамотам во всех государьствах не верят. У государей в государстве живет печат одна. И мы и тут вашим грамотам всем верили и по тем грамотам делали (And her royal seals looked different every time. Can one really trust it? But for a while, the Russians did) И после того прислали еси к нам своего посланника Онтона Янкина о торговых делех. И мы, чаючи того, что он у тебя в жалованье, его есмя привели х правде, да и другого твоего торгового человека Рафа Иванова для толмачства, потому что было в таком великом деле толмачити некому, и приказывали есмя с ним к тебе словом свои великие дела тайные, а от тебя хотячи любви о торговых делех. (Antony Jenkinson’s mission to secure alliance against Poland and to uphold the Muscovy Company’s monopoly). ..И мы его велели спрашивати про Онтона про Янкина, бывал ли он у тебя, и как ему от тебя к нам быти. И посланник твой Юрьи дела никоторого не сказал и нашим посланником и Онтону лаял. И мы его также велели подержати, докуды от тебя нам про Онтоновы речи ведомо будет. И после того нам учинилося ведомо, што от тебя пришел посол на Двинское пристанище Томос Ронделф, и мы к нему послали с своим жалованьем сына боярского и велели ему быти у него в приставех и честь есмя учинили ему великую. А велели есмя его спросити, ест ли с ним Онтон, и он нашему сыну боярскому не сказал ничего, а Онтон с ним не пришол, и почал говорити о мужитцких о торговых делех. И приехал к нам в наше государьство, и мы к нему посылали многожды, чтоб он с нашими бояры о том известился, ест ли с ним приказ от тебя о тех речех, что мы к тебе с Онтоном приказывали. И он уродственным обычаем не пошел. А жалобы писал на Томоса да на Рафа, да о иных о торговых делех писал, а наши государьские дела положил в безделье. И потому посол твой замешкал у нас быти; а после того прошло божье посланье – поветрее, и ему было у нас невозможно быти. И как время пришло, и божье посланье минулось поветрее, и мы ему велели свои очи видети. И он нам говорил о торговых же делех. И мы :к нему высылали боярина своего и наместника Вологотцкого князя Офонасья Ивановича Вяземского, да печатника своего Ивана Михайлова, да дьяка Ондрея Васильева, а велели есмя его спросити о том, ест ли за ним тот приказ, что есмя к тебе приказывали с Онтоном. И он сказал, что за ним тот приказ есть же. И мы потому к нему жалованье свое великое учинили, и после того у нас и наедине был. И он о тех же о мужитцких о торговых делех говорил, да и те дела нам изредка сказал же. И нам в то время поезд лучился в нашу отчину на Вологду, и мы велели твоему послу Томосу за собою не ехати. И там на Вологде высылали есмя к нему боярина своего» князя Офонасья Ивановича Вяземского, да дьяка своего Петра Григорьева и велели есмя с ним говорити как тем делом промеж нас пригоже быти. И посол твой Томос Рондолф говорил о торговом же деле и одва его уговорили, и о тех делех говорили. (Thomas Randolph’s instructions were clear, to avoid any alliance topics and just to talk trade, but it didn’t make the Czar happy and only increased the doubts about the legitimacy of the Queen’s power). И приговорили о тех делех, как тем делом пригож меж нас быти, да и грамоты пописали и печати есмя к тем грамотам привесили. А тебе было,. будет тебе любо то дело, таковые ж грамоты пописати и послов своих к нам прислати добрых людей, да и Онтона Янкина с ними было прислати ж. А Онтона мы просили для: того, что хотели есмя его о том роспросити, донес ли он те речи, которые есмя к тебе с ним приказывали, любы ли тебе те дела, и что о тех делех твой промысл. И вместе есмя с твоим послом послали своего посла Ондрея Григоровича Совина. И ныне ты к нам отпустила нашего посла, а с ним еси к нам своего посла не прислала. А наше дело зделала еси не по тому, как посол твой приговорил. А грамоту еси прислала обычную, как проежжую. А такие великие дела без крепостей не делаютца и без послов. (another unsuccessful alliance talks, another breach-of-protocol level of letters and of ambassador appointments). А ты то дело отложила на сторону, а делали с нашим послом твои бояре – все о торговых делех, а владели всем делом твои гости – серт Ульян Гарит да серт Ульян Честер. (the negotiations were limited to the lowly trade matters, and conducted at at a low level of Sir William Gerrard, merchant and royal financier and the governor of the Muscovy Company, and William Chester, merchant also involved in the African trade) (Then comes the famous passage:) И мы чаяли того, что ты на своем государьстве государыня и сама владееш и своей государьской чести смотриш и своему государству прибытка, и мы потому такие дела и хотели с тобою делати. Ажио у тебя мимо тебя люди владеют, и не токмо люди, но мужики торговые, и о наших о государских головах и о честех и о землях прибытка не смотрят, а ищут своих торговых прибытков. А ты пребывает в своем девическом чину, как есть пошлая девица. А что которой будет хотя и в нашем деле был, да нам изменил, и тому было верити не пригож (apparently the Russians also believed that their humiliation at Elisabeth’s court may have been caused by traitors taking refuge in England)И коли уж так, и мы те дела отставим на сторону. А мужики торговые, которые отставили наши государские головы и нашу государскую честь и нашим землям прибыток, а смотрят своих, торговых дел, и они посмотрят, как учнутторговати. А Московское государьство покаместо без аглинских товаров не скудно было. А грамоту б еси которую есмя к тебе послали о торговом деле прислали к нам. Хотя к нам тое грамоты и не пришлеш, и нам по той грамоте не велети делати ничего. Да и все наши грамоты, которые есмя давали о торговых делех, по сей день не в грамоты.
    Писана в нашем государстве града Москвы лета от созданья, миру 7079 октября в 24

  41. -А Московское государьство покаместо без аглинских товаров не скудно было.

    I love the sarcasm!

  42. -серт Ульян

    Work of 16th century Russian etymologists.

    Actually, Russian name Ulyan comes from Latin Julianus (from clan of Julius) and has no relation with English William (from Germanic Wilhelm)

  43. -А Московское государьство покаместо без аглинских товаров не скудно было.

    I love the sarcasm!
    Yes. And it’s funny and depressing at the same time that this, over 400 years later, Russia and the West are at a similar low point again…

  44. Another funny quote, this time about Russia’s relations with Mongolia

    “Алтын-царя орды кочевые – люди воинские, а прибыли от них нашим государствам никакие нет и впредь не чаяти”

  45. GT doesn’t know what to make of that Moscow quotation:

    “And meanwhile, without Moscow gosudarstvo aglinskih goods was not meager.”

    Real translation, please?

  46. “А Московское государьство покаместо без аглинских товаров не скудно было” is literally ‘And/but the Muscovite state up to this point has not been poor/frugal without (i.e., for lack of) English goods’; in other words, “So far we’ve somehow managed to get along perfectly well without trading with you people.” I love the old forms аглинский, аглицкий, etc. (stressed on the first syllable) for ‘English’; the modern английский (stressed on the second syllable), which came into use at the end of the 18th century, sounds so prissy by comparison.

  47. Thanks.

  48. Russian Primary Chronicle uses Аньглѧне (angliane) and says that they are one of tribes of the Variags (Norsemen) just like the original Rus of Rurik and his host.

    PS. Also it mentions a country of Vritania infamous for orgies and group sex…. I don’t know where Nestor got this information.

  49. -“Алтын-царя орды кочевые – люди воинские, а прибыли от них нашим государствам никакие нет и впредь не чаяти”

    And this means “nomadic hordes of Altyn-khan are warlike people and there is no profit for our state in dealing with them and none is likely in the future”

    Pretty smart observation which was true when it was made (circa 1620) and especially in 20th century when Soviet Union spent billions of roubles in Mongolia for no observable benefit.

  50. “So far we’ve somehow managed to get along perfectly well without trading with you”

    The important part of the historic background which hasn’t been mentioned is the Muscovy Company’s demands to exclude other European nations (such as the Dutch) from the trade. In the end the Muscovy Company privileges have never been fully rescinded (as the letter threatens), but it lost one privilege here, another there. Anthony Jenkinson did map Mangazeya Route in crude detail, but it wasn’t until the first Romanov dynasty czar, some 50 years later, when Russia banned North-East Passage travel for fear of England completely taking over the fur trade.

  51. One of my favorite Ivan the Terrible quotes:

    «А что… скорбить о кроворазлитие, что учинилось у францовского короля в его королевстве, несколько тысяч и до сущих младенцев избито, и о том крестьянским государем пригоже скорбети, что такое безчеловечество францовский король над толиким народом учинил и кровь толикую без ума пролил»

    “I am so saddened to hear about bloodshed which the king of France unleashed in his kingdom. Several thousand people, including even little children, have been slaughtered! All Christian monarchs should mourn that the king of France committed such inhumanity against so many people and shed so much blood senselessly”

  52. Talk about your pot and kettle!

  53. Most of the monarchs back then were war criminals (queen Elizabeth is no exception. Ask the Irish).

    Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II was among few relatively decent ones. He managed to spend his rule without committing any large scale massacres and generally tried to keep peace in Europe. It was he who wrote to tsar Ivan complaining about persecution of Huguenots in France (even though he was Catholic himself). He also attempted to moderate Spanish reign of terror in the Netherlands and asked tsar Ivan to grant autonomy to Russian occupied Livonia.

  54. David Marjanović says

    PS. Also it mentions a country of Vritania infamous for orgies and group sex…. I don’t know where Nestor got this information.


  55. I found the source. The quote about Vritania and its sinful inhabitants is borrowed by Primary Chronicle from Byzantine chronicle of George Hamartolos (George the Monk or George the Sinner).

    Now I have to ask where George Hamartolos got this idea…

  56. By the way, Russian Primary Chronicle has very favourable account of China and the Chinese (again, from George Hamartolos Chronicle)

    Ибо комуждо языку овѣмь законъ исписанъ есть, другымъ же обычая, зане безаконнымъ отечьствиемь мнится. От нихъ же пѣрьвое сирии, живущии на конѣць земля, законъ имуть отець своих и обычая: не любодѣяти, ни прѣлюбодѣяти, ни красти, ни клеветати, ли убити, ли зло дѣяти всема отинудь.

    Each nation has its written laws or customs which the illiterate people follow as a tradition of their forefathers. First, should be mentioned the Serii (Latin for Chinese) who live on the other end of the world, their law and customs are: no fornicatation, no adultery, no thievery, no slander, no murder and no evil to anybody.

  57. And the quote about Vritania

    Въ Вритании же мнози мужи съ единою женою спять, тако же и многыя жены съ единымъ мужемъ похотьствують и безаконьная законъ отець творять независтьно и невъздѣржанно.

    In Vritania, many men have sex with the same woman and also many women engage in lust with a single man and sin according to customs of their forefathers without any restraint or blame.

  58. David Marjanović says


  59. Richard l Ford III says

    Poshlost is as undefined in Russian as it is in English. Though it has limits, another word, mimicry, begins to describe the disease, though it’s prevalence in nature makes it hard to detect its seamless transition from the harmless to the evil.

    How can anyone describe the bizarre funk of an idea which begins as redeeming and ends up being used to alienate, diminish and ultimately kill our fellow human beings? Is it social to call someone antisocial? Is it loving to flaunt our love in the face of people who can’t fall in love? Turn a mirror onto another mirror and look at that hallway of endless dimensions; you’re beginning to see how nightmarishly complicated our ridiculous modern world can be.

    I call it fluff. Give me the red blooded mercenary. Give me Stalin over Marylin Monroe any day.

    If you read my name and see redeeming qualities in my opinion you’re poshlost, and I’m poshlost for even knowing it.

    The earth needs to be turned. Custom is the word for people who form circles around isolated individuals and kill them.


  60. Deep, man!

  61. “Petty bourgeois” is close to poshlost, but not quite there… perhaps “suburban” might work, at least in BrE?

  62. Richard l Ford III says

    I thought you made a good point when you connected poshlost with custom; not a lot of people see that.

    There’s a disgusting word in German for people who get a sick pleasure from watching other people fail, shadenfraude however it’s spelled. However instead of making us think about it the word chalks it up to mystery. Like there’s some parts of our minds which can’t be explored. The most dangerous people I’ve met were the people who pretend to not know what you’re talking about when you point out the weak little hidden incisors in their pitying smile.

    Expose a saints poshlost; he will laugh and embrace you. Expose a phillistines poshlost, watch him brush you off and walk away with an indignant sneer, and if you really nailed him he’s going to turn into a violent maniac.

    This is no mystery to me. Strong people push the frontier and make their own society; the spastic little jerk offs are in the city, spooked by the super unknown (Chris Cornell) and perfectly content with grooming themselves into resembling their dead ancestors.

    The real trouble will come when there is no more frontier, which is never.

  63. Trond Engen says

    a sick pleasure from watching other people fail, shadenfraude however it’s spelled

    A healthy pleasure, if ever there was one.

  64. David Marjanović says

    Schadenfreude; Schaden meaning “damage”, Freude “joy”.

    Fun fact: while German has a noun and no verb for that, English has a verb – gloat!

    And no, I don’t find it healthy. Easy for me to say, though – I lack it to an unusually large extent. 😐

  65. Richard l Ford III says

    The only option for me is to leave. I notice that when people use phrases like “socially aware” or Roman holdovers like “gravitas” all they’re really doing is hanging this deadly aspect about themselves. I won’t pretend that anyone can contend with that. I’m not immune to the thing that’s driving people insane and turning states into things that stream blood “like water off a gooses back” (Nabokov). I’ve studied it my whole life and the only light I’ve seen, the most solid and promising social theory has come from Rene Girard

    Poshlost has no real handle because it comes in shades; the only truly “non poshlost”person would be a man born on an island. It seems to be used to describe how much or how little taste a person has.

    Negation will only take a person so far. Eventually he needs to go his own way, make his exit, and begin building things which common people cannot see. That way you’re one step ahead of the rabble.

    I admit I have a touch of shadenfreude (however it’s spelled) myself. The fact that we helped the Russians grind that nation of hysterical “shop keepers” into dust. So ended that death cult 🙂

  66. Russians calqued Schadenfreude as zloradstvo “evil pleasure”.

    So why English borrowed the word from German even though its exact equivalent was there all along?

  67. Richard l Ford III says

    It must of rode in on Freud’s hairy back…I think he mentions it in his demonstration of logical acrobatics called “the interpretation of dreams”. I know it would be impossible to find where German culture ends and English/American culture begins, if I were to paint it in broad strokes. So maybe we hid our own sadistic degeneration by claiming it to be a German thing. It is of course a universal attribute (of mimetically frustrated people in a society, according to Rene Girard) I’m generalizing- poshlost! Nabokov lead us to deeper waters please.

    Get those invading angles out of my English. WE are different…insert Russian word for sarcasm.

    My nation right now is just about as prone to hysteria as nazi Germany or Russia during Stalin’s purges; you’ve got a point.

  68. Modern Hebrew, normally able and willing to calque foreign expressions, happened to have a ready expression for Schadenfreude: שִׂמְחָה לְאֵיד simxa le’eid ‘joy at a calamity’, based on Proverbs 17:5, “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker: and he that is glad at calamities shall not be unpunished.” (KJV).

    Luther’s 1545 Bible reads, “Wer des dürfftigen spottet / Der hönet desselben Schepffer / Vnd wer sich seins vnfals frewet / wird nicht vngestrafft bleiben.” Since it uses Unfall and not Schaden, it doesn’t seem to be a parallel source for the concept. (The 1912 edition uses Unglück.)

  69. Richard l Ford III says

    Meh. Worth a shot. There’s no solution.

    Gogol would keep it light and humorous. I don’t think these things can be said point blank.

    …“Lack of spirituality”

  70. Richard l Ford III says

    How about “Mirth”. Gloat comes pretty close but I think gloating is used more often to describe someone’s victory over a rival. Schadenfreud (petty evil) would be describing a nice little self emasculating feeling that a nincompoop gets when he watches a total stranger bite the dust.

    Obviously it’s ranked by the heaviness of the injury. Watching a guy catch a soccer ball with his face is funny in any language- but here’s the important part. If the person was overly shamed or embarrassed I wouldn’t laugh.

  71. Richard l Ford III says

    I know the solution. Words like colors do not exist by themselves. Intelligent languages are figurative meaning the context of the situation is more important than stock definitions. So in a way the entire thread is wrong. Mauhahaha (mirth)

  72. David Marjanović says

    Watching a guy catch a soccer ball with his face is funny in any language-

    I got one on my chin once. Really hurt on the chin and in the jaw joints. :-S

    Unfall nowadays means “accident” as in “car accident”, so it’s too specific for Proverbs 17:5. Allegedly it’s reanalyzed from Umfall, which supposedly designated the falling-over of a coach; I don’t know if it’s actually attested. (Fall does have all the meanings of “case”, too.) Unglück is “bad luck, misery”.

  73. English has a noun exactly equivalent to “schadenfreude”, “epicaricacy”. Known, though exceedingly rare, since the 1600s.

  74. As I wrote elsewhere:

    And “epicaricacy” is not a word by any meaningful definition, unless you count “being used once in an 18th-century dictionary” as a meaningful definition. I stand by my grumpy comments in Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey: There are two separate issues here, etymological and (if you will) epistemological. A word can be a perfectly good word while having a totally screwed-up etymology (eg, television). Conversely, a word can be fine etymologically but not exist as a genuine English word (logoclopy could mean ‘plagiarism,’ but doesn’t). This [epicaricacy] has a bad etymology and is also not a word: nobody uses it.

  75. Richard l Ford III says

    English needs a word to describe how dangerous something is the second time around, with undertones that emphasize a weird combination of malice and sexual dissipation.

    Some combination of the English vulgarism “wanker”, follower and passive aggressive
    malice. Something like a wide eyed murderous idiot. The way a “criminal” would call someone a coward comes pretty close in my own culture, a country with five percent of the worlds citizens but twenty five percent of the worlds prison population.

    We definitely will be totally insane and hysterical until English develops an equivalent for poshlost.

    I’m approaching my second language, Spanish, and I can’t help but notice with a little embarrassment that what I used to consider intelligent and brave is simply a way of life for people who speak figurative languages.

    It’s gotta be said; people are defined by their languages. “A countries capacity for revolution is determined by its people’s common knowledge of the scapegoat mechanism as utilized by the politician” Rene Girard. Watching trump blame the Mexicans and get so many people on his side; he pulled a fast one and we have some growing pains to go through

  76. English has a noun exactly equivalent to “schadenfreude”, “epicaricacy”. Known, though exceedingly rare, since the 1600s.

    English has an even better equivalent of the word schadenfreude. That word is schadenfreude, which is found in any decent English dictionary and appears regularly in unitalicized, unglossed print in English-language publications (40 citations in the NYT in the last year alone).

    Which is to say, it may not be an English word that everyone is familiar with, but it’s an English word that a great many educated speakers know very well, and its Ngram suggests that its usage has skyrocketed among English-speakers during the past 30 years. If it’s not quite on the “sauerkraut” or “bratwurst” level of fully assimilated borrowings, it’s getting very, very close.

  77. Exactly.

  78. Richard l Ford III says

    You would need a word that’s used in the streets, where language is born aka vulgarized.

    In a culture where scapegoating is commonly missed or simply denied, it would also have to have its sadism neatly hidden by the culture that spawned it.

    In this age of post-modern fluff and illusory decadence, the closes approximation I can come up with is “glee”.

    I still think we use the word schadenfreude because we relegate these things to our “sub conscience” so we don’t have to see ourselves in the mirror.

  79. Richard l Ford III says

    On a lighter note; I don’t think Nabokov was punning when he called poshlost ”poshlust”.
    He was trying to explain how it’s pronounced, with the first o sounding much larger than the second. By speech sounds poshlust comes closer to the Russian pronunciation.

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  80. David Marjanović says

    I bet he was trying to do both at the same time.

    (And succeeding at both, of course.)

  81. Of course he was; VV never did just one thing at a time.

  82. Richard l Ford III says

    I’ve not seen a lot of Russians play around when it comes to pronouncing their language. Where’s that deadly seriousness that has so trademarked the Russian tongue?

    Sometimes I’m reading Nabokov and I get the sense that I’m not reading true literature, not in the sense of Dostoyevsky or Mark Twain. I get the sense I’m reading a very technical demonstration of language, language no one on this planet would use when they’re telling a good story. Let’s not forget where the story was born; the oral tales our forefathers were telling around the fire.

    Why did Nabokov call Dostoyevsky a psychopath? It was envy. The fact is that a person can speak three languages by the age of five and still not get the basic reality. I know why Dostoyevsky had thinned out hair and didn’t relax until he was practically dead, the real reason he pissed away his earnings. Dostoyevsky was allergic to cannibals. Nabokovs brother withered away while Nabokov flowered.

    After “invitation to an execution” and “bend sinister” it was all down hill. The same infection that happened to Gogol after dead souls happened to Nabokov. It never happened to Dostoyevsky because he was a true Russian.

    Maybe I’m unintentionally demonstrating poshlost to a person with a little more intelligence. Perhaps; if so then I’m at least contributing a little to this blog.

    The way I see it, a person isn’t ready to make art until he’s found something to live for which is beyond death, not until he truly does not give a damn what people think of his work. A person needs faith and belief in something larger to pull that off.

  83. Richard l Ford III says

    Like I said, poshlost comes in degrees. If I were to escape my language, what language would I escape into…? I can’t sit in the corner and babble speech sounds. Only in the past we had a culture that protected those people as seers; nowadays they’re prescribed medications that nullify them into oblivion. The infection is cross cultural. Cosmopolitan was a bad thing to be in old Russia.

    A lot of you know this. A little bit of laughter and forgiveness is gonna be needed if we’re all gonna live together. The ones who make it permanent, anyone who would kill a guy for the sake of his own culture. If anyone has to be the enemy it’s the executioners. Take it easy

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