My referrer log has come through again (why did I stop checking it for so long?), and I’ve discovered yet another superb blog: Russian Dinosaur, “A blog mostly about Russian literature and translation issues, as retailed by a small stuffed dinosaur.” The auctorial dinosaur teaches Russian literature, and judging by the lively prose, the insights into the material, and the fact that it “can never resist an obscure, neglected author” (from its post on Mamin-Sibiriak ), its students are lucky to have it. The most recent post is “about three men in three different boats, in three different poems,” the poets being Lermontov, Tyutchev, and Baratynsky, all of whom I love and don’t dip into nearly as often as I should. The first poem, Lermontov’s Парус (“The Sail”), is one of the most famous in Russian literature, and if you’ve read any Russian poetry at all you will recognize it (“Белеет парус одинокой…”); the others were unfamiliar to me, and the connections he draws and the things he points out enhance my appreciation of all of them. A couple of philological points: the Tyutchev poem, Сон на море, includes the word сонм [sonm], which now means ‘huge throng, multitude’ but historically and etymologically means ‘assembly’; you can read a nice compact etymology in Russian here—it comes from the prefix *sъn- ‘with, together’ + *jęti ‘take, bring,’ which exists today only in compounds (e.g., взять). The Old Russian word was съньмъ (related to Czech Church Slavic sinim, Old Czech snem, and Slovak snem), and the interesting thing is that the modern nominative form сонм is generalized from the oblique cases, because by Havlík’s law, in the sequence съньмъ the second syllable is strong and the Russian form should be snem (which would now be snyom) as in Czech and Slovak.
The other point of philological interest is the title of the Baratynsky poem, Пироскаф. This sounds like it should have something to do with feasts (Russian пир), but in fact is an archaic word for ‘steamship’ and is the Russian equivalent of pyroscaphe, from Greek roots meaning ‘fire’ and ‘boat’ (compare pyromaniac and bathyscaphe). The word doesn’t seem to have caught on in English (it’s not in the first edition of the OED), but it was briefly popular in other languages in the early nineteenth century, apparently because of the ship of that name built by Jouffroy d’Abbans in 1783. In his Steamboats: A History of the Early Adventure (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), Ralph T. Ward writes of Jouffroy: “He named the boat Pyroscaphe (fire boat). In the early days of steamboating steam vessels were often called fire boats because of the ‘fire engine’ used aboard them and the fires roaring in the boilers and the clouds of smoke and burning sparks which they produced.”


  1. … Russian literature at Oxford
    For Oxford read Cambridge surely.

  2. Huh. You’re right, the location is given as Cambridge, but in this post it says: “my new job in Oxford is wonderful, but very demanding of my time.” Perhaps the dinosaur will show up to enlighten us. Meanwhile, I’ve deleted the dubious phrase from my post. (And in the only comment so far to that RD post, Ellen Rutten wrote, “Warm wishes from Amsterdam, both from Ellen and her (dinosaurfriendly) black cat Pliushkin.” Her black cat Pliushkin and my black cat Pushkin should get together sometime.)

  3. yes, dinosaur’s blog is v.good. I hope to see more when it settles in Oxford.

  4. Languagehat, thank you very much for your kind endorsement of my blog. I’m glad you enjoy it. I am particularly grateful for your detailed analysis of the word ‘piroskaf’, which did puzzle me (hard to find in any single-volume dictionaries).
    For the record, I live in Cambridge, but work in Oxford (and live there also, during term). Even us giant extinct saurians dislike commuting…

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