Russian Neologisms.

Since I’m in the middle of reading Bengt Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky bio (and, of course, Mayakovsky’s poetry to go with it), it seemed like a good time to haul out my copy of Assya Humesky’s 1964 Majakovskij and His Neologisms, and I thought this passage from the introduction was interesting enough to share:

In the history of Russian literature certain periods are marked by intensive word-coining activity. One such literary epoch when neologisms were fashionable was the time of the so-called “Second South Slavic Influence” (Fourteenth — Fifteenth centuries). The literary men of the Slavic East, imitating their southern brethren, created neologisms for the sake of stylistic ornamentation. Word compounds (or composita) became an especially popular type of neologism under the influence of the Trnov school. Cf. Epifanij Premudrejšij: Skytat’sja po goram, goroplennym i volkoxiščnym byti;*[Footnote: Neologisms within quotations are given in roman letters, single neologisms are italicized.] nevestokrasitelju moj i pesnokrasitelju.

The ornamental style (“pletenie sloves”) appeared again in the Seventeenth century, strengthened by a new influence, that of the Baroque. Literature of this period was also rich in composita, cf. Simeon Polockij: volkoubijstvennyj, vodorodnye oblaka (i.e. “water-producing”), mjagkopostel’niki, mnogokonniki.

Two centuries later it was the Romantics of the Golden Age of Russian poetry who picked up this fascinating tradition. Thus we find in Boratynskij lelejatel’, naxod, burnopogodnyj, bratstvovat’; in Jazykov — bezdiplomnyj (cf. the recent sovietizm svobodnodiplomnik), prixvostnica (fem. of prixvosten′), delano-zanjatoj, in Tjutčev — vsedrobjaščeju strueju, dymno-legko, mglisto-lilejno, po tëmno-bryzžuščim kovram. Neologisms were scattered throughout the poems of Benediktov, Vjazemskij, and others.

Following this Golden Age, a long period of sometimes unintentional, sometimes deliberate neglect of poetic form had set in (the few “formalists” of that period were an exception rather than a rule). Only at the end of the Nineteenth century is there a renewal of interest in matters connected with literary style and form. Such writers as Remizov and the Symbolists Bal’mont, Andrej Belyj, and others interspersed their works with neologisms. Especially prominent among words coined by the Symbolists were abstract nouns (feminine gender with the suffix –ost’), plural forms of words which ordinarily are used only in the singular, and multi-rooted composite adjectives. Here, for example, are a few of Bal’mont’s neologisms: zmejnost’, voskresnost’, ručjistost’, rascvety, sgoran’ja, vozdušno-laskovyj, vozvyšenno-košmarnyj, mnogo-lavinnyj. […]

What compels authors to create new words? Sometimes it is the desire to designate a new cultural concept — such are many of Karamzin’s neologisms and those of the “philosophical poets” of the Nineteenth century. Or it may be part of a puristic fight against foreign borrowings — many of the neologisms created by Eighteenth century writers were of this nature (cf. Tred’jakovskij’s debr’ smesi for “chaos,” členovoe sostavlenie for “organization,” vsenarodnyj for “epidemic,” razvrat for “party”), as were also the neologisms created by the “archaists” at the beginning of the Nineteenth century. Finally, the cause may be of a psychological or aesthetic nature.

Incidentally, the book appeared under the imprint of Rausen Publishers, an occasional variant of Rausen Bros., a printing house run by two brothers that published a lot of Russian books between around 1949 (the earliest I’ve found) and the mid-1960s; it made a brief appearance in wider literary history when it prepared the reproductions of Doctor Zhivago for the CIA (see The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, p. 134). You can get a bunch of their publications by putting “Rausen Bros.” into the Google Books search box; they also published my nice little 1966 edition of Abram Tertz’s Mysli vrasplokh.


  1. What? A review of Russian literary tradition without Pushkin? Heresy!
    тяжело-звонкое скаканье (heavy-ringing trot)
    is probably the most famous.

    This mixture of examples is not very illuminating. Russian easily adds affixes to words and calling any word with a new standard affix “neologism” is an overreach. But “multi-rooted composite adjectives” is indeed a staple of Russian poetic embellishments.

    Also, Epifanij Premudrejšij has a most curious name. Mudryj means wise, mudrejshij is superlative = most wise, the wisest. Pre is enhancement , premudryj = very wise. Premudrejshij, than, is very-most-wise. Oof.

  2. This mixture of examples is not very illuminating.

    Yes, the book definitely could have used an editor (it’s also full of typos and minor errors like “Mississipi” and “chooligan”). I suspect Rausen Bros. was one step above self-publishing, if that; they obviously just printed the manuscript as it came from the author’s typewriter.

  3. разврат as a calque for “party”? Life to learn. As I see, it’s said to be attested in Old Slavonic … or the respective verb is?

    the biggest source of double rooted adjectives is probably the translations of Homer?

  4. Re: разврат as a calque for “party” I will believe it when I see the reference.

  5. Googled it. The only usage of the word by Trediakovsky seems pretty traditional:

    “Однак, предвидя те разврат людских умов
    И заблуждений всех и всех обманов ков,”

    That’s definitely not a “party”!

    Some of the more durable Trediakovsky’s neologisms:

    предмет (subject)
    особенность (feature)
    благодарность (gratitude)
    независимость (independence)
    сущность (essence)
    любовник (lover)
    гласность (Glasnost)

  6. January First-of-May says

    That whole “lots of Russian calques” thing reminds me of the Russian for “combination”, сочетание, which I consider to be a significant missing element in Piotr Gąsiorowski’s etymology of “four”.
    (Specifically, it is of Old Church Slavonic origin, and apparently attested as such, but it’s transparently a calque of something not unlike the origin of English “combination” – if we assume that, in Old Church Slavonic, чета also meant “pair”, which is apparently not attested in South Slavic in any other way.)

    Incidentally, the long lists of complicated Russian words in transliteration are really hard to read – I had to concentrate a bit to figure out that “Tjutčev” is Тютчев, and for the actual neologisms it’s even harder.

    (Unrelatedly, the ch*rp is “Trnov school”? Google says Trnov is a small Czech village, and the only hits for the phrase in quotes are this post, a few sites offering stuff in the Czech village, and an obvious scanning error.
    I figured it was probably Tarnovo school [Tarnovo, now Veliko Tarnovo, being a large town in Bulgaria], which is apparently a real thing. I’m guessing that whoever wrote this passage didn’t know much about Bulgarian spelling, and, having somehow encountered the Bulgarian name Търновска, translated it as if it were Russian. Still funny.)

  7. Des van 't Blad says

    Is there a preferred Englishing of Mayakovsky for those of us who — not content with lacking Latin! — have also neglected to acquaint ourselves with the Russian tongue?

  8. Incidentally, the long lists of complicated Russian words in transliteration are really hard to read

    I know! I was going to say if Rausen specialized in Russian books they’d have had Russian type available, but then I realized they just set in type whatever the author sent them, and presumably either she didn’t have a Russian typewriter or it was too much trouble to switch from one to the other so she just transliterated. Very annoying.

    Is there a preferred Englishing of Mayakovsky

    Yes, it’s Mayakovsky. That’s another annoying thing about the book — the insistence on using that alien-looking transliteration for absolutely everything. (I just struck a blow for intelligibility by changing “Shaliapin” to Chaliapin in a book I’m editing.)

  9. Des van 't Blad, Dutchman at large says

    (I kind of meant his poetical works. The transliteration of his family name is a whole nother problematic, with respect to which I am however strikingly nonchalant.)

  10. -Tarnovo

    It turns out the name means “thorny” in old Bulgarian. I am half-tempted to suggest to use Thornov for Тъ̀рново

  11. I kind of meant his poetical works.

    Oh, sorry — that should have been obvious! I don’t think so; he hasn’t been nearly as well served as Mandelstam and Akhmatova. (Which is reasonable, since he’s not as great a poet.) I recently got a bilingual edition of Про это/That’s What, but I don’t find the translation especially useful or poetic.

  12. I think, des means not Mayakovsky’s name, but his work. I don’t know. Someone thinks that he is like Lin-Manuel Miranda.

  13. I think this is called International Scholarly Transliteration. When I was in grad school in the 70s, most of the little written about “Baxtin” used this.

  14. Mayakovsky had enormous poetic talent. Unfortunately, he succumb to socialist balderdash in its official Soviet form. His later major works are simply unreadable because of that. But someone should make a good translation of “The Brooklyn Bridge”.

  15. I think, des means not Mayakovsky’s name, but his work.

    Yeah, I don’t know why that zipped over my head.

  16. Des van 't Blad, Dutchman at large says

    Word on the street is that Agent James H McGavran III recently done a 400+ page selected which sharply divides customer opinion.

    (The poets, meanwhile, that I like best aren’t always the “best” poets. I kind of have a type, and I am wondering if Mayakovsky is an example of it. Luckily there isn’t any rush.)

  17. That is quite a contrasting pair of reviews. I think I agree with Cherie Braden (not about the translation, obviously, but about the poet):

    The true accomplishment of McGavran’s translations of Mayakovsky is their keen insight into the intersection between not only the “personal Mayakovsky” and “political Mayakovsky,” but also between the “My rhymes are the flyest rhymes!” blowhard braggart and the actual skilled wordsmith. The fascinating story of Mayakovsky’s poetry is how a writer can succeed despite himself: while his high opinion of the value of poets (and himself) gives his words the aura of snake-oil wares, we are nonetheless drawn in by the moments that he actually delivers the poetic goods (in particular, see the Woodrow Wilson section of “150,000,000”). This collection captures the power of the poet/wannabe’s achievement by revealing that Mayakovsky’s unabashed, at-times-sleazy vacuum-cleaner-salesman of a persona, a persona that screams “Buyer beware!” and begs the reader to regard his words with suspicion and disbelief, is somehow not simply selling a crappy old Hoover. The marvel of this book, in my opinion, is in its revelation that a puffed-up egoist who in many ways was fooling himself about himself was also, in spite of all this, at times a great poet.

  18. @LH: Mayakovsky not as great a poet as Akhmatova? You’ve got to be kidding. He’s a wayward giant. She – in comparison – is a highly cultured, virtuosic mediocrity. Rather, Mayakovsky is difficult to translate into English because he’s so rooted in his mother tongue.

    In the latest issue of the LRB, Sophie Pinkham reviews Volodya: Selected Works:

    Volodya includes poems and prose works unfamiliar to anglophone readers and collects the work of many translators who use a variety of techniques (Edwin Morgan translates Mayakovsky into Scots: ‘Een/gawp oot/fae a sonsy bap-face’). Political poems, manifestos and lectures that are usually ignored in the West are included here.

    The bulk of her piece is about Jangfeldt’s bio – or, rather, about Lilya Brik’s hymenoplasty and sexual appetites.

  19. Mayakovsky not as great a poet as Akhmatova? You’ve got to be kidding. He’s a wayward giant. She – in comparison – is a highly cultured, virtuosic mediocrity.

    Obviously, opinions differ. I think Akhmatova wrote a lot of salon poetry that is frequently overrated, but her long poems achieve genuine greatness. Mayakovsky also achieves genuine greatness, but when he dips below it he dips much farther. I appreciate his clever use of the resources of Russian, but that’s not the same as great poetry.

  20. Des van 't Blad (usually ignored in the West) says

    There was a very cheap e-book of A backbone of selected flutes so I got that instead.

  21. Mayakovsky also achieves genuine greatness
    are you kidding, “also”? They are phenomena of incomparable magnitude, LH, and it pains me if that’s not clear to the Anglo aficionados. The “also” which should be added is a different one, that he also chose to manufacture a pile of quasi poetry drivel. In some sense, this craziness just underscores his genius, though.

  22. They are phenomena of uncomparable magnitude, LH, and it pains me if that’s not clear to the Anglo aficionados.

    Are you claiming that every Russian would agree with you? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not the case; I’ve known plenty of Russian Akhmatova fans. And if you’re going to say “Well, they clearly don’t appreciate poetry correctly because they don’t agree with me,” that’s kind of a solipsistic attitude. As I said, opinions differ, and you’re certainly entitled to yours; I can see where you’re coming from and in certain moods might agree with you (I happen to be kind of fed up with his quasi poetry drivel at the moment). But it’s not black and white.

  23. It is, of course, true that it’s much easier for English speakers to appreciate Akhmatova, but I think I got that out of my system years ago.

  24. plenty of Russian Akhmatova fans
    Count me as one of them. And perhaps Mayakovsky remains too extreme an innovator to some L1 readers; perhaps some poetry lovers need smooth flow of the meter rather than fractured, broken wild staccato of Mayakovsky’s. I can understand why some – few – people might not like him for aesthetic (rather than short-sighted political) reasons.

    But the measure of Mayakovsky’s genius isn’t subjective. His command of metaphor and imagination, of alliteration and sound, of beat and pause is just overpowering.

    Akhmatova could, occasionally, ascend to such heights, but Mayakovsky was at home there.

  25. Sure, I can agree with all that. But Mayakovsky’s only real subject was himself; emotionally, I don’t think he ever progressed beyond childhood. And while of course poetry can be made out of anything, the constant repetition of “my greatness, my great love, my great suffering” becomes wearing.

  26. But the measure of Mayakovsky’s genius isn’t subjective. His command of metaphor and imagination, of alliteration and sound, of beat and pause is just overpowering.

    “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” —Emily Dickinson

  27. I’ve recently been enjoying Edwin Morgan’s Scots translations of Mayakovsky (republished by Carcanet Press in 2016): “Wi the haill voice” – definitely give an insight, but ultimately probably more Morgan than Mayakovsky.

  28. Try Edwin Morgan for Mayakovsky into Scots – it seems to capture the essence, or maybe Herbert Marshall for standard english. Rottenberg is Ok. I don’t remember liking the Max Hayward.

    Whoever dfid the translation of “Talking to the taxman about poetry” for the inner sleeve of Billy Bragg album of the same name did a good job too, although they’ve never reprinted it in the various re-issues.

    Mayakovsky’s the reason I started learning Russian and as a result of that, got married.

    I was looking forward to getting the new 20 volume complete works edited by Bengt Jangfeldt – but there’s only 300 copies per volume getting printed, and we’re only up to volume 4. Quite a few bookshops in Russia (well, Samara anyway) haven’t heard of it and I can’t work out how to order from Nauka .

  29. there’s only 300 copies per volume getting printed

    Wow, in a country as big as Russia, where Mayakovsky was required reading for decades — how are the mighty fallen!

  30. Incidentally, I think it is not that difficult for a native English speaker (who loves poetry, of course) to understand Mayakovsky. He rhymes, which is passé (for English verse), but other than that, he is pretty modern. Russian poetry used to be, and still is, to some degree, very “smooth” — rhyme, meter, everything’s in order. Mayakovsky relies much harder on rhythm and alliteration. And he is pretty brutal with them. As for his narrow emotional range, well, you cannot have everything, I guess.

  31. Des van 't Blad (usually ignored in the West) says

    Apparently I’ve got Kneller, but I am liking it so far and of course also taking notes of the names named here. (I do fancy the Scots, I have to admit. I’ll see if I’m scheduled for a birthday this year.)

    In any case I’m already married so there is not much chance I will learn Russian any time soon.

  32. Des van 't Blad (usually ignored in the West) says

    Oh, if only I were poor
    like a millionaire!
    What’s cash for the soul? –
    a thief driven by greed.
    The gold of all californias, I swear,
    isn’t enough for the ravenous hordes of my needs

    (From Kettner’s version of “To his own beloved self the author dedicates these lines”.)

    From my SOMEWHAT disadvantaged position of near-total ignorance, this seems to match the descriptions I have seen of Mayakovsky’s style.

  33. hordes of my needs – they are hordes if his dreams or wishes. A nice verse, which doesn’t at all sound as an egotistical manifesto, even though it’s titled so, in jest

  34. I’m intrigued by ‘Premudrejšij’, as I’d only ever come across him as ‘Premudryj’. My ignorance, no doubt. Faith Kitch (Wigzell) would know.

  35. And then I run across a piece of poetry so brilliant it makes me forget all my reservations:

    Я хочу быть понят моей страной,
        А не буду понят –
            что ж?!
    По родной стране
            пройду стороной,
    как проходит
            косой дождь.

    (The original end of «Домой!» [1925], which the critic/Chekist Osip Brik made him delete.)

  36. Thank you, LH! Notably, this snippet begins with the first-person pronoun too, and similarly gripes about not being understood. But isn’t it a near-universal theme of poetic inspiration? Poet’s affections, aspirations, and lack of mutuality? Where one gets from this first jolt of inspiration…
    Some of the beautiful things I get awed in Mayakovsky’s verses are landscapes. The crazy cityscape of the wet roofs in Nocturne is the best known, but there are so many.
    Two off the top of my head:

    Но там, где север тундрою вылинял,
    Где с морем ведет река торги…


    Но вот из-за леса небу в шаль
    Вползает солнца вша.
    Декабрьский рассвет, изможденный и поздний
    Встает над Москвою горячкой тифозной

  37. Oh, those are great, thanks!


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