From my latest reading, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953, I learned a wonderful Russian word. On the bottom of p. 107, the authors say that Stalin called one of his vile minions, Mikhail Ryumin, “a shibsdik (pygmy).” This word шибздик (which to an English-speaker sounds irresistibly like “sheep’s-dick”; Vasmer says it’s from бздеть [bzdet’], one of the words for ‘fart’ I wrote about here) is better translated “half-pint” or “pipsqueak”; it’s a slang term for an unusually small person. The third (1903–1910) edition of Dahl’s dictionary, revised by Baudouin de Courtenay, includes it as a dialectal term from the regions of Pskov and Tver; its first literary use seems to have been in Kuprin‘s notorious 1915 novel Yama (The Pit), with its lurid description of the life of prostitutes, about which Nina Berberova wrote in her memoirs:

This book had a stunning impression on me. No other book has had such an effect on me. I told Aleksandr Kuprin this when once, as a guest at Prince V.V. Baryatinsky’s in Paris in 1929, I was left alone with him in the living room after all the others had gone into the dining room. Kuprin was like an old Tatar in those years, in some ways reminiscent of my grandfather of Tver. With his head swaying and his hands drooping, he seemed decrepit and sleepy. He heard me out, slowly picked a cherry from a vase and asked me to take it in my mouth by the stem. The cherry hung on my chin. He moved over towards me and carefully took the cherry in his mouth, hardly touching me. When he had spat out the pit, he said:
‘This is my last phase.’
I was terribly sorry for him but said nothing.

The word has only been used a dozen times in the literature available in the Russian National Corpus, but those uses include works by Zoshchenko, Platonov, the Strugatskys, and Viktor Astafyev. My question for Russian speakers: is this word still in use?


  1. megazver says


  2. Yes.

  3. Yes, very much so. Affectionately, referring to children.

  4. Also sounds like “dipstick” which colloquially means something like “idiot”, and which I suppose is a euphemism for “dipshit”.

  5. My father used it quite often, I use it very seldom and haven’t heard it for years.

  6. Alexei K. says

    Yes it is — not so common these days, perhaps, as 20 years ago. Used pejoratively in my experience — not a nice little word at all.

  7. Yes

  8. Some say yes, others not so much. Some say affectionately, others pejoratively. I’m confused, but if we ever get another kitten I may call it Shibzdik (check out this video); after all, with cats you’re affectionate one minute, pejorative the next.

  9. Bathrobe says

    What is the great fascination with the life of prostitutes? Because they are totally beyond the pale and indescribably enticing because of that? Because they look and act just like you and me and yet are so completely different in their outlook and lifestyle?
    They are different because they deal in the most prosaic terms with what we are taught is sacred (no matter how cynically we may treat it, we still believe it is sacred). Rescuing a prostitute from this kind of heartbreaking degradation is obviously a means of reaffirming our belief in the sacred. Otherwise, I can’t see what is so fascinating about them.

  10. Spoken like a true denizen of the twenty-first century! Back in 1915, everybody didn’t yet know everything about everything, and prostitution was for good bourgeois women like Berberova a frightening mystery, spoken of in whispers, as unknown as the dark side of the moon.

  11. yes

  12. I think it’s a derivative of schizophrenia, not bzdit’ – fart. And as such I’d trace it to the Petersburg/Leningrad urban lore. Just a theory.
    schizophrenia – shizofrenia (шизофрения) – sufferer: shizophrenik (шизофреник) – contraption: shizik – extension: shibzdik, incorporating bzdit’-fart – change of shade of meaning: slightly crazy, small, shrivelled, bedragled person, shibzdik.
    A criminal argot link is also possible: you could косить под шизика (kosit’ pod shizika – pretend to be a schizo) to get a softer, hospital regime while in prison.
    But Odessites of course claim it as one of their own inventions, possible: here

  13. I’d recommend Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal as a very good portrayal of what it was like during the ‘doctors’ plot’ years in the early 1950s.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    In Gone with the Wind (written a generation after 1915 but set two generations before 1915), Mitchell writes “But Scarlett was not concerned with the ethics of the matter. Like most innocent and well-bred young women, she had a devouring curiosity about prostitutes.”

  15. Like most innocent and well-bred young women, she had a devouring curiosity about prostitutes.
    A very apt quote!
    I think it’s a derivative of schizophrenia
    I doubt the good country folk of the Pskov and Tver guberniyas had ever heard of schizophrenia in the nineteenth century (or even later). These are the people who thought konstitutsiya and revolyutsiya were princesses of the royal family.
    Thanks for the Dunmore recommendation!

  16. I just ran across this wonderful word, in the bowdlerized form ш… дикъ, in Dostoevsky’s 1875 novel Подросток [The Adolescent]; the annoying narrator asks a stupid favor of an acquaintance, who laughingly tells him he’s little and should grow up. When our hero objects that he’s old enough to get married (I think he’s 19 or 20 at this point), the acquaintance says “Ну и женись, а все таки ш… дикъ: ты еще ростешь!” [So get married, but you’re a little fart anyway; you’ll grow up yet!” What surprises me is that the word is never printed in full, even in modern editions, though it’s sometimes spelled ш( — )дик (Google Books search). Is it really that offensive, or are they just afraid to touch the sacred text of the master?

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