Having finished Alexander Grin’s delightful Алые паруса (Scarlet sails), I’ve moved on to Olga Forsh’s 1931 novella à clef Сумасшедший корабль (The crazy ship), about life in the early 1920s in the Saint Petersburg House of Arts, a refuge during those hungry years for writers like Viktor Shklovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Grin (who wrote Scarlet Sails there), Korney Chukovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Forsh herself. (Anyone know of a source identifying the characters in the story with their real-life counterparts?) A few pages in, a woman called Taisia (after like Anatole France’s Thaïs) says all the men adore her, and adds “Мне особо идет сомовый абажур” [‘The somovy lampshade especially becomes/suits me’]. I didn’t know the word somovy, and neither did the first dictionary I checked, but my three-volume Russian-English dictionary had it: it’s the adjective for сом [som], which all my dictionaries define as “sheatfish.” That did me little good (and my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate didn’t have an entry for it), but the internet soon informed me that the sheatfish, apparently more commonly (and certainly more transparently) called the wels catfish (wels being a loan from German, where Mackensen tells me it is “ungeklärter Herkunft” [of unknown origin]), is a large freshwater catfish. In fact, the indispensable Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World’s Wildlife says:

This huge, bottom-dwelling catfish is one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. The biggest specimen on record, caught in the 19th century in the Dnieper River in southern Russia, was over 15ft (4.5 m) long, and weighed over 660lb (300kg). However, it is unlikely that any wels of a similar size exist today since they have been heavily fished in most parts of their range.

With that in mind, you will be able to appreciate this wonderful excursus from the сом entry by the incorrigibly idiosyncratic Dahl, the 19th-century lexicographer still used as a basic source for Russian readers and writers: “акула больших рек; глотает уток и гусей, нередко хватал и купальщиов, поймал за лапу плывшего медведя, который выволок его на берег, и оба были убиты”: “[The som is] the shark of large rivers; it swallows ducks and geese, and not uncommonly seizes/bites bathers; it caught by the paw a swimming bear, which pulled it out onto the shore, and they were both killed.”

The other thing I wanted to pass on from my researches is that the first hit in Google Books for сомовый is from the 1914 World Almanac and Book of Facts; the snippet on the results page is “… И СОМОВЫЙ. …” [‘and catfish-‘], but when you click through, it turns out to be a scanning error for CONGRESS.
(I wonder what the significance of having a lampshade made of catfish skin might have been?)


  1. the light would be very dim to conceal any skin blemishes, just the fabric abajurs are not dim enough maybe cz

  2. Well, it’s certainly cooler than the Century Dictionary’s desperate definition of the primary sense of horse as ‘the well-known quadruped’.
    Moral: when defining names of living organisms, dictionaries (and especially bilingual dictionaries) should give the Linnaean name whenever possible.

  3. John Emerson says

    Fish leather from scaleless fish is still used, e.g. for billfolds.

  4. John Emerson says

    “Wels” seems as though it should be from the big Wales-Wels-Wals-Gaul family.

  5. Wels is a contemporary surname in Germany.

  6. You can see products made from fish skin on this Swedish website, including a hat from catfish skin. More pictures if you click the “fishskin” button. It looks somewhat iridescent.

  7. give the Linnaean name whenever possible
    That doesn’t work either. The problem is that fishermen or farmers or greengrocers or chefs often make different distinctions than taxonomists. So, you have both cases where a single common name refers to a bunch of species that may not even be closely related and cases where a common name refers to a very specific variety or stage of development or method of production.
    And the situation only gets worse in the case of a bilingual dictionary, because the two languages may have made different choices. Not to say that you should skip the scientific name; but picking one and calling it a day is not adequate.

  8. John Emerson says

    I went through this with a local fish called a dogfish. It turns out that even in this area there are two dogfish, and one of them has two names: either a burbot / eelpout (a tasty freshwater cod) or else a bowfin (unrelated and inedible). But the most common dogfish is a salt-water shark.
    One thing to consider is that many names of fish, animals, plants, etc. are economic names — e.g. herring, which isn’t a species but a number of species used in a certain way. Around here there’s another example, which has three names for several species: whitefish / kokanee / cisco, which names several similar species which are made into smoked fish. (The three names do not designate three species; they’re regional names used in marketing and used by fishermen.)

  9. read: I’m interested that you use “abajour”. Is that from Russian derived from the French abat-jour, lampshade? The Tresor de la langue francaise informatisee gives the spelling abajour from 1676, when it was actually used for a high window to let in the light. It referred to cloth to orient the light from 1728.

  10. AJP: A serious cricket fan, I see…

  11. John Emerson says

    Chinese poetry has two creature in it called raccoon-dog and fox-badger in English translation. The raccoon dog is strictly Asian and is named Nyctereutes procyonoides, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten the Chinese name (“raccoon-dog” is a translator’s choice). The fox-badger might now be called a ferret-badger. Or not. During the Three Kingdoms / Chin era “fox-badger” was the worst thing you could call a South Chinese.

  12. John Emerson says

    Even “jade” means two minerals that are worked similarly: jadeite and nephrite.

  13. yes, Paul, i just transliterated the Russian word for lampshade, so it was abat-jour from French
    in my language it would be burkhuul, гэрлийн бүрхүүл, which is literally lampshade

  14. I know only the old cricketers.

  15. @ John Emerson:
    Is this the difference between a 狸 (tanuki) (aka 狢 mujina) and アナグマ (anaguma) in Japanese? The first is the raccoon dog, the second is the ordinary badger.
    However, the two tend to get mixed up in Japanese, which means that both often end up being translated as “badger” in English. They are both known as tricksy creatures that can change shape. (See the Wikipedia article on “Tanuki”).
    I believe 狸婆 tanuki-baba and 狸爺 tanuki-jijii are less than flattering terms in Japanese for cunning old women and men respectively.

  16. SnowLeopard says

    Nor do the taxonomists yet have everything sorted out. The November 26 issue of Nature discusses the finding that the endangered common skate, Dipturus batus, in fact consists of two different species, one of which is on the verge of extinction.
    “jade” means two minerals
    The same is true for alabaster. The stuff you use for carving these days is a form of gypsum, a softer mineral than the calcite available in ancient Egypt.

  17. Also, that a common name in English can refer to exactly one taxonomic species in the UK and in the US, but a different one in each. eg “sparrow”, “moose”.

  18. Elk, not moose.
    In the case of sparrows, “more or less one taxonomic family”, not “exactly one taxonomic species”.
    But yes.

  19. John Emerson says

    A birder’s term is “little brown birds”, or the acronym LBB. This is a category, when scoring birds they’re scrupulous about typology and as I understand are in frequent communication with the zoologists.
    Bathrobe, I’m on a backup computer without kanji. The raccoon-dog is canine but look much like a raccoon. I think that the fox-badger is the same as the ferret-badger. Comparison to a fox-badger was a grave insult.

  20. SnowLeopard says

    “Little Brown Mushrooms” or LBMs is likewise a well-established term for the thousands of species that are exasperatingly indistinguishable even to the seasoned mushroom hunter.

  21. There is a billboard along I-35 near Wyoming, Minn., with a huge photo of former president George W. Bush and this question: “Miss Me Yet?”
    Now, the push is on to find out who paid to have it put up.

    Wyoming, Minnesota? This is your work, Emerson.

  22. damentaschen says

    old cricketers is better than today

  23. Badgers and raccoon-dogs:
    (1) Raccoon-dog = Nyctereutes procyonoides = (Japanese) 狸 Tanuki = (Chinese) 狢子 hézi/háozi or 狸 .
    (2) Japanese Badger = Meles anakuma = (Japanese) アナグマ ana-guma (literally ‘hole bear’).
    (3) Chinese Ferret-badger = Melogale moschata = (Japanese) イタチアナグマ Itachi-anaguma (‘ferret badger’) or シナイタチアナグマ (Shina itachi-anaguma (‘China ferret badger’) – this is basically a translation from English = (Chinese) 鼬獾 yòu-huān – this also looks like a translation from English.
    Given that the official Chinese name of the ferret badger is a translation from English, I guess the term of abuse would be something else. Listed Chinese popular names include: 鱼鳅猫 yú-qiū-māo (fish ? cat), 白鼻狸 bái-bí-lí (‘white-nosed raccoon-dog’), 白额狸 bái-é-lí (‘white-browed raccoon-dog’), 山獾 shān-huān (‘mountain badger’), 猪仔狸 zhū-zǎi-lí (maybe zhū-zi-lí) (‘piglet raccoon-dog’), 猸子 méizi (‘crab-eating mongoose’), 白猸 bái-méi (‘white crab-eating mongoose’). Which of these is the Cantonese name is anyone’s guess 🙂
    There is something to be said for the Latin names, after all.

  24. See also this page on the %E9%BC%AC%E7%8D%BE, where I got the alternative names from. The photos and drawings that purport to be of the ferret-badger actually show three types of animal: a normal badger, two ferret-badgers, and a ferret.
    The confusion is pretty illuminating. It shows that a lot of Chinese haven’t got the faintest idea what is what.

  25. John Emerson says

    The Chinese-English dictionary I used in Taiwan in 1983, Liang’s I think, didn’t seem to differentiate fungi, bacteria, and viruses.

  26. Does the author (or one of the people in the book) actually say that “Taisia” was called so after Anatole France’s Thaïs? Thing is, Taisia is rather common Russian name (or, rather, was very common in the past) in its own right.

  27. You’re right—the author says “Жену звали, как героиню Анатоля Франса — Таисией” [The wife was named Taisia, like the Anatole France heroine]. I read too hastily. Thanks, I’ve corrected the post!

  28. Cheers everyone: Just to raise a comment about the oft-neglected Croatian language: “som” also means catfish (Siluris glanis). The Croatian Encyclopaedic Dictionary also gives a figurative meaning – foolish or stubborn person. The word is also used for a note of 1000 monetary units (eg dinars, deutschmarks…) – I suppose because a catfish is after all a big fish.
    The Dictionary gives a proto-Slavic etymology, relates it to Lithuanian shamas, and gives a possible connection to the Greek kamasen.
    Abazur [“z” should have a hachek over it] is also a Croatian word, with the native “sjenilo” as a synonym.

  29. Olga Forsh’s nicknames are deciphered here (in Russian) and here, on the inexhaustibly rich Chukovsky family web-site.
    The collection of articles about ‘Disk’, as it was known – DOm ISKusstv, also throws more light on why Alexey Tolstoy (‘the third Tolstoy’ or ‘the red count’) was surrounded by a certain stink among Russian intelligentsia. I had thought it was mainly because of Tolstoy’s portrayal of the universally revered Blok as a very unattractive character in one of his novels. But there was more: Chukovsky wrote a private letter to Tolstoy who lived in Berlin at the time. In that letter Chukovsky was complaining about the squabbles in Disk and describing some of its dwellers in uncomplimentary terms. These included a few political characteristics too. Tolstoy published this letter in Nakanune, the Russian-language newspaper in Berlin, which put Chukovsky in a very awkward situation and may have cost the people mentioned in the letter their lives (Gumilev was shot not long before that). Chuk was very upset and saw this as a ‘provocation’.

  30. John Emerson says

    In Paris Count Aleksey Tolstoy was a benefactor of the famous French bohemian Henri Murger. He paid him almost no money for almost no work, which according to Solidarity was the Communist practice too.

  31. Sashura: Thanks very much for the links, and that information certainly puts the Red Count in a very bad light.

  32. The word is also used for a note of 1000 monetary units (eg dinars, deutschmarks…)
    is that in Croatian? really fascinating, because the old Soviet ruble had the name of the currency in the fifteen languages of constituent republics – ‘bir som’ (one ruble) in several Turkic languages.

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