Anatoly mentions what he calls “the funniest sentence in the Russian language,” “Коза закричала нечеловеческим голосом” (‘the goat cried out in an inhuman voice’). I googled it and discovered it’s from the notebooks of Sergei Dovlatov, a wonderful writer I discovered for myself back when I was wandering the Russian shelves of the late lamented Donnell Library pulling out books at random. Dovlatov attributes the sentence to “писателя Уксусова” (‘the writer Uksusov’); this story by Mikhail Okun repeats Dovlatov’s quote but attributes it to one Ivan Muskusov, “one of the most ancient members of the Union of Writers,” whose only remembered work was the two-volume Наш великий век (Our great century/age), from which he claims the quote is taken… but “Не исключено, впрочем, что Сергей Донатович мог придумать это сам. Но не перечитывать же теперь весь Наш великий век для установления окончательной истины!” (‘It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Sergei Donatovich thought it up himself. But who’s going to reread the entirety of Our great century to determine the definitive truth?’). Since I can’t find any other trace of the existence of either Uksusov or Muskusov, I’m guessing they’re inventions of Dovlatov and Okun respectively. In any case, it certainly is a funny sentence.


  1. A.J.P. Crown says

    Isn’t that the origin of the word ‘tragedy’ in Greek?

  2. In my bucolic past, I have from time to time found myself in the company of goats, singly and in large flocks. They frequently make noises that are disarmingly human in aspect. So the sentence has a life outside the surreal.

  3. um…what’s so funny about it? the repetition of sounds? should a goat cry out in a human voice?

  4. Bill Walderman says

    uksus = vinegar
    muskus = musk
    Someone’s leg is being pulled.

  5. A.J.P. Crown says

    I have never mistaken a goat for a human and there are three goats not ten feet from me as I write. They can express themselves — for example, if they are cross or frightened .. with as much emotion and clarity as any human. They don’t all sound alike, either. Each of our goats has a totally different voice from the others.

  6. A.J.P. Crown says

    Tragedy: The word’s origin is Greek tragōidiā (Classical Greek τραγῳδία) contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = “goat song” from tragos = “goat” and aeidein = “to sing”. This dates back to a time when religion and theatre were more or less intertwined in early ritual events. Goats were traditionally sacrificed, and as a precursor, the Greek Chorus would sing a song of sacrifice– a “Goat Song”. This may also refer to the horse or goat costumes worn by actors who played the satyrs in early dramatizations of mythological stories, or a goat being presented as a prize at a song contest and in both cases the reference would have been the respect for Dionysus.

  7. I’m fond of “Внимание: лифт вниз не поднимает”.

  8. Krunuu the pastoralist is probably playing his oaten flute as we speak.

  9. A.J.P. Crown says

    Not me. You’re thinking of Goethe.

  10. there are three goats not ten feet from me as I write

    At least they’re upright. Nobody else has a leg to stand on – if you take Bill Waldeman’s comment seriously, which I am inclined to do.

  11. While I can’t claim to have goats on my roof as they do in Norway, I have indeed lived next to the creatures and they can be noisy, but the donkeys are worse, braying continually in the early morning. There is no way that Jordanian goats sound anywhere near human. Maybe this is a variation on the “New Zealand–where the men are men and the sheep are scared” theme that some Ozzies find so amusing.

  12. I think most Russians, at least those born in the 50s and 60s, attribute this sentence to the film “Osennyi Marafon” (1979) (“Autumn Marathon”).
    It’s part of a famous bit of dialogue between the heroe – Buzykin and his aunt, a mediocre translator. She gets upset that he’s marked up the text she’s working on:
    “Что, очень плохо, да? Ты же всё повычёркивал.
    — Ну, например, “Коза кричала нечеловеческим голосом.” Это я не мог оставить.
    — а как надо?
    – Просто. Коза кричала.”
    Aunt – So, really bad, huh? You’ve crossed everything out.
    Buzykin – Well, for example, ‘the goat cried out in an unhuman voice’. I couldn’t leave that.
    Aunt – Well how should it be?
    Buzykin – simple, the goat cried out.

  13. Thanks, vanya, that’s much-needed context! Film references are often lost on me.
    uksus = vinegar
    muskus = musk
    Yes, that certainly suggested, but did not prove, the names were made up. Russians often have funny-sounding family names.

  14. Ivan Uksusov (not Muksusov) is a real, forgotten Soviet writer. The name may have been a pseudonym, however. Google Books knows of a bunch of books he wrote (only in snipper/no preview mode, however; search for “inauthor:uksusov”; searching for the words from the sentence of close variants didn’t lead me to anything).
    I’ve also found a mention of the sentence together with Uksusov’s name in Iraklii Andronnikov’s memoirs about Marshak. There, Alexei Tolstoi throws an offhand remark about Uksusov, claiming this phrase is found in one of his short stories.

  15. Oops, nitpicking – but the woman in the dialogue I cited is not his aunt – it’s his colleague, a fellow translator of far inferior skill to his. But she is a “tyotya”, in the other Russian sense of being a middle-aged woman. Good movie though – probably one of the best ever made featuring a translator as the hero (yes, better than Babel).

  16. Bill Walderman says

    Well, I stand corrected. It looks like there really was a writer named or pseudonymed Ivan Uksusov.,M1
    And if there was an Uksosov, can a Muskusov be far behind?

  17. Bill Walderman says

    Correction: Uksusov.

  18. See? Life is stranger than fiction!

  19. Bill Walderman says

    After reading the excerpt from the on-line book I suspect that Muskusov is a fictionalized version of Uksusov. Uksusov’s novel was “The Twentieth Century”; Muskusov’s, “Our Great Century,” and Uksusov, like Muskusov, was one of the original members of the Soviet Writers’ Union. Maybe Uksusov was still alive when Okun was writing.

  20. Here‘s the direct link to Bill’s source, Inside the Soviet Writers’ Union by Carol Garrard, which I may have to get a copy of—after an extremely interesting (and depressing) few pages on Uksusov (who sounds like an interesting guy, and whose book was actually called Dvadtsatyi vek [‘Twentieth Century’)) it goes on to discuss Mandelstam.

  21. (Hadn’t seen Bill’s comment when I hit Post.)

  22. Bill Walderman says

    Google yields quite a number of Uksusovy in different walks of life–photographers, war heros, mathematicians. Some have “I.” as their middle initial, possibly children of the writer. In any case, his story is a harrowing one.

  23. A.J.P. Crown says

    LH: Russians often have funny-sounding family names.
    I’m telling them you said that.

  24. I’ve been wondering about Dovlatov since I saw someone reading one of his books on the Tube. Now I’ve read this post I’ll definitely have to check him out!

  25. Our guy is Ivan Ilich Uksusov (1905-1991).

  26. Bill Walderman says

    His memoir of his experiences in prison was apparently published in Literaturnaya Gazeta in 1988, but the on-line LG archives don’t seem to go back that far.

  27. Laura, you definitely should, he’s hilarious.

  28. marie-lucie says

    Funny sentences: my father was very fond of this quote:
    Ah! s’écria la comtesse en portugais, …
    And I read in an old phrasebook, obviously meant for a certain class of traveller:
    Etes-vous la reine de ce pays?

  29. I much enjoyed Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, which I read on the advice of a friend who has translated the book into Icelandic from Russian (mostly just for the enjoyment of it, I believe).

  30. I must admit I’ve never seen a film featuring a translator as the hero but I remember being quite upset when the interpreter in Saving Private Ryan turned out to be a traitor.

  31. A.J.P. Crown says

    Most middle-class heros in American films are architects. Most middle-class villains in American films are lawyers. Art imitating life.

  32. John Galt drew you into the biz, didn’t he?

  33. Or Juror #8 (Davis?), an architect doing what a lawyer ought to have.

  34. Not Galt, Roark, I think you mean. (Do most Ayn Rand characters, like the various admirers of Mrs Smiling, have names that sound like the cries of jungle animals?)

  35. The nonhuman cries of jungle animals, yes.

  36. A.J.P. Crown says

    On the other hand, Hitler wanted to be an architect, not a lawyer.

  37. A.J.P. Crown says

    And Wittgenstein tried being an architect just in order to figure out where his friend Adolf Loos was going wrong. After that, he got a real job.

  38. A.J.P. Crown says

    ( Hitler was a few days older than Wittgenstein, but for the year they were together at theK.u.k. Realschule, in Linz, Adolf was in the IIIrd class while Ludwig was in the Vth.)

  39. A.J.P. Crown says

    I believe David Marjarnovic is from Linz. I wonder if he can make Linzertorte, the oldest known tart/cake in the world?

  40. A.J.P. Crown says

    I wonder if he attended the K.u.k. Realschule?

  41. Most middle-class heros in American films are architects. Most middle-class villains in American films are lawyers. Art imitating life.
    Most people in high authority (judges, CEOs etc.) in modern American films are either black or women (or both). Art not imitating life.

  42. A.J.P. Crown says

    Obama: life imitating art? No, wait, we’re talking about current American film.

  43. michael farris says

    “The nonhuman cries of jungle animals….”
    in Portuguese.

  44. the oldest known tart/cake in the world

    Aren’t you forgetting Bible
    , Jeremy?

    Yield: 1 multitude
    (A) 1 cup of Judges 5:25, last clause
    (B) 2 cups of Jeremiah 6:20
    (C) 2 teaspoons of I Samuel 14:25, first clause
    (D) 6 of Jeremiah 17:11
    (E) 1/2 cup of Judges 4:19, first clause
    (F) 4-1/2 cups of I Kings 4:22
    (G) 2 teaspoons of Amos 4:5
    (H) 1 cup of I Samuel 30:12, second phrase
    (I) 1 cup of Nahum 3:12
    (J) II Chronicles 9:9, 2nd phrase, to taste
    Cream together A, B, and C. Beat D until frothy; add E to D, then combine with creamed mixture and beat thoroughly. Sift together the first part of F with G, then add the rest of F. Mix together with the first ingredients. Chop and flour H and I before adding. Add a generous amount of J to taste. Beat for 5 minutes.
    Bake in a shallow pan at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.

  45. A.J.P. Crown says

    Marinetti, the originator of Futurism (Italian branch), had by 1930 had twenty years to develop his ideas, Sant ‘Elia and Boccioni having died in the war. In his Manifesto of Futurist Cooking (Turin, 1930) he wrote that Italians should give up pasta, as it causes lassitude, pessimism and lack of passion. What an idiot. Next week: Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurist Gardening, BLAST away those weeds!!!

  46. A.J.P. Crown says

    That’s odd, I thought Jean-Paul lived on sauerkraut.

  47. Jamessal’s girlfriend should see that. She is interested in unusual egg recipes, although I can’t say it’s the kind of thing she usually puts in her blog.

  48. Instead of working, I got sidetracked into researching the ingredients of the Bible Cake on Maybe I will actually bake one.

  49. A.J.P. Crown says

    I couldn’t be bothered, but I would really like to know. So what are they? What are the highlights?

  50. Jamessal’s girlfriend should see that.
    Thanks, Nijma. I’ll send her the link now.

  51. David Marjanović says

    Funny sentences: my father was very fond of this quote:
    Ah! s’écria la comtesse en portugais, …

    While this one almost certainly is as funny as one might think, other such exclamations are not at all universal. Think of “oh” (or more precisely the melodramatic “O”): in Arabic it’s ya, in Tatar it’s i, and even in Serbocr…BCSM “oh God” is jao Bože.

    And I read in an old phrasebook, obviously meant for a certain class of traveller:
    Etes-vous la reine de ce pays?

    That was probably supposed to be a compliment, upon which some poor lady was supposed to blush profusely, giggle, smile at the questioner behind her fan and say “you wily little flatterer, you”.

  52. David Marjanović says

    I believe David Marja[…]novic is from Linz.


    I wonder if he can make Linzertorte

    Nope. And I don’t like jam anyway.

    I wonder if he attended the K.u.k. Realschule?

    K.u.k. means kaiserlich und königlich, referring to the double monarchy of Austria-Hungary… that puts a date on things… I was born in 1982, so… Also, it sounds like the name of a school type; I’d be surprised if it turned out there was only one such school in the whole city.

  53. A.J.P. Crown says

    How can anyone not like jam? What’s not to like? You might as well say you don’t enjoy breathing.

  54. I was born in 1982
    Good God, and here I thought you were a fellow codger.
    How can anyone not like jam?
    Er, I’m afraid I don’t, either.

  55. My God, has the double monarchy fallen? The last vestige of Rome? The 2000 year Reich? Why was I not told about this?

  56. I object to the “codger” epithet. If middle age is ten years beyond whatever one’s current age is, then how much further ahead must be codgerhood? Besides it has that -dge combination I have lately taken an aversion to. If I say I am 29 and Hat is not even ten years older than myself, then,… the math escapes me at the moment but someone will be able to work it out.

  57. Don’t worry, Nijma, codgerhood is not down your road. But are there any female equivalents of the amiable “codger” or “geezer”? All the terms I can think of are rather disoblidging.

  58. michael farris says

    But are there any female equivalents of the amiable “codger” or “geezer”?
    “Biddy?” he added helpfully while ducking the large objects Nijma had begun throwing his way.
    Agatha Christie was fond of calling old women ‘pussies’ which can be …. disconcerting to a modern reader.

  59. marie-lucie says

    MF, perhaps Nijma won’t be the only one to throw large objects at you!

  60. michael farris says

    My brother used to claim that ‘coot’ was gender neutral but I tend to disagree.
    For those who don’t like ‘biddy’ there’s also ‘crazy cat lady’ (though a cat or 8 is probably necessary).
    Finally, it should be pointed out that British ‘geezer’ is more like American ‘guy’ with no connotations of being old.

  61. The actual coot flocks in the thousands on the local lake before flying south. They’re unprepossessing and homely but lovable birds.

  62. Those are “loons” JE.
    Are we going to do pejoratives for various demographic groups now?
    My students call me “teacher”, “maestra” (Spanish,) or “sitt” (Arabic); my family and coworkers call me by name.
    A geezer usually refuses to wear his false teeth and has an odd appearance; a codger is intractable in some way. Otherwise you would refer to them as “gentlemen”.
    For ladies there is “cougar” which implies lustful desperation plus some kind of predation on younger males, which as far as I can tell isn’t particularly apt. While the boomer men I prefer don’t seem to pay me any attention, the GenX’s more than make up for it. Doesn’t seem to be a mommy complex either.
    I remember years ago when I was 18 or so, I took some weird class where we sat down and listed all the pejorative words for men and women. I was pretty young and totally shocked at some of the words one of the guys knew–I wasn’t even sure what they all meant. Then we rated the words from one to ten for how emotionally loaded they were or how much they twisted the knife. You can guess what we came up with. Wonder why that is.

  63. Nijma, you silly Cheesehead. Loons are a much rarer and more womderful ird. Coots have red eyes, white bills, Blakc or grey coats, and stumpy, nondescript bodies.

  64. In fact, I am a geezer. False teeth are useless for eating. Purely cosmetic.

  65. Cheesehead, JE? There is no way I am from Wisconsin. Ever. And what’s all this “California” nonsense about? You have left Minnesnowta? You know that’s cheating.
    Coots are ordinary water birds/duck thingies with unremarkable markings, if you can call markings unremarkable. I suppose you can; you just can’t call them “unmarkable”. Human coots are always male. Loons are not rare at all, even though they are solitary birds. Every lake in Minnesota has one (and only one)loon, and as you well know, if you have read any Minnesota license plates at all, there are 10,000 lakes in Minnesota. As Garrison Keillor might say, that’s a lot of loons. I am about to go look for my crystal wine goblets now and check the labna on the stove. I hereby leave JE as the designated blogger.

  66. A.J.P. Crown says

    My brother used to claim that ‘coot’ was gender neutral but I tend to disagree.
    ‘Bald as a coot?’
    False teeth are useless for eating.
    I’d no idea that food supplies had gotten so low in Minnesota, does Obama know about this?

  67. A.J.P. Crown says

    Anyone else here, who, ‘doesn’t like jam’?

  68. RE: Bible Cake
    It’s actually a variation on the pound cake recipe, the main ingredients are butter, sugar and honey, eggs and flour with raisins, figs and spices added. Given the proportions, it might be a little too sweet for my taste, though.

  69. A.J.P. Crown says

    Thank you. I can see a new series, though: Bible Food Simply Prepared, New Treats from the New Testament, Fine Dining from the Café Qur’an Cookbook.

  70. Alas, the loons are moving north with the cool temperatures. I haven’t seen one in the last four years. Coots by the thousand, and abundant grebes and pelicans.
    The loon is the densest flying bird because it’s built for swimming underwater.

  71. I wonder if the word “curmudgeon” is restricted to males – I would be inclined to say it is, and that it implies age as well as irascibility.

  72. Anyone else here, who, ‘doesn’t like jam’?
    Jam is too sweet and it isn’t heart healthy. These days there are fruit spreads that actually taste like fruit. As there is a Polish presence in this neighborhood, I can pick up European ones, but Smuckers has sugar free raspberry preserves that are very good.

  73. Fine Dining from the Café Qur’an Cookbook
    This has been done already. The Prophet (peace be .. etc.) mentioned a number of foods, the most famous one being the black seeds (Wiki). When I go shopping in Arab-ville, if I buy cheese with the black seeds I sense an instant warmth from the more pious shopkeepers. If you google “black seed koran” you will come up with all the websites selling the black seed products.

  74. A.J.P. Crown says

    That’s a good one, Nij.

  75. The black seed is supposed to be mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah 28:25-27 as the ‘fitches’.

  76. marie-lucie says

    These days there are fruit spreads that actually taste like fruit.
    Sure, but they don’t taste like jam.

  77. Sugarfree YUK.

  78. The sugarfree preserves are sweet–fruit has fructose in it. They taste better than the ones with sugar. I don’t eat artificial sweeteners; even if you can tolerate the taste, a lot of them can produce unfortunate gastrointestinal side effects.
    I’m afraid all those food blogs are wasted on me though. I can’t cook anything that takes more than 3 minutes. I tend to wander off and look for something more interesting to do. I can cook some things that take a little longer, like spaghetti, and better than most people too, but not consistently. (It has to be at that exact moment when it’s just past al dente but still has the right color and the nutty flavor.)
    Four-minute lunch at my URL.

  79. David Marjanović says

    How can anyone not like jam? What’s not to like? You might as well say you don’t enjoy breathing.

    Easy: I’m allergic to apples, and I noticed that around the age of 2. It got psychological. All fruits are disgusting to me; you can chase me with strawberries.

    Good God, and here I thought you were a fellow codger.

    I’m so glad I missed the 1970s… 🙂

    My God, has the double monarchy fallen?

    Pedantry warning!
    Being emperor by the Grace of God, the last one found himself theologically incapable of abdicating. He only signed his recuse from exercising the business of government. Sure, he died in exile, and there hasn’t been any attempt at restauration except for a tiny laughable party that hasn’t actually run in any elections for a long time, but… technically… :-}

    The last vestige of Rome? The 2000 year Reich?

    Insert way too obvious comment about the Third Rome here. Complete with gratuitous quotation of четвёртому же Риму не бывать.

  80. A.J.P. Crown says

    These days there are fruit spreads that actually taste like fruit.
    Sure, but they don’t taste like jam.
    Yes, exactly, Marie-Lucie. Thank heavens not everyone is crazy.

  81. A.J.P. Crown says

    All fruits are disgusting to me; you can chase me with strawberries.
    In Norway there is a strong distinction made between ‘fruit’ (apples and whatnot) and berries. If you came to Norway you could halve your allergy. My daughter, who is about your age (she’s nearly fifteen), is allergic to apples and peaches and plums and apricots, etc., but not to any berries.

  82. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’m so glad I missed the 1970s… 🙂
    Despite what you read about them the Seventies were way better to live through than the decades on either end. I was a teenager in ‘Swinging London’ (ech) in the Sixties. Though great things were achieved culturally and politically, living through the first half was little different from the Fifties (a sick decade) and the second half was, at best, a more repressed version of the Seventies. The Eighties were the worst decade of all, thanks to Thatcher, Reagan, AIDS, greed and the int’l investment banking ‘community’.

  83. David Marjanović says

    But the trick is, I was too little to notice “What Reagan Is Doing To Us”*, let alone Thatcher! The first TV news I remember are a few nuclear-disarmament negotiations (in other words, the late, not the early, Reagan), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the election of Bush the Elected, followed later (when my long-term memory had become a lot more reliable) by his Gulf War and then the collapse of the Soviet Union. =8-)
    * Title of a book I found a few years ago. The accusations were all very, very familiar.

  84. i – or rather we – m. and i had goats when i moved up into that 9 thousand foot high island in the desert the Sacramentoes in south-east new Mexico in 86 [50 miles north of El Paso, just east of Alamogordo], indeed very human, incredibly social. Nothing like cooking your porridge on the stove, briefly go into the toilet and either Chiquita, the Nubian, or Amy the Mexican wool goat was standing on top and lapping it up. Like dogs they had learned how to open the front door… like me as a child, they hated being left behind, so I took out the back seat of the Chevy Malibu and had them chattering to me, their long ears flapping against mine as i drove… nothing inhuman about the at all, the cry like babies.

  85. I would say that geezer, coot, curmudgeon, codger, are all restricted to males and slightly affectionate. These are people you would want to hang out with in spite of their human frailties. The only parallel I can think of for women is “old bat”–not affectionate at all, in fact, rather biting. In Arabic there is a word “shayka” meaning an old woman who is respected for her wisdom. In the Middle East for a while I was hanging out with a 60-ish American who had this nickname from the bedouins. When I visited her in the summer we slept in the open desert, which was rather nice, at night at least, a bit hot in the day. Birds were attracted to this shayka (she did feed them), which Arabs regard as a good omen.

  86. The goats we had were lovable and fun to watch, but agriculturally useless.

  87. A.J.P. Crown says

    Michael Roloff, I love goats’ ears.
    JE, goats are not useless, they can clear dense undergrowth more efficiently than anything else. We rent out our goats in the summer to the local council to maintain the area around a small reservoir.

  88. AJPC, I’ve started to imagine you living in Eden. Do you receive visitors from the East?
    I personally adore goats for no reason that I can explain. (Oh, I know they produce wonderful cheese and milk, don’t take up much room, tidy up fields, and can be put in the back seat of your car for a trip to the vet — but that’s not why I like them.)

  89. When it comes time to separate the sheep from the goats, in the Middle East, the sheep get eaten
    in the form of mansaf. The goats provide the cheese for the jameed sauce that gets poured over it. The cute little goat turds get turned into the flower garden before the flowers go in.

  90. A.J.P. Crown says

    Mab, we’d be delighted. Come any time, though I must warn you it’s rather warm: only -10, compared to -50 in Russia at the moment (according to my daughter). We don’t get milk from our goats, I couldn’t stand the thought of getting up at 5 every morning to milk goats; we get wool. They are mohair, or angora goats, with curly wool. Many people think they look like sheep; but you can tell immediately that they aren’t, because they’ve all got horns.

  91. My wife and I quarrel mildly about whether old bat or old bag suits her best.

  92. Thanks for commenting in this thread; I’d been trying to remember where the “inhuman voice” quote was that I wanted to link to in a recent thread.

Speak Your Mind