The Meaning of Lif.

Eric at XIX век has finished translating Старик/“The Old Man” (first installment, last) and revealed the author; now he’s got questions about details of the translation. Previously he asked about repetition (a topic on which I had strong ideas); now he’s got a most interesting lexical/cultural problem: what exactly is a лиф [lif]? It’s some part of the upper garment of a mid-nineteenth-century Russian woman, but what? He gives a bunch of quotes (and throws in some images for good measure) and asks for help from people knowledgeable in these matters, and I thought I’d add my readership to the pool of possible helpers. (I confess I found the idea of posting irresistible once the title occurred to me.)

[The passage in the story where the word occurs:

Next to the portrait of the old man, in an ugly gold frame bedecked with stars, hung in all its splendor a pastel depicting a young woman with a long, curved neck and a [lif at one-and-a-half vershoks width] who had a dove on her shoulder; the whole pose betrayed pretentions to a head by Greuze.

Рядом с портретом старика, в безобразной золотой рамке, усыпанной звездочками, красовался пастель, изображающий молодую женщину, с выгнутой шеей, с лифом в полтора вершка ширины, и голубем на плече; вся поза обличала претензию на Грёзовскую головку.

Erik wrote, “I decided that this was shorthand for 1 arshin + 1 1/2 vershoks (30 5/8″) and that this kind of measurement was assumed to always be 1 arshin + X vershoks, in the way adult height was assumed to be 2 arshins + X vershoks.”]

Unrelated, but I’ll pass on the sad news (via Lizok) that Fazil Iskander died last night at 87 (NDTV obit).

Update. “The Old Man” is now available as a free e-book in mobi or epub format or as a pdf.


  1. I don’t know about Lif, but Liff: “A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book the dust jacket of which bears the words, ‘This book will change your life’.”

  2. As I recall, in the 1960s it was a harness to which pantyhose (not yet elastic) were attached. Wore it in preschool, it was unisex then. Interestingly, I’m told that the Russian word for one-piece pantyhose itself (Колготки) is a neologism, a 1950s borrowing from Czech kalhoty “pants”.

  3. Searching should help: at least some of the definitions make sense to me. It’s a living word – IMSMR, my mother and grandmother used it when talking about clothes. It’s the part of a dress from the waist to the breast, more or less, IMSMR again.

  4. Right, but (as you’ll see at the “now” link) an 1847 dictionary defines лифъ as “Перехватъ на задней части платья около поясницы” (“a perekhkvat on the back part of a dress around the lower back”) and перехват as “Мѣсто въ платьѣ, съуженное надъ поясницею” (“a place on a dress that is narrowed over the lower back”). The modern meaning is not of much use.

  5. Wiktionary has some more examples, one from Chekhov. Sounds like a part of the dress above the waist but below the shoulders (and occasionally strapping / tightening lace which was built into it)

    The word is still used in dress designs, you can see it here, but I haven’t specifically searched for XIX c. designs. They are discussed e.g here.

  6. I can add a few dictionary quotations from :
    (гол. lijf – корпус). Верхняя часть женского платья, охватывающая туловище от шеи до пояса. – Словарь иностранных слов, вошедших в состав русского языка.- Чудинов А.Н., 1910.
    = “(Dutch lijf “body”) Upper part of the female dress, covering the body from neck to waist”
    Верхняя часть женского платья в виде особым образом вырезанной и пошитой ткани, охватывающая грудь и спину. – Большой толковый словарь русских существительных. АСТ-Пресс Книга. Бабенко. 2009. “Upper part of the female dress in the form of cloth cut out and sewn in a special manner, covering breast and back”.

    Google search is complicated by the fact that лиф / лифчик has become a synonym for “bra” in modern Russian, so one gets inundated by pictures of and links talking about bras. But I strongly assume that it’s more or less the same word as German Leibchen, so maybe some of these pictures give an mpression what a 19th century лиф looked like.

  7. I realized it would help if I added the passage from the story to my post, so I’ve now done so.

  8. Oh, and I’m really sad about Fazil Iskander having passed away. Quite accidentally, I’m currently reading a collection of his stories.

  9. Yeah, he was a wonderful writer.

  10. ODS has it as sense 14 of liv ‘life’: the part of a garment that fits closely to the torso, as opposed to sleeves, skirts, tails and so on, or more specifically the fit at/above the waist. Attested ~1700. Snøreliv is the stiff linen bodice used under dresses before corsets.

    Sense 11 is ‘torso’ itself, and probably loaned from MLG. 12 is ‘waist,’ 13 is ‘guts’. No indication whether senses 12, 13 and 14 are known in Low German, but they aren’t far-fetched.

    Alexander II did marry a Danish princess in 1866, and she might have brought her dress fitters along, but that is too late; her predecessors since 1745 were German, though, and _their_ dress fitters may have spoken Low German.

    A rather gruesome simile in Danish is at rende sig en staver i livet, literally ‘to run yourself a pole in the guts’, used when someone takes on a challenge that with any sense they shouldn’t have and comes off badly, in an economic or political sense.

  11. @Lars,

    Russian dictionaries give etymology as Dutch – lijf. Looking up lijf, it seems that one definition is corsage. Looking up corsage gives me:

    2. (now only historical) The waist or bodice of a lady’s dress.

    Of course, in modern Russian, it means bra.

  12. BTW Dahl has both the modern and the 1847 senses: “останье (от стан), охвать, перехвать; верхняя половина плотной одежды, прилегающая вкруг, до пояса.”

    I have located the 1847 meaning in an unexpected context: military and civil uniforms – male, naturally. They tended to be frock coats and the part above the waist was called лиф but, in some descriptions, such as the infantry uniform at the link, лиф clearly refers to a smaller bit: “Спинка мундира разрезная, в три шва; ширина лифа 1 3/4 вершка.” From the context, I’m pretty sure that лиф refers to the part on the back between the near-vertical seams, and its width is the distance between the two buttons at the waist on the back (“лифные пуговицы”). I think this is the перехват of the 1847 definition.

    But how do we apply this to the wannabe Greuze painting? Could it mean some kind of lacing on the front of the waist, as on some modern dirndl dresses? Or is she looking at us over her shoulder so we can see her back, as in Portrait de la baronne Henri Charles Emmanuel de Crussol Florensac by Vigée Le Brun?

  13. @e-k, that makes sense. Dutch and Danish got it from the same place anyway.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Leibchen, BTW, is the normal word for T-shirt where I come from. (It just has the other diminutive suffix, because that’s the only one the dialect has.)

    A rather gruesome simile in Danish is at rende sig en staver i livet, literally ‘to run yourself a pole in the guts’, used when someone takes on a challenge that with any sense they shouldn’t have and comes off badly, in an economic or political sense.

    So, like LEEROY JENKINS, except without the damage to others?

  15. Thanks, I am now more memified than I was before. (At least I have chicken!)

  16. Leibchen, BTW, is the normal word for T-shirt where I come from.

    In Standard Germany German, Leibchen now means this kind of armless sport shirt / over-shirt (?) . A T-shirt is ein T-Shirt.

  17. Alon Lischinsky says


    this kind of armless sport shirt

    Most of those links show what’s known as a vest (BrEng), tank top (AmEng) or A-shirt (though the woman’s garment in row 4 is a basque).

  18. Ah, so that’s what the Brits call a “vest”! And yes, we Yanks say “tank top.”

  19. Great title for the post, BTW.

    Also: not too surprisingly, Yiddish has a few garment names from this root. There’s laybl, “undershirt,” and also laybse(r)dak, layb-tsudekl, a word for the fringe-cornered men’s undergarment known by various other names, the most well-known in English being tzitzit/tzitzis.

  20. Wife-beater is another American name for this type of shirt, because both have strong lower-class white associations.

  21. Of course, a white or gray tank top worn with nothing underneath it is a “wife beater.”

    EDIT: Beaten to it by JC.

  22. A UK “vest” is a US “undershirt”.
    What’s shown in the illustration is a “sports-vest” or “tabard” if it’s an over-shirt; a sleeveless top not designed expressly for sport can be simply called a “vest” or “sleeveless T-shirt” (colloq. “wife-beater”).
    A UK “tank-top” is specifically a woman’s sleeveless top.

  23. Alon Lischinsky says


    A UK “vest” is a US “undershirt”.

    BrEng vest is not limited to undershirts. There are endless examples of UK sites using the bare term for the sports garment.

  24. @Ben,

    Lapserdak is a common Russian word…

    Found this on the web. Not sure how accurate it is in etymological speculation. Interestingly, it references our original word “leef”/lijf.

    Here’s my quick translation for the non-Russian-speakers:

    “The word lapserdak is familiar to us from childhood. This is what our grannies call some ridiculous looking suit jacket or peacoat. It’s definitely an old usage, but still relevant today.

    In reality, in Russian the word lapserdak is used to mean rags, poverty. Often referring to ridiculous looking, poorly tailored clothing. BTW, another word for lapserdak was “half-farter”

    The word takes its meaning from the German Lappen – rag, and Polish serdak – kaftan, vest and also Yiddish la’b – a leef, the upper part of clothing.

    Also, lapserdak is the long male vest of religious Jews. The cut of the lapserdak became finalized in the early 17th century. From that time the lapserdak is a distinctive feature of male Jewish clothing in Western and Eastern Europe, and in the territories of the Russian Empire (Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine) up until the early 20th century.

    Слово лапсердак нам знакомо с детства. Так любят выражаться бабушки, когда речь идет о каком-нибудь нелепом пиджаке или полупальто. Слово это несомненно устаревшее, однако все еще актуальное… Действительно, в русском языке слово лапсердак употребляется в значение – лохмотья, бедность. Так обычно говорят о нелепой, плохо сшитой одежде. Кстати лапсердак раньше еще иногда называли полупердончиком. Значение слово берет от немецкого Lappen – тряпка и польского serdak – кафтан, безрукавка, в сложении с идишем la”b – лиф, верхняя часть одежды. К тому же, лапсердак – это долгополый мужской сюртук верующих евреев. Крой лапсердака окончательно сложился к началу 17 в. С того времени лапсердак – отличительная черта мужского еврейского костюма в странах Западной и Восточной Европы, причём на территориях, входивших в состав Российской империи (Польша, Литва, Украина), вплоть до начала 20 в.


  25. Майка ~~ wife-beater? Sounds like Russian language missed on a good word :). Although in wikipedia I see that a sleeveless “mayka” is now commonly referred to as “alcoholic”. And that in Hebrew, it’s a “dad-kids’ beater”.

    The etymology of “mayka” is said to be from Itallian maglia “knit” [shirt]. And it’s also claimed that it was originally a women’s undergarment, i.e. “lif”

  26. Thanks for the thoughts and resources about лиф! I’m more and more convinced that here it means the part of the dress above the waist, though I remain uncertain about exactly what в полтора вершка ширины is referring to, and whether an arshin should be added to it.

    Re: the vest/undershirt/wife-beater discussion, Lynne Murphy posted on this a while back on separated by a common language, and mentioned that AmE “vest” = modern BrE “waistcoat.”

  27. Ian Press says

    For what it’s worth, ‘tank top’ for me (UK) is a sleeveless pullover. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m totally wrong, even if I wear one very often, including now! It dates you, and even raises a sympathetic smile, if you wear it with a short-sleeved shirt! But with shirt sleeves rolled up, it’s ‘cool’. I have to say I always imagined ‘lifčik’ was derived from some word ‘lift’! Thanks. My lack of curiosity often worries me.

  28. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Erik M.:

    the part of the dress above the waist

    if I’m not wrong (and according to glossaries such as this), that would be bodice in English.

    Assuming the measurement is for the bust, which is the widest part of a bodice, 30⅝ inches’ width of fabric will only fit a very slim figure (a UK dress size 6, US size 2).

  29. Dmitry, the Hebrew גופיית אבא מכה “Beating-dad undershirt” seems to be from Dorbanot, a website for funny neologisms made up and contributed by site users. Several people commented that they know it as גופיית סבא “grandpa undershirt”. I might have heard this myself but forgot it.

  30. David Marjanović says

    this kind of armless sport shirt / over-shirt (?)

    Interesting; but I note that has taken the term and run with it.

    I wanted to call the overshirts Weste, as in Warnweste*, but they don’t open in the front…

    * A Google Images search brings up lots of accurate illustrations, but I can’t link to it directly.

  31. matematichica says

    “Bodice” seems reasonable accurate and has the advantage that most of the audience will have a pretty good idea of what that type of garment actually is. Another possibility might be “swiss waist” as described by Leimomi Oakes in her blog post here:

    Note particularly the third photo down with the purple swiss waist in the photo of the 1860s dress from the Met.

    In general, I’d think that the bodice of a dress is likely part of the dress itself, whereas a swiss waist is a separate garment that could be worn with different dresses/blouses. A couple points against “swiss waist” as a translation are that the measurement I’d expect to see associated with one would be the waist measurement, and 30 5/8 inches would be a little large if the lady in question is meant to be slender and elegant in a cinched waist, and that contemporary readers are probably mostly very confused about what swiss waists are. But maybe part of the “failure” of the painting is that the lady in question is not as slender as Greuze’s prototypical sitter.

    There’s a broad historical costuming community on the internet and perhaps one could tap into their expertise somehow–I’m just an observer.

  32. I hasten to add a word sadly missing from the site:


    говнодавы 2

  33. Thanks! The word I learned for those is гады; is that the usual one, or just more street slang?

  34. I guess more street slang, not exactly new—I first heard it in the early 1970s. Another word that I have just remembered is коры, as in:

    Отчим ведет его в сквер, угощает пирожками с «потрибкой» и снимает свои новые ботинки.

    Кузнецов звал его все же «батя».

    — А то твои износились, — надтреснутым, сухим голосом сипит батя.

    — Угу! — Кузнецов не понимает всего этого.

    — Да уж как­то. — Батя пытается состряпать улыбку. Она у него получается комом. — Сымай, сымай. Шевелись! Новые коры. Неделю назад купил.

    Алексей оттолкнул свои говнодавы. И обул, натянул новые кожаные «корочки». Коры были изготовлены за границей. И сбоку, на их простроченных рантах, рельефно выбито: «Salamandra».

  35. not exactly new

    Well, neither am I.

  36. PlasticPaddy says

    The author N.A. Ivenshchev is a member of the Writers Union of Russia. According to Wikipedia this is “patriotic” and the Union of Russian Writers is “Not to be confused with Writers’ Union of Russia or Russian Union of Writers.”

  37. Splitters!

  38. Like those two distinct tribal organizations, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe and the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe.

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