The Most Unprintable Word.

I’m in the middle of Dostoevsky’s 1870 novella Вечный муж [The Eternal Husband; The Permanent Husband]; it’s every bit as melodramatic as The Idiot (LH) or The Insulted and Injured (LH), but it’s not pretending to be anything more than an author playing with his favorite tropes (man meets mysterious quasi-double, little girl in danger, shouting, drunkenness, violence, prostitution), and I’m enjoying it greatly. (Of course, it’s also possible I’m acclimatizing to the wacky world of Dostoevsky.) I just got to this passage, which must have been shocking to readers of the time (the drunken quasi-double, out on the street with a couple of prostitutes, has turned on the central character, who he has been insisting is his dear friend, and the latter has threatened him with a raised fist):

– А знаешь ты, – произнес он гораздо тверже, почти как не пьяный, – нашу русскую …….? (И он проговорил самое невозможное в печати ругательство.) Ну так и убирайся к ней!

“Do you know,” he said a good deal more firmly, almost soberly, “our Russian …….? (And he uttered the most unprintable curse word.) “Well, off with you to it!”

The last sentence makes no sense in English, of course, and I can’t think of an equivalent at the moment. At any rate, I assume, since the missing noun is feminine, it is пизда ‘cunt,’ and the intended expression is “убирайся в пизду” (more often, I think, simply иди в пизду)… except that he uses the preposition к ‘to’ and not в ‘in(to).’ You can say “убирайся к черту” ‘go to the devil,’ except that черт is masculine and perfectly printable. You can say “убирайся к чертовой матери” ‘go to the devil’s mother,’ except that, again, it’s not unprintable. The most common and most unprintable expression of this kind is “убирайся на хуй” (again, more often simply иди на хуй) ‘go onto the cock,’ but again, хуй is masculine and the preposition is wrong. So I turn to my Russian readers in hopes of elucidation: what would Dostoevsky’s readers have understood this to represent? (Or is it a bit of mystification, like his talking about the intersection of two streets that don’t intersect?)

For everyone’s amusement, here’s how Fred. Whishaw rendered the passage in 1888:

“Do you understand Russian?” he asked more firmly, as though his fury had chased away the effects of drunkenness. “Very well, then, you are a——!” (here followed a specimen of the very vilest language which the Russian tongue could furnish); “and now you can go back to her!”

I don’t know if he didn’t understand the last line or (like me) had no idea how to convey a similar implication in English.


  1. From Dashiell Hammett’s short story, The Girl with the Silver Eyes: “[She] whispered the vilest epithet of which the English language is capable.”

    (Context omitted as much as possible. You’ll have to read the story for yourself.)

  2. I will have to read it — I love Hammett!

  3. My suggestion is “ebenaya mat'”

  4. So, if my guess is right and Whishaw had motherfucker in mind, that would be ingenious, but very hard to get.

  5. I also thought Whishaw was going for “motherfucker”, for what it’s worth

  6. Apologies for going off-topic, but it’s a short question that Wiki couldn’t answer, so it’s another chance to prove Hatters are smarter than Wiki. The Pope visited the shrine to the Virgin of Knock today. Is the first K pronounced?

  7. Not by Vatican and not in this video (you have to listen for about minute and a half).

  8. What D.O. said, although the exact form of the e-word might have been slightly different. See, for example, Nakonets iz Kenigsberga (Nekrasov to Longinov, 1857), and Pushkin’s Doroga zhizni (1823). Also consider euphemisms such as k takoy-to materi, k chortovoy materi, and k chortovoy babushke.

  9. This thread requires

  10. I too believe it should be “нашу русскую [ебёну мать]”. In addition to the examples suggested by Alex K., here’s one more reference:

  11. David Marjanović says

    убирайся в пизду […] убирайся на хуй […] иди на хуй

    Oh. I had no idea it went so far east.

  12. David Marjanović says

    This thread requires

    What is up with the turtles?

  13. @ryan

    Is the first K pronounced?

    No. Knock is a common placename element, from the Irish cnoc “hill” /knɔk/ . The anglicised spelling presumably predates the silencing of the initial /k/ in English /kn-/ , and the pronunciations in the two languages have thus diverged.

  14. My suggestion is “ebenaya mat’”

    D’oh! Of course it is, and I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me — obviously I have to up my mat game.

  15. So, if my guess is right and Whishaw had motherfucker in mind, that would be ingenious, but very hard to get.

    It would indeed, but I’m afraid it’s far more likely he was simply trying to render the Russian as it stood. I don’t know if a gentleman translator of the 1880s would have known either “motherfucker” or “ебёну мать” — vile profanity was not nearly so widespread in those days.

  16. Dostoyevsky’s characters, as well as, maybe, Kafka’s , can not swear sincerely. No touch the mythic domains in our soul.

  17. “vile profanity was not nearly so widespread in those days”

    How do we know?

  18. marie-lucie says

    At least it was carefully hidden from “respectable” company and literature.

  19. Pushkin used mat in his erotic poetry all the time. Of course, they couldn’t be published officially, but were copied by hand and transmitted among Russian public.

    S utra sadimsya my v telegu;
    My rady golovu slomat’
    I, preziraya len’ i negu,
    Krichim: poshol, yebona mat’!

  20. When I was a US Army translator in 1970, a German-Estonian civilian translator who worked with us gave me a xerox of a hand-written copy of the (in)famous Luka Mudischev, passing it off as Pushkin’s work. It’s been ascribed to the 18th c. writer Ivan Barkov, but I think the latest thinking is that it originated in the mid-19th c. And, of course, it was unprintable for a long time and circulated in manuscript, and so has had a history somewhat like that of the Homeric poems or the New Testament, with multiple versions and many interpolations by subsequent guardians of the tradition. I suspect this is also true of whatever erotic/obscene poetry may have genuinely originated from Pushkin’s hand.

  21. I am afraid this one is pretty well documented. Complete text of the poem is in a letter written by Pushkin to prince Vyazemsky and it was published in “Moscow Telegraph” in 1823 (with mat replaced by …. …. )

  22. “At least it was carefully hidden from “respectable” company and literature.”

    I don’t know about French, but in English there’s the Earl of Rochester (John Wilmot), the prototype of the Restoration rake.

    “Complete text of the poem is in a letter written by Pushkin to prince Vyazemsky and it was published in ‘Moscow Telegraph’ in 1823 (with mat replaced by …. …. )”

    So this one was published officially — and it documents the use of obscenity/profanity in everyday speech among upper-class Russian men in the era of Alexander I (the rhyme guaranteeing the obscenity).

  23. Martin Gardner wrote an amusing short story, “The Virgin From Kalamazoo,” about the oral transmission and evolution of an obscene limerick. It cannot seem to find it online at the moment, but it was collected in The No-sided Professor & Other Tales of Fantasy, Humor, Mystery & Philosophy. While the limerick story is not as strong as the unique science fiction yarn that gives the compilation its title, I was impressed with the way Gardner tantalizes the reader by never revealing what the masterly blue limerick actually was.

  24. per incuriam says

    The anglicised spelling presumably predates the silencing of the initial /k/ in English /kn-/ , and the pronunciations in the two languages have thus diverged

    Adding to the divergence, the spelling also predates a shift in the Irish pronunciation from /kn-/ to /kr-/.

  25. David Marjanović says

    …which independently happened in Breton, too!

  26. We still have /kn/ in Munster Irish, though admittedly Knock is in Connacht. You can hear both pronunciations in the foclóir link in my previous comment (whose mangled format I didn’t get to review because it went to two-link limbo even though the other link was to an anchor on this very page. Grrr).

    The official Irish name for Knock was changed in 2001 from ‘An Cnoc’ “The Hill” to ‘Cnoc Mhuire’, “Hill of Mary” after the 1879 apparition of the Virgin which makes it a popular tourist spot for visiting popes. AFAIK there is absolutely no demand to change the English name.

  27. per incuriam says

    Your mentioning that the apparition occurred in 1879 set me wondering whether the Virgin spoke in Irish or English. Neither it turns out:

    Archdeacon Cavanagh saw to the creation of eleven national schools in the combined parishes of Knock and Aghamore between 1867 and 1883, and the Nun of Kenmare opened a kindergarten for infants, national schools for boys and girls, and a school to teach industrial and domestic skills to girls bound for emigration, another fact of modern life in Mayo. It was necessary for Cavanagh to preach in English and Irish each Sunday as the schools saw to the replacement of Irish with English as the language of the young. This linguistic crisis may be connected with the silence of the Knock visions, as the oldest witness, Bridget Trench, had no English, while the youngest, six year old John Curry, was being educated with no Irish

  28. Much talk (but no actual knawvshawling) about cn- from 2010. . Random Link has outdone itself this time in providing something directly relevant.

  29. marie-lucie says

    wondering whether the Virgin spoke in Irish or English.

    The Virgin does not always speak during her apparitions.

  30. To quote the relevant paragraph I quoted in 2010:

    This change of n to r is undoubtedly a comparatively late one. English spellings of Irish names in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries show little or no trace of it… It is probable that in those districts in which r eventually gained the upper hand, both n and r were for a long time in use side by side, as they are in Aran to-day.

  31. David Marjanović says

    …Is a crock of shit a dungheap? Or rather a crockpot?

  32. The word is spelled cronk in Manx; presumably there’s a nasalization still hanging around in there. Is there in the other Goidelic dialects where /kn/ becomes /kr/?

  33. per incuriam says

    other Goidelic dialects where /kn/ becomes /kr/

    According to O’Rahilly: “Scottish Gaelic, like Irish, retains the n in writing; but in Scottish speech it is always or nearly always pronounced as r

  34. presumably there’s a nasalization still hanging around in there. Is there in the other Goidelic dialects where /kn/ becomes /kr/?

    Yes, O’Rahilly says: “In the combinations cn, gn, mn, tn, Northern Irish has substituted a nasalized r for n.”

  35. @David Marjanović:

    He called it the Dungheap, because dungheap is his word for it. He calls things like that dungheaps, and this one is the Dungheap because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well.

  36. There are some Irish placenames where “cnoc” is anglicised “Crock” “Cruck” or “Crick”.

    Of the 15 townlands named “Cnoc na gCapall” [‘Horse Hill’], the English names are ​Knocknagappul (6) ; ​Knocknagapple (5) ; ​Knockacappul (1) ; ​Crocknagapple (1) ; Horse Hill (1) ; ​Hillend (1)

  37. ‘Motherfucker’ seems a stretch for 1888 – but when I read the Whishaw passage, I immediately assumed ‘son of a bitch’, which admittedly doesn’t seem that strong in English, but (I reasoned) it at least makes grammatical sense and perhaps the Russian version is less acceptable.

  38. I agree, that makes sense; if I had to bet I’d still bet he was doggedly translating the literal sense of the Russian, but that’s an equally appealing and plausible alternative. Well found!

  39. As a variant, idi k yebene fene.

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