Anatoly has two recent posts about Russian words that have somehow eluded the dictionaries, one a couple of centuries old and the other… newish, but it’s impossible to know how new because, well, the dictionaries ignore it. In this post he quotes Vyazemsky as saying of a woman that she had “an excellent mind, was well read and inclined to literature, had an excellent gift for words and a lovely organ [organ].” Anatoly couldn’t find the word organ in this sense (apparently meaning ‘voice,’ to judge by the many other nineteenth-century uses he dug up) in any dictionary, and he’s not even sure whether the stress should be on the first syllable (implying a more abstract use parallel to “organ of government” or “organs of the press”) or on the second (implying a musical instrument). Remarkably, his commenters turned up printed examples with the accent explicitly marked each way!

In the other post, he remarks on the fact that by far the most common way to say “to censor” in modern Russian, цензурировать [tsenzurirovat’], is not in any dictionary; they give цензуровать [tsenzurovat’], which is hardly used these days by actual speakers, and цензировать [tsenzirovat’] as an archaic variant. He ends with a fully justified complaint that “the tradition of Russian lexicographers is not to track what people actually say and write but rather the artificial and emasculated ‘literary norm’ that they themselves have made into a law.”

Incidentally, I have a complaint of my own; I’ve already dealt with it, but I’ll mention it to get it off my chest. I finished reading Tynyanov‘s marvelously sly novella Подпоручик Киже (“Second Lieutenant Kizhe,” 1927), about identity, power, and language (and its relation to “reality”), and I was horrified on checking the Wikipedia entry (the link is to the old version) to see that not only was it incoherent and misleading but the story it described was that of the wretched 1934 movie, in which all the subtlety and secondary plotlines are ditched in favor of bottom-pinching and other sight gags (and the ending is completely changed). So I sighed and spent a good while revising it; here‘s the version I created, and here‘s the basic article link (though hopefully the current version it links to won’t diverge too far too fast). I’m not sure why the movie, and thus the Wikipedia article, has him as a first lieutenant (poruchik) instead of Tynyanov’s second lieutenant (podporuchik), but such is life in this unstable world.


  1. If this is any help, “Organ” for voice is used in German – e.g., my mother (b. 1943) would say (ironically)”du hast aber ein schönes Organ” (“My, do you have a nice organ”)when my brother or I would cry in temper tantrums.

  2. I guess орган was used for voice in Russian in the same way as “instrument” is sometimes used in English (and Organ in German, the most likely immediate source of this Russian usage). “Ms. Gale has a lovely soprano voice of medium size. She is a wonderful and thoughtful interpreter and uses her instrument completely in the service of the music.”

  3. Calling a voice an instrument has always bothered me. In most contexts ‘using an instrument’ specifically means extending what one can do with one’s body by using something external.
    The same singers who quite rightly object when anyone uses ‘musicians’ to mean ‘instrumentalists’ — what do they think of this?

  4. Bill Val'derman says

    “the wretched 1934 movie”
    with music by Prokofiev

  5. “Wretched 1934 movie”?? Aren’t you over-reacting to the film’s differences from the novella a little?
    In my opinion, the film is actually an odd little masterpiece — even though Kizhe is missing a под- from his rank and the plot is not quite the same as the novella. I’m biased, perhaps — I contributed the subtitles to the version posted online at Google video and But I took the trouble to do that precisely because I thought the film was worth seeing (especially to hear Prokofiev’s score in context), and not at all “wretched”!
    There are indeed unnecessary bits that no doubt reflect the exigencies of film-making in the early Stalin era (the overdone anti-religious parody, the cutaways to oppressed peasants, the silly German accent of the medic), and yes the plot is dumbed-down and lacks some of the high literary tone of Tynyanov’s written work. But overall, it’s a marvellously surreal movie with wonderfully odd acting and music. Viewed on its own terms (and with some sympathy for both the normal compromises of commercial movie making and the special situation in 1934 Russia), I think it’s a film worth seeing. Сталкер it ain’t, but not every film has to be.

  6. There are singers who have a great “instrument” but who are not very musical. Stravinsky thought Chaliapin was one such: “That idiot from every nonvocal point of view, and some of those….” Some people have a great voice just from the way their body and head are constructed, and they can end up as musicians even if they have no other talent (the way every healthy, active seven foot tall guy is a basketball player). It’s not something you can train or learn. (The legendary Peruvian singer Yma Sumac was another Chaliapin, I suspect. She actually had two legends, one that she was an Inca princess, and the other that she was not Peruvian at all but a New Yorker).
    There are also instrumentalists who have a “great instrument” but aren’t very musical, but with them it’s easier to separate the musician from the instrument.
    And props to Google for immediately finding a quote I only saw once decades ago. (Stravisky + Chaliapin + idiot).

  7. marie-lucie says

    organ = voice
    I have seen this use in French too, but it sounds old-fashioned.
    I remember reading a book about a small religious community that gathers around a charismatic leader referred to as L’organe – presumably the inspired voice. It must have been La colline inspirée, by Maurice Barrès. Apart from the odd title of the leader, I remember it mostly as being quite gloomy and dull (everything eventually falls apart), but if may have been that I was too young at the time to appreciate it.

  8. Are you saying you can’t be an Inca princess if you’re a New Yorker? Let me tell you, there are plenty of guys who could prove you wrong about that.

  9. michael farris says

    The version I heard had Yma Sumac actually being Amy Camus from Kansas…

  10. Well, in German it’s “Organ”, not “Orgel” (the musical instrument). But I don’t see how this is a more abstract use parallel to “organ of government” or “organs of the press”. It’s simply a reference to the voice organ.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Yma Sumac on wikipedia;
    Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo was born on September 13, 1922,[4] in Ichocán, Cajamarca,[5] Peru. … Some sources[7] claim that she was not born in Ichocán, but in a nearby village, or possibly in Lima, and that her family owned a ranch in Ichocán where she spent most of her early life. Stories published in the 1950s claimed that she was an Incan princess, directly descended from Atahualpa.
    She married a Peruvian bandleader and sang with his band. They later moved to New York.
    A story claiming that she was born Amy Camus—Yma Sumac backwards—in Brooklyn or Canada was fabricated while she was performing in New York City in the early 1950s.
    Chávarri adopted the stage name of Imma Sumack (also spelled Ymma Sumack and Ima Sumack) before she left South America to go to the U.S. The stage name was based on her mother’s name, which was derived from Ima Shumaq, Quechua for “how beautiful!” although in interviews she claimed it meant “beautiful flower” or “beautiful girl”.[8]
    Read more on Wikipedia.

  12. I was familiar with organ for voice – or rather, I understood it as the mechanism for producing voice, which does after all overlap conceptually with the multivalent voice. I remember organ used in connexion with our Dame Nellie Melba, who some inept teacher thought had an “inferior organ”. Or was it a “defective organ”? I can’t remember, and I can’t find any mention of this in Googlebooks. But here is a reference to Melba’s own use of the word; and here is something similar concerning a Madame Patti. Here is a snippet from The Bulletin (Australia) mentioning “Melba’s organ”; I presume Cargher is the late John Cargher, an Australian broadcaster whose iconic Singers of Renown was broadcast on ABC radio for decades.

  13. O, it’s in OED. “Organ”:

    [II. 5.] b. The human organs of speech or voice collectively; the larynx and its accessories as used in speaking or singing. (Somewhat rare; perh. associated with sense 1 or 2.)

    1601 Shakes. Twel. N. i. iv. 33 Thy small pipe Is as the maidens organ, shrill, and sound. 1732 T. Lediard Sethos II. vii. 102 Uttering cries..deeper than was in the power of any human organ. 1860 Tyndall Glac. ii. i. 226 The boy’s organ vibrates more rapidly than the man’s. 1860 Reade Cloister & H. lv. (1896) 151 A little muttering was heard outside; Denys’s rough organ and a woman’s soft and mellow voice.

  14. “Wretched 1934 movie”?? Aren’t you over-reacting to the film’s differences from the novella a little?
    Almost certainly; it’s always a bad idea to watch a movie just after reading the work it’s based on, and had I seen it under other circumstances I probably would have enjoyed it a good deal more. I did notice the excellence of the subtitles, so congratulations on that! And yes, it was well worth it to hear the score (which is the main reason I decided to watch it).

  15. marie-lucie says

    a Madame Patti
    This was Adelina Patti, one of the most famous sopranos of all time (esp. last quarter of the 19th century).

  16. Aren’t you over-reacting to the film’s differences from the novella a little?
    Almost certainly
    Thank you, apology accepted!

  17. This probably goes without saying, but I suspect the reason the word “instrument” and not “organ” is used in the U.S. (and perhaps other countries as well) is the association of that word with a bit of anatomy that is, um, a bit lower.

  18. Clark Wright says

    Although it isnt my favourite musical by a long way I cant fathom how you people on here can say its only one song but with different words. The music is powerful, then soft, then sad then funny.
    Maybe you all need to turn off the rubbish you bombard your minds with and learn to listen.

  19. Maybe you should learn a few things, Clark.

  20. Bathrobe says

    John, I’m shocked! How can you be so disrespectful when Clark is only making a positive suggestion on how to improve our lives?

  21. Clark is implicitly dissing Mussorgsky, Dressing Gown, it’s like a red rag to a bull.

  22. Thanks to Kizholog for posting the link to the film, it’s almost Pythonesque, but I wouldn’t call it a musical. But then again, when have LHers ever actually read someone’s comments before complaining about them.
    The Prokofiev score for the film is only about 15 minutes worth of actual playing time. Here is the link to his expanded Lieutenant Kije Suite (Op.60)

  23. Thanks, Nijma! There’s a detailed discussion of the relation between the Suite and the film score by Kevin Bartig, who seems to be the specialist on this topic: link

  24. marie-lucie says

    when have LHers ever actually read someone’s comments before complaining about them.
    I would say “rarely”.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Oh, sorry, I meant the opposite. I mean that usually people show that they “have” read others’ comments. Misunderstandings do occur, of course, but that is not the same thing.

  26. Oh, sorry, I meant the opposite.
    Heh. You had me trying to parse exactly how many degrees of sarcasm were embedded in your previous comment.

  27. I don’t think that m-l is capable of sarcasm — or of failing to read before responding.

  28. marie-lucie says

    I don’t think that m-l is capable of sarcasm
    I try to refrain from taking the bait (assuming I see it coming).

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