Anatoly sometimes introduces his posts with “(вряд ли кому-то будет интересно)” [unlikely to be of interest to anyone], and I could say the same of this post, but sometimes when I’ve figured out some obscure linguistic fact, I can’t resist putting it out there, and who knows, maybe someone else will get something out of it. So: I’ve been reading Narezhny’s Два Ивана, или Страсть к тяжбам [The two Ivans, or A passion for lawsuits] (see this post on Narezhny), and I got to a passage where Khariton, who is involved in the tangle of retaliations and lawsuits with the titular Ivans, is drunkenly exchanging Bible quotes with his pal Дьячок Фома [D’yachok Foma], the sacristan. At first they are bellowing «Блажен муж, иже не идет на совет нечестивых!», which is a slight variation of the opening of Psalm 1, “Блажен муж, иже не иде на совет нечестивых” (or in the old spelling “Блаженъ мужъ, иже не иде на совѣтъ нечестивыхъ”), in the King James Version “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.” A bit later the household is frightened by a loud «Векую смятошася язьщы, вскую поучашася, тщетным?», and this is the point at which I had to call for help. Fortunately, the internet was at hand!

The first problem, which unnecessarily increased the difficulty of solving the puzzle, is a typo that apparently crept into the text at some point; the first word should be Вскую [vskuyu], just like the fourth, so my time spent trying to figure out how the first person singular of вековать [vekovat’] ‘to spend one’s time/life’ fit in was time wasted. But what was vskuyu? It turns out it’s a Church Slavic word for ‘why,’ and the line is a variant of the beginning of Psalm 2, “Вскую шаташася языцы, и людие поучишася тщетным?”—in the King James Version, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” But why does vskuyu mean ‘why’? Vasmer tells me the answer:

вску́ю “почему”, церк. (также у Салтыкова-Шадрина), др.-русск., ст.-слав. въскѫѭ – то же, из *vъz- (см.воз-) и kǫjǫ – вин. п. ж. р. от кой, ст.-слав. кыи.

In other words, въз [vъz] is an OCS preposition meaning ‘(in exchange) for,’ and the last part of the word is the accusative of кыи (later кой) ‘which.’ So it’s basically the same formation as modern зачем [zachem] ‘why,’ with за [za] ‘for.’ Isn’t that neat?

I also like very much the proverb I found in Dahl: По бороде блажен муж, а по уму вскую шаташася: ‘By his beard he’s “Blessed is the man,” but by his mind he’s “Why do the heathen rage.”‘


  1. But what does шаташася mean?

  2. Just for a bit of hair splitting: in modern usage, зачем is ‘what for’ rather than ‘why’ (i.e. it questions the purpose rather than the cause), our usual ‘why’ being почему. Using the former to mean ‘why’ would immediately place one into a poetic-archaic (bordering with ironic) register. On the other hand, it seems to have pushed out of use another word formed according to the same model, which used to mean ‘what for’: почто.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    The first two versions of the Psalter I have to hand that are Englished for Orthodox (or other spedcialist) use and thus work off the LXX or the Slavonic rather than the Hebrew the KJV does have the first half-verse as “Why have the heathen raged” (in accord with KJV except for tense/aspect). So the word puzzling Dmitry is either gonna be some form of a verb that could plausibly correspond to “rage” or some form of a noun that could plausibly correspond to “heathen,” but note that the latter could also be a word that would seem to just mean “nations” (the LXX has ἔθνη/ethne, which to Greek-speaking Jews often meant nations-other-than-themselves, i.e. the pagan goyim).

  4. Dmitry: However, English why does not distinguish clearly between purpose and cause, nor does what … for. In particular, a why-question about a voluntary act always asks for the purpose, as the cause is considered self-evident: Why are you going to town? means ‘With what purpose?’ The converse case, What are you shivering for? may seem a little ironic, as if shivering served some purpose of mine, but I still would unhesitatingly reply “It’s cold in here” with no real sense of irony in the moment.

  5. John: True, of course. Actually, the border between the two is always rather vague regardless of language: one can e.g. argue that purpose of an action is (in most cases) its cause. Then again, in today’s informal Russian, there are ways to express both with the same word too: taking your examples, one can say ‘Чего ты едешь в город?’ and ‘Чего ты дрожишь?’ So, to be on the safe side, I’d reformulate my statement in this way: зачем is nowadays always a question about a deliberate purpose, unless used ironically, while почему, one about external causes.

  6. But what does шаташася mean?
    In modern Russian шататься is ‘rock, sway; be unsteady,’ but in OCS it’s used to translate Greek φρύσσω ‘rage, be furious.’ And языцы is the plural of языкъ ‘tongue; language,’ which in OCS was also used for έθνος ‘nation, people’; the plural, as in Greek (and Hebrew), was used for ‘pagans, heathens, unbelievers.’

  7. You’ve got “язьщы” for “языцы” in the first paragraph.

  8. Another misprint in my Narezhny text, I fear.

  9. Yeah I got tongues ~~ heathens, and possible equivalence of шаташася / шататься; both are transparent for a contemporary Russian speaker. But I wondered if шаташася / шататься are just false cognates, or if the cognacy is true, then what ancestral meanings it stems for. Septuaginta uses εφρυαξαν which is an inflexion of φρύσσω but it’s usually interpreted as just “being irrational / being led astray” and it’s hard to make a clear connection to “being wobbly”.
    But I see that Vasmer did make this connection, presumably through the meaning of “wandering aimlessly”:
    Происходит от праслав. формы *šętati, от которой в числе прочего произошли: др.-русск. шатати ся «блуждать», также «хвалиться» (Александрия, ХV в.), ст.-слав. шѩтаниѥ (φρύαγμα; Супр.), сербск.-церк.-слав. шѩтати сѩ (φρυάττεσθαι), русск. шатать, укр. шата́тися «шататься», болг. ше́там «хожу туда-сюда, хозяйничаю, прислуживаю», сербохорв. ше́тати, ше̑та̑м, ше̑ħе̑м «ходить», словенск. šétati sе «гулять», чешск. šátati «двигать». Праслав. *šętati сравнивали, принимая начальное ks-, с готск. sinþs «ход, раз», др.-в.-нем. sinnan «отправляться, стремиться, помышлять», ирл. sét «дорога». Кроме этого, предполагали *sket- (*kset-) с носовым инфиксом, связанное чередованием гласных с лит. skàsti «прыгать, скакать»

  10. vskuyu would seem to be something like “wherefore,” no?

  11. >Just for a bit of hair splitting: in modern usage, зачем is ‘what for’ rather than ‘why’ (i.e. it questions the purpose rather than the cause), our usual ‘why’ being почему.

  12. Cherie: The distinction might not be more logical, but it seems to be more pronounced. E.g. a phrase like ‘Не зачем, а почему’ (to answer a question such as ‘Зачем ты это сделал?’) is perfectly usable and has a very clear meaning of ‘I didn’t intend to, I had to.’
    On the other hand, there also is, of course, a whole spectrum of words and expressions to denote more subtle nuances of meaning, ranging all the way from почто and чему (archaic but still understandable unlike the вскую), up to the emotional – and often rude – versions of какого черта/хрена/etc.

  13. ‘Не зачем, а почему’
    a very similar dualism of simple words expressing intent exists in нарочно vs. нечаянно, which require Latin roots to be expressed in English: on purpose vs. accidentally, or intentionally / unintentionally.
    нарочно <= obs. рок “fate” which is sort of counterinuitive since it stands for things one *can* change, rather than for something preordained.
    нечаянно <= obs. чаять “to desire”, in a way very similar to Spanish “sin querer” which almost begs being understood as “without love” but which of course just means “without intention”.
    So to the lame I-didn’t-want-to excuses (“Я нечаянно!”), you’d receive a frank rhyme in reply: “За нечаянно бьют отчаянно” (smth. like “For ‘accidental’, spanking won’t be gentle”)

  14. marie-lucie says

    Dmitry: Spanish “sin querer” which almost begs being understood as “without love” but which of course just means “without intention”.
    The original meaning of querer is ‘to want’, and ‘to love’ (a person) is a later meaning. So sin querer is literally ‘without wanting to’ (cf French sans le vouloir ‘unintentionally’). The French cognate of querer is the now old-fashioned quérir ‘to go get’.

  15. Another rhyme illustrating зачем vs. почему usage 🙂
    Just spotted on LJ:
    Продираю глаза утром в муке,
    Сонной мухой плетусь целый день.
    Ах зачем я сидел на фейсбуке,
    Ах зачем я читал эту хрень…

  16. I just thought of a really good title for something: Crème de la Kremlin.
    I don’t have any use for it and I’m not going to write an article around it so I’m giving it away. And don’t tell me it’s not called ‘la Kremlin’. It’s free.

  17. That’s great. While we’re on the subject, I’m giving away the title Twilight in Flushing. I’ve been trying to do so for over forty years. (For the uninitiated, Flushing is a place near NYC.)

  18. And talking of Flushing, anyone interested in hiring a Russian major, a New Yorker fresh from Hamilton College? Someone to translate those legal docs or answer your NY-Moscow calls? Get in touch with my good friend Peter Matthiessen Wheelwright on facebook.
    And now back to our regular spam.

  19. Flushing is a place near NYC.
    Actually, Flushing is a place in NYC. The Mets play baseball there (if you can call what they do playing baseball).

  20. That’s true. I think it’s also where the World Fair was–the one that left that spaceship behind that becomes so important at the end of Men in Black.

  21. Oh! Oh! I finally have a place to ask about this!
    I remember a line of dialog from a silly kids’ show called “Far Out Space Nuts”. It starred Chuck McCann and Bob Denver.
    Bob’s character had done something silly and Chuck asks, “For why did you do that? For why?”
    I remember the unusual phrasing, which has stuck in my head all these years.
    I don’t remember anybody else using that phrase, have you? Thanks.

  22. des von bladet says

    Mr G. Chaucer used it; it doesn’t seem to have caught on.

  23. I have heard it, but not often and not recently. My uninformed guess would be that it’s a half-calque from Yiddish far vos?, literally ‘for what?’

  24. David Marjanović says

    The original meaning of querer is ‘to want’

    Preserved in English quest. Quaestor, quaerere “ask/search”…

  25. but it is the famous bass aria from Handel’s Messiah?
    How come/вскую it’s transformed into
    ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?’

  26. Sashura: Because, like all the lines from Messiah, it is a Biblical quotation.

  27. marie-lucie says

    And not just any Biblical quotation, but from the famous King James Version.

  28. yes, from King James Bible. I think the comparison of OCS and English shows why King James Version has been so powerful.
    I have a question, slightly off-topic. My last year’s book discovery was Maugham’s Christmas Holiday, his take on Crime and Punishment and bolshevism.
    In one scene Charley and Lydia, the two main characters, are in the Louvre. Lydia takes Charley to a still life by Chardin, with ‘a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine.’ Charley doesn’t think much of the painting but Lydia, in a longish monologue, explains to him that ‘It’s the cry of the despised and rejected. It tells you that whatever their sins men at heart are good. That loaf of bread and that flagon of wine are symbols of the joys and sorrows of the meek and lowly.’
    ‘Despised and rejected’ is of course a reference to Isaiah 53-3, the counter tenor aria in Messiah. In Russian: Он был презрен и умален пред людьми, муж скорбей и изведавший болезни, и мы отвращали от Него лице свое; Он был презираем, и мы ни во что ставили Его.
    My question is: which of Chardin’s still lifes are they looking at? The one in the Louvre has a brioche with a fleur d’orange stuck into it (La Brioche). Not quite the poorman’s lunch. The one that fits the description is Les apprêts d’un déjeuner, but it is in Lille. Does anyone recognise the picture?
    Full text of Christmas Holiday is here, link to the scene on p.240.

  29. And not just any Biblical quotation, but from the famous King James Version.
    Nope, I quoted the KJV in my post (“Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?”). When I google this one, all I get are references to Handel, so either he or someone he hired rewrote the psalm to make it easier to set.

  30. mmm, you are right. Wikipedia says Charles Jennens, the author of the libretto and Handel’s friend, combined King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

  31. I’ve just looked up the Book of Common Prayer (print, 1969):
    ‘Why do the heathen so furiously rage together : and why do the people imagine a vain thing?’ Psalm 2:1.
    He only changed ‘heathen’ to ‘nations.’

  32. Recall: with the help of two FB friends the Chardin mystery has been solved. It’s the picture from the National Gallery by a 19th Century imitator. Maugham ‘moved’ it to the Louvre. He talked about it in a Life article.

  33. Just revisiting this post to point out that Odoevsky, in his 1844 masterpiece Русские ночи [Russian nights], which I’m now reading, starts a paragraph “Зачем мятутся народы?,” which is the modern Russian equivalent of the Church Slavic “Вскую шаташася языцы” discussed in the post. I’m wondering whether it’s his own translation or whether he was using the banned Bible Society version discussed in this post.

  34. I’m reading Sologub’s first novel, Тяжёлые сны [Bad Dreams, 1895] and I just got to where the protagonist Login’s cynical friend Andozersky says of a mutual acquaintance: “На словах блажен муж, а на деле вскую шаташася, как говорят семинаристы” [In words he’s “Blessed is the man,” but in fact he’s “Why do the heathen rage,” as the seminary students say].

  35. I’ve started reading Konstantin Fedin’s 1924 novel Города и годы (Cities and Years, “one of the first major novels in Soviet literature”), and I just got to a scene where a bunch of Petrograders dragged out in the middle of the night to do some required ditch-digging are finally told they can go, and one of them sighs “Вскую, господи!” Thanks to this post, I knew it meant ‘Why, O lord!’ but I was curious to know how Michael Scammell rendered it in his translation; it turns out he has “In vain, oh Lord!” In other words, he confused вскую with the more common (if still archaic) всуе. Understandable, forgivable even, but still annoying.

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