Cutting the Jibberish in the Cabinet

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Бодяга: sponge; (sl.) empty chatter, jibberish, BS

A couple of years ago during a Cabinet meeting, President Vladimir Putin asked several ministers to explain why health care reforms were going so slowly. The ministers clearly had nothing concrete that they could deliver to the president and tried to увиливать (weasel their way out) with various отговорки (excuses) and other useless болтовня (chatter). They tried to пудрить ему мозги (to fool; literally, to powder his brain) by talking up a storm, but Putin saw right through it. The president was not happy at all with the говорильня (talking shop), and in the middle of the Cabinet meeting, Putin scolded his ministers with the phrase “Заканчивайте эту бодягу!” (“Cut the BS!”)

The literal meaning of бодяга is a freshwater sponge from which an alcohol-based medicinal solvent is manufactured. The бодяга solvent was popular in the Soviet period to diminish the swelling if you fell or banged into something. Traditionally, after a пьянка (drinking bout) and subsequent мордобой (fight involving a sock to the морда, a derogatory word for face) with one’s drinking buddies, бодяга was a convenient way to cover up the resulting bumps and bruises. This solvent was particularly useful for women if they received a фонарь под глазом (a shiner) from their husbands, who after a burst of passion — and a few drinks — decided to put into practice the centuries-old Russian saying: Бьёт, значит любит (If a husband beats his wife, it means he loves her.) Thanks to a timely application of бодяга, women were able to go to work the next day with a more or less respectable appearance. As Russian men are beginning to appreciate the concept of women’s rights, this expression is slowly but surely losing its direct relevance.

Since the бодяга solvent contained alcohol and was sold for kopeks in every Soviet pharmacy, it was also a favorite cheap standby for бодяжники and алкаши (inveterate drunkards). This is why бодяга is also used to describe any low-quality alcohol, such as самогон (moonshine) or “палёный” (tampered, fake; literally, scorched) alcohol that causes an inordinately high number of poisonings and deaths each year.
Instead of saying “Заканчивайте эту бодягу!” Putin could have easily chosen from a dozen expressions that also mean “Cut the BS!” Some of my favorites include:
• Хватит толочь воду в ступе! (literally, Enough of pounding water in a mortar!)
• Хватит переливать из пустого в порожнее! (literally, Stop pouring [empty words] from one empty glass into another!)
• Or the slangy Сливайте воду! (literally, Pour off some of your water! Вода in this case means empty or filler words.)

To be sure, most Russians adore Putin’s ability to express himself по нашему (like the common person speaks). But there are some, however, who criticize Putin’s use of colloquialisms in official settings on the grounds that it is not fit for a president of a great power. In my opinion, these linguistic purists are чистоплюи (overly fastidious people). Putin’s Russian is far from the “сиволапый” (crude, clumsy; literally, having dirty paws) style that often distinguished Yeltsin’s or Khrushchev’s language, and he is much more colorful than the казённый (stiff and overly bureaucratic) style of Brezhnev, who was infamous for always speaking по бумажке (strictly by reading prepared notes).

In contrast to other Russian and Soviet leaders, Putin’s language is refined and educated. At the same time, the president is able to artfully adorn his speech with colloquial phrases, and he is able to pull this off so nicely because he reverts to slang in an official capacity only on relatively rare occasions — about a dozen times over the past eight years. Thus, the key to Putin’s linguistic mastery can be found in the principle: редко, но метко! (rarely, but right on target!)

Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times. Michele Berdy will return to this spot in January.