Tying the Bitter Knot

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Горько! — “It’s bitter,” shouted at a wedding reception so that the bride and groom will sweeten the bitter with a kiss

Ah, spring! The rain-washed air is soft and clean, tender shoots of grass poke through the fertile earth, and young couples in love are celebrating their weddings.

Well, one out of three ain’t bad. Moscow may be a dreary, sodden, slippery mass of ice and mud, but all the same, people are falling in love and getting married. Weddings are always fun. The only trick for the foreign wedding guest is mastering the complex Russian nuptial lingo.

In the old days, Russian matrimonial rituals were complicated affairs that involved the entire community. In the 19th century, сват and сваха (matchmakers, male and female, respectively) visited a potential bride’s parents to extol the virtues of a young man and negotiate the приданое (dowry). Today you can go online to find электронная сваха (electronic matchmaker), брачное агентство (marriage agency) or агентство знакомств (dating service; literally, “an agency for acquaintances”). Свататься is the old-fashioned verb to describe marriage-minded wooing. Он пришёл свататься к нашей дочке. (He was courting our daughter with serious intentions.)

If the young man’s attentions are not spurned, he might pop the question. The most common way to express this is сделать предложение (to propose; literally, “make an offer”), but a romantic young man might say: Я хочу просить твоей руки (I want to ask for your hand). If his heart’s desire says yes, they are жених (groom) and невеста (bride). Less commonly, you can say they are помолвлены (engaged). This is a less obvious state than in the United States; Russian rules of engagement (помолвка) don’t usually involve a diamond ring.

Getting hitched is linguistically tricky in Russian, since you use different verbs for men and women. Мужчины женятся на женщинах (Men take on wives). Женщины выходят замуж за мужчин (Women go out and follow their husbands). This latter form describes the process by which a young woman would leave (выйти) her parents’ home and follow her husband (за мужем) to his home. When you speak of a couple, you use жениться/пожениться. Они поженились в прошлом году (They got married last year).
In Russian, you also use different verbs to describe a civil or church wedding. Here, you must register your civil union in the registry office: зарегистрироваться в ЗАГСе. ЗАГС is the snappy abbreviation for the turgid Запись актов гражданского состояния (Registry of acts of civil status). This process is often used as shorthand for tying the knot: Мы с Машей зарегистрировались (Masha and I got married; or literally, they got “registered”).

To get married in a church is венчаться (literally, “to be crowned”), in reference to the crowns held over the bride and groom’s heads during part of the ceremony. You might also hear: Он хочет идти под венец (He wants to get married; literally, “He wants to walk under the crown”).

Regardless of venue, the wedding ceremony is свадьба. Officially, the ceremony can be described by the dreadful bureaucratic term бракосочетание (literally, “being united in wedlock”).  At the end of the ceremony, the couple is officially declared муж и жена (husband and wife). They can also be called супруги (a married couple), молодожёны or новобрачные (newlyweds).

After the nervousness of the marriage ceremony comes the fun part: свадебный пир (the wedding feast). This is when the guests torture the young couple by taking sips of vodka, declaring it bitter — горько! — and demanding that the couple kiss to sweeten it. After several vodka rounds, the guests don’t go through the pretense of frowning at the bitter brew. They just roar “Горько! Горько! Горько!” and applaud wildly when the newlyweds kiss.

This is a wedding tradition I think we Americans should adopt. It sure beats tossing the garter.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.