The Language of Lust, Love and Cheating

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Похоть: lust

As part of my Spring Self-Improvement Plan, I thought I would make my way through семь смертных грехов (seven deadly sins). Let me restate that. I thought I'd read about the seven deadly sins in order to better avoid them. I did зависть (envy). Next on my list: Похоть (lust). This sounds like more fun. But there's a problem. In order to understand the Russian words for this particular sin, I've had to read reams of detailed definitions and descriptions, which has kept me wallowing in that which I pledged to avoid. So that you will not fall into this trap, here's a short primer on the most interesting sin.

Похоть is actually an easy word to understand, once you know that it comes from the now archaic perfective verb похотеть (to want). There is even a nice old expression: Кто куда похочет, путь найдёт (He who wants to go somewhere will find the path). Then the general desire to do something evolved into the specific desire to do one thing. Похоть isn't bandied about as much as its English equivalent -- perhaps because lust and love are such easy marks for word play, whereas the pair похоть-любовь doesn't have the same alliterative ring.

Next on our list is the tongue twister прелюбодеяние (adultery), defined as an intimate relationship in which at least one participant is married to someone else. It has the verb прелюбодействовать and is known to all from the commandment Не прелюбодействуй (Thou shalt not commit adultery). As far as I can tell -- and here my research has been hampered by the fact that old-school gentlemen scholars didn't analyze the truly interesting words -- this seems to have originally meant something like "an act (деяние) of excessive (пре) love (любовь)." At the turn of the 19th century, a Russian writer defined it as чуждых удовольствий любопытство (something like "curiosity about alien pleasures"), which sounds so fascinating you want to race out and sample some of those exotic delights.

Today, people don't whisper around the water cooler: --лышишь? Маша прелюбодействует! (Did you hear? Masha is committing adultery!) Instead, they say, Маша завела любовника (Masha's taken a lover). Or, Она изменяет мужу (She's cheating on her husband).

Then there is the terse and pithy блуд (fornication, lechery), once defined as the cohabitation of two unmarried people and now defined as половое распутство (sexual dissipation) -- that is, sleeping around. Literate readers will immediately see the connection with the verb pair заблуждаться/заблудиться (to be mistaken; to become lost) and recognize the word from the Biblical блудный сын (the Prodigal Son). You can see the evolution from being lost physically to figuratively to spiritually to sexually. Today, these meanings are quite distinct, but in the 19th century Vladimir Dal, who compiled the definitive Russian dictionary, thought they had so much potential for unfortunate confusion that he wrote, Cлова этого лучше в общежитии избегать (It's better to avoid this word in polite company).

Today, you are not likely to hear someone called блудник or блудница (fornicator), but you might hear someone described as блудный (loose). In medical manuals, this is sometimes neutrally called беспорядочная половая жизнь (literally, "an unorganized sex life"), which sounds more sexually comical than politically correct. Today, if you are being crude, you might say: Он спит с кем попало (He sleeps with anyone who comes along). You might also call someone гулящий/гулящая (a good-time guy/gal). Other terms are gender-specific and definitely sexist. A man can be described with a wink and a smile as бабник (a ladies' man, a playboy) or ходок (someone who gets around), but the terms for women are cruder and more ambiguous. For example, шлюха is a slut and may be a prostitute. This is similar to English, in which most of the words for sexually active women imply money changing hands.

This is definitely discouraging. But I guess that's the point.

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