The Most Satisfying Word in Russian

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Дом: house, home, household

I fall in love with the sound of words. I admit that this is truly weird, but since it does not harm the environment, cause weight gain or insult people, I figure it is the most benign of my oddities. True, when I stand on the street and smile dreamily as I repeat a particularly delicious word, people tend to stare and walk around me. But on Moscow's crowded streets, this might be a plus.

For sheer sound satisfaction, the Russian word дом (house, home) cannot be beat. Round and plump, it is as self-contained as a cottage in the woods and as resonant as the peal of a bell. In my mixed-up brain, sounds cross languages and cultures so that дом joins up with "dome," "home" and the meditative "Om" to create an aural image of comfort, security and contentment. That's one nice little word.

And it's versatile, too. Дом combines three English notions: house, home and household. Дом and its derivatives can refer to any structure from карточный домик (house of cards) to многоквартирный дом (apartment house). If you want to specify that a building is residential, call it жилой дом (residence, apartment house). Like its English equivalent, дом can refer to a dynasty: Глава дома Романовых Великая княгиня Мария Владимировна поздравила избранного на пост Президента Д. А. Медведева. (The Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, head of the House of Romanov, congratulated Dmitry Medvedev on his election as president.) Дом can also refer to the folks who live in a building: Весь дом провожал его в армию. (The entire household gave him a sendoff to the army.)

Дом can be applied to a variety of businesses or service organizations. In the old days, the place where you gambled away your life's savings was called игорный дом (gambling hall, casino). Торговый дом was a large trading house or firm.

In the Soviet period, there were millions of clubs for particular groups called Дом писателя (Writers' Club) or Дом художника (Artists' Club), not to mention all those дома отдыха (resorts, recreational centers). Bad translators tried to call the last "Houses of Recreation," which risked confusion with another kind of house: публичный дом (brothel, literally a "public house"). Дом can be used as the name of a store, the best known example being Дом Книги (House of Books). In American English, we'd probably call it Book City.

When a professional comes to your home, you use the phrase на дом, with stress on the "на." Мы вызвали врача на дом. (We had the doctor make a house call.) When referring to a service performed or anything done in the house, you use the phrase на дому, with the stress on the last syllable. Клиника делает рентген на дому. (The clinic does X-rays in your home.)

The sibilant and caressing adjective домашний refers to anything connected with a home. Sometimes it's neutral: Я никому не даю свой домашний телефон. (I never give anyone my home phone number.) But it can also imply something homey or homelike. For example, when traders want to draw you into their establishments, they promise домашняя обстановка (all the comforts of home) and домашняя кухня (home cooking). When someone sticks close to home, they are also домашний: Моя дочь -- очень домашняя девочка. (My daughter is a real homebody.) When an animal lives with you, it becomes домашнее животное (a pet, literally "a house animal"). And when you want to refer to all the folks who share your home, you can call them домашние. Все мои домашние простудились. (Everyone in my family had a cold.)

For both Russian- and English-speakers, home is the kingdom where you are king. In fact, Russians have adopted the English expression "a man's home is his castle" and made it their own: Мой дом -- моя крепость.

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