When Your Tongue Is the Real Enemy

Неприятель: enemy, enemy troops

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Reading newspapers and blogs is bad for your health. It raises your blood pressure and lowers your immunity. It releases all kinds of nasty hormones into your system, and it plain old ruins your day. I know this, and yet I read on. (Note to self: Consider therapy to deal with masochistic tendencies.) The only good thing about reading the news is that occasionally you come across a Russian word you don't know. And then you get to put down the newspaper, turn off the computer, pull the plug on the radio and television and turn your attention to dictionaries and the delights of Russian literature.

So I was relieved when I stumbled on the word супостат (enemy) in a report about the purported Russian sale of missiles to Belarus. The article ended with the sentence: Достанем с территории Белоруссии супостатов. (We'll be able to hit our enemies from the territory of Belarus.) This was an excellent opportunity to look up супостат in my etymological dictionary and delve into Russian literature. No more fretting about missiles. Nervous breakdown averted.

Супостат came to Russian via Greek and originally meant "devil." Today it is marked as poetic, rhetorical or archaic -- that is, not the sort of word you toss out when arguing with your neighbors. It seems that in the olden days, Russians understood good/evil and friend/foe in terms of God and the Evil One. The common Russian term for enemy -- враг -- originally meant нечистый, чёрт (unclean, fiend). That is, enmity is "от лукавого" (literally, from the crafty one) -- the phrase devout Russians use as a euphemism for the devil. To say the devil's name is to invite his power into one's life. This, by the way, is something we should all avoid these days.

In Russian literature, враг gets modified by a number of emphatic adjectives. Враг can be непримиримый (implacable); сильный (powerful); невидимый (invisible); лютый (bitter); ядовитый (malicious); яростный (fierce); тайный (covert); явный (overt); страшный (terrible); хитрый (crafty); неутомимый (indefatigable); непоколебимый (unwavering); or могущественный (mighty). Whew. Lots of dastardliness to choose from.

In everyday Russian, the enemy is often oneself. If you lose your temper or blurt out something you shouldn't have, you can sigh: Язык мой -- враг мой (my tongue is my enemy). Although there are several English sayings in praise of silence, we don't have an exact equivalent. In America, we might rue: me and my big mouth!

In Russian, you can qualify the negative quality of something by how you use "не" (not). Он не друг means "he isn't a friend." But when you make "не" part of the word -- Он недруг (with the stress on "не") -- the noun is negated to its antonym: He's an enemy. Недруг is a rather old-fashioned word, used in such fairy tale phrases as: Кто там? Друг или недруг? (Who's there? Friend or foe?) But you can use it in everyday speech when you want to make an emphatic and high-toned declaration: Он мой недруг с давних пор (He's been my enemy for a long time).

Another Russian word formed by the same process is неприятель. This word gives me a hard time. It is one of those cases when I, as a foreign reader, cannot get past the first plane of meaning. I always see it as не приятель -- not an acquaintance -- whereas it is almost always a military term that means "enemy troops." So when I read На холме мы увидели неприятеля, I'm thinking: We saw an ill-wisher on the hill. But it really means: We saw the enemy troops on the hill.

As you can imagine, this seriously impedes my reading of "War and Peace." On the other hand, it makes the world seem less dangerous. Almost as good as Prozac.

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