New Ways to Insult Americans
- By Michele A. Berdy
- Nov. 07 2008 00:00
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The year: 1965. The place: a suburban bedroom in upstate New York. Little Michele sits at her desk, reading a book. The voice of authority calls upstairs: "What are you doing?" "My homework." I lie and deftly slip my Nancy Drew mystery under my algebra textbook.
The year: 2008. The place: a book-strewn study in Moscow. Big Michele sits at her computer, reading a blog. The voice of authority calls from the kitchen: Чем ты занимаешься? Переводом (What are you doing? Translating). I lie and deftly click back to my Word screen.
I'm not proud of myself. Furtive reading has been a habit since early childhood. Now I justify it as "research." You have to keep up with the language, right? Especially when it concerns youth slang -- and most especially when it concerns youth slang about Americans.
A few years ago, the only vaguely derogatory slang words I could find for Americans were америкашки and америкосы, the first rather affectionate (though condescending), the second more contemptuous (but still rather friendly).
Ah, what a difference a few years make. Today, my fellow Americans, we are пиндосы.
Пиндос is an interesting word. As far as I can tell, it first referred to a kind of pony native to the Pindos mountain range in Greece. You can still find the word used in this sense today -- пони Пиндос (Pindos ponies). By the 19th century, it referred to Azov and Black Sea Greeks. In a story by Alexander Kuprin, the writer describes a song "которую привезли с собой балаклавские рыбаки, 'солёные греки,' или 'пиндосы,' как их здесь называли ... " (which was brought by Balaklava fishermen, "salty Greeks," or "Pindosy," as they were called here).
In the 20th century, the meaning of пиндос gets rather foggy. Internet informants recall the word being used since the 1970s with various meanings in various regions and venues. Someone says that in the 1970s in the South it was used to mean a homosexual (педераст). Someone else remembers it as a general term of disparagement in the Army in the 1980s. A third person recalls it being used as derogatory slang for black people in the early 1980s.
It seems like it was a word in search of a definition. It has richly obscene, vaguely comical and highly derogatory sound associations. Open your dictionary of Russian obscenities to entries under "П" to get a sense of the possibilities.
The search came to an end during the Kosovo war. Some sources maintain that it is the Serbian word for penguin and was used to describe waddling U.S. soldiers, weighed down by equipment. However, a quick check of an English-Serbian online dictionary produces pingvin. In any case, in the 1990s пиндос seems to have been Russian Army slang for U.S. soldiers in Kosovo. Then it began to be applied to Americans in general.
It's not a nice word. The most common usage is something like this: До чего эти пиндосы тупые! (Can you believe how dumb those Amuricans are?)
Where do we пиндосы live? In Пиндостан, aka Пиндосия, Пиндосея or Пендосия. This is useful to know if you read contemporary literature. Viktor Pelevin's collection of short stories is called П5: прощальные песни политических пигмеев пиндостана (P5 or Parting Poetry of Pindostan's Political Pygmies).
I'd like to agree with President Dmitry Medvedev who said in his address to the nation: Но, подчеркну, у нас нет проблем с американским народом, у нас нет врождённого антиамериканизма (But I stress, we don't have a problem with the American people; we don't have inherent anti-Americanism).
Well, maybe not inherent. Maybe cultivated.
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.