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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: A Christmas Wish List For Students of Russian

One of the things I love best about the holiday season is the excuse to romp through used book stores looking for special gems for special friends. I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend a few out-of-print treasures for the Russian-language student on your list, even if that happens to be you. Of course, I can't guarantee that you'll be able to find these titles (that is the thrill of shopping for used books), but ask the clerk anyway -- you may even make a friend.

To my mind, the absolute all-time classic book about the Russian language is one that you should have little trouble finding since it has gone through many editions: "Ot dvukh do pyati" (From Two to Five) by the classic children's writer Kornei Chukovsky. This volume collects hundreds of examples of grammatical "mistakes" and leaps of logic that children make, hilariously illuminating some of the most interesting corners of the language.

One child, for instance, tells his mother, "Lozhis' na moyu podushku, budem vmeste moi son smotret'!" ("Lie down on my pillow and we'll watch my dream together!"). Another logically wonders, "Pravda, mama, trolleibus -- eto pomes' tramvaya s avtobusom?" ("Is it true, mama, that a trolley is a cross between a tram and a bus?").

I also like Viktor Odintsov's "Lingvisticheskiye paradoksy" (Linguistic Paradoxes). This surprisingly readable book for grade-schoolers dares to ask questions like whether it is acceptable to use the feminine form of a verb with a grammatically masculine noun like vrach (doctor) when referring to a woman. Answer: yes, and this practice is becoming increasingly common (it is certainly preferable to making up a feminine form of vrach like vrachikha).

Finally, I would draw your attention to "Iz zhizni slov" (From the Life of Words) by Eduard Vartl'yan. This is a phraseological dictionary that explains the origin, meaning and usage of some of the most colorful expressions in the language, from simple ones like lebedinaya pesnya (swan's song) and l'vinaya dolya (lion's share) to poetic ones like ob"yatiya Morfeya (the arms of Morpheus). It tells, for instance, how the phrase posle dozhdichka v chetverg (after rain on Thursday) came to mean the equivalent of the English phrase "when hell freezes over."

This Soviet-era book is also charming for some of its politically motivated asides. Before explaining the phrase zhyoltaya pressa (yellow journalism), the author points out that v sovetskoi strane pechat' -- velikaya sila, napravlennaya na blagiye tseli (in a Soviet country, the press is a great power directed toward positive aims).

I am told that Vartl'yan has another book entitled "Puteshestvie v slovo" (A Journey Into the Word), which I have never seen. If you come across it, let me know.