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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Russian Prefix Perils Entertain and Distract

If I were to write a chapter on the prefix - those delightful little syllables that contribute to the rich fabric of the Russian language - I would start with one piece of advice: Proceed with caution.

The Russian ??-, ?Ж"-, ?-, ?-, _Ж-, ???-, ?*?*-, ??Ѓ- and І?- to name a handful, are indeed invaluable building blocks that, once mastered, can elevate eager students to a new level of linguistic proficiency. But just as the prefix can be a symbol of proud achievement, it can also be the cause of extreme embarrassment. But more on that later.

The application appears simple enough. Take a word like ????Ж?", or to step. Affix the prefix "Ж-, which indicates, among other things, the beginning of an action, and you've got "Ж????Ж?": to step in, or take the place of.

Let's try a few more.

?????Ж?" means to yield, as in ?????Ж?" ∞Ж∞??Щ* ?*???, or to give up your seat to an old lady. You can also _Ж????Ѓ?", or step on, something, such as _Ж????Ѓ?" _Ж L??_?, to step in crap, or ?????Ж?" ? ?Ж??Ѓ", to join the Communist Party. For those in the military, the prefixes _Ж- and ??- can mean a world of difference. ?Ж????Ж?", for example, means to advance or attack, whereas ??????Ж?" means to retreat.

The good news is that the number of these prefixes is limited, and there is a certain repetitive logic to their usage. The bad news is, there are plenty of exceptions to every rule. Take, for example, one fellow I know, who, during a business trip to the Urals, hurried down to a breakfast meeting 30 minutes late.

?"?Ѓ_Ѓ?*, ? ?*?*??Ж..., he said, excusing himself for oversleeping. Or so he thought. Demonstrating an admirably logical approach to vocabulary building, this unsuspecting foreigner chose to affix the prefix ?*?*-, which usually indicates excess, to the verb to sleep. The sum of these parts should equal to oversleep, right? Wrong. In this case, the word he was searching for was ?????Ж.... Instead, he told everyone he had slept around, as in ? ?*?*??Ж... ? ?_?LЃ?Ѓ І*???ЩЖ?Ѓ, or, I've slept with a lot of girls.

The Russian bureaucrat who witnessed one of my prefix-related errors was far less amused. I was on assignment interviewing a city official who was counting the seconds before he could kick me out of his office when the prefix fairy deserted me. Attempting to bring our meeting to a close, I told him: ? ∞?..."?* _* ∞?І? ?Ж? ?Ж"?...*ЩЖ?" after which he nearly dropped his coffee cup. For the record, I had every intention of saying: ? ∞?..."?* _* ∞?І? ?Ж? ???...*ЩЖ?", which means I won't distract you any more. But instead I mixed up my prefixes, and told him that I would no longer entertain him.

Now that is one way to ??Ѓ?...*ЩЖ?" ?_Ѓ?Ж_Ѓ* Щ ?*∞*, or attract attention to yourself.