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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Mobsters and Presidents Share Common Tongue




Me and my big mouth.


I had finally reached the front of the queue at McDonald's and drawn breath to place my order when a huge and fine specimen of Neanderthal manhood strode up and pushed in front of me with assuredness that said "Object and something very nasty will happen to you."


But before this registered I unfortunately managed to blurt out that I didn't care who he was and that he could wait his turn, and I went ahead and ordered. I walked away with my tray of food with that surreal, uncomprehending feeling you get when you emerge unscathed from a car crash.


He left with his takeaway for 10 people, walking slowly past the window outside, never taking his eyes off me. Call me paranoid, but to me this was a clear-cut case of "well, if looks can't kill ?" and meant it was time for me to grab my Big Mac and fries and make myself scarce. That look, I was later told, can be described in underworld jargon as ty zakazan, f literally you are "ordered," or "you're a dead man."


The thing is, this sort of expression is no longer confined only to the underworld. Criminal slang appears in respected newspapers and can be heard tripping off the lips of prominent political and public figures. After his dismissal, Boris Yeltsin's former chief bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov publicly claimed that a certain prominent banking mogul menya zakazal (ordered that I be killed).


When talking about the state of the country as a whole, Yeltsin uses the word bespredel to mean "lawlessness," when this essentially refers to breaches of unspoken rules of conduct in criminal circles. The word can be found in various official documents and statements.


In these times of conniving political maneuvers, sacrifices and betrayals, new life has also been injected into the verb sdat', meaning to "give up" a person. Formerly, it was people in the underworld who might turn a person over to others: oni sdali yevo mentam (they turned him over to the cops). Now it is fashionable to refer to how, under pressure from the opposition, president sdal reformatorov (the president gave up/sacrificed the reformers). The current buzz among journalists and commentators is whether Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov will now be forced to sdat' his sidekick, First Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov, in order to save his own hide.


Likewise, the verb nayekhat'/ nayezhat' is widely used to describe politicians setting upon one another, while just a few years ago it was confined to talk of gangland feuds.


There are sporadic outcries in Russia at the depiction in foreign films and media coverage of the country as a criminal state. It's a harsh label to apply to any nation, but at times it certainly sounds like it.


Thanks to Dmitry Babich.