Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thinking Things Through

Mysl: thought.

One of the fun aspects of Russian is what we called in school "word formation," where you take a root and add a variety of prefixes and suffixes to engineer separate but related meanings. This is a nice trick, and one we can't do easily in English, which is derived from a number of languages so that even related words don't necessarily bear much resemblance to one another.

Take the root word for "to think" myslit and the noun "thought," mysl. Russians are good thinkers; way back in the early days of the collective consciousness they paid a lot of attention to the subtleties of the thinking process. Of the two main words for thinking in Russian, myslit leans more in the direction of "to reason, to make sense of," while dumat can go the other direction to mean "dreamy contemplation." Note that Oblomov lezhal na divane i dumal o svoyem detstve (Oblomov lay on his couch and thought about his childhood), while Rodin's "The Thinker," -- in his pose of serious contemplation rather then dreamy reverie -- is Myslitel.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Mysl, a thought, gives us some useful expressions. U menya etogo i v myslyakh ne bylo (it never even occurred to me); nado sobratsya myslyami (I've got to gather my thoughts); ot odnoi tolko mysli ob etom menya toshnit (just the thought of it makes me sick.)

Put the letter s on the front and you get smysl, which means "sense, meaning." Net smysla seichas vstrechatsya s partnyorami -- my dolzhny snachala razobratsya c byudzhetom. (There's no point in talking to our partners right now -- we've got to figure out the budget first.) This gives us useful notions such as zdravy smysl (common sense) or pryamoi i perenosny smysl (which translates as "literally and figuratively").

Or add the prefix u, which has the general sense of insertion, to the notion of thought and you get umysel (intention, design -- i.e., what's inserted in the thought beforehand). Ya vizhu v ego deistviyakh zloi umysel - mne kazhetsya, chto on khochet nas rassorit. (I see malicious intent in his actions -- he wants us to have a fight.)

Similar to this is zamysel, the thought behind (??) the thought as it were: a plan, design, or scheme. Forma zdaniya otrazhayet zamysla avtora - ono okrugloye i raspolozheno vysoko na kholme kak gnezdo. (You can see the intent of the building in its very form: it's rather round and stands high on the hill like a nest.)

Domysel is "conjecture" -- the thought you think your way up to (??). In Russian it's usually used in the plural: Ty ne znayesh chto on sobirayetsya delat. Eto tolko tvoi domysly. (You don't know what he plans to do. You're just guessing.)

When you add the prefix vy, which has the sense of "movement outwards," you get vymysel, "invention, fabrication, a flight of imagination." Sounds good to me -- a fantasy is a thought that bursts out from reality, right? However, in Russian the connotation is usually negative, as in the phrase: etot rasskaz - chisty vymysel (that story is pure fabrication).

We can bring the thought back down to earth in promysel, which has the sense of an activity that sustains life, from hunting (okhotnichy promysel) to various forms of industry: kustarny promysel (cottage industry), gorny promysel (mining). Promyshlennost (industry) and promyshlennik (manufacturer) are derived from this as well.

However, promysl maintains the archaic meaning of "care," which, with a bit of religious stretching, is a kind of derivative of life-sustaining activity, I suppose.

It means Providence, as in promysl Bozhy neyispovedim. (God works in mysterious ways). You won't find this in many texts -- this is very archaic language. Today you would say puti Gospodni neyispovedimy.

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