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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Congress' Crash Course in Criminal Slang

Kinut: Originally camp and prison jargon, it meant to con someone out of something, to scam someone. Now, depending on context, it can also mean to shaft someone, to stiff someone, to stand someone up, or to let someone down.

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Much of tough criminal slang has gotten slowly tamed as it made its way into standard Russian. The trick for the translator is figuring out what connotation is being used. For example, naezd, from the verb naezzhat, originally meant "a shake down," "a squeeze," "the bite." And it's certainly still used this way: Oni naezzhali na nashu firmu, i nam prikhodilos otstyogivat im po dva limona kazhdi mesyats. (They put the bite on our company, and we had to fork over two grand a month.) But it can also mean "to come down on someone, give someone a hard time, give someone flak" as in Ne naezzhai na menya! Ya uzhe skazal, chto ya byl ne prav! (Don't give me a hard time! I already said I was wrong!)

When gangs are going to get together for a razborka (a meeting to figure out who's right and who's wrong in a situation, a settling of scores), they might first zabivat strelku ? set a time for the showdown. Now this is so common that two friends might say jokingly, Kogda ty khochesh poiti? Davai zabyom strelku na 5 chasov. (What time do you want to go? Let's meet at 5 o'clock).

Kinut is a prime example of how prison jargon can "mutate" as it enters the standard language. In the criminal world it originally meant "to run a big con against someone, to scam someone." As it began to be used by the general population, it came to mean "to stiff someone, shaft someone, do someone out of something," intentionally or unintentionally. Ya bolshe s nimi ne rabotayu. Oni snachala platili vovremya, no potom u nikh nachilis problemy, i oni kinuli menya na 1000 baksov. (I won't work with them anymore. First they paid on time, but then they had some problems and shafted me for 1000 bucks.) Now Moscow teens use the word to mean "let someone down, stand someone up." On ne prishel na vecherinku. On nas kinul. (He didn't come to our party. He stood us up.)

Kinut is also my favorite example of the perils of translating rapidly-changing slang. Anatoly Chubais used this word to describe Russia's relationship to international financial institutions, saying that ?my (the Russian government) ikh kinuli na 20 milliardov dollarov." (We shafted them for 20 billion dollars). So was this intentional or not? It was translated as "conned" or "cheated," including by Chubais himself. But as we hapless foreigners know, connotations are hard to pick up. To me "to con" and "to cheat someone out of something" connote an intentional scam. I seem not to be the only one who understood it this way, since one headline about the interview read: "Russia Lied to Get Loans, Says Aide to Yeltsin". This was picked up by other newspapers and new agencies, and before you knew it, there was a Congressional hearing and general furor about those lying, scheming Russians. And all over a translation mistake! The interview makes it clear Chubais meant that the failure to repay their creditors was unintentional. He says that "u mezhdunarodnykh finansovykh institutov, nesmotrya na vsyo, chto my s nimi delali ... est ponimanie, chto drugogo vykhoda u nas uzhe ne bylo. " (Despite all we did to them ... the international financial institutions understand that we had no choice).

Meanwhile, I'd love to have the IMF as my creditors. If they are understanding about 20 billion, they wouldn't even blink at a $40 overdraft.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is co-author of a Russian-English dictionary.