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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What's in a Name?

????????: name of a village in the Vologda region, Tipsyville, Drunktown.

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Russians tend to hold their breath during August, which has become synonymous with political and economic upheavals (the coup attempt, the ruble default) or tragedies (the sinking of the Kursk submarine). This year, however, ????-????-????! -- (the transliteration of spitting three times over one's left shoulder, to ward off evil), August has only brought bad weather. On the other hand, with half Moscow's insane drivers off in the Maldives, the roads are not as clogged as usual, and it is a good time for some road trips. With a notebook and dictionary, of course.

More than a decade of post-Soviet power has not erased the signs of the Great October Revolution on Russia's highways. You can still find a dozen collective farms ????? ??????, 60-????? ??????????? ?????????, or XX ?????? ???? (The Lenin, 60th Anniversary of the October Revolution, or 20th Congress of the CPSU collective farms). But I am fonder of the old Russian place names that once were simply used to describe the folks who lived there or what the place was known for. There are rivers called ??????? (Muddy), ??????? (Mudhole), ?????? (Dark), ?????? (Murky). There is a small village on the way to Tver called ?????? ????? (Black Mud), which does not sound like a pleasant place to call home. Neither would I want to live in ??????? (from the word ?????, garbage) mainly because I would spend all my time doing a bad imitation of Bette Davis, "What a dump!" I do not think I would enjoy the country life in ?????? ????? ("Old Worms") or ???????? (from the word ??????, rotten, "Stinkville"). And woe to those poor souls who live in ??? (Bottom), a city not far from Pskov that may have once seemed like the dregs (a Russian version of Pittsburgh?).

When you come across a name like ?????????????, you wonder what went on there centuries ago. ????? is something shameful, ???? denotes something new. Did the local Vanya take his pants down once again at the annual fair? Did Masha cheat on her husband time and time again? However, in ??????? you must assume the first residents were chicken-hearted (???? is a coward), in ???????? they were simpleminded (????? is a fool), in ?????? they were rubes (??? is slang for a rube, a sucker) and in ???????? they made a lot of noise (?????? means to thump or to bang), although today it sounds more like they were serious drinkers (?????? is slang for "to drink," "to throw one back."). In ???????? they wanted to do something (?????? is "to want"). One wonders if they couldn't have or shouldn't have. Or maybe they did.

They probably did do something interesting in ??????? ???????, a town not far from Moscow which means "Upper Conception." And in ??????????? they did it over and over again (?????????? -- to redo).

It would be embarrassing to live in ??????? (Cheapies), dirty in ???????? (Pigsville), noisy at night in ?????? (Frogsville), dangerous in ???? or ?????? (Bulltowns), miserable in ???????? (Lousyville), sad in ??????? ?????? (Beautiful Grave), and downright impossible to live near the river ?????, which is what Russians say when they do not want to swear. (Every time someone asked you where you went fishing, you would swear at them.) On the other hand, it might be nice to live in ?????? ????? (Nice Bees) and delightful in ??????? ????? (Big Sweetie Pies).

There is a town in the Nizhny Novgorod region called ?????, which probably referred to broken shards of something, but now reminds one of withdrawal symptoms (????? are the shakes, the sweats, when someone stops taking drugs). And in Perm you can find ?????????? ???? (Cocaine Mountains). This would not be too odd if it were a mountain range, but it is a river. The mapmaker must have really tied one on.

And then there are places where the residents clearly ran out of imagination. How would you like to live in a village called ????? (That)? Or better yet: the village of ??-??? ??, ???!

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator.