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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Damsels in Linguistic Distress

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?????: slang for a young woman -- babe, chick, skirt (literally "heifer")

Girls, girls, girls! Russian has a rich assortment of words to describe girls and women, from their infancy to their dotage, be they maidens or slatterns. It can be a bit confusing for us foreigners, since the connotations and meanings differ in various centuries and various genres -- and today depend on tone, context and sometimes even the age and social status of the speaker. The good thing about this is that if you make a mistake, you can pretend that you were making an allusion to 19th-century Russian poetry. No one will believe you, but it's a good way to show off a bit of erudition.

The first mistake we non-Russian speakers make is to confuse ??????? and ???????. ??????? is a little (or even a baby) girl: ??? ?????? ???????! (She gave birth to a little girl.) ??????? is a female from puberty to somewhere close to middle age, whenever the speaker chooses to make the switch to ??????? (woman). ??????? is also the term many people use to address a woman, young or not so young, in some form of service, such as a waitress or salesclerk (although this is rude by standards of good Russian).

The connotations and meaning of ?????? have changed over the centuries. When you read very old Russian literature, it has the whisper of folklore and is something like a "maiden" in English. It is often used with adjectives such as ?????? (comely) or modified as ??????-????????? (fair maiden). Today ?????? can be used to describe any young woman, often somewhat disparagingly: ??, ??? ??????, ???????? ?? ????????? ???? ?????. (As usual, he brought a couple of birds/chicks/girls to the party.)

???? ????? is the Virgin Mary, and in literature ???? is often associated with purity. You can see the differences in meaning between ???????, ?????? and ???? in this passage, miserable to translate, from Goncharov: ??? ??? ???????, ? ?? ???? ?? ??????????? ? ??? ???? ??????. ???? "?????", ?? ????? ???????? ?????? ? ?? ????????, ????? ?????????, ??????????, ??? ?????????? ?? ???????. (She was still a little girl; there was nothing even the least bit maidenly about her. And with her robust nature and coarse, almost crude upbringing, it was certainly unlikely that she'd turn into a young lady.)

The virginal aspect of ???? becomes less flattering, however, when referring to an older woman: ?????? ???? is an old maid.

The connotations of the diminutive ????? depend on context. It can be rather positive: ??????? ????? -- ?????, ?????? ? ??????????! (She's a great girl -- smart, kind and caring.) Or it can refer to a prostitute of the lower sort: ?? ??? ????? ??????? ?? ??????. (Her husband took up with hookers.)

And then there are the folksy and colloquial ??????, ???????, ????????. All of these terms for young women can be used by older women, particularly in the countryside, among themselves as a show of affection. ??, ????????, ???????????? ?? ?????! (Well, girls, we sure had a good time last night!) My sources tell me the collective noun ??????? (girls/gals) appeared in the 1920s as the female equivalent of ?????? (guys) and is still used today among friends: ???????, ???????! ??? ?????????? ?????? ????? (Come on, girls. Who will give the first toast?)

In Moscow you can hear ????? (literally "heifer") for an attractive young woman (a babe). In more refined St. Petersburg people can refer to a young woman as ??????? (young lady, literally "the daughter of a nobleman"). Today, youth slang is filled with dozens of words for young women, many of which come from English, such as the dreadful ????? and ????? and their endless, equally reprehensible, diminutives: ????????, ???????, ???????, ????????, ??????, ????????.

It would seem that in Russia today, fair maidens are but a memory.

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