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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Etymological Escapades

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??????? ??????: someone who is all flap and no fly

Ever wonder "where did that word come from?" One of the fun aspects of Russian -- and in these days of pre-spring misery, we need all the fun we can get -- is the derivation of words and phrases. Russian etymologists spend their days combing ancient texts and modern newspapers, tracking how something that appeared in print in 1256 drifted down to 2005 with various letter substitutions, stress shifts and changes in meaning.

Take, for example, ??????, the nice ploppy, sloppy-sounding word that means "swamp." It is derived from ?????, a mythical Slavic god who lived in damp places and ruled over trading deals and financial transactions. To placate this god, the ancient people of Russia used to bring offerings of raisins, berries, mushroom tops and round slices of sausage -- food that looked like coins -- and toss them over swampy ground. They came back the next day to see if their offering had disappeared into the muck. If it had, that was a sign that ????? was pleased with them and would smile on their deal making. If not, time to toss more raisins. It turns out that the expression ?? ??? ? ??????! (the hell with him!, literally, "may he go to the swamp!") was originally a blessing for good financial fortune.

The original Old Slavonic spelling of ?????? was ?????, which has come down to us as the word ???? (connections). Originally ?? ????? meant "with the blessings of the god Bolot," with a guarantee for a successful deal.

And then there's ?????? (station, usually train). This word comes from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens founded outside London in the 17th century. In Russian it was originally spelled ?????? (reflecting English spellings of Fauxhall or Fox Hall) and appeared in the late 18th century. Somehow over the years the meaning changed from "a place of pleasure" to "a pleasurable place to begin or end travels," and the ending -??? mutated to -??? (hall). Now the notion of pre-departure or post-arrival pleasure is somewhat dubious.

Words for "things you smoke" also have interesting histories. ????????, that long cardboard tube topped with a bit of pungent tobacco, has two possible derivations: One is from the North American Indian word papoose -- meaning "baby," picked up, along with the habit, from the Russians who settled in Alaska. Presumably this form of smoking was a "baby" form of the long pipes more commonly used. The second possibility -- hotly contended in the etymology crowd -- is the combination of ???? and the root ???-, meaning "to grow," that is, something "grown-up fathers do."

The origin of the other common word for "things you smoke," ????????, is also contentious. Although most etymologists cite the French cigare, others insist it is from ?????? (Gypsies), who were renowned for indulging in this bad habit.

And it turns out that ?????? (to smoke) and ?????? (chicken) have the same root. The original meaning of ?????? is "to produce smoke," or "to raise up a dust cloud." Apparently this image came to the mind of ancient Slavs as they watched chickens flap their wings furiously without actually flying. It also seems to be at the heart of the expression ??????? ?????? (literally, "a business-like chicken"), or in other words, someone who flaps his or her wings, kicks up the dust, and gets nothing done.

How is the word ???? (business, vocation, deal) related to the verb ?????? (to divide)? Apparently, in ancient Novgorod when two traders quarreled about a deal, the ???? (town council) would resolve the argument by marking two names on a log and then throwing an axe at it. The proportions of the deal (????) would be determined by the sizes of the marked pieces of log after it was divided (??????).

And finally -- if you believe this nonsense, want to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? ? ???? ???????! April Fools! (Only one derivation cited is correct.)

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