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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Pudgy to Pooh Bear

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?? ???? ?? ????!: Good luck!

The year 2006 will go down in the annals of weather history as the one that wouldn't give Muscovites a break. First a bitter cold winter with mountains of snow, then a miserably chilly spring with apocalyptic storms, and now -- just when we are finally enjoying more than two consecutive days of shirt-sleeve weather -- we are hit by yet another disaster: ???!

???, as we all know, is that downy, fluffy, fuzzy white stuff that covers the city, clogs car radiators, short-circuits vacuum cleaners, chokes joggers and starts fires every year in June. It is more precisely called ????????? ???, from the word ??????, usually translated as poplar. But your friendly, tree-hugging, obsessive word-hunter has discovered that in the United States we call this tree the eastern cottonwood, named for its cottony seedpods that one botanist lyrically describes as "tufts of silky white hair." Lovely.

When viewed through a thick pane of glass, that is.

Russian journalists refer to ????????? ?????? (cottonwood blizzards) and ????????? ??????? ??????? (the annual fluff invasion), and note: ?????? ???????? ????? ?????? ???? ?????. (Cottonwoods sprinkle white snow over the entire city.) It's a two-week tourist attraction. ??? ???????? ??????? ? ???????? ???????????: "?! ? ??? ? ?????? ???? ????? ???? ????!" (Cottonwood fluff sends visiting foreigners into ecstasy: "Gosh! In Russia it snows even during the summer!")

But it isn't just the incongruous beauty of ??? we foreigners like. It's the sound of the word. ???: as soft as down, like a whisper on the lips or kiss on the air. Lovely.

As a word, that is.

??? also refers to "down" in the sense of soft and fuzzy hair: ?????? ? ???? ?? ?????? ????? ???????, ? ?? ???? ??? ???????? ???. (The hair on his head was coarse, but his unshaven cheeks were covered with soft down.) And it's the soft feathers on birds, which has given us other lovely words, like ??????? (powder puff) and ???????: either a feather bed or -- for the last decade or so -- a down parka.

Then there is the charming diminutive adjective ?????????? (from ??????), which refers to anything -- or anyone -- pleasingly plump and soft. It is usually used to describe children or small animals, like in this over-the-top loving description of a first-born son: ??? ??????????, ??????????, ??????????, ?????????? ???????! (My sweetie-pie, chubby-wubby, lovey-dovey, yummy son!) But it can even be applied to a sweetie-pie of more venerable age: ??????, ??? ????? ???, ???? ??????????? ?????, ??????????. (True, he's already in his forties, but he's still really cute and pudgy.)

And ??? is, of course, the Russian Winnie: ????? ???.

??? is also found in a number of vivid expressions. ? ??? ? ???? -- literally "into down and dust" -- is used with verbs to mean "to the utmost" or "to death." This is most commonly used with the verb ??????? (to smash or destroy): ??? ??????? ?????? ? ??? ? ????! (They smashed the enemy to smithereens.) But it can also be used -- with less violence, but to the same effect -- in this phrase: ??? ???? ???????? ? ??? ? ????. (She was dressed to kill.) Or: ??????????? ? ??? ? ?????. (They lost their shirts at cards.) Or, in this phrase from Gogol: ?? ? ??? ???? ?????????? ? ???! (He'll go to rack and ruin in three years!)

Most of us know the word ??? from the expression ?? ???? ?? ????, which literally means "not a bit of down, nor a single feather," and is said when wishing someone good luck. This as a classic example of Russian superstition: so as not to jinx a hunt, you wish the hunters bad shooting.

Lest you think this is one of those odd Russian folk rituals, it's good to recall the standard American wish for good luck: Break a leg!

But hopefully not while walking knee-deep in ???.

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