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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It's Altogether Confusing

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??????: in general, always, actually, on the whole, wow!

I don't watch much television these days, but when I do, I enjoy the advertisements. Or rather, I enjoy listening to the advertisements. Or rather, they drive me nuts, but they provide plenty of linguistic food for thought.

One that caught my ear was for laundry detergent. Hubby plays a trick on wifey, dressing a scarecrow in his best white shirt and putting it in his muddy courtyard. The little woman is convinced that the filthy shirt will never be clean again, until a stranger magically appears with a box of detergent and she gives it a try. When she pulls the spotless, snow-white shirt out of the washer, she squeals: "??, ??????! ????????!"

???????? is easy to understand; it means "to go crazy," and in this context means something like: Amazing! But ?????? -- which wifey pronounces as "?????" -- is more problematic. You can toss your dictionary out the window. The standard meaning of "in general" or "on the whole" makes no sense in this context. At some point in the evolution of the Russian language, ?????? became a kind of generic interjection of astonishment. The little woman's delight at her hubby's clean shirt might be translated as: "Wow! I'll be darned!"

This sense of astonished "wow" is frequently heard in the phrase: ??, ?? ?????! (You're really something!) But that "something" can be either very bad or very good. If you have just finished painting the hallway and are covered from head to toe with paint spots, hubby might use "??, ?? ?????!" to mean: What a bloody mess! But if you are modeling your new sexy dress cut so low in the back it makes you blush, his "??, ?? ?????!" means: What a knock-out!

In general, ?????? is one tricky little adverb.

In some cases the word does mean "in general" as advertised. ??, ??? ???? ??????? (So how are things in general?) It can be used to distinguish the general from the specific: ? ?? ? ?????????? ?????? ?????? ... ? ??????. (I don't mean it literally. I'm speaking in general terms.)

Sometimes it has the sense of "generalities:" ?????? ???????? ?? ??????? ??????? ????? ??????. (It's hard to speak in generalities about the history of Russian drama.) Sometimes it means "overall:" ???? ???????? ???????? ????? ???????? ?? ??? ?????? ????? ??????. (You must distinguish the love life of the writer from his overall personal life.)

In other contexts it has more the sense of "always," or, when used with negated verbs, "never." ? ?????? ?? ???. ???????? ??????? ??????. (I never drink. Alcohol is bad for you.) ?? ?????? ?? ????? ??????. (He isn't answering the phone at all.)

Sometimes, especially when "??" is added to the word, you might translate it as "actually:" ? ?????? ????? ???????. (Actually, I'm a quiet person.) ??????-?? ? ????????? ????? ?????. (As a matter of fact I'm planning to go home.)

In colloquial speech it seems to be used as a kind of filler word or intensifier: ? ?? ?????? ??? ?? ??????????????? (So what's your nationality anyway?) ? ??? ?? ?????? ????????? (What on earth are you talking about?!)

Or it can wrap up many complicated notions into one vague little packet, as in this rather uninspired toast from a play: ?????????? ????, ????. ?????? ??? ????, ? ?????? -- ???? ????????! (Happy birthday, Lena. Forget about everything, and all in all -- to your health!)

After spending a few hours with this tricky little word, I've come to agree with theater director Stanislavsky, who had a famous rant about ??????: ????? ??? ??????? ?????! "??????" -- ???????????? ? ?????????????. ... "??????" -- ???????? ? ????????????. ... "??????" -- ??? ???????? ? ?????? ?? ???????. (What a dreadful word! It is superficial and silly, chaotic and senseless. ... It starts everything and doesn't end anything.)

??, ?aa??!

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