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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blame Them for the Rollercoasters

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???????? ??????: safety match

Russian has plenty of words borrowed from other national languages, but it doesn't have too many examples of a nationality itself infiltrating the language.

But the Swedes slipped in -- in a nice way, that is. They gave Russian ???????? ?????? (safety match, literally "Swedish match"), which was invented in Sweden in 1844. Although these are the same kind of matches you light your stove with today, the adjective is no longer used. But you find it in 19th-century literature -- in fact, ???????? ?????? is the name of a short story by Chekhov.

Sweden also gave Russia ???????? ?????? (literally "Swedish wall"), which for a while I thought might refer to wall storage units from IKEA. But no: ???????? ?????? is a wall-mounted ladder, the kind you find in school gymnasiums.

Russians also use the expression ???????? ????? (literally "Swedish family") to conjure up images of wild sexual license. This is hopeful rather than ethnically accurate, and Swedes must get tired of explaining that they may have invented the first safety match, but they didn't take out the world patent on free love.

Swedes have also been immortalized in the expression ??? ???? ??? ???????? (like a Swede outside Poltava). It is used with a variety of verbs that denote defeat or disaster -- ??????? (to burn up), ???????? (to be defeated), ????????? (to die). It refers to a battle between the Swedish and Russian armies outside Poltava in 1709, where the Swedes were trounced. Today it is used to describe a hopeless situation, where you are certain to fail -- like this poor guy trying to invent a rhyming toast at the dinner table: ??????? ?????? ??????? ?????? ?????, ? ?????? ?????: "???????? ?????, ???? ????, ???? ??? ???? ??? ????????". (In an attempt to save what was left of my toast, I begged my friend: "Give me a rhyme -- just one -- I'm dying here!")

The Italians made their mark with both a word and a concept. Who knew that ?????????? -- a (workers') strike -- comes from the Italian word basta (enough)? Some sources claim it came from the 15th century, when the Italian architects working in the Kremlin cried "Basta!" and refused to work. Nice story; too bad it's not true. The original Italian word mutated into the Russian verb ????????? and was first used in card games to end the play, and then eventually to stop work.

The phrase ??????????? ?????????? (Italian strike) appeared to describe the clever protest of Italian railway workers in 1904: they came to work, but did everything so slowly and badly it would have been better if they had stayed home. You can find this phrase in the news every once in awhile: ? 9 ???? ?? ??????? "??????" ???????? ??????????? ??????????. (A work slowdown began July 9 at the Apatit mines.)

One of the oddest of all the foreign attributions is ???????????? ????? (roller coaster, literally "American mountains"), which in a dozen other languages are called "Russian mountains" -- even though the modern version of this ride was invented by the French.

The French-Russian-American ride all started with ??????? ????? (ice slides) built as far back as the 1600s in Russia. Although a Russian inventor in the 18th century made the first version with a track and wheeled cars, the concept was rediscovered by some French folks after a winter trip to Russia and called les montagnes russes (Russian mountains). The trick was picked up by Americans and renamed the roller coaster, which in turn reappeared in Russia as ???????????? ?????. This might have sounded as exotic and exciting to the Russians as les montagnes russes sounded to the French. We Americans stressed the exciting experience, not the exotic origins.

In both Russian and English, roller coasters can be used metaphorically to describe any dizzying experience -- like tracking the etymology of ???????????? ?????.

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