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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Passionate Misunderstanding

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?????: zeal, passion, histrionics, spirit, flash (depending on context)

Ok, kids, it's Friday morning -- time for a pop quiz:

????? is: a) a famous seaside resort in Cyprus; b) some Greek concept we learned in literature class; c) the son of Pygmalion and Galatea; d) something flashy; e) passion; f) all of the above; or g) I have no bloody idea.

Having now spent a full day on this word, I can tell you with certainty that the answer is both f) and g) -- since the more examples I find, the more my head spins. With false friends like these, who needs enemies?

The reason this word makes me so tetchy is that both the Russian ????? and the English pathos come from the same Greek word, and logically there should be no confusion. Indeed, both Russian and English dictionaries inform the diligent student of language that the Greek word means ??????? (passion). But here's the first problem: It seems to be the old meaning of passion as suffering (??????? ?????? -- the Passions of Christ).

The second problem is that the English meaning has changed over the last 150 years. My 1828 edition of Webster's dictionary defines pathos as "passion, warmth or vehemence in a speaker or language; that which excites emotions and passions." That, my friends, is a pretty good definition of the Russian ?????. In Russian literary language, ????? refers to something that inspires and stirs the emotions. ?? ???????? ? ???????. (He spoke passionately.)

But today in English the meaning of pathos has strayed further along the suffering and sadness scale, and now usually means the power of speech or literature to evoke sadness or sympathy, while in Russian, it strayed further along the heightened emotions scale. The result today is a textbook example of false cognates.

Sometimes in Russian it can mean over-the-top enthusiasm or emotion in the derogatory sense. ? ?? ????? ?????? ????? ????????? -- ??? ??????? ????????. (I don't like that director's films -- they are way too histrionic.) ??????? ? ??????? ??????????, ??? ? ????? ????? ???? ?? ????????? ??????????? ???????????? ????????? ??????. (The minister emphasized with gusto that by the end of this year we'd completely revive Russia's industrial might.)

The adjectival forms of pathos/????? really make this parting of the evolutional ways clear. ???????????? ??????? is definitely not a pathetic speech -- it's an inspiring or passionate monologue. If you want to describe something pathetic in Russian, depending on the context you might use the words ?????? (pitiful), ????????? (useless) or perhaps ???????? (miserly).

But if you want to remind yourself of the older meaning of the adjective in a number of languages, go to the bilingual Beethoven section of your favorite music store, where you will find his "Pathetique" Sonata and ???????????? ??????.

????? has three other meanings that can confuse the addled English speaker. It can mean the spirit or main idea of a work of art: ????? ?????? -- ? ????? ? ????????????. (The main idea of the novel is love for humanity.)

And the capitalized ????? is Paphos, both a Cypriot town and resort and the offspring of the mythical Pygmalion and Galatea.

But what about this: ????? ??????? ????? ? ????, ?? ????? ????? ????. ??? ??????? ???????? ??????? . "Last night I went to a club, but I didn't stay long. The crowd was..." Filled with zeal? Overly enthusiastic? Nope. Today this is slang for "posh" or "flashy." This slang is new enough that the meaning doesn't quite seem fixed yet. Some of my informants said it meant "all flash, no substance." Others said it meant "high class in every way." ?????, too, is being used in this sense: ??? ?????? -- ??? ???, ???? ????? ??????? ????? ??? ??????? ??????. (This car is for those who want high class without flash.)

I don't want either high class or flash. I just want an understanding of Russian that isn't so pathetic.

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