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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Word on the Street

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??????: brothel; mess

The other evening I was driving home past a metro station when two young women suddenly rushed out into the roadway, waving their arms. For a long second I thought they needed help ... until I registered their clothing (scanty), makeup (garish), and manner (come hither). Oh. Guess they weren't waving at me.

Other than feeling like an utter dolt, it occurred to me that I've never thought about prostitution and the Russian language.

The basic term is hard to misunderstand: ??????????? (prostitute). Like English, the term can also be used to describe anyone who is for sale -- most commonly, politicians. ?? ????? ?? ??????, ??? ??????? ? ??????????? -- ????????? (Didn't you know that politician and prostitute are synonyms?) If you want to make yourself very clear, you might explain that the woman is ????????? (for sale).

Apparently these days the brothel is a bit passe, but should you have cause to refer to one, use the word ??????? (bordello). The other word for a brothel -- ?????? -- has now come to mean any kind of mess. ? ???? ? ???????? -- ?????? ??????! (My apartment is a total wreck!) is not likely to be misunderstood these days, but 100 years ago you would have been announcing that you've got a red light outside the door and rent rooms by the hour.

Today, there seem to be ??????? ??????? (streetwalkers) and ??????? ?? ?????? (call girls), the latter being higher class and more expensive. Most of them have ???????? (pimps). In the Soviet era there were ???????????? (hard-currency prostitutes) working the bars at Intourist hotels. I think the ladies of the evening are still in the bars of better hotels, but now they probably take credit cards and PayPal. The highest class seems to be the ?????????? (kept woman), who only has one client. He provides a luxury apartment, snazzy car and credit card. At the low end of the market in sexual services are women who ???? ?? ?????? (literally "walk the streets"). ?????????????????? ????? ???? ?? ?????? ?? ????????????? ? ???????? ?????. (Amateurs often start turning tricks out of desperation and the need for money.)

?????? ??????? (literally "night butterflies") is a phrase from an old song that has entered the language to mean brightly clothed and made-up hookers. One of my favorite old torch songs from the Civil War era has a prostitute heroine who calls herself ??? ?? ???? (bar sprite), ?????? ???? (black moth) and ??????? ???? (bat). Other terms for prostitutes are tricky, since they either mean hookers or swingers, depending on the context. ??????? ??????? ????????? (women of easy virtue) might charge by the hour (or service) or might be "easy women." Likewise, ??????? ??????? might be a professional or she might be what used to be called "a good time girl." ????? (girls) can be an affectionate term for the girls at the office or it can mean working girls. And in countries like Turkey and Egypt, prostitutes are called Natashas, due to the influx of professionals from the former Soviet Union. If your name happens to be Natalie, consider asking your husband to call you Sally for the duration of your vacation.

In the old days, bad women were ??????????? (libertines), ?????????? (profligates), or ???????? (loose women). Sometimes this meant that they were prostitutes; sometimes it meant that they fooled around on the side. Today bad women are ????? (sluts), a term that also confuses the sex-for-fun and sex-for-fee issue, but which implies condemnation in any case.

One Russian blog that bills itself as ??????? ?????????? (a feminist dictionary) has decreed that all these terms are derogatory. For prostitutes, the blogger proposes calques from English, like ??????????? ???????? (sexworker) or ????????, ??????????????? ??????????? ?????? (a worker providing sexual services).

Well, maybe. But if it walks like a duck ...

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