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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shame on You!

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???? ? ????!: For shame!

One of the crackpot theories I've been nurturing over the years is that the world's nations can be divided into two groups: those who are prone to guilt and those who are prone to shame. Guilt is between you and your conscience: you know you have done something wrong and your conscience won't let you forget it. But shame is between you and the people around you: you know that what you have done -- or who you are, or what you believe -- is condemned or disdained by others.

Alas, like all crackpot theories, this one has a lot of leaks. People feel both. In fact, you could say, "I feel guilty about it, but I'm not at all ashamed."

But I keep returning to my theory because words for guilt and shame, and the cultural weight of those emotions, provide fascinating insights into national values.

In Russian, ???? (guilt) was originally related to the words ????? (war) and ???? (warrior) and seems to have combined notions of fear, error, and failing. According to my favorite Russian linguist, Vladimir Kolesov, in old Russia, these failings were the cause and source of a person's sin (????).

????? (ignominy, disgrace) comes from the old word ????? (to look at) and originally meant attention, observation, or appearance. Over time, it mutated from the act of looking at a person and came to mean a spectacle or disgrace. In 19th century literature, ????? or the verb ???????? (to disgrace) were often invoked with regard to a person's honor. ??? ?? ?????? ??? ????????? ????????? (How dare you blacken my reputation?!) Today, honor seems but a quaint memory, and ????? is much more banal. ???????? ??????, ? ?? ????????? ?????. (Do a good job on your presentation or you'll make the company look bad.) ????? is not only the shameful result of actions, but the act or thing that brings shame: ? ?????????? ??? ??????. ????? ?????! (I looked at his work. It's a disgrace!)

A millennium or so ago, ???? (shame) was originally ???? (a feeling of coldness) and described the physical experience of shame -- when your blood runs cold from the humiliating awareness of your improper behavior. ???? (disgrace, shame, dishonor) was originally ????? and meant "hoarfrost" -- as if your skin were coated with a thin layer of ice. No wonder ???? ? ???? go together in Russian: First your heart freezes from shame, and then your skin is covered with rime -- the external sign of the internal awareness of dishonor.

Both ???? and ???? had to do with public perceptions, not private guilt. An old Russian folk saying clarifies matters: ????? ????? ????, ????? ?????? ?????. (You sin before God but feel shame before people.)

Today, of course, ???? ? ???? are less poetic and more down-to-earth. ??? ??? ?? ??????! (Shame on you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!) is right up there with the top ten imprecations shouted by Russians. The insolent answer is: ? ??? ?? ??????. (I'm not ashamed.) When you hear that, you can sigh: ?? ??????? ????! (You've lost all sense of shame!)

???? has two forms that are milder on the scale of shamefulness. ???????? and ????????? can express shyness or modesty. ??? ???????? ????????. (She modestly blushed.)

But ???? and ??????? (to disgrace, bring shame, defame) are still very strong words. ??????? ?? ??? ????? ??????? ?????? ????? ???????? (How much longer will we dishonor the graves of our ancestors?) ???? can also still be heard, though not often, as an old-fashioned term for "genitals." ??? ???????? ????? (What can I cover my nakedness with?)

Judging by etymology and frequency of usage on my mythical map of the world, I'd label Russia as a nation prone to shame. Which I suppose means that there is still hope.

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