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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Avoiding Profanity, Ignorance and Stupidity

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???? ??? ??????: thick as a brick, dumb as a plank

I have been told that there is one phrase that makes all economists want to scream. "I'm not an economist, but..." After that "but," the noneconomist goes on to spout total economic nonsense with the sublime confidence that only comes from total ignorance.

In Russian, this kind of person is a ?????? (an ignoramus). In English, economists might consider his utterances "profane," but they are more likely to use profanity to describe him.

So how did two words, profane and ??????, with the same Latin root, diverge in meaning? Both Russian and English etymological dictionaries tell you that the words come from the Latin pro- (before) and fanum (temple), and they meant people standing in front of the temple -- the uninitiated. This meaning still exists in English, but the word "profane" is more commonly used to mean something or someone contemptuous of what goes on in the temple, and "profanity" is most commonly used to mean "bad words" (these were once words that used the Lord's name in vain). Russian stuck with the notion of "the uninitiated," and now the word is used to describe anyone who knows nothing about a particular field. ??? ?????????? ?????? ????? ?????? ? ???????????????? ???? ???????. ?? ? ? ???? ???? ?????? ??????. (She wants to buy a new car and asked my opinion. But I don't know the first thing about cars.)

?????????? is ignorance of any sort, although it often seems to mean what I call Ignorance-with-a-capital-I: a state of unenlightenment that can be cured only by religion or education. ??-?? ?????? ??????????, ???? ?????? ???????????? ???????? ???? ????????. (In their ignorance people value their material needs more than spiritual ones.) But ?????????? can be down-to-earth, too: ?? ?????? ??????????, ???????? ??????? ?? ?????? ????? ??????? ???????? ????????, ? ????? ??????????, ??? ??????? ??????????? ????? ??????????. (In his ignorance, the gallery owner overlooked the canvas, but later it turned out that the painting was done by Rembrandt.)

In the case of the incompetent gallery owner, you might sneer: ????????! (Dilettante!) ???????? and ??????????? (dilettantism) are good words to bandy about when there is a clear lack of professionalism. ???????? can also be used to mean an amateur. ??? ??? ??????, ????? ????????? ??????? ????????, ? ?? ?????????????! (Look what can happen when galleries are run by amateurs instead of professionals!)

If you were the gallery owner's partner, you might shout: ?? ??? -- ?????? ????? ???????? ?????????? ?? ?????????, ? ?? ?????? ?? ?????????????! (Were you born yesterday? The buyer doesn't dicker over the price, and you don't suspect a thing?!) When someone doesn't even know the basics about something, you can ask if he "fell from the sky": ?? ? ???? ????????, ??? ??? ????? ?? ?? ?????????, ??? ???? ???????? ??????????? (What planet are you from? Don't you know you have to get an expert analysis?)

When someone is not brilliant, but not totally stupid, you can say: ????? ? ???? ?? ??????? (literally, they don't have all the stars from the heavens.) ?? ???????? ??????, ?? ????? ? ???? ?? ???????. (He's not a bad student, but not the sharpest pencil in the box.)

If you've abandoned politesse, you can resort to simple insults like ?????? (dolt) or ????? (idiot). You might add the word ??????? (literally, "round") as an intensifier. Here, the roundness seems to be similar to the English notion of "all-around" -- ??????? ????? is someone who is a total idiot.

Russians also say someone is ???? ??? ?????? (as dumb as a cork), an expression from a longer saying: ?? ???? ??? ?????? -- ???? ?? ??????, ??? ? ??????. (He's as dumb as a cork -- wherever you stick him, that's where he stays.)

Now that's really dumb.

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