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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Separated by Bridges, Divorce and Fate

Разводить/развести: to lead in different directions, divorce, divide, separate, scam, cultivate, dissolve, distribute and a thoroughly annoying bunch of other meanings

The verb pair разводить/развести is one of my personal headaches. It’s not just the polysemy — multiple meanings — or the seemingly illogical diverse meanings. It’s the combination of polysemy and puns in Russian headlines that does me in. I can’t tell you how many minutes I’ve spent staring at a headline, wondering if the person being described was divorced, scammed, taken home, nurtured or dissolved in a vat of liquid.

It shouldn’t be that hard. The word is easily dissected: the prefix раз- (action in various directions, reversed, done to completion) and водить (to lead). So one meaning is pretty easy to get: Хозяева развели гостей по комнатам (The hosts showed the guests to their rooms).

It’s not much of a stretch to the next meaning: to separate or divide something. You should remember this meaning if you spend time in St. Petersburg: Ночью разводят мосты (At night they raise the bridges; literally, “separate” them).

People can be separated by forces beyond their control: Нас развела судьба (We were divided by fate). But they can also be separated by a state official at their request, at apparently any age: В Великобритании развели 98-летних супругов (In Britain, a 98-year-old couple was divorced).

Разводить/развести and the related noun разводка can also refer to various kinds of distribution. For those of us doing apartment remodeling (yes, I know it’s getting boring, but: Кто о чём, а вшивый о бане — people talk about many things, but someone with lice keeps nattering on about the banya), разводка воды means the whole system of pipes and gauges that distributes water through your apartment — what I’d call “the plumbing.” The electrician also does разводка — the routing of electricity in the apartment — what I’d call “the wiring.”

Разводить руками is a gesture of opening your arms to express bewilderment, amazement, and/or mental impasse. Think of it as a kind of full-body shrug of “Huh?”

And with that, we exit the domain of easily understood meanings and enter the realm of all-over-the-map meanings. In the courtyard we have развести костёр (to light a bonfire). In the kitchen we have развести соду в стакане воды (to dissolve baking soda in a cup of water), which is similar to the dinner table развести спирт водой (to cut grain alcohol with water). In the barnyard, we have развести кроликов (to raise rabbits). In the drawing room, we have the colloquial развести чепуху (to yammer nonsense).

It’s also possible to use this verb pair when talking about how to separate a mark from his money, that is, when describing a scam. This can be rather genteel: Она развела отца на новую машину (She cajoled her father into giving her a new car). But most of the time, it isn’t:

Развели её на 1000 долларов (They conned her out of $1,000). Меня развели! (I was scammed!)

And then there are those annoying punning headlines. For example, I found a site with the banner: Вас развели? Поздравляю! I thought it meant: Have you gotten divorced? Congratulations! I was expecting upbeat tips about the single life. But no, it was a site telling you what to do if you lost your savings, apartment or car to crooks.

But then again, depending on the lawyers, it could be the same thing, couldn’t it?

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