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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What's in a Name?

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Обзываться: to call someone bad names

As president, Vladimir Putin was renowned for giving foreigners -- and sometimes his compatriots -- lessons in arcane or colorful Russian. As prime minister, he is continuing this fine tradition. For example, to rebuke State Duma deputies for speaking too harshly about the Belarus-Russia milk squabble, Putin recalled a phrase from his childhood. "Я воспитывался на ленинградской улице и у нас во дворе говорили, 'Кто как обзывается, тот так и называется.'" (I grew up on the streets of Leningrad, and in the courtyards we used to say, "Whatever name you call someone is what you yourself are called.")

When I heard that phrase, a bell clanged dully in the back of my mind, and I began the arduous task of trolling my memory. It was -- wait -- a school bell, the bell for recess. Kids are in the playground. Someone is taunting and then -- come on, memory! ... Someone sings out ... wait, it's coming ... someone says ... got it: "I'm rubber and you're glue! Bad names bounce off me and stick to you!"

The image may be a bit different, but the idea is basically the same. Score one for the universality of children's schoolyard rhymes. And thanks, Putin, for a pretext to review some tricky verbs.

The basic verb pair for calling is звать/позвать, which means to invite or call in. Нас позвали в гости (They invited us over). You might hear this verb when someone is asking a doctor to make a house call, a service largely forgotten in the United States but blessedly still practiced in Russia. Я позвал врача (I called in a doctor). It's also the verb used to find out what someone is called: Как его зовут? (What's his name?)

The adjective derived from this verb comes in handy when you are in an exalted mood: Много званых, да мало избранных (Many are called, but few are chosen). The noun derived from it -- звание -- means someone's rank or status. Какое у него учёное звание? (What is his academic title?)

Then there's называть/назвать, which means to give a name to something or someone. Как они назвали ребёнка? (What did they call the baby?) Как вы назвали бы такую штучку? (What would you call this thingamajig?) It can also be used when you want to name a characteristic feature of someone or something: Нельзя её назвать красавицей, но она миловидная (You can't call her a beauty, but she's nice looking). Or it can be used for identifying oneself. At conferences, the moderator often says: Прошу всех выступающих назвать себя (Could all the speakers please identify themselves?)

This verb has a reflexive form that is one of the top 10 key words for foreigners learning Russian: называться. Like children, we walk around asking, Как это называется по-русски? (What's this called in Russian?)

And then we come to обзывать/обозвать (to call someone a bad name). You use this form of the verb when a person calls someone one particular bad name: Он обозвал меня дураком (He called me an idiot). You use the reflexive form of the verb -- обзываться -- when a person indulges in a spate of name-calling: Ребёнок обзывается и ругается матом (The kid calls people names and swears).

Or maybe we're being too hard on the kid. Он просто называет вещи своими именами (He just calls a spade a spade).

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