what is the eternal scarecrow?

Kigiku shiragiku
sono hoka no na wa
naku mo gana

White chrysanthemums,
Yellow chrysanthemums, —
Would there were no other names!

From ancient times the thing and its name, God and His name, were considered as in some way identical. The name being known, the thing itself is apprehended in its final essence. The beauty of the white and the yellow chrysanthemums is so overpowering that any other colour is a desecration, a base imitation of them. But desiring that there should be no other names than these lifts them into the realm of which it is said,

The name that can be named is not an eternal name.

One of Ransetsu’s many meanings is: “If we must have names and things with names, let them be few”. There is combined here in a remarkable way a linguistic and material asceticism.

Fuyu kite wa
kakashi no tomaru
karasu kana

Winter having come,
The crows perch
On the scarecrow.

The value of things is in their use. All things may be used for every kind of use. Modern Science may prove this before it is generally accepted on the authority of the sages and poets. All things have therefore infinite value. (This is not quite syllogistic but ’twill suffice.) The crows, like the poet, perceive that the scarecrow that can be called a scarecrow is not an eternal scarecrow, the name that can be named is not an eternal name. 「名可名非常名。」

R.H. Blyth, Haiku Vol. 4, Autumn-Winter

в январе, первого апреля

When I was little, I thought that instead of «День космонавтики» (Cosmonautics Day) one should say «День космонавтиков».

Allow me to explain. I had no clue what космонавтика (cosmonautics) is but did know the word космонавт (cosmonaut) from which, naturally enough, I could form a diminutive космонавтик, i.e. a little cosmonaut. Therefore, «День космонавтиков» (Day of little cosmonauts) makes a lot of sense and is grammatically correct, since the word космонавтиков is in genitive, while «День космонавтики» does not because космонавтики stay in nominative. See what I mean?

Oh, here he goes again, I hear you saying, with those Russian cases. And you’ll be absolutely right. You may recall that we need a number of cases to express the time of day. Today you will see that to talk about time in general (day, date etc.) we need all six (or seven) of them.

Дело было в январе,
Первого апреля.
Было жарко во дворе,
Мы окоченели.


As mentioned before, Russian names for days of the week are more interesting (or, at least, less trivial) than names of the months. I trust you already know them. Now, let’s try to say what day it is today.

Сегодня пятница, двенадцатое апреля две тысячи девятнадцатого года.

(Today is Friday, the twelfth of April of the year two thousand nineteen.)

Note that both the noun пятница and the numeral двенадцатое are in nominative, while the month апреля and year две тысячи девятнадцатого года are in genitive. This can be conveniently translated to English with the help of the preposition “of”.

There is another, equally correct, way to say the same:

Сегодня пятница, двенадцатого апреля две тысячи девятнадцатого года.

Here the numeral двенадцатого is in genitive [1].

Let’s organise some event on that date.

Мы встречаемся в пятницу, двенадцатого апреля две тысячи девятнадцатого года.

(We meet on Friday, the twelfth of April of the year two thousand nineteen.)

Here the date has to be in genitive: двенадцатого апреля, not двенадцатое апреля. But what about Friday? We use the preposition в + accusative: в пятницу, just like we do with hours, e.g. в три часа. In general, days (of the week, holidays, birthdays) require accusative, whether we need the prepositions (в or на) or not: в День космонавтики, на мой день рождения, каждую пятницу, в следующие выходные etc.

В какой день недели, в котором часу
Ты выйдешь ко мне осторожно,
Когда я тебя на руках унесу
Туда, где найти невозможно.

Владимир Высоцкий, «Лирическая»

If we talk about events happening during the week, we need на followed by prepositional case: на прошлой неделе, на следующей неделе, на Страстной неделе and so on. The на + prepositional is also used for particular times of the day: на заре “at dawn” and на закате “at sunset”, in literal as well as in figurative sense: на заре цивилизации
“at the dawn of civilization”.

The preposition в takes prepositional case when we talk about events during the periods of time longer than a week: в апреле, в прошлом году [2], в первом квартале, в двадцатом веке, в каменном веке, в первом тысячелетии. However, if such periods have names that employ genitive, as in год Дракона “Year of the Dragon” or век пара “Age of Steam”, we have to apply the accusative again: в год Дракона, в годы войны, в век пара and so on.

В эпоху войн, в эпоху кризисов,
Когда действительность страшна,
У засекреченного физика
Была красивая жена.

Валерий Бурилов

Events on geologic time scale could be expressed in either accusative or prepositional: в юрский период or в юрском периоде, в мезозойскую эру or в мезозойской эре.

Accusative is needed when we talk about the entire time period, e.g. целый год, or when such period is mentioned in combination with an ordinal numeral, e.g. третий год.

Закричал он:
— Что за шутки!
Еду я вторые сутки,
А приехал я назад,
А приехал в Ленинград!

С. Я. Маршак, «Вот какой рассеянный»

We also can utilise the accusative construction на … год instead of more common в … году:

Сколько я лет с раздушкой знался,
На последний год расстался.

«Дарю платок» (народная)

When we need to indicate duration of time (from… to…), we use either с + genitive / до + genitive construction, e.g. с понедельника до пятницы, or с + genitive / по + accusative, e.g. с понедельника по пятницу.

The dative is used in combination with preposition к in the sense “by”, e.g. к следующей пятнице, к лету, к Новому году. For recurring events, we apply the dative plural: по пятницам, по чётным дням, по выходным.

По утрам, надев трусы,
Не забудьте про часы.

Finally, we resort to the instrumental case for events happening at particular time of day, e.g. ранним утром, or particular season, e.g. раннней весной, прошлой зимой.

Дело было вечером,
Делать было нечего.

Сергей Михалков, «А что у вас?»

Зелёною весной
Под старою сосной
С любимою Ванюша прощается.

Леонид Дербенёв, «Кап-кап-кап»

We need the instrumental to congratulate with any event:

Поздравляю с праздником!

This formula is so common that the word поздравлять is normally dropped, so the congratulation is reduced to just с + instrumental: с днём рождения, с Рождеством, с Новым годом, с днём космонавтики etc.

Case Usage Example
Nominative diary entries пятница, двенадцатое апреля, час дня
Genitive dates двенадцатого апреля две тысячи девятнадцатого года
M minutes to H hour без пяти
from… to… с понедельника до пятницы
Dative by… к девяти часам, к следующей пятнице
recurring events по пятницам, по ночам
Accusative events at particular time в два часа, в половину четвёртого
events on days в пятницу
until… по пятницу
events during the year на следующий год
events during periods that use genitive в годы войны
events on geologic time scale в юрский период
whole period прошлую неделю, всё лето, круглый год
ordinal numeral + period четвертые сутки, первую неделю
Instrumental events during the time of day ранним утром
events during the season поздней осенью
Prepositional sun-related events of the day на заре, на закате
events during the week на прошлой неделе
events during the longer periods of time в апреле, в XIX веке
events on geologic time scale в юрском периоде
Locative events during the hour во втором часу
events during the year в 2019-ом году; на 50-ом году жизни
events during the lifetime на моём веку́


  1. Only a century or so ago, say more or less until the October revolution, the dates were expressed somewhat differently. For example, 12.04.1919 would be «тысяча девятьсот девятнадцатого года апреля двенадцатого дня», literally “of the year one thousand nine hundred nineteen of April of the twelfth day”. Here everything is in genitive, which kind of makes sense — almost. The genitive case shows that something belongs to something else: the month belongs to the year and the day belongs to the month. It is like a Russian doll. Nevertheless, you’d expect the innermost doll, i.e. day, to be in nominative. But here we have дня, not день. Why? Could it be that the “day doll” actually has another doll inside, viz. that of the implied event?
  2. More precisely, we employ в + locative with год (“year”) → в году́.

давайте познакомимся

Ланцелот. Как тебя зовут?
Кот. Машенька.
Ланцелот. Я думал — ты кот.
Кот. Да, я кот, но люди иногда так невнимательны.

We start learning a foreign language with easy stuff. Really easy stuff. Say, introducing ourselves. Let’s assume that we all speak in “complete sentences”, that is, the ones containing both subject and predicate — even though we can do without them very well in real-life introductions [1]:

“Liz. Nice to meet you.”
“You too.”

But I am sure your teacher will insist on complete sentences, so let’s try not annoy them, in whatever language [2]:

  1. — I’m Liz.
  2. — Je m’appelle Isabelle.
  3. — Me llamo Isabel.
  4. — Ich heiße Lise.
  5. — Меня зовут Лиза.

Whoa, wait a minute, you say. Are these really the same?

Of course not. The literal translation of the French sentence [2b] will be “I call myself Isabelle”, where we find a form of the reflexive verb s’appeler “to call oneself”. Likewise, in Spanish [2c], me llamo (first person singular of the reflexive verb llamarse) means “I call myself”, except there is no “I” in this phrase. It is possible to put the personal pronoun there, for the sake of “completeness”: Yo me llamo Isabel, but it is not really necessary.

The German version „Ich heiße“ also can be translated as “I call myself”, except there is no “myself” in the sentence [2d]: the verb heißen, although not reflexive, already means “to call oneself”.

«Меня зовут Лиза» [2e] superficially looks similar to “Me llamo Isabel”, or, at least, this was what I thought when I first heard the “Me llamo” construction. But no. There is no reflexive verb in [2e]. Instead, we have a “normal” transitive verb звать. The literal translation would be “They call me Liz”. Except there is no “they” either. And thus, no subject. But is it then a complete sentence?

Yes it is. We can’t add subject to it without changing its sense. «Они меня зовут Лиза» implies that it is only a specified group of people (они) who call me so (while my real name could be different).

So what is complete sentence anyway? I’m afraid this is the moment to delve into Russian grammar a bit deeper.

First, we need to make distinction between complete/incomplete and two-member/one-member sentences. Two-member sentences (двусоставные предложения) are those boring classical ones with both subject and predicate. One-member sentences (односоставные предложения) have either subject or predicate but not both. For instance, nominal sentences (назывные предложения) have at least one subject (подлежащее) but no predicate:

Зима!.. Крестьянин, торжествуя
На дровнях обновляет путь…

Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.

Чудное море! Чёрное море!
О, этот блеск плюс плеск близкой волны!

Sometimes, nominal sentences consist of just one word (so-called sentence word):

Лето. Жара. Мухи.

In Russian, there are several classes of one-member sentences that only have a predicate (сказуемое) but no subject. For example, impersonal sentences (безличные предложения), which also could be composed of single word:

Темно. “It’s dark.”
Вечерело. “It was getting dark.”
Холодает. “It’s getting cold.”

And yet they are compete, self-sufficient sentences.

In indefinite-personal sentences (неопределённо-личные предложения), the agent is either not important or unknown. The predicate is a verb in third person plural.

Мне позвонили. “I got a call.”
Его уволили. “He was fired.”
Говорят, что кур доят. “They milk chickens, they say.” (Don’t believe every thing you hear.)

«Меня зовут Лиза» belongs to this class too. One can also say «Меня зовут Лизой». What happens here? The name is changed from nominative (Лиза) to instrumental (Лизой). Some argue that using the instrumental case is more correct, or even the only correct. The reasoning here, I imagine, is as follows. The nominative case answers the questions кто? (who?) and что? (what?). Let’s ask Liz:

    Кто Вас зовут?

No, that’s wrong. We already know that in this situation “who” is irrelevant — that’s why they omit “they” from the sentence. The proper way to ask is

    Как Вас зовут? *

This, however, is the domain of the instrumental case which, in a schoolbook, answers the questions кем? (by whom?) and чем? (by what?) but also как? каким образом? (how?). On the other hand, it could be that the nominative in [2e] is in fact the vocative which, by the way, is called in Russian звательный падеж:

    — Меня зовут: «Лиза!»

As the vocative form is identical to nominative and nobody hears the punctuation marks, we just stick to nominative. But, as I said, both forms are correct, it’s a matter of personal taste.

Кавалергард, генерал, сам крупный богатый помещик, и зовут его Павлом Петровичем… [Inst.]

Меня зовут Алексей Васильевич Турбин… [Nom.]

Instead of звать, one can use называть, кликать, величать, the meaning is the same:

В некотором селе жили два соседа: Иван Богатый да Иван Бедный. Богатого величали «сударем» и «Семенычем», а бедного — просто Иваном, а иногда и Ивашкой.

Меня называли орлёнком в отряде,
Враги называли орлом.

Яков Шведов, «Орлёнок»

Веди нас к старшему, какого Александром Анисимычем кличут!

Михаил Шолохов, «Поднятая целина»

More informal, colloquial variant is «Меня звать Лиза» (or «Меня звать Лизой»). This is an example of infinitive sentence (инфинитивное предложение), which sometimes is considered a type of impersonal sentence.

— Как звать-то? — спросил поп, благословляя.
— Фёклой зовут.

Михаил Зощенко, «Исповедь»

Just like French and Spanish, Russian has reflexive verbs, viz. зваться and называться, which mean “to call oneself”. Why can’t we use them?

Я — поэт, зовусь я Цветик.
От меня вам всем приветик.

Николай Носов, «Приключения Незнайки и его друзей»

Я называюсь Колобком, я всем и каждому знаком.

These are complete two-member sentences, with subject (я) and predicate (зовусь, называюсь). Here too, one can put the name in either nominative or instrumental. Цветик seems to prefer former, Колобок latter.

In normal everyday Russian though you won’t hear introductions like «Я зовусь Лиза» or «Я называюсь Лиза». The verb называться is extremely common and is used in connection with the names of objects, living beings, places, organisations, works of art — in short, everything but personal names.

Заведение называлось «Улыбка». Я улыбнулся и пошел дальше.

If this verb is ever placed next to the name of a person, it is done for a somewhat comic effect:

Человечек был буфетчиком в Варьете и назывался Андрей Фокич Соков.

Так что я сейчас называюсь гвардии ефрейтор Вознесенский и служу при майоре Вознесенском связным.

Валентин Катаев, «Сын полка»

The verb зваться can be used to talk about somebody else’s personal names:

Итак, она звалась Татьяной.

«Евгений Онегин»

Звался он Луи Второй…

Леонид Дербенёв, «Всё могут короли»

A beautiful poem by David Samoylov makes use of both reflexive (звалась) and transitive (звали) verbs and, curiously, has names (of winters) in both nominative and instrumental:

Давид Самойлов
Названья зим

У зим бывают имена.
Одна из них звалась Наталья.
И были в ней мерцанье, тайна,
И холод, и голубизна.

Еленою звалась зима,
И Марфою, и Катериной.
И я порою зимней, длинной
Влюблялся и сходил с ума.

И были дни, и падал снег,
Как тёплый пух зимы туманной.
А эту зиму звали Анной,
Она была прекрасней всех.

Another common way to introduce ourselves is similar to the English one. «Я — Лиза» is an almost literal translation of “I am Liz”, except there is no “am”. In modern Russian есть, the present tense form of the verb быть “to be”, is normally omitted.

— Тише, молчать, — отвечал учитель чистым русским языком, — молчать или вы пропали. Я Дубровский.

А. С. Пушкин, «Дубровский»

Голубков. Как? Вы русский? А я вас принял за француза. Как я рад!
Антуан. Так точно, я русский. Я — Грищенко.

Булгаков, «Бег»

— Я — Швондер, она — Вяземская, он — товарищ Пеструхин и Жаровкин.

Булгаков, «Собачье сердце»

In the last quote, Mr. Schwonder introduces not only himself but the rest of his entourage.

Interestingly, the future forms of быть such as будешь and especially будете and будет, can be present when asking about one’s name (origin, occupation etc.):

Бунша (Милославскому). Я извиняюсь, вы кто же такой будете?
Милославский. Кто я такой буду, вы говорите? Я дожидаюсь моего друга Шпака.

Булгаков, «Иван Васильевич»

If it sounded slightly old-fashioned already in the last century, the Strugatsky brothers predicted that by the 23rd century this particular use of будет will die out completely, as illustrated by the misunderstanding between 20th– and 23rd-century interlocutors, respectively:

— А отец ваш, извините, кем будет?
Кем будет? Наверное, так и останется мелиоратором.

Братья Стругацкие, «Попытка к бегству»

“And your father, I beg my pardon, who might he be?”
Who will he be? Most likely, he will remain a land ameliorator.”

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Escape Attempt

So, both two-member and one-member sentences can be complete (полные предложения). Also, both two-member and one-member sentences can be incomplete (неполные предложения). This happens when some formally necessary member(s) such as subject, predicate or object are omitted but the meaning of the sentence is clear from the context or situation.

Женя. Вас как зовут?
Надя. Надя.
Женя. Меня Женя.

Here, only the first sentence is complete (although, as we know, it’s one-member). The rest are incomplete and their meaning cannot be understood out of context.

Let’s start again.

    — Давайте познакомимся.

As mentioned before, Russian reciprocal verbs can lose all elegance in English translation. For example, познакомиться is “to introduce oneselves to each other”, so «Давайте познакомимся» is “Let’s introduce ourselves to each other” or “Let’s get acquainted”. No wonder English speakers never say anything like that before embarking on actual introductions.

This is how the dialogue [1] goes in Russian:

— Я Саша.
— Лиза. Очень приятно.
— Взаимно.

By now you know that one-word sentence «Лиза» could be one of several things. It could be either incomplete one-member sentence «Меня зовут Лиза» or (also incomplete) two-member sentence «Я Лиза». It even could be a complete (one-member) nominal sentence that uses vocative: «Лиза!» In the end, it doesn’t matter: your name in nominative will suffice.

— Максудов, — сказал я с достоинством.

Булгаков, «Театральный роман»

— Изя Кацман, — представился он бархатным голосом. — Мусорщик.
— Сельма Нагель, — лениво отозвалась Сельма, протягивая руку. — Шлюха.

Братья Стругацкие, «Град обреченный»

— Гроссмейстер О. Бендер! — заявил Остап, присаживаясь на стол. — Устраиваю у вас сеанс одновременной игры.


* I prefer «Как Вас зовут?» to «Как тебя зовут?» because it is more polite: you really have to know another person’s name before even thinking of switching to ты or “тыкать”.

epigrams and epitaphs

First published 25 January 2019 @ Listen, Learn, Read

by Robert Burns and Samuil Marshak

Rabbie Burns, I fancy, was not exactly the nicest person in the world. Maybe that’s why I just love his epigrams and epitaphs. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is which. I guess he really wished for some of his epigrams to become epitaphs. In the end, his wish was granted.

Marshak certainly took a lot of liberties with Burns’ epigrams. I think that did them a lot of good. By doing away with proper names, Marshak put these short poems beyond time and place. For example, Epigram On Miss Davies has a subtitle: “On being asked why she had been formed so little, and Mrs. A — so big”. Marshak just called it «Девушке маленького роста» (“To a girl of short stature”). Likewise, On Andrew Turner became «О происхождении одной особы» (“On origin of a certain person”), and so forth.

Happy 260th birthday, Mr Burns.

Robert Burns Роберт Бёрнс, перевод С.Я. Маршака

Epigram On Rough Roads

I’m now arrived — thanks to the gods! —
Thro’ pathways rough and muddy,
A certain sign that makin roads
Is no this people’s study:
Altho’ I’ m not wi’ Scripture cram’d,
I’m sure the Bible says
That heedless sinners shall be damn’d,
Unless they mend their ways.

О плохих дорогах

Я ехал к вам то вплавь, то вброд.
Меня хранили боги.
Не любит местный ваш народ
Чинить свои дороги.
Строку из Библии прочти,
О город многогрешный:
Коль ты не выпрямишь пути,
Пойдёшь ты в ад кромешный!

Epigram On The Laird Of Laggan

When Morine, deceas’d, to the Devil went down,
’Twas nothing would serve him but Satan’s own crown;
“Thy fool’s head,” quoth Satan, “that crown shall wear never,
I grant thou’rt as wicked, but not quite so clever.”

Надпись на могиле честолюбца

Покойник был дурак и так любил чины,
Что требует в аду короны сатаны.
— Нет, — молвил сатана. — Ты зол, и даже слишком,
Но надо обладать каким-нибудь умишком!

On Andrew Turner

In se’enteen hunder’n forty-nine,
The deil gat stuff to mak a swine,
An’ coost it in a corner;
But wilily he chang’d his plan,
An’ shap’d it something like a man,
An’ ca’d it Andrew Turner.

О происхождении одной особы

В году семьсот сорок девятом
(Точнее я не помню даты)
Лепить свинью задумал чёрт.
Но вдруг в последнее мгновенье
Он изменил свое решенье,
И вас он вылепил, милорд!

On Commissary Goldie’s Brains

Lord, to account who dares thee call,
Or e’er dispute thy pleasure?
Else why, within so thick a wall,
Enclose so poor a treasure?

О черепе тупицы

Господь во всем, конечно, прав.
Но кажется непостижимым,
Зачем он создал прочный шкаф
С таким убогим содержимым!

Epitaph On “Wee Johnie

Whoe’er thou art, O reader, know
That Death has murder’d Johnie;
An’ here his body lies fu’ low;
For saul he ne’er had ony.

Эпитафия бездушному дельцу

Здесь Джон покоится в тиши.
Конечно, только тело…
Но, говорят, оно души
И прежде не имело!

On Wm. Graham, Esq., Of Mossknowe

“Stop thief!” dame Nature call’d to Death,
As Willy drew his latest breath;
How shall I make a fool again?
My choicest model thou hast ta’en.

Эпитафия Вильяму Грэхему, эсквайру

Склонясь у гробового входа,
— О смерть! — воскликнула природа,
Когда удастся мне опять
Такого олуха создать!..

On John Bushby, Esq., Tinwald Downs

Here lies John Bushby
honest man,
Cheat him, Devil —
if you can!

Надгробная надпись

Прошел Джон Бушби честный путь.
Он жил с моралью в дружбе…
Попробуй, дьявол, обмануть
Такого Джона Бушби!

On Elphinstone’s Translation Of Martial’s Epigrams

O Thou whom Poetry abhors,
Whom Prose has turned out of doors,
Heard’st thou yon groan? — proceed no further,
’Twas laurel’d Martial calling murther.

Переводчику Марциала

О ты, кого поэзия изгнала,
Кто в нашей прозе места не нашёл, —
Ты слышишь крик поэта Марциала:
“Разбой! Грабёж! Меня он перевёл!..”

Epitaph On Wm. Hood, Senr., In Tarbolton

Here Souter Hood in death does sleep;
To hell if he’s gane thither,
Satan, gie him thy gear to keep;
He’ll haud it weel thegither.

Эпитафия церковному старосте, сапожнику Гуду

Пусть по приказу сатаны
Покойника назначат
В аду хранителем казны, —
Он ловко деньги прячет.

On James Grieve, Laird Of Boghead, Tarbolton

Here lies Boghead
amang the dead
In hopes to get salvation;
But if such as he
in Heav’n may be,
Then welcome, hail! damnation.

Эпитафия владельцу усадьбы

Джемс Грив Богхед
Был мой сосед,
И, если в рай пошёл он,
Хочу я в ад,
Коль райский сад
Таких соседей полон.

Epitaph For James Smith

Lament him, Mauchline husbands a’,
He aften did assist ye;
For had ye staid hale weeks awa,
Your wives they ne’er had miss’d ye.
Ye Mauchline bairns, as on ye press
To school in bands thegither,
O tread ye lightly on his grass, —
Perhaps he was your father!

Надпись на могиле сельского волокиты

Рыдайте, добрые мужья,
На этой скорбной тризне.
Сосед покойный, слышал я,
Вам помогал при жизни.
Пусть школьников шумливый рой
Могилы не тревожит…
Тот, кто лежит в земле сырой,
Был им отцом, быть может!

Epigram On Miss Davies

Ask why God made the gem so small?
And why so huge the granite? —
Because God meant mankind should set
That higher value on it.

Девушке маленького роста

На то и меньше мой алмаз
Гранитной тёмной глыбы,
Чтобы дороже во сто раз
Его ценить могли бы!

Epigram At Roslin Inn

My blessings on ye, honest wife!
I ne’er was here before;
Ye’ve wealth o’ gear for spoon and knife —
Heart could not wish for more.
Heav’n keep you clear o’ sturt and strife,
Till far ayont fourscore,
And while I toddle on thro’ life,
I’ll ne’er gae by your door!

Трактирщице из Рослина

Достойна всякого почёта
Владений этих госпожа.
В её таверне есть работа
Для кружки, ложки и ножа.
Пускай она, судьбой хранима,
Ещё полвека проживет.
И — верьте! — не промчусь я мимо
Её распахнутых ворот!

Epigram To Miss Jean Scott

O had each Scot of ancient times
Been, Jeanie Scott, as thou art;
The bravest heart on English ground
Had yielded like a coward.

Мисс Джинни Скотт

О, будь у скоттов каждый клан
Таким, как Джинни Скотт, —
Мы покорили б англичан,
А не наоборот.

Lines Written Under The Picture Of The Celebrated Miss Burns

Cease, ye prudes, your envious railing,
Lovely Burns has charms — confess:
True it is, she had one failing,
Had a woman ever less?

К портрету известной мисс Бёрнс

Полно вам шипеть, как змеи!
Всех затмит она собой.
Был один грешок за нею…
Меньше ль было у любой?

послушай, Зин

The first time I read the word зин I almost fell off the chair. (I was sitting on the sofa though.) Of course, зин is nothing but a Russian spelling of zine, itself a short of fanzine (фэнзин), which is a blend of fan and magazine. However, the meaning of the Russian word магазин (shop, store) is very different from that of magazine. My first association of зин was with the name Зин as in Vysotsky’s song:

“Ну, и меня, конечно, Зин,
Всё время тянет в магазин,
А там — друзья… Ведь я же, Зин,
Не пью один!”

Владимир Высоцкий
«Диалог у телевизора»

“And, of course, Zin,
I always long for the <liquor> store,
There are my friends, because, Zin,
I never drink alone!”

Vladimir Vysotsky
Dialogue by the TV set

By the way, I already mentioned this song when discussing Russian terms for in-laws. But why Зин instead of Зина?

You might remember that Russian has six cases. Or at least this is what we were taught in school. Well, that is not exactly true. There are remnants of up to ten additional cases! One of them is vocative. According to Russian Wikipedia, the historic Slavic vocative started to die out (by getting mixed with nominative) as early as XI century. By XIV—XV its use was restricted to addressing the higher social ranks and by mid-XVI century it disappeared from vernacular altogether, the only remaining forms being those to address the clergy. Nevertheless, until 1918, the vocative case was formally listed as the seventh case of the Russian language.

Nominative Vocative Meaning
Бог Боже God (in monotheistic religions)
Господь Господи Lord
Иисус Иисусе Jesus
Христос Христе Christ
владыка владыко lord; bishop
отец отче father
старец старче (literary) old man; elder
царь царю tsar, king
князь княже prince
человек человече human being, person

The handful of surviving vocative forms are still very common in both literary and spoken Russian.

Врачу, исцелися сам!

Physician, heal thyself

Отче наш, иже еси на небесе́х!
Да святится имя Твое…

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Не лепо ли ны бяшет, братие, начяти старыми словесы трудных повестий о полку Игореве, Игоря Святославлича?

Might it not become us, brothers, to begin in the diction of yore the stern tale of the campaign of Igor, Igor son of Svyatoslav?

«Чего тебе надобно, старче

“What do you need, old man?”

Ой, как худо жить Марусе
В городе Тарусе!
Петухи одни да гуси.
Господи Исусе!

Oh what trial is Tarusa
For the girl Marusya —
Nothing but the hens and geese,
What a living, Holy Geez!

Он говорит в ответ:
— Мёртвый или живой,
Pазницы, жено, нет.
Сын или Бог, я твой.

He, in turn, explained:
— Dead or alive, this time,
Woman, it’s all the same.
Son or God, I’m thine.

In Ukrainian, vocative (кличний відмінок) is alive and kicking. In Russian literature, it is widely used to give a Ukrainian feel to dialogue (while leaving the rest 100% Russian):

— Не смейся, не смейся, батьку!

— Не слушай, сынку, матери: она баба, она ничего не знает.

Н. В. Гоголь
«Тарас Бульба»

“Don’t laugh, don’t laugh, father!”

“Don’t listen to your mother, my son; she’s a woman, she doesn’t know anything.”

Nikolai Gogol
Taras Bulba

— Вы не медик, панычу? Медики, те привыкают сразу.

М. А. Булгаков
«Белая гвардия»

“Not a medical man, are you, sir? Medical gentlemen soon get used to it.”

Mikhail Bulgakov
The White Guard

In modern Russian, a number of nouns of the first declension and some (typically, diminutive forms of) given names which end with or could drop the ending to form a “neo-vocative” («современный звательный» or even «новозвательный падеж»). For instance, (nominative) Зинаида → (diminutive nominative) Зина → (diminutive neo-vocative) Зин.

Full Nominative Diminutive Nominative Diminutive Neo-vocative
Александр (m), Александра (f) Саня Сань
Саша Саш
Шура Шур
Анна (f) Аня Ань
Ася Ась
Нюра Нюр
Алла (f) Алка Алк
Андрей (m) Андрюша Андрюш
Владимир (m) Вова Вов
Вовка Вовк
Володя Володь
Елена (f) Лена Лен
Зинаида (f) Зина Зин
Иван (m) Ваня Вань
Мария (f) Маня Мань
Маша Маш
Михаил (m) Миша Миш
Надежда (f) Надя Надь
Николай (m) Коля Коль
Ольга (f) Оля Оль
Тамара (f) Тома Том
Томка Томк
Татьяна (f) Таня Тань
Танюша Танюш

These short forms can make for almost untranslatable wordplay:

Как-то раз в коридорах Центрального телевидения встретились диктор ЦТ Ангелина Вовк и канцлер ФРГ Хельмут Коль. Произошёл любопытный разговор:
— Как дела, Вовк?
— Да ничего, Коль!

Андрей Кнышев, «Тоже книга»

Normally full Russian names do not form neo-vocative, so we don’t say “Алл”, “Анн”, “Елен”, “Надежд”, “Ольг” etc. Of course, there are exceptions, for example Вера → Вер, Зоя → Зой and Тамара → Тамар. A small number of “family” nouns, viz. мама (mum), папа (dad), тётя (auntie), дядя (uncle), баба (granny), wonderfully combine with proper names to form binary constructions which take neo-vocative as in “дядя Ваня” → “дядь Вань” or “баба Шура” → “баб Шур”.

deep and inscrutable singular name

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey —
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter —
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum —
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

marimekko names

Translated literally, Marimekko means “Mary-dress”, but it has other connotations as well. Mekko is an old Finnish word that means “little girl’s dress” which suited the fresh, new look of Marimekko in 1951, while at the same time connecting to Finnish tradition. There is further resonance in the name: “Mari” is an anagram for “Armi”, thus linking the company closely to its charismatic founder, Armi Ratia. The depth of association of the company name extends to the names chosen for the fabric patterns and fashions. While many are straightforward, others defy translation. Some may have been chosen for their phonetic qualities or are deliberate misspellings that will be understood only by Finns as either humorous or old-fashioned. Others are in dialect or are old adages that may be unfamiliar today even to Finns. These will still have a phonetic impact or emotional content for most Finns, but probably not for others.

the naming of names

They came to the strange blue lands and put their names upon the lands. Here was Hinkston Creek and Lustig Corners and Black River and Driscoll Forest and Peregrine Mountain and Wilder Town, all the names of people and the things that the people did. Here was the place where Martians killed the first Earth Men, and it was Red Town and had to do with blood. And here where the second expedition was destroyed, and it was named Second Try, and each of the other places where the rocket men had set down their fiery caldrons to burn the land, the names were left like cinders, and of course there was a Spender Hill and a Nathaniel York Town…

The old Martian names were names of water and air and hills. They were the names of snows that emptied south in stone canals to fill the empty seas. And the names of sealed and buried sorcerers and towers and obelisks. And the rockets struck at the names like hammers, breaking away the marble into shale, shattering the crockery milestones that named the old towns, in the rubble of which great pylons were plunged with new names: IRON TOWN, STEEL TOWN, ALUMINUM CITY, ELECTRIC VILLAGE, CORN TOWN, GRAIN VILLA, DETROIT II, all the mechanical names and the metal names from Earth.

And after the towns were built and named, the graveyards were built and named, too: Green Hill, Moss Town, Boot Hill, Bide a Wee; and the first dead went into their graves.

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

this one makes a lot of noise

She had seen the advertisement in the newspaper and had been immediately intrigued by the name of the person who had placed the advertisement. Who was this Mr Fano Fanope? It was an unusual name, but its musical qualities seemed very suitable for one who offered classes in “dance and movement, and the social skills that go with those things”. As to the name, Fano Fanope was a bit like Spokes Spokesi, the famous radio disc jockey. These names had a forward lilt to them; they were the names of people who were going somewhere. She reflected on her own name: Grace Makutsi. There was nothing wrong with a name like that — she had certainly encountered stranger names in Botswana, where people seemed to like naming their children in an individual and sometimes rather strange way — but it was not a name which suggested much movement or ambition. Indeed, one might even describe it as a safe name, a rather stodgy name, the sort of name that might well be held by the leader of a knitting circle or a Sunday School teacher. Of course, it could have been much worse, and she could have been burdened with one of those names which children then spent the rest of their days in living down. At least she was not called, as one of the teachers at the Botswana Secretarial College had been called, a name which, when translated from Setswana, meant: this one makes a lot of noise. That was not a good name to give a child, but her parents still did it.

Alexander McCall Smith, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

the secret of zumba

There is no doubt that Zumba Fitness owes its success in significant part to its name. The story goes that the company’s co-founders Alberto “Beto” Perez, Alberto Aghion and Alberto Perlman, aka “three Albertos”, were deliberately trying to find a name which rhymes with “rumba”:

Their first stumbling block came when they went to trademark Rumbacize, a play off Jazzercise and rumba, which means to party in Spanish. They discovered Rumbacize had been covertly registered by the owner of a fitness club where Perez taught classes. So the three Albertos went to a Houston’s restaurant in North Miami Beach and brainstormed.

“Bumba. Cumba. We said everything trying to find something that rhymed with Rumba,” Perlman recalled. “Wumba. That sounded like something for pregnancy.”

They were getting nervous. Nothing sounded right.

“Then we got to Zumba,” Perlman said. “That’s it. We were excited.”

A nice story, that. They had to go all way down the alphabet until the last letter did the trick. The Zumba Fitness’ Trademark Usage Guide goes as far as to claim that


The word ZUMBA® was coined by our company, and is an arbitrary or fanciful word we selected as the original brand name that identifies Zumba Fitness’ dance fitness programs and related products.

But did three Albertos really coin a new word? Of course not. They should have been well aware that there is a word zumba in Spanish. As a noun, it means “teasing”, “bashing”, or “beating”; zumba is also a form of the verb zumbar “to buzz”, “to hit”, “to tease”, “to nick”, or, surprise surprise, “to have sex”. Curiously enough, Zumba Fitness LLC urges us to never use the word “Zumba” as a noun or verb, only as an adjective. This is an absurd demand as it goes contrary to the already established usage. (“Are you going to Zumba?”, “Let’s Zumba” etc.)

But why is “Zumba” such a good name? I think the secret is that (a) it is short and (b) it is easy to pronounce. In particular, the sounds in “Zumba” are organised this way:


(where ⊏ stands for a consonant, ⊔ a vowel, and ⊓ a nasal consonant). This pattern pervades the names of music and/or dance styles such as banda, bomba, changa, conga, cumbia, danza, ganga, funky, landó, limbo, lundu, mambo, mento, punta, punto, rumba, samba, semba, songo, tambu, tango, timba, tumba and zamba, to name a few. So it is exotic and in the same time vaguely familiar. It has a jaunty feel about it. It sounds like a name of a cute animated creature: Bambi, Dumbo, Simba, Pingu, Rango

It is more important to be easily pronounceable than exotic. There is no need to travel far: we are literally surrounded by ⊏⊔⊓⊏⊔ words and names. Many languages, including English, favour them. There’s bound to be a neighbour called Cindy, Sandy, Mandy, Randy, Wendy or Monty. They eat candy or drink shandy. It’s windy today, it’s Sunday tomorrow. We like these words so much that we join them together in reduplications: hanky-panky, mingle-mangle, mumbo-jumbo, namby-pamby. It does not mean that if we like the name we have to like what the name stands for. (We may love pandas but hate mambas.) The reverse, however, is not true: the good cannot be given repelling name. (Even if Willy Wonka and his Oompa-Loompas annoy us, there is no way we’ll fall in love with Vermicious Knids.)

Fancy going to Zumba tonight? You can’t say “no” to that. Wanna try Bokwa? Not so sure. What about Piloxing? Definitely not, it’s a horrible word.

A handy property of a good name is its ability to form nicely sounding compounds and portmanteaux. I would argue that the conditions (a) and (b) are necessary although not sufficient. It comes as no surprise that ⊏⊔⊓⊏⊔ words are good at that. Examples include Mamborama (“mambo” + “panorama”), Sambadrome (“samba” + “-drome”), Tanghetto (“tango” + “ghetto”), Biodanza (this one is kinda obvious)… Here Zumba is doing well too: Zumbatomic, Aqua Zumba, Zumbathon, even Zumba Green (a colour which I call “toxic yellow”). Now imagine what would happen if they still were called Rumbacize.