мне нравится

For Anglophone learners, abundance of reflexive verbs in Spanish must be overwhelming. Cómo te llamas, no me acuerdo, pórtate, no se para, siéntese, cómo se dice, tengo que irme, no me daba cuenta, que te calles, nos vemos, fíjate bien, and so on and so forth. For me, on the other hand, it was almost a relief. Wow, it is just like in Russian! (It’s always comforting to find similarity where you least expect it.) Of course, there are plenty of differences between Spanish verbos reflexivos and Russian возвратные глаголы, but the concept is the same. How on earth English even works without reflexive verbs?

True reflexive verbs (лично-возвратные / собственно-возвратные глаголы) are the most straightforward: the grammatical agent coincides with the grammatical patient, so they could be easily rendered in English with the help of “oneself”. Russian мыться / Spanish lavarse is a textbook example, but there are lots of others: вытираться, одеваться, раздеваться, переодеваться, защищаться, наклоняться, опускаться, подниматься, прятаться, скрываться, уколоться. Some of these actions are usually done in front of a mirror (so one has a literal “reflection” to look at): бриться, краситься (in the sense “to make up”), прихорашиваться, причёсываться, умываться

Reciprocal verbs (взаимно-возвратные глаголы) are also easy. Here, English expressions “each other” or “one another”, their clumsiness notwithstanding, are often to the rescue [1]. This class includes встречаться, знакомиться, познакомиться, переписываться, переругиваться, обмениваться, обниматься, целоваться, жениться, разводиться, ссориться, мириться, прощаться and расплёвываться, among others.

In one of The Vicar of Dibley episodes, a comic situations arises from a confusion regarding the request “Will you marry me?”: Mr Campbell asks the Vicar Geraldine Granger whether she would officiate while Ms Granger interprets it as a marriage proposal. No such hilarious ambiguity in either Russian or Spanish: женить / casar is “to marry off”, жениться / casarse is “to get married”, and that’s that.

Beyond these two classes, things get complicated. It could be more useful to talk about “meanings” [2] rather than classes or groups, especially for polysemic verbs. For example, собираться means

  • “to gather” (oneself) as in «Собирайся!» // “Get ready!” (true reflexive);
  • “to gather” (as a group): «мы собираемся по пятницам» // “we gather on Fridays” (reciprocal);
  • “to be assembled”: «ящик собирается из деревянных планок» // “the box is assembled from wooden planks” (passive) [3];
  • “to intend”, “to be going to”: «я собирался поздравить её» // “I was going to congratulate her” (I have no idea how to classify it)

Sometimes the meaning of a reflexive verb is easily guessed from its non-reflexive counterpart. Some other times it is not so trivial: cf. прощать “to forgive” and прощаться “to say goodbyes”, or выбирать “to choose” and выбираться “to get out” (with difficulty). And some other times they are almost opposites, as просыпать “to oversleep” and просыпаться “to wake up”.

«Собака кусается»… Что ж, не беда.
Загадочно то, что собака,
Хотя и кусает ся, но никогда
Себя не кусает, однако…

As Boris Zakhoder points out, кусаться has nothing to do with biting oneself (whereas Spanish morderse means exactly that) but “to bite habitually”, without a definite object [4]; слышаться does not mean “to hear oneself” but “to be heard”; удивляться not “to surprise oneself” but “to be surprised”; родиться not “to give birth to oneself” (how, one may wonder; cloning perhaps?) but “to be born”.

Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной —
Распущенной — и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.

This verse from a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva contains two reflexive verbs: нравиться and соприкоснуться. The former is so-called inherent reflexive verb: the non-reflexive form (нравить) does not exist, at least in modern Russian. The expression «мне нравится» is usually translated as “I like”, but it differs from «я люблю» (literally “I love”) in a sense that there is no active “I” (я). Instead, the reflexive verb нравиться (“to please”) in third person causes я to take dative case to become мне. So more literal translation of «мне нравится» would be “it pleases me”. In «мне нравится Париж» (“I like Paris”) the Russian indirect object (мне) corresponds to the English subject (I) while the Russian subject (Париж) to the English object of liking (Paris). One has to keep that in mind when conjugating the verbs:

Person singular plural
1 я никому не нравлюсь nobody likes me мы нравимся зрителям viewers like us
2 ты ему нравишься he likes you Вы мне нравитесь I like you
3 мне нравится джаз I like jazz ей нравятся Канны she likes Cannes

The verb прикоснуться, just like its unprefixed parent коснуться, means “to touch fleetingly” (something or somebody, but not oneself), while doubly-prefixed соприкоснуться is reciprocal: you need a touching partner (animate or inanimate) to do that.

Other inherent reflexive verbs include бояться, смеяться, улыбаться, надеяться, гордиться, клубиться, трудиться, ерепениться, ёжиться, кукожиться, садиться and ложиться [5]. Finally (and I only say so because I want to finish this post today), some reflexive verbs are both reciprocal and inherent, for instance здороваться “to greet”, препираться “to bicker” and расставаться “to part”.

As a homework, think of (a) perfective and (b) non-reflexive forms of a verb отмухиваться. Can you conjugate them?


  1. The “each other” bit may give an impression that reciprocal verbs should always be used in plural. Not really. One can say «мы встретились», “we met each other” as well as, for instance, «ты мне встретилась» or «я встретился с ней». The former is shorter; the latter variants are better used when one needs to be more explicit about those “we”.
  2. V. V. Vinogradov distinguished at least 15 “meanings” of Russian reflexive verbs.
  3. Качественно-пассивно-безобъектное значение (qualitative-passive-objectless meaning), according to Vinogradov.
  4. Активно-безобъектное значение (active-objectless meaning), according to Vinogradov.
  5. Ложить, the non-reflexive counterpart of ложиться is considered non-standard. It is often used colloquially and/or for a comic effect: «— Ложи, — говорю, — взад! <…> Ложи, — говорю, — к чёртовой матери!» (Михаил Зощенко, «Аристократка»)

blends, melds, portmanteaux

The Oxford Dictionary defines portmanteau as

  1. A large travelling bag, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts.
  2. A word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel or brunch.

It was Lewis Carroll, or rather Humpty Dumpty, who first used the word in the sense (2):

“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Curiously, the word portmanteau (1) is derived from French portemanteau (“coat stand”), which is a compound, rather than a portmanteau (2), of porte (“carry”) + manteau (“coat”). Clearly coat stand is rather different from a suitcase, so French use mot-valise, “word suitcase” (a relatively recent back-translation from English) in the sense portmanteau (2). Confused? I prefer to use much shorter words, blend or meld, this latter itself a blend of melt and weld.

The Wikipedia’s list of portmanteaus (or portmanteaux, if we use the faux-français plural form) includes Benelux, Britpop, Interpol, Medicaid, sysadmin and so on. These are in fact not portmanteaus but syllabic abbreviations, where there is no word part overlap at all. Nor does Brexit belong to this list, although Grexit (from which the word Brexit was probably derived) does. Syllabic abbreviations used to be de rigueur in 20th-century German (Gestapo, Stasi) and Soviet-era Russian (agitprop, proletkult, Mosselprom etc.) which can explain why these somewhat went out of fashion. The word Ostalgie (blend of Ost and Nostalgie) perfectly summarises that complex feeling (yes, we do miss it, but not really) peculiar to the ex-Eastern Bloc citizens.

To my taste, the best melds are those where the phonemic overlap is maximal and the change to each lexeme is minimal, as in adorkable, bromance, hepeating, pregret, sexting, textpectation and, of course, chocolack. They also happen to be humorous. Philip Hensher noted that misunderestimated, an accidental (as is the case with many Bushisms) masterpiece,

is one of George W Bush’s most memorable additions to the language, and an incidentally expressive one: it may be that we rather needed a word for “to underestimate by mistake”.

According to Russian Wikipedia, word blending (known as контаминация — a horrible word, let’s never use it) is not typical in Russian. One might speculate that Russian, with its rich arsenal of prefixes and suffixes, is doing just fine without blends. On the other hand, Korney Chukovsky wrote in his book «От двух до пяти» (From Two to Five) that it is extremely common in children’s (Russian) language. In Chukovsky’s view, children modify the new/difficult words to make them meaningful, for instance

Maybe. However, I simply can’t believe that the young author of the wonderful word отмухиваться was not aware of the meaning of отмахиваться. A single word for «отмахиваться от мух», “to wave flies away”, is practically begging to be created — and so it was. I totally agree with Chukovsky that children’s word creation is not any different from “folk” one (cf. спинжак = спина + пиджак or хрущоба = хрущёвка + трущоба).

As for “literary” Russian, there are plenty of examples of melds too. Velimir Khlebnikov was designing words such as грезитва, жарири, лебедиво and пушкиноты full-time. Nabokov introduced шлепоток и хлебет, Brodsky invented Верзувий, Vysotsky gave us пороговно, Yuri Entinтрубадурочка, Yuri ShevchukЕдиночество, Andrey Knyshev came up with остролог, парторгия, псевдонимб, генеральный секрецарь… And did you know that Ilf and Petrov used to publish their stories under the pen name of Ф. Толстоевский (F. Tolstoyesvsky)?

Кот отмухивается // The cat is waving away the flies

See also: Portmanteau words taboo game

жил один рыжий человек

Жил один рыжий человек, у которого не было глаз и ушей.
У него не было и волос, так что рыжим его называли условно.

There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears.
Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.

In Russian, adjectives agree with the noun in case, gender, and number. For instance, «рыжий кот» (ginger cat) in nominative [Example 1m]:

adjective noun
singular рыжий кот
Nom / m / s Nom / m / s
plural рыжие коты
Nom / pl Nom / m / pl

If we change the noun to genitive, the adjective follows suit [Ex. 2m]:

adjective noun
singular рыжего кота
Gen / m / s Gen / m / s
plural рыжих котов
Gen / pl Gen / m / pl

Replacing кот (tomcat) with кошка (female cat), we have [Ex. 1f]:

adjective noun
singular рыжая кошка
Nom / f / s Nom / f / s
plural рыжие кошки
Nom / pl Nom / f / pl

And in genitive [Ex. 2f]:

adjective noun
singular рыжей кошки
Gen / f / s Gen / f / s
plural рыжих кошек
Gen / pl Gen / f / pl

Luckily for learners of Russian, the plural forms of adjectives are the same irrespectively of gender. (It was not always the case.)

Now let’s add some cardinal numerals to our ginger tomcat [Ex. 3m]:

numeral adjective noun
1 один рыжий кот
Nom / m Nom / m / s Nom / m / s
2 два рыжих кота
Nom / m Gen / pl Gen / m / s
3 три рыжих кота
Nom Gen / pl Gen / m / s
4 четыре рыжих кота
Nom Gen / pl Gen / m / s
5 пять рыжих котов
Nom Gen / pl Gen / m / pl

What just happened? As you can see, the numerals other than один cause the nouns and adjectives to change the case to genitive. But if with пять (and above) both nouns and adjectives become, logically enough, plural, with the numerals два, три and четыре the noun stays in singular. We already mentioned that these three numerals behave as if not quite plural. The reason is, Proto-Indo-European and its descendants, in addition to singular and plural, had a grammatical number called dual (in Russian, двойственное число), which was used for pairs only. In modern Russian only a few traces of dual remain. However, some properties of dual were somehow extended to groups of three or four. I recently learned a (not widely known, but useful) term маломножественное число (literally, “few-plural number”), but I’d like to have something shorter. On Tamara’s suggestion, we can call this number “fewral” (pronounced /ˈfjuːrəl/; never mind that there is an identically spelled Turkmen word for February) or, for Spanish-speaking learners,“pocal” (from poco; please ignore the Romanian word meaning “goblet”).

Now, once again, let’s change the cat’s gender [Ex. 3f]:

numeral adjective noun
1 одна рыжая кошка
Nom / f Nom / f / s Nom / f / s
2 две рыжих кошки
Nom / f Gen / pl Gen / f / s
3–4 три-четыре рыжих кошки
Nom Gen / pl Gen / f / s
5–20 пять рыжих кошек
Nom Gen / pl Gen / f / pl

Comparing the masculine and feminine examples, you might have noticed that the pattern for 2 is not exactly the same as for 3 and 4. This is because the feminine form две is different from masculine (and neuter) form два, just like одна is different from masculine/neuter form один. Otherwise, we see the now-familiar story: “fewral” nouns are in genitive singular, adjectives in genitive plural.

And this could be “it”… if it not were for the fact that another way is possible [Ex. 4f]:

numeral adjective noun
1 одна рыжая кошка
Nom / f Nom / f / s Nom / f / s
2 две рыжие кошки
Nom / f Nom / pl Nom / f / pl
3–4 три-четыре рыжие кошки
Nom Nom / pl Nom / f / pl
5–20 пять рыжих кошек
Nom Gen / pl Gen / f / pl

That’s right, both «две рыжих кошки» and «две рыжие кошки» are correct. But why? Going back to Examples [1f] and [2f]: did you notice that the genitive singular form, кошки, is identical to the nominative plural? Well this is how Russian feminine nouns behave, as a rule. So in “fewral” we can have either «рыжих кошки» (both genitive) or «рыжие кошки» (both nominative, both plural). Makes sense? Kind of. I think it is a matter of personal preference. I, for example, prefer «две шуточные песни» to «две шуточных песни». Perhaps my internal grammarian just likes to maximise the number of nominatives. Shame I can’t do the same with masculine and neuter.

You may ask, why did I write “5–20” rather than “5 and more”? Because when we reach 21, we say «двадцать одна рыжая кошка» (back to singular), then 22 «двадцать две рыжих кошки» or «двадцать две рыжие кошки» (back to fewral), and so on. Every time we hit a numeral ending with один/одна, два/две, три or четыре, we repeat the singular and fewral spiel again and again.

Last but not least: all these strange things happen only when our cardinal numerals are in nominative. As soon as we put them in any other case, the whole construction declines in a totally regular fashion, e.g. «одному рыжему коту» (dative) or «двумя рыжими кошками» (instrumental).

For homework, please take Kharms’ «один рыжий человек», and see what could happen with two, three, eleven and fifty-one theoretical red-haired men using Example [3m].

их нравы

In Russian, possessive pronouns (притяжательные местоимения) agree with the noun of the possessed, or possessee, in case, gender, and number. To be more precise, this is the case for the first person, мой (my), наш (our), твой (thy) and ваш (your). In the third person singular, we don’t care about case, gender, and number of the possessee anymore, however the distinction is made between masculine and neuter его (his, its) and feminine её (her). Finally, for the third person plural possessor, the unique form их (their) is used. You can’t go wrong with их. Well, almost.

Number → Singular Plural Self
Person → 1 2 3 1 2 3
m n f
Nom m мой твой его его её наш ваш их свой
n моё твоё его его её наше ваше их своё
f моя твоя его его её наша ваша их своя
pl мои твои его его её наши ваши их свои
Gen m моего твоего его его её нашего вашего их своего
n моего твоего его его её нашего вашего их своего
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моих твоих его его её наших ваших их своих
Dat m моему твоему его его её нашему вашему их своему
n моему твоему его его её нашему вашему их своему
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моим твоим его его её нашим вашим их своим
Acc m an моего твоего его его её нашего вашего их своего
m in мой твой его его её наш ваш их свой
n моё твоё его его её наше ваше их своё
f мою твою его его её нашу вашу их свою
pl an моих твоих его его её наших ваших их своих
pl in мои твои его его её наши ваши их свои
Ins m моим твоим его его её нашим вашим их своим
n моим твоим его его её нашим вашим их своим
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моими твоими его его её нашими вашими их своими
Prep m моём твоём его его её нашем вашем их своём
n моём твоём его его её нашем вашем их своём
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моих твоих его его её наших ваших их своих

The word Ваш (capitalised in written Russian) is the polite form of second-person singular or plural possessive pronoun. Grammaticaly, it behaves exactly like ваш, even if you address just one person, for example «Ваше величество» (Your Majesty). When we talk about the single royal, say the Queen, in the third person, we should utilise the third person singular, i.e «её величество» (Her Majesty), not «их величество», if we don’t want to sound illiterate. Note that Russian styles such as величество (Majesty), высочество (Highness), сиятельство, светлость, превосходительство (Excellency), преосвященство (Holiness) etc. are invariably neuter.

The reflexive-possessive pronoun свой does not have analogue in English. It always points to the subject of the sentence irrespectively of the person, gender, and number of that subject. It could be roughly translated as “one’s own”… except that “own” has its own exact analogue, собственный. This latter is used to amplify the sense of possession, so свой собственный stands for “one’s very own”.

With свой, we avoid possible tautology. For example, «у тебя есть своя машина» is better than somewhat repetitive «у тебя есть твоя машина». Another reason to use свой is to sound a bit less personal. In the sayings like «своя рубашка ближе к телу», the subject (the owner of this proverbial shirt) is not identified, probably because «моя рубашка ближе к телу» would sound too mean. It sounds mean enough as it is.

Russian possessive pronouns can be nominalised as to refer to (a group of) people. For example, the word наши also means “our people” and in times of war was often used as an antonym of враги “enemy”. The idiom «и нашим и вашим» (literally, “both to ours and to yours”) is a (shorter!) Russian equivalent of “hold with the hare and run with the hounds”. Likewise, свой or свои could mean “one’s kin” or “friend” as in «Свой среди чужих, чужой среди своих», “At home among strangers, a stranger among his own”.

Моей душе покоя нет My heart is sair
Сын или Бог, я твой Son or God, I’m thine
Первая его работа вызвала большой шум. His first work caused quite a stir.
Но, к великому её сожалению, банка оказалась пустой. But to her great disappointment it was empty.
Отче наш Our Father
Их нравы Their morals
Свои люди — сочтёмся It’s a Family Affair — We’ll Settle It Ourselves

The Soviet-era posters used a lot of наш while reserving их for the enemy.

Разгильдяев с производства гони: наши машины портят они
Kick the slobs out of the production line, they damage our machinery

Трудовой народ, строй свой Воздухофлот!
Workers, build your own Air Fleet!

Ребята! Ваша шалость с огнём приводит к пожару
Children! Your messing around with fire leads to conflagration

Добьём немецко-фашистских захватчиков в их берлоге!
Let’s finish off the Nazi invaders in their lair!

Printable table of Russian possessive pronouns

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 Ukraininan 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”.

банки из-под варенья

Что остаётся от сказки потом,
После того, как её рассказали?
What remains of the tale
After the tale was told?

Tamara asked, “Is there a way of saying «банка из-под варенья» in English? Or Spanish?”

No, there isn’t. (Yes, I checked with Spanish speakers.)

In Russian, «банка варенья» (without any preposition) means “a jar of jam” while «банка из-под варенья» means “an empty jar which formerly contained jam”. Here, из-под points to the former use of the jar as a container. (Yes, in Russian it is also possible to say «банка для варенья», that is, jam jar).

Of course, this is not only about jam jars. In English, an (empty) beer bottle (“a bottle designed as a container for beer”) is clearly different from a (full) bottle of beer; a wine glass (“a type of glass that is used to drink and taste wine”) is not the same as a glass of wine. The same story with their Russian equivalents: «пивная бутылка» vs «бутылка пива», «винный бокал» vs «бокал вина». In Russian, we use adjectives (пивная, винный) to indicate the purpose of a container. Likewise, in English, we use words beer and wine as adjectives by placing them before the nouns. This still doesn’t provide an elegant way to translate, say, the lines by Bulat Okudzhava:

В склянке тёмного стекла из-под импортного пива…
In a dark glass bottle of for which previously contained imported beer…
In a dark-glass imported-beer bottle…


Why did we talk about that in the first place? Because of a Russian meme: «Банки из-под варенья никогда не бывают пустыми». It could be roughly translated as “jam jars are never empty”.

Google it. In many cases, it is attributed to Lewis Carroll. In fact, it comes from Алиса в стране чудес, the Soviet-era musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, released in 1976 as a double LP. It was created by Oleg Gerasimov (1929—1997), actor and director of Moscow Art Theatre (МХАТ), and contained songs by Vladimir Vysotsky (1938—1980). Both Gerasimov and Vysotsky were among the voice actors in the play. I was introduced to it in 1977 by my cousin and, after a few listenings, knew it by heart (as, I’m sure, did millions of Soviet citizens). For me, it was also the first encounter with Carroll’s story.

Back to our meme: What did Carroll actually say about the jar?

She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE,” but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody underneath, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.

To my great disappointment, jars are never mentioned again. OK, I thought, maybe the theme of jars was further developed by Russian translators. The play was based on work by Nina Demurova. Here:

Пролетая мимо одной из полок, она прихватила с неё банку с вареньем. На банке было написано «АПЕЛЬСИНОВОЕ», но увы! она оказалась пустой. Алиса побоялась бросить банку вниз — как бы не убить кого-нибудь! На лету она умудрилась засунуть её в какой-то шкаф.

Well, this is quite faithful to the original. Just in case, I had a look at another Russian translation of Alice that was widely available in the USSR at the time, viz. that of Boris Zakhoder:

С одной из полок Алиса сумела на лету снять банку, на которой красовалась этикетка: «АПЕЛЬСИНОВОЕ ВАРЕНЬЕ». Банка, увы, была пуста, но, хотя Алиса и была сильно разочарована, она, опасаясь ушибить кого-нибудь, не бросила её, а ухитрилась опять поставить банку на какую-то полку.

Finally, I checked out the version by Vladimir Nabokov:

Она падала вниз так плавно, что успела мимоходом достать с одной из полок банку, на которой значилось: «Клубничное варенье». Но, к великому её сожалению, банка оказалась пустой. Ей не хотелось бросать её, из боязни убить кого-нибудь внизу, и потому она ухитрилась поставить её в один из открытых шкафчиков, мимо которых она падала.

Nabokov took the liberty to replace orange marmalade with strawberry jam, probably because he doubted that a seven-year-old girl (or any Russian reader) would fancy orange marmalade. Nevertheless, once again, this passage is the first and last time we hear about jars. We only can conclude that the maxim of never-empty jars was created by the play authors. Russian Wikipedia lists a number of other discrepancies with Demurova’s translation attribited to Gerasimov and Vysotsky.

What’s it all about? According to CliffsNotes (CliffsComplete Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland),

The jar in and of itself is only a jar. Placing a label on it that reads “ORANGE MARMALADE” might indicate that the object we call a jar contains a substance called marmalade. However, this jar contains nothing, rendering the label deceptive. The label would more accurately read “Empty.”

Yes, that would be more accurate but not 100% accurate. Now it is technically possible to clean and evacuate a jar (which formerly contained marmalade, jam etc. etc.), say using a vacuum pump. But it still won’t be completely empty, completely free of its past content, of its past story.

«Так что же остаётся, когда съедена банка варенья? Что останется, когда спета песня?»

So what remains when a jar of jam is eaten? What will remain when the song is sung?

Alice, you may recall, asks a lot of questions.

between our acting and our thinking

Think of the thousand nameless actions that fill the crevices of your day: modulating your voice to convey interest or disdain; tying your shoelaces; whipping up an omelette or flipping an accurate throw. These are the moves your body knows but would stumble over were you to try describing them. Yet it isn’t until these maneuvers make their way, however shyly, into speech that we can abstract from them and so bring them into the theater of thought.

Language falls between our acting and our thinking; but language itself has two layers, the spoken and the written. The permanence of writing has always made it the more valuable of the two for us, even at the cost of trading in slang for solemnity. Yet not quite always: the Greeks of that golden age had peculiar views, some of them based on the remarkable ability of their singers to know vast epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey by heart. Memory was often equated with knowledge, knowledge with wisdom — so that the external memory of texts (that repository of our culture, binding us to generations gone) must have been for them something like musical scores: you feel a bit let down when a concert pianist has to perform with one in front of him. Perhaps this was why Plato wrote dialogues: they were and were not to be taken at their word. Certainly he deliberately undermines his enterprise in one of them, for in the Phaedrus he has Socrates argue that writing will cause forgetfulness and give only the semblance of truth. This may also be why that earlier philosopher, Heraclitus, made his aphorisms short and perplexing, and why in fact the Greeks invented irony, where you mean only some of what you say but don’t say most of what you mean.

New words are always frisking about us like puppies — one month people go ‘ballistic’ and the next ‘postal’ — but few settle in companionably over the years and fewer still reach that venerable state where we can’t imagine never having been able to whistle them up, there at our bidding. And ideas, large and small: where was flower power fifty years ago — and where is it now? With what fear, fascination and loathing Freudian doctrine slowly took hold and became the canon — and how quickly it all fell apart: who now have complexes, or cathect their libidos onto father-figures?