A Book Review By Kayt
I havenít had a lot to laugh about lately, having been unemployed, ill and going through various other personal traumas for the past few months. The best stress-buster for all that, aside from antibiotics and a terrific new job doing something I love and/or making boatloads of money, is probably laughter. Tying the intense need for some comic relief to my ongoing desire to learn some Russian led me to a thin but very informative and hilarious little book by Russian writer Edward Topol called Dermo!
Now in the pursuit of learning a language other than the one you grew up speaking, there are language courses, computer software, tapes and books, all perfectly equipped to teach proper schoolbook versions of languages. Who among us "typical" Americans hasnít survived a school language course remembering only how to ask where the library is in French, for example, where the bus is in German and other such phrases that are as necessary as bicycles are for fish? Should you ever find yourself in either France or Germany most of those vital phrases will be entirely useless. I mean, reallyÖhereís a scenario: tourists, with limited linguistic skills, running madly around France looking not for the Louvre or the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower but for a library? I think not. And will you really care where the bus is, in any country where you may travel? I personally usually get around by taxi during vacations when a car isnít available or parking is too much of a hassle. Besides, if you canít see the bus coming the chances of anyone you might ask as to its whereabouts knowing any more about that than you do are, in any country, probably slim.
So, how to get beyond the polite, archaic schoolbook phrases and learn the "real" language, the "guts" of it, the words and phrases that are actually used by real people every day on the streets of Russia?
Dermo! Its very title is a Russian "four letter" word, the sort of thing you might say if you were walking across a room and stubbed your toe on a piece of furniture, or if youíve left the grocery store after an hour of shopping and just realized you forgot the eggs. Need more clues? Hmm, the English equivalent has four letters, refers to something brown with an unpleasant smell andÖ Okay, you got it!
This book is not the least bit subtle or shy, it will tell you everything you want to know and some things you probably are better off not knowing, about Russian casual conversation, swearing, words for sex, body parts, Russian men and women and even the nature of business in Russia. Subtitled The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used it promises and delivers exactly that, and is also the funniest and most rollicking read Iíve had in way too long.
The chapter names alone will thrill and delight you, and I hope the author, if he ever finds out I listed the chapter names here, will forgive me, but itís great promotion for the book, Iím sure youíll agree:
- The Most Important Word in the Russian Language
- Ellochka the Cannibalís All-purpose Word List, or Exclamations for All Occasions
- Curses, Oaths, Insults, and other Basic Swearing
- All About Russian Men
- A Bit About Russian Women
- Lovemaking, Russian Style
- The New Russians and Their Ever-Expanding Business Lexicon
- Greetings and Other Important Expressions for Everyday Use
- Essential Body Parts
- A Tour Through the Three Tiers of Russian Profanity
Sprinkled liberally throughout, like really heavy toppings on a pizza, are lists of words and phrases in the Cyrillic alphabet and English phonetic spellings with their definitions, and with explanations where needed, so there is no excuse, other than the effort of rolling the spoiled American tongue around all those vowels and consonants, to not master at least a few of the hundreds of phrases in this book. There are folklore poems and stories, and even cartoon-like drawings with Russian word balloons, to provide insight and amusement. And to make it the essential language guide, Dermo! also includes an "additional alphabetical glossary of real Russian, which is far from complete" and "a brief glossary of essential English terms accompanied by Russian translations" in the back. But even if learning some Russian isnít your primary goal, reading this book will give you a look into Russian culture and ways of thinking.
Apparently, Russians swear a lot. Constantly and in every conversation, according to Dermo! The main exception seems to be in business situations, when in the presence of your boss. And even then, if you have subordinates, you can swear at them. In Chapter one, we learn that the most important word in the Russian language is "mat," Russian for cursing, and it derived from the word for mother (in English, since I canít type in Cyrillic: matb Ė pronounced "mat"). The author writes that this word should be mastered before even learning to say spasibo (thank you) or vodka. Going by the exhaustive list of phrases containing this word, it doesnít appear to often be used to express affection for oneís mother, to say the least, but more in the spirit of those in the very best trailer parks of America when telling someone to do something really vile to their female parent. And you wouldnít believe the variety of ways this act can be suggested! There is even one which means "**** your mother through seven gates while whistling!" It is also noted in Chapter One that one Russian dictionary published during the Soviet period states that the concept of using the word "matb" in swearing is so vulgar that "there is no way it could have originated in a Slavic environment" but must have entered the Russian language during the Tartar-Mongol invasion of the Middle Ages. But either way, the word is used extensively in todayís Russian collection of deadly insults and vile curses.
For you more literary types, in Chapter Two there is an explanation of how the novel "The Twelve Chairs," by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, contributed to the Russian idiom of the day some words and phrases such as "Poedem na izvozchike" (Letís go in a hired carriage) and many others which are today considered cutely quaint. "The Twelve Chairs" was also made into a Mel Brooks film in the 1960ís, but thatís not mentioned in the book, just something I, a Mel Brooks aficionado, happen to know. I include this Public Service Announcement only if youíre curious enough to want to rent the movie, rather than learn enough Russian to track down and read the book. Chapter Three continues the language lessons and contains a plethora of insults and other nasty things to say to people on a daily basis. Russian is a truly amazing language considering it includes so many ways to tell someone he or she is the vilest scum on the face of the earth!
Chapter Four promises to tell all about Russian men, and I can almost hear the stampede as young female Red Elvises fans rush to their bookstores searching for Dermo! Basically, what this chapter tells us is that men in Russia fall into two categories, "real men" and those who are "not men at all." A "real man" here meaning one who is true to his word, a gentleman in polite society and so on. So you donít care so much about the "gentleman" part but like a man who is true to his word and treats you well, thatís all right Ė there are words and phrases bursting out of this chapter to describe every type of man you can imagine, from the best to the lowest in the swamp. So memorize and either praise or insult your boyfriend at will.
The funniest thing about Chapter Five, "A Bit about Russian Women," is how the words and phrases describing women start out on such an angelic scale, beautiful, delicious, precious, sweetheart, etc., and devolve almost before you realize youíve descended into words describing the less pristine types of females, including my personal favorite and one of the first six or so words of Russian I ever learned, blyadí (pronounced, I think, "blee-yat"), which means whore.
We learn from Dermo! In Chapter Six that there is no equivalent Russian phrase for the English one, "to make love." Does this mean that Russians donít have sex? Oh come on, what do you think? Of course they do, they just (presumably) donít talk about it as freely as Americans do. The words for it, most of which have some lewd or lascivious connotation at best, are mostly unacceptable in "polite" company. Of course, the feeling I get from this book is that a bunch of men sitting around drinking and talking about women is not "polite company" by any means, so there you go. Apparently it is discussed in a no frills, down and dirty, lewd, crude and socially unacceptable sex talk way, much like in large chunks of America. But either way, if youíre the type who enjoys talking during the act, and even giving orders or directions, this chapter is a virtual cornucopia of education for you!
Chapter Seven focuses on how business is done in todayís Russia, which is not only interesting but somewhat different than the business mindset of America. Chapter Eight covers everyday greetings, which seems harmless enough, but there is also instruction on adding to those greetings various good-natured insults and swear words that are exchanged between people very familiar with each other. For example, Americans, in most cases, wouldnít say "Good morning, you idiot!" to a good friend, but this sort of thing and more is apparently not only acceptable but expected in Russia amongst friends. The nice phrases are here too, such as please (pozhalyusta), thank you (spasibo), excuse me (izvineetye), help me (pomogeetye mne!), save me (spaseetye!), I like you (Vy mne nravitesí) and I like you very much (Ty mne ochení nravishísya).
Chapters Nine and Ten teach words for essential body parts and offer a review of the "Three Tiers of Russian Profanity, respectively. Much of Russian swearing seems to consist of the many many many (did I say many?) unrepeatable words for parts of the human body and various functions of those parts, so knowing some of these could get you through many a drunken bar crawl or other nights of debauchery Iím sure. The most fun word Iíll mention here, because itís such a common word in English and used even on TV, is the word "zhopa" meaning "ass." Itís fun to say and easy to remember, should anyone cut you off in traffic, get drunk and throw up on your car, try to steal your significant other or generally behave like the back end of a donkey in any other way. A handy little word!
So to sum up, if you have an interest in learning real Russian words and phrases, or understanding groups of Russian friends in bars and locker rooms, or just want a laugh to forget your troubles, along with something interesting to read, go out and buy this book. Itís small but full of useful information and language tips. Not that you would really call anyone a "blyadí" or a "zhopa" or any of the other insults in this bookÖoh no, not YOU. That would not be very nice. But maybe, just maybe, if you feel the need for an insult arise and you donít want to be too rude in English, you could fling out something nasty in Russian, thereby not only insulting but confusing the other person, unless of course he or she also owns a copy of Dermo!
And hereís one last Russian phrase that might come in handyÖa little late for Valentineís Day but useful for the Spring months and Red Elvises concerts coming up: Ya tebya lyublyu! Meaning? "I love you."
DERMO! was written by Edward Topol and translated by Laura E. Wolfson, with illustrations by Kim Wilson Brandt. It was published in 1997 in paperback by Plume, a part of Penguin Books.