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Sir Leon, chevalier sans reproche

By Michael J. Smith on Sunday May 30, 2010 11:59 AM

I know, I know, it's very foolish of me to step a-purpose into a sectarian cowpat which has flopped wetly onto these pages before, but something just came in on my wires which tickled me pink -- dismal pun fully intended, I fear:

Leon Trotsky
The Struggle for Cultured Speech
(May 1923)

(First Published: Pravda, May 15, 1923)

I read lately in one of our papers that at a general meeting of the workers at the “Paris Commune” shoe factory, a resolution was carried to abstain from swearing, to impose fines for bad language, etc.

This is a small incident in the turmoil of the present day, but a very telling small incident. Its importance, however, depends on the response the initiative of the shoe factory is going to meet with in the working class.

Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity—one’s own and that of other people. This is particularly the case with swearing in Russia. I should like to hear from our philologists, our linguists and experts in folklore, whether they know of such loose, sticky, and low terms of abuse in any other language than Russian. As far as I know, there is nothing, or nearly nothing, of the kind outside Russia. Russian swearing in “the lower depths” was the result of despair, embitterment and, above all, slavery without hope, without escape. The swearing of the upper classes, on the other hand, the swearing that came out of the throats of the gentry, the authorities, was the outcome of class rule, slaveowner’s pride, unshakable power.

Rich stuff, huh? I particularly like the double interpretation of "uncultured" language. The lower classes swear out of despair, the upper classes swear out of arrogance. Perhaps this is an example of the higher dialectics at work, but if so, it leaves my coarse Anglo-American mind metaphorically gaping. I have to wonder whether there might not be a more economical explanation -- one with fewer moving parts.

Who knew that Commissar Trotsky was the grandfather of our more contemporary campus-PC diction police? (Though there seem to be fewer and fewer recruits each year to this squad, and the force is visibly getting rather long in the tooth.)

It's interesting that Trotsky, who was a bit of a polyglot, is so convinced that Russian bad language is so much coarser and more appalling than other languages' bad language. Anybody who really knows how to swear in Russian is welcome to weigh in here: can Russian beat terms like "asswipe" and "cuntface"? If so, I want to know these words.

NB: one has certainly known Stalinists who were equally priggish. Fair's fair. But I've never seen such a spectacular exercise in "left-wing" Grundyism before, from anybody who can claim canonical status. This bids fair to become the locus classicus.

Comments (13)

George Jones:

I am no expert in Russian mat myself, but I speak some Russian and have lived there. Swear words there are stronger because more taboo, and in its advanced forms, for example in prisons and the military, the cussing is so complex it's almost a new language:

The first volume of the Great Dictionary of Mat by the Russian linguist and folklorist Alexei Plutser-Sarno (Большой словарь мата) treats only expressions with the stem khuy, numbering over 500 entries; 12 volumes are planned.

I'm told English in no way does it justice.


How do you say "bullshit" in Russian?


"all faulty words and expressions must be weeded out of daily speech."

" Speech is ...in need of hygiene"

"the working class needs a healthy language not less"

"for the first time in history
..(the working class).. begins to think independently about nature, about life, and its foundations—and to do the thinking it needs the instrument of a clear incisive language"

he was actually in person rather attractive to women as a younger man
so this picture somewhat misleads
the notive enquirer and proto acolyte

---this looks to be from the mexican years
perhaps paris or copenhagen
definietly NOT turkey ---

spun sugar hair like mrs munster's brother ???

mr potato head nose and glasses ???

my leon is on a platform firing out
a militant arm at the awakening masses below

this is prolly an nkvd mug shot
or a life magazine portrait
from the dewey commision moment

oddly leon made quite a hit here in the states
much like his rough contemporary
the ringling brothers
"mis understood " goriila
the 40's bone chilling
' mass menace in a cage '



I rather like to think of myself as a skilled practitioner of russian mat' (I ran a factory there for several years, and mechanics and truckers are second only to farmers and athletic coaches in their swearing skills). I'm also a pretty darn good hand as cursing in american-spanish -- working construction in the West tends to put on in contact with the right types for that -- and of course, have my own native grounding in the anglo-saxon goodies.

I'd have to say that Trotsky's claims -- like Ayn Rand's, by the way, if you recall the occasions where she hallucinated about comparative linguistics -- are a load of crap (пиздёж [peez-dyozh], in answer to Sean's benefit). Cursing in Russia, while mechanically much more complicated and detailed that in English (or spanish, for that matter), is practically identical as a social/linguistic phenomenon. The only main difference being that at present, there remain taboos in Russia against swearing around, for ex, women and children, that have long ago atrophied in America. But those taboos were here, too, back when Trotsky was writing. And even now, polite people in the USA are expected not to tell someone else's grandma how fucking awesome something is.

And yeah, 'asswipe' and 'cuntface' would be like kiddie-level swears in Russian.


as an aside, just because there is a taboo in Russia against swearing around kids and ladies doesn't mean that my six-year-old didn't learn how to start cussing at school from the other kids.


oh yeah. For rude names to call people, here's a couple:

распиздяй [raspizdyai] - taken to mean a lazy person, as literally as possible, "one who slides through the cunt"

говносос [govnosos] - just a plain rude name, pretty literally "shit-sucker"

where russian really thrives, though, is in verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Whereas, for ex, you could use 'fuck' in english as several parts of speech, you can change pretty much EVERY russian curseword into ANY part of speech, plus play with prefixes and suffixes. And even go so far as to glue words together like they do in german.


More! More!


English is pretty good with binary componds -- two terms mashed together like "motherfucker". But I can't think offhand of any ternary or higher-order compounds. I once heard somebody called a "bicycle-seat-sniffer", which I thought was funny, but it's undoubtedly clumsy. Does Russian have those?

I can certainly see how the prefixes would help. Also, verbal nouns and verbal adjectives in Russian are felt as real nouns and adjectives, if I correctly remember what little Russian I ever knew, unlike English ones, which still seem like parts of the verb paradigm.

On the other hand, English can verb a noun and vice versa without changing the morphology, which is handy.


That's where I mentioned the gluing-together, like in German. Russian lets you just pile and keep piling word-root together to form monsters of potentially unreasonable size. The best illustration I can offer off the top of my head (not a curseword, sorry) would be противообороноспособностного. That's a perfectly legitimate agglutination of four word-concepts and an adjective ending (with genetive case just to maximize the number of letters 'o'). It means "related to the quality of having the capacity to overcome defenses".

Of course, such agglutinations are perfectly well used in cursing, too.

Where Russian swearing truly deviates from english, as far as I'm concerned, is the breadth of its applicability. English cursing in the main -- when deviating from the narrow literal meaning of the individual words -- talks about things-the-speaker-is-unhappy-about, or as pure emphatics, like "fucking excellent". Russian has as many different ways of cursing about something you are happy about as it does about things that displease you. Translation of those in more than a very thin sense is sort of impossible. Examples:

охуительно [ahkhueetelno] - means simply very good, but with the root 'хуй' (it is to 'penis' as "fuck" is to 'intercourse'), it is a curseword. You would use it to talk about a thing you had or could have concrete interaction with. Like, for example, you could use it to describe a very good meal.

пиздато [peezdahto] - also means very good, though this one is more appropriate for talking about experiences than concretes. The obscene root of this one, пизда, means like 'cunt'.

заебись [zayebeess] - also means very good, this one more of an interpersonal or situational thing. Also, of the three, more often used as a simple standalone. The root of this one is ебать [yebat]; literally "to fuck".


Aside from the 'positive' swearwords, there are also emotion-neutral ones. My favorite two of those, coming from a mechanical background as I do, are хуячить [khuyachit] and хуярить [khuyarit]. Both mean like 'doing hard work [to something]'. Both share the same root хуй. But the second is something you would do with, for example, a hammer or pick, while the first is something that takes more complicated action than just swinging, like you would find using a screwdriver or shovel. Again, neither of them is appropriate for polite conversation. But neither does their use at all imply an emotional context.

There's a decent book I ran across a couple months ago, written by a guy who didn't make (so far as I could see, glancing through) any egregious mistakes of interpretation, called "Dermo!" It's kind of a brief overview of russian mat' for the non-russian-speaker. I suppose it's a place to go for more...


Sensational stuff. Sorta sounds like the naughty root-words possess so much emotional intensity, largely by virtue of their transgressiveness, that they get used in all kinds of semantic domains just for the intensity. A bit like we way we use "fuckin'" or "motherfuckin'" as an all-purpose intensifier or marker of emphasis, but much more richly developed.

Poor Trotsky. All this glory and his only response is a delicate drawing-room shudder.

Wonder why we haven't developed something similar in English? Oh, man, that was cuntacious! (Expressing strong approval.) I been felching away at this code all day. (Working very hard at an untidy or disagreeable task.)

Seems to me there's nothing in the *language* that would prevent it; it's something in the culture.

Perhaps it's just the greater forbiddenness of the forbidden in Russian society? Or the greater differentiation of speech registers associated with different social classes? A sort of mutinous thieves' argot developed precisely in opposition to respectable norms? Maybe it's because Russian society was, until quite recently in historical terms, far more hierarchical than American or even Western European society?

Anyway, what a delight to hear about all this. I'll certainly get the book.


PS -- Is anybody else as fond of urbandictionary.com as I am? After writing the previous comment it occurred to me to look up 'cuntacious', which apparently is already attested, though in a sense contrary to the one I would have hoped for.

There's a breathtaking wealth of entries based on 'cunt-'. I particularly liked 'cuntainment'.

Maybe English is doing a bit better than I thought. I don't get out much, these days.

Does Russian do anything like the punning mashup words that we get in English lately -- 'mangina', for example?


If we're theorizing here, I'd have to argue that you are looking at the evolution of foul language completely backwards. There's a reason russians call it "mat'" (the word means "mother"). Cursing is likely the single most organic part of any language - it is not studied, nor taught; it has strong internal rules of usage and context (how many times have you heard a nonnative english speaker trying to curse? it just "doesn't sound right" when they violate the very strict rules); and yet anyone who actually lives within the language for any appreciable amount of time ends up learning its mat'.

Mat' is not 'developed' as an add-on to a language; rather it is a parallel language itself within the overall context. That sort of hints at the explanation for the greater depth of russian as versus english cursing -- Russian has been a more or less consistent linguistic paradigm for over a thousand years, whereas english has been in a constant state of significant flux from the time since back when the romans were fighting the celts, up to even the last couple centuries. Without a consistent linguistic environment, possibly the informal methods of passing-down mat' simply don't work so well. It would explain why, even though (as our friends at urbandictionary so helpfully illustrate) there's no linguistic reason why a very broad cursing vocabulary cannot be invented in an english paradigm, there is only a very small core of english cursing that actually stands the test of time.

Someday I'll write a very scholarly treatise on the matter. It's fascinating, and fun.


I look forward to reading it.

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