Sharing the wealth: More Word’s Worth Articles by Michele Berdy

The Moscow Times


The Word’s Worth

By Michele A. Berdy


All Time is Relative


При Царе Горохе: in times of yore, literally “during the reign of the Pea King”


If you have any doubts about time being relative, you have only to travel a bit around the world.  In some places, “Let’s meet at 11:30” means just that; in other places it means “sometime after breakfast and before lunch,” and yet other places it means “Today, if I remember.”  Russians like to be very specific about time—in business they often use what Americans call “military time,” i.e., the 24 hour clock—to make sure that 11:30 is understood as a.m. and not p.m. (which in Russian would be 23:30).  On the other hand, they also like to make appointments во второй половине дня(in the afternoon, lit. in the second half of the day), which could mean anything from about 1 p.m. to nightfall.  Or they say, Встретимся завтра часов в шесть,(let’s meet at sixish tomorrow.)  In Russian if you put the number after what it refers to, you mean “approximately.”  This is a nice trick, and requires us foreign folks to pay attention to word order. Встретимся завтра в шесть часов would mean a definite, “Let’s meet at six tomorrow.”

            We English speakers and Russian speakers regard the passing of the hours a bit differently.  We tend to describe it in terms of the last hour struck by the clock (it’s half past sever), while Russians tend to describe it in terms of how much of the new hour has gone by: половина восьмого (lit. half of the eight hour).  They also describe “it’s after a certain hour” by saying “it’s already part of the next hour”: Ой! уже первый час! надо успеть на метро! (Oh my gosh! It’s already after midnight(lit. it’s already the first hour) I’ve got to get to the Metro before it closes!)  This is confusing until you rewind your internal clock and get used to calculating forward instead of backward.

            The prime example of how differently we are wired for time is the contrast in our verbal systems.  english has developed a totally neurotic system for  pinpointing when something happens exactly in time and in relation to other points along the time continuum.  “By tomorrow at 5 p.m. I will have finished the report” describes a point in the future that will be the past from the point of view of a moment still farther in the future.  To Russians, this is nuts.  Why can’t we just say, Я закончу отчёт завтра к семнадцати часам (I will finish my report tomorrow by 5 p.m.)? Why make it so darn complicated?

            The past in Russian can aslo be a bit foggy.  Когда это было? Ну, давно.(When was that? A long time ago.)  Ну, давным-давно (Well, a really long time ago.) Много лет тому назад (Many years ago.) Когда точно? Трудно сказать. В девяностых годах (When exactly?  Its hard to say.  In the 1990’s.)

            One of my friends uses a nice phrase when referring to events that took place so long ago, they no longer seem real: Да, была замужем.  Но это было так давно, уже неправда. (Yes, I was married.  But it was such a long time ago, it’s no longer true.)  This should be legislated as standard practice in reference to all past marriages.

            When referring to events that took place in another historical era, you can say В старину (in times of old) or, if it took place before time was recorded, you can say в незапамятном прошлом (in the past that has been forgotten).  Or you can say при Царе Горохе—in the times of the Pea King,  Царь Гороx, who is often mentioned with his wife, Царица Чечевица (the Lentil Queen) ruled Rus’ in those times “ that have been forgotten.”  No one is sure of the derivation of these mythical names: Perhaps Gorokh was a corruption of the Danish King Gorukha, perhaps he was a mythical figure based on the importance of dried peas in the Russian diet.  In any case, he ruled a really, really long time ago.  Он давно не работаетсо времён Царя Гороха (He’s been working for us forever—since time immemorial.)

            And then you say Как время летит! (How time flies!)

Approve That!

11 July 2008By Michele A. Berdy / Staff Writer

Визировать: endorse, sign, sign off on

Bиза (visa) is an odd thing. It’s just a piece of paper, or a stamp, or a scribbled notation. But without it, a person can’t get from one place to another. It’s the legal equivalent of the transporter beam in “Star Trek” — it’s what allows you to be beamed to the Starship USA or RF.

The word comes to both English and Russian from Latin via the French. The original phrase in Latin was charta visa (verified paper; literally, “paper that has been seen”). Most commonly today we think of виза as that magical stamp or hologram-decorated, sticky-backed paper in your passport that gives you the right to enter a country. In this case, some person or computer in the bowels of some official building some place has “seen” your documents and decided that you are not a threat.

But in Russian, виза, or more commonly the verb визировать (endorse, sign, approve), can be used in reference to other documents. When Russian documents wend their way up the chain of command at a ministry or a business, they get a “visa” to keep moving up at every level. By the time an important document gets to the top guy or gal, it may have a page of scribbled signatures attached. I have been told that the folks at the top rarely read the document — they just glance at the signatures. Все завизировали его? Тогда я подпишу (Has everyone signed off on this? Then I’ll sign it). In business, the CEO won’t sign something unless the CFO has already put his or her John or Jane Hancockov on it. Главбух должен визировать каждый договор (The chief accountant must sign off on every contract).

In Russian, you don’t have to sign something to show your approval. You can also give things: Дать добро (to give the OK), отмашку (signal), and зелёный свет (green light). Власти дали добро на стройку в Серебряном бору (The authorities gave the OK for construction in Silver Pines). Дать отмашку originally meant giving a nautical signal by flag or lantern to a passing ship. Today it means giving permission for something to happen. Минздрав дал отмашку начинать тендер по выбору поставщиков лекарств (The Health Ministry gave the OK to start accepting bids from drug supply companies). The phrase дать зелёный свет appeared only with traffic lights, perhaps via English. For some reason, you don’t give a red light (дать красный свет) in Russian or in English, except with tongue in cheek. But both languages do use another vehicular phrase to mean stopping something: to put on the brakes (тормозить). Со стороны власти предпринимались попытки тормозить развитие СМИ (There were attempts by the government to put the brakes on mass media development).

Another verb of approval is plain old одобрять/одобрить (to approve). Власти одобрили план развития на пять лет вперёд (The government approved a five-year development plan). You may also hear одобрям-с. This is a conflated from of одобряем-с, the pre-Revolutionary form of “we approve” (the “с” is short for сударь, a polite form of address similar to the English “sir.”) Most of the time you hear this jokingly: Я попробовала торт. Одобрям-с! (I tasted the cake. I give it my seal of approval!) But it also seems to have some cosmic meaning for Russians: It can mean any blindly obedient yea-saying. One journalist moans: Крепко в нашем менталитете укоренилось неодолимое русское “одобрям-с” (The invincible Russian “yes-man” mentality is deeply rooted in us). Another journalist complains about a political party that has been dubbed “Одобрям-с” because all their members say “yes” to any law that comes up for vote.

The “yes-man” mentality might be a very harmful national trait. But when you put in a visa application, that’s exactly what you want to hear: Одобрям-с!

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





5 thoughts on “Sharing the wealth: More Word’s Worth Articles by Michele Berdy

  1. Excellent!!! Please post more if you can.

    Thank you!


  2. WOW – is no longer free:

    I can’t read Michele Berdy anymore?


  3. Brilliant. I used to read Michele Berdy’s column’s religiously when I was studying Russian at university. I wished then and still wish that she’d publish her collected columns as a book. I still do a fair bit of translation work, and her wonderful colloquial insights would be totally invaluable.

  4. Check it out – Michele Berdy has a book coming out! Nice.

    Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator. A collection of her columns, “The Russian Word’s Worth,” will be released by Glas in October.

    1. I know, I’ve seen that at the bottom of her recent articles. I’ve been collecting her articles since 2004, but they’re very disorganized. I’d love to have a copy to someday put in my office. And I’d love to someday have an office!!!

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