Thursday, December 16, 2010


I’ve always loved words. Never being a physically strong child, I preferred reading to running and contemplating the power of verbs, nouns, and adjectives to frolicking with my schoolmates. Words could encourage or scare, engage or estrange, make one feel loved or miserable. Words could heal, and words could hurt. Words could empower, and words could destroy. Words could make me live lives I would have never been able to experience otherwise.

Words made me curious. I liked playing with them, stringing them into sentences and rhyming them into poems. Even as a child, I realized Russian was made for poetry, much like Italian. The sounds rhymed effortlessly and fell into an easy cadence. Sometimes when I came across an especially beautifully sentence or a flawless verse, I’d stare at it and re-read it over and over, trying to decipher its mystery. Often I couldn’t quite tell what its secret was – but I could instinctively feel it.

While Russian was the primary language of my childhood, I was also exposed to Tatar, which is very similar to Turkish, and Yiddish which is akin to German. My two best childhood friends spoke Tatar and I picked up bits and pieces of it while we played together. My parents used Yiddish as their code lingo when they didn’t want my brother and me to know something, so I inevitably had to learn what they were hiding. While I never became fluent and can’t converse in either language, the linguistic enlightening periodically dawns on me when I visit foreign lands. In Istanbul, having spotted a store sign “Kitaplar,” I immediately knew it was a bookstore: kitap means book and the suffix —lar made it plural. In a Vienna bistro, I heard a familiar word a young mom admonished her boy with – Essen! It brought back childhood memories. Nicht essen my grandmother used to complain to my parents about my fastidious eating habits. “She doesn’t eat!”

While I love to travel, so can words. Words wander from one language to another and from one dialect to the next, sometimes changing the spelling or shifting their meaning. The German butterbrot (butterbread, or bread with butter) transformed into the Russian –
“бутерброд” – a sandwich that could be made with any ingredient such as bologna or cheese. While looking for an air tram on Montmartre, I knew I was heading in the right direction once I saw the sign that read “Funikuler,” which is фуникулёр in Russian. (Interestingly enough, my husband knew the English word funicular, but the different spelling totally threw him off!) The Turkish kaftan – which originated from the Persian خفتان for the cloak buttoned down the front, with full sleeves, reaching to the ankles –  came to describe a loose Russian cardigan worn by men at the beginning of the last century. And on my trip to Jordan, I was absolutely surprised to find out that the name of Petra’s treasury, Al Khazne, was homophonic to the Russian казна – which translates as a tsar’s assets. 

But perhaps the most interesting transformation happened to the German word blatt when it found its way to the Soviet Union. Literally, blatt means paper, a piece of paper, or an official document one needs to produce to prove or receive something. During hard economic times in Russia, food and goods were rationed so that in order to get extras, people needed official papers given either for exceptional achievements or due to personal connections, often improper. Eventually, the word blatt took on the meaning of those special personal connections that got one more than an average citizen could hope for: better food, fancier clothes, access to special stores, and even trips abroad. “They have blatt,” would be said of a family that managed to get a vacation in a fashionable Black Sea resort. If someone suddenly popped up on the top of an apartment waiting list, people would gossip, “He’s got blatt in the Building Department.” At sixteen, I spoke to my parents about a potential medical degree to hear them say, “You can’t get into medical school without blatt.”

The most intense and expansive linguistic effort I ever made was my two-month study for the GRE. I had to learn close to 3,000 words, many of which I’d never heard before or didn’t know their less common meanings. I went through the list diligently, typing the words, definitions, and examples onto index cards. I memorized 50 to 100 words a day, adding them to the collection. Twice a week, I went through the entire stack, shuffling and dealing it like a croupier (a French word that originated from “croupe” or “croup,” means “rider on the croup of a horse”). Some words got burnt into my gray matter, some vanished as if I forgot to press the “save” button, but I vowed to deal my linguistic pack once a month, to keep it as current as I could. The writing power it gave me was too indulging to lose. Words can be addictive. Did you know that?


  1. This post was fun for me, Lina. I studied Russian for 2 years, which is enough to laboriously sound out the letters and sometimes understand the word. And enough to sound out Greek. Interesting the words that have migrated from German to Russian. Thanks for the post.

  2. I love the idea of words traveling, just as people do. So true. We are always borrowing from each other's languages.

    I knew the Russian mean of the word blat, but not that it came from the German Blatt. What a fascinating history. Incidentally, the German Butterbrot is also an open-faced sandwich, and more than just bread and butter (despite the name).