How to Curse like a Russian Posted by yelena on Mar 22, 2013 in Culture, language, when in Russia
Ok, the usual disclaimer goes here: if you are easily offended, do not read this post. Parental advisory recommended. Using any of these words in public is considered mild hooliganism and is punishable by law.
The three whales of русский мат (Russian curse words) are the three rude words for a male sexual organ, female sexual organ and the sexual act itself. The forth word has a literal meaning of “prostitute”. This in itself is neither new nor original.
What sets Russian obscenities apart from English-language ones is the enormous flexibility and depth of meaning thanks to all the suffixes, prefixes, and compound words formed with матерный (obscene) roots.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that mastering just one of these three words would get you closer to mastering both the mechanics and that certain je ne sais quoi of the Russian language than штудирование (thorough study of) “regular” textbooks or even reading the classics.
Speaking of the classics, it should come as no surprise that they more than dabbled in мат. I’m not even talking about the modern classics, such as Pelevin or Erofeev. Nope, I mean such светоч (luminary) of Russian literature as Mikhail Lermontov and Anton Chekhov and, of course, Наше Всё (Our Everything), the great Alexander Pushkin himself.
Anyway, most of the times the obscenities are not used in their literal sense, to describe детородные органы (genitals) or половой акт (sexual intercourse). Instead, they are used for just about anything else. They are used to describe a full range of emotions, complex thoughts and actions, and just about any conceivable situation.
But this mind-boggling flexibility achieved with just four very short words pales in comparison to the virtuosity of a true дока (old hand) who can stack them together into intricate ругательства (invective) known as трёхэтажный or многоэтажный мат (the three-stories or multistory obscenity).
Still, please think twice before using even mild матерные слова (obscene words) in a conversation. Yes, you might come across these words in books. And yes, you might overhear them on the streets or in YouTube videos. And yes, expect to hear at least a few of these крепкие словечки (strong words) in a casual atmosphere of застолье (a feast), especially if the conversation turns to politics or economy. Still, resist the temptation to join in or to show off your grasp of colloquial Russian, especially if
1. You are in the presence of minors or women
2. You are a woman. Women should never материться, как грузчики (curse like a stevedore).
3. You do not have a very firm grasp of all the intricacies of meaning and usage. One wrong prefix and you just call something awesome a total junk. Or, in case of the image at the top of the post, wrong stress turns a very rude “don’t talk!” into no less rude “don’t steal!”
4. You are in a public place – remember, it is against the law, even if your favorite soccer team is not doing their best… again.
Speaking of cursing in public now being illegal, the new Russian law levies fines on any незапиканный (unbleeped) or incorrectly/partially bleeped out нецензурная ругань (strong language; lit: bad language that is not allowed by censorship). This goes not only for what the anchors or journalists themselves might utter, but extends to comments and reactions from readers, listeners and viewers, including comments on the articles or news clips.
Sounds outrageous? Well, as the State Duma explains: свобода речи – это не значит вседозволенность (freedom of speech doesn’t mean permissiveness).
Interestingly, the new law does not create a чёрный список (black list) of forbidden words. Instead, issues will be resolved on a case-by-case basis by expert philologists. One of the authors of the new law explained that the offensive word must be bleeped or *** enough to completely obscure its meaning. He further said:
Если в слове из трёх букв уберёте центральную букву и замените её звёздочкой, это не значит, что никто не поймёт, что у вас написано
(If you take out the middle letter from a three-letter word and replace it with an asterisk, it doesn’t mean nobody understands what you have written)
Can you guess which three-letter word слуга народа (the people’s servant) is talking about? And speaking of the phrase “three-letter word”… It’s a widely used euphemism for the most widely used obscene word in the Russian language. So when you say “да пошёл ты на все три буквы!” (lit: go to all the three letters!) everyone knows exactly what you meant (a very strong version of “go to hell!”).
Does it mean that the public use of euphemisms, such as the above “three-letter word” is also punishable? Too bad because there are truly clever Russian euphemisms for obscenities, such as the word скоммуниздить meaning “to steal”, раздолбай meaning “a good-for-nothing person”, and едрёна мать, one of the countless Russian phrases with the meaning closest to the English four-letter exclamation.
This brings to mind one бородатый анекдот (an old joke):
На одном заводе процветала матерщина. Директор строго-настрого запретил материться на производстве. Ругаться перестали, но упала производительность труда. Директор на планерке спрашивает ветерана – дядю Ваню, в чём дело.
– Да, знаете, Петр Иванович, раньше бывало скажешь: “Иван, подай вон ту хреновину”, а сейчас пока вспомнишь, как она называется – полчаса пройдет.
Try to translate it using this vocabulary or, if all else fails, Google Translate:
процветать – to flourish
матерщина – from мат (obscenity) is the noun that describes the entire body of obscene words
строго-настрого – an adverb meaning “in the strictest way”, compare to other adverbs such as крепко-накрепко (in the strongest way), перво-наперво (the very first thing), мало-помалу (little by little), скоро-наскоро (quickly)
материться – to use obscenities in one’s speech
планёрка – a work meeting
Oh, but it looks like I haven’t told you the exact words for the big three Russian obscenities. Well, you see, I can’t do it. Women should not curse. Plus, as my Mom always said, интеллигентный человек не матерится (an intellectual does not use obscenities). To this day, it режет слух (sets teeth on edge; lit: grates hearing) when someone around me curses in Russian.
Besides, there are quite a few great resources on the subject, including this Wikipedia article (in English), this Wikipedia article (in Russian), a pretty good Lurkmore article (in Russian), the classic (in Russian), this video (in Russian, a perfect primer to all four big bad words) and, should you really dig deep into the subject, this very comprehensive book. Good luck!