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Words new to me: гиль

March 14, 2014

Гиль means ‘nonsense’ – it’s in the same family as вздор, чепуха, ерунда, чушь, пустяки. Leskov uses it memorably in At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71), where Gordanov tells Vislenev that Vislenev is not a nihilist (нигилист) but a “gilist” (гилист). Or if you like, not a non-hilist but a hilist. Leskov (and/or Gordanov) sets it up by having Gordanov use the word гиль three times before the pun on гиль and (не) гилист. A. A. Shelaeva further emphasizes гиль by giving an explanatory footnote for the modern reader.

Above all, I advise you not to proclaim your loyalty to any shibboleth, especially since, in the first place, all shibboleths are gil’, a hollow sound, and then, to tell you the truth, you aren’t a nihilist at all, but a most respectable gilistGil’ made you act obstinate and refuse the allowance Tikhon Larionych offered you for the pawnshop; gil’ made you flounder about and look for a position in the reformed courts, for which you were incapable; gil’ drove you into literature, which taken together wouldn’t be worth a bent pin if it didn’t have the goal of killing literature; gil’ guides you when you renounce nihilism to one and all; in a word, every step you take is nothing but gil’. (book 1, chapter 5)

It’s started to bother me how people use “nihilist” to mean both “particular kind of young Russian radical prominent in the 1860s” and “person who believes in nothing and holds nothing sacred” without realizing these are two different senses of the word. Too much thinking about why Turgenev used a word based on nihil might be the problem. So I like the playful etymology here – it also seems like the perfect merger of the language-play Leskov everyone loves and the anti-nihilist Leskov everyone loves to hate.

I’m not sure exactly why, but I also loved the phrase “last of the nihilist Mohicans” in that novel (epilogue).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 14, 2014 11:45 am

    Interesting, and new to me too! Vasmer connects it with гиль ‘mutiny, revolt,’ and Dahl includes it in the entry for гиль ‘bullfinch’ (neither of which гильs I’d heard of either).

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