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Пошлый, вульгарный, vulgar

August 3, 2011

I recommend Languagehat’s post on Svetlana Boym on пошлость. I’m surprised how interesting I found it, as I’m distrustful of treatments of пошлость, and even more of тоска (famously untranslatable, but often rendered as “nostalgia” or my favorite, “longing”), as unique and mysterious. Naturally lots of words in Russian don’t have exact equivalents in English, but focusing on a handful as particularly impossible distracts from hundreds of other difficult words (why not spill as much ink about досада?). To be fair, Boym “says that (contra Nabokov) the concept [of пошлость] is not unique to Russia,” so it’s no accident I found the Boym/Languagehat discussion appealing.

That said, one thing about пошлый has always intrigued me. I’ve always thought of it as closer to “vulgar” than “banal,” but the proof that that isn’t exactly right is that nineteenth-century Russian authors used the English word “vulgar” without translation, feeling it had no Russian equivalent. There’s a famous example from Eugene Onegin VIII.15-16, where the poet says of vulgar “Люблю я очень это слово,/ Но не могу перевести.” And here’s another from Gertsen’s My Past and Thoughts (Былое и думы, 1852-68):

В Головине соединилось все ненавистное нам в русском офицере, в русском помещике, с бездною мелких западных недостатков, и это без всякого примирения, смягчения, без выкупа, без какой-нибудь эксцентричности, каких-нибудь талантов или комизмов. Его наружность vulgar, провокантная и оскорбительная, принадлежит, как чекан, целому слою людей, кочующих с картами и без карт по минеральным водам и большим столицам, вечно хорошо обедающих, которых все знают, о которых все знают, кроме двух вещей: чем они живут и зачем они живут. [My emphasis]

I’m not going to attempt to get into why Pushkin and Gertsen felt пошлый wouldn’t work in these contexts, and it looks like вульгарный wasn’t yet widely used (it’s in Dal’ 1880-82 with a definition that begins with “пошлый”). Regardless, I like the way that even though vulgar and пошлый are semantically rather close, writers in both English and Russian, over a long period of time, have felt that neither is a good enough equivalent for the other.

(Languagehat on the etymology of пошлость and the recent birth of its “Nabokovian” meaning is also very good. Perhaps it explains Gertsen and Pushkin: in their time the word didn’t have the “implication of philistinism” it would have for Nabokov, but the English vulgar did have it, or something like it. A perceived need in the mid-nineteenth century for a word that implied and condemned philistinism could explain the borrowing of vulgar/вульгарный and the evolution in the meaning of пошлый by the early twentieth.)

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