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Words new to me: балдахин and other trappings of барская роскошь

February 12, 2013

Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) has a bit of a “grandfathers and fathers and sons” structure, in that it lets us see the origins of the 1840s generation before they become the skeptical middle-aged people who don’t get the 1860s generation’s youth movement. In part 5 the author-narrator, suddenly revealing that he knows the main characters and inserting himself into a scene, muses about three generations of Russian women:

In my rather lengthy time on earth I have had occasion to see three formations [формации] of women: the maidens and ladies of my youth, who read all the time; then, in my more mature years, maidens and ladies who read nothing, but who in recompense dressed extremely well and went through money superlatively, to which category Sophie belonged, and finally, as my story progresses, I will perhaps have to present to the reader’s attention the young miss entirely of today, who reads little but wants to put everything in practice now. (part 5, chapter 3)

The book has the reputation of being an anti-nihilist novel, but in part 5 of 6 the nihilist characters are mostly still being promised for future chapters; instead, as this passage suggests, the main characters like Sophie Leneva and Aleksandr Baklanov belong to the immediately pre-nihilist generation, and the narrator has much to say even about the generation or two before them.

One upshot of this is that alongside a lot of mid-nineteenth century realia we get a lot of loanwords for items that Baklanov’s contemporaries thought outdated but still saw in the provincial homes of the aging nobility. It was Sophie’s grandfather, Captain Rylov, great-grandfather to the nihilist generation, who used to pretend he had a spontoon in his hands.

In his adventures with Iona Mokeich, known as Iona the Cynic because he took bribes and kept a harem of slave-women more openly than his peers, Aleksandr goes to a house where there is a portrait of Emperor Paul “in a gold frame and decorated with a балдахин.” This object turns out to be a sort of canopy, here over an especially honored portrait but more often over a four-poster bed or a throne. The word comes from the Italian baldacchino, from Baldacco ‘Baghdad,’ and has the English cognate baldachin or baldequin or baudekin.

штоф, for sale today as a "fabric with unique designs from the pre-revolutionary, imperial era"

штоф, for sale today as a “fabric with unique designs from the pre-revolutionary, imperial era”

In the same house, the furniture, though old, is upholstered with штоф or баркан (2.10). As far as I can tell with my limited German, the German Stof corresponds to штоф the unit of measure (1/10 of a ведро), while the German Stoff (meaning, I think, fabric or material in general) yields штоф in the sense of a particular kind of cloth with a woven pattern, which one dictionary translates into English as damask. Баркан, or more often баракан, seems to be the English barracan or baracan, which is marked as obsolete in its old and vague OED entry, and hardly appears in English Wikipedia except, with baldachin, in an addendum of obscure textile words to the main list of Arabic loanwords in English. (I finally realized I can access the online OED through my public library – yay! – but I haven’t found a good way to link to their gated definitions.)

Before he goes there, Baklanov imagines the owner of that house, Kleopatra Petrovna, reputed (if I read the innuendo correctly) to have been the lover of Emperor Paul back in 1797, when she was young and beautiful in “фижмы, a wig, and red heels” (2.9). Фижмы (usually pluralia tantum, gen. pl. фижм) is a hoop skirt or just the hoop part of it. Fasmer (Vasmer) says фижма comes from the Polish fiszbin from Middle High German vischbein ‘baleen’ which apparently is not a metaphor based on the appearance of the fringe of the skirt, but has to do with the historical use of baleen in making clothes that had to hold a certain shape; in Russian китовый ус works for clothing or whale anatomy, but in English “whalebone” replaces “baleen” in hoop-skirt and corset contexts.

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