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Words new to me: каракатица

December 9, 2013

The main meaning of каракатица is ‘cuttlefish’ (per Dal’ Sepia officinalis or Sepia octopus). The common cuttlefish is a cephalopod found in the Mediterranean, North, and Baltic Seas. People eat it.

The common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis

The common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis

Leskov uses it to describe a “short-legged, clumsy person.” Каракатица seems to come from a word meaning “leg,” so that it originally meant something like “thing with legs,” but it’s superficially similar to короткий ‘short.’ Leskov’s name comes up in the etymological dictionary for the figurative meaning.

In book 2, chapter 4 of Leskov’s Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72), Nikolai Afanas’evich is still telling stories, now about his mistress trying to buy a female dwarf from another rich woman, who wasn’t selling. She declares as part of her campaign to buy her that she will have her marry Nikolai Afanas’evich. At one point she says to her rival, “well, at least let your karakatitsa walk around with Nikolasha in front of the house for a bit.”

Well after the 1861 emancipation, Leskov seems to be the go-to writer for stories about the evils of slavery.* Nikolai Afanas’evich’s story has elements of a Harriet Beecher Stowe novel full of pathos and indignation: slaves separated from their birth families, married or kept unmarried against their will, made to endure all kinds of humiliations. A passage where Nikolai Afanas’evich and his almost-fiancée, Metta Ivanovna, are dressed in bear costumes and made to fight for their owners’ amusement (with the hostess’s dogs set on N.A. if he is winning) reminded me of the battle royal in Invisible Man.

In Leskov there are usually unconventional angles in these catalogs of the evils of slavery, like the slave theater and elaborately staged rapes of slaves in “The Toupee Artist.” The story “Ancient Psychopaths” is more straightforward, but has apparently unusual features like the master’s wife selecting underage female slaves for her husband’s pleasure. Here in Cathedral Folk the story is about dwarves, whose life is presumably unlike that of other house slaves, and the moments of potential pathos are undercut by detours about how everyone decided to trick N.A.’s owner into thinking Metta Ivanovna had been stolen by a mysterious Jew, or arguments about which saint to ask for help in the case of a runaway slave.

The biggest twist is the storyteller’s fondness for his late mistress, which makes his story more interesting aesthetically (it doesn’t come off as a screed, however justified, against a historical evil), but doesn’t complicate the moral picture that much (cf. Uncle Tom’s affection for the family of the Kentucky master who sold him down the river).

* “И всегда по возможности будем/ Верны истине — задним числом.”

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