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Words new to me: плашмя

February 7, 2014

The word плашмя caught my eye because it’s not one of the neuter nouns in -мя that beginning Russian students know so well, or a verbal adverb with a -я ending after an м like гремя. Instead it’s an adverb that means “with the flat, broad side down.” If you fall плашмя it can mean either face up (навзничь) or face down (ничком). It’s also possible to hit something with a sword плашмя (with the flat side of one’s sword). In Leskov an Old Believer offers his hand плашмя at an introduction, which I take to mean in an awkward or at least unconventional position for a handshake. That seems to be the only instance in Leskov, and Dostoevskii and Lev Tolstoi seem not to have used it at all. It’s used emphatically in a scene from Turgenev’s On the Eve (Накануне, 1860). The word became more common in the twentieth century and was used by Pasternak, Zamiatin, Bulgakov, Grossman, Dombrovskii, Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, and Aksenov. According to Fasmer it is “probably connected to плоский [‘flat’]” and the Polish word płaski. He also gives ребром (from ребро ‘rib’) as the opposite of плашмя.

In Isabel Hapgood’s 1907 translation of the Turgenev passage, плашмя becomes “spla-ash, ker-flop”:

But louder and longer than all the rest, shouted Uvár Ivánovitch; he roared until he had a stitch in the side, until he sneezed, until he strangled. He would quiet down a little, and say through his tears: “I… think… that that knocked him out… but… he…. splash, ker-flop!”… And with the last, convulsively expelled word, a fresh outburst of laughter shook his whole frame. Zóya spurred him on still more. “I see his legs in the air,” said she…

“Yes, yes,” chimed in Uvár Ivánovitch,—“his legs, his legs… and then! and he went spla-ash ker-flop!”

“Yes, and how did he manage it, for the German was twice as big as he?” asked Zóya.

“I’ll tell you,”—replied Uvár Ivánovitch, wiping his eyes,—“I saw him seize the man by his belt with one hand, thrust under his leg, and then slap-dash! I hear: ‘What’s this?’… but he went splash, ker-flop!” (Russian text)

The “splash” is from context: Insarov has just carried out his threat to throw an impudent German into a pond. Hapgood deflates the hyperbole a little going into English: втрое больше ‘three times as big’ becomes “twice as big.”

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2014 11:15 am

    Yes, a very interesting word! (By the way, “Fasmer” should be Vasmer.)

    • February 7, 2014 12:01 pm

      It’s probably silly, but I made a rule for myself to backtransliterate in such cases instead of reinstating the original foreign name. My thinking was that it was unfair to less studied languages if I got the English and French and German names mostly right but not the Adyghe or Selkup names. In practice, of course, I can usually check the name of anyone I’m writing about on the internet, and I feel self-conscious whenever I type “Fasmer” or “Gertsen.”

      • February 7, 2014 12:10 pm

        I don’t think it’s unfair to use the spelling used by the author. This is not a case (as with Herzen/Gertsen) of a Russian writing in Russian whose name happened to be derived from a foreign source; there, you can use either form with equal justice. Calling Vasmer “Fasmer” is simply wrong. The fact that you might unwittingly someday be wrong about somebody else’s name doesn’t seem like a good argument. Perfection is impossible in this world.

      • February 7, 2014 12:26 pm

        Maybe it’s my knowledge of Фасмер that’s letting me down. I thought he was born in Russia and lived there through his university years and first publications, which I understood to be in Russian (Wikipedia gives his “Russian period” as 1886-1918). Surely he must have spelled his name both Фасмеръ and Vasmer over the course of his life. That doesn’t seem so unlike the Герцен situation, unless I’m missing something – and one thing I don’t want to do is bind myself to a system where I feel I need to call him Fasmer for an early book and Vasmer for a later one.

      • February 7, 2014 12:39 pm

        Yeah, he grew up in Russia, but he left right after the Revolution and I don’t think had published anything by then; at any rate,I’ve never seen a reference to anything by him previous to 1941. As far as I can tell, all his published works were written in German and signed Vasmer. Furthermore, the title page of the Soviet edition of his magnum opus has, opposite Макс Фасмер/ Этимологический словарь русского языка, RUSSISCHES ETYMOLOGISCHES WÖRTERBUCH/ von/ MAX VASMER. I mean, do what you want, obviously, but anyone unaware of your thought process is just going to assume that you aren’t familiar with him (or possibly that you think he’s Norwegian).

    • February 7, 2014 12:57 pm

      The first time I mentioned him here I called him “Fasmer (Vasmer)” but that seemed cumbersome, and I thought, let them think I don’t know, I’m content with my system.

      Here’s his Греко-славянские этюды from 1906. I take your point that it’s not nearly as important as the etymological dictionary.

      Thanks for pointing out the spelling. The issue reminds me of a Latin professor who tried to solve all spelling controversies by never using “j” or “v” or assimilating the last consonant of a prefix. Over time he reintroduced the inconsistencies, which, it turned out, had reasons to be there, including how readers reacted. I’ll probably get less attached to my ironclad personal rules with time.

  2. vikathoria permalink
    February 7, 2014 11:35 am

    Yes, a wonderful word. I also suspect that the increase in the word’s use in the 20-th century is explained by the expansion of stylistic boundaries. Плашмя is a word from the everyday culture, it’s very expressive. Its register seems to be a little different than that of the refined language of the classical prose. There, I would expect “навзничь.”
    BTW, I loved “spla-ash, ker-flop” as a translation. That would be a “new word” for me!

    • February 7, 2014 12:15 pm

      That makes sense, and if that’s how you feel the word’s register it makes Hapgood’s translation that much better. It also fits that the word starts to creep in the way it did: Leskov’s narrator using it without remarking on it, and Turgenev drawing attention to it but keeping it to a character’s direct speech.

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