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In Hot Water

Published: February 19, 2014 (Issue # 1798)


Prefixes can be 'stuffy' business in Russian.
Photo: Jason Rogers / Wikimedia Commons

One of my weak spots in Russian is the use of prefixes. Just the other day, I wanted to say that my nose was stuffed up (нос заложен), and instead said нос наложен, which sounds like my nose was either pasted on or under arrest. This was highly entertaining to my Russian friends and solidified my reputation as a very strange, semi-literate, modern version of Nikolai Gogol.

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But if that mistake was avoidable, there is one Russian verb that is a linguistic accident waiting to happen: топить. The verb has two totally contradictory meanings: to heat something and to drown something or someone. The distinction is clarified by context and prefixes. Over the years, I have cheerfully wanted to drown stoves and heat up kittens. But why is there one Russian verb used with water and fire? Etymologists are not certain. Some think there were originally two different words. But my favorite etymologist, Max Vasmer, has a hypothesis that I like. He suggested that the origin of топить is топ, a flooded swampy area where snow has melted. You can see how the word might have developed in two ways. On the one hand, something heated up and melted, and on the other, a wet place where a person or thing could drown.

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In any case, unless you want to sound like a jerk it’s good to keep these meanings separate.

The heating топить is used for stoves and houses. Пойдём топить баню (Let’s go heat up the bath house). Начался отопительный сезон отвратительно: очень долго вообще не топили, а потом то и дело выключали. (The heating season began horribly. For a long time they didn’t turn on the heat at all, and then they kept turning it on and off.)

With this топить, the perfective is истопить: Сколько дров понадобится, чтобы правильно истопить баню? (How much wood do you need to heat up the bath house properly?)

Топить can also mean to heat something until it’s melted, like топить воск (to melt wax). In cooking, топить молоко is to bake milk — to put it in a warm stove for a day until it is slightly caramelized. The result, топлёное молоко (baked milk), lasts longer and is sweeter than regular milk. Топлёное масло is clarified butter. When you’re at the stove, the perfective form of топить is растопить: Растопить масло в сковороде, добавить лук и обжаривать до мягкости (Melt butter in a skillet, add onions and sauté until they are soft).

The drowning топить is used to submerge anything in water, like — horribly —kittens when a cat has an unwanted litter: топить котят (to drown kittens). Он помогал негодяям убивать его и топить его труп в пруду (He helped those monsters kill him and sink his body in the pond).

Here, the perfective form is утопить, used for both inanimate objects and living creatures. Моряки утопили корабль у причала (The sailors scuppered the ship by the dock). Женщина хотела утопить своих детей (The woman wanted to drown her children).

Like in English, the drowning топить can be used in the toolshed: топить гвоздь (to sink a nail deep into wood.) And it’s also used figuratively in Russian, like in English: топить горе в вине (to drown your sorrows in wine).

And now if you’ll excuse me, after my nose embarrassment, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is the author of ‘The Russian Word’s Worth’ (Glas), a collection of her columns.





 


ALL ABOUT TOWN

Wednesday, Oct. 1


The St. Petersburg International Innovation Forum 2014 kicks off today at Lenexpo, where it will be presenting the latest and greatest ideas until Oct. 3. Focusing on economic development and the decisions and measures necessary to encourage development in Russia’s most important industries, the event is a possibility to discuss the innovations currently available in a variety of fields.


Representatives of the Russian and international media industries arrive in St. Petersburg for the first ever International Media Forum being hosted by the city until Oct. 10. With a variety of events on tap, including workshops, lectures and film screenings, the event plans to reemphasize the city’s reputation as the country’s culture capital and as an emerging market and location for the visual arts.



Thursday, Oct. 2


The celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Mikhail Lermontov continues with today’s free exhibition in the city’s Lermontov Library at 19 Liteiny Prospekt. Titled “Under the Rustling Wings,” the temporary exhibition will feature the costumes and scenery used in the 1917 production of Lermontov’s play “The Masquerade,” which he wrote in 1835 when he was only 21 years old.



Friday, Oct. 3


Learn more about how to manage and evaluate employee performance during SPIBA’s Human Resources Committee meeting this morning on “Employee Assessment: Global and Local Trends.” Starting at 9:30 a.m., the discussion will touch on such topics as the partnership between HR and business, reliable assessment strategies and more, with Tatiana Andrianova, the head of the SHL Russia and CIS branch in St. Petersburg, as the featured guest. Confirm your participation by Oct. 2 by emailing office@spiba.ru or calling 325 9091.


AmCham’s Procurement Committee Meeting is at 9 a.m. this morning in their office in the New St. Isaac Office Center on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.



Saturday, Oct. 4


Wine and cheese lovers will get their chance to revel during Scandinavia Country Club and Spa’s Wine Market Weekend. Going on today and tomorrow, wining diners can listen to live music, take part in culinary classes and, of course, sample a variety of fine wines from around the world. The cost of admission is 400 rubles ($10.30) for adults and 200 rubles ($5.15) for children.



Sunday, Oct. 5


Look for the latest fall fashions at the Autumn Market today in Freedom Anticafe at 7 Kazanskaya Ulitsa. The minimarket plans to offer clothes more flattering than the puffy jackets that are a staple of the city’s cold-weather fashion, while offering the same amount of protection from the biting winds blowing off of the Baltic.



Monday, Oct. 6


SKA St. Petersburg, the city’s KHL affiliate, welcomes Slovakian club HC Slovan in a match-up tonight at the Ice Palace near the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased on the club’s website or in person at either the arena’s box office or the club’s merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.



Tuesday, Oct. 7


Learn more about Russia’s energy industry at the St. Petersburg Energy Forum that begins today and runs through Oct. 10. Attracting industry experts and political and business representatives, the forum plans to welcome more than 350 plus companies and their representatives to discuss the future of Russia’s largest economic sector.



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