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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

Thursday, Dec. 18


Improve your English and knowledge of British culture during today’s FORM lesson at the British Book Center. These free English lessons with a native speaker elaborate not only on grammar particulars but cultural topics as well. Today’s event will discuss the BBC Two documentary “Victorian Farm Christmas.”



Friday, Dec. 19


Test your mastery of parlor games during Game Evening at the British Book Center. Learn how to play a variety of classic, mentally challenging games and use your newly acquired skills to crush weaker opponents. The event beings at 5 p.m.



Saturday, Dec. 20


The city’s Babushkina Park on Prospekt Obukhovskoy Oborony will be invaded by dozens of rocking-and-rolling Santa Clauses during today’s Santa Claus Parade. Not only will they parade through the park but there will also be competitions amongst the festively-clad participants and a musical master class. There will also be a prize for the best-dressed Santa Claus.


Stock up your record collection during the Vinyl Christmas Sale at the KL10TCH bar on Konyushennaya ploschad today. Spend the afternoon perusing the records for sale while listening the classic, clean sound of records spinning out hits from a variety of musical genres and time periods.



Sunday, Dec. 21


TheZenit St. Petersburg basketball team returns to the northern capital this evening for a matchup with Krasny Oktyabr, a Volgograd-based basketball club. Tickets for the game, which tips off at 6 p.m. this evening, can be purchased on the club’s website or at their arena, Sibur Arena, on Krestovsky island.


Satisfy your sugar cravings during Sweet New Year, an ongoing seasonal festival at the Raduga shopping center. Each weekend of December will welcome hungry visitors to taste hundreds of different kinds of desserts made from a plethora of sweet treats. Workshops are open to visitors and seasonal gifts can also be purchased for those rushing to finish their New Year shopping.



Monday, Dec. 22


Pick out the latest fashions as holiday gifts for loved ones or as early presents for yourself during the Christmas Design Sale at Kraft on Obvodny Kanal, starting on Dec. 20 and continuing through Dec. 27. Designer clothes will be on sale every day of the week or you can buy something more festive to decorate the home while sipping on hot coffee and perusing the various master classes.



Tuesday, Dec. 23


Meet Arctic explorers Fedor Konukhov and Viktor Simonov during SPIBA’s and Capital Legal Service’s event “Arctic Expedition” this morning in the Mertens House business center at 21 Nevsky Prospekt. The meeting will discuss the explorers’ ongoing eco-social project and how companies can use the project as a unique marketing opportunity. Email office@spiba.ru by Dec. 22 if you wish to attend.



To have your event included in All About Town, email tot@sptimes.ru



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