You know them. You might say them, believe them, and assume them to be right. And you’d be wrong. What are they? Russian words, and myths about Russian traditions. So here’s a short list of Russian Things That Are Not (with explanations as to Why They Are Not).
- BABUSHKA. If you say “bah-BOOSH-kah,” it’s not a Russian word. If you think “kerchief,” you’re mistaken. So what is it? Pronounce it “BAH-boosh-kah” and you say grandmother. How did it come to mean a kerchief? Probably because most Americans picture a Russian grandmother with a kerchief around her head, and someone mistook one for the other. By the way, women who are not grandmothers, and even little girls, can be seen wearing a kerchief. Teens — well, that’s another story, as always.
- BORSHT. If you say or write it this way, it’s not Russian. If you think “beet soup,” it’s still not Russian. The Russian dish you may think you know is actually “borshch.” Russians don’t even call it soup. By American standards, it’s a soup that wants to be a thick stew, or a stew with too much broth. It’s cabbage-based, and yes, it has beets, but only about one or two beets to half a head of cabbage. It also has the usual root vegetables: carrots and turnips. And of course onions. It may have meat or none. Proportions may vary. Mine includes some tomato paste.
Now if you go south just a little ways into Ukraine, or further on into Poland, you may encounter something more akin to “borsht.” But then, we wouldn’t be in Russia anymore, would we?
- BREAKING SHOT GLASSES AFTER DRINKING VODKA. Only in Hollywood movies. Which are not Russian, although we’ve tried — just check the credits on old movies, and add up the number of Russian-looking last names!
The fact is, there was one occasion per year, for a very specific group, when glasses were indeed broken after a toast. Probably champagne glasses rather than vodka shots, and here’s why. The tsaritsa (queen) of Russia had a personal guard. On her birthday, they all drank to her health, and on that occasion, and that occasion only, they broke the glasses afterwards, so that no one could drink from a glass with which the tsaritsa had been toasted.
- IVAN, BORIS, VLADIMIR, AND AMERICAN NEWSCASTERS. OK, so everybody knows American newscasters are not Russian. So why am I even mentioning this? Because they are the chief perpetrators of the crime of distortion of proper names. As I usually tell my students at the very first opportunity, the name Ivan is not pronounced “EYE-van,” but “ee-VAN.” Boris is not “BOH-rees,” it’s “boh-REES.” And Vladimir is not “VLAH-dee-meer,” but “vlah-DEE-meer.” But except for my students, no one listens.
- PIEROGIES. Here’s another geographical confusion, but I can’t be too mad on this one. The fact is that “pierogies” is a Polish word. The Russian words are “pirog” (pee-ROHG) for a savory pie, and “pirozhok” (pee-roh-ZHOK) for the corresponding finger food. Both the Polish and the Russian dishes involve a bread-like dough stuffed with something. There are a variety of stuffings available to the cook: mushroom, meat, cabbage, buckwheat, potatoes, and even sweet fillings like fresh cheese or cherries.
There’s more. But I’ll stop here, or I’ll start ranting. You can always ask me, and I’ll happily debunk myths about Russia, Russian people, and all things Russian.