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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

Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in “Downton Abbey” if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russia’s best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russia’s most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkin’s, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontov’s short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library System’s website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Club’s weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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