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22 January 2013

Confusing words #6: “kollaps” / “collapse”

A good friend in Moscow, who does not speak fluent English, asked me the other day, what the English word for “коллапс” is.
     My answer was “распад” as I at first thought she was speaking English. I could not understand why she wanted me to translate an English word into English. Perhaps she was so confused by the beauty of my presence that she had got her languages mixed up? To give her time to sort her emotions out, I added, “As in ‘распад Советского Союза’.”
     That was unsatisfactory. She started gesturing in a way which I took as symbolising the result of amorous emotions carried to their logical and physical limit. Intrigued, though still baffled, I said that was what collapse is in Russian, as far as I know. She said she wanted it in English. So I repeated my answer.
     After a lot of too-ing and fro-ing, I decided to look коллапс up in my dictionary. Nothing—in either the big “desk” one or the smaller one I carry about in my bag, either with that spelling or something similar.
     The only thing I did discover was that распад is given as “disintegration”, which is a subtly different meaning, when applied to the end of the Soviet Union, than “collapse”. But I was still no nearer to understanding what concept the Russian word коллапс referred to if it wasn’t “collapse”.
     Then my friend gave me a verbal explanation, which was much clearer than the one involving fingers and thumbs. I suddenly understood that she was talking about the way the city had ground to a halt with the weekend snow. Admittedly, life was restored to normal within a day or so, but for a while there was what I now know Russians call a коллапс.
     “Aha!” I said triumphantly. “The answer is: ‘gridlock’!”
     “Aah!” she said, smiling.
     Then I remarked that actually the phrase, “the gridlock of the Soviet Union” was rather apt, in the sense that until Yegor Gaidar and his chums liberated prices, goods did not flow through the economy, much like the Moscow traffic in heavy snow (or rush hour, or after an accident etc.).
     I saw my friend’s eyes glaze over with boredom in the normal Russian manner at the introduction of a subject like economic history. Collapse of stout party, as we say in English. No gridlock today, at least not in the sense than hands had expressed it.


  1. 'I suddenly understood that she was talking about the way the city had ground to a halt with the weekend snow.'
    Коллапс as I understand it is a critical failure (temporal or permanent) of a complex system. For example, mass media often use 'банковский коллапс', 'финансовый коллапс'. A gridlock is a 'транспортный коллапс'.

  2. Спасибо! That is even clearer. Is it a new word? Might that be why it is not in my dictionaries?

  3. I think the word "коллапс", which came into fashion with all the latest developments in Russia, corresponds pretty well to English "collapse" in the sense of total failure or breakdown. Doesn't mean anything good anyway.

  4. And what is always worth trying in the event your dictionary collapses, is looking things up at Lingvo.