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24 January 2013

Vladimir Zhirinovsky to host a party at Butyrki prison with Mr Putin and me, and a hundred thousand others (minimum)

Mr Fatty needs either bigger shirts or a prison diet
(Photo: Moscow Times)
When I was a boy, which was not that recently, in fact at a time closer to the days when the Kaiser was still on the throne of the Second Reich than it is to the present, we used to think that the only regular users of long words were clever people and Germans.
     That should not be interpreted too freely as some sort of disguised compliment to our Teutonic cousins, beloved thought they were and are. Rather it reflected an article of faith in British culture of the time which held that most clever people were actually rather stupid, especially if they paraded their cleverness by making a noise in public. We called them “fat-heads”. They would do fat-headed things like come up with theories, and we all knew what damage theories could do. Just look at Communism. We saw ourselves as sturdy pragmatists who gloried in short words, short sentences and long lunches in City chophouses.
     So it comes as no surprise to see that Russia’s version of the Clever German Syndrome has been President Putin’s theory about the benefits of  “deoffshorization”. Forgetting the theory part, this is what in English is known as a “portmanteau word”, as it is assembled from several words or ideas, as the German language customarily does.
     However, long as it may be, it is not so long a word as “floccinaucinihilipilifcation” which, when I was a lad, was thought by every grubby-fingered school-boy to be the Longest Word in the English Language. It means “the act of estimating as worthless”.
     Whether that was indeed the longest word or not, I could not say. I am sure it is not any more, and that today the record is held by the word which some half-German conservation scientist working for the RSPB has invented, meaning “the act of estimating as worthy of protection with public money so that I can have a permanent job with a copper-bottomed pension spending that money, mostly on myself”.
     As I see it, Mr Putin runs two risks when using words like deoffshorization, only the less dangerous of which is being thought of as a closet German. The bigger danger is, believe it or not, prison—at least if Vladimir Zhirinovsky has his way. Yesterday’s Moscow Times reports that Mr Zhirinovsky is preparing legislation aimed at banning the use of English words on Russian territory if they have a Russian equivalent. The Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party says his country is “tormented by Americanisms and Briticisms” (sic – an ugly word which I have not heard before). So the liberal thing to do, and the democratic one I presume, is to ban them.
     The article quotes him as saying that, for example, Russians should use the word лавка instead of “boutique”. He appears unaware that boutique is a French word which was adopted by English-speaking lovers of linguistic torment because it sounded cooler than “shop”. In that regard, Zhirinovsky reminds me of President Bush 2.0, who famously tried to ridicule our Gallic cousins for their supposed lack of business acumen by saying, “The French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur.” Of course, it was the English language which lacked such a concept, which is why the word was borrowed from French in the first place.
     But Zhirinovsky would do well to ponder the larger problem, which is that if his new Bill is passed, he is likely to land himself in jail too. And it gets worse. It will not just be Mr Putin with whom he will be sharing гречка and watery уха in the dining hall at Butyrki prison, it will be all the members of his own Liberal Democratic Party. The reason is simple. Only one of the four words in its name, Либерально-Демократическая Партия России, is of Russian origin. “Liberalno” comes from “liberal”, “Democraticheskaya” comes from “democratic” and “Partiya” comes from “party”. 
     But then it gets better. Since almost every Westernised person in Russia today, whether native or foreign, exercises their democratic right to make liberal use of words which derive from English or other non-Slavic languages, I suspect that the party in Butyrki might turn out to be rather crowded. I’d like to join the fun. It could be quite a blast. But I want to attend the party without joining the Party, if you see what I mean. So how does a scrupulous grammarian get an invite? Without one, I doubt I would get past face-control at Butyrki.
     Having given the matter some thought, I have come to the conclusion that the best strategy will be to get myself arrested for turning a Russian name into an English one. The name I have in mind is, in fact, Zhirinovsky. Since жир (zhir, which means “fat”) looks like the root of “Zhirinovsky”, I propose to stop using the Russian form but instead calling our host Господин Фатти, (Mr Fatty). This would be doubly appropriate since I notice he has put on  a bit of weight recently—so much so that, as the photograph in the Moscow Times shows (see above), he is unable to do up the top button of his shirt.
     No respectable politician—респектабельный политик, two more soon-to-be illegal words—dresses like that in public. I hope that the diet in Butyrki will cure him of this problem and, at the same time, prevent anyone thinking our friend might be on the way to becoming a fat-head. We have enough Germans running the country as it is, with all their strange theories, like деоффшоризация.

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