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THE WORD'S WORTH: Color Gives Language New Shades of Meaning




Scarlett O'Hara wanted Rhett Butler to build her a mansion that would make everybody pea-green with envy. Make that black with envy in Russian.


When it comes to jealousy, Russian has two shades of meaning -- chyornaya zavist' for the dark envy that contemplates bodily harm, belaya zavist' for those times when another's good fortune evokes an innocent "white" twinge of covetousness.


Russian is a colorful language indeed.


A white ticket, or belyi bilet, is a ticket to the nuthouse, while beliye tapochki are slippers for a corpse.


White crow (belaya vorona) is the graphically logical translation of "rara avis," while the paler expression belyi medved' is just a polar bear.


Black is as somber as anywhere else. No one, particularly a beloruchka, wants to dirty his or her hands with chyornaya rabota (menial or dirty work). Russians save not for a rainy day, but for a black day: Berech' na chyornyi den'. A rough spell is a chyornaya polosa. But chyornoye derevo holds no sorrow; it means ebony.


Gray is the color of ignoramuses: serye lyudi. It was no coincidence that the Communists chose to dress their ideology in red (krasnyi), for the words for beauty and red share the same root. The "beautiful corner" (krasnyi ugol) of prerevolutionary times was where the house icon was kept. The word for eloquence (krasnorechiye) also shares the root of red, although too much talk and you're a windbag: krasnobai.


Green means go -- as in zelyonaya ulitsa, the green light, literally green street -- but it is also the color of ennui: zelyonaya skuka, utter boredom. And while English speakers get blue now and then, a Russian becomes afflicted with toska zelyonaya. Paralleling English, green also signals the callowness of youth -- molodo -- zeleno.


Anything golden is good, including the zolotaya seredina, or happy medium, and the zolotoi dozhd', or golden rain, i.e. a windfall. A distasteful thing is made more palatable when you zolotit' pilyulyu, or sweeten (gild) the pill. A heart of gold, zolotoye serdtse is treasured, as are those who are good with their hands, said to have zolotiye ruki. In English, wise words are bronzed, but Russian values wisdom more. An equivalent for "You can say that again!" is zolotiye slova.


Silver is worth less linguistically. Russian gentry were born not with silver spoons in their mouths, but in their nightshirts: roditsya v sorochke.


Dark blue can be an angry color. Gori vsyo sinim plamenem, literally "May it all burn with a blue flame," expresses the thought "Damn it all." It is said that the blue-light gay districts in foreign films inspired the Russian use of goluboi, or light blue, as a synonym for a homosexual man.


Robert Coalson is on vacation.
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