Bandit Slang Stealing Into the Language

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Fenya: the special language of Russian prisons and camps. Can be translated as prison talk, prison slang or lingo.




Alexander Burak, head of the Moscow State University department of translation has noted that there are two main sources of new words and expressions in the post-communist era: science and technology (particularly words borrowed from English) and criminals. This suggests a society in which Russian gangsters are using new technology borrowed from the West to improve their robbery and scamming skills.

I don't know about anyone else, but this pretty much describes my experience in Moscow over the past few years. During one dark 18-month period I was robbed so often (over 20 times), and so ingeniously (my NY bank account was cleaned out with an electronically stolen PIN number and fake card), that I began to think of myself as a kind of one-woman charity organization: USAID for the criminally needy. But there's always a bright (net khuda bez dobra): not only did I develop a kind of Zen calm about being robbed ("things enter my life, things leave my life"), I vastly expanded my lexicon of the con.

Fenya is the language of the camps and prisons. Developed over decades, it is made up of thousands of words and expressions that describe everything from a corpse (zhmurik) to a scam (kinut). As the zeks (prisoners) left the zone, they took their language with them, and fenya has infiltrated standard Russian to the point that many speakers don't even know the unsavory derivations of the words they are using.

To start with the basics: a con or scam in Russian is is afyora; the guy who runs the con is aferist. He is looking for a lokh, a "rube" or "mark," which has the connotation of being something of a country bumpkin or a hayseed in the big city. (In my case I wondered if I had this emblazoned on my forehead.)

A widespread con game is the lokhotron, a play on the words lokh and lototron, which is a lottery drum. The lokhotron seems like a legitimate game of chance, but actually has no winners.

Several scams use a kukla, in standard Russian a "doll," in "bandit slang" a wad of paper with bills on the outside to suggest a wad of real money. In the most common scam you change 3000 dollars for a pile of rubles, only when you get home they have miraculously turned into a kukla. And you can forget buying a new car this year.

Another standard con in Moscow is the napyorstok, the shell game. In New York this is more commonly "three card Monty." You know the deal: the napyorstochnik, "shell game operator" or "scam artist," puts a bean under three shells (or, as the Russian implies, thimbles) and moves them around while keeping up tryop -- banter -- about where the bean is. You put your money on the thimble in the center. The bean is under the thimble on the right. The napyorstochniktakes your money, and you count yourself lucky if a karmannik (pickpocket) doesn't fleece you at the same time you're following the damn bean.

Let's say you're not lucky, and the napyotochnikand karmannik are working together. In five minutes they manage to take your bet and your wallet. Afterwards they divide up their haul. This is navar -- someone's "take"or "split." This can also be used jokingly to describe a business deal. "Kogda vsyo prodadim, tvoi navar budet 3 milliona." (When we sell it all, your take will be 3 million.)

Of course it's somewhat disconcerting to realize that "a share of a business deal" and "a split in a con game" are the same thing in contemporary Russian.

But then this is a country where every self-respecting businessman has a lawyer, a bookkeeper and a krysha, a "racketeer," to look after his interests.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is co-author of a Russian-English dictionary.

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