So much divides the United States and Russia right now, and the list seems to get longer every day: Ukraine, Iran, Syria, North Korea.
But there’s one way in which Russia and the United States are getting closer. It’s how Russian officials are waging a war of words. They’re using the language of American politics to do it.
Take “fake news” (feik nyus ), an expression that regularly appears in the denunciation by Russian officials of American and European news reports. There are plenty of ways to express “fake” in Russian — obman, falshivka, poddelka, utka — depending on whether you’re talking about a hoax, a falsification, a counterfeit, or a canard.
But none of those quite captures the modern phenomenon of an industry of made-up websites, tweets, and other social media posts that are created by someone and distributed by bots, said Michele A. Berdy, who writes a column about the Russian language for the Moscow Times.
“There was no word in Russian that meant that, so journalists started calling it ‘feik,’ ” Berdy said. Now Russian officialdom has picked it up, and is “trying to claim it and redefine it as ‘fake news about Russia by our enemies within and abroad.’ ”
Igor Bagaev, who runs a blog that keeps track of Americanisms in Russian, said that recently borrowed and assimilated words come to Russian from “Western-oriented” people who know English, read English-language media, and start throwing the terminology around.
He added: “I think that the broad population has no idea what these words mean.”
But that doesn’t mean they don’t encounter them. “Meinstrim” (mainstream) and “nyusmeiker” (newsmaker) often show up on the political talk shows that dominate afternoon and evening television.
One show featured a discussion about how the American “meinstrim media” had it in for Russia and thus was trying to discredit President Trump. Eventually, the viewer would understand that the term applies to popular enemy TV channels such as CNN.
As Russia drifts further and further away from the liberal, Westernized society some of its leaders envisioned after the fall of the Soviet Union, Americanisms are often used to underscore that drift. Expressions of modern American sociopolitical jargon have embedded themselves into Russian official-speak.
“The attempts to blame Russia, which the American political establishment has made and continues to make, are hypocritical,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said in a recent statement. She used “politichesky isteblishment,” a favorite expression in Russian to disparage, as Moscow officialdom sees it, the people in U.S. ruling circles who are against a rapprochement between Russia and the United States.
It’s not that there isn’t a corresponding Russian expression. You can say “rukovodyaschiye krugi” — ruling circles — but it doesn’t quite carry the same zing when talking about the United States.
And that’s part of the reason these expressions make their way into Russian.
Consider Zakharova’s reaction to a report that alleged that Russia knew in advance about the chemical weapon attack U.S. officials think was carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: It was, she said, based on “feikovaya informatsiya ” — fake information. She may have had something there, because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later dismissed the allegation.
Then there’s “political correctness,” a concept that Bagaev said many Russians would find foreign.
There are words that mean “proper,” “appropriate,” “acceptable,” “polite,” and so on in Russian, just as there are in English. But the insinuation carried by the phrase “political correctness” — what happens when niceties of inclusiveness in language usage that are intended to eliminate social and ethnic name-calling get out of control — comes to Russian via the adopted phrase.
Last fall, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made the semi-serious suggestion that ordering an “Americano” — the way Russians refer to coffee in a big mug that is not espresso and has no frothy milk — is “politichesky nekorrektno” (politically incorrect) in these dire times for U.S.-Russian relations. That led to the term “Russiano,” but it was short-lived. The popularity of the American government here may be at a post-Cold-War low, but Russians love their “Americanos.”
All languages borrow words from other languages — Americans may recognize agitprop, sputnik, babushka or cosmonaut. Russian, as the dominant language of a land located on major trade routes, which has expanded, been an empire, been invaded, and, after the end of the Soviet Union, embraced the capitalist world, has been particularly open to foreign expressions.
Sometimes, borrowed words backfire. One that Medvedev likes to use, “gadzhety” — from gadgets, meaning smartphones and tablets and such — has been misinterpreted by some Russians as “Gad-zhe ty.” (“You bastard!”)
Which might not be an inappropriate thing to say to someone talking loudly into their gadget in a crowded movie theater.
Some foreign words embed themselves because they are simply easier. Why say “elektronnaya vychislitelnaya mashina” — literally “electric counting machine” — when you can just say kompyuter?
But what of praimeiriz, (primaries), daunshifting, (downshifting), sekond-hend (second hand) and messedzh (message)? Russian has perfectly fine words to say all these things. Why borrow them?
Medvedev could probably answer that with another one of his favorite borrowed words: “Takoi seichas trend.”