In my early teaching years, a colleague from the neighbouring girls’ school came to lunch. Observing the behaviour of the boys waiting to be served, she asked, “Why can’t young boys stand in a queue without pushing and shoving? Girls don’t do that.”
I sidestepped my inability to answer the question by asking her (she was a classicist) how she would differentiate between pushing and shoving. Was there a difference, or were they synonyms— given our agreement that there was no such thing as an exact synonym?
We looked them up in the Common Room after lunch, in Eric Partridge’s Origins, and found a familiar story: push was originally from Latin, and shove was Germanic.
L pellere > pulsare > MF poulser > F pousser > E push
OHG scioban > OE scufan > ME shoven > E shove
That same year, our Russian assistant was someone who kept her pupils in enviably good order. The boys whom she taught were frightened of her and referred to her as Miss Pushkin, which was not her name.
This was more than a play on sounds of words. The website House of Names explains: ‘The name Pushkin is a patronymic surname formed by adding one of the many Russian suffixes… to the personal name Pushka, meaning cannon. This name was likely originally a nickname for a loud, outgoing person, or perhaps an occupational name for a gunner or gunsmith.’
But meanwhile what of Alexander Pushkin, that gentle and subtle practitioner of what may be the most nuanced of all languages, killed in a duel at the age of 37? His name is revered throughout Russia.
His work, and chiefly his poetry, is so full of meaning that people have given up trying to put it into English, and it remains almost inaccessible if one does not know Russian.
To translate Virgil may be an impossible task; but so too is to translate writers such as Pushkin. The Russian language is a confection of subtlety, nuance and allusion that is never-ending, and the intellectual exercise involved even in speaking it may be why Russians are so esteemed as interpreters and translators.
Next post: Plastic.