January 01, 2001

Matters of Life and Death

Matters of Life and Death

Regular readers of this column on linguistic survival may wonder what the Russian word for “survival” is and what Russians have to say about life and death more generally. In fact, survival-related vocabulary forms a substantial part of our lexicon, especially after recent market reforms pushed the overwhelming majority of Russians to the brink of poverty.

No sooner had Yegor Gaidar set prices free in 1992 than we Russians all began talking about how to выжить and how our life had become “a fight for survival” – борьба за выживание. Indeed, many often confess their life is not a life but rather an existence: Не жизнь, а существование, and that all they dream of is to live through these troubled times: Пережить это смутное время.

In general, when Russians want to say they lead a tough life, they can say is it a fight не на жизнь, а на смерть (not for life, but to the death). In historical novels on the era of Peter the Great, we read how the Tsar-Reformer called on his soldiers and officers to wage the battle не щадя живота своего. But no, this does not mean “without sparing one’s belly,” but rather “without sparing one’s life.” In old Russian, живот could simply mean “life.”

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