Rendering "Pussy Riot" in Russian

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With the international attention given to the trial and conviction of members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot on charges of "hooliganism," many have wondered online whether Pussy Riot is a translation of a Russian name. But no: the band consistently uses Pussy Riot (in Latin characters) on its official LiveJournal blog, even though most of the text is in Russian (in Cyrillic characters). This isn't too surprising among punk/alt-rock bands worldwide. Whether it's the Japanese noise rockers Boredoms or Russian ska-punks Distemper, musicians very often use English in Latin script for the names of their bands (and titles of albums and songs), even when their lyrics are in their native language. But how have Russian sources identified Pussy Riot?

Most media outlets have followed the band's lead and have used Pussy Riot even in Cyrillic text (e.g., here, here, and here). Others have transliterated the name of the band into Cyrillic characters, as Пусси Райот (e.g, here, here, and here). Cyrillicized Пусси Райот even shows up occasionally on the band's LiveJournal (as in the title to this post), though most often in comments left by others.

Some have sought a direct translation of the band name into Russian, which is where things get tricky, as can be seen on the talk page for the band on English-language Wikipedia. Is there a Russian equivalent that preserves the double meaning of English pussy, as both 'cat' and 'female genitalia'? It's this double meaning that has led Anglophone news media to engage in various strategies of taboo avoidance, but it's central to the band's provocative "riot grrrl" identity. (The Guardian's Michael Idov notes that the name is "perfectly pitched to both shock and attract the western media.")

On the talk page, one Wikipedian said that during the court case the band's name was translated as бунтующие кошечки, or 'rebellious pussycats', but that only conveys one meaning of pussy. Another ("Ace111") suggested that Бунт кисок 'pussies' riot' or Кискин бунт 'pussy riot' would maintain both meanings, which led to an argument over whether the word киска 'kitty, pussy' (from киса) did indeed have the vulgar connotations of its English equivalent. An anonymous contributor said that the slang meaning "is not supported by the official dictionary 'Большой толковый словарь русского языка. Гл. ред. С. А. Кузнецов' [Great Dictionary of the Russian Language, edited by S.A. Kuznetsov]," which led Ace111 to comment that "if you knew anything about linguistics, you wouldn't be so quick to try and win an argument about linguistic usage by reference to 'the official dictionary.'" The vulgar usage of киска is indeed supported by Google search results, as well as the disambiguation page on Russian-language Wikipedia, even if it hasn't made it into mainstream Russian dictionaries. (Perhaps the slang meaning has developed recently as a kind of calque of English pussy?)

The first of Ace111's suggestions, Бунт кисок, is currently given as the translation-equivalent on the Russian Wikipedia page for the band, as well as in some news articles, but ultimately it doesn't matter much: the band's name is Pussy Riot, regardless of the language.

(Apologies for any errors — I'm sure Language Log's Russian experts will set me straight if anything is amiss.)

[Update, 8/19: See Arnold Zwicky's post for much more on taboo avoidance surrounding the band name in the Anglophone media.]

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35 Comments »

  1. GeorgeW said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    There is also the third meaning: a weak or cowardly man. But, since the members are all females, this would not be the intended meaning.

  2. Bobbie said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    The double entendre was a running joke for years on the British show, "Are You Being Served?" as seen in these clips about Mrs. Slocombe and her pussy. (She was referring to her cat.)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRJlItzalJY

  3. MonkeyBoy said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    third meaning: a weak or cowardly man

    I think this 3rd meaning is "meek" not "weak". Also it is not sex specific – see this sticker ("Don't be a pussy. Play Roller Derby") for women's roller derby.

    This 3rd sense could be a desired component of Pussy Riot's as irony in the sense that you don't expect the meek to riot. I could well imagine a punk band called "Meek Insurrection".

  4. Nick B said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Do many other languages go for the dual meaning? French does with "chatte". Are they calques of each other as proposed above, or independent derivations?

  5. Orin Hargraves said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    I sense that the usually staid and sober reporters of many international news services–such as the ones you hear on the BBC World Service–take particular delight in having an occasion to pronounce this word that would otherwise never find a way into their news bulletins.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    @Orin Hargraves. NPR's Friday News Roundup used the band name during the news panel's coverage section. Then, a listener called in to comment and said, "I don't know if I can say this on the air, . . ." There were some knowing snickers from the news panel.

    @MonkeyBoy: I encountered this in army basic training in the 60s (of the last century). The meaning was similar to 'sissy,' but more graphic.

    Apparently, the double (or triple) meaning gives the media a free pass.

  7. Michael K. said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    In German there is »Muschi«, a nickname for house cats and (I think less common) also women. Well, I do not think many people are still using it that way, because of its very vulgar double meaning. In my estimation it's even a tad more vulgar than »pussy« but I honestly do not know.

    It doesn't have the third meaning (meek), though. And I think it's most commonly used in porn but I might be wrong about that. I wouldn't ever want to use the word, it seems very weird to me.

  8. цarьchitect said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    Not at all related to the question at hand, but while we're talking about russian internet slang, does anyone else think there's a good article title in the pun Zhe Zhe Govor? Or does that merit a фэйспалм?

  9. Frans said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    @Nick B
    In Dutch you have "poes" (/pus/). However, if I used that word I'd prefer the more endearing "poesje" (/pusjə/). The latter can also be pronounced "poesie" (/pusi/), which is more informal — assuming concepts like formal and informal apply to slang terms, I suppose.

    The word "poes" can also be short for "stoeipoes", meaning sex kitten (lit. romping puss), or the more innocuous meaning "attractive woman".

    Perhaps also noteworthy is that "de lange poes" (the long puss) refers to the penis.

  10. Thom said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    While searching for Chinese slang using the character 猫, I stumbled across this slang that is apparently used in Japanese, involving the same character. Entry & Link below:

    [ねこ, neko] passive party in a lesbian relationship; geisha (lit.: cat)

    http://www.languagerealm.com/japanese/japaneseslang_ne.php#

  11. Barbara Partee said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    Ben, as far as I can tell with my moderate command of Russian, you didn't make any mistakes at all. And thanks — I found that talk page behind the wikipedia article fascinating.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    Not that it should be relevant to their legal situation and it's hard to say with certainty with rock band names, but this one feels a bit ESLish to me. Not that it is impossible that a bunch of AmEng native-speaker riot grrls would name their band that, but the feel is a bit off in a way I can't articulate other than by presumably what does or doesn't seem "well-formed" or at least idiomatic by subconscious analogy to the corpus of several thousand rock band names (including ones selected to be vulgar/obscene/provocative/etc.) stuck in the back of my brain. By way of parallel (i may have used this anecdote before in a different thread), about a dozen years ago I was in the old medieval center of Bruges in Belgium when I saw a poster advertising an upcoming festival of heavy metal bands, none of which I had previously heard of. The most striking name was "Imperious Malevolence," who turned out to be not Belgian but Brazilian. That's what you might think was a totally awesome/bad-ass/"metal-sounding" name if . . . you knew a bit of English or had access to a dictionary but were not actually a native speaker.

    OTOH I recall seeing circa 1986 an all-female band (never recorded afaik and prob. played only a handful of gigs) which went by the name Pussyteeth (an obv. "vagina dentata" allusion, not sure if even Mrs. Slocombe could have pretended otherwise). That seemed and seems perfectly idiomatic to me.

  13. Garry Nixon said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    Pussy Riot are surely in a tradition of band names which are both ambiguous yet sexualised for shock value. The Sex Pistols were probably the best example, but I also recall female bands called The Slits, and The Stinky Toys.

    But let's not get too hung up on "Pussy". "Riot" is as, if not more, important, carrying the twin meanings in English of (primarily) serious social disorder, but also metaphorically "a good, uproarious event"

  14. wtfman said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

    What do you think would happen it they did this in the US?
    What if some American kids did this in a synagogue?
    Before jumping on a the Bad Russia bandwagon, look at the mirror.

  15. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

    @wtfman: I take it you didn't actually read anything on this page? Because the entire discussion here is simply about the name "Pussy Riot". Since most commenters here are educated Westerners with a pro–free-speech bent, it wouldn't surprise me if most of them are "on the Bad Russia bandwagon", but no one has actually felt the need to indicate it here. The closest thing is Dr. Zimmer's use of quotation-marks around "hooliganism", which is open to interpretation.

  16. Ross Presser said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 12:15 am

    Personal memory: as a preteen, I was well aware that to be called a "pussy" meant you were being called unmanly, but did not realize it actually meant the female genitalia, until about 12, when I heard a conversation between two boys; one said "you're a pussy" and the other said "you mean I'm a huge cunt?"

  17. Graeme said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 12:18 am

    'Hooligan' I always guessed was Irish, but wondered why a term reduced in English to a form of football fan violence, would be employed in Eastern Europe for an offence that sounds more like 'breach of the peace' /affray back in the West.

    Weekley's etymology (not always reliable) has 'hooligan' as a name of a specific Irish family (supposedly reported to Weekley, 1896, by a 'surgeon at Guy's [hospital] who spent some of his time patching up the results'!). Which word Slavic languages quickly took up as 'khuligan'/'chuligan'.

  18. Avinor said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 12:26 am

    For anyone reading Swedish (Google translate works ok, too), journalist Kalle Kniivilä blogs here about the fact that taboo words are completely ignored by Russian-produced dictionaries:

    http://www.kniivila.net/2011/ryska-svordomar-varre-an-fan-och-hans-mormor/

  19. LizaK said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 1:04 am

    Not to be nitpicky, but "Бунт кисок" also means pussy riot – note the genitve case ;)
    Literally, pussies' riot

    [(bgz) Thanks -- I've fixed the gloss.]

  20. David Bauwens said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 1:15 am

    Boredoms have occasionally used the monicker ボアダムス (in katakana).
    @Fred: Dutch (well, Flemish, but let's not split hairs) is my mother tongue, but I have never heard the expression 'de lange poes' before.

  21. Jeremy said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 4:15 am

    Yeah, бунт кисок literally means "riot /of/ pussies". I find that to be the closest translation of those suggested. It is a type of riot that is defined by pussy/pussies, not cats or pussies that are rioting or whatever else.

    If anything, I don't think "riot" can even be translated accurately. To me, it is more abstract and describes their type of music: The riot grrl band named "Pussy".

  22. Frans said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    @David
    Fred, eh?

    http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/komr001verz01_01/komr001verz01_01_0018.php

  23. languagehat said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 10:33 am

    An anonymous contributor said that the slang meaning "is not supported by the official dictionary 'Большой толковый словарь русского языка. Гл. ред. С. А. Кузнецов' [Great Dictionary of the Russian Language, edited by S.A. Kuznetsov]"

    That's hilarious!

    Perhaps the slang meaning has developed recently as a kind of calque of English pussy?

    As far as I can tell from looking at a pretty extensive corpus (which accords with my experience reading lots of contemporary, and often scabrous, Russian), this is indeed the case, and it has only happened in the last few years. Before that, it meant only 'kitty,' as an affectionate term either for a cat (the majority of uses) or for a woman. Evidence:

    From a collection of anekdoty:
    – Дорогой, – приказывает жена мужу, – пожелай спокойной ночи киске и отнеси мамочку в сад. То есть, я имела в виду…
    – Слишком поздно! Уже сделано.
    ["Dear," said a wife to her husband, "please say good night to the kiska and put mom out in the garden. That is, I meant to say..."
    "Too late! It's already done."]
    If kiska 'kitty' had also meant 'pussy' at this point, this joke would have fallen pretty flat.

    From Nina Katerli's Дневник сломанной куклы ("Diary of a broken doll," 2001): "Меня фамильярно называл не иначе как «детка» или «киска», а какая я ему киска?" ["Of course he was constantly calling me detka (girl) or kiska; I'm not his kiska!"]
    Again, it's clear that kiska didn't have an obscene sense at this time.

    In a sex forum called Женщина + мужчина ["Woman + man"] in 2004, kiska does get used in the 'pussy' sense. And in Alexandr Terekhov's Каменный мост (2009, recently translated by Simon Patterson as The Stone Bridge), there's a line "Катя села белым днем на детские качели и растопырила ноги, показывая отсутствие трусов. «Влажные киски. Видео»." [My translation: Katya sat in broad daylight on the swings and spread her legs, showing her lack of panties. "Wet kiski. Video."]
    I think here we see the kind of context in which the calque occurred.

  24. Boris J. said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    @ Nick B and all French speakers: Interestingly, the French word "minou" (which is more colloquial than "chatte") also conserves the cat/female genitalia double entendre.

    Now I'd be interested to know if any equivalents in other languages bear the meaning "luck", as "chatte" does in French (http://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/avoir_de_la_chatte)–also a quite colloquial use of the word.

  25. Jon Hanna said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    As well as it being common for punk groups world-wide to use Latin script, it has allowed Pussy Riot to offer their own translation when asked to by police, one which if translated back to English would be "pussy-cat rebellion".

    They may not have been completely honest in doing so.

  26. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    From a couple of native German speakers I know, I gather that "Muschi" is approximately the German equivalent of "pussy," while "Fotze" is closer to "cunt." Muschi is the milder term, it seems.

  27. markus said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

    for all german-understanding readers
    the linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch has a short essay in german
    about "muschi" and related pussy/chatte

    http://www.scilogs.de/wblogs/blog/sprachlog/sprachwandel/2010-12-10/muschi-gesucht

  28. Emperor Spock said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 12:30 am

    My anecdotal observations suggest that 'киска' in the meaning of 'female genitals' is mostly confined to pornographic and quasi-pornographic texts. I have never heard it spoken or encountered it in any other kind of conversation. It is definitely slangy not only by virtue of its being quite new, but also because its actual use seems very restricted.

  29. Graeme said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 2:53 am

    Garry Nixon – inverting the Sex Pistols, one of Australia's best indie bands of the eighties were The Celibate Rifles.

  30. KeithB said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

    And let's not forget Steely Dan, though its double meaning is hidden.

  31. ohwilleke said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

    As a lawyer, I was more interested in the translation of the Russian criminal charge as "hooliganism" which I strongly suspect is not a very apt word to convey a meaning based in the comparable criminal charge in the American criminal justice system (perhaps it is a British criminal offense more familiar to them). More modern American criminal justice system have no crime of that name so it isn't entirely clear what the elements of it would be.

    Some plausible American analogs to the Russian charge from Colorado's criminal code would be "inciting riot", "engaging in a riot", "disorderly conduct", "desecration of venerated objects", "failure or refusal to leave premises or property upon request of a peace officer", and "criminal trespass." It also bears similarity to 18th century "sedition" charges. Many of these offenses would warrant sentences of up to two years as serious misdemeanors or minor felonies in the U.S.

    "Inciting riot" is particularly attractive potential translation given its similar level of severity, context, and its harmony with the band's name.

  32. Boots said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    re: "double meaning of English pussy"

    The word has a distinct THIRD meaning in common US street lingo (although a derivative of the second).

    For instance, an all-male band named "The Pussy Boys" could be interpreted in several different ways – largely depending on their perceived demeanor.

  33. KeithB said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    The Straight Dope on hooliganism:
    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/925/in-the-old-soviet-union-what-did-it-mean-to-be-branded-a-cosmopolite

    Think conspiracy – a vague charge that almost anyone can be guilty of

  34. Michael said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    My teacher, a retired PHD in philology from St. Petersburg, did not think hooliganism was the appropriate phrase. She felt provocation was a better term.

  35. steve said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

    Let us not forget Courtney Love's punk band named "Hole".

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