Ice cream in the ass.

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Among the visual jokes coming out of Russia on the occasion of the Sochi Olympics are some intriguing menu items:

This is a natural consequence of some simple but treacherous facts about Russian and English:

мороженое в асс. is word-for-word "ice cream in ass.", short for мороженое в ассортименте, i.e. "ice cream in assortment", i.e. "assorted ice cream".

But where does the "the" come from?

Russian, like most other Slavic languages, has no articles; and so deciding where to put articles in English is a source of great puzzlement to native speakers of such languages.

Most of the jokes about Russians and articles involve leaving them out, as in the joke about the first lecture of Russian class for English speakers: "I start with good news! In English language, is necessary to use article! But in Russian language, no article!"

Hypercorrection can happen here as well. Sometimes, knowing that in English article ("the article"? "an article"?) is often necessary, and despairing of any more logical method, Russians will put some in more or less at random, as a sort of statistical approximation to English nominal morphosyntax.

Update — Apparently the menu picture (though genuine) is a couple of years old, and probably not from Sochi

Update #2 — Barbara Partee reminds me of the discussion about English grammar in which a famous linguist of Slavic background famously exclaimed "No, no, in English, noun ALWAYS takes article!"

I've heard versions of this story from several sources, about several different famous-linguists-of-Slavic-background, so I think it belongs in the "too good to check" category.


  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 9:40 am

    Russian has no monopoly on this. I've seen "analyst" abbreviated "anal." And then there's "Happy New Year" in Spanish, but minus the tilde.

  2. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    At first glance I thought it might be a relative of the charming Austrian dessert moor in a shirt.

  3. Nadezhda said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    "in the ass" is short for "in the assortment" here.
    This expression ("in the assortment") is quite typical for the menus in Russia, so the acronym does not look so vulgar

  4. bulbul said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    Russian, like other Slavic languages, has no articles
    Except for Bulgarian and Macedonian which dropped case and acquired a Swedish-style suffixed definite article.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    I have developed a hypothesis that L1 Russophones who become English-speakers as adults follow a Law of Total Definite Article Conservation, whereby for each instance of an obligatory-in-English "the" they fail to deploy in the proper spot they insert an offsetting "the" somewhere else in the discourse in a spot where an L1 Anglophone would not.

  6. Howard Oakley said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    My job 'grading' is Associate Specialist (in the UK, a 'staff' grade of doctor running parallel to Consultant). Unfortunately quite a few people like to abbreviate it to 'Ass. Spec.', although I am not a proctologist.

  7. Bill W said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

    En revanche, Anglophones attempting Russian have difficulties with verbal aspect that are similar to Russian-speakers' difficulties with English articles.

  8. michael farris said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    And if you think that's bad, you should see where they wanted to put the cherries.

  9. Ted said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    Is there something particular to Russian that leads them to "X in the assortment" rather than the correct English phrase "an assortment of Xs"?

    [(myl) As I suggested in the post, the normal Russian phrase for "assorted X" translates word-for-word to English as "X in assortment".]

  10. Neil Dolinger said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    Subject to correction by other readers more knowledgeable than I am…
    The insertion of 'the' has been discussed above. The structure of the English translation appears to come directly from the Russian, where idioms having to do with assortments take a locative structure 'X in assortment' rather than the genitive structure favored by English 'assortment of X' (or in this case 'Ass. of ice cream').

    Another possible error might come from a speaker of a language that also favors genitive structures for this idiom, but is only familiar with the 's form in English, e.g. 'Ice cream's assortment'.

  11. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

    But "ice cream's assortment" doesn't even work as substitute for an "assortment of ice cream." "Of" doesn't mean "belonging to" in this context. A cup of coffee is not the coffee's cup.

  12. michael farris said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    Ted: "is there something particular to Russian that leads them to "X in the assortment" rather than the correct English phrase "an assortment of Xs"?"

    It's called a calque, in the absence of sure experience that a foreign language lexicalizes ideas differently, most people assume that collocations in their own languages work cross linguistically.

    Just about any person experienced in first hand foreign language experience can give examples of where a collocation in their own language ended up meaning something very different in another language.

  13. kamo said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    Those of us who have been (un)fortunate enough to lose large sections of our lives (as well as relationships, qualifications, jobs etc) to the various incarnations of the Football Manager PC game will be familiar with the vital role played by the assistant manager. The convention on messageboards and the like is to refer to him as your Ass Man, as in-

    "I started having doubts about his abilities as an Ass Man when he recommended John Hartson over Dwight Yorke."

    As a game played largely by men in their late teens, and men who still behave like they're in their late teens, it's obvious enough how this started, but what's interesting is that it's so normalised now that the innuendo just flies straight by.

  14. Ted said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

    I guess I was alluding to, without fully recognizing, the fact that in Russian the noun is the type of item (here, ice cream) and "in assortment" is a modifier describing that item, whereas in the parallel English phrase the noun is the assortment and the modifier is the type of item making up the assortment. Conceptually, they're quite different, which might explain why Russian speakers are drawn to the calque.

    This presumably would imply that, starting from "мороженое в ассортименте," Russians playing word association would tend to think of things like ice cream sundaes, ice cream cones, ice cream sodas, etc. whereas English speakers starting from "an assortment of ice cream" would think of an assortment of cookies, an assortment of chocolates, an assortment of jams and jellies, etc.

    On the other hand, a more idiomatic English way to describe "мороженое в ассортименте" would probably be "assorted flavors of ice cream." Here the "assortment" concept is a modifier, as in Russian. The difference, though, is that in English, ice cream is a mass noun that doesn't really work in the plural (in this sense), and "assorted X" requires a plural X. So you need some other plural noun that "assorted" can modify. By contrast, "X в ассортименте" appears to work with (and maybe only with) singular X.

  15. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    What is assorted ice cream? Is it what was called Neapolitan when I was growing up — a slab of ice cream in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry?

  16. Rodger C said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    The West Virginia Coal Association is widely known among local environmentalists as the Coal Ass. I've seen the phrase any number of times online lately.

  17. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    The "the" might not be completely random but rather interference from knowledge of other European languages that tend to use an article for abstract nouns in a situation like this more than English does (German being an example).

  18. Rolig said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    The Russian phrase does not seem so peculiar if you think of one of the common English phrases for the same thing: "ice cream in an assortment of flavors" — unless the Russian means "ice cream in an assortment of forms" (i.e. sundaes, cones), but that seems less likely. The more idiomatic English phrase, though, would be: "ice cream in assorted flavors".

  19. Steve B said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 11:48 pm

    The article overcorrection issue reminds me of a sign for a nightclub I saw in Tokyo a few years back that was evidently called "Club the Celebrity".

  20. Steve B said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 11:49 pm

    Unlike me, someone was smart enough to take a picture:

  21. Boris said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    Admittedly, I left the country at age 11, but I do not believe I was familiar with the word assortment in Russia. The only cognate I new of was "Assorti" for a box of assorted chocolates, and that was clearly a foreign word. It seems Wiktionary, at least, marks the word as "trade" which implies it is not used by the general public. As such, the Russian version of this menu item was completely unfamiliar to me when I saw it. If it were spelled out and not abbreviated, I could puzzle out the meaning.

    Incidentally, the word "ass" does have some currency in Russia with its (vulgar) English meaning and pronunciation (or as close as you can get), or did at the time I lived there. I've never seen it in writing, but I assume it would not be spelled "асс" because that doesn't produce the desired sound.

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