Only a couple letters off

« previous post | next post »

Amazingly, the US Secretary of State could not locate anyone on her staff capable of finding out the Russian word that appears on reset buttons. Mrs Clinton offered Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, a gift-wrapped red button bearing the legend "Reset" in English and "Peregruzka" in Russian. Fox News reports it here under a "Clinton Goofs" headline, because peregruzka doesn't mean "reset": it means "overcharged" or "overloaded". The word they were supposed to have printed on the device was "perezagruzka". (Slavicists in Language Log's East European and Eurasian department are checking this out now; I offer this hasty note from my hotel room in the SCTTPKMCT, where I have no Russian reference materials.) Mr Lavrov did not let the slip lie; he pointed it out in public. Even more amazingly, the Clinton adviser Philippe Reines is reported to have protested that the word they printed "is only a couple letters off." Not much of a linguistic story, really, but Mr Lavrov did make one linguistic point out of it, commenting (according to The New York Times) that it illustrated the need to teach Russian in the United States and English in Russia.


  1. Ransom said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

    My sources indicate that the Russian word most likely to appear on a reset button is "сброс" (sbros– read "zbros"). This is also an amusingly inappropriate label. English "re-set" suggests 'carefully arranging in a suitable initial condition', whereas "с-брос" suggests 'throwing off' or 'discarding'.

  2. bulbul said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    Last time I saw the term "перезагрузка", it meant "reload" (as in "… the webpage"). I don't think that's the same as "reset"…
    According to a Russian newspaper:
    "Узнав об ошибке, Клинтон рассмеялась и пообещала, что постарается не допустить перегрузки в российско-американских отношениях."

    "Acknowledging the error, Clinton laughed and promised to make sure that she will not allow the relationship between Russian and the US to be overloaded."

  3. bulbul said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    сброс, that's the one I could not remember! I guess the question is what exactly you mean by "reset". A "Reset" button on a web form the purpose of which is to delete all the entries made so far would more aptly be named "Сброс" than "Перезагрузка" in Russian. You are, after all, discarding the changes you made.

  4. Adrian said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    To my mind "Reset" isn't a virtual button that you click with a mouse, it's a physical button on a computer that reboots the machine. In some cases, the button is hidden in a little hole that you have to stick a biro into.

  5. Bruce Balden said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    No one dares to suggest Mr Lavrov preferred, in this respect at least, Mrs Clinton's predecessor who is fluent in Russian? And where were the innumerable Russian speakers in the State Dept left over from the Cold War era when they were actually needed for something? The Cold War is so "over" that nobody bothers to study Russian anymore?

  6. Ransom said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    @Adrian– I understand the terminology to date back to way before virtual buttons, and actually to refer to buttons that reboot the machine, discarding the loaded program from memory. That is to say: the term comes from the days when computers only held one program in memory.

  7. bulbul said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 8:09 pm


    yes, that too. But there are clickable reset buttons, too.

  8. Ransom said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    The whole thing reminds me of an incident described in "Getting to Yes" (Roger Fisher, William Ury, Bruce Patton):

    "… in Persian, the word "compromise" apparently lacks the positive meaning it has in English of "a midway solution both sides can live with", but has only a negative meaning as in "our integrity was compromised." Similarly, the word "mediator" in Persian [as in Russian -R] suggests "meddler", someone who is barging in uninvited. In early 1980 U.N. Secretary General Waldheim flew to Iran to seek the release of American hostages. His efforts were seriously set back when Iranian national radio and television broadcast in Persian a remark he reportedly made on his arrival in Tehran: "I have come as a mediator to work out a compromise." Within an hour of the broadcast, his car was being stoned by angry Iranians."

  9. Albatross said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    … the Clinton adviser Philippe Reines is reported to have protested that the word they printed "is only a couple letters off."

    "Button" is only a couple of letters off from "butt."
    "Idiom" is only one letter off from "idiot."
    "Genial" is only one letter off from "genital."
    And "carbon" is only one letter inversion off from cabron.

    Reines should have just apologized for the mistake.

  10. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    And Reines is only a couple letters off from reinless… which sounds like brainless

  11. Bobbie said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    Phillippe [Reines, Clinton advisor on Russia] — just a few letters off from Fliippant

  12. Lance said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 2:27 am

    Out of fairness to Reines: CNN quotes the email he sent as saying

    “Since we're all learning a little Russian today, ‘opechatka’ is Russian for ‘typo,'” he wrote. “So the *Opechatka* is being fixed, the gift will correctly read ‘Perezagruzka’ by the time of the joint press conference. If any of you travel with labelmaking devices equipped with Russian spell-check, please do let me know…”

    Given the tone of the quoted email, I can believe that the "only a few letters off" (which FOX reports, but doesn't quote) was a self-deprecating joke.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 3:20 am

    While traveling in southeast Asia we used to speculate that having "just two letters off" in all posted English text was a union sign shop / print shop requirement. Evidently the U.S. State Department staff is now represented by that union.

  14. Pavel Iosad said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    Indeed, "reset" is перезагрузка (perezagruzka) as the smallish button which saves you when Ctrl+Alt+Del doesn't and сброс (sbros) as the "clear form" thing. In that context, though, the former would be a much better translation. Сброс is a deverbal noun from сбрасывать, to throw off (as Ransom points out). Перезагрузка sounds fine here, though may be not quite with the same overtones as "reset".

  15. Brett said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    Geoff puts only a couple letters off in quotes, but I'm not sure whether he means to attribute that to the newspaper story or to Reines. I can't actually find any stories with those words in quotes, and indeed a Google news search only turns up two stories with that wording at all, one from Fox and one from Asian News International.

    The construction a couple + plural noun is itself interesting. I mentioned it a while back here.

  16. NV said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    Interestingly enough, перезагрузка (perezagruzka) was the word used in the translated title of the movie The Matrix Reloaded in Russian: Матрица: Перезагрузка. In that context, would The Matrix Reset have been appropriate?

  17. Derry said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    My British brain had trouble interpreting this too.

    First I boggled at a gift-wrapped button. Why would anyone give something to fasten clothes with? Then I thought of buttons as badges and finally settled on a genuine reset push-switch.
    And now I'm inclining back to it being a badge – or maybe not.

  18. MMcM said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    What does the Kommersant's picture caption writer means by латиницей?

  19. Ransom said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    @MMcM– it means "in the latin script" (as opposed to the cyrillic.)

    @Derry– I'm quite confident it's a push-switch.

    @NV– "груз" signifies "load" in several of the most important senses, explaining why the word "reload" is only a few letters off from "overload".

  20. Rolig said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    @ MMcM – латиницей means "in the Latin alphabet". Interesting. Was the button label not even written in Cyrillic?

    @ NV – перезагрузка (perezagruzka) also means "reload".

    A comparison of the wrong and right words shows the different meaning of the Russian prefix pere-. Both перегрузка (peregruzka) and перезагрузка (perezagruzka) are deverbal nouns derived from the verb грузить (gruzit'), "to load" (e.g. a boat or a truck), and ultimately from the noun груз (gruz), "a weight; cargo". The prefix pere- is frequently equivalent to the English re-, so it is not surprising that someone with a little knowledge of Russian would think peregruzka meant "reloading".

    The prefix, however, has a related meaning, making it close to the English prefix trans-. And in fact, a standard Russian dictionary (Ožegov) gives the first definition of peregruzit' as "Грузя, переместить" ("To move something from one place to another by loading") and uses the example of loading boxes from a train to a ship (which one might understand also as "reloading").

    This sense of movement leads to a third meaning of pere-: "going beyond", "exceeding"; hence, Ožegov's second definition of peregruzit' is "Нагрузить чрезмерно" ("To load too much"). Thus the deverbal noun peregruzka means "overloading".

    The verb загрузить (zagruzit'), with the inchoative prefix za-, means "to begin loading"; in the context of computers, this means "to (down- or up-)load" (I am not sure the direction of the loading is indicated). With an already-prefixed verb, the additional prefix pere- would normally mean simply "to do again", so perezagruzit' means "to reload", and the noun it forms is perezagruzka.

    So the "couple of letters" that were "off" were the prefix za-, which made a world of difference to the meaning of the shared prefix pere-.

  21. Ransom said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    @Rolig– bravo! Your post is wonderful, and I have a few errata:

    I don't know whether загрузить can be used for "down/up-load"; I've only ever seen it used as "to load (as from disk)". Download and upload seem most usually translated with "скачать" and "залить" respectively (the one suggesting pumping of a liquid, and the other– pouring).

    Also, I think you're missing a key meaning of "za". Offord's "Modern Russian" lists the following:

    1. (directional) implies movement /behind/ or /beyond/, or indeed /a long way/: (забежать, заехать, заложить).
    2. Used as a prefix to render basic verbs … perfective, it may indicate the beginning of an action This usage is particularly common in verbs describing some sound.
    3. This prefix is also used with a number of verbs to indicate that a call or visit is/was/will be made: (забегать, заглянуть, заехать)
    4. The prefix "za-" may also indicate that a space is filled or that something is covered or closed by the action in question: (завалить, задернуть, заклеить, закрыть, заполнить)
    5. The prefix "za-" may also be used as a perfective prefix to indicate that an action, particularly a harmful one, has been carried out to an extreme degree…
    6. Finally, the prefix "za-", combined with the reflexive particle "-ся", may indicate that the action has gone on for longer than one might expect, or that the agent has been more than normally engrossed in it…

    You have cited (2), but I believe the most relevant sense here is (4). Judge for yourself, I guess.

  22. Rolig said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    @ Ransom – Thanks for the corrections. I had completely blanked on the "covering, closing, filling" sense of za-. You're probably right, of course, that this is the sense of zagruzit', "to load fully, to load up".

    I wasn't aware of the computer senses of скачать (skačat') and залить zalit'. A Google search for загрузить, however, shows that this word is also used in the sense of downloading files from the Internet.

  23. jfruh said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    To be fair, the error doesn't mean that Clinton "could not locate anyone on her staff capable of finding out the Russian word that appears on reset buttons." It means that whatever low-level staffer was tasked with this job overestimated or misrepresented his or her ability to find the correct idiomatic expression for the button. Surely this is the sort of thing that is fielded out to entry- or intern-level workers; the (I'm sure many) Russian-fluent State Department staffers probably had more important things on their plates.

    I'm not saying it's not a screw-up; obviously if they wanted to do it right they should have gotten someone more linguistically qualified, or at least had such a person look it over before they wrapped it up. I'm just saying that to take this as meaning that literally nobody in the State Dept. speaks Russian is absurd.

  24. Mark A. Mandel said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    Ransom (March 6, 2009 @ 9:08 pm):

    That whole quotation about Persian, as it stands, is ridiculous, except as a tale of mistranslation, possibly focusing on "false friends". That's presumably how you meant it, but lines like

    "… in Persian, the word "compromise" apparently lacks the positive meaning it has in English of "a midway solution both sides can live with", but has only a negative meaning as in "our integrity was compromised."

    only tell us about the authors' ignorance.

  25. Alissa said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    I wonder if this is a common mistake. We ran into in in Russian class when we got to the inevitable technology-themed chapter in our textbook. For 'to reboot' it said перерузить (peregruzit'), while our instructor and all the Russians she asked said it was перезагрузить (perezagruzit'). Maybe the person who wrote it had the same textbook! Probably not, but they are not the first person to confuse the two words.

  26. DEBEDb said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    Lavrov is not doing too well here either. "Overcharged"? What? And it doesn't mean "overloaded", it's a noun, for god's sake. Interestingly, it also means g-force, which I am surprised nobody mentioned.

  27. language hat said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    I don't think you can compare Lavrov's off-the-cuff spoken reaction to a printed document prepared in advance.

    Interestingly, it also means g-force, which I am surprised nobody mentioned.

    Why? It also means "load factor" in aerodynamics, and probably other things as well.

  28. ascidiacea said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 6:19 am

    @Rolig ("Was the button label not even written in Cyrillic?"):

    Nope, the button label was not written in Cyrillic. Photos in this blog post:

    I agree with jfruh that realistically this represents bad staffing rather than complete lack of Russian knowledge at the State Department, but… Clinton says "We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?" during the presentation of the gift. (Video:
    It doesn't seem like anyone worked that hard, considering they didn't even print it in Cyrillic!

  29. acilius said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    @Lance 2:27am: I must admit that I am so churlish as to be disappointed that Reines wasn't such a fool as the earlier report suggested. I was all set to point out that "Philippe Reines" is just a couple of letters off from "Philip Raines." Which is indeed how he pronounces his name…

  30. Jim said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    "No one dares to suggest Mr Lavrov preferred, in this respect at least, Mrs Clinton's predecessor who is fluent in Russian? And where were the innumerable Russian speakers in the State Dept left over from the Cold War era when they were actually needed for something? "

    No, they wouldn't dare, for fear of looking completely foolish. Lavrov made no secret of his loathing for Condilezza Rice, and being able to speak Russian didn't help much.

    As for those innumerable Russian speakers, probably most have them have retired by now. The Cold War has been over for almost 20 years now. That's still no reason not to have enough competent Russian speakers; it's not like the country vanished off the face of the earth. Besides, given their demographic trends someone had better start learning the language before it goes extinct.

  31. Nathan Myers said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

    The State Department sent a clear message: we can't be bothered to get your language right. This is an example of a signal that is hard to fake, and therefore easy to interpret. The remaining question is why they went to such trouble to send that message so clearly.

  32. Alexander said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

    It is always funny to see how people that have worked hard to barely get a single Russian word turn up to be fools. I happened to see this today.

    Clinton presents Lavrov with a gift-wrapped red button, which said "Reset" in English and "Peregruzka" in Russian. Then she says, "We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?" "You got it wrong," Lavrov replies, "It should be 'perezagruzka'. This says 'peregruzka', which means overcharged."

    Ha! Both incorrect!!!

    Well, let me put some clearness on this matter.

    Peregruzka means overloading which may happen, for instance, when you perform exercises with higher resistance than the muscles can handle. Of course that is not what was meant in the message. Peregruzka can also be referred to the English word overcharging but means different things as before.

    The English for perezagruzka is rebooting (or reloading as well). I do the perezagruzka when I want to restart the computer. If the system fails to load, I would probably want not to reboot but reset it, because rebooting won't fix anything at all.

    According to the wikipedia, to reset means to clear any pending errors or events and bring a system to normal condition or initial state. That is exactly what Clinton meant and that is why she had had the word reset written onto the button.

    Well, how to mean that in Russian??? Ha! Ha! If I worked for the White House, say, as a translator I would surely describe it to them.

    The question is what I do when the system fails to load. I might do the perezagruzka so as to simply give it another try, otherwise I'm gonna do the pereustanovka to get the system back to life (in fact, it will be a brand-new system).

    It is the pereustanovka that cleans and wipes all of those fat errors that may lead the system to death. The same thing happens in the real world, too. As we have learned, when Washington and Moscow fail to cooperate properly they need to get the pereustanovka. Though Gorbachev would call it 'perestroika'!!! Ha! Ha!

  33. Mar said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    Перестройка…. You're right. But obviously because of historic reasons, that's not allowed..

    Reading lots of comments on the matter – yes "peregruzka" was the wrong word to use, but only because it is too close to slang. Peregruzka is something that CAN be used to imply "reset the computer please" in the sense of a brother screaming to a sister "перегрузи компютер!" (peregruzi computer) But that just stems from the general people lazyness. Common mistake.

  34. Alexander said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 12:24 am

    Перезагрузка – нормальное слово, но (!) не несет в себе тот смысл, что заложен в слове reset (по крайней мере в достаточной степени). Конечно можно сказать 'перезагрузка', даже подразумевая reset, … но все равно – не то! Перезагрузка просто перезагружает (еще раз загружает), а reset – восстанавливает! Это важно.

    Учите наш Великий и Могучий – что тут можно сказать… Cheers! ;)

  35. Pablo said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    On diplomatic level no mistake is casual. Hillary said what she wanted to say and showed what she wanted they to see.

  36. Matt said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    Was it really not in Cyrillic, then? That, to me, is an unbelievable oversight. For someone to ask, "Do you think we got it?" and the word isn't even in the right alphabet? Is the English alphabet becoming widely used in Russian so this might be considered an acceptable shortcut? How is this not a giant pratfall?

  37. Max said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    @Matt: Yes, it really was not in Cyrillic. There is a photo here:

RSS feed for comments on this post