11

I see in the Google Books statistics that the frequency of the word "черт" (devil) per unit of text length in books increased by ~3 times since the October revolution: Link. I used the case-insensitive option and included "черт," "чертъ," "чорт," and "чортъ," and the letters e and ё are considered in the Google Books Statistics as equivalent, so I do not think I missed something important.

My question is this: What was the cause of such a significant change?

I do not see any significant change for the word "devil" in English books since 1800: Link

Neither can I see a significant change for the use of the German word "Teufel" (devil) in the German literature since 1800: Link

So it must have been a Russian-specific reason. I am curious as to what it was.

  • 1
    Have you looked into whether the "Russian" corpus is consistent before/after the Revolution as to the percentage of religious, fiction and other text? I've decided to explore some statistics and added "угол,уголъ" to your search, and the results match the numbers for "черт" spectacularly. – Koterpillar Jul 8 '19 at 3:45
  • books.google.com/ngrams/… – Koterpillar Jul 8 '19 at 3:48
15

I looked into some of those book excerpts, and there are some homonyms.

  1. Both pre- and post-1918 «черт.» (with dot) could be an abbreviation for «чертёж(ъ)» (drawing, figure) - mostly in technical literature.
  2. Pre-1918 «чертъ» and post-1918 «черт» may be plural genitive of «черта» (line, trait).

Some obvious notes:

  1. Disappearance of words ending with «ъ» is due to reform of 1918
  2. Disappearance of «чорт» (demon) in favor of «чёрт» (or «черт» - dots are usually omitted in print, and Google does not distinguish this letters on purpose) is due to reform of 1956

Judging from book excerpts, pre-1918 the word for demon was written both «чортъ» and «чертъ» (bur remember about the homonym). In 1918-1956, this word was almost invariably «чорт» (luckily, no homonyms).

Here’s a modified analysis which focuses on this transition around 1918. Even if we sum the two pre-1918 forms and forget about the homonym, there’s still some rise, though not that dramatic.

Now to guess the reason: due to revolution, Tsarist censorship system was eliminated. Those censors enforced the state religion of Christianity and polite language as understood by conservative moralists. Frivolous use of a word for a demon, especially as interjection, contradicted both. There were printed works from that period with «черт побери» and «черт возьми», but they were relatively rarer. Also look into Dostoevsky’s quote in the second of these links for such moralism.

After the revolution, old censorship went down and Soviet censorship needed some years to gain traction. The state went officially atheist, religion was persecuted. The writers and journalists switched to “revolutionary style”, imitating the speech of the common people, with ruder interjections included. The people themselves may have started to use it more liberally, now that old religion was considered a prejudice, and breaking its taboos was considered cool.

  • Thanks a lot, you really seem to be a truly wise man. You recently well explained why many Russian people negatively reacted to my remark about the simplicity of the Russian phonology, and now you provided an excellent thought-provoking answer about the word "черт." – Mitsuko Jul 5 '19 at 15:53
  • I contemplated the factors you listed and found myself thinking whether we are not overlooking the elephant in a room. I posted my thoughts as a separate answer to my own question. – Mitsuko Jul 5 '19 at 15:53
0

Before the revolution, some people were afraid even to say the word чёрт. There was an expression "поминать чёрта", which implied that saying this word may somehow "attract" чёрт and cause problems. Example:

Ульяна не любила поминать черта к ночи и пугалась; но я задаю себе вопрос, не содействовало ли это слишком конкретное представление ада ― при помощи сальной свечки и листа бумаги ― тому, что мы с братом уже в раннем возрасте освободились от страха геенны огненной.

(Кропоткин "Записки революционера", 1902)

Петр Кропоткин was born in 1842, so he writes about mid 19th century.

After 1917, people turned much less religious, so they did not afraid of devil anymore. Instead, they were afraid of ЧК / НКВД.

0

Meaning of the word has shifted. Before it had had develish connotations and people avoided to use it. It was not to be told in high society. After 1917 it was usual thing to "break old habits" and atheism was on it's go, so people adored to do, what previously they were not supposed to

0

@Neith posted an excellent thought-provoking answer; after I read it, I contemplated the factors he listed and then found myself thinking whether we are not overlooking the elephant in a room. So I decided to post my humble thoughts as an answer in order to complement what @Neith said.

I guess that most Tsarist era writers were highly educated people belonging to the upper classes of the society. They had very good manners, and using rude expressions like "чёрт побери" was very unnatural to them and perhaps even shameful. After the revolution they fled from Russia en masse and were replaced by new writers, who had belonged to the lower classes of the society and essentially were ill-mannered peasants and workers. Phrases like "чёрт побери" were their natural expressions, and they saw nothing bad or shameful in using them. And the communists gave them the opportunity to publish books.

Thus, I humbly think that an important factor may be simply the replacement of the writers. Тhe observed rise of use of "черт" may simply reflect the manners of the new authors. As simple as that. And this is the elephant we may be overlooking.

The Tsarist censorship did not ban the word "черт," as evidenced by numerous examples of the use of that word in books of the Tsarist era. I especially like this one:

ЧОРТ И СМЕРТЬ

— Куда, курносая? — Иду я за душою;

— Къ кому? — Къ Секретарю, такъ велѣно Судьбою!

— Ахъ! какъ проста Судьба: живетъ она въ глуши.

Какой въ Секретарѣ, какой искатъ души!

Но еслибъ и была, то вѣрь, что прежде смерти,

Ту душу за алтынъ купить успѣютъ черти.

(From a book of 1841)

This is a wonderful piece of Russian poetry, and I really like it. It is a very elegant way to express quite an artistic thought. That's a style of a well-educated, highly intellectual Tsarist era writer.

And now compare that style with the following piece of poetry of the Communist era:

Их голод не душит, и юнговский план

Не знает дороги в их толстый карман.

Запомни: тоскуют по ним фонари -

Они ведь свободны, чорт побери!

(From a book of 1931)

The expression "чорт побери" was used multiple times in that poem. What I quoted above is just a small excerpt. I think it is a nice illustration of my point about manners of Communist era writers.

Thus, I suspect that the rise of use of "черт" may be simply a reflection of manners of new authors who came as a replacement of Tsarist era writers.

As a general remark, I subjectively find the Tsarist era literature richer, more artistic, and better mannered than the Communist era literature. Most prominent Russian writers were Tsarist era writers. The October Revolution appears to have had a considerable effect on the Russian literature.

-3

One reason could be that черт has become a kind of derogatory term in Soviet prisons and gulags to refer to a certain caste of prisoners. Along with козел and later петух. Later these words came into use in the general population as general expletives.

A lot of Russian slang and especially мат comes from Russian criminal and prison culture, which is very rich and even has its own language called феня.

I suggest you do some research into this culture if you want to her a deeper understanding of a lot of Russian slang and its etymology, and understand Russian mentality regarding certain things, such as the particular sort of homophobia present in Russia and CIS, which isn't religion-based.

  • 1
    I disagree. It’s just one meaning. The link provided in the question body shows frequency of word appearances in printed works. You said yourself that this meaning originated in Soviet era. But Soviet censorship would not let criminal slang into print in any significant quantity. It probably started to appear in print since Perestroika (1985-1991), but the graph doesn’t show any increase since that time, but a slow decline. In book excerpts since 1991, there’s no usage in the criminal slang meaning, it’s mostly interjections and homonyms. – Neith Jul 5 '19 at 6:20
  • Also note that referring to a human as «чёрт» in both positive, neutral and negative meanings (but not the meaning in your answer) started since 18 century at latest. See Russian Wiktionary article for "чёрт" for that, meanings 3, 4, 5. I’d argue that such usage is still more widespread that criminal one. – Neith Jul 5 '19 at 6:27
  • Even if we will admin the claim about rise of new prison term it won't justify the it occurence in text corpora, this answer is wrong in many aspects. – shabunc Jul 5 '19 at 8:21
  • Yes, it's just a possibility I thought of, but didn't research. – Curiosity Jul 5 '19 at 14:26

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