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In modern Russian, прикол is a very frequently used word and means a joke, a funny incident, or just anything funny, but the original meaning of this word is very different: a stake to which a ship, a tent, or an animal is tied. At least, only such a definition is given in Dictionary of Church Slavonic and Russian composed by the Second Department of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, published in 1847. Russians still occasionally use this word in its original meaning, e.g., in the idiomatic phrase корабль стоит на приколе (the ship is laid up). The composition of this word is very simple: кол is the root of the word, means a stake, and is related to the verb колоть (to pierce, stub, or cut), and при is a prefix similar to the English prefix in, so the composition of прикол contains nothing related to joking, which means that the modern meaning is figurative or derived.

My question: How did прикол, originally meaning a stake, came to mean a joke? In other words, what is the logical connection between the modern and original meanings of прикол?

I did some research on the Internet and saw a hypothesis that the modern meaning stems from a criminal jargon, but it is unclear as to exactly how Russian criminals saw a connection between a stake and a joke. Might the connection be that they considered it funny to stab someone with a stake or a knife?

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    There seem to be some parallels with the english word 'jab' which has both the direct physical sense similar to колоть, and also the sense of a joke. – Peteris Feb 10 at 15:55
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    Also notable is a meaning of колкий as in caustic, sarcastic. Not sure if it shares origins with прикол but it might. – RomanSt Feb 10 at 15:58
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    прикол, originally meaning a stake - this doesn't look right at all. Прикалывать would mean to pin and to make fun of, though you'd find прикалываться to be used more often in the 2nd case there. However, when you assume that this should also mean that corresponding nouns in Russian and English could be used for translation - no, this doesn't work. – DK. Feb 11 at 3:16
  • @DK. : I strongly disagree with your comment. Here is exact the definition of прикол in the dictionary of 1847 referred to in my post: Короткий заостренный колъ, вколачиваемый в землю для причаленiя къ нему судовъ, прикрепленiя щатровъ и палатокъ или привязыванiя скота . So прикол did originally mean a stake, as written in my post. – Mitsuko Feb 11 at 10:47
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    @Mitsuko - The best equivalent of the Russian prefix при- is the Latin prefix ad- with all of its variants when d is assimilated to the first consonant of the root: a- (before sc, sp and st), ac- (before c and q), af- (before f), ag-, al-, ap-, ar-, as-, or at-. Приехать – arrive, привыкание – addiction, принимать – accept, прикреплять – attach, etc. – Yellow Sky Feb 12 at 13:18
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Just homonyms.
There's an older word, подкол 'joke' together with the verbs подколоть (perf.), подкалывать (imp.) 'to play a joke [on smb]', but here 'the joke' is aimed at a person to make laugh of them. Прикол is almost the same, only another prefix is kind of showing that the joke is neutral, that is not aimed at/against somebody. That is a mere coincidence that the word sounds like the name of that ship anchorage. The root in all these words is -кол- like in колоть 'to prick, to prickle'. The noun кол 'a stake, a pointed wooden beam' is connected with the verb, too, the pointed spiky end of the beam makes the connection with the action of the verb.

  • Presumably on the other hand it is pure coincidence that прикол sounds so appropriately close to English prickle. – PLL Feb 11 at 16:53
  • @PLL - Yes, sure. That's exactly what I wrote. – Yellow Sky Feb 11 at 17:35
  • [on smb] What does this mean? – Clonkex Feb 11 at 22:36
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    @Clonkex - "smb" means "somebody", it's added there just to show what is usually after that expression in English (like in "Jane likes to play jokes on John"). English uses the preposition 'on' there, but Russian uses no preposition after подколоть / подкалывать (like in Жанна любит подкалывать Ивана), these verbs are transitive in Russian, the noun after them is in the accusative case. – Yellow Sky Feb 11 at 22:51
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    @Clonkex - It's a typical abbreviation used in dictionaries, grammars, and textbooks I'm used to. Another one of the same kind is "smth" for "something". Now after googling I see both of them most probably originated from the Soviet tradition of teaching English as a foreign language. Sorry, I didn't know they are that limited culturally. :) – Yellow Sky Feb 12 at 0:03
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Those words are definitely related. The thing is that the relation is not direct.

Let's start with колоть. It has two major meanings – to chop (when talking about wood), and to prick. The word кол derives from the first meaning, as it's a piece of wood that's chopped up to become pointy.

Now about прикол, the "stake to tie something to" comes from кол and therefore from колоть (to chop), and the "joke" comes from подкалывать (to pique smb with a joke), which also comes from колоть, but from "to prick" meaning.

As of why колоть means both to prick and to chop and if those are homonyms, or just different meanings of the same word – I do not know.

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    Thanks a lot. By the way, reading your answer, I realized I had a totally wrong impression as to why a stake is called кол. I had thought that you call a stake кол because you can колоть with it :) And now you say that you call a stake кол because it is made in the process of колоть. Wow, the Russian language and its logical connections are tricky! – Mitsuko Feb 12 at 21:22
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probably because it all comes from the most ancient joke to "уколоть" someone. Like plant a nail on the seat for someone's ass, so here you go.

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    While not very formal, this is quite plausible :) – Mad Physicist Feb 11 at 18:47
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I have heard that, like quite some modern vernacular Russian dictionary, прикол is rooted in drug addicts' slang. What it originally meant is altered mental state where your attention is fixed to some object for no particular reason (прикололо or прикольнуло).

Later on it caught up with general public, where it not only means a joke but anything worth fixing attention on, some unusual circumstance.

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The word doesn't translate as joke, it's more like "a situation likely to be amusing". You can say: let's glue all of Ivan's pictures to his ceiling "for the прикол". The root is shared with колоть which is either to prick(with a needle unless specified) or to split(e.g. firewood). I guess a needle prick is also splitting skin.

The English expression "to needle someone, is broadly the same, except that it's a verb and given English nature, likely to be way more subdued than a Russian prikol.

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here is why... There is old joke to put it on chair to somebody. It's old drawing pin.enter image description here

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  • Эта штучка называется "кнопка" – HEKTO Feb 25 at 3:02
  • Да ну? ))) Вы прям мистер очевидность... но вопрос не в том как это называется. А в этимологии слова прикол или подкол. Ну а если быть точнее, то называется это канцелярской кнопкой. – sergio1974 yesterday
  • Ну да! Насчёт "кол" всё ясно... А вот откуда взялась при-ставка "при"? Может быть, от "приколоть бумагу к доске кнопкой"? Поэтому и +1 – HEKTO yesterday

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