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Today's French TV news covered the reconstruction of the Napoleonic army retreat from Russia in 1812 (it was held in Vyazma, and there was an official burial of Russian and French soldiers from that time together there - with official military delegations from both countries).

The reporter mentioned the extreme cold and the soldiers' hunger, and showed a painting allegedly from that time (screenshot from the Journal de 20h, TF1, 2021-02-14)

enter image description here

While commenting on that picture, he said something that surprised me very much (emphasis mine, a replay is available, the sentence is at 33:20)

Encore aujourd'hui, en russe, le mot cheval signifie pourriture → Still today, in Russian, the word horse means rot

(rot being the noun from the verb to rot).

I wonder how true this is. It is not like horses were not domesticated for millennia and I doubt that this single event could have changed their name to something that negative.

Would you see any link between these two words, maybe in the specific context of that time?

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French TV reporter (most likely) meant the following - in Russian we have the word "шваль" which most likely is derived directly from the French "cheval".

"Шваль" is a noun. It is not exactly about something being "rotten", it's about someone being despised, a despicable person, someone who is scum. We also say in Russian гнилой человек ("un pourri" I guess in French) with the same meaning, so yep, "шваль" is, figuratively, a rotten person. But it's not about "конь" or "лошадь" (which both mean horse) being synonymous with being rotten.

However! I need to note that this exactly etymology - the claim that this word appeared in Russian after the Napoleonic invasion - is something I'm hearing of for the first time. I'm not sure it's accurate.

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  • Thanks. I had a chat with a friend who is a native speaker of Russian and I finally understood the whole story when he saw the words in Cyrillic and read them loud to me. It is that the word шваль is pronounced the same way as the word cheval but there is no connection with a horse (both words just sound the same). I do not know how the reporter made the link, actually (someone from the French delegation said cheval, someone from the Russian one said ah it sounds like despicable in Russian, all of that was overheard by the reporter who made a story out of it - that's my guess :)) – WoJ Feb 15 at 16:26
  • @WoJ oh, now I see your confusion - I should've been more clear on the fact that "шваль" sounds similar to "cheval". – shabunc Feb 15 at 16:34
  • @WoJ Anyway, this isn't just a reporter's invention, and such a hypothesis about etymology exists - whether it is adequate or not. Some dispute it. It can also be noted that somebody are relate other words to Napoleon's production (probably) :> - шаромыжник, шантрапа and шушера - polzam.ru/index.php/istorii/item/… And almost all of them appear in the field of view of linguists around the middle of the 19th century. –  Пилум Feb 16 at 1:13
  • It should also be said that the Russian words "конь" (common Slavic) or "лошадь" (Turk's) - have nothing to do with 1812 and the French language. At the same time, the French "chevalier" is a horseman. :> –  Пилум Feb 16 at 1:13
  • @Пилум: yes, I read a bit more on the topic (though I am quickly blocked by the language when looking up references) - my initial surprise when watching the coverage was that the word which means horse in Russian ("конь" or "лошадь") could also mean "rot". That was really, really weird. This is how my misunderstanding started. Now I realize that it is simply the pronunciation of the French cheval which may have given birth to new Russian words, with the "rot" connotation. – WoJ Feb 16 at 9:01

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