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two scattered paragraphs from my thesis

October 17, 2011

Now a small digression on military language. Military language is exceptional primarily in that it shifts the semantics of words. To use words in their regular sense is contrary to frontline linguistic panache. This is not an individual act, but somehow dialects arise spontaneously, depending on the occurance of certain dominant words that are usually linked to the dominant elements of everyday life (and life develops very quickly, even mobile life, as during a retreat, for instance). In its nomenclature, this everyday life is very limited and common throughout the entire space of the front, so that the words from this life become a sort of sub-language. The defining word of ’41 through the summer of ’42 was “to steal.” You can signify nearly everything with this word: “to steal” could mean “to rob,” it could mean “to run off to some other activity,” as in “to steal away to the women,” and even “to fall asleep,” (“while you were out walking, I stole an hour of sleep”), or “to evade the orders of one’s superiors,” etc. In general, it meant some kind of spirited action about which one could boast. I remember one furious officer from another unit who’d just gotten something nicked from his car, shouting at his driver, “While you were catching a snooze, someone stole off with my pistol and all my stuff!” There were other similar words, words which we understood immediately, whether from our frontline or not—a kind of jargon.

In the beginning of the war they began to give out the famous “narkomovsky” hundred grams, that is, one hundred grams of vodka (I should note that later, in retreats and encirclements, there were shortages of food, we didn’t receive our mail for months, and shells were delivered to us about as regularly, but the narkomovsky hundred grams we received consistently, without interruption). Of course, on their way to us they got sipped from a lot, but the losses in vodka were covered by our losses in men, so that the hundred grams generally reached us in full and undiluted.

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