Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

This article extensively discusses a profane English idiom and its Russian translation. If you don’t care for linguistic discussions of naughty words, you might be more interested in a different post from the archive.

I just happened upon an excellent (although brutal) article talking about the cultural significance of dashboard-mounted cameras in cars in Russia.

Although the whole article was fascinating, as a linguist, I absolutely loved the author’s brief foray into the language of the websites used to share accident videos (about halfway through the article). My favorite, particularly beautiful example is below:

кирпичи – “Bricks” (as in “shitting bricks.”) The audio track often features the driver panting or shouting the entire Russian vocabulary of swears at the top of their lungs. Used for videos with near misses or close shaves.

“кирпичи” (pronounced ‘keer-PI-chi’, /kirpitʃi/), is quite literally just the Russian word for a brick you’d build a house with. As the author suggests, this second meaning comes about because Russian speakers seem to have adopted the English phrase “to shit a brick” into their language.

When you read it, you’ll borrow idioms

This beautiful English idiom, alternately “to shit bricks” or “to shit a brick”, roughly means “to become panicked, scared or angry”, is attested all the way back to 1961 in the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (although a few uses were shown prior to that in Google Ngram Viewer). In my experience, is most often used with reference to somebody else’s future or past reaction. A few examples:

“When she sees that dent in her car, she’s going to shit a brick”

“Kerri shat a brick when John jumped out at her from the bushes”.

The equivalent Russian phrase, cрать кирпичами, literally means “to shit with bricks” (cрать ‘to shit/defecate’ + кирпич-ами ‘brick.instrumental-case’). cрать кирпичами (pronounced “Srat Keer-pi-cha-mi”, /sratʲ kirpitʃami/) is defined on the Russian meme and slang site Lurkmore as, roughly translated, “designating an extreme degree of fright”, roughly equivalent to the English expression, and very much in line with the dashcam video site usage. The site then goes on to mention the common uses of the term on the internet, in greater culture, and in medicine (mocking the logo and packaging of a hemhorroid cream which appears to show the unorthodox production of a кирпич).

Entertainingly, also associates the Russian phrase with “Майндфак”, a Russian transliteration of the English slang term “mindfuck”, and give the Russian translation of the common English phrase associated with “Mindfuck” surprise images, “When you see it, you’ll shit bricks”. Considering that the association between these images and the phrase is so strong that the main site devoted to collecting these images is (NSFW), I’m glad to see that the Russian equivalent shares this association.

Putting all the bricks together

So, in conclusion, I absolutely love that this English idiom was borrowed into Russian, and all the more so, I love that the phrase was borrowed through translation (using the Russian word for “shit” and “bricks”), rather than “шит брикс” or a similar transliteration. I’ve also enjoyed looking into the history of the English idiom, although it has been surprisingly difficult, because relatively few sources examine profane idioms in detail.

Regardless, this is just another example of the power of the internet and the language change that’s happening around the world, and it shows that no language is immune. So, next time I see a similar idiom borrowing, I should be better able to hold on to my кирпичи.

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