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When a term is culturally bound, its meaning is so tightly linked to the place and time in which the word arose that it cannot be faithfully translated into another language without first putting the concept of the term into a greater context.

In paper given at the 18th Biennial Dictionary Society of North America Conference, Donna Farina discussed culture-bound terms in Russian. One such culture-bound word that she discussed is stilyagi (also spelled stiliagi), which literally means “stylish people” in Russian. Stilyagi is a term used to describe members of a counterculture movement in the Soviet Union that took place between the 1940s and 1960s. The stilyagi embraced American culture in terms of style, music, and political thought, rejecting Soviet politics and morality. In a society where nonconformity was frowned upon, the stilyagi dressed in a hyper-American style, almost a caricature of the fashion in the early years of the movement. The stilyagi also embraced popular American music like jazz, swing, and later rock ‘n’ roll. Because this sort of music was so hard to come by in the Soviet Union, and even at times banned, stilyagi would pirate these records on discarded x-rays—the cheapest most durable material available because of wartime shortages—and distribute this pirated material via the black market. These x-ray recordings, eerily imprinted with images of bones, were colloquially referred to as “bones” or “ribs.”

Stilyagi is an excellent example of a culture-bound word because there is no real equivalent in English. In fact, as early as the 1950s, the Russian term was used in English-language publications in lieu of the writers attempting to pinpoint an English equivalent. While some writers likened the stilyagi to teddy boys, this equally culture-bound term refers specifically to rebellious youths in the UK during the same period, youths who faced an entirely different social and political climate than their counterparts in the Soviet Union. To further support the untranslatable qualities of this term, the 2008 Russian film Stilyagi was released in the United States with the title Hipsters. While “hipster” is certainly a loaded term in English, it fails to evoke the concept of the stilyagi to an American audience with completely different cultural associations.

Of course, sometimes terms that seem to be culture-bound expand beyond their original sense and are ultimately used in other cultures with new meanings. Take for example the word hippie. A recent article in The New Yorker mentions that in Syria, “The small number of non-Islamists among the rebels are often socialists…and are referred to by their peers with an English word: ‘hippies.’” Hippie started out as a word to describe a member of the 1960s youth culture in the United States in which established institutions were rejected, though today its geographic and political bounds have moved far beyond its original sense as seen in The New Yorker piece. In contrast, stilyagi, when used in English, references a specific time, place, and cultural context.

What are some culture-bound terms that you know and use?

29 Comments

  1. Pat McNamara -  June 26, 2013 - 5:57 am

    another word which is very culturally specific is used in Ireland, mixing both Irish and English, the word craic which means the party/fun/atmosphere in a pub or at some music event.

    Reply
  2. Helen -  June 19, 2013 - 6:22 am

    Would you say that SNL’s wild and crazy guys were a satiric take on the stilyagi?

    Reply
  3. Eu Tyto Alba -  June 18, 2013 - 3:57 am

    “otaku”

    Origin: Japanese
    Literal meaning: “house”

    Meaning in Japanese culture: a person who is obsessed, likely owning lots of a specific merchandise. Often translated to English as “nerd”, though the obsession is not necessarily rooted in technology.

    Meaning in Western culture: anime or manga fanatic, Japan-oholic, or in the most severe cases—-weeaboo. More often than not, in my experience, “otaku” is self-ascribed.

    This difference of understanding has unfortunately led lots of westerners to embarrass themselves amidst Japanese nationals.

    “Weeaboo” itself, Euroboo, and other related variants are some of my favorite culture-bound terms…..because I’m surrounded by ‘em! D:

    Reply
  4. Peter -  June 17, 2013 - 11:40 pm

    What about that good old Australianism “bastard”. It has almost infinite meanings depending on context and the speaker and listener/s.

    Without wanting to drag the tone too low brow, a similar thing happens with the other very common Anglo Saxon expletive and qualifier. You know the one I mean. Its uses are endless in the hands of both the profane and the imaginative.

    But try explaining either of these terms to Asians, and you find yourself explaining scenarios rather than providing dictionary definitions.

    Reply
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