/POSH-ləst/. Adjective. Banality and kitsch, vulgarity and triviality, all riddled with a lack of spirituality and an overt physicality, even sexuality.
When I was 13, a couple of my precocious (or so I like to think now) friends and I passed around a paperback version of Vladimir Nabokov’s (in)famous novel Lolita looking for “the good parts” it was rumored to contain. While the promised titillation was nowhere to be found in the oft-misunderstood masterpiece, I did come away awestruck by Nabokov’s dizzying, dazzling sometimes confusing language. Enough so that I hold Nabokov primarily responsible for my arguably adult word-nerd proclivities from collecting words to my obsession with etymology and the history within words.
It was in Nabokov’s writing that I learned of the concept—and many specific examples of—so-called “unstranslatables,” or (from my Anglocentric perspective) foreign words that arguably have no English equivalent. You’ve probably heard some of the more popular examples such as hiraeth /HEAR-eth/ and saudade /sow-DOD/, each referring to a kind of longing or homesickness, but for something that has been lost or a home you can’t return to.
One of these untranslatables (you can’t see my air-quotes around the word, but obviously if the word were truly untranslatable, I’d have nothing to talk about, so we’ll just roll with it) is our word this week: poshlost /POSH-ləst/. Depending on who you talk to, poshlost encompasses banality and kitsch, vulgarity and triviality, all riddled with a lack of spirituality and an overt physicality, even sexuality.
Like many of these untranslatables, poshlost is packed with cultural connotations from the world of the original language. In Anton Chekhov’s classic story “The Lady with the Dog,” the titular lady, Anna, breaks down in the bed of her new acquaintance and lover, saying she is now a poshlaia woman. Constance Garnett’s 1904 translation renders poshlaia as “a vulgar, contemptible woman whom any one may despise,” while the controversial translation tag-team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky choose “a trite, trashy woman, whom anyone can despise.” But neither of these quite capture the simultaneous, contradictory notions of self-satisfaction and evident falsity that is poshlost.
Nabokov spends no less than a dozen pages on poshlost in his essay on Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls and he performs a couple of prototypically Nabokovian moves in doing so. First, he transliterates the term as a pun, POSH-LUST, more obviously embracing the vulgarity and physicality in his English version. Second, he digs deep into how poshlust differs from its would be synonyms (he lists cheap, sham, smutty, and high-falutin’ among others) by cracking the word open to reveal its literary and cultural mechanism. Nabokov writes:
Russians have, or had, a special name for smug philistinism—poshlust. Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an esthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust. It is possible to maintain that a simple, uncivilized man is seldom if ever a poshlust since poshlism presupposes the veneer of civilization. A peasant has to become a townsman in order to become vulgar. A painted necktie has to hide the honest Adam’s apple in order to produce poshlism.
Nabokov goes on to claim, and here is perhaps why the word resonates so strongly with me now, that:
It is possible that the term itself has been so nicely devised by Russians because of the cult of simplicity and good taste in old Russia. The Russia of today, a country of moral imbeciles, of smiling slaves and poker-faced bullies, has stopped noticing poshlism because Soviet Russia is so full of its special brand, a blend of despotism and pseudo-culture.
Despotism and pseudo-culture, falsity and willing delusion…our world of polarized politics and carefully curated social media lives practically demands a word like poshlost.
Links and Meanders
Ella Frances Sanders’ beautifully rendered Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Barbara Cassin’s scholarly, but very readable, Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon
Tim Lomas’s Positive Lexicography Project, “an evolving index of ‘untranslatable’ words related to wellbeing from across the world’s languages.”