Stop! Koshatnik! Help!
A lot of chatter around the net recently about a forthcoming book by Adam Jacot de Boinod called "The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World." It's about various oddities of language, like the lengths the French have gone to to avoid the word "computer" because it sounds vaguely dirty in French, or the surprising variety of words for moustache in Albanian. But the core of the book appears to be words from other languages that express concepts for which we've never found the need for a dedicated word. For example, "Zechpreller," German for someone who leaves without paying the bill.
The book sounds exactly like the sort of thing that would be embraced by the higher-end British newspapers on a Sunday, and that's exactly what happened. Here's the Independent's version but there are plenty of others.
So I'm browsing this article, and come upon the word "koshatnik," ostensibly Russian for "a dealer in stolen cats." Say what? Now that's an image that slips into your brain and wiggles around - especially if you write fiction with a slant toward the magically strange. Why exactly would someone do that? Who would they sell them to? Why not just take in a stray? It conjures up fairy tale images of magical cats and arcane secrets. It sticks with you.
Unfortunately, it may be too good to be true. Searching around online for some ideas about who the mysterious and secretive koshatniks of old Russia may have been, I found this article denouncing the whole concept over at Language Geek. (And since Language Geek's URL is neko.com, I'm going to assume they know their cat terminology.)
According to Language Geek, the word just means someone who likes cats. They even link to a Russian site full of "'You know you're a koshatnik if...' humor." (I'm going to have to take their word for that.)
Apparently, to Language Geek and people like him or her, this whole book is just a big "oh God, here comes another one" event, creating all sorts of bizarre misunderstandings that they'll be correcting at parties for years. They also cite "Razbliuto," which supposedly means "the feeling one has for a former lover no longer loved." Another site, Language Hat, had this one out with William Safire months ago, finally convincing him that there is no such word. Apparently it's a garbled version of the verb "razliubit," which just means to stop loving.
The really odd bit is that Language Geek checked his or her Russian dictionaries for Koshatnik and actually did find one that offered, alongside the cat-fancier definition, "dealer in (stolen) cats." So maybe there really were stolen cat dealers running around the streets of Moscow at some point. (And even if there weren't, that never got in the way of a good story.)
[BTW I suggest that the razbliuto story hints at how a lot of de Boinod's entries came about. Apart from the mangling of the word itself, the translation suggests someone explaining a word in their own tongue to someone else using words from their language, and being cautious and a bit overly precise. I think that could explain a lot of the words in that Independent piece, and another big chunk of them are simply onomatopoeia. But I digress. Those cats aren't going to steal themselves...]