When having tea with my cousins this past weekend, I was describing an acquaintance who tells fascinating stories, and who is so interesting to listen to – if you have nowhere else to be for the next hour. Getting into a conversation with her is a bit like getting stuck in a charming and entertaining whirlpool. Personally I find it objectively fascinating to see the neat way that she dovetails every story or aside into the previous one, so that the conversation unfolds continuously, never allowing for a pause, and especially not the sort of natural pause that happens in most conversations, which most people need, and wait for, if they want to insert a benign conclusion to the conversation and thus go their merry way.
And as I explained this to my cousins, one of them laughed and said, “If she was Russian, it would never be a problem because she would know what it means to be a zanuda! If she knew what it means to be a zanuda, she would at least make an effort to stop being one. If you’re American, you can be a zanuda forever and ever, and no one can call you out for it, or even tease you gently about it, because the word doesn’t exist in English. So on you go, being a zanuda forever and ever.”
So now I am writing you a brief letter about this complicated and hard-to-translate term, and also I suppose a letter about language shaping a culture, and maybe a letter giving some credence to Orwell’s Newspeak notions. Or maybe not. You can decide.
Dictionaries try to translate zanuda into English as “bore” or “chatterbox” and this seems to me about as accurate as describing a dragon as “a large lizard”. If you’ve seen a dragon, you can see how someone could derive “large lizard” as a description. But if you’ve only seen lizards, you will not be able to accurately reconstruct a dragon.
A zanuda is at least three things – according to the way my family and their friends use the term in practice – and, like those dictionary definitions with six layers of nuance, the word zanuda usually references all three of these things at once.
1. Someone who will use ten words when one will do; who will repeat the same point to you seventeen times; who, rather than closing their mouth when they run out of things to say, will just keep talking in circles. A stupid bore. A tiresome complainer. Frequently will pontificate on things that they know nothing about. Will repeat the punchline of a joke several times… and then start the whole joke over from the beginning. (SEE RELATED TERM: Mansplain.)
2. Someone who doesn’t answer a question with a simple answer, as needed, but inevitably with details, qualifications, and digressions. There can be so many unnecessary nuances to their answer that their attempt at helpfulness is more trouble than it’s worth. Somewhat of a long-winded fusspot. (SEE RELATED TERM: Pedant.)
3. Someone who enjoys conversation so much that they will use any available opportunity to take a subject, immediately digress, and fit in a good, long rambling chat about anything under the sun. At their best, they can make for a fascinating and enjoyable conversation partner, if you have the patience – but not when you have places to be. There is a self-absorbed lack of consideration for other people’s time, or personal space, or attention span.
ANTONYMS: Curt. Brief. Strong-and-silent type. Direct and to the point. Blunt. Cuts through the bullshit.
The thing is, these three (supposedly overlapping) definitions describe three very different types of people. We’ve all had unpleasant encounters with the first one – in fact, Diana Wynne Jones even writes a straight-up zanuda in her novel Witch Week, in the character of Mr. Littleton:
The janitor was in the classroom. What was his name? He had a raucous voice and a lot of stupid opinions. Littleton, that was it. …
“There you are, Mr. Crossley. All tidy now,” Mr. Littleton rasped.
“Thank you, Littleton,” Mr. Crossley said coldly. If you let Littleton get talking, he stayed and tried to teach the class.
As for the second variety of zanuda, I think of certain relatives who will draw you a map if you ask for directions to the grocery store – or, even better, my great-grandfather, who would famously answer questions like “What is your recipe for this delicious chicken soup?” with “Well, you go to the market and you buy a chicken… make sure it is fresh… weigh it on the scale, then pay for it at the counter… then, go to the vegetable section of the store…” and maybe ten minutes later you would get to the part where you cook the chicken, and thus the actual recipe.
And the third variety of zanuda: well, my acquaintance, as I previously described. That’s as good an example as any.
Here’s the really important thing to understand about the term:
It is not at all like the American terms “bore” or “whiner” or “pedant”, and not just because of the nuances, but because almost no one in their right mind would ever cheerfully admit that they’re a bore or a whiner or a pedant. And in my experience, people can cheerfully admit “oh yes, I can be a zanuda sometimes.”
When I first began to question the nuances behind this term, the cousin who was explaining them to me said “Oh, well, your dad can be a zanuda, for sure – and so can you sometimes…” and I said “Oh yes, absolutely, I definitely can be, but so you can you,” and her mother, who was sitting at the table with us, laughed and nearly choked on her tea.
And when I brought it up with my dad in a telephone conversation the next week, he said “Oh I can be a zanuda sometimes… and also, that cousin of yours, she can be one too…” and then it was my turn to laugh and choke on my tea.
Despite this good-natured familial use of the term, generally speaking no one wants to be a zanuda. I think that this is not just because the term is negative. Rather, I think that even when you use it in the connotation of the (gentler) second or third definitions, there is also the nuance of the nastier first definition, which is eternally present in the back of people’s minds, and colors any use of the term, no matter how sweet or nonchalant.
There is the implication that being a zanuda of the third variety is just as unsavory as being a zanuda of the first variety.
So it shapes how people behave, and how they critique certain tendencies in each other, and how they adjust their behaviors.
Just like any term that is used to culturally monitor certain behaviors, there are things in the term that I see as a little unsavory. It is a term that makes it potentially embarrassing to be friendly; or thorough; or fond of good conversation. It is a term that embarrasses Julia Child for her twenty-two page recipe for baking French bread in a household oven – a recipe that was a unique accomplishment, and the crown jewel of her second cookbook, and also mocked by Richard Olney for what he perceived as its absurd and useless thoroughness. (If Olney had had the term zanuda at his disposal, he would certainly have plastered it all over Julia Child.)
Like any term that is theoretically useful when commenting on excesses, it can be used also to criticize helpful or necessary behavior, and to stifle it.
If it enters the cultural lexicon as a term (and set of behaviors and habits) to be aware of, and wary of, and slightly embarrassed by, then it ends up influencing the behavior of the people living inside that culture.
Think briefly about the stereotype of how Russians interact with Americans, and more specifically how Russian waiters behave in the eyes of American customers – you can already see the influence in Russian culture through this word’s existence.
If a typical Muscovite is sitting on a train in America, and a cheerful Midwestern couple sits down next to them and tries to engage them in typical pleasant Midwestern travel-conversation (you know the sort – where the conversation lasts for the entire six-hour train ride)… then, typically, after a short amount of time, the conversation will begin to turn stiff and halting. The Midwestern couple may come away muttering to themselves “How chilly, how rude!”
And the Muscovite, typically knowing nothing of Midwestern culture, will just be rubbing their temples and thinking “My god, what any unholy pair of zanudas.”