14.05.2021

Let’s Play in Russian

The basic word is, well, pretty basic – and behaves much like its English counterpart. Играть is what you do in any kind of game or competition, from football to poker; it’s what you do on stage or screen; it’s what you do on a musical instrument or even on someone’s emotions: In his public speeches, he played on the most base instincts of the mob. In Russian something plays when it catches the light or someone’s attention: Your scarf really pops against the background of your dark dress.

The World Cup games are over, the players and fans are gone, and cops no longer let happy souls drink beer on the streets… but I’m still linguistically stuck at the games. Actually, it’s one word – the main one – and its satellites that have captured my imagination. I’m stuck on to play.

And then when you’re done playing, Russian nicely indicates if you’ve won or lost whatever game or competition you were in. It’s all done with prefixes: проиграть (to lose) and выиграть (to win). If you play for just a little while, you add another prefix: поиграть. This is often a good thing: When your child gets home from school, you shouldn’t force him to sit down to do his homework right away – let him play for a bit. Or you might play up to a certain time – that’s finish the game. This can be literal: We had almost played our scene to the end, when they cut off the electricity. But often it’s metaphorical: He was killed in the first days of the war and didn’t sing his song til the end.

Переиграть has several meanings. It can mean to do or play something again: If we had a chance to do the ad campaign over, we’d be much more cautious. Sometimes it can mean to change behavior, often midstream: We’ve got to rethink our approach. Or to overact on stage or screen: She overacted so much that it was hard to watch the film to the end. It can also mean “out play,” as in this assertion: Russia is ahead once again. Putin outplayed everyone.

I like отыграть for the sheer multitude of meanings. For performers, it means finishing up. This might mean getting in and getting out: The performers arrived, did their morning show and took off. Or it might be a bit more poetic – someone finishing a career: Here we can see the shadows of great people who played their important roles in history and are now just strolling around Moscow. In card games and the like, it means to win back whatever you lost: He won back his money, watch and gold s – only to lose them all again.

And then there is my favorite: обыграть. It means to get the better of someone in some way. Sometimes this is just a simple case of one football team beating another: France beat Croatia to become the world champions. Or it can have the sense of playing someone: You played me twice like I was a little kid. Or outsmarting someone: Putin outsmarted Trump once again.

Oh well. On the field and in the world, the game goes on

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