Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Word That Can Mean Anything

Any language has many words that have literal definitions, but are rarely used in their direct meanings. For example, nobody means that you are fearsome by saying “you are awesome!”. In the Russian language, there is a word that may mean either excitement or huge disappointment in colloquial Russian, while its literal meaning “in general”, “on the whole”, “always”, “at all”. This word is вообще (vaabschE). Here are some examples how to use this miraculous word:

- Русский вообще и его фонетику, в частности, трудно выучить. Russian generally and its phonetics specifically are hard to learn.
Here вообще is used in its direct formal meaning – opposite to 'specifically'

- Почему ты такая весёлая? Why are you so cheerful?
- Я вообще такая. I'm always like that.
In this case, вообще means “always” opposing to some particular moments.

- Наш менеджер опаздывает на собрание? Is our manager late for the meeting?
- Он вообще не придёт. He won't come at all.

- Я не готовлю дома. I don't cook at home.
- Я удивляюсь, как ты вообще не умер один с голоду! I wonder why you haven't died of hunger at all living on your own!
In these examples, the word вообще has a slightly negative connotation. It is not explicit, but Russian native speakers would hear some faint note of irritation or irony.

Those were the meanings of 'вообще' that you can find in a dictionary. Now let's see the examples from colloquial speech.

- Я выпил твоё пиво. I drank your beer.
- Что ты вообще делаешь в моей квартре? What on earth are you doing in my apartment?
Вообще plays a role of “what on earth”, “what the hell” in the sentences to show extreme emotions (mostly negative).

- Я сказал начальнику, что он идиот. I told the boss that he's an idiot).
- Ну ты вообще! hmm... the mix of distrust, jealousy, fear and respect, like 'Man!'

- Посмотри, какую машину я купил! Look, I've bought a new car!
- Вообще! Wow! Super!

- Я утопил твой телефон в кружке с чаем. I sunk you phone in the mug of tea.
- Ты что, вообще? WTF did you just do?!?!?!?!?

- Её парень не чистит зубы. Her boyfriend doesn't brush his teeth.
- Вообще! Ugh!

The context and intonations usually help to distinguish whether “вообще” means excitement, anger or disgust. It is so funny to watch how far the real usage of a word can deviate from the official definitions!

Chameleon
Photo by Ralph Kränzlein