The Russians, ironically, have the perfect word for it: nekulturny. It has no adequate English translation. Not even a degree in, say, Slavic philology will get you anywhere near the visceral impact the word evokes in the breast of the native speaker: you have to be Russian to fully get it.
“Nekulturny” was at one time perhaps the most egregiously wounding insult one Russian could hurl at another. It denotes a person entirely without culture, breeding, class or substance. But even that doesn’t quite get there. It’s kind of like good art, though. You may not be able to define it, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Take Donald Trump’s recent tweet about Elizabeth Warren. When he learned that Warren had formally announced her candidacy for the presidency, Trump tweeted, “Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”
It was the penultimate word in Trump’s tweet that garnered some, though not nearly enough, of the mainstream media’s attention. Just what did Trump intend to convey by spelling the word “trail” in capital letters? Those in the media who guessed that “the Trail of Tears” was meant, got it right. Like the song says, Donald Trump “don’t know much about history,” but when it comes to the history of the brutal, the cruel, the racist, the hate-inspired, Trump – like all tyrants – is an eager student.
The Trail of Tears was a series of forced relocations of Native Americans in the United States from their ancestral homelands to areas to the west. A particularly brutal example of this was the 1838 relocation of the Cherokee tribe where many native Americans died along the way. Elizabeth Warren has identified herself as having some Cherokee ancestry.
So Donald Trump was turning a disgraceful act of monstrous inhumanity into a joke. A Native American holocaust of unbelievable savagery is somehow funny to the “president” of the United States. Like I said, you have to go outside the language to describe what Trump is. Ordinary English words don’t cut it anymore. I’m not even sure “nekulturny” quite does it either. You’ll have to ask a Russian.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.