Guide to words and phrases in The Seagull

Act 1

rouble The basic currency in Russia. One rouble in 1895 ≈ €1,60 today, so Medvedenko’s monthly salary was less than €40

rot Informal British meaning nonsense or rubbish

pauper A very poor person

snuff Tobacco that has been reduced to a fine powder so that it can be inhaled rather than smoked

Nekrasov Nikolay Nekrasov wrote deeply compassionate poems about peasant Russia and was highly regarded in liberal circles.

Eleonora Duse A famous, beautiful Italian actress. Probably regarded as the Meryl Streep of her time.

La Dame aux Camelias The Lady of the Camellias, a novel by Alexandre Dumas and later made into a stage play. A signature performance by Eleonora Duse. Later also made into a famous ballet.

crotchety Irritable, bad-tempered, peevish

seventy thousand [roubles] in the bank A little more than €110,000 in today’s purchasing power. Wealthy people pretending to be broke was a social convention of the time.

ragbag Literally: a bag to hold scraps of fabric and old clothes. Figuratively: a miscellaneous collection of things that have little or no relationship to each other.

trite Used in reference to remarks or ideas that lack originality or freshness.

Maupassant Guy de Maupassant, a French author who often depicted human lives and destinies in a disillusioned and pessimistic manner (referred to as “naturalistic” drama”. Chekhov modeled much of his writing after him.

Tolstoy or Zola Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (War and Peace); Émile Édouard Zola, a French novelist who worked with the same style as Maupassant.

bohemian A socially unconventional person, especially one involved in the arts.

methylated spirits Denatured alcohol: concentrated (95% or more) alcohol to which poisonous agents (usually wood alcohol) have been added so that it cannot be consumed.

mulishness Stubborn and hard to influence or control – like a mule

tarradiddle A colloquial British word; Polona is accusing Dorn of pretentious nonsense.

petulant A person or action that is childish or bad-tempered

conceited Vain, excessively proud of oneself

Chadin, Raspliuyev, Sadovsky Minor Russian historical or current actors of the time. Shamraev undoubtedly has no idea what he is talking about and is just trying to impress Arkadina.

De gustibus aut bene aut nihil Shamraev reveals his pretentiousness by putting two parts of famous Latin quotes together in a way that makes little sense. Literal translation is, “Taste, speak well or not at all”.

bottom C A reference to the famous Oktavist school in Russia where male singers can manage notes more than two octaves (30+ piano keys) lower than middle C. 

an angel flew over A completely meaningless and unrelated phrase. Dorn is mocking Shamraev, whose story had nothing to do with the prior conversation.

to give him his due Usually used to acknowledge something positive about someone you otherwise see primarily in negative terms. Dorn is saying that the most positive thing that could be said about Nina’s father is that he is a swine.

millet A mild corn flavoured grain originally cultivated in Africa and northern China

You’re a young man with talent. You must carry on. This is almost a direct quote from a letter that Chekhov actually received from a famous writer when he was younger. It was one of the primary motivators for Chekhov to stop practicing medicine and write full-time.

Act 2

comme il faut Appropriate in dress or behaviour (French)

frump An unattractive woman who wears clothes that are unfashionable and unstylish in appearance. 

corn chandler Someone who stores and sells grains and related products

fetching Attractive, sweet, pretty

churlish Difficult to work or deal with because they are rude and mean-spirited

valerian drops Herbal derivative thought to reduce anxiety and stress. In this context, an insult because it implies Sorin is too old to benefit from any medicine

carting rye Harvesting rye (a grain) and loading it onto carts for transport

whim A sudden desire or change of mind, especially one that is unusual or unexplained

time is running on We are getting older and don’t have much more time to do anything

merci bien Thank you very much (French)

chub A thick-bodied river fish with a grey-green back and white belly

fiasco A complete and humiliating failure

trodden on my pet corn To offend, hurt or embarrass someone by touching on a sensitive subject 

heliotropes Plants cultivated for their fragrant flowers and used in perfume.

Gogol Nikolai Gogol, a Russian dramatist of the naturalist school

tetchy Irritable and bad-tempered

garret A top-floor or attic room, especially a small dismal one

Act 3

stop on Informal British idiom: to remain at a place longer than you had intended to

milles pardons A thousand pardons (French): I’m very sorry

trap A light, two-wheeled carriage pulled by a horse or pony.

Arkadina/Sorin saying they have no money Remember from Act 1 that Arkadina has 70K Roubles (~115,000 €) in the bank, Sorin’s annual pension would have been 200K Roubles (~330,000 €)

kopeck 1/100 of a Rouble

they had religion Idiom meaning that they were devoutly religious

skinflint A person who spends as little money as possible; a miser

rat’s nest Something that is excessively complicated, entangled or disorderly

besotted To like someone so much that you seem foolish or silly. Older meaning: drunk

my life’s last page The last thing that will matter to me in this lifetime

lunacy Insanity or intending to do something extremely foolish or eccentric

Suzdaltzev, Izmailov Minor dramatists. Shamraev is trying to impress Arkadina again.

plums for the journey Long train rides often meant constipation. Plums would function as a laxative.

stick Trigorin’s walking stick

Act 4

mite A small child or animal, especially when regarded as an object of sympathy.

nom de plum Name used on publications that is other than that of the author (French)

Pushkin Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, considered to be the founder of modern Russian literature. The play referred to is “The Water-Nymph”, his last completed dramatic work.bien sûr Of course (French)

© Roger Voight


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