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Moscow Days: Wrong trousers wreak havoc in war of words

There will always be those pillow-chewing moments in life, recollections so embarrassing that in the small and private hours they continue to force you into the foetal position no matter how long ago they occurred.

Present on a horribly long (and otherwise secret) list is my last row with a Russian in a restaurant. It happened not here but in Los Angeles, a city as removed in character and habit from Moscow as Basingstoke is from Belfast. The stray ember that lit the fuse was both trivial and, in retrospect, odd: clothes.

I was soon to leave LA after four years of working there, an occasion to be marked by a dinner with fellow British correspondents at a newly opened Russian restaurant on the chic West Side. There were several dozen guests. One, a courteous and quiet-spoken colleague, arrived wearing a smart pair of trousers which also happened to be made of blue denim. I may be wrong, but I believe they were even pressed.

He was immediately ejected. California, where only one in three males owns a neck-tie and where over-50s waddle about in leggings bright enough to upstage a flamingo, is an easy-going state by any standards, yet it still has pockets of pretension. Jeans violated the restaurant's dress code. And my colleague, the hood guarding the door decided, was guilty of wearing them.

What annoyed me more than the arbitrariness of the rules, the uncouth manner in which they were enforced, or my friend's evident discomfort, was the fact that the heavy himself was less well-dressed than he. An off-duty policeman moonlighting for the Russians as a security guard, his fish-bowl belly was covered by a T-shirt. During the argument that at once erupted, I recall pointing out curtly that he should practise what he preaches. "This is not a T-shirt," he declared haughtily, "It's a designer T-shirt".

Of course, we all left. By then, the Russian proprietor was involved and the mood was worsening. As we bundled off into the darkness in search of another eating place, I remember firing a parting volley in the form of the only insult I knew in Russian. "Durak!" The owner looked suitably stunned.

This exchange came flooding back the other day when I was browsing through a book called A Dictionary of Russian Slang & Colloquial Expressions. I quite often use the word "durak", having long laboured under the impression that it unequivocally and exclusively means "fool". It now transpires that this was not the mot juste that I thought it was. Had I known its other meaning - male genitals - I would have been more sparing; I have no desire to be punched or, for that matter, shot.

The lesson is that slang is best left to those who know what they are doing. It is a lawless area of any language, where mistakes can be dangerous. And, in Russia, there were until recently few written guidelines for non- native speakers.

Under the Soviet Union, the Communist Party tried to outlaw slang, censoring it whenever it appeared. For more than 70 years, research into the seamier aspects of the vernacular was virtually non-existent. In fact (according to the Dictionary of Russian Slang & Colloquial Expressions) linguists who were interested in the real evolution of Russian - as opposed to the officially manipulated Orwellian version - had only one reference book, a volume called Thieves' Cant, published in 1908. There were compilations of criminal slang but these were only for the use of the police, whom the authorities encourage to bone up on villains' argot in the belief this would help catch them.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become a popular area of study, spawning a crop of books which have shed light on a dank and fertile corner of society. Certain themes, the inevitable stuff of slang wherever you are, loom large - sex, sexism, drink, racism, nasty authorities. But there is also a wonderfully inventive and absurdist quality which is peculiarly Russian.

If, for example, you want to observe that someone has a large backside, you might remark "U nyevo ne zad, a balkon" - "that's not a behind he's got, but a balcony". (Balconies, which adorn most city apartment blocks are largely used for storing pickled food and junk have a generally unromantic image here). Someone with a particularly fat face will be accused of being an "afisha" - a poster. If you bore a Russian by continually asking a question like "what happens now?", they'll fire back: "And now, cat's soup" - a loose version of "it's none of your business".

Pleasingly, the mother tongue has wrought her revenge on those who tried to pimp for her, the party slogan writers. One of the banners of Stalinism was the phrase "if the enemy won't surrender, we will utterly consume him". The modern version is rendered over a charged glass, as a toast: "The enemy is vodka, so we will utterly consume it."

Those who do so to excess suffer the risk of "asphalt sickness", the term applied for the wounds acquired by those who fall over drunk. If he is blind drunk, or "on his eyebrows", he may end up being dragged off by the police to the "akvarium" - a sobering-up cell. There are, of course, heaps of other examples, mostly unprintable. My favourite, for sheer bizarreness, is a term used for an incompetent or a weakling who pretends to be a tough guy: he is a "pregnant nail" - in other words, useless.

That, had I known it, would have been my choice of insult after our spat at the restaurant. "These are not jeans, they are designer jeans. Anyone can see that, you pregnant nail."