Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Remembering Igor Iskhakov

Posted by Neal on July 12, 2005

Almost a year ago, I wrote in one of my posts,

And just to reiterate that asshole is not “just an insult,” the expression tear [someone] a new asshole is proof that the literal meaning is still there, to be enjoyed by those who take the time to experience the word as if for the first time. I’ll never forget hearing Igor Iskhakov burst out laughing when he first heard this strange new English word and parsed it out.

I met Igor Iskhakov in 1993, when I was an instructor at a ballroom dance studio here in central Ohio. He and his family had just emigrated from Russia; he had done ballroom dancing for most of his life; and he was looking for a job. The studio owner hired him right away, and put him to work coaching the advanced students.

It was fun to work with Igor; he taught me and the other instructors a lot on the finer points of posture and movement. From him I also learned that the name Igor is not just for hunchbacked minions of mad scientists (an association he was astonished to learn about), but in fact is a rather common Russian name. Pronounced by a Russian, it sounds more like eager, which he proudly pointed out to me when he learned the word.

I remember another time when a few of the instructors were having lunch at a restaurant across the street from the studio, and Igor was quite keen to order a cocktail. They served cocktails at the newly opened McDonald’s in Moscow, he told us, and they were great. He wanted a cocktail here, now. We told him they didn’t serve cocktails here; it was just an ordinary family restaurant without a bar. He couldn’t believe it. Cocktails were about as American as you could get–after all, hadn’t Russian borrowed the word from American English just to refer to this American kind of drink? And now, sitting in an American restaurant, he couldn’t have a simple cocktail? We asked him to describe these cocktails, and pretty soon we realized that what he was describing was a milkshake! Armed with the proper vocabulary, he asked for and got his first milkshake made in America. (I don’t know when he had his first American-made cocktail.)

I also remember trying to find out from Igor the Russian word for ‘flirt.’ Maybe I was asking him how he and his recently-arrived dance partner and fiancee had begun their relationship; I’m not sure. Anyway, Igor didn’t recognize the word, so another instructor and I were describing situations of flirting, until Igor finally realized what we meant. “Oh!” he said. “Fleertavat’!” What? All that work, only to find out the Russian word was just another borrowing from English? Sheesh.

I talked with Igor enough about Russian and language in general that at one point he asked me why I wasn’t studying linguistics anymore. Clearly, I was interested enough in it that I should consider going back to school and finishing my degree. I realized he was right, and took his advice. And when I applied to be a teaching assistant in the department of English as a Second Language in order to cover my tuition, Igor was kind enough to write me a letter of reference.

In subsequent years, after I left the dance studio, I occasionally ran into Igor on the OSU campus, where he was finishing his PhD in math. Yes, a PhD in math, even while he continued to teach dance, compete and win in major competitions, and appear in a movie. And a few years ago, I saw him and his wife at the public library, where he told me they were doing some business research in preparation for opening their own studio. Which they did. I was really happy for them. They were living out the American Dream more than I or most people I know have done.

Yesterday I was taking Doug to a karate lesson right across the hall from my old dance studio, and I saw my old boss. I was shocked to learn from him that Igor had died on Sunday. I couldn’t believe it, but in today’s newspaper, there it was. He will be missed, not just by his family and others who saw him regularly, but also by people like me, who might have fallen out of touch with him, but still remember how he changed their life for the better.

4 Responses to “Remembering Igor Iskhakov”

  1. Anonymous said

    Your memories of Igor are humorous and poignant. One never wants to get that kind of news about family or friends.

  2. Anonymous said

    My Websters says that the origin of “Flirt” is unknown. Flirter is the French verb. In Spanish the verb flirtear exists but they usually use ‘coquetear’ instead.

  3. […] who take the time to experience the word as if for the first time. I’ll never forget hearing Igor Iskhakov burst out laughing when he first heard this strange new English word and parsed it […]

  4. sasha Batikoff said

    I was with Igor the night before he drowned. I will never forget it. He& Anya had brought food left over from an event,part of which was chocolate cake. I said I didn’t want any as I was watching my weight. To which Igor replied,” eat some cake, what if you die tomorrow? You had no cake for nothing.” Couldn’t believe it when I was told he drowned. Still think of him every time I see a chocolate cake. Thanks for sharing this.

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