My Mad Search for River’s Safe Word in Serenity

SerenityLast night I watched Serenity again. It is the movie Josh Whedon made after Fox canceled Firefly and then it became a huge hit. If you’ve seen the film, you know that River goes crazy, kicking some major The Matrix-style butt, and her brother, Simon, runs in at the last minute and yells, “Blah blah blah blah.” And she falls asleep. We learn all kinds of things in this movie that we didn’t know from watching the series, but the second biggest is that River has been turned into a “killing machine”—not that we didn’t have some indication in “War Stories.” (The biggest thing we learned is that the Operative character would make a cool science fiction version of Kung Fu.)

This time, I knew that Simon was going to run in and yell what he yells, so I listened carefully and it sounded something like “et decorum noch est.” You know: something Latin. And given that I didn’t expect Whedon to know much more Latin than I do, I figured it would be easy to find the phrase given that I felt pretty confident about the first two words, which are from the famous bit of Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland”). But no. There is nothing especially “noch”-y in Latin.

So I went to the source. I tracked down the shooting script (pdf) for Serenity. And I found the line and when I did I knew! I knew that I had no idea what language it was. “Eta Kooram Nah Smech!” Well, that’s not completely true. I knew that it wasn’t Latin, or at least, if it was, it was spelled phonetically for poorly educated screen actors. Otherwise, I was at a loss.

Luckily, I had Google Translate. And I tried its almost entirely useless “detect language” feature and it “detected” Maori, the language of the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Not only that, it translated “eta kooram nah smech” into the English non-phrase, “eta Quorum NAH smech.” Why it capitalized Quorum, I have no idea. Ditto: “NAH.” So I went on from there trying various languages. I think I started with German, because face it, “smech” does sound kind of German. It was all a disaster. But finally, I came to Russian. (It would be great to have some dramatic music here!)

It didn’t translate the phrase at all. It just spit back the same phrase in English as it is prone to do. But, like a good Google app, it reported, “Did you mean: eta kooram nah smeh.” I didn’t know, but like so many other things in my life: I hoped. So I clicked. And suddenly, “eta kooram nah smech” was gone and “эта курам на смех” was there. Even more exciting, I got a translation, “This hens laugh at”!

That had to be it, because the phrase, “The chicken’s come home to roost,” is used prominently in the film. But would I come to you with such shoddy “Looks like I got it!” reporting? This isn’t The Wall Street Journal after all! This is a liberal blog where we at least try to be accurate and correct. So I went another step.

So I sent some email to my friend and co-technological conspirator Mikhail who just happens to have been born in Russia. Typically, it was long and probably (for him) boring. You see, I didn’t just want to confirm. I also wanted to know if the phrase was idiomatic, maybe even the Russian equivalent of “The chickens have come home to roost.” So I went on a bit about idioms, but not because I didn’t think he knew what they were. Rather, I have long been meaning to apologize to a non-native English speaker for my constant use of idioms that I know are terribly confusing. “Why do you keep mentioning chickens? We were not talking about chickens!”

According to Mikhail, Google Translate is slightly wrong. Rather than “эта курам на смех,” it should have been “этo курам на смех.” When we make this change in Google Translate, it changes to “It’s chickens to laugh.” Mikhail translated it as, “For the hens to laugh at.” To me, this is probably what you get when you translate an idiomatic phrase like “The chickens have come home to roost” into Russian and back again. Regardless, Whedon was making some kind of comment about the theme of the film: unexpected consequences of good intentions.

But here is a question to ponder. Why did Whedon use a Russian phrase? In the movie and series, Mandarin Chinese is a common second language, for a reason that doesn’t matter. But for this reason, everyone curses in Chinese. Why? I don’t know, but it does sound better than pretend cursing like, “Gosh darn!” I understand that River’s “safe word” couldn’t be English or Chinese. I mean, what if it had been, “Hello River.” She’d be falling asleep all the time. But otherwise, why Russia? I suspect it is because Whedon (the same age as I am) is a Cold War baby. And that means there are only three countries that really matter: America, China, and Russia.

After all that work, I find that I don’t especially care. Although I think it is a fine action film, it isn’t as good as I had remembered. In particular, the dialog is very often hackneyed, the plot is full of holes, and the characterizations—especially of the Operative—are inconsistent. When I saw Marvel’s the Avengers, I thought, “Why would Josh Whedon make something like this?” I now see that that is all he has ever made.


Just now, as I finished the first draft of this article, I find that the Wikipedia Page on the film does discuss this very issue. And I must have checked at the beginning of this search. But the page is long and I probably loaded it and searched for Latin and called it a day. Also: the Russian phrase is spelled differently on the page than it is in the shooting script. Regardless, my telling was more exciting. But the page does say that the phrase is a Russian idiom for “That’s ridiculous!” And this my friends, is how I waste my life!

2 thoughts on “My Mad Search for River’s Safe Word in Serenity

  1. Watch the serenity commentary with joss and the crew!! There you’ll have your answer. But thank you for the spelling!!

    • I’m a big commentary listener, but I started this one and stopped. It was too much of “Oh, and on this day!” kind of stuff. But with your comment, I will listen to it. Of course, as you know from the article, I went through all that only to find that it was in Wikipedia. A better title would have been, “My Stupid Search…”

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