Aesopian Language

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Aesopian Language


(from the name of the ancient Greek fabulist Aesop), a special type of cryptographic or allegorical writing used in literature, criticism, and journalism in order to circumvent censorship when such literary activity is denied freedom of expression.

An example of Aesopian language was the technique worked out in the Russian press between the late 18th and the early 20th century—that is, the system of “deceptive means,” or of encoding (and decoding) freely conceived ideas—as a reaction against the ban that forbade mention of certain ideas, subjects, events, and persons. Specific examples of such techniques were the use of images derived from fables and of allegorical “fairy-tale descriptions,” particularly in the work of M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, who in fact popularized the term “Aesopian language”; semi-transparent circumlocutions and pseudonyms, such as those used by A. V. Amfiteatrov in The Obmanovs (Deceivers), his feuilleton about the tsar’s family (the Romanovs); more or less covert allusions; and irony—which, when “clothed in tactfulness,” was invulnerable to censorship. “Foreign” subject matter was used to disguise condemnations of actual conditions in Russia, and common phrases became gibes, as in the case of the expression “At your service, Sir,” which was a reference to A. S. Suvorin’s newspaper Novoe vremia. Readers knew that “the big job” stood for “revolution,” that “the realist” was K. Marx, and that “those missing from the anthologies” meant V. G. Belinskii or N. G. Chernyshevskii. When so used, Aesopian language was accessible to the general reader and served as a tool not only of political struggle but also of realistic literary craftsmanship. In France, H. Rochefort was master of the Aesopian language.

In time, the typical techniques used in Aesopian language became part of the satiric style, and today’s writers resort to such techniques independently of censorship pressures. Whether used separately or combined with other means of creative linguistic expression, these techniques have become attributes of specific writers’ styles, as exemplified by A. France’s Penguin Island, the works of M. A. Bulgakov, K. Čapek’s The War With the Newts, and various literary genres of science fiction and humor.


Chukovskii, K. Masterstvo Nekrasova, 4th ed. Moscow, 1962.
Bushmin, A. S. Satira Saltykova-Shchedrina. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959. Chapter 6.
Efimov, A. I. lazyk satiry Saltykova-Shchedrina. Moscow, 1953. Chapter 8.
Paklina, L. Ia. Iskusstvo inoskazatel’noi rechi: Ezopovskoe slovo v khudozhestvennoi literature i publitsistike. Saratov, 1971.


References in periodicals archive ?
Lioudmila Savinitch, who analysed the use of Aesopian language in the Russian press of the 19th century defines the Aesopian language as
Practices of using Aesopian language in the newspaper texts could be an independent topic of research and it is not possible to go into details in the limited space of this article.
Aesopian language was often used in satirical texts.
It is interesting to note that Stone uses Aesopian language and parody to amplify his point.
On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature.
Such application appears limitless: an official Russian translation of The Lord of the Rings in 1991, available underground for many years, saw the text function as a kind of Aesopian Language, (44) substantiating the ability of escapism to be subversive, socially sanctioned, and yet deconstructing the dominant discourse as it purports to reinforce it.
See Lev Loseff, The Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russia, Trans.
Given the extent to which Yiddish writers in the USSR, like their Russian-language counterparts, had been increasingly compelled to deploy Aesopian language in their work in order to escape, as far as they could, the prohibitions of the Soviet censors, it is quite possible to read Bergelson's testimony here both as an encoded equation of Bolshevik with Roman hegemony and repression, and as an encoded assertion of pride in being Jewish, a pride that, at one moment in the trial, manifested itself explicitly in Bergelson's response to the overt Jew-hatred that increasingly emerged during the hearing.
In the view of the organizing committee, "The Aesopian language of antisocialist writing, so long fostered by sanctioned as well as banned writers, has become as dead as the square-wheeled bicycle.
Even so enthusiastic a Gorby follower as writer Gall Sheehy remarked on the Soviet leader's masterful use of Aesopian language.