Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
The United Nations has six official languages that all documents are translated into — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish — and each year, it sets aside one day to celebrate each of those languages. Today, June 6, is Russian Language Day at the U.N., and I thought we could mark the occasion by highlighting some common words in English that were derived from Russian.
But, for historical and geopolitical reasons, it turns out that English doesn’t borrow much from Russian. While there are hundreds or even thousands of common English words borrowed from, say, French, German, and Native American languages, words borrowed from Russian are numbered in the dozens, and most of them either don’t get widespread use (agitprop, politburo, samizdat) or are so obviously Russian that they aren’t worth exploring in more depth (vodka, borscht, babushka).
But still, there are a handful of common English words that you might not know derive from Russian.
One of the most expensive foods on the planet by weight is beluga caviar, the roe (eggs) of the beluga sturgeon, a large white fish found in the Caspian and Black Seas and their tributaries. Early Russian fishers named the fish beluga based entirely on its appearance: The word comes from belyĭ “white” plus -uga, a suffix that augments the base word, like the prefix super- in superstar or mega- in megastore. Beluga essentially translates to “great white.”
The term was later applied to a species of white Arctic whale. A beluga whale is literally a “great white whale,” which I imagine causes problems for translators preparing Russian editions of Moby-Dick. That title character, often referred to in the novel as the White Whale, was a sperm whale, not a beluga.
Okay, I lied a little bit. It’s obvious that czar is Russian — until 1917, it was the title of the ruler of Russia — but I include it here because the word comes with an interesting etymology.
Czar ultimately comes from the word Caesar. After Julius Caesar was murdered in the Senate, civil wars broke out all over Rome. Eventually, Julius’s great nephew and adopted son Augustus Caesar defeated his enemies and became emperor of the Roman Empire. Augustus was the only one of those early Roman emperors to live to old age, and after he died, future emperors took the name Caesar as a title.
As the Roman Empire expanded — at its height, it stretched from the Iberian peninsula in the west to the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf in the east — it took its language with it. The title Caesar not only found its way to becoming czar in Russian, but Kaiser in German.
A common question about the word czar is why we sometimes see it spelled tsar or even tzar. It’s because the word is a transliteration from the Cyrillic alphabet, in which the word is spelled царь. A mid-16th-century tome and primary source about Russia in Western Europe transliterated the word into the Latin alphabet as czar. But during the 19th century — perhaps dealing more directly with Russian texts — the French transliterated the word as tsar. It’s also the spelling picked up by The Times in the U.K., and even now, the British publications Guardian and Observer still prefer the spelling tsar. In the U.S., though, we largely stuck with czar, and so the separate spellings exist simultaneously in English.
Mammoth appears to have taken a journey through Dutch before arriving in English, but there is some controversy over exactly what route it took. Dutch merchants and ambassadors at the end of the 17th century learned that, along coasts and rivers in northern Asia, gigantic tusks were sometimes uncovered. In their reports, they noted that the tusks were called mammouttekoos, koos meaning “bone” and mammout meaning “a large, terrible beast.”
Again, because this is a transliteration (of a language that itself has shifted, no less), the word can be found written, in various places and at various times, as mamant, mamont, mammout, mammut, and mammuth, the last of which found its way into English translations, ultimately becoming mammoth.
From the early 18th century, the word was only a noun — the name of a large woolly beast. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that mammoth’s use as an adjective meaning “very large” became common.
Merriam-Webster Online offers a more detailed and technical discussion of mammoth’s origins.
This name for a hooded coat, often lined with fur and designed for particularly frigid weather, comes from Nenets, the name of both an ethnic group from Arctic Russia and the language they speak. The word literally translates as “skin coat” because parkas were traditionally made from animal skins and lined with animal fur. The ones you buy from The North Face or L.L. Bean are more likely to use synthetic fabrics and faux fur.
If you’re not much of a gambler, this word might not seem very common to you. The vigorish, often abbreviated as the vig, is the charge that a bookie or gambling house takes for placing a bet for you. It comes from either the Ukrainian vygrash or Russian vyigrysh, both of which mean “winnings, profit.” And from a bookie’s point of view, that’s exactly what it is — the profit they make whether your bet wins or loses.
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