Thursday, April 4, 2013

Russian Loanwords

Lately we've been exploring the etymology of the English language with a look at loanwords. We've already checked out some vocabulary from Japanese, Hawaiian, Czech, and Malay. Today, we're going through loanwords from Russian, the most spoken Slavic language.

beluga - This name for both a type of sturgeon and a type of whale comes from the Russian word белый meaning "white". Both species are found in bodies of water in and around Russia.

soviet - Generally used as an adjective to reference anything to do with the former Soviet Union, it actually comes from the Russian word sovet, meaning "governing council".

matryoshka - Also known as "nesting dolls", these hand-painted wooden dolls get their name from the diminutive form of the female Russian name Matryona, which means "little matron".

gulag - Though nowadays it's used in English to describe any oppressive environment, the word is actually a Russian acronym. It comes from the words Glavnoe upravleniye ispravityelno-trudovykh lagerey, translated in English as the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps, a particularly bleak system of prisons and labor camps used by the Soviet Union from 1930 until 1960.

tsar / czar - No matter how you spell it (tsar is said to be the most accurate Latinization of the word, if you were wondering), this word originally referred to the Russian emperor. In present times, it is also used to refer to those in incredibly powerful positions, such as a "climate czar" or "drug czar" in government. The word came to Russian from the Latin word Caesar which also gave life to German Kaiser, all meaning "emperor".

mammoth - These gigantic extinct elephants get their name from the Russian word мамонт, written mamont using Latin characters. The term has also become an adjective used to refer to "large" or "massive" things, but is only used this way in the English language.

vodka - Written во́дка in the Cyrillic alphabet, this liquor literally means "little water". Its name comes from the diminutive form of the Russian word voda, meaning "water". It definitely isn't just water, though!

Are we missing any interesting Russian loanwords? Let us know in the comments, and please include a definition!