Russian words in English

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A number of Russian words have become part of the English language.

Some entered the language in the 19th century - for example, vodka (the alcoholic drink – the Russian word for the drink, вóдка (vodka), is a diminutive of водá (voda, water)); dacha (a country house or cottage in the country; the Russian original, дáча (dacha), is formed from дать (daty, to give) – the first dachas were gifts from the Czar); and samovar (a metal urn for making tea, having a compartment for the charcoal used to heat the water – though today most samovars are heated by electricity; the Russian word, самовáр (samovar, pronounced with the stress on the final syllable),is a compound of само- (samo-, self-) and варитъ (varity, to boil)).

Other words date from the 20th century, some of them used to refer to distinctive features of the political system established in the USSR after the 1917 Revolution – for example, kolkhoz (a collective farm); commissar (комиссáр (komissar), the head of a government department or an official of the Communist Party responsible for political education); and gulag (the Gulag was the government agency responsible for the administration of the forced labour camps in the USSR, but the word gulag was also used of any forced labour camp). The Russian originals of some of the words in the last category are abbreviations: for example, kolhkoz (колхόз) is an abbreiation for kollektivnoe khozyaitsvo (коллекти́вное хозя́йство), ‘collective farm’, while gulag (гулаг) is an abbreviation for Glavnoye upravleniye ispravityelno-trudovykh lagerey i koloniy (Гла́вное управле́ние исправи́тельно-трудовы́х лагере́й и коло́ний), ‘Main Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Labour Settlements’.

Here are some more Russian words which have entered the English language:

  • an apparatchik (in Russian аппара́тчик, apparatchik) was a member of the Communist party organisation in the former USSR - the Communist party organisation itself being known as (the) apparat (аппара́т, apparatus, machinery). The word apparatchik has come to be used of any official or bureaucrat in an organisation, usually with the derogatory implication that they are a mere cog in the machine, blindly or slavishly carrying out what the organisation requires of them.
  • a babushka is either an old woman or grandmother or a headscarf tied under the chin, typical of those worn by Russian peasant women; the Russian word бáбушка (babushka) means ‘grandmother’, and is a diminutive of бáба (baba), a colloquial word for an old woman.
  • the word glasnost (in Russian гла́сность (glasnosty, openness)) was used to describe the policy of government openness and accountability pursued in the late 1980s by Mikhail Gorbachov (1931- ), then President of the USSR. The word is still used, sometimes ironically, to refer to any policy of openness and accountability on the part of an institution or official body. (See also perestroika below.)
  • the intelligentsia (in Russian интеллигéнция (intelligentsiya)) – in English always with the definite article - are the educated members of society or the intellectuals considered as a class.
  • the word mammoth, which may be either a noun or an adjective, comes from the Russian мамóнт (mamont (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable), a mammoth). In English the noun mammoth is used to refer to any large extinct elephant of the genus Mammuthus, particularly the woolly mammoth, which had a hairy coat and long curved tusks. However, mammoth is more commonly used as an adjective, meaning ‘huge’, ‘gigantic’ (in size or significance).
  • a matryoshka – in Russian матрёшка – is a Russian nesting doll, i.e., a hollow wooden doll inside which is another similar, but smaller doll, inside which is another similar, but even smaller doll ... A matryoshka may consist of anything between 3 and 24 nested dolls. The Russian word матрёшка is a diminutive of the female first name матрёшка (Matryona).
  • the word perestroika (in Russian перестро́йка (perestroika, reconstruction, reorganisation)) was used to describe the policy of economic reform and reconstruction pursued in the late 1980s by Mikhail Gorbachov (1931- ), then President of the USSR. The word is still used, sometimes ironically, to refer to any policy of reorganisation or reform pursued by an institution or official body. (See also glasnost above.)
  • a pogrom – pronounced in English with the stress on the first syllable, though its Russian original, погрóм (pogrom), has the stress on the second syllable) - is the organised harassment, persecution, and extermination of a specific ethnic group, usually Jews. The word was originally used of the campaigns of extermination against the Jews in Russia in the nineteenth century and entered English, through Yiddish, in the twentieth century. The Russian word comes from the verb громить (gromity, to destroy, smash, rout) and по- (po-), a prefix denoting the perfective aspect of a verb.
  • the word samizdat (in Russian самиздат (samizdat, self-publication), a compound of само- (samo-, self-) and издат (izdat), an abbreviated form of издательство (izdatelystvo, publishing house) was used to describe the system of secret printing and distribution of dissident literature in the former USSR, but may be used of any dissident literature or other material published and distributed secretly in defiance of the authorities. The word may also be used as a modifier, as in ‘a samizdat novel’.
  • the taiga – pronounced in English with the stress on the first syllable, though its Russian original тайгá has the stress on the second syllable - is the region of coniferous forests which stretch in the northern hemisphere across much of Europe, Asia and North America, forming a belt between the Arctic tundra to the north and the steppes to the south.
  • a troika (in Russian трόйка (troika, three, the number three, troika)) is either a group of three horses harnessed abreast or a vehicle drawn by three horses harnessed in this way or (most commonly in the UK nowadays) a group of three persons, especially a group of three officials with a particular function.
  • tsar - in Russian царь (tsary, ‘emperor’, ‘king’) - was the title of the emperors who ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. The Russian word comes, through the Gothic kaisar, from the Latin Caesar, which, as well as being the cognomen of the Roman general, politician, and historian, Gaius Julius Caesar (assassinated in 44 BCE), was the title of the two ‘junior’ or ‘secondary’ emperors who formed part of the tetrarchy which ruled the Roman Empire under the system introduced by the emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 CE). In English the word tsar may also be applied to any tyrant or autocratic ruler, but nowadays is often used without any pejorative sense to mean a person with significant power and authority in some area – for example, the UK Children’s Commissioner, i.e., the person appointed by the government to promote and protect the rights of children, especially in relation to policy-making, is sometimes referred to as ‘the Children’s Tsar’.