Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What's in a Russian surname?


Jonathan Bastable discusses the life and work of Boris Unbegaun, the Russian-born Oxford professor with a passion for Russian onomastics


Once years ago, at the start of my student days, I randomly plucked a book from a shelf in the university library. The volume I happened to choose was Russian Surnames by Boris Unbegaun. 

The book was a fabulous discovery, full of curious names and even more curious explanations and definitions. It was here that I learned the meaning of the word pasternak [parsnip]. A poet named Boris Parsnip – to my teenage self, that was pretty funny. 

A modest and witty tone
Boris Ottokar Unbegaun was born in Moscow in 1898, to a family of German descent. As a youth, he fought against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, then emigrated to Slovenia. Later he moved to France, where he studied for his doctorate. In 1940, when the Nazis took Paris, he was arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he remained until the war’s end. After the liberation he resumed his academic career, and eventually washed up in Oxford, where he became general editor of OUP’s Russian-English Dictionary.
He also wrote a brilliant book on the forms of Russian poetry. His Oxford works are all written in the same modest, drily witty tone, and they never hint at the dreadful experiences that he had been through. Russian Surnames is one such book. It is a treasure for anyone who loves the language, because every page showcases wonderful Russian words that happen to have given rise to surnames.

Aptly named
So we learn that Mikhail Suslov, a dry-as-a-stick Brezhnev-era functionary, had a name that derives fromsuslo, meaning “unfermented beer”. The name of Georgy Chicherin, one-time Soviet foreign minister, derives from a word meaning a particular cold wind carrying rain and snow (Russian has lots of finely differentiated words for wintry weather). Stalin’s secretary Poskrebyshev, says Unbegaun, had a name derived from a kind of flatbread – but I ignorantly wonder whether it might not be related to the wordposkryobki, meaning “leftovers” or “scrapings”, and so be an epithet for a greedy person.
After all, a great number of Russian surnames, like English ones, are derived from everyday objects or quirks of character and appearance. Khrushchev, for example, means “may-beetle”; Gorbachev is a hunchback. Many of the nicknames that lead to Russian surnames are unflattering or disapproving, as in Golokhvastov [empty boaster], Mokrousov [“wet moustache”, that is, a drunkard]. They can also be downright baffling. What on earth is the story behind Zhidkoblinov [thin pancake] or the troubling Golomazov [smears naked]?
Some names were conferred at birth by parents wanting to endow their newborns with particular qualities. This is how some unfortunate family ended up with the surname Neusikhin, from a word meaning “not a bedwetter”. It was also common to avert evil by giving a name that expressed the opposite of what parents wished for their child. This susperstitious practice provided several famous Russian writers with their surnames: Nekrasov [ugly]; Zamyatin [trouble-making]; Bulgakov [bothersome].

Clergy names and army ranks
A special feature of Russian onomastics, Unbegaun tells us, is “clergy names”: made-up surnames taken by boys, or assigned to them, when they entered seminaries to study for the priesthood. Many such names are pious, such as the grandiloquent Smirennomudrensky [humble wisdom]. Some express a love of knowledge – and not necessarily religious knowledge; hence Teleskopov, Paradoksov and Eksperimentov. Sometimes surnames were used as a form of discipline. One poor boy had his changed from Landyshev [lily of the valley] to Krapivin [stinging nettle] for answering badly in class. We can only imagine the string of failures landed another student with the Latinised surname Deploransky [hopeless].
Unbegaun’s book provides many wonderful glimpses into Russian life in bygone centuries, often unearthing the unexpected. It transpires, for example, that the common surname Ivanov has always been considered prestigious when the stress falls on the last syllable (Ivanóv), but not when it is on the second (Ivánov). So much so, that in the Soviet armed forces private soldiers named Ivanov were not permitted to pronounce it with a final stress; that was a privilege reserved for officers. Who would have guessed that the Red Army was in its way as institutionally snobbish as an English public school?