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From Russia with lexicography: Seven words of Russian origin

John Murray

Tomorrow sees the start of the once-every-four-year festival of laughing at skiers falling over, watching nutters slide down chutes on tea trays and awing over just how quickly some people are able to brush an icy surface, as the 2014 Winter Olympics arrives in Sochi. As Russia continues to contribute plenty towards world news, let’s look into what effect it has had on the English language.

Russian influence on the words we use may not be as prevalent as that of French, Greek or Latin, but there are a fair few regularly used words that have their roots in the nation. Here are seven you should know:


One of these might come in handy in Sochi, where temperatures can dip below freezing at this time of year. Usually designed for warmth rather than fashion, this head-covering garment was first used during the Crimean War and takes its name from the town of Balaklava, in modern day Ukraine.


This word for a group of large extinct animals has developed into an adjective meaning ‘huge’, e.g. “hosting the Olympics is a mammoth task”. The word comes from “maimanto”, which was the name given to huge animal tusks discovered in Siberia in the 17th Century.


How many dancers can claim to have a pudding named after them? When ballet star Anna Pavlova visited New Zealand in 1926, a meringue-based dessert was prepared to welcome her. It still bears her name today.


If you’ve eaten too much pavlova and need something to wash it down with, what could be better than Russia’s favourite alcoholic tipple? In Russian, ‘vodka’ means ‘little water’ and the word may derive from the verb ‘vodit’, meaning ‘to dilute with water’ – something it’s advisable to do.


Also spelt ‘zar’, ‘tzar’ or ‘czar’, Russia now has an ‘imperator’ rather than a tsar. A female tsar is called a tsarina – a word that seems to crop up with alarming regularity in games of Scrabble.


This word for a high class of individuals disseminating culture through their collective mental capacity has Polish and Russian roots, and was popularised in part by Russian writer Pyotr Boborykin.


Not the structure that connects one piece of land to another, but the popular card game. It’s an Anglicisation of the word ‘biritch’ – a Russian game that actually bears a closer resemblance to whist than bridge.

So, hardly a Russian revolution of the English language, but a fair contribution from this huge yet somewhat insular nation. See how many of them you can use while enjoying the ice-cool entertainment in Sochi over the next couple of weeks.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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