I’m almost done with Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (see this post), and I was stopped dead by a Russian word provided in parentheses in the middle of this (very interesting) passage about Venedikt Malashev, whose father was a member of the minor Polish nobility (and originally named Malaszewicz) but had become enserfed after the partition of Poland and who himself had been freed by Count Vorontsov in 1810; given the freedom to choose his estate (see that previous post), he became a member of the artisan guild:

Malashev knew well the language of soslovie, but his specific choice shows that even those statuses chosen rather than inherited might be disconnected from the way individuals actually lived. Moscow’s artisan guild was subdivided into twenty-four subguilds, and individuals belonged to one or the other of those guilds. Some were based on obvious crafts, like cooking, carpentry, or hat-making, but Malashev joined one of the more unusual guilds: the barber’s (fershel’nyi) guild. Despite its name, it officially included an odd hodgepodge of crafts and trades: not just hairdressers and hair dyers but also those making pomades, perfumes, and rouges; tobacconists, including cigar makers; and those who made “chalk for card games.” None of these seem to have much to do with Malashev’s life before his freedom—and nor did they reflect his next actions.

In essence, Malashev’s registry was simply one of convenience. Registry in the guild gave Malashev status in Moscow, but he immediately set off to work elsewhere.

For the rest of Malashev’s saga, you’ll have to read the book, but what stopped me was the word fershel’nyi. I might have thought it was a typo, but the book is remarkably free of them (kudos to Oxford University Press!), and when I looked it up it turned out to be an adjective from fershel’, a variant of fel’dsher, a familiar word to anyone who studies Russian — it’s defined in my beloved, beat-up, much-annotated Oxford dictionary as “doctor’s assistant, medical attendant (medical practitioner lacking graduate qualification).” It has its own Wikipedia article:

According to the World Health Organization, a feldsher (German: Feldscher, Polish: Felczer, Czech: Felčar, Russian: фельдшер, Swedish: Fältskär) is a health care professional who provides various medical services limited to emergency treatment and ambulance practice. In Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union, feldshers provide primary-, obstetric- and surgical-care services in many rural medical centres and clinics […]

The equivalent type of provider may also go under different titles in different countries and regions, such as “physician assistant” in the United States or “clinical officer” in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The International Standard Classification of Occupations, 2008 revision, collectively groups such workers under the category “paramedical practitioners”.

But the next section, on the history of the word, is truly striking:

The word Feldsher is derived from the German Feldscher, which was coined in the 15th century. Feldscher (or Feldscherer) literally means “field shearer,” but was the term used for barber surgeons in the German and Swiss armies from the 17th century until professional military medical services were established, first by Prussia in the early 18th century. Today, Feldshers do not exist in Germany anymore, but the term was exported with Prussian officers and nobles to Russia.

Another striking etymology I recently learned is for the word гирло [girlo], which I came across in Bunin (a rich source of unusual words); according to Brockhaus and Efron, it means a strait, canal, or more or less deep channel laid down by the flow of a river (and often confused with the river’s mouth). Vasmer says it’s from Romanian gîrla ‘brook, rivulet; backwater,’ which is itself borrowed from Slavic *gъrlo, which gives Russian горло ‘throat.’ So it’s one of those there-and-back-again etymologies we recently discussed somewhere.


  1. Wow, LH, it was a great 1860 review of Bulkin’s which I instantly found (just like you) by googling the word. It explains Peter I’s 1722 decree creating a system of permanent and temporary artisans, and the ranks of masters, journeymen, and apprentices, and giving them broad permissions to move about the Empire, and Catherine’s 1785 changes to the statute further enhancing the government oversight of the guilds. The autonomy rights of the European medieval guilds were essentially reduced to tax collection (as in all Russian classes, the poll taxes were paid by the societies rather than by their members, and then reallocated unevenly within the society, with the better-off members paying more and the indigent members, paying nothing) and limited welfare roles (like providing for the member families in cases of economic disasters or death of breadwinner).

    The review lamented both subsystems, the permanent artisans (for whom, just like for the guild merchants, the only condition of membership was paying of entry dues and periodic levies) and temporary artisans (who were to pass licensing qualifications exams, but the tests were hampered by the eclectic nature of the guilds which lumped together too many loosely related crafts).

    Over the course of XIX c., these shortcomings were being gradually addressed through the creation of a multitude of non-Guild professional classes (feldsher becoming one of those, along with other nursing and pharmacists trades), emergence of a non-Guild artisan designation (нецеховые ремесленники such as mechanics or railroad engineers) who retained their original hereditary class but received a greater freedom of movement, splitting of the Craftsmen Guilds, and elimination of old permanent (hereditary) guild membership. Still the government looked for an even greater control, and in the early 1900s, most guilds were pressured to disband by the provincial authorities. The licenses granted by the disbanded guilds were still being honored, though. Say, my great grandfather Vladimir Osipovich Pruss obtained one of the last journeyman licenses from the Velizh watchmaker guild before it closed, but the paper let him move all around Russia free of restrictions imposed on the Jews.

    And, yes, the etymology – from barber aka blood-letter – is awesome!

  2. Russians love they barbers. In addition to feldsher (the word currently not used for the trade) there is parikmaher (wig-maker, the main word) and obsolete/ironic tzyr’ulnik (from Latin chirurgus, surgeon, btw is hirurg) and bradobrej (beard cutter). Some centuries ago there were probably fine distinctions between all of them, but I am too lazy to research the topic.

  3. So гирло presumably entered Russian around the time Russia troops were driving the Ottomans out of Bessarabia. Is it really standard Russian or more of a dialect word that Bunin might have picked up in Odessa?

  4. Oddly enough, I was just reading School for Barbarians, which observes in passing that the Nazis had revived the previously obsolete term Feldscher for field medics, presumably as part of some sort of anti-loanword campaign. I wonder if they would have been disappointed to know it was in use in Russian.

  5. Is it really standard Russian or more of a dialect word that Bunin might have picked up in Odessa?

    Kind of both. It’s a regular Ukrainian word but also a standard Russian word with much narrower meaning, used not for “any throat” but specifically for “inlets of the Black Sea tributaries”. A common issue with toponymic categories everywhere, putting narrowly regional usage into broad standards.

  6. January First-of-May says:

    I always thought that гирло was just Ukrainian for горло, but apparently the *o>/i/ sound change only affected Old East Slavic *o, not *ъ, and the Ukrainian for горло is in fact горло.

    The Romanian etymology is neat, though!

    Is it really standard Russian or more of a dialect word that Bunin might have picked up in Odessa?

    I sadly do not recall where I encountered the word; it might well have been Bunin. I just assumed it was one of those precise terms for concepts that don’t really come up much in my city life.

    For what it’s worth, the National Corpus of the Russian Language has several dozen quotations going back to the early 18th century (the corpus does not go back any further), always referring to rivers on the northern shore of the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov (Danube, Dnieper, Dniester, Don, Kuban), with one uncertain exception (a quoted text said to be from the early 18th century, whose original does not appear in the corpus, mentions a placename Гирло near Arkhangelsk in a context that looks appropriate for this meaning).

  7. January First-of-May says:

    Update, which I tried to put in the previous comment, but the edit system didn’t let me…

    Kind of both. It’s a regular Ukrainian word but also a standard Russian word with much narrower meaning, used not for “any throat” but specifically for “inlets of the Black Sea tributaries”.

    This was basically the impression that I got from the corpus quotations – though, if the corpus is to be trusted, this sense goes back to at least the 18th century (and, again, the corpus doesn’t go any earlier).

    (And, come to think of it, I don’t believe it was ever the regular Ukrainian word for “throat” – and if it was, I would have expected the river-channel term to derive directly from that, rather than through Romanian. I might be misintepreting the sound changes, however.)

  8. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Reminds me of my unsolved Ukrainian Slavistics problem, how the Ukrainian scribes in the XVIII c. Hetmanate rendered the two G sounds in Russian, the common Ukrainian fricative vs. the rare plosive. I was told to ask Michael Moser in Vienna, but perhaps anyone on the Hat Universe knows?

  9. David Marjanović says:

    presumably as part of some sort of anti-loanword campaign

    Perhaps, but they were much less zealous on that front than one would expect. They even banned societies that had such goals and wouldn’t have let the Nazis keep their Propagandaministerium* or indeed Nationalsozialismus

    * Short for Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda. There’s “enlightenment of the people” in there.

    my unsolved Ukrainian Slavistics problem

    It looks like ґ was already an option:

    “In early Belarusian and Ukrainian orthographies, Latin ‹g› or the Cyrillic digraph ‹кг› (kh) were sometimes used for the sound of Latin ‹g› in assimilated words. The first text to consequently employ the letter ‹ґ› was the 16th-century Peresopnytsia Gospel. The use of the letter was not confined to the Old- and Middle-Ukrainian-speaking territory, and there was a fully-fledged use in the 16th-century printer Pyotr Mstislavets’s edition of The Four Gospels. Later, distinguishing of the sound and using the digraph gradually disappeared from Belarusian orthography.”


    Actually, did that go through Bulgarian or something? Otherwise I’d expect ы for the Romanian î/â, not и.

  10. John Cowan says:

    In Ukrainian, и is how you write the nasty Asiatic vowel /ɨ/, with good old і representing /i/ and ы not used at all. In Belarusian, on the other hand, /i/ is і and /ɨ/ is ы and и goes unused, and in modern Russian of course и is /i/ and ы is /ɨ/ and і goes unused. There is a symmetry about all this that is either very pleasing or very suspicious.

    (Of course the fact that the Ukrainian /ɨ/ phoneme is pronounced more like [ɪ], as in Polish, somewhat spoils the symmetry.)

  11. David Marjanović says:

    In Ukrainian, и is how you write

    Sure, but I thought the spelling is Russian?

    as in Polish

    The Polish one is different again, probably [ɘ] by default, sometimes very hard to distinguish from [ɛ].

  12. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Latin ‹g› or the Cyrillic digraph ‹кг› (kh) were sometimes used for the sound of Latin ‹g› in assimilated words
    Yes, they propose ghe-hooked aka “with upturn” ґ in the last paragraph of this 1600s manual already, albeit specifically just for Greek borrowings

    The details of my case are more complicated, however. There, the language is Russian, but scribal school, Ukrainian, and the scribe uses Latin” g” for a rare variety of g-sound which appears in proper names of Russian (rather than Ukrainian, or Latin, or Greek) origin. It’s encouraging to learn that earlier on, Latin “g” played a very similar role, but I can’t make a clear conclusion yet. After Petrine reforms of the Cyrillic longhand, none of the earlier conventions were guaranteed to remain in place…

  13. Continuing in a separate message for fear of double-link-dooming it 🙂

    The Russian version of the same wikipedia page on ghe-hooked aka “with upturn” ґ is a bit more detailed

    It explains that the 1619 proposal to use it for Greek borrowings ( Ґ, Ф, Ѯ, Ѱ, Ѳ от греческих согласных, греческих деля и некоих еврейских и латинских речений взаимствована суть ) didn’t extend to use in civil documents until XIX c. in the Austro-Hungarian Ukrainian, and even then still competed with the use of Latin “g” to represent the rare plosive g. So we are getting a bit closer to my late XVIII c. riddle. But not there yet.

  14. John Cowan says:

    Sure, but I thought the spelling is Russian?

    I don’t actually know this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some words are borrowed in writing and re-pronounced rather than respelled, more or less the way English borrows other people’s words as they are spelled and then mangles the pronunciation.

  15. Continuing in a separate message for fear of double-link-dooming it

    As I mentioned in another thread, Songdog has raised the limit to five links. Here’s hoping it works!

  16. Dmitry Pruss says:

    BTW I did get an answer about “Latin g” from Michael Moser. I wrote,

    “I ask for your help in a question of historical phonetics and spelling rules in the 1700s Hetmanate areas of the Left Bank. In the ostensibly Russian-language official documents of the era, I see two shapes of longhand letter “g”, a common one resembling a contemporary Cyrillic “g” and a very rare other, resembling a Latin “g” (as in the name “Sivoglaz / Sivoglazka”). I am tempted to assume that they correspond to fricative and plosive g’s – г and ґ (and that the word “glaz”, not being a normative Ukrainian for an eye, may have been voiced plosively?) … but did the scribes already make the distinction in the late 1700s? And would it be reasonable to believe that a traditional Cossack name (already attested in Hetman Mnohohrishny’s documents) may have been voiced in a “Muscovite” way? ”

    and the reply came,

    “Ukrainians used to differentiate „h“ from g at an earlier stage in various ways – this was one of them.

    This name is indeed interesting – yes, the g may have been used to render g in the Russian morpheme that is part of the name.”

  17. Very interesting, thanks for sharing it!

  18. The British miniseries “A Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories” (available on Netflix), based on the Bulgakov stories, has a character called “the Feldsher” as if it were an English word.

  19. In Ukrainian, и is how you write

    Sure, but I thought the spelling is Russian?
    I assume the reason is that “кы / ky”, “гы / gy” are impossible in native Russian words? Nowadays, you’ll find these sequences in toponyms and other names loaned from languages written in their own Cyrillic orthographies where these sequences are admissible, but in a loan that seems to be more than two centuries old, it’s most probable that /ki/, /gi/ were substituted for inadmissible /kɨ/ /gɨ/.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    I assume the reason is that “кы / ky”, “гы / gy” are impossible in native Russian words?

    Stupid me. That’s the obvious explanation.

    Dramatic, much more recent example: Киргизия.

  21. much more recent example: Киргизия.

    Probably less recent. The first (unsuccessful) Kirgiz petition of joining Russia dated back to 1594, under Czar Fedor, Ivan the Terrible’s heir (These Kirgiz were what we call Kazakhs today, but Russia-allied Nogai knew them as Kirghiz). By the 1730s, Russian Tatar General Tevkelev wrote the first treatise on history and geography of the Kirgiz (largely Kazakhs as we know them now, too, who harassed the Bashkirs subordinated to Gen. Tevkelev). By the late 1790s, Khan Bukey’s Kirgiz Horde has become the first successful petitioners for the Russian rule, moving to the lands to the East of lower Volga river which were vacated by the Kalmyk on their disastrous trek to the ancestral homelands

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