KNIGOCHEI.

I just finished the Strugatsky brothers’ 1964 Трудно быть богом (translated as Hard to be a God), and enjoyed it as much as I did Escape Attempt (see this post). One of the pleasures of this novel set on a distant planet still mired in blood-soaked feudalism is the use of archaic vocabulary, of which my favorite word was книгочей [knigochéi] ‘book-lover, bookish person’; my pleasure was increased when I looked it up in Vasmer (the standard Russian etymological dictionary) and found “др.-русск., ст.-слав. кънигъчии (γραμματεύς; Супр.; Черноризец Храбр). Заимств. из тюркск.; ср. вост.-булг., др.-тюрк. *küinigči от *küinig (см. книга).” In other words, it’s borrowed from Turkic, with the characteristic -či ending for a person having something to do with the noun the suffix is attached to (compare Saatchi ‘watchmaker’ and Khashoggi from kaşıkçı ‘maker or seller of spoons’). And if you look up книга [kniga] ‘book’ you get “Праслав. *kъniga, судя по книгоче́й (см.), нужно возводить через др.-тюрк. *küinig, волжско-болг., дунайско-болг. *küiniv (уйг. kuin, kuinbitig) к кит. k̔üеn «свиток»,” taking the Turkic word back to Chinese; Vasmer goes on to cast doubt on an alternative etymology deriving it from Akkadian kunukku ‘seal’ given the lack of an intermediate geographical link, not to mention problems of form and meaning. Etymological arguments are my idea of a good time.

Comments

  1. Dear Author, if etymological arguments are your idea of a good time, please bear in mind that Vasmer was a foreigner who composed that etymological dictionary of his for the Russian language. This dictionary, although considered the standard etymological dictionary, is very far from perfect. i.e., in most cases Vasmer derived Russian words from similar foreign words he knew, so the dictionary looks quite impressive. I personally don’t trust it though. Happy New Year!

  2. I concur. A perfect etymological dictionary of Russian would only derive Russian words from other Russian words. For example, in grade school I was taught that спортсмен comes from спорт + смена, and it’s clearly a much better etymology than the alternative.

  3. This is a смена. The etymology makes sense, because athletes are rather photogenic as a rule.

  4. I recently read a claim that one of the attractions of opera for clean-living citizen used to be that only here did one get to see semi-naked people. In modern times, sports are the opera of the people. You don’t even have to wear your diamonds and furs while watching.

  5. Dammit, I meant ballet, not opera. I never indulge so I forget that they are not the same.

  6. What could küеn «свиток» refer to? 卷 juan4?

  7. It must be so.

  8. the characteristic -či ending for a person having something to do with the noun the suffix is attached to
    Would this be the same as the modern productive -ч suffix in Mongolian. E.g., зураач painter, орчоологч translator, худалдагч salesperson, etc.

  9. marc – Yes, of course, 卷. Küеn is simply the older (Wade-Giles) transcription for what the Hanyu Pinyin has juan. (And the consonant certainly sounded more like “k” than like “j” even 400 days ago, in the days of Matteo Ricci).

  10. There are two etymologies here – book and the mysterious ending -chei.
    Vasmer’s interpretation of -chei is surprising. I’d think the more convincing route would be to look at the verbal forms and semantics of читать – to read, which is related to -честь- – honour, homage, respect, looking after and counting (прочесть – to have read, счесть – to count up). Четьи (Минеи)-Chet’yi minehyi were books for reading.
    Thus -chei in knigochei would be simply someone who reads books, loves books and looks after them, a contraction of книгочтей.
    This semantics fits in with another example cited by Vasmer – казначей-kaznachei-treasurer, i.e. someone who ‘reads’ money, looks after it, counts it.

  11. I’d think the more convincing route would be to look at the verbal forms and semantics of читать – to read
    I was surprised too, and I also always thought that it stood for book-reader, but the parallel with казначей is actually quite convincing because the Turkic origin of казна (and its keeper) is glaringly obvious.
    So the Jewish surname Knizhnik / Kniznick may be of Chinese origin? Wow.
    Happy New Year everybody and may we all enjoy more amazing discoveries @ languagehat!

  12. I was taught that спортсмен comes from спорт + смена
    So was I… And the teacher grew very angry when asked what, then, one should make of the word “яхтсмен” (yachtsman).

  13. Vasmer was born in Russia in a German family; it’s not clear what language(s) he spoke at home, but in any case, he’s definitely not a foreigner. (But even if he were…)
    Interesting about the -chei ending as “honoring, caring” about something. However, I can’t think of any other words that end in it, other than kaznachei.

  14. Interesting about the -chei ending as “honoring, caring” about something. However, I can’t think of any other words that end in it, other than kaznachei.
    That’s Sashura’s invention, actually. Kaznachei is also straight from Turkish (cf. Kipchak kaznacy).

  15. And of course the argument that Vasmer couldn’t be a good etymologist because he wasn’t a real Russian (how could he be with a name like that, even if he was born in St. Petersburg and graduated from St. Petersburg University?) is the worst kind of mindless nationalism.

  16. is the worst kind of mindless nationalism.
    Is!
    totally agree, though didn’t want to get into this, because I’ve long appreciated the atmosphere of respect to varied and conflicting opinions here. ‘I detest what you write, but I would give my life to defend your right to continue to write’.

  17. 1-The only book by the Strugatsky brothers I have ever read, ROADSIDE PICNIC, is quite possibly the best first contact science-fiction story I know of, so if anyone is looking for something else of theirs to read, well, that’s my recommendation.
    2-On etymology: Romanian has a suffix -CI (same meaning: a person having something to do with the noun the suffix is attached to), which is claimed to derive from Ottoman Turkish, but in light of the discussion above, along with the tendency many Romanian scholars have of understating/minimizing Slavic influence, I wonder whether Romanian didn’t receive its suffix through East Slavic.

  18. My mother’s father Woldemar Schulz, as I’ve mentioned before, was an ethnic German from Russia; I think his family had been there since Catherine the Great’s time. A full bilingual, he emigrated to Germany in 1911, thus becoming an outsider in two countries instead of one. After the war (which he spent as a translator on the Eastern Front) and the death of his wife, he moved to America, and sent for my mother in 1931.
    I’m named after him: John Woldemar Cowan [djɑn ˈvoʊldɘmɑɹ ˈkaʊən].

  19. ROADSIDE PICNIC
    and Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based on that novel.

  20. I can’t think of any other words that end in it, other than kaznachei.
    What do you make of the very Russian ручей? (ruchei=stream, brook, creek). Again Vasmer rejects what comes to mind first – rukav – sleeve. (cf. French La Manche – sleeve and the Channel)
    Mab, if you don’t know poiskslov.com, I’d recommend it for finding words with same, similar morphems or letter sequences. The *chei search gives very few, but one, чикичей – chikichei, a Transbaikal dialect for a small, donkey-like horse, points to Mongol chigitai.
    Which may suggest a -tei ending, also not very productive and also possibly of Turkic origin (tyubetei=Asian sculcap). But -tei has one word similar to knigochei – gramotei, someone good at grammar, reading and writing, also with a slight ironic colouring.

  21. That’s Sashura’s invention – the birth of a New Theory.

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