I was trying to figure out the etymology of the name Kornakov in Doctor Zhivago; there was no word корнак [kornak] in my Russian-English dictionaries, but my 1908 Makaroff Dictionnaire russe-français had it, defined as “le cornac.” That didn’t help me, so I turned to a French-English dictionary, which defined cornac as ‘mahout, elephant driver.’ Oho! But mahout always seemed a funny-sounding word to me, and so is cornac, and where did they come from? Wikipedia tells all:

The word mahout derives from the Hindi words mahaut (महौत) and mahavat (महावत), and originally from the Sanskrit mahamatra (महामात्र).

Another term is cornac or kornak, which entered many European languages via Portuguese. This word derives ultimately from the Sanskrit term karināyaka, a compound of karin (elephant) and nayaka (leader). In Tamil, the word used is pahan, which means “elephant keeper”, and in Sinhalese kurawanayaka (“stable master”). In Malayalam the word used is paappaan.

In Burma, the profession is called oozie; in Thailand kwan-chang (ควาญช้าง); and in Vietnam quản tượng.

Those are all fine words, but oozie may be the best.


  1. minus273 says:

    The Thai word seems to be also composed from two Chinese roots, 管象 “administer-elephant”, like the Vietnamese quản tượng. I’m not sure though. Wiktionary says the “chang” for elephants is Chinese, but didn’t say anything about kwan, which means itself mahout in Thai.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:
  3. I also like syce.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Whether Thai “chang” for elephant is borrowed from (some ancestral version) of Mandarin hsiang/siang/xiang or whether instead some remote ancestor of Mandarin borrowed the word from some ancestor of Thai (or some other non-Sinitic language spoken in a more southerly part of Asia) is apparently an ongoing and unresolved debate amongst the learned.

  5. Is “oozie” actually from Burmese, or did English pick it up from some other source?

  6. minus273 says:

    I go for the “other” theory. A lot of words in Chinese and Kra-Dai work like this: they exist in both languages, but they don’t exist in other Sino-Tibetan languages (hmm… no reason to say “definitely Chinese”) nor in Austronesian or conservative Kra-Dai (hmm… no reason to say “definitely Tai”).

  7. I always thought “Carnac” was an Egyptian reference.

  8. The only Carnac I ever knew is a place in Brittany, and wondered why it should be used with an Eastern reference.

  9. cornac/karnak

    It’s kornak, not karnak, but you just did that to drag in the Magnificent (who I confess came to my mind as well).

  10. “I go for the “other” theory. A lot of words in Chinese and Kra-Dai work like this: they exist in both languages, but they don’t exist in other Sino-Tibetan languages (hmm… no reason to say “definitely Chinese”) nor in Austronesian or conservative Kra-Dai (hmm… no reason to say “definitely Tai”).”

    Can’t languages innovate? New words are being created in our own contemporary culture, all the time, and what’s telling is that these words aren’t necessarily cognates with existing vocabulary. For example, bling – the word is considered to be an ideophone, yet a linguist looking through a thousand years lens would hardly be able to see what the relationship between having bling and being ostentatious is. He or she would have to treat it as a word with no conceivable cognate, yet wouldn’t likely be able to figure out that it’s an ideophone, without detailed knowledge of our contemporary context. How many more words are there that fall into this category, or which have soft etymological logic that it’d be nearly impossible to connect them after a thousand years of semantic shift?

    I hope this thought exercise shows that innovation should always be considered a possibility for source of vocabulary. Just because proto-Austric or proto-Sino-Tibetan speakers didn’t have a word for elephant, doesn’t necessarily indicate they borrowed the word from a now extinct language in southern China. Rather, what it does indicate is that proto-Austric and proto-Sino-Tibetan speakers probably didn’t live in a region with elephants. But Sinitic and Tai speakers, did. Beyond that, and absent more evidence, it’s all a matter of imagination – specifically, whether it seems easier for you to imagine a lost language with a perfectly logical word for elephant, or a less than perfect etymology for elephant in the existing languages of the region, the logic of which has since been lost.

  11. I was told that bling means shiny, which immediately brought to mind a detergent commercial in which four-point stars sparkled on plates in a drying-rack accompanied by a ‘ting’ sound, which I’m sure other people would have heard as ‘bling’.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    In the Internet I find quite a few bling elephants for sale. They are recommended as Mother’s Day gifts.

  13. But the original surname you wanted … isn’t it from Cornelius? I checked WWII databases, which are quite good as a population name survey. It is present all across Russia but with a strong hotspot around Lake Baikal

  14. There used to be a Russian village of Kornakovka in northern Mongolia (close to Kyakhta, but on the Mongolian side of the border). It got its name from Kyakhta merchant Ivan Iakinfych Kornakov (1863 – 1921).

  15. SFReader says:

    Yul Brynner’s stepmother, talented Moscow actress Katya Kornakova (10.06.1895 – 15.08.1956), was the daughter of Ivan Iakinfych Kornakov, founder of Kornakovka village in Mongolia.

    Katya Kornakova was born in Kyakhta,spent her childhood in Mongolia, became famous Mkhat actress in Moscow, in 1920s emigrated with her husband Boris Brynner to Manchuria, died in 1956 in London.

    Korney Chukovsky wrote short poem about her in his Chukokkala handwritten almanac (discussed in some languagehat post)

    Kornakova, Katya Kornakova,
    Slyshu krik mongolskogo orla, –
    I letit iz luka iz tugogo
    Dikaya mongolskaya strela!

  16. But the original surname you wanted … isn’t it from Cornelius?

    Very possibly, but it’s not in Unbegaun (rather surprisingly), so we just have to guess.

  17. Is the name related to Kournikova? (My knowledge of Russian is zero).

  18. No, they’re quite different names (which might be clearer if she used the normal English transliteration Kurnikova instead of the French Kournikova). I don’t know the origin of Kurnikov, which isn’t in Unbegaun either; it might be related to chickens or smoking.

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    I find “it might be related to chickens or smoking” such a wonderful phrase I hereby propose it be included by default in all speculative discussions of words of hopelessly uncertain etymology.

  20. “Welcome aboard our flight! Chickens or smoking?”

  21. This dictionary says that the family name Kornakov derives from the first name Корнелий (Cornelius). It doesn’t list Kurnikov. But if you search for kurnik on that site, you’ll find it means (a) “henhouse” or (b) “a kind of pie made from chicken”. There’s also a town called Kurnik, but that’s in Western Poland (Poznan area), so it’s less likely as the source of the name.

  22. I was going to make a crass remark about Kournikova being a smokin’ hot chick but that would be totally beneath me and the tenor of this blog.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Dude. That would be like Coca Cola meaning “taste and enjoy” in China.

    (Which it does, after earlier attempts such as “bite the wax tadpole” were scrapped.)

  24. still another David says:

    “Oozie” is an excellent word for a mahout whose elephant has just stepped on him.

  25. I’m reminded of a similar name in Lvov:

  26. That odd-sounding name is actually Greek; the guy who had it built was Κωνσταντίνος Κορνιακτός.

  27. According to a footnote in the Wikipedia article on Konstanty Korniakt: “Other spellings of his surname include Corniaktos, Kornak, Korniak, Korniat, Korneadi, Korneades, Carneadi, Coretho, Carinacto.”

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