SONICA.

Having finished Veltman’s Кощей бессмертный [Koshchei the Immortal], about which I’ll be posting shortly, I’m rereading Pushkin’s great story Пиковая дама (“The Queen of Spades“). Every time I read it I find things I’d overlooked before, and this time it’s a strange international word of the day that’s been utterly forgotten. It occurs twice within a few paragraphs at the end of the first section. Tomsky is describing to his fascinated fellow gamblers how his grandmother, as a young beauty in Paris sixty years before (thus presumably around 1770), had managed to win the huge sum she needed to pay back her gambling debts; the Count of St. Germain shared a secret from his fund of occult knowledge, and she went off to Versailles to gamble: “Она выбрала три карты, поставила их одну за другою: все три выиграли ей соника, и бабушка отыгралась совершенно.” [She chose three cards and played them one after the other: all three won sonika, and my grandmother won back everything she had lost.] Later she took pity on a young wastrel named Chaplitsky and shared the secret with him: “Чаплицкий поставил на первую карту пятьдесят тысяч и выиграл соника; загнул пароли, пароли-пе, — отыгрался и остался еще в выигрыше…” [Chaplitsky staked fifty thousand rubles on the first card and won sonika; he doubled the stake, doubled it again, — he won back what he had lost and more…] The notes to my edition explained that sonika meant ‘at once,’ but of course I wanted to know more about the word. It turns out it is, or was, an English word as well; the OED has it under sonica, with just two citations, one given (incorrectly, in my view) as a noun (“In the game of basset, a card having an immediate effect on the game”: 1716 Pope Basset-table 51 The Knave won Sonica, which I had chose) and one as an adverb (“Promptly, at once”: 1748 Ld. Chesterfield Let. 3 May [modernized text] III. 1143 My prophecy, as you observe, was fulfilled sonica). Etymology: “French, of obscure origin.”
So I turned to my French dictionaries, coming up empty (not even the Académie Française had it) except for Littré:

sonica
(so-ni-ka) adv.
1 Terme de jeu de la bassette. Se dit d’une carte qui vient en gain ou en perte le plus tôt qu’elle puisse venir.
2 Fig. À point nommé, justement, précisément. “En étrennes, sonica, Votre bonté coutumière Me fait présent de moka Pour toute l’année entière”, [Chanson de Piron à Mme Geoffrin, dans GRIMM, Corresp. t. I, p. 382] “L’avis que cette résolution sera mise à exécution sonica, si l’on ne reçoit bien vite une réponse satisfaisante à la lettre….” [Rousseau, 2e dial.] “L’aventure de Merlin m’abat l’esprit, au point que je n’ai ni la force de vous répondre sonica sur les projets pour rattraper mon argent, ni celle de rien composer”, [Galiani, Corresp. 7 juill. 1770]
ÉTYMOLOGIE Origine inconnue.

In Russian, aside from the Pushkin story, it occurs only three times, according to the Corpus of the Russian Language: in Zhikharev (1806-1809), Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (1835-1836), and Saltykov-Shchedrin (1857-1865). [But there are many more citations in Исторический словарь галлицизмов русского языка.] It came from who knows where, was used for a few decades in chic card-playing circles across the Continent, and then vanished again. Thank goodness for unabridged dictionaries!

Comments

  1. “Koshchei the Deathless” is the traditional translation, or at least it’s what James Branch Cabell used.

  2. Is it clear whether it originally meant the card, and was extended as an adverb, or really meant that the effect was immediate?
    Nabokov has several pages in his Eugene Onegin commentary volume trying to explain стос / банк, which naturally he claims all other translators didn’t understand.
    Unsurprisingly, it also occurs in Lermontov’s Штосс.

  3. Since basset originated in Venice, I wonder if sonica was originally a colloquial Venetian word–see the entry for the word in this glossary, for example. Perhaps it originally referred to the hubbub or collective groan that rose from the table after the appearance of the sonica? Unfortunately, I do not have fortitude or knowledge of the game sufficient to pursue this line of investigation.

  4. O goodness, I did not even suspect it was an adverb. I thought соник was a noun so “all three won her a sonik” meant she won a sum of money in each of the three rounds. Many thanks for this.

  5. What Alexei said, it felt like a Genitive of an unknown noun. Today the noun sounds like the name of a certain Hedgehog, and it makes me think that there just might be a relation. “Happening with the speed of sound” 😉 ?

  6. The word is alive in Swedish, in fact, in the opaque expression ‘helt sonika’ which means something like ‘in an unexpected but simple way’.
    Swedish dictionaries at hand agree on its origin as a term (of unknown origin, through French and German) for a card that wins at bassett or farao at the moment it is played. The game of basset described in Wikipedia doesn’t seem to feature such cards, however.

  7. On page 395 of this edition of Goldoni’s La bancarotta, the term la sonica occurs alongside the card name la fazza (which I presume is the card in basset called fasse in French and English).

  8. Ah, I’ve found it in the Исторический словарь галлицизмов русского языка [Historical dictionary of Russian gallicisms]:

    соника
    I.
    ОНИК, С ОНИКА, СОНИКА нескл. sonica adj. устар. 1. Сразу, с первой вскрыши карты. Выиграть соника или с оника. Осердясь еще более на свое несчастие, поставил он меня на карту в половинной цене и проиграл с оника. 1769. Новиков Сатир. письма. // Н. 1983 72. А в третьем из гостей тут некто банк метал, В четвертом весь его я с оника сорвал. 1790. Страхов Сатир. вестник. // Друг честн. людей 301.
    2. устар., перен. Сразу же, немедленно. И тут же, что называется с оника, дал ему сто рублей серебром. Вельтман Саломея. Не успел купец попечаловаться, что он не имеет человека для перепечатывания в Сибири “Колокола”, как ему сейчас же с оника был предложен для этого человек, способный и готовый положить свою голову и душу за демократическую Россию. 1871. Лесков Загадочный человек. // 8 14.
    II.
    СОНИКА нареч. sonica. 1. устар. В азартных карточных играх – с первой ставки, с первого раза (выиграть или проиграть). БАС-1.[ Хватайко :] Нет, дама не везет, Так атанде, авось мне вывезет валет. Тьфу пропасть! Соника, и это вон из кона. 1796. Капнист Ябеда. – Пассек, пользуйся, ставь на тройку три тысячи, она тебе выиграет соника .. что и случилось. Пыляев Старое житье. || Карта, поставленная в сем случае. Даль.
    2. Сразу, тотчас. БАС-1. Рушковский sonica согласился на мою просьбу. 1821. А. Я. Булгаков Письма. // РА 1901 1 308. – Получили ? – с-онику спросил он, с многозначительным и торжествующим видом. Крест. Вне закона. // 7 652. Ему в сониках же ответили в .. статье журнала. Н. Макаров Путеш. – Норм. c Я, как, вероятно, и многие другие, не подозревал существования французского выражения sonica и был наклонен производить это слово от “оника”, нуля; к сожалению, origine inconnue словаря Литре останавливает нас менее чем на полдороге. А. Кирпичников “Ходячие и меткие слова” Михельсона. // БИШ. – Лекс. Ян. 1806: соника; САН 1847: со/ника; БАС-1: со/ника.

    That Kirpichnikov quote explains the number of citations spelling it “с оника” [‘from onik‘]: “I, doubtless like many others, had no idea there was a French word sonica and was inclined to derive the word from оник [onik] ‘zero’; unfortunately, Littré’s ‘origine inconnue’ leaves us with a long way to go.” The many citations also show that the Corpus of the Russian Language isn’t nearly as comprehensive as I had thought.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Eighteenth century literary works, in French or English, make many references to gambling. There are many gambling terms that I would recognize if I read them (even without understanding them), but sonica is new to me. The form, ending in “a”, precludes a French origin. Italian, perhaps Venetian as suggested above, is much more likely.

  10. There are other French definitions here (including ones from the Académie dictionaries going back to 1762), but still no hints as to the origin.
    If the Venetian theory is correct, perhaps it originated as a phrase? According to this Venetian dictionary, so, with different accents, can mean the same as Italian “suo”, “io sono”, “io so”, and “su”.

  11. Thanks for that great Dictionnaires d’autrefois link; I’ve added it to the sidebar.

  12. Etienne says:

    Stephen Bruce: Your first guess is all the more plausible if we remember that Venetian “so”, unlike Italian “suo”, does not inflect for gender, so that SONICA might indeed be “so nica”. A noun “nica” I would assume to be feminine, but I have found no such noun in any source on Venetian.

  13. Probably a coincidence, but NIKA (nee-kah) is the Dorian dialect version of Greek NIKE (nee-kay) = ‘victory’. At least it was in ancient Greek – I don’t know anything about Greek of the era in question, or how hospitable Italian gaming language would have been to Greek bits.

  14. You may have it there: “Nika!” of course is also the imperative “Win/Conquer!” in Koine, as in the famous Nika riots of Constantinople, which started out as chariot hooliganism and ended up burning down much of the City. Venice of course was under Byzantine rule for centuries, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if it picked up some Greek borrowings.

  15. Venice of course was under Byzantine rule for centuries
    Was it? There wasn’t really a Venice until the late sixth century, and in 726 they murdered the Exarch and started electing their own leaders. They may have nominally been part of the Empire, but I don’t know if they were actually controlled by Constantinople for any extended period of time. Not that that affects your point, of course.

  16. Étienne says:

    Michael Hendry, John Cowan: if SO in SONICA is a possessive we would expect a noun to follow, not a verb. Now, the Byzantinian noun was probably realized /niki/: -/i/ being the most common feminine ending, I could all too easily see a Greek-Romance bilingual morphologically adapting /niki/ into /nika/. SONICA = His victory/His win. Hmm. It seems to fit the meaning more or less. But this etymology is just an educated guess.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    they murdered the Exarch

    …And then he was an ex-exarch.
    Pining for the fjords, having had enough of the lagoon.

  18. Straining for the straits.

  19. The Venetian Republic lasted through the Eighteenth Century until eliminated by Napoleon in 1797, and I believe still possessed pieces of its old empire in Greece. There were Greeks living in Venice.

  20. While making my supper, I realized I may have gone out on a limb with my last statement. It would suffice that the term were created by a Venetian who had lived in Greece.

  21. Another victim. I’ve just looked at my copy of Пиковая дама from college and I have ‘cash’ pencilled in above соника.

  22. The word has not entirely disappeared from modern Russian. Except it’s often spelled with two n-s – сонник, perhaps influenced by сонник – ‘dream-teller’, a book (or site) explaining the meaning of one’s dreams. Akunin has the game explained and played in The Winter Queen (Азазель in Russian) and a few other authors and gaming sites describe it. I can’t find my English copy of Akunin’s novel to check how it was translated.

  23. Derek Davis says:

    Fascinating discussion. Sonica is well understood. But its etymology has remained obscure.

    Much of the Basset terminology (carried forward to successor games) is Venetian, as Patrick says. Some of it was rather loosely taken up elsewhere. His Truffaldino “know it all” quote from Goldoni’s “Bankruptcy” is particularly informative – el piu (became paix), el paroli (paroli), el sette al levar (“raise 7” garbled into sept-et-le-va “7+stake”), la segonda (?), la fazza (fasse, Russian lob, the first card of the first “pull” or prokidka winning for the bank), la sonica (second card winning for the punter), el ponto in marea (ebb-tide = ?).

    Patrick has probably solved etymology for you. His attached Boerio Dictionary of Venetian Dialect links sonica and solfa, both in the dialect sense he points to: uproar, hubbub. A Venetian solfare, it says, is an impetuous or hot-tempered fellow. Sonica then emerges, quite literally and naturally, as the “sensation” of first opportunity win.

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