The latest New Yorker has a story by Lara Vapnyar; when I saw the name I guessed it was Indian, but it turns out to be Russian—or to be more accurate, from one of the many nationalities that were bundled into the USSR. My question is, which one? The name is not in any of my reference works, even Unbegaun’s magnificent Russian Surnames, and its indecipherability is eating away at my composure. Is it Udmurt? Bashkir? Some remote Caucasian nationality? Google has failed me, but I have confidence in my readership.


  1. Jewish? Transliterated form of the Yiddish Wappner or Wapnier? Or maybe Volga German?

  2. Lara’s surname reminds me of a Ukrainian town Vapnyarka (railway junction near Vinnitsa), though I don’t know the etymology.

  3. I have no clue.
    But I have a name question that someone asked me about: what nationality is the last name Rodri from? I was guessing it was a shortened version of a longer name.

  4. Well, you could just ask the New Yorker for her email address and ask her nicely if she might divulge it to you.

  5. Cryptic Ned says:

    “Rhodri” was an ancient Welsh king. That’s probably where Rodri comes from.

  6. It probaly came from one of the Asian former Soviet republics.

  7. Thanks, Cryptic, but when I looked at the site, I noticed that it was the king’s first name. And I found another site that explained that Rodri is a nickname (first name) in Argentina.
    Oh well, I was trying to help someone out, but I guess he won’t be able to get his answer.

  8. Sigivald: I thought of that, but I’m a lazy man, so I’m trying this first.
    SBD: I dunno — that’s certainly a possibility, but most of those languages are Turkic, and it just doesn’t sound particularly Turkic. Or anything else. I can generally identify surnames pretty accurately, but I’m stumped.

  9. LH, you’ve got your answer – h.giraffe is certainly right about Vapnyarka. It’s a small schtetl near Tul’chin (where my grandfather came from),in Ukraine. Vapnyar means painter (as in construction, not art); specifically, someone who paints walls white (with lime) – in Ukrainian.
    Ethnicity of the person with last name Vapnyar may be Ukrainian as well as Jewish.

  10. Thank you! Tatyana wins the coveted Commenter of the Week award.

  11. Michael Farris says:

    After Tatyana’s useful comment, I can see the relation to Polish wapniarz (I don’t know if it’s a real word, it would mean someone working with quicklime – wapn’).
    Had it been spelled Vapniar or Vapnjar I might have noticed it earlier …

  12. Thank you, LH (is my award drinkable?)
    Michael, I think the direction of borrowing is actually from Polish to Ukrainian, through – who else?- Jews travelling within Pale.
    The theory is open to critisism, of course.

  13. The Wapniak musical comedy “The Plasterer on the Roof”, alas, went nowhere.

  14. Nice tunes, though!
    “If I had some quicklime… diga diga diga diga diga diga diga dig…”

  15. Zizka,
    and it’s not surprising – how can you lure working-class public to the show where plasterer (not painter, as in wapniarz), goes to the roof for some inconcievable reason? What TH for? ask our unimaginative audience – and rightly so. I’m not paying that lazy bastard for his “roof” breaks away from my walls!
    OT: as I recall, you expressed interested in archeology some time ago. Here’s a toy for you.

  16. My name is Wapniarz says:

    This is Jewish name.

  17. Wapniak, Biotch! says:

    My name is Wapniak. Although originally from Poland, I don’t speak a word of it. OK, well… maybe a word. I was told Vapnyar means Limestone… but it could very well have what to do with Tatyana’s description.

  18. Marya Tilles says:

    I have just discovered that the original name of my ancestors was Wapniarz from Rosanji, Lomza, Poland. One branch went to the States and became Warner, the other branch came to the UK and became Rozainsky.
    Any connections with anyone?

  19. Sorry to be late to this party, but I think I can shed a little more light on the subject. My family name is Vapnek; my father Anglicized it when he arrived in this country from a small village in Poland at age 13. He had at least one cousin in the U.S. whose name was Wapnick. I always understood that the name meant mortar or slaked lime (whitewash), so the equivalent name Painter (of houses) seems correct. I was contacted a few years ago by a gentleman whose family name is Wapniak, and who may be related to me via my grandfather’s brother. The Wapniaks are also from Poland. The name is Slavic, thus the variations such as Vapnyar in Russian. In the Czech language vapno is the word for calcium, which explains, I think, the connection to slaked lime as used for whitewash.

  20. Just recently encountered the town of Vapnyarka btw – in the Odessa underworld 1920s classic as sung by Odessa’s famed Jewish son, Leonid Utesov in an inimitable Yiddish-infused slang

    Right in the first stanza, the escapees from Odessa slammer hide away at the malina safe-house at Vapnyarka. Curiously, Utesov skips the whole second verse about the wounded veteran of Ukraine’s civil war, it must have been a no-go in the 1930s.

    Happy Thanksgiving all!

  21. Thanks for the song and the good wishes — we had a fabulous turkey dinner, with half a dozen different kinds of pie!

  22. Rodri may have been picked up by Argentines from the Patagonian Welsh.

    St. Wapniacl (not a saint).

  23. Also see “гробы повапленные” = “whitewashed tombs” in Matthew 23:27 (OCS in a Russian transcription). The Slavic root jumps out at you at once. (“Гроб” apparently refers to a tomb in OCS, not a coffin as in modern Russian.)

  24. David Marjanović says:

    German Grab, “grave”.

  25. Vasmer: Old Russian вапь f. ‘coloring, paint, dye,’ вапьно ‘quicklime,’ cf. Ukr. and Belor. ва́пно, SCr. ва́пно, Cz. and Slov. vápno, Pol. wapno, related to Old Pruss. woapis ‘coloring, paint, dye,’ Latv. vãpe ‘glaze.’

  26. marie-lucie says:

    whitewashed tombs, perhaps graves  ?

    This brings to my mind the French phrase sépulchres blanchis either in a poem or a Bible verse. If I thought about this phrase at all I interpreted it as whitened by time, but ‘whitewashed’ might be a better translation. Why would these funerary monuments (sarcophagi ?) have been whitewashed? Inside or outside?

  27. “Whited sepulchres” is the traditional phrase in English, from the King James Bible, meaning something or someone that looks good on the outside but is rotten inside, Other translations use “whitewashed tombs” but it is in the wording of the KJV that the phrase is still used (to the extent that anyone still uses it).

  28. SFReader says:


    Everytime I see this word, I am reminded of classic quote:

    Sepulka, pl. sepulki, an important element of the civilization of Ardrites (see) from Enteropia planet (see). See sepulkaria.
    Sepulkaria, sg. sepulkarium, an object for sepulation (see).
    Sepulation, an occupation of Ardrites (see) from Enteropia planet (see). See sepulka.
    (Stanisław Lem, Dzienniki gwiazdowe)

  29. A spelling reformer indicted
    For fudge was before the court cicted.
    The judge said: “Enough –
    His candle we’ll snough,
    And his sepulchre shall not be whicted.

         —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary s.v. “Orthography”

    Fudge is ‘contemptible nonsense’, more often used as an interjection than a noun.

  30. Here is the relevant verse in Matthew 23:27 (KJV)

    27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you hatters!

  32. The New English Bible has the more immediately comprehensible “You are like tombs covered with whitewash; they look well from outside, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of filth.”

  33. Rodri is a jewish surname, look this newspaper

  34. Answered a dozen years later! Thanks, almona.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    Indicted reminds me of the maddening Dehnungs-C in names from northern Germany: Mecklenburg traditionally has /eː/, Buddenbrock has /oː/ (I don’t know if the variant with oo instead of oc exists in the wild or was made up for the novel), Gercke and Gehrke are just spelling variants…

  36. That is truly weird.

  37. The article on Dehnungszeichen also explains an old mystery (to me at least): why the surname Voigt is pronounced [foːd̥] or [fɔg̥d̥] in Danish.

  38. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @John Cowan:

    Rodri may have been picked up by Argentines from the Patagonian Welsh.

    The reality is less exciting, I fear. It’s a pretty straightforward clipping of Rodrigo.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Thanks for the link to the article. I had no idea that the i in all those -oi- names wasn’t real. That the Dehnungs-C is just left over from spurious doubling of random consonant letters is pretty much what I expected, though.

  40. @Lars: The section on Dehnungs-I doesn’t mention Scots, cf. the song “Richt Soir Opprest.”

  41. Maybe Scots wasn’t within the ambition of the German Wikipedia editors. And my German isn’t good enough to add it even if I had sources to support it 🙂

    Scurrilous tongues claim that it was Dutch printers invited by the Danish king who eked out their page count and thus payment through Letternhäufelung, causing, e.g., modern have /ha?/ to be spelt as haffue in old texts.

  42. Yiffe eeyue caann reead thhiss, eeyuue canne maecke bygge buckkess ynn pprynntyingge!

  43. David Marjanović says:

    pprynntyinggue, surely.

    When Otto Gericke discovered the vacuum and gave a most spectacular demonstration of it, he was rewarded by being ennobled and by being given the right to add a letter to his name. No doubt anticipating international fame, he opted for going French and became Otto von Guericke.

  44. Archaic Dutch spelling, still visible in surnames and a few placenames, seems to be characterized in great part by the use of redundant letters – ooCV instead of oCV, VVff instead of VVf, gh instead of g, uij instead of ui. I imagine some, like final sch, may have been rendered obsolete by sound changes, but I struggle to understand how most of them could have ever been needed.

  45. I’ve long had the impression that the Dutch in the Baroque period vied with one another in spelling their surnames in, well, baroque ways.

  46. Schillebeeckx [ˈsxɪləbeːks] is my favorite example: the c, the k, and the first half of the x all represent /k/, and the ck doesn’t even make the vowel short.

  47. Lucky that they don’t have that extra letter rule any more — where would Baron Merckx have put his?

  48. Merckxs!

  49. Of course!

  50. David Marjanović says:


    Another example of this fashion is the pointless th in German (16th century to 1901).

    While some cases of unorthographical ff make some sense in Upper German (e.g. Eichendorff), others don’t make any (Schwartzkopff – ppf would make a bit of sense, about as much as the tz in the same name in fact, but I haven’t encountered ppf anywhere except across morpheme boundaries).

  51. January First-of-May says:

    Another example of this fashion is the pointless th in German (16th century to 1901).

    Surviving, of course, in the word Neanderthal (though not in the original geographic term), and in the name of the coin “thaler” (Modern German Taler). Probably other examples too, but I can’t think of any immediately. (Yes, I know that the two examples I did give are related to each other.)

    On the name in the title, I also immediately thought of Vapnyarka – though I didn’t have any idea where the place of that name was, only that it existed, and had to google a bit to figure out where I heard it.
    It was from Lev Uspensky, “За языком до Киева” (Za yazykom do Kieva, literally something along the lines of “For language to Kiev” – it’s a reference to a Russian proverb), a book about etymology of place names, and the name is one of those explained:
    “Но даже в пределах СССР не все имена так легко раскрываются. Известно ли вам, что имя города ВАПНЯРКА означает «печь для обжигания извести» или даже маленький кустарный заводик? Да, да, та самая Вапнярка, что у Багрицкого:
    Как мы шли в ружейном громе,
    Так что небу жарко,
    Помнят Гайсин и Житомир,
    Балта и Вапнярка…”
    (The reference is to “Duma about Opanas” by Eduard Bagritsky. I’m not confident enough to translate the rest of the Russian explanation, but it basically said the name means “lime kiln”.)

    My favorite example of a hard-to-attribute last name is Karatsuba, the author of Karatsuba multiplication (the first known method for multiplication of large numbers that was asymtotically faster than classical long multiplication, something which was still considered probably impossible a week before the method was found). I was pretty sure it was Japanese when I first heard it (and apparently I’m not alone), but in fact it is not (spoiler: it’s actually Ukrainian).

  52. Surviving, of course, in the word Neanderthal (though not in the original geographic term)

    And I really hate it when people write and say “Neandertal” in English, as though a change in the orthography of the German place name somehow forces us to change the English language in response.

    it’s a reference to a Russian proverb

    Which one?

    I love the Karatsuba story, but what’s the etymology? (He was born in Grozny; could it be originally Chechen?)

  53. it’s a reference to a Russian proverb

    Which one?

    Язык до Киева доведет. (Literally: “The tongue will lead you to Kiev”. Meaning: if you ask nicely, you’ll get everywhere.)

  54. And I really hate it when people write and say “Neandertal” in English, as though a change in the orthography of the German place name somehow forces us to change the English language in response.
    German Wikipedia says that the Neanderthal museum (due to it being about the archeological finds) and the train station there still use the spelling with “th”, “as the German railways … don’t dare to change the name of the stop.” The replacement of “th” by “t” itself already happened in 1901, so it’s not that remarkable that this change has slowly seeped into English. 😉

  55. Not to mention that the use of ‘Neandertal’ is authentic to the (current) German only in a superficial way: that name refers to the valley where the species was found, not to the species itself. There’d be a stronger case for ‘Neandertaler’.

  56. The replacement of “th” by “t” itself already happened in 1901, so it’s not that remarkable that this change has slowly seeped into English.

    It may not be remarkable, but it’s stupid and irritating.

  57. as though a change in the orthography of the German place name somehow forces us to change the English language in response […] stupid and irritating.

    Well, perhaps. But in the end such changes seep in. It would no longer be appropriate to refer to Istanbul as Constantinople (while İstanbul would be a bridge too far) here in the United Formerly British Colonies in the Middle of North America.

    Karatsuba’s name may be Ukrainian for all I know, but he himself was an ethnic Russian.

  58. It would no longer be appropriate to refer to Istanbul as Constantinople (while İstanbul would be a bridge too far)

    Surely that is purely an ex post facto argument. If we had somewhere along the way started using Moskva instead of Moscow, you’d say “it would no longer be appropriate to refer to Moskva as Moscow,” which would boil down to “we no longer refer to Moskva as Moscow.”

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