The last chapter of Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being (see this post) includes a section titled “Evolving Sosloviia: The Hidden Stories of Ascription,” which begins:

In some ways, the most basic part of being a member of one of imperial Russia’s soslovie societies was having one’s name written down in the pages of a book. The act of listing names in a book or on a document had both evidentiary and symbolic importance. Ascription was the source of proof that an individual had certain rights and privileges.

This mildly confused me. Of course, having studied Latin with the redoubtable Brother Auger in high school, I knew that ascription was from Latin ad– ‘to’ + scrībere ‘to write’ and thus could theoretically mean ‘writing into/onto,’ but I’d never seen it used that way, only in the (originally metaphorical) sense of ‘attribution,’ and the dictionary (M-W, AHD) confirmed that that was its current meaning in English. The OED provided the interesting tidbit that it had once, in 1597, been used to mean “The action of adding in writing, subscription” (T. Morley Plaine & Easie Introd. Musicke Annot. sig. * All diminution is signified, a number sette to the signe, or else by asscription of the Canon), but that has no relevance to a 21st-century book; since the 17th century it has meant “The action of setting to the credit of; attribution of origin or authorship” or “The action of ascribing, attributing, imputing, or declaring that something belongs to a person or thing; concrete the declaration thus made.” So what was going on here? Alison Smith has a fine command of English and seemed unlikely to make a blatant error.

Then it occurred to me that it might be a Russian-translation thing. If you look up ascription in an English-Russian dictionary you get приписывание, which is formed exactly the same way as the Latin: prefix при- plus the root of писать ‘to write.’ But the Russian verb приписывать/приписать can also be used in the literal sense of ‘to add (to something written),’ and I suspect that if you spend a lot of time using Russian archives that sense will leak over into your use of the English sort-of-equivalent. In essence, it’s another example of the “echelon” problem.


  1. SFReader says

    I wonder why she doesn’t translate soslovie as cowordance

  2. What a bastard word! You’d have to go with “withwording” or D.O.’s “syllogism.”

  3. I think he’s got it wrong and there wasn’t any “set of books” into which everyone was written. Приписать is also “to assign to”, and the concept is often translated as “residential registry”. It is still used in Russian in this narrow sense of “registering to a locality”, but now only for merchant marine ships.

    The paper form of a pripiska registry wasn’t “a book” but typically a paper master file with numerous separate addenda, and sometimes, just a set of separate files for each specific family. Conversely, the families of merchants, artisans and townspeople often shared the same master file. After 1874, there were two forms of universal registry of Russian subjects, the class/estate based pripiska, and the more flexible draft registration, hewing closer to the actual places of residence.

    “Ascription” is said to have an appropriate meaning of “social class origins”, though?

  4. She’s a she, and I’m pretty sure she knows what she’s talking about. Here’s a description of such books, from shortly after the quote in the post:

    The books kept by the Moscow Artisan Society to record its members fulfill both these goals: to supply evidence and to symbolize importance or honor. The latter is accomplished most of all through sheer physical size; they are imposing volumes, their great size making even the very act of pulling the books off a shelf difficult, let alone moving them from self to desk. Then, when opened, they cover an entire reading desk. Even the motion required to turn the pages can barely be accomplished while sitting down, and not at all without exaggerated gestures. They seem meant above all to strike those consulting them by their grandeur and importance. For such impressive books, however, their contents are far more ordinary and geared toward the everyday sorts of evidence that might be required by imperial Russia’s system of sosloviia. They include a long numbered list of households ascribed to the society, with orderly columns to record names, ages, and other basic information about those households’ members.

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    Sounds like She then, maybe you can even fix my blunder. Moscow Artisans guilds must be a special case then.
    I saw 1820s-1850s Artisan master files in Khotin, Ovruch and Berdichev, where the list was shared with townsmen and/or merchants and not updated for a decade or more (new members were listed in addenda files). I also saw countless Additional Revisions which have exactly the same form as the master files, but much thinner, consisting of a cover, two-page listing of one family, a page for males and a page for females, and the closing page for witnesses. The most common reason for the Addenda wasn’t a change in social status, but the fact that the family has skipped registration X years earlier but suddenly needed a proof of registry, requested re-registration on the grounds that it has been missed earlier on, and paid a recording fee. Conversely, many master files have records indicating that the persons used to be a part of a society earlier on, but have gone missing in such and such year (many dead people are also on the rosters with a note that they died, while many younger children aren’t listed until many years later). The latter is understandable, who needs extra population on the tax rosters. Remember how Chichikov was buying up his Dead Souls who continued to burden the tax registers years after their death?

  6. Yeah, the importance of revisions and tax rosters is a major topic of the book.

  7. Dmitry Pruss says

    Towards the middle of XIX c., poll taxes themselves become a non-issue and then collection stops altogether, but military recruitment up until 1874 continues to be based on the tax rosters, and the fewer people are there vs. the reality, the better it is for the community.

    Additional Revisions were going on even as late as the 1890s, decades after the General Revision madness stopped. With a major flare-up in 1874-1875 when countless “missed community members” needed to legalize their status in light of the military conscription reform.

    Anyway my main point is that “one, separate, up-to-date book” was hardly ever the model followed by the institute of pripiska. It’s usually a motley collection of books and booklets, each sharing separate subclasses, and inevitably seriously outdated.

  8. John Cowan says

    There is also the adjective adscript, which is used in two senses: one referring to an silent lower-case iota in polytonic Greek writing when it is written after the vowel rather than under it (as happens in all-caps contexts); the other referring to a serf, who was adscript to the glebe < Latin adscriptus glebae, meaning that by a writing he or she was attached to the land and would be sold with it. Nowadays glebe refers only to the land attached to a church, but in serf days it could be any land.

  9. In Sweden it used to be church books where people where written. In everyday language people still say written (att vara skriven i en stad), instead of the longer mantalsskriven or folkbokförd. Nowadays it’s the tax office that keep the books, or rather computer files, and on their website they refer to folkbokförd and folkbokföring.
    Mantalsskriven – Population + written
    Folkbokförd – People + book + kept

    If you want to attribute something, it’s att tillskriva någon något. Not to be confused with att skriva till något.

    Thanks for the link about echelon, I’ve never known what it meant.

  10. Glad you found it useful!

  11. AJP Crown says

    I had a teacher in architecture school who used to echelon to mean ‘to zigzag’: “I like the echeloning,” of two pathways down a hillside, she said.

  12. “Type ascription” is a term of art in certain programming languages — very roughly, annotating expressions with a suitable type, e.g. annotating “Hello, World” with a tag saying it’s a string, or (2+3) with a tag saying it’s an integer.

    This seems at least as close to Smith’s soslovie sense as to the usual “attribution” sense — and so maybe suggests that extending “ascribe” to cover this sort of thing is a pretty easy step, even without the echelon effect to help it along.

  13. Very interesting, and yes, the extension seems plausible.

  14. Trond Engen says

    What she aims at by ascription isn’t just the act of being written into a register as a symbol of transition. In English recording, registration, enlisting, enrollment could easily carry that additional weight. Or she might have whatever is used in Luke 2 1? In Norwegian this is traditionally innskriving. I think she’s after the preposition. You’re enrolled ,in a certain register, but you’re ascribed to a class. As such it’s a deliberate use of s metaphor in it’s literal sense, a semantic retro-extension (retrotension?) from the purely metaphorical to the literal with mystical overtones.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Oh. I had written my comment on the plane and posted it when I got connection.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    “Ascription” is a notion found in the writings of sociologists at least since the 1930’s The WiPe article “ascriptive inequality” displays how easily it degrades under treatment by greetie-face social-engineering sociologists (that is, not Luhmann).

    # Ascription is one way sociologists explain why stratification occurs. #

    The article is poorly written, but hey, it’s but WiPe. Here’s an example:

    # Every day women go to work and on average earn 40 cents less than men because of their sex.[5] #

    I didn’t realize the gender pay gap has been narrowed to 40 cents a day !

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    We prefer to communicate with Our people through Rescripts.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    Papal rescripts ?

    # Every rescript pre-supposes the truth of the allegations found in the supplication. Intentional falsehood or concealment of truth (obreption and subreption) renders a rescript invalid, since no one should benefit through his own deceit. #

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Papal rescripts?

    Imperial. What do you think I am, deluded?

  20. Stu Clayton says

    In dotage dire
    We all succumb
    To furrowed brow
    And suckled thumb.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Hmph. You seem to be perilously close to lèse-majesté. It’s as well for you that my clemency is well-known.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    I note that the Wikipedia article on lèse-majesté links to the Streisand Effect, which seems fitting … on a number of levels.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    Clément, I was referring to myself, for having confused imperial and paypal. The link between l-m and Streusel will take some mulling, i’ll get back to you on that.

  24. SFReader says

    Mantalsskriven – Population + written

    What a wonderful word that is!

    Mantell would be the English cognate, I presume, with ‘tell’ in the meaning ‘to count, to reckon’ (as in “untold wealth”), so “mancount” – “population”

  25. Owlmirror says

    Mantell would be the English cognate,

    Not mantale, or mantally?

  26. All are good! I agree with SFReader, it’s a wonderful word.

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