Bakan, lac.

I’m reading Boborykin’s best-known novel, the 1882 Китай-город [Kitay-gorod], which is full of detailed descriptions of the central part of Moscow (in those days sometimes simply called город ‘the City’) before the renovations that began in the late 1880s (and of course the massive destruction of Soviet times). In Book I ch. XXXI he’s portraying one of the minor characters, the somewhat feeble-minded Mitrosha, who is sorting the materials used in the family business: “марену, кубовую краску, буру, бакан, кошениль, скипидар, керосин” [madder, indigo paint, borax, crimson lake, cochineal, turpentine, kerosene]. A number of these words are interesting — марена ‘madder’ is from a term of unknown etymology which “terminally ousted the other Slavic word for madder, *broščь, by the end of the Early Modern Age,” and бура ‘borax’ is from Persian بورهbure (and an earlier term tincal has its own complex etymology) — but what I want to focus on is that word бакан (bakán, with final stress as opposed to the more common бакан ‘buoy’). Wiktionary gives no etymology, but elsewhere I found it’s from Ottoman Turkish بقم‎ bak(k)am, from Arabic بَقَّمbaqqam, which that Wiktionary entry says is “From Persian بکم‎ (bakam)”… but things appear to be more complicated (“I now see how this name بَقَّم‎ […] came to the Near East, though not when, and I will not be able to write out all forms and make out whether it came from Sanskrit into the Dravidian languages or originally from Dravidian or even from Austronesian”).

And the English word I used in the translation, lake, “a pigment of a reddish hue, originally obtained from lac,” is (per the OED) a “variant or alteration” of lac “a dark red resinous substance produced as a protective coating by certain scale insects”; that latter entry, happily, was revised in 2017 and provides this extensive and complicated etymology:

< (i) Anglo-Norman lac, lak, lacca and Middle French, French laque, †lacque natural lac (13th cent. in Old French as lache), coloured paint or varnish (mid 16th cent.), lacquerwork (1659 in the passage translated in quot. 1662 at sense 4),

and its etymon (ii) post-classical Latin lac (12th cent. in a British source), lacca (from 13th cent. in British and continental sources), both denoting natural lac,

< Arabic lakk lac, the dye produced from it, red ink, sealing wax < Persian lāk, lak lac, the dye produced from it, sealing wax < Prakrit lakkhā < Sanskrit lākshā lac, kind of red dye < raj- to become coloured, to become red (see raga n.).

Compare Old Occitan laca (13th cent.), Catalan laca (mid 13th cent.), Spanish laca (13th cent.), Portuguese laca, †lacca (1500), Italian lacca (a1400), and also (< Italian) Dutch lak (1573), German Lack (1506). Compare further the Romance forms cited at lacquer n.

Compare also post-classical Latin lacca (in an undated glossary), Hellenistic Greek λακχά, both denoting a plant used in dyeing (probably from Persian), and Hellenistic Greek λάκκος χρωματικός, denoting a kind of dye.

With the form lacta at αforms compare post-classical Latin lacta (1552 in the passage translated in quot. 1553 at sense 1α), Middle French lacta (15th cent. in Chauliac; compare quot. ?c1425 at sense 1α), all perhaps originally going back to a scribal error (with confusion of c and t), perhaps reinforced by association with classical Latin lact-, stem of lac milk (see lacto- comb. form).

A modern reflex of Sanskrit lākshā is Hindi lākh, which is now often associated with its unrelated homonym lākh one hundred thousand, many (see lakh n.), leading to a folk-etymological interpretation of the word for the dye as referring to the large number of the insects causing the substance to form.

I like the fact that they were generous enough to share the folk etymology even though it’s not an English one.


  1. Same ultimate etymon (with many of the same intermediate ones) as the less obscure “lacquer,” innit? Wikipedia claims that Portuguese had “lacre” as an “unexplained variant” of “lacca,” which was then borrowed into French whence it was borrowed in turn into English.

  2. Yeah, that’s an odd development too.

  3. The “large number of insects” origin is spread around in English sources, too, which may be why they called it out explicitly. It was in the Century Dictionary, so it was circulating by the 1890s, though not mentioned in Hobson-Jobson’s entry on lac. Wikipedia repeats it uncritically at lac, credulously citing sources on the history and chemistry of dyes, rather than etymologists or historical linguists. Etymonline cites the “large number” origin from Klein’s etymological dictionary (1966), while Barnhart (1988) says it’s from the Indo-European salmon word, because salmon are pink — though salmon don’t exist in India. See previous discussion starting here on whether lakh/lox/lac are really believably from the same source.

  4. Ah, that does explain it, and is very interesting (and depressing).

  5. I don’t like that “folk etymology” means both “eggcorn” and “bad guess etymology”. Part of the problem is that, like many Xology words, etymology means both “X in the wild” and “academic study of X”.

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m not sure I understand the distinction – isn’t an eggcorn just a bad guess etymology which is funny?

  7. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I wouldn’t say that, e.g., eggcorn is an attempt at an etymology of acorn–originally there are people who believe the word is actually the transparent compound eggcorn which means something quite non-compositional–but explained as derived from the compositional meaning.

    If anything, the eggcorn is a folk etymology of itself. I don’t think people generally believe that acorn was eggcorn back in the dream time and got changed to the current form.

  8. as opposed to the more common бакан ‘buoy’

    I did not know that it can be spelled with -a-. I think the alternation was possible when it retained the hard consonant.

  9. Yes, I was surprised by that too — for those who don’t know, the word for ‘buoy’ is usually бакен [báken], which bothers me because it makes me think of бакенбарда ‘sideburn.’

  10. And of course the related English word is “beacon”.

  11. Dmitry Pruss says

    First time for me to see or hear бАкан rather than бАкен., too K is palatalized in the latter, which is unmistakable.

  12. which bothers me because it makes me think of бакенбарда ‘sideburn.’

    Which reminds me of baingan bharta.

  13. First time for me to see or hear бАкан rather than бАкен

    Oddly, my Oxford dictionary uses it as the main entry, cross-referencing the -е- form to it; I’ve emended the text to reflect reality. But бакан really was used:

    Николай Дубов. Мальчик у моря (1966):
    — Постой! — морщится Иван Данилович. — Гудишь, как бакан в тумане… Это он и есть?

    Леонид Мартынов. Летающий сундук // «Уральский следопыт», 1935:
    А на реке — бакан. Весь куликами обгажен, а баканщику лень почистить.

    К. С. Петров-Водкин. Моя повесть. Часть 1. Хлыновск (1930):
    Крик в рупор: — Черти! Где, сволочи, бакан поставили?! И так, покуда не послышится с наметки: «табак», только после этого утешения заработает снова машина и двинется вперед пароход.

  14. The journal I edit recently published an essay that discusses lac and other Middle English recipes for red-dyed skins.

    Etymologically, we also see “The earliest of the [Greek recipes from Hellenistic Egypt], the Φυσικὰ καὶ μυστικά (Physika kai mystika, Natural and secret questions) of the pseudo- Democritus (ca. 100 CE), dealt mainly with imitating valuable materials: gold, silver, artificial gems, pearls, purple wool, and “the red dyeing of royal leathers.” Unfortunately, its recipes for red leather do not survive, although one does for dyeing wool with λακχά (lakcha).”

    See Mark Clarke, “Bazene, Cheverel, and Lasche: Middle English Recipes for Red Dyed Skins, Their European Parallels, and Alexandrian Precursors,” Viator 53:1 (2022).

  15. Thanks! Here’s a link to the article, for those who might have access; the abstract includes this:

    Lasche was defined by its red color. Technical and terminological parallels are identified with contemporary recipes from continental Europe. Techniques described in the recipes may be traced back to at least classical Alexandria; sources suggest red as the high-status color for leather since the first millennium BCE. Skins dyed red on only one side were particularly favored for book bindings, a preference also originating in Alexandria.

  16. @mollymooly: Part of the problem is that, like many Xology words, etymology means both “X in the wild” and “academic study of X”.

    Other than the “academic study of X”, I think there are two different shades of -ology: “X in the wild”, which would include psychology, and just a Greek compound referring to “speaking of something”, like doxology and ontology. Etymology is arguably both.

  17. Oddly, my Oxford dictionary uses it as the main entry, cross-referencing the -е- form to it

    Apparently баканъ was the only acceptable form before the Revolution; Google ngram simply can’t find the -e- (or -yat-) forms, and it’s also in the Imperial era dictionaries. After the revolution, it becomes the other way around. The -e-form leads Ngram. I haven’t checked the underlying book searches to see contexts, but making the two words plural (which would return beacons but not pigments) has very clear results:

  18. Very interesting! I wonder what caused the change….

  19. David Marjanović says

    бакенбарда ‘sideburn.’

    Ah, Backenbart or perhaps more likely a Dutch version thereof, with the feminine gender imported from French.

  20. I got the word “baken” from my gramps Karl Pruss who was a real речник (river boatman) in ~1949-1950 due to an accident of Stalinist persecution (they never say “sailor” about river boatmen in Russia). Karl was actually a talented watchmaking engineer whose career took numerous forced detours, like in 1941, when, having just designed a cutting-edge printing chronograph, he was ordered to supervise submachinegun mass-production in besieged Moscow, or in 1949, when was working on PhD Thesis on calibrating exact time by stars just when the Jewish students were ordered expelled (Karl proudly displayed a letter of commendation from a Brazilian admiral who used the technique to help map the Amazon). My guess is that chronograph-synching was the naval / merchant marine issue which earned Karl Pruss some accolades at home too, and that’s may be how he got a job with a river navigation company after his expulsion, calibrating and synching their devices during the navigation season and staying home in winter. Anyway, that’s my detour from the topic.
    I don’t have a good answer how “baken” became the dominant spelling, but I note that some dictionaries label “bakan” obsolete or dialectal, and that in the 1920s books, “bakan” is consigned to fiction, especially historical fiction, while “baken” is in the technical literature. So “bakan” must have been obsolete even then.
    Some sources split hairs, explaining that “baken” is a very specific type of a navigation aid (an anchored raft with a 2D triangular or rectangular sign mounted on it), while “bakan” is a 3D buoy, like a barrel.
    But then you read peeves how most people call most navigation signs bakens regardless of what they are in a narrow technical sense.

  21. David Marjanović says

    речник (river boatman)

    “Dictionary” in (most of) Serbian. 🙂

  22. Dmitry Pruss says

    “Dictionary” in (most of) Serbian

    with the first syllable stressed, right? From “речь”.
    The Russian word had the last syllable stressed.

    BTW “sailor” seems to be морнар in Serbian, someone associated with the seas, not rivers. Do you use the same word for the crews of Danube boats?

  23. BTW “sailor” seems to be морнар in Serbian, someone associated with the seas, not rivers. Do you use the same word for the crews of Danube boats?

    Good question! Yes in English I’d say ‘sailor’ usually suggests ‘seaman’. Or at least someone who regularly navigates at sea, even though they’re currently on a river/lake. ‘Mariner’, maybe. ‘(River/Canal) Boatman’ works fine. wiktionary allows ‘riverman’, but that’s someone who works at/around the river, possibly only on land in a boating-adjacent trade.

    There’s also ‘yachtsman’, which is more body-of-water-neutral, but you wouldn’t use that of a commercial/powered riverboat crew. I’ve heard ‘yachtswoman’; ‘seawoman’ sounds weird, ‘boatwoman’, ‘riverwoman’ is a thing according to wiktionary (not sure I’ve ever heard it). ‘lakeman’ isn’t a thing. ‘Mariner’ is gender-neutral.

  24. I just skimmed John McPhee’s essay “Tight-Assed River,” about traveling with the crew of a towboat that pushes strings of cargo barges up and down the Illinois River (a tributary of the Mississippi that is generally shallower and narrower and thus more challenging to navigate). He uses specific job titles for different members of the crew, like pilot and captain and mate and engineer and deckhand and cook, but mostly avoids any sort of generic term akin to “sailor” that would capture them collectively.

  25. @LH,

    bákan is consisten with the following route:
    – a Russian speaker who attempts to say báken with hard k (and thus produces something homophonic to bákan/bákon) – oral transmission to a Russian professional – writing down what this professional says.
    – a Dutch speaker with modern Dutch pronunciation /baːkə(n)/ – oral transmission to a Russian professional – writing down what this professional says.

    báken is consistent with learned borrowing (reflecting Dutch spellings). In such borrowings Russians often retain the hard consonant but write e. Then people begin to pronounce it as written, with a soft consonants.

  26. In and near the Chesapeake Bay, a “waterman” (which can also refer to other trades/pastimes in other varieties of English) is a man who makes his living out on the water (the water of the Bay classically, not the open ocean), by some combination of fishing, crabbing, oystering, etc. He needs to be able to operate a boat to get to and from his “workplace,” but the focus is not on that but on what he does while out on the water. I don’t think you’d describe the men who crew the ferries to and from the Bay’s inhabited islands that remain unconnected to the mainland by bridge as watermen.

    The Long Island equivalent is “bayman,” which again at least as I understand it does not apply paradigmatically to those who go fishing well out into the open ocean but rather those who work in the various salt-water tidal estuaries that surround the Island. But again the focus is not so much on the operation of the boat but what economic activity you use the boat to pursue.

  27. Dmitry Pruss says

    I saw a discussion how people operating boats on river Thames are still called sailors, but it’s usually different on the US rivers.

  28. I saw a discussion how people operating boats on river Thames are still called sailors …

    Thanks Dmitry, we might need to be careful about _where_ on the Thames:

    A waterman is a river worker who transfers passengers across and along city centre rivers and estuaries in the United Kingdom and its colonies. Most notable are those on the River Thames and River Medway …

    Downstream of Tower Bridge are (or rather were) the commercial docks for seagoing craft — which would be crewed by ‘sailors’ (in the sense ‘mariners’). Pleasure craft weren’t allowed to venture through there/or at least the captain would need specific licensing. See ‘waterman’s river licence’ in this accident report.

    (Speaking as someone holding a ‘Charge Certificate’ for pleasure craft strictly upstream of the Pool of London.)

    I did get a few Ghits for ‘sailor’ wrt Thames pleasure craft; but they seemed to be written by landlubbers. I think “Thames sailor” in a quote here [unreferenced] is mixing up the Thames estuary, which is sea; and/or crew in sailing dinghies — which must stay upstream of the Pool. Here are some delightful historical photos of Thames ‘A’ Raters, sailed at Kingston-u-T.

  29. Those are some nice photos!

  30. we might need to be careful about _where_ on the Thames:

    A waterman is a river worker who transfers passengers

    Not only where but what. Those who transfer freight are lightermen, and for many decades after the creation of the Docks they preserved the right of free water, that is, the ability to use the docks without charge. Only after the enclosure of the docks and the development of containerized shipping did lighterage fade out.

  31. David Marjanović says

    with the first syllable stressed, right? From “речь”.

    Yes and yes.

    Do you use the same word for the crews of Danube boats?

    I have no idea – I forgot the language when I was 2.

    German Matrose, the naval rank of “sailor” but also used on civilian ships, does not imply the sea (or sails for that matter).

  32. Dmitry Pruss says

    In Russian матрос is derived from Dutch matroos, and applied for merchant marine too, but only for lower-rank positions

  33. Yes, we have this duality, moryákmatrós.
    But still the former is a general term for someone whose job is the sea (say, Jackues-Yves Cousteau) while the later describes a specific position (the people who climb masts).

  34. In Russian матрос is derived from Dutch matroos, and applied for merchant marine too, but only for lower-rank positions
    If that wasn’t clear from DM’s comment, that applies to German Matrose, too. The rank-neutral equivalent to “sailor” is Seemann, plural Seeleute, which is also limited to people crewing sea-going vessels. (And apropos the Nordmand thread, up to now I haven’t seen anyone using Seefrau seriously, but I don’t see everything that goes on in the German language.)

  35. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    All this is much the same in Danish, but about Seefrau: As I said, the official list is not out, but I’d be very surprised to find søkvinde on it. To me it would rather evoke a mermaid (otherwise havfrue) which is of course an instance of cultural gender prejudice, but not one that can be fixed by positing that it should now mean a female sømand.

    (One detail that the Guardian didn’t include: Of eight headwords starting in A and ending in -mand, only three were put on the list for consideration of a -kvinde equivalent. For one thing, they want evidence that people actually use the -kvinde version; conveniently, one of the things that DS are funded to do is to collect uses of new words, so if anybody has such evidence, it’s them).

  36. David Marjanović says

    What Hans said.

  37. In russian the feminine form морячка sounds entirely natural (and appeared alongised with рыбачка in a pop song).
    Матроска is, on the other hand, is what Sailor Moon wears (sērā fuku).

    In the Russian version (of the cartoon from 90s) her team (セーラー[服]戦士 sērā [fuku] senshi, or as spanish wikipedia suggests guerreras con traje de marinero) was called “воины в матросках” – and that is my only association with the word:)

  38. Dmitry Pruss says

    That’s a common issue with Russian suffix -ка, feminizing on the on hand, but also extremely productive for naming objects and phenomena on the other hand. When the stem is for a (male) person, the addition of -ка creates a word which doesn’t just stand for a female person, but more typically for an item of wardrobe. Like чешка, вьетнамка, панамка etc

  39. David Marjanović says

    Directly contrary to what I just said on another thread, there is an area in Germany (…around Cologne, actually?) where -mann is productive just like that: Blaumann “blue overalls”, Flachmann “hip flask”.

  40. @Dmitry, on the one hand, yes.
    Except that the stem of “вьетнамки” is just Vietnam, not вьетнамец “a male Vienamese”.
    Chekh “a male Czech” is a somewhat less common situation (though also еврей)

    On the other hand, two things contribute in the effect: its extreme productivity for articles of clothing, shoes etc. (and also dances) and not very extreme frequency of occurence of female foreigners.

    The pattern works with masculine suffix too, e.h. hand brake is ручник ruchnik informally and ручной тормоз formally. But articles of clothing are feminine and are commonly named after countries.

    Often (as with ручник) they are names of kinds of things: pilotka can be unpacked into “pilot cap“. Even if I’m not sure what is “cap” here (kepka? shapka? shlyapa?) they all are feminine. But the pattern goes beyond that: I can’t reconstruct a prototype for v’jetnamka if it was implied at all.

    With rechnik it is easier – we clearly are speaking about river person, but no one of course was actually thinking “river person”.

    Kepka and shapka too contain -ka – but its function here is different (in the case of shapka one should ask Poles who borrowed it from MHG, in the case of kepka… I suppose just to remind that it’s headgear. And polka “polka” is weird. It has nothing to do with Poles orginally! But then we formed lezginka “lezgian [dance]” etc. )

  41. From googling I gather that панамка generally refers to what in English is called nowadays a bucket hat (made of canvas and fairly shapeless), and not a panama hat (made of straw and more stylish and fragile).

  42. David Marjanović says

    It has nothing to do with Poles orginally!

    That surprised me greatly, but Wiktionary agrees convincingly: “Via French and German from Czech polka, variant of půlka (“half”) as in “half-step”; see půl (“half”).”

    in the case of shapka one should ask Poles who borrowed it from MHG

    That’s even more surprising, but it’s in Vasmer: it’s nothing other than chapeau, with the L of Old French chapel reinterpreted as a German diminutive ending…

  43. Dmitry Pruss says

    I think the -ka suffix is ubiquitous when a Russia noun is formed from an adjective. Not necessarily an adjective with a -kaya suffix, although it probably helps. The masculine counterpart -ik/-yak is also in the adjective-derived words. The use of these suffixes skyrocketed in recent years and sometimes leaves me dumbfounded. I understood молочка, заброшка from the context, but still doubt a little about the words ночник or тепляк in the frontline war reports.

  44. David Marjanović says

    Those must be night vision devices and thermal imaging devices (i.e. the same thing, but sometimes using them during the day is actually an advantage)…

  45. Dmitry, I’m still under [bad] impression from a certain interview from the time of the siege of Mariupol.

    Russian war journalist бодро asking a much less talkative officer from Donetsk:
    – Мирняк просачивается?

    ([is] peaceful(here: civilian)-stuff leaking out?)

  46. the time of the siege of Mariupol

    For a moment I thought: 1854-55?!! But no, that was the siege of Sevastopol.

  47. (…around Cologne, actually?)
    I associate these formations with the Ruhr area, a bit further North.

  48. polka … has nothing to do with Poles orginally!

    The origin of polka is disputed; it has at least been claimed to be associated with Poles since the earliest known reference, in a Czech museum’s journal in 1835, which said that variants of the Polish krakowiak were danced in Bohemia, and called “polka” in one city. (That’s according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001); here’s the primary source, in case anybody can read 19th-century Czech — online translators couldn’t manage it.) There was a huge fad for polka dancing that spread from Prague to Vienna and Paris, then London and then the US in the 1840s, associated with Romantic ideas of peasant life and sympathy for Polish refugees in the Great Emigration. The derivation from půlka ‘half’ was proposed by a Czech historian in the early 20th century, says Wikipedia.

    What I can say for sure is that the OED’s etymology is seriously messed up: see discussion at Wordorigins. They misdated a key quotation to 1837 (before the polka craze reached the English-speaking world) which is actually from 1846 (when the craze was in full swing), and instead of rechecking the date, invented strained explanations. They also say that the půlka origin is “now discredited”, with no explanation or source.

  49. I associate these formations with the Ruhr area, a bit further North.

    Blaumann and Flachmann were standard in Cologne when I spent much of my time consorting with the lower classes.

    Let me just remind folks again that your unfamiliarity with certain words can be simply due to their not being used in the circles you move in, and in what you read. Or hear say in the internet etc pp.

  50. @DM, ktschwarz, oops!

    It looked as if there is documented history, but I was not sure, and when I typed that, I paused. But then I hoped someone will correct me.
    Then after DM’s comment I stopped again: “no one is correcting me, but what if it is bullshit?”

    With respect to Russian though, both shapka and polka are borrowings.
    @DM, yes, must be French. MHG because I assume the contact with German speakers was more direct.

    @Dmitry, not only “recent years”.
    electrichka (electric train)
    marshrutka (“[Marsch]route taxi”)
    linejka (linija “line”, linejnyj “linear” 1. a ruler/straightedge 2. gatherings for students in Soviet schools where pupils stand in military formation forming a line… I don’t rememeber if it was accompanied with brain fucking or zombirovanie. Perhaps they just hypnotised us? 3. Lineage, the video-game 4…..5…. 6…..7….)
    planyorka (like linejka-2, just in business. All right, I’m kidding, meetings)
    tekuchka (tekuchij “fluid” – tendency of employes to quit the job)
    zhvachka (chewing (zhevatel’naya) gum)

    etc., etc. etc., from different periods within a couple of centuries.

  51. David Marjanović says

    in case anybody can read 19th-century Czech — online translators couldn’t manage it

    That’s because of the spelling system that I only learned about a few days ago: g is modern j, j is modern í (it’s a literally long i…), and of course w is modern v.

  52. @Stu: Yes, these words have become unremarkable words in German and most people I know would use them or at least know what they mean. I may not have expressed that well, but I associate the creation of such words in -mann for everyday objects with the Ruhr area. One more that comes to mind is Pittermann / Pittermännche for a metal container in which you can warm food by putting the container in hot water. (But I may be wrong here as well.)

  53. David Marjanović says

    Oh, sorry, Blaumann & Flachmann are the two that came to mind precisely because they’ve escaped: they’re much more widely distributed now, arguably standard. (Indeed, the Wikipedia article for Flachmann is how I found out it’s called “hip flask” in English.) In whatever place it is that they come from, there are lots more words like that, I just don’t know any.

    Pittermann was an Austrian politician in the 1960s. He tried to get elected on Jedermann für Pittermann, which was promptly turned into a Schüttelreim: Jedermann für Pittermann ist bitter dann für jedermann

    …which reminds me that jedermann “everyone” has passed out of active usage in the last few decades, though one of the substitutes is the still masculine jeder.

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