Rereading a well-loved thread made me nostalgic for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which reminded me of one of my favorite bizarre toponymic equivalences: the Hungarian name for the capital of Austria, whose other names (Wien, Vienna, &c) derive from Latin Vindobona, is Bécs. Does anybody happen to know the etymology of that word? And (for extra bonus points) does anybody know the history of the Hungarian spelling cs for the sound spelled ch in English? The answer to one or both questions may lie hidden somewhere in the thousands of books so laboriously transported to this new house, but I’m going to be out most of the day doing more practical things, so I’m hoping I’ll return and find the answers have magically appeared here.


  1. One of my pet ideas is that we are all Austro-Hungarians now. Psychoanalysis, Popper, logical positivism, and Wittgenstein, serial music and Bartok, Austrian economics, Kafka, Rilke, Trakl (?), and others I’ve momentarily forgotten all came from there. A sort of cultural hopelessness is characteristic of all of them, even the positivists and Austrian economists who solved the problem by jettisoning Kultur.
    “Wittgenstein’s Vienna” (Toulmin / Janik) is a great book.

  2. I have absolutely no idea, and I have asked about Bécs for years. A wild guess is that there were some early Slavic names for Vindabona and the Magyars adopted one. Like Graz coming from pre-slovene “grad”, a lot of the non-magyar place names from the 9th century have slavic roots: Balaton from “platno” (flat) Pécs from ‘pet’ (five churches) Debrecin from “dobro” etc.
    The cs for ‘ch’ is just one of many oddball spellings that date back to medeival times when Magyar was being written by latin educated clergymen. What is interesting is that Hungarian is a very conservative language – it doesn’t change at a fast rate, and subsequently doesn’t have a wide range of dialects. A modern speaker would very likely understand a speaker from the 13th century.

  3. Thanks — I figured if anyone knew, it would be you!

  4. Well, since {s} is /S/ in Hungarian, couldn’t {c} be /ts/ and {cs} be /tsS/ > /tS/?

  5. Michael Farris says

    I thought that Balaton was from a Slavic root for ‘mud’ or ‘muddy’.
    Could Becs come from
    1. alternate version of pecs (five)
    2. something to do with whips
    3. something to do with barrels or kegs?
    Yeah, I know these are pretty far-fetched, in other words, I have no idea.
    The consonant clusters
    cs, zs, and sz are all consistent in hungarian in that the first indicates voicing and the second element indicates whether it’s palatized or not. I don’t know if it arose as an alternative to early Czech ‘cz’ which in Hungarian would come out as non-palatal, but that seems a reasonable explanation (which means it’s probably wrong, yes).

  6. 1. alternate version of pecs (five) – That would be my guess. Or perhaps from the Hungarian word for ‘honor’ “becs” (short e)
    2. something to do with whips – Probably not. The Hun. word is ‘ostor’ and I believe it is a turkic or Alanic loanword.
    3. something to do with barrels or kegs? Barrel or keg is ‘hordo’. I know. A very pretty bartender asked me to pick haul one off a truck and carry it into the bar for her last night.

  7. The pianist Georges Cziffra also has a puzzling name (to me at least). According to one website: “Georges (Györky) Cziffra was born 5 November 1921 in Budapest. He came from a Gypsy family (his parents were Hungarians who had been expelled from France during World War One)…”

  8. Michael Farris says

    Actually with ‘whips’ and ‘kegs, barrels’ I was thinking maybe a Slavic word with one of those meanings fleetingly borrowed into Hungarian and then disappearing (except in the name for Wien) but again, I realize that’s stretching things.

  9. A few phone calls around town and no, none of myt brainy Hungarian buddies know the origins either. tommorow is March 15, “We lost the 1848 Revolution” Day, so I’ll ask passersby in the street and get back to ya.

  10. Geez, I remember reading about this ages ago. Bec [spelled with a hachek on the “c”]is Croatian as well. My (vague) recollection is that the derivation of the name is Magyar to Slavic, rather than Slavic to Magyar. The etymoly might come from the change of the initial consonant V into a B. A similar process occurred with the Croat and Slovenian name for Venice which was something along these lines: Venezia – Beneci – Bneci – Mneci – Mleci.
    If anyone can speak Magyar, the great online resource is Magyar Pallas Lexikon, a work which was originally published in the gran old days of the Danubian monarchy.

  11. Thanks Zixt. I checked out the Pallas Encyclopedia and this is what I found:
    Szlávok is korán lakhatták, mire külön szláv neve: Be is mutat. Mai « Wien» nevén csak 1030-ben említik először
    Don’t worry, I’ll translate.
    “Slavs also settled here early, as the special slavic name ‘Be’ also shows. The modern name “Wien” only occurs first in 1030.”
    Slavic language areas shrunk in Austria and Germany around the 10th century, cutting Slovene off from Czech. All through the Burgenland and west Hungary you still find communities of Slovene speakers (“Vends”) who speak non-standard Karinthian Slovene. One old SW slavic dialect is down in Italy, among the 1200 or so speakers of Rezianska in the Resia valley near Uccea and Tolmesso in NW Italy. They don’t really even like to say they speak a dialect of Slovene, and don’t want to join the Slovene minority association of Italy. The Resiani live way up in an alpine pass, and subsequently have really bad radio and TV reception. This means they still play and dance their traditional fiddle and cello music in any of the four bars along the valley, especially around August 15th. ( go to to hear some. Sounds like old cajun fiddlers got stuck in Transylvania or something. I love it. One great Resiani fiddler, Santucco, marrried a Hungarian girl and lives in Buda.
    For Gospodin Hat to feast linguistically on:

  12. Sorry, brain fried. Tolmezzo, and it is in NE Italy, right up on the Austrian and Slovene border area. Look for Resiutta on a map. Resia is between that and Uccea at the Slovene border crossing. It’s very isolated. You can’t get there using the modern autostrada. You have to take the side roads from Tarvisio in the North or Udine/Gemona in the south. There are no hotels in the valley, and the two places that serve food are kinda rough. Be ready to eat “frico” – cold sliced polenta with melted swiss cheese.

  13. My daddy, a native Hungarian, always said what Jim said. It seemed obvious enough to me.

  14. Becs baffles me for quite a while.
    Slavs were around before the Hungarians.
    celtic (Vedu wood /for the wooded river Wieden=Wien river/) > Vi-den > Vi-en > Wi-en
    ?? vi-eden > bi-eden > bedjen > becs > becs ??
    An Austro-Hungarian

  15. Peter Raphael says

    I gave up in trying to find the Becs puzzle, but I still have some others:
    Lengyel, olasz, nemet, orosz and why everyone calls the country Hungar…
    but we call Magyar.
    Thanks for any clarification
    Koszonom szepen

  16. David Marjanović says

    why everyone calls the country Hungar…
    but we call Magyar

    Onogur = on Oğur = 10 Oğur tribes that came along with the Magyars, as did some Ossetes. The H is from confusing the Hungarians with the Huns (a confusion that 19th-century Hungarian nationalists were actually quite happy with).

  17. Shelomo Ben-Abraham says

    Here are my two bits:
    <B> still puzzles me.
    might have come up in the 10th century but it certainly derived from .
    BTW: in Slovak is , in Czech .
    might be related to ; that’s just a wild guess;
    is <– <– ;
    is /

  18. Your formatting destroyed your comment. I fixed the angle brackets around B but couldn’t do anything about the rest. Try again, without the angle brackets (which get interpreted as HTML commands).

  19. Wikipedia references a couple explanations.

  20. …the capital of Austria, whose other names (Wien, Vienna, &c) derive from Latin Vindobona…

    Fact is, they don’t. The superficial similarity of Wien and Vindobona is accidental.

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    What is interesting is that Hungarian is a very conservative language – it doesn’t change at a fast rate, and subsequently doesn’t have a wide range of dialects. A modern speaker would very likely understand a speaker from the 13th century.

    That agrees with what I was told the first time I went to Hungary, when my host told me that there were no dialects in Hungarian: everyone could understand everyone else. Probably an exaggeration, but some measure of truth.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Hungarian dialects on Wikipedia, with a link to another article on the history of the Hungarian language.

  23. What the devil is that ===? Who does that?

  24. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never seen that before. It’s evidently meant to be a dash…

  25. Just because we’re talking about Vienna, here’s Beethoven, in a letter to Nikolaus Simrock (August 2, 1794; tr. Emily Anderson):

    But I believe that so long as an Austrian can get his brown ale and his little sausages, he is not likely to revolt.

    Aber ich glaube, so lange der Oesterreicher noch braun’s Bier und Würstel hat, revoltirt er nicht.

  26. AJP Crown says

    Are you sure braun’s Bier is brown ale (and what happened to Martin something who wrote a beer blog)? I never saw Beethoven as a beer drinker, but then I never saw him taking an interest in Scottish country dancing.

  27. Me? I’m just quoting Emily Anderson — I wouldn’t dare try to translate Beethoven.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Braunes Bier is not used as a technical term (that would be dunkles Bier, “dark”). So, either it’s any literally brown beer (I don’t know what qualifies as ale), or maybe it was used for dark beer in general back then, which amounts to the same thing if we don’t get into the really red or black ones.

  29. AJP Crown says

    It seems strange there’s no German wiki equivalent in the technical sense to the Brown Ale entry. I thought everything conceivable had been tried with beer in Germany & Austro-Bohemia.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Nope! Deutsches Reinheitsgebot. For “everything conceivable” try Belgium.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Just for reference: Bécs claimed to be Ort mit Steilabfall, “place with a steep slope”, without further explanation in a book on the history of Vienna.

  32. Did you mean to link to that thread/comment? There’s no Steilabfall there.

  33. Stu Clayton says

    Bécs is explained as “place with a steep incline”, says there. Ort mit Steilabfall is a slightly weird expression, not something you’d hear said on the street. More a kind of technical jargon for topographical descriptions that must be used hundreds of times, as in a German Baedeker.

    Steilabfall by itself seems to mean “steep garbage”. Similarly, a steiler Zahn may need orthodontic work done, but that’s irrelevant.

    As Lars remarked, context is everything (except it’s not, you also need things in it).

  34. Thanks!

  35. David Marjanović says

    There’s no Steilabfall there.

    No, but there’s “Bécs is explained as ‘place with a steep incline'” hidden in the middle of the long paragraph.

    technical jargon for topographical descriptions



    Heh, yes. Lots of prefixed verbs (and the nouns derived from them) have been coined several times, each time with different meanings that follow “logically” from their components.

    The exact cognate of Abfall in the “garbage” meaning is offal.

    steiler Zahn

    Heh. 🙂

  36. OK, I’ll bite: what’s a steiler Zahn?

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    Dwds has as example:
    “Damals [in den 70er Jahren] mußten die Seriendetektive noch karierte Sakkos und Mützen tragen, Studentenwohnungen durften »Bude« heißen, und junge Frauen mußten sich als »steile Zähne« oder »kesse Bienen« anreden lassen. [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 11.12.2001]”
    So it is a pulp fiction or hippy/gringe expression for an attractive young lady. I never heard this or “kesse Biene” and am more of a “fesches Dirndl” man myself.

  38. Thanks for the explanation!

  39. Stu Clayton says

    Respectable ladies who didn’t mind saying what’s on their minds, such as grannies, can use steiler Zahn to refer to a “good-looking guy” (at the link is a PR photo of James Dean). Today the expression has the same musty smell as “groovy” in English. No matter to what gender (sex?) it would be applied.

  40. Stu Clayton says

    The exact cognate of Abfall in the “garbage” meaning is offal.

    For example, you can make someone an offal that they can’t réfuse.

  41. Ha!

  42. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I went to a Celtic Connections concert a couple of years back of Beethoven’s settings of Gaelic and Scots songs – it was sort of interesting, but my impression was much the same as audiences at the time, who apparently found it neither really Scottish nor reallly Beethoven.

    (But it did have a great name, Ludwig Mor nan Oran – this seems to be a later development of the same project.)

  43. AJP Crown says

    Yes, it’s neither Scottish nor Beethoven and I’d like to know what he was after and what he felt he achieved. Just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean he was wasting his time.

  44. His mandolin music isn’t Beethoven either, but I love it.

  45. AJP Crown says

    Oooh, I like these. Thank you.

  46. Jen in Edinburgh says

    As far as I remember, it was a commision from a Scottish publisher, rather than something he chose to do spontaneously – an interesting idea that didn’t quite work out as hoped.

    One thing that did interest me was that all this was going on during the Napoleon wars, with a lot of French territory and allies in between, so that communications between Edinburgh and Vienna had to go round via either Stockholm or Malta, and sometimes not at all – that wasn’t something that had occurred to me at all.

  47. ktschwarz says

    TIL: Wienerschnitzel is calqued into Hungarian as bécsi szelet.

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