I’m reading Зимние заметки о летних впечатлениях [Winter Notes on Summer Impressions], Dostoevsky’s delightfully acerbic account of his 1862 trip to Europe, with attacks on Western/socialist rationality (tell someone you’ll feed them and guarantee them work in exchange for a tiny drop of freedom, but “no, even that droplet is too heavy”), and I’ve reached the final chapter, which is called Брибри и мабишь [Bribri and ma biche]. He says the Parisian bourgeois normally calls his wife mon epouse or ma femme, but if he’s deeply moved or wants to deceive her, he calls her ma biche ‘my doe.’ So far, so good; biche is in the dictionaries with that sense (‘darling’). But then he says the loving wife playfully calls her husband bribri, and I can find no other trace of this word (the search results are unhelpfully filled by an indigenous people of Costa Rica whose language has nasal harmony). It is not in even the largest print or online dictionaries, and a Google Books search turned up only a page in Capucine Motte’s novel Apollinaria that quotes this very passage (in French translation) and says “elle regarde ces deux mots dans son dictionnaire français, sans succès.” So as a last resort I turn to the Varied Reader: any thoughts on this mysterious term of affection?


  1. marie-lucie says

    He says the Parisian bourgeois normally calls his wife mon epouse or ma femme, but if he’s deeply moved or wants to deceive her, he calls her ma biche ‘my doe.’ …. But then he says the loving wife playfully calls her husband bribri..

    D was in Paris in 1862 – the whole paragraph reminds me of social settings found in Maupassant and Zola.

    It is likely that D is guilty of overgeneralization here, probably from observing a couple of his acquaintance, his neighbours perhaps. I would say that the bourgeois in question probably refers to his wife as (formally) “mon épouse” or (more colloquially) “ma femme”, and may also address her this way in front of strangers, but calls her “ma biche” (one of several popular possibilities) in more tender moments (whether genuine or feigned). On the other hand, the loving wife playfully calls her husband by the unique nickname “Bribri”, perhaps coined from his own name (Brice?) but perhaps more likely referring to the (fairly low) grade of “brigadier” that he might hold or have previously held in a military reserve unit.

  2. According to this page (and also here) it is a name for the bruant de haie which appears to be the cirl bunting.

  3. David Marjanović says

    an indigenous people of Costa Rica whose language has

    a much more informative article in the Norwegian (Bokmål) Wikipedia than in the English one.

    Fonemet /tk͡/ i Amubre- og Salitre-dialekta, tilsvarer /ttʃ͡/ i Coroma.

  4. The notes say that the word means “little bird”.

    According to “La Savoie historique, pittoresque, statistique et biographique” by Joseph Dessaix, ‎Gérard Melin – 1854 – ‎Savoie (France), Bribri is a vulgar name for a bird called Chevalier sylvain (Tringa glareola).

    English name is Wood sandpiper, in Russian it is called Фифи.

  5. marie-lucie says

    SFR: good find! But this seems to be a regional word, unknown in Paris, otherwise it would show up in more dictionaries. It is a possibility (if at least one person of the couple in question is from Savoie), but my suggestion is more plausible if they are Parisians.

  6. Hard to say what is the etymology of the Russian word for sandpiper (fifi), but isn’t it also a generic French for a little bird? It is reported that Dostoyevsky knew French / could read books in French, but perhaps he was stumped by a one-off or regional usage and mistook it for the generic Parisian? He was certain that bribri was a little bird, this much is clear.
    And after Dostoyevsky, Russian language seems to have totally shrugged it off. Except Nagibin once reused both bribri and mabish.

  7. Ha, I ask a question and get two incompatible but equally convincing answers! Well done, all. And I’ll be on the lookout for that when I get around to reading Nagibin.

  8. Oh, and I learned a lovely French expression (D. uses a lot of French terms): lа salle des pas perdus ‘waiting room (in, e.g., a courthouse).’

  9. bribri : No doubt it means a little bird in some language or dialect, just not in most varieties of French.

    Fifi : This word is not the actual name of a bird species, nor a word for a generic little bird, but a name often given to a pet little bird.

    la salle des pas perdus : This is not just any waiting room but a very large hall where people are likely to pace for a long time while waiting, such as at a major courthouse or a large railway station. They are pacing back and forth, too restless to take one of the few seats, making many useless, “lost steps”.

    A Québécois colleague of mine having learned the phrase (perhaps not used in Canada) thought it referred to people “not lost” since they had arrived at the place they needed to be.

  10. “Unlost” could be a good name for horror/supernatural TV series

  11. I will always associate ma biche with Louis de Funès.

  12. “I will always associate ma biche with Louis de Funès.”

    “Biche” is my absolute favorite faux ami.

  13. I will always associate ma biche with Louis de Funès.

    I wasn’t familiar with him, so I googled up this hilarious compilation.

  14. More to the point, here’s a clip “Ma biche ou êtes vous ?!”

  15. Matthew Roth says

    La grande vadrouille is the first de Funès film I watched, with Anglo-French subtitles as appropriate, from a distributor in S. Korea, so the box has Korean descriptions!

  16. About “Bribri”: could this be a typo or a typesetter’s error, with the word “Bibi” being meant?

    First, “Bibi” is attested, with a very similar meaning (a term of endearment used with children) in French during the relevant period (

    Second, I wonder (and must ask hatters more familiar with Russian and (pre-1917) Cyrillic than I am for a little (well, okay, a lot of) indulgence here): Could this error derive from an original *Бiибiи, where a typesetter mistook a decimal i for a p?

  17. About “Bribri”: could this be a typo or a typesetter’s error, with the word “Bibi” being meant?

    No. Dostoevsky has it in both French spelling and Russian (брибри), and he uses it approximately 5,000 times in the chapter. They can’t all be typos.

  18. An 1852 French dictionary (Dictionnaire général et grammatical, by Napoléon Landais ) says that bribri (masculine) is a hedge sparrow

  19. Hat: Okay then, could Dostoevsky have misheard “Bibi”? Speaking as an L1 speaker of French, I often find palatalized liquids in Slavic and other languages hard to distinguish from a plain /j/: If Dostoevsky had initially realized the word as something like /brjibrji/ his French hosts might well have perceived it as /bjibji/, and thus assumed that he had indeed learned the word (allophonic palatalization of consonants before /i/ still being a frequent feature of a Russian accent in French, or indeed English).

  20. And more.
    Nouveau dictionnaire universel de la langue française (M. P. Poitevin – 1868) – BRIBRI, n. m. Pron. bri-bri. — Zool. Vulg. Le Bruant de haie.

    Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle (Charles d’ Orbigny – 1849) BRIBRI. Nom vulgaire du Bruant de haie, Emberiza cirlus.

    Dictionnaire complet des langues française et allemande (Dominique Joseph Mozin – 1863) BRIBRI, bruant

    1879 “Faune populaire de la France” says that bribri is a regional name for this little bird in Normandie and Salerne, and imitates its call.

    So it looks like more than one little bird, and more than one French region, used it

  21. Graham Asher says

    The funny thing is, it’s in the Dictionnaire de Français Littré online at


    nm (bri-bri)
    Nom vulgaire du bruant de haie.

    and I could have sworn that my bookmark to that dictionary comes from a recommendation on this very site; but perhaps I’m wrong.

  22. David Marjanović says

    could Dostoevsky have misheard “Bibi”?

    I doubt he could have interpreted two trills into it, palatalized or not.

  23. Yup, gotta be the bird word. Great research!

  24. More to the point, here’s a clip “Ma biche ou êtes vous ?!”

    Claude Gensac (who passed away last year) and de Funès often collaborated as a “screen couple”. He invariably called her ma biche, so that she’s sometimes referred to as Claude “Ma Biche” Gensac.

    De Funès has been enormously popular in Poland since the 1960s.

  25. marie-lucie says


    I know un bibi for a small, cute woman’s hat (from the time when every self-respecting woman wore a hat when going out, not just for church), but I don’t think I have heard anyone call someone else, such as a child, mon bibi. But I am very familiar with Bibi used to referring to oneself (see examples in the TLFI), something dating from the 17C and perhaps earlier (I remember this coming up here a few years ago). So in addition to D being unlikely to mishear an r, it is also very unlikely that the woman called her husband Bibi rather than Bribri.

    I suggest the following: the woman was from a place where un bribri was the name of a local bird. She married a Parisian man who either had a name with bri in it, or was a brigadier in some unit. Putting to and two together, when in a playful mood she started addressing her husband as Bribri or perhaps mon bribri.

    Reduplication is a common feature of affectionate nicknames in French, as in Toto, Riri, Roro, Dédé, Mimi, Jojo, Gigi, Lili and dozens of others – my father Lucien and his brother Jacques were Lulu and Jaja to their parents all their lives. But this formation may be out of style nowadays as a result of American movies and TV in which shortened names are usually monosyllabic, like Bob or Jack.

  26. Its about time De Funès made it to LH!

    All his movies made it to Israel, with subtitles, as soon as they came out. I was little when I saw them, and even then I thought they were really corny. I kinda liked them though.

  27. David Marjanović says

    But this formation may be out of style nowadays as a result of American movies and TV in which shortened names are usually monosyllabic, like Bob or Jack.

    There are a few closed syllables out there, like Sébastien > Seb or analogously marteau de géologue “rock hammer” > marteau d’géol’. But two syllables, of which the last is open, still occur with traditional – Jean-Mi(chel) – as well as innovative or excavated names – Sido(nie) – and analogously with such things as diapo(sitif) (also used for PowerPoint “slides”, unlike e.g. in German), ordi(nateur) or even strati(graphie). Outright reduplication does seem to have become rare, though – perhaps because the French have been very innovative in names in the last couple of decades.

  28. Marie-Lucie, you noted: “But this formation may be out of style nowadays […]”.

    It’s still in style; I know a Nono, a Lolo and a Juju (all under 35), and different sets of friends have school-aged kids everybody calls Lolo and Lili…

  29. David Marjanović says

    Oh yeah, I’ve encountered a very young Lolo indeed.

  30. marie-lucie says

    Merci! I am glad to know that the traditional formation is alive and well.

    Shortening long nouns to just the first two syllables is quite common (e.g. labo for laboratoire, philo for philosophie) but different as to both morphological process and pragmatic context from the formation of affectionate diminutives by reduplication, as in baby talk.

    Several years ago there was a Language Log post (before comments were allowed) precisely about French nickname formation (not written by a native speaker) which mentioned both reduplication and English-style shortening, as in Val for Valérie, something obviously due to the influence of American films and TV series (the traditional French diminutive would be Vava). Since I don’t spend much time in France, I could not just rely on my intuition of what is or is not current fashion.

  31. Many years ago I studied Pagnol’s ‘Le château de ma mère’ for French A level. We found the name of his childhood friend Lili puzzling, as it is never explained and sounds like a girl’s name to the English reader. I guessed it must be short for something like Lionel, so I’m interested to learn that such nicknames are common in France.

  32. In looking up a word in a Finnish-Russian dictionary I came across rantakurvi “morodunka, kuvitra (Terekia cinerea, Xenus cinereus). I did’t know either, but the second word proved a real mystery. Googling “kuvitra” threw up a blank, so I had to take a careful look at “morodunka” search results.
    Turns out it’s actually kuvitri

  33. Terekia cinerea

    It turns out Terekia is actually a reference to the Terek River! Wikipedia:

    The Terek sandpiper (Xenus cinereus) is a small migratory Palearctic wader species, the only member of the genus Xenus. It is named after the Terek River which flows into the west of the Caspian Sea, as it was first observed around this area. The genus name Xenus is from Ancient Greek xenos stranger, and cinereus is Latin for “ash-grey” from cinis, cineris, “ashes”.

  34. So I was wondering about the etymology of мородунка, and I found a Russian bird forum where the topic was being discussed; there was no useful conclusion, but one of the commenters said “В литературе встречается старое название именно мородунки – кувитри. Явно звукоподражательное” [In the literature you find an old name of this bird: kuvitri. Clearly onomatopoeic].

    There was also this comment:

    “В поморских говорах не различаются виды ТРАВНИК, ФИФИ, МОРОДУНКА, ЩЕГОЛЬ, объединенные одним названием КУВЕДРИХА”. Тоже красивое слово:-). Отсюда:

    [“In coastal dialects they don’t distinguish the species travnik, fifi, morodunka, shchegol, but call them all by the name kuvedrikha.” Another fine word:-) From here.]

    And with fifi we come full circle.

  35. Although now I’m wondering if kuvitri might be a distorted borrowing of rantakurvi. (What’s the kurvi part? I know ranta is ‘shore.’)

  36. The same F-R dictionary gives “kurvi” as a colloquial variant of “kurva” (=curve), but Sadeniemi has nothing. There is also a word kurmitsa (Charadrius).

  37. A list of Finnish bird names has just “rantaKURVI” and “KURVInokkakolibri” (=curve-billed hummingbird).
    It can be downloaded as an Excel file here:

  38. It’s from bird language.

    The bird apparently sings “kuvitrryu, kuvitrruyu, kuvitrruyi”

  39. However, the Estonian etymological dictionary has this:
    kurvits : kurvitsa : kurvitsat ‘väga pika sirge noka ja valdavalt pruuni sulestikuga lind’ (=WOODCOCK)
    ● vadja kurppa ‘metskurvits’
    soome kurppa ‘kurvits, nepp’
    Aunuse karjala kurmoi ‘kurvits’
    lüüdi guŕbiťš́ liitsõnas suoguŕbiťš́ ‘metskurvits’
    vepsa gurbič ‘metskurvits’
    ? mari kurmə̑zak ‘metskurvits’
    Häälikuliselt ajendatud läänemeresoome või läänemeresoome-mari tüvi.

    Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja says that kurppa is onomatopoeic.

  40. Tolkien’s Sea-Elves, who dwelt on both sides of what would later be called the Atlantic Ocean, were called Teleri in the final (?) incarnation of his Matter of Middle-Earth, but in earlier versions they were known as Solosimpi, glossed as ‘shoreland pipers’.

  41. I’ve come across a paper by Tapani Salminen

    Here’s a relevant fragment:
    Nimitys kurmitsa taas on selvästi onomatopoieettinen,
    mutta vain oletettavassa aiemmassa merkityksessä ’lehtokurppa’, josta
    se on Tornionjokilaaksossa, lehtokurpan asuinalueen pohjoispuolella, siirtynyt
    keräkurmitsan ja kapustarinnan nimitykseksi (vrt. Merikallio 1922, 65), joten
    nykymerkityksessään se ei viittaa tarkoitteittensa ääntelyyn; sama pätee nimiin
    kuiri (~ kuovi) ja kurvi (~ kurppa) sekä kajava, joka on aikanaan syntynyt kalalokin
    eikä (Suomessa harvinaisen läpimuuttajan) pikkukajavan ääntelystä.

    The name “kurmitsa” is clearly onomatopoeic, but only in the hypothetical earlier sense “European woodcock,” from which in the Torne River valley, north of the woodcock habitat, it has shifted to refer to the Eurasian dotterel and the European golden plover (see Merikallio 1922, 65), so that the present name does not reflect the intended vocalization; the same applies to the names “kuiri (=godwit) (~ kuovi (=Eurasian curlew))” and “kurvi (~ kurppa (=sandpiper))”, as well as “kajava”, which in due time arose from the vocalization of the common gull rather than the black-legged kittywake (a rare transient bird in Finland).

    Merikallio, Einari 1922: Suomalaisia lintujen nimiä. Suomalaisen eläin- ja kasvi tieteellisen seuran Vanamon julkaisuja 2: 1. Vanamo, Helsinki.

    Google Translate:
    The nomination to cure it is clearly onomatopoeia,
    but only in the foreseeable sense of the word ‘cannabis’, of which
    it is in the Tornio River Valley, the north of the lakeshore’s residential area
    the wheelbase and the hatchback (see Merikallio 1922, 65), so
    in its present meaning it does not refer to the intentions of its intentions; the same goes for the names
    the quake (and the bush), and the Kajava, which was born in the time of calf
    and not (in a rare transfiguration in Finland) a small door.

    I believe “kajava /kajakas” has been discussed before.

    P.S. For some reason I can’t post the link to a (sadly, vandalized) monument to the morodunka in Turovo in Belorussia.
    The oldest, 17 years old, morodunka has also been registered there.

  42. Thanks, and sorry about the link!

  43. marie-lucie says

    I have seen other instances of Google Translate but had been led to believe that the program had improved. I would hope that this one is pre-improvement. Thanks Juha!

  44. The improvement you heard about was probably Google Neural Machine Translation, which is now in production for almost all the languages in their menu — so yes, that includes Finnish. It’s billed as providing more accurate and grammatical output than the previous version by using the entire sentence as context. Indeed, that output is pretty much grammatical English, yet semantically it’s gone off on wild leaps and lost almost all the meaning — which the older version did not. If you click in the translation window, it will usually offer an alternate, more literal translation, which I suspect is the non-neural network version, although they don’t say so. The alternate for this passage starts out:

    Name plover is clearly an onomatopoieettinen, but only to the most likely previous meaning ‘Woodcock’, from which it is Tornionjokilaakso, Woodcock residential area on the north side, moved dotterels and the golden plover …

    which still isn’t anywhere close to success, but at least you can tell it’s about birds!

    Why is this result so weird? It’s not just because it doesn’t have these birds in its vocabulary: if you feed it the bird names one at a time in the nominative case, it gets almost all of them. (I don’t know Finnish, but I found the nominative case using Wiktionary and the delightful Finnish NatureGate.) It just goes crazy when they’re inflected and combined. For example:

    pikkukajavan translates to: kittiwake
    ääntelystä translates to: vocalizations
    pikkukajavan ääntelystä translates to: from the small door hangout; should be: kittiwake-GEN.SING. vocalization-ELATIVE SING. ‘from the vocalization of the kittiwake’

    Note that it correctly picked out the morpheme pikku ‘small’ and the elative case ending -stä ‘from the’, then it threw out the rest and made up new words out of nowhere! English-French is a lot more robust than this. Is this because the corpus is smaller, or because Finnish grammar is a lot farther from English than French is? I’d really like to see the result of training English-French and English-Finnish on the same corpus.

    Thanks again to Juha! I learned a tiny bit about Finnish.

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