Occasionally I dive into Nabokov’s insanely detailed commentary on Eugene Onegin for a bracing refresher, and recently my attention was caught by his perverse insistence (pp. 70-71) that the correct way to translate Russian shinel’ ‘greatcoat’ is “carrick”—he goes so far as to render the title of Gogol’s famous story as “The Carrick.” It is, of course, absurd to use in translation a word that not more than a handful of readers will understand, but that’s the kind of absurdity that makes Vladimir Vladimirovich such a lovable crank, and hey, it was a new word to add to my vocabulary.

So I went to the OED… and it wasn’t there! I found it hard to believe that such a word, from the early 19th century, wouldn’t have been scooped up by the OED’s famed readers, so I considered the possibility (unlikely but not unheard of) that VV was simply mistaken. A little googling, however, convinced me that there was indeed such a word: a fashion timeline (placing it under “Directoire/Empire 1795-1815”), an ad, a Dictionary of Costume (“carrick a gentleman’s greatcoat for driving. Of heavy fawn-colored cloth, double-breasted and with deep collar.”), and Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging (“Carrick/ use GREATCOAT”) were a convincing bunch of sources. So I followed up Nabokov’s hint that the word came from France and checked the Dictionnaire de l’Académie francaise, where I found “CARRICK n. m. XIXe siècle. Emploi métonymique de l’anglais carrick, « sorte de cabriolet ». Sorte d’ample redingote qui a plusieurs collets ou un collet très long. Un carrick de cocher.”

But now we have a further problem: the Académie claims that the French word is borrowed from English carrick ‘sort of cabriolet‘—and that isn’t in the OED either! I give up.

Update (March 2009). Alexander Dolinin in his article “Pushkinian Subtexts in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading” (translated by Jeff Edmunds) has an excursus on carricks:

The clothing worn by the doll-like Pushkin was chosen with equal care by Nabokov. The mention of the “fur carrick” should be seen as a reference to very important testimonies included in Veresaev’s book. First, a carrick (bekesh’) occupies a central place in a fragment from the recollections of N.M. Kolmakov: “Amidst the public strolling along the Nevsky it was often possible to glimpse A.S. Pushkin, but he, arresting and attracting the attention of each and everyone, was not startling because of his dress, on the contrary, his hat was far from being distinguished by its newness, and his long carrick was also old-fashioned. I will not be sinning against posterity if I say that his carrick was missing a button on the waist at the back. The absence of this button embarrassed me every time I met A. S-ch and saw it.”

[Footnote 33:] V. Veresaev, op. cit. [i.e., Pushkin v zhizni: sistematicheskii svod podlinnykh svidetel’stv sovremennikov, 6-e izd., znachitel’no dopolnennoe (Moskva: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1936), T. 2], p. 251. Gavriel Shapiro groundlessly traces the image of Pushkin in a fur carrick to a well-known drawing by Pushkin, in which he depicts himself and Evgenii Onegin on the embankment of the Neva (see G. Shapiro, op. cit. [i.e., Delicate Markers: Subtexts in Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (New York: Peter Lang, 1998)], pp. 132-133). Shapiro’s assertion notwithstanding, both figures in the drawing, illustrating stanzas XLVII-XLVIII of the novel’s first chapter, are not in fur carricks, but in frock-coats, which is entirely natural given the “summer-tide” being described by Pushkin.


  1. Listed as a toponym (and so the same as the Carrick that is in dictionaries).

  2. As for the cabriolet: carrick = curricle?

  3. Interesting! The first is “a long triple-caped dust-coat for women” that “came into fashion about 1877,” versus a greatcoat for men that came into fashion almost a century earlier, so one wonders if it’s simple coincidence. As for curricle, it’s “A light two-wheeled carriage, usually drawn by two horses abreast,” from Latin curriculum ‘running, course; (race-)chariot,’ which certainly seems a likely candidate, and I can imagine the French getting carrick out of it. Well found!

  4. Umm… And I used to translate ‘shinel’ as ‘overcoat’. Now I’ve got a chance to perplex my readers :). Thanks!

  5. Make sure you update (very nice people) with all this.

  6. Scallionboy says

    Not documented but, for what it’s worth, on a site named Wisegeek:
    [cabriolet] comes from the French cabrioler, “to prance or caper,” a reference to the way the carriage would lightly fly or skim the ground. The ultimate root can be found in the Latin capreolus, the word used to describe a wild goat.
    which actually makes visual sense given “cabriole leg” ” A gently curving S-shaped leg found on tables and chairs of the late 17th C and 18th C.” The comparison to the hind leg of a goat is, at the very least, reasonable.

  7. Fascinating! I had only ever heard “Carrick” before as the middle name of a schoolfriend, who was deeply ashamed of it and NEVER used it. Now I now what to buy him for a present. Thanks!

  8. To me, carrick suggests the Irish word carraig, one of the many Irish words for cliff or rock. In placenames, it is anglicized as Carrick, such as Carraig na Siúire becoming Carrick-on-Suir.
    Carrick on Shannon is, though, Cora Droma Rúisc, not the expected “Carraig na Sionainne”.

  9. All the Carrick names in the Wikipedia are the Gaelic ‘rock’ that Panu suggests, as is the personal name Craig.
    And carrick is a (completely unrelated) variant of carrack.

  10. Speaking of carricks, I know the word from the carrick bend ( which is a simple knot.

  11. I’ve already gotten a response from the OED:
    “Our files contain a very few examples of both the ‘overcoat’ and ‘cape’ sense of CARRICK, but nothing at all for the ‘vehicle’ sense, which is not recorded in the standard sources. I shall add your material to our new words file, to ensure that it is considered by our new words team in due course.”
    I pointed out that the “vehicle” sense was only attested by the French dictionary and might be a mistake for curricle. Thanks for suggesting I contact them, John!

  12. Stefan Lewicki says

    Iago about Othello’s marriage to Desdemona [1.2.50]
    ‘Faith he tonight hath boarded a land-carrack.’
    Is there a connection?

  13. A convenient interface for looking at the French history is here. Use the bottom-left menu to select the other (coat) sense and the top-left to select an attestations database.

  14. Very nice — I’ve added the CNRTL to my Language Resources list of links. Thanks!

  15. All the Carrick names in the Wikipedia are the Gaelic ‘rock’ that Panu suggests, as is the personal name Craig.
    Actually, if the name Craig has a connection, it probably derives from the above all in Ulster common variant creag or creig. I am almost entirely ignorant of Welsh, but I seem to recall carraig is actually the Welsh (or British-Celtic) cognate which was adopted into Old or Primitive Irish, while creag or creig is the original Irish or Gaelic form of the word. I might be wrong, because Celtic etymology has never been my cup of tea – I am almost exclusively interested in the contemporary language.

  16. I just read the Amazon reviews for Nabakov’s notes, and I realized that the translation philosophy now dominant in academic Sinology is almost exactly his, though not learned directly from him. The late Edward Schafer at Berkeley was one of the most influential Sinologists of his generation, and he was of the belief that there is a reciprocal relationship between accuracy and poetic value: the more poetic, the less accurate, and vice versa. (Not strict reciprocity, of course, since I’m sure he allows the possibility of ugly inaccurate translations.) Schafer didn’t exactly brag about the ugliness of his translations, but he pointedly did let everyone know that it wasn’t accidental.
    Furthermore, Schafer’s school often uses rare English words to translate common Chinese words, on the grounds that there’s no exact common equivalent. For example, the famous five holy mountains are translated as “marchmounts” because “holy mountain” is too general — the five holy mountains have a special geographical meaning which the many other more generic holy mountains do not have. Sometimes the coinages are in Latin. (Schafer’s students frequently give themselves away by using his coinages.
    But Schafer’s practice really traces back to Peter Budberg / Boodberg, a Russian emigre who taught at Berkeley. Around 1960 Kenneth Rexroth, one of the best of the literary translators of Chinese into English, made a barbed remark about the literary theories taught in St. Petersburg military schools, and Boodberg did indeed attend a St. Petersburg military school. One hypothesizes a nasty encounter at a social gathering.
    Boodberg was especially interested in the Turkish influence on Chinese culture. His collected papers are still available, and cheap, and I would recommend them to anyone who’s curious.
    I have very mixed feelings about the Boodberg-Schafer philosophy, but both of them produced scholarly works of enormous interest. Schafer in particular succeeded in digging very deep into the Chinese world view and the Chinese technical and symbolic understandings of astrology, geography, reincarnation, etc. “Mirages on the Sea of Time” successfully (though not poetically) translates one of the obscurest, most bizarre occult poets I have ever read.

  17. I might add that Russian military schools did make a considerable contribution to world culture: for example, Borodin, Musorgsky, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakoff all had military educations and all but Musorgsky had considerable military careers (Cui retired as a general). It’s not impossible that Boodberg’s and Nabokov’s theories of translation do trace back to some third person (an early Formalist?) who taught in a Russian military school.

  18. Boodberg sounds like an interesting guy—thanks for bringing him up. This review of his Selected Works (by Albert E. Dien) says “Boodberg’s insistence on high standards of scholarship did not descend to pedantry; rather he was warmly accepting of the accomplishments of the amateur and of the non-specialist, but fiercely intolerant of the inadequacies of the professional.” Apparently he “published” a lot of his work only in handouts: “Receipt of the ‘cedules,’ each a one-page, highly crammed analysis of a specific problem, depended on the happy circumstance of being in the neighborhood of the library when Boodberg appeared handing out his latest product.”

  19. Good god, and in this review Sarah Allan says “He was also widely believed to have completed several translations and other works, but before his death, which came not unexpectedly after a long illness, he destroyed his manuscripts leaving only the text of a lecture which he delivered in 1942 entitled ‘Turk, Aryan and Chinese in Ancient Asia’, a two-page ‘philologist’s creed’, and parts of the book on binomial expressions [in Old Chinese, submitted to Harvard UP around 1940 and withdrawn before publication] which he instructed should not be published.” What makes some authors get all self-destructive towards the end?

  20. The cedule “Philology in Translation Land” is rather more interesting (at just over a page) than the summary it gets in the Postscript to Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, where people may have got a taste of Boodberg’s strong opinions on translation theory, but none of his way of expressing them.

  21. Man, you weren’t kidding about the translations. Boodberg’s Lao Tzu starts:
    Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forwonted lodehead;
    Namecall namecall-brooking : no forwonted namecall.
          Having-naught namecalling : Heaven-Earth’s fetation,
          Having-aught namecalling : Myriad Mottlings’ mother.
    Desired—for to descry in view the minikin-subliminaria,
    Desired—for to descry in view the circuit-luminaria…
    And I thought Nabokov was nuts—at least he stuck to real words!

  22. The above comments remind me of A. C. Graham’s translation of 仙妾 (‘fairy maiden’) as ‘houri’ in Li Ho’s poetry. The word ‘houri’ lends a strong sense of Middle Eastern exoticism that may or may not be appropriate to the word 仙妾.

  23. I discovered there wasn’t a Wikipedia article for Boodberg, so I created one. It’s pretty bare-bones (I swiped the publications and references from the German one), so I encourage anyone who knows more about the man to add to it.

  24. The word “carrick” appears in Balzac’s “Le Colonel Chabert,” where the character is introduced with “Allons, encore notre vieux carrick!” – the Colonel’s coat (old-fashioned, out of date, ridiculous) reflects something about his character.
    Balzac uses the word again in a contribution to the Jan. 1831 issue of “La Caricature” called “Charges” in which he makes fun of an Englishman’s French:
    “Goddem! meusier le baussu, you avoir pris mon carrick que you salissez beaucoup en le traînant par terre.”

  25. Persephonia says

    I withdraw the comment about the carrick reflecting something about the colonel’s character. Upon further thought, that misrepresents how it works in the narrative. Sorry!

  26. I’m just reading Hofstadter’s “Le Ton Beau de Marot”. It’s better than I had expected — Hofstadter has a pretty good language background and is fond of the poem, whereas I had been led to expect that he was winging it the way a lot of high tech geniuses do. (“Let’s show these humanist imbeciles how it’s really done!”) But he goes on a bit too much about the old dilemma, “Literal/accurate vs. formal/poetic”.

  27. Celtic etymology
    eDIL carrac crec
    I’m not myself 100% sure what difference in sense among ‘stone’ / ‘rock’ / ‘cliff’ / ‘crag’ there is for all these pairs at various times: Old Welsh carrecc / creik, Old Irish carrac / crec, Welsh carreg / craig, and Irish/Gaelic carraig / creig.

  28. Persephonia, the derogatory allusion to vieux carrick does not describe the colonel’s own character (which we discover later) , but the colonel as a character at the beginning of the story, since his decrepit appearance and outdated, threadbare clothing make him look ridiculous in the eyes of others, especially the young clerks who try to bully him. The lawyer, on the other hand, will see through his miserable appearance and try to help the old man, who is neither as old nor as dimwitted as he seems but has gone through incredible hardships.

  29. After getting deeper into Hofstadter’s Marot, I’m liking him less. Much of the book is in Language Hat territory, but he develops ideas at enormous length which are fairly commonplace to most people here, and he frequently reinvents the wheel.
    He also doesn’t seem to recognize that some of what he says about translating light, graceful occasional poem wouldn’t be true about translations of something denser.

  30. I find these etymology threads utterly fascinating and simply wanted to add that neither French CURRICLE nor CABRIOLER can stem directly from the Latin etyma, CURRICULUM and CAPREOLUS respectively (neither Latin intervocalic /k/ nor initial /ka/ remain unscathed in the evolution from Latin to French). The former must be a learned borrowing from Latin: as for the latter, the voicing of /p/ to /b/ makes me suspect a loan from Provencal. So both words are indeed “from Latin”, but in neither case did French directly inherit the word: in one case the word was directly borrowed from Latin, in the other it borrowed a Provencal word that was itself inherited from Latin.

  31. Just to spread Dada confusion: I once asked myself whether coracle / carrack / cog in European lnguages (ships and boats) had any connection with the Eskimo / Turkish kayak.
    It’s not quite as fanciful as it seems, because the word kayak in some form was found in most Turkish languages and their neighboring languages (at the link), and could have reached the British Isles via Finland and Scandinavia during prehistoric times.
    But pretty darn fanciful nonetheless.

  32. Etienne, by Provençal you mean Occitan (Provençal being only one of the varieties of Occitan).
    Not only the p >b (not v) but the initial ca- show that cabriole (like cabri ‘goat kid’) is a borrowing from Occitan. However, the word cabriolet for the vehicle is a French derivation.
    But curricle as a French word ??????

  33. Marie-Lucie, is there an ethnic slur for the Occitan people? I need a critical terminology for those occasions when I find Bernart de Ventadorn tedious.

  34. I have more than once thought there should be a database of ethnic/national slurs to and from every group for which such exist. Sure, if you run across the slur you can find the definition, but how do you know the proper way to insult a Luxembourgeois or Monegasque who has offended you? Or, in this case, an Occitan. (Though I personally have always found Bernart de Ventadorn an enjoyable companion.)

  35. There’s a diachronic dimension too: while today “Provencal” only refers to a dialect of a greater whole (Occitan), the prestigious literary language of the Middle Ages is called Old Provencal (Ancien Provencal), never “Old Occitan”.

  36. Graham Asher says

    Well, just so we know what we’re talking about, there’s a nice picture of a Carrick coat here:
    My theory is that it was first made in one of the places called Carrick (e.g., the one in Donegal, Ireland). A lot of names for clothes come from the places where they were first made. There was also a coat called an Ulster, ‘as every schoolboy knows’.

  37. I guess “Occitan motherfucker” will have to be it next time Bernart rankles my ass. I’d really like something a bit classier though.

  38. Well, Swearasaurus has a very limited selection of Occitan curses (yet another sign of the low estate of the once-proud langue d’oc!), but it says viech d’ase is ‘donkey cock,’ so you might try that.

  39. “And why is it called the Carrock?” asked Bilbo as he went along at the wizard’s side.

    “He called it the Carrock, because carrock is his word for it. He calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well.”

    The Hobbit, referring to a stony eyot in the River Anduin

  40. Gandalf is, as is perhaps the habit of angels (even incarnate ones) when talking to mortals, oversimplifying (cf. Gabriel to Adam in Paradise Lost): the etymology is Old Welsh cerrecc, modern carreg.

  41. The OED email address is now defunct, alas, but on the other hand we now know that the derogatory term for an Occitan-speaker is moko.

  42. That passage in The Hobbit was quite puzzling to me when I went back to read the book when I was in my teens. It was probably the fourth time I had read the book, and it was the first time that I particularly noticed that passage. What struck me as odd was that, by that point, I had come to consider “carrock” a perfectly ordinary (if very uncommon) English word. That made Gandalf’s explanation seem nonsensical. Doubtless, I had first encountered the word when The Hobbit was first read to me at age five, but I had come across it once or twice in other sources in the intervening decade or so.

    Perhaps the key point is that Beorn’s language was not closely related to Westron, since Tolkien was choosing to represent his vocabulary as Celtic.

  43. Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary refers carrock and several other spellings to currick, and defines the latter as “1. A cairn, a heap of stones, used as a boundary mark, burial place, or guide for travelers. 2. A distant mountain by which, when the sun appears over it, the country folk tell the time of day.”

    So I think the intention is not that Beorn speaks something other than Westron or one of its close relatives (his Old English name signals that) but that he speaks a country dialect, indeed the dialect of Northumbria and (significantly) Cumbria — he says of the Orcs at one point, “One day they shall perish and I shall go back [to the North].” Furthermore, the Carrock of Anduin is far more than a cairn, but less than a distant mountain, so the name may be either ironic understatement or exaggeration.

    Tom Shippey says in The Road to Middle-Earth:

    […] Bilbo on one occasion screwed up his courage to ask why something was called ‘The Carrock’. Because it was, replied Gandalf nastily: [quotation omitted]. This is unhelpful, and not even true, since carrecc is Old Welsh for ‘rock’, preserved in several modern names like Crickhowell in Brecon (or Crickhollow in the Buckland). However, Gandalf has put his finger on one point about names, which is that they are arbitrary, even if they were not so in the beginning. Once upon a time all names were like ‘Gandalf’ or ‘The Hill’ […] However, that is not how names are now perceived.

  44. Parolista says

    I’m still left wondering where Nabokov came up with the obscure, if existent at all, English word “carrick.” He also uses it in a footnote to his book on Gogol (p.144), but why would he use it? He must have known that it was not in the English lexicon. Using words that have fallen into disuse or are obscure is one thing, inventing words that contribute to insight or have understandable or empathic connotation is another, but using a word that no dictionary includes and can only be speculated about seems like a childish parade of intelligence or summpin’.

  45. I entirely agree.

  46. I’m inclined to think it was probably just an error. He probably remembered the word from French but did not realize that (unlike many fashion terms), it had not really made the transition to English.

  47. I find that implausible, simply because Nabokov was so obsessive about English vocabulary. He wasn’t the sort to make such assumptions.

  48. The OED says they have sources, so if Nabokov knew of those same sources, it would belong to the group of “words that have fallen into disuse or are obscure”. But then again he may have imported it into English from French himself. In addition, there are lots of words not in dictionaries, especially technical terms (which this arguably is).

    Thomas Hardy told a story of looking in the OED to see if a word he wanted to use was there, found that it was, and then found that the only citation was from one of his own works from twenty years before. Work on the OED began when Hardy was seventeen, and the first edition was published in its entirety the year he died.

  49. I can’t believe I didn’t quote the whole passage when I made the post, but I just revisited it and found it even odder than I remembered:

    This is the fur collar of the deep-caped, ample-sleeved shinel’ of Alexander I’s era, which was a cross between a civilian greatcoat (or box coat) and an army cloak of the period; a glorified capote or, quite exactly, a furred carrick — the English homecoming from France of une karrick (derived from Garrick — the English actor David Garrick, 1717-79, whose name, curiously enough, came from Garric — a Huguenot family).

  50. That does read to me as if VVN knew he was introducing a new borrowing from French. He’s quite right about the antecedents of David Garrick, whose grandfather was a Huguenot from Languedoc. The Garrick family also has Portuguese members named Guarriges. As to whether Garrick wore a karrick, deponent sayeth not.

  51. I have very exciting news about carricks and шинели. Will post when I get home tonight.

  52. I’m excited!

  53. OK, now I’m feeling self-conscious, because I surely used the wrong case of shinel’, and furthermore what I discovered is certainly not news, and may be exciting only to me. Nonetheless, I will still post it tonight.

  54. I’m reading Nabokov’s translation of A Hero of Our Time, and I read the following passage with great excitement:

    “I lay down on the couch, wrapped myself in my military overcoat, left the candle burning on the stove ledge and soon dozed off.”

    Could it be, I wondered, that the narrator is actually wrapped in a carrick, and that Nabokov has butchered the translation by calling it a ‘military overcoat’? I went to check the Russian text:

    “Я лег на диван, завернувшись в шинель и оставив свечу на лежанке, скоро задремал”

    My Russian is not very good, but thanks to this thread it is good enough that I can always scan a text to determine if carricks are being discussed. And indeed, it is a carrick, and no military overcoat is in sight. As horrifying as such a mistake is, from most translators it would not be shocking. However, I never would have expected such a blunder from Nabokov, who writes in his foreword:

    “This is the first English translation of Lermontov’s novel. The book has been paraphrased into English several times, but never translated before. The experienced hack may find it quite easy to turn Lermontov’s Russian into slick English cliches by means of judicious omission, amplification, and levigation; and he will tone down everything that might seem unfamiliar to the meek and imbecile reader visualized by his publisher. But the honest translator is faced with a different task.”

    In seriousness, I’m a little disappointed that for whatever reason, he didn’t stick to his guns in this particular translation. Perhaps he does care a little about the poor “meek and imbecile reader”, who doesn’t even know what a carrick is.

  55. Or maybe he forgot about his great trouvaille. In any case, excellent detective work, and I thank you for passing it along!

  56. The whole point of artistic and literary manifestos, as Frye says somewhere, is to enunciate principles of art that are entirely contrary to the practice of those who write and sign them. A fine example is the Imagists, who preach about the intense clarity and perspicuity of their ideal poetry, to the point where it captures the visual in words, all the while writing poems that are obscure, hieratic, and intelligible only to the elect.

  57. I’ve already gotten a response from the OED:
    “Our files contain a very few examples of both the ‘overcoat’ and ‘cape’ sense of CARRICK, but nothing at all for the ‘vehicle’ sense, which is not recorded in the standard sources. I shall add your material to our new words file, to ensure that it is considered by our new words team in due course.”

    I’m sad, and frankly a bit shocked, that after fifteen years they haven’t dealt with this.

  58. Give them time, it’s a big language and growing every day (which means the obscure parts tend to get pushed to the back of the queue).

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