Familiae Rossicae.

I was looking up something else in my Russian edition (Русские фамилии, Moscow: Progress, 1995) of Unbegaun’s Russian Surnames when I found myself getting lost in Boris Uspensky‘s essay “Социальная жизнь русских фамилий” [The social life of Russian family names], appended to Unbegaun’s text. I was first struck by a passage on the history of the name Zinoviev (my translation):

For example, the Russian noble family [род] of the Zinovievs goes back to the Polish-Lithuanian family of the Zenovichi [Зеновичи], of Serbian origin: the Serbian Zenovichi despots, having moved to Lithuania, started calling themselves Zenov’evichi [Зеновьевичи], and afterwards, in Great Russian territory, they were renamed Zinovievs [Зиновьевы].

On the next page, Uspensky writes:

The capacity of Russian family names for modification, adapting themselves to one or another social norm, should not surprise us, if we bear in mind that family names are a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. This is evidenced by, among other things, the foreign origin of the word фамилия [‘family name’], which was borrowed in the 17th century, originally meaning ‘clan, family’ [род, семья] (corresponding to the meaning of the Latin or Polish word familia); the sense of a designation for the family began to crystallize around the 1730s, but did not become solidly fixed until the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. It is instructive that until the 18th century there was no way in Russian to adequately express the concept (such words as прозвище and прозвание could refer either to family or individual appellations).

In a footnote, he quotes this delightful passage from Vyazemsky‘s notebooks:

В каком-то губернском городе дворянство представлялось императору Александру, в одно из многочисленных путешествий его по России. Не расслышав порядочно имени одного из представлявшихся дворян, обратился он к нему: “Позвольте спросить, ваша фамилия?” — “Осталась в деревне, ваше величество, — отвечает он, — но, если прикажите, сейчас пошлю за нею”.

In a certain provincial capital, the nobility was being presented to the Emperor Alexander during one of his many journeys around Russia. Not having heard properly the name of one of the nobles being presented, he turned to him: “Your familia, if I may ask?” “They’re back in the village, Your Majesty,” he answered, “but if Your Majesty wishes, I can send for them.”


  1. In a certain provincial capital

    Doubtless The city of N! But if it was on the Polish side of the empire, the error would be natural.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    In classical Latin at any rate, “familia” is “household” rather than “family” in our sense.

    It’s related to “famulus”, “servant, slave.”

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    “Family” would more likely be “domus” (as in “Fall of the House of Usher.”)

  4. In the same footnote he tells a better documented story which makes little doubt that even early in XIX c., the meaning of “familia” was fixed and it was understood only as “surname” (the case of Derzhavin’s will, originally invalidated in the Senate in 1818 because the 1714 law on inheritance of childless property owners restricted any such property transfers to “familia”, but Derzhavin willed it to a relative who didn’t share his “surname”). The case was appealed to the State Council of the Russian Empire which clarified that the word in the century-old document meant “family”.

    The Alexander I (or in other sources, Nicholas I) “familia” anecdote isn’t cited there as a plausible actual story, but rather as an evidence that the confusion “in the opposite direction” was still considered plausible enough to at least make a joke about an oldtimer out of it.

  5. The familia/фамилия pun has of course been used many times in literature. Thus, when Švejk is taken prisoner by/deserts to the Russians (in a posthumous sequel to Hašek’s unfinished work, I believe, written by Karel Vaněk based on Hašek’s drafts), they start the interrogation by routinely asking him: “Фамилия?” – to which he replies, “Why, it’s mighty nice of you to ask after my family, etc.”

  6. Many more interesting and weird mini-discoveries there. Say he explains “Олух” “fool, loser” (and apparently linked to a more recent “лох”) as a diminutive form of the personal name Елевферий (Gr. ἐλεύθερος “independent”). Or mentions that the future father-in-laws of the Romanov czars were routinely renamed Feodors before the marriage (so the brides would get “Fedorovna” as their patronymics), apparently because St. Mary Feodorovskaya was the Romanov’s family relic and protector

  7. SFReader says

    Reading Wiki about Russian Zinovievs found funny anecdote.

    Zinoviev, Kirill Lvovich (b. 1910), he applied for the British citizenship during so-called “Zinoviev letter” scandal (fake directive from Communist International official Zinoviev to the Communist Party of Great Britain), so he decided to be called by his patronymic – Lvovich, which he translated into English as Fitzlyon – the son of the lion.

    His wife, April Fitzlyon, was translator of Russian literature as well as historian and biographer


  8. The capacity of Russian family names for modification
    Non-Russian surnames sometimes are surprisingly easy to adapt. I have an old friend, a Russian with old Scottish roots, whose surname Макмилин sounds so natural that you’d never think it’s Scottish unless you make an effort.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    On the other hand, some Scots names are more intractable, as with


    dear to us all from “War and Peace.”

  10. AJP Lloyd says

    Speculation on the history of the Scottish name Barclay in English.

  11. SFReader says

    “In the nineteen days between the evacuation of Smolensk and the battle of Borodino Barclay’s popularity reached its lowest point among the troops. The soldiers had been told they would bury Napoleon on the river Dvina and then that they would fight to the death first for Vitebsk and then for Smolensk. Each promise had been broken and the hated retreat had continued. After Smolensk the same pattern continued, with the soldiers first being ordered to dig fortifications on a chosen battlefield and then retreating yet again when either Barclay or Bagration considered the position unsuitable. They nicknamed their commander-in-chief ‘Nothing but Chatter’ (Boltai da Tol’ko) as a pun on Barclay de Tolly.” (c) Dominic Lieven “Russia Against Napoleon”

  12. The name Barclay, pronounced the Russian way (bark-LIE), fits in nicely with names of less distant origin, such as Poryvay, Migay, Shamray (Ukrainian/Cossack), Kollontay (Polish), Gab(b)ay (Hebrew) and Gallay (a Jewish surname of unclear origin). As a curious example, some time in the 1920s or 1930s the Mari composer Yakov Ishpaykin adopted an artistic alias, Eshpay (ash-PIE); his son Andrey Eshpay is a well-known songwriter.

    The standard Russification of Ramsay (rahm-ZYE) would fit in even better.

  13. not to mention the many Russian Gordons.

  14. SFReader says

    -The name Barclay, pronounced the Russian way (bark-LIE)

    Barclay = BARK+LAI

    second syllable is literal translation of the first…

  15. are you referring to LIE-bores? (Libor)

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Aren’t Russian Gordons mostly Jewish?

    I have always thought of it as a Jewish name without reflecting on the Scotticity.
    Now that I’ve thought about it I did some googling and found that it’s all true, probably:


  17. David Eddyshaw says

    “Gordon only became a Jewish surname in the early 19th century” says the link; but I think Ashkenazim were in general late in adopting surnames until compelled to do so by Tsarist and Austro-Hungarian officialdom.


    This link also suggests that “Gordon” is, more boringly, either a place-name-derived surname from “Grodno” or from “gorodin.”

    Another group of late adopters of surnames were the Swedes, who sometimes adopted rather similar strategies in creating them to Ashkenazim, with the result that Swedish names not obviously from patronymics sometimes have a spuriously Jewish appearance.

    Apparently there are more people called “Anderson” in Sweden than the entire population of Iceland.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Another ectopic Scots name (familiar to Wittgenstein groupies)


    pronounced fɔnˈvrɪkːt

    (Swedish-speaking, like almost all the Finns you’ve actually heard of.)

  19. From AJP’s Wikipedia link:

    “Since the eighteenth century, Barclay historians, noted for their low level in medieval scholarship…”


  20. On the Jewishness of the Gordons, it might well be the same story as with Levin/Lyovin. When pushed to register a surname, they chose what sounded vaguely familiar, Gordon from Grodno or Levin from Levit.

  21. Patrick Gordon (and a few other Catholic exiles from Scotland) joined the Russian army before most Russians and Ashkenazim equipped themselves with last names.

    By the way, how was “Wright” pronounced in Scots in the 17th century, and how would it be pronounced today? Like “recht”? Why did “Greig” become “Grieg” in Norway (while remaining Грейг in Russia)?

  22. AJP Royal Bank of Scotland says

    In English, there’s no rule that -ie or -ei are always pronounced only one way. Scottish Greig comes from Gregg, apparently, whereas (like German) the spelling “Greig” would be pronounced in Norwegian with the i-vowel in “bribe”. In Norwegian it’s pronounced like English “Grigg” but with a trilled R. That’s pretty close to the Scots.

    “…Barclay historians, noted for their low level in medieval scholarship…”
    Yeah, what’s that about? Myself, I’ve never liked their bank.

  23. Levin/Lyovin

    Jewish males who by tradition considered themselves descendants of the biblical Levites were called Firstname Levi or Levy, or sometimes HaLevi (where the Ha is the Hebrew definite article). When required to assume a surname, German Löwe, Löwin, Löwen, Löwinnen (lion) (ditto in Yiddish) were natural choices, and from there to Levin, Levine, etc., is a short walk.

  24. Surnames starting with a /k/ sound were also apparently popular among the kohanim; my family name in the old country was Katznelsonoff.

  25. Katz is an acronym for kohen tzaddik. Jewish names are a rare exception to the rule that acronymic etymologies for words introduced before very recent times (laser etc.) are incorrect.

  26. one more surprising tidbit I found reading Uspensky is about the words of the high/low registers of spoken Russian requiring different “G” sounds, like God would have been fricative but goddess, plosive, as late as in ca. 1900. He cites a whole verse of Lomonosov where different G’s – all spelled with the same letter – alliterate from line to line to illustrate this, then important and now pretty much lost, peculiarity.

  27. a whole verse of Lomonosov where different G’s – all spelled with the same letter – alliterate from line to line

    Wow! Could you give us this one?

  28. Close; Katz is an acronym for kohen tzedek. Other Cohen famil y names are the Aramaized Kahana and the Russianized Kagan and Kogan. Kaplan is a calque of Cohen, ‘priest’.

  29. “О сомнительном произношении буквы Г в Российском языке”
    (sorry this copy has all new orthography, no yats, no ers”

    Бугристы берега, благоприятны влаги,
    О горы с гроздами, где греет юг ягнят.
    О грады, где торги, где мозгокружны браги,
    И деньги, и гостей, и годы их губят.
    Драгие ангелы, пригожие богини,
    Бегущие всегда от гадкия гордыни,
    Пугливы голуби из мягкого гнезда.
    Угодность с негою, огромные чертоги,
    Недуги наглые и гнусные остроги,
    Богатство, нагота, слуги и господа.
    Угрюмы взглядами, игрени, пеги, смуглы,
    Багровые глаза, продолговаты, круглы.
    И кто горазд гадать и лгать, да не мигать,
    Играть, гулять, рыгать и ногти огрызать,
    Ногаи, булгары, гуроны, геты, гунны,
    Тугие головы, о иготи чугунны,
    Гневливые враги и гладкословный друг,
    Толпыги, щеголи, когда вам есть досуг.
    От вас совета жду, я вам даю на волю:
    Скажите, где быть га и где стоять глаголю

  30. “Где быть га,” that is “ha,” right? Lomonosov seems to be making fun of those who insisted that г be pronounced as h in certain words, by showing that a workable rule to distinguish between the two modes would be impossible. Was that a pronunciation style introduced by the Ukrainian and Belarusian clergy who had a great influence on the Russian church from the 1650s? (To some degree, the whole schism business looks like a takeover of the Moscow church by the better educated, more worldly Ukrainians.)

    This said, I pronounce “Бог его знает” as Бохъегознает, and “Бог с ним” as Бохсним. I pronounce “лёгкий” and “легко” as лёхкий, лехко but “лёгонький” as лёгонькəй. I grew up in Moscow and have no Ukrainian or Southern Russian ancestry.

  31. @Brett: Katznelsonoff is an unusual Russification of Katznelson, a relatively common Jewish surname in the former Russian Empire and USSR. But is it related to Katz? If Katznel is short for Katzenel(le)nbogen, probably not.

  32. Wow, that Lomonosov poem is fascinating; it was worth making the post just to see that!

  33. Alexei K. You are probably just following the usual rule about г before глухие/звонкие (unvoiced/voiced?) consonants.

  34. This little note from 1999 does support [h] into [g] intrusion into Moscow speech, but the evidence is anecdotal.

  35. Anecdotal, but it sounds as if something’s going on. Interesting stuff.

  36. The whole essay of Uspensky can be read here. It appears that Lomonosov wasn’t ironic or skeptical, but in fact seriously intended to improve the reading skills of the public, by making it easier to systematically recognize the words of high register / Orthodoxy-related vocabulary. Yet the simple recipes (“use fricative g when the word is present in the bible, or is a compound word uncharacteristic for a spoken word”) run into numerous ambiguities where same words occupy high and low registers and may be pronounced either way. In Uspensky’s phonetic reconstruction, about a quarter of the “g” sounds were ambiguous, and he relied on alliteration and phonetic harmony of the verse to assign the “G” vs. “H” category to these ambiguously voiced letters.

    There is one additional cool example of plosive vs. fricative G’s effectively spelled out – in Fonvisin’s representation of the German accent of Vral’man. In Vral’man’s speech, plosive g’s turn into K’s, and fricative, into H’s (плахоротiе for благородие but калафа for голова)

  37. Katznelson indeed goes back to Katzenelnbogen ‘cat’s elbow’, a town (and a former principality) east of Koblenz. Guggenheimer’s Jewish Family Names and Their Origins says that some Katzes are indeed Kohanim, others ultimately come from the nickname ‘cat’, and others yet are an abbreviation of Katsav ‘butcher’.

  38. As it happens, situation with sounds that г covers is more difficult than an untrained observer is likely to notice. On top of usual modification before voiced/unvoiced consonants, educated/uneducated town/country speech, North/South split there are not 2, but 3 basic sounds. Details are here.

  39. Nice link, but while the point of the essay is that there are three varieties of spoken г, [g], [γ], and [ĥ], the map only shows the first two.

  40. Unfortunately, they ignore Ukraine where [ĥ] is native and count it as “intrusive” in Russia…

  41. Another map of theirs surprised me a whole lot more – it looks like the whole swath of North-Eastern Russia reappropriated participle -to in the same as Bulgarian with its word-final definitive article. But the Bulgarian development is usually thought of as something unique to the Balkan Sprachbund and unmatched elsewhere in the Slavic world … so in light of the NE Russian usage, it really isn’t that unique? What explains the link?

  42. participle -to Are you sure? I remember dimly from my readings on Russian dialectology that it’s actually a petrified form of the demonstrative tot, and that in older forms of Russian also inflected forms could be used that way. IIRC, it never became a full-blown postponed article like in Bulgarian. I need to dig in my library…

  43. I was guessing Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA) meant “particle,” but I’ll let him clarify.

  44. yes of course, particle [blush] and with demonstrative properties but it maintains agreement with the noun in these dialects

  45. @Alexei K.: According to family lore, the name was Katznelsonoff, but it’s possible that was garbled. I’ve certainly encountered other Katznelsons but no Katznelsonoffs. It’s also possible that my great great grandfather, who was the last person to use the historical family surname, may have changed it from one to the other. He was a many of many names, it seems; we have records of him using at least four given names and two surnames over the years.

  46. SFReader says

    Russian Wiki article on articles discusses this topic.

    Для говоров русского языка северо-восточной части территории их раннего формирования характерно наличие склоняемой постпозитивной частицы -то (происходящей от формы указательного местоимения *тъ), которая может изменяться по родам, числам и в отдельном случае по падежам (стол-от, крыша-та, окно-то, крышу-ту, столы-те, крыши-те, окна-те, или столы-ти, столы-ты и т. п.) и сочетаться при этом со всеми частями речи. Основной функцией данной частицы, близкой к функции просодических средств русского литературного языка, является подчёркивание, выделение того или иного слова (или слов) в высказывании[5].
    Ранее среди исследователей русских диалектов (М. Г. Халанский, А. И. Соболевский, А. А. Шахматов, П. Я. Черных, В. А. Богородицкий и другие) была распространённой точка зрения о близости русской частицы -то по функциональным свойствам к постпозитивным артиклям в болгарском языке. Этот вывод был сделан прежде всего по сходству фонетического облика и позиции в слове лексем двух языков. Такая точка зрения сохраняется и в настоящее время среди некоторых диалектологов (Leinonen M., Stadnik-Holzer E. и другие), которые пытаются объединить оба взгляда на постпозитивную частицу — она представляется как артикль с экспрессивным значением, объединяющим одновременно функции и определённости, и экспрессивности.
    Одним из первых взгляд на постпозитивную частицу как на артикль ещё в 30-х годах XX века опроверг А. М. Селищев. Позднее к подобным выводам пришли В. К. Чичагов, И. Б. Кузьмина, Е. В. Немченко и другие. А. М. Селищев, в частности, писал, что «частицы [от, та, ти, ту, те] не имеют значения членных элементов, значения, свойственного болгарским -ьт, -та, -ту, -те; русские — -от, -та, -то имеют эмфатическое значение, а не значение определения называемого предмета…Роль этих частиц та же, что и частицы -то…С этими частицами употребляются не только имена нарицательные, но и собственные, не только прилагательные и местоимения, но и наречия»[6]. Тем не менее, диалектологи И. А. Букринская и О. Е. Кармакова отмечают, что в северо-восточных и восточных русских диалектах развитие сочетаний имён с частицей тъ пошло в том же направлении, что и в болгарском языке — от частицы к артиклю, выполняя ту же функцию: сочетаются со словами, обозначающими факты и события, уже известные говорящему и слушающему или просто общеизвестные[7].

    in short, some philologists say it’s definitive article, others dispute this and say it only has emphatic meaning.

  47. @D.O.: Yes, it seems that my pronunciation is pretty close to the literary norm as recorded in this 1988 dictionary: хькь in лёгкий. Nothing to see here.

    I thought that Бог was a different case because I only pronounce х in some fixed expressions that I probably picked up from my grandmother. But the same dictionary insists that it should be бох in the nominative and that бок is simply wrong.

  48. @Brett, @Paul Ogden: Anita Shapira writes in her 1984 biography of Berl Katznelson: “In Bobruysk, there was a saying that if one threw a stone, one could be sure of hitting a Katznelson.” Berl came from an “impoverished and humble branch of the clan.” In contrast, Nissan (Nison) Katzenelson, a Duma deputy and an early Zionist, came from a well-off branch; his mother’s house in Bobruysk, now a library, is still known as “дом купчихи Кацнельсон.” His distant relative, also a Bobruysk native, Avraham-Nissan Katznelson was a signatory to the Israeli declaration of independence. It also appears that most of the Katz(e)nelsons of the former Russian Empire lived in what is now Belarus or Latvia or the very north of Ukraine (Chernihiv).

    Russian-language sources put the stress the next-to-last syllable for some Katznelsons and on the last syllable for others. Native Russian speakers tend to stress “son” in polysyllabic words almost instinctively.

  49. But the same dictionary insists that it should be бох in the nominative and that бок is simply wrong.

    That’s what I was taught (many decades ago, of course).

  50. @Alexei K.: My ancestors on that side were indeed from Bobruysk, so theit name was probably just “Katznelson.”

  51. That’s what I was taught (many decades ago, of course).

    According to the sources cited by Uspensky, if you step back a few more decades, then you find a recommended distinction between “Бох” vs. “бок Посейдон” (the Pagan gods were voiced with a plosive “g”, while the fricative sound, and the capitalization, were reserved for Jesus)

  52. That’s great, and what’s funny is that if I imagine myself saying “бог Посейдон” I probably would say it as /bok/ rather than /box/, I have no idea why. Maybe my subconscious has assimilated Orthodox traditions.

  53. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    It’s similar to how in Polish the dative of the word for the monotheistic god is only Bogu (irregular, only a small closed class of masculine nouns retains the -u ending, for instance brat, pan, pies, too), while dictionaries permit either bogu or bogowi in polytheistic contexts.

    “so in light of the NE Russian usage, it really isn’t that unique? What explains the link?”

    What, no-one has proposed a Thracian substrate there yet? :>

  54. David Marjanović says

    But the same dictionary insists that it should be бох in the nominative and that бок is simply wrong.

    That’s what I was taught (many decades ago, of course).

    It’s also what I was taught just 2 decades ago.

  55. Jimmy Wales says that it would be quite in order for Putin to edit the Derzhavin article at WP.ru.


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