From Chickenman to Eagleton.

I’ve barely begun reading Michael S. Gorham’s 2003 Speaking in Soviet Tongues: Language Culture and the Politics of Voice in Revolutionary Russia (which incorporates his article “Mastering the Perverse: State Building and Language ‘Purification’ in Early Soviet Russia,” discussed in this 2008 post), and I’m already hooked — it’s one of those dense books whose every page provides material to think about. There are all kinds of passages I could quote, but for the moment I’ll limit myself to this (from pages 30-31), on the adoption of new family names (I’ve incorporated the footnotes, bracketed, in the text):

A less well-known study of registered name changes in the early Soviet years brings this point to bear, by showing that, apart from those taking on surnames in the Soviet spirit (Maiskaia, Oktiabr’skii, Leninskii, Mashininskii, Kombainov, Boitsov), hundreds of other citizens took advantage of the spirit of revolution to realize their own, personal transformation, which often had little or nothing to do with supporting or resisting the state. [Surnames listed are derived, in order, from the Russian words for “May,” “October,” “Lenin,” “machine,” “combine,” and “fighter.” …] Some took the opportunity to abandon derogatory “talking” surnames (a relatively common trait in Russian), such as Sobachkin, Korovin, Krysov, Tarakanov, Dikarev, Negodiaev, Durakov, Zhirnyi, Sliun’kov, Pupkov, Pupkin, Kulibaba, Likhobaba, and Sorokobabkin. [Surnames derived, in order, from the Russian words for “dog,” “cow,” “rat,” “cockroach,” “savage,” “scoundrel,” “fool,” “fat,” “saliva,” “navel [pup],” “coolie wench,” “varmint wench,” and “blabbermouth wench.” …] Others simply opted for more prestigious, poetic, or euphonic names — again, having little to do with the new Soviet order per se (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Onegin, Nevskii, Gorskii, Amurskii, Uralov, Anis’ia KhliupinaGalina Borovaia, SamodurovPoliarnyi, KurochkaOrlov). [The first surnames listed are derived from names of Russian writers or fictional characters … and geographical references (Neva, gora [“mountain”], Amur, Urals). In the “before → after” examples, Anis’ia Khliupina rejects a surname evocative of “sloshing” or “slogging” (e.g., through the mud) for one that recalls a pine forest (acquiring a more classical, high-society given name as well), a “self-made fool” becomes “the polar one,” and “Chickenman” becomes “Eagleton.”]

I loved seeing Pupkin in the second list, a name indelibly associated with Robert De Niro’s great role in The King of Comedy,


  1. john burke says

    From Wikipedia:

    Sam Spiegel (November 11, 1901 – December 31, 1985) was an Austrian-born American independent film producer…

    Between 1935 and 1954, Spiegel billed himself as S. P. Eagle.

  2. Wow! I didn’t know that changing names to better-sounding ones was a thing back then. You’ve made a remarkable job of explaining the meaning of Russian names, but a few nit-picks are in order
    1) Etymology of the name Kulibaba is unclear
    2) Sorokobabkin may reference magpie, but may also come from “forty”
    3) Borovaia may also come from a word for boar.
    4) Samodurov is, of course, from samodur, which is not a “self-made fool”, but a small-level boss who lords over his underlings on a whim or contrary to the legal or moral principles. I cannot describe the concept more succinctly, Google translate gives “petty tyrant” which is maybe a good enough approximation.

  3. You’ve made a remarkable job of explaining the meaning of Russian names

    Just to be clear, those are Gorham’s explanations, not mine. I agree with your nitpicks.

  4. Well, at least one Comrade Slunkov did well for himself in spite of keeping his proud ancestral name: he was a member of the Politbureau for a few years right before the Soviet Union collapsed. Somewhere near the end of the list, admittedly, just before “…и другие официальные лица,” but still one of the top 20 or so in the hierarchy. Not bad for a Mr Spit!

    There is also a wonderful poem on the subject by Nikolai Oleinikov; here it is along with an analysis by Oleg Lekmanov:

  5. It is indeed a wonderful poem! Interesting that Mr. Goat also wanted to be an Eagle.

  6. According to Lekmanov, Orlov was a very popular choice among those looking for a “nicer” name.

  7. Re: politburo member Slunkov. The old Soviet joke was that when troubles surfaced in some region of USSR politburo has sent comrades Zam’atin and Zagladin [real surnames of Soviet big-wigs] to deal with it. Zam’at’ = hush, paper over; zagladit’ = make amends, smooth out.

  8. SFReader says

    Re: Nikolai Oleinikov

    The guy killed his own father during the Russian Civil War.

    Due to political disagreements, says the recently found document.

    After the war, he became avant-garde poet and playwright and picked a telling pen name – Makar Svirepy (Makar the Cruel), in clear reference to his father Makar Oleinikov.

    It was that sort of people who were creating new Soviet poetry back in 1920s.

  9. There’s no mention of it in Wikipedia; where did you see it? In any case, he was shot in 1937, so he paid for whatever sins he committed.

  10. SFReader says

    It’s right there in that Wikipedia article. Last paragraph on his biography:

    В 2015 году стал известен документ, согласно которому Олейников убил своего отца, во время Гражданской войны выдавшего его белым[1].

  11. Woops, missed it — thanks!

  12. SFReader says

    Oleinikov wrote strange poetry – absurd, humorous and very dark at the same time.

    His most popular line:

    Страшно жить на этом свете,
    В нём отсутствует уют, —
    Ветер воет на рассвете,
    Волки зайчика грызут

  13. The first thing that popped up in my mind was Sergei Yesenin’s dramatic poem or poetic drama “Страна негодяев,” The Country of Scoundrels. It has characters named Chekistov, Rassvetov (Nikandr!) and Zamarashkin. A very interesting work from 1923-24.

    Nikolai Oleinikov’s parents were well-off Don Cossacks. They supported the Whites but Nikolai joined the Red Army in 1917 or 18, at age 18 or 19. When his native stanitsa was captured by the Whites, his own father denounced Nikolai as a Bolshevik. The son was arrested and would have faced the firing squad if he had not escaped. His friends found Oleinikov preternaturally mature for his young age.

    “Kozlov” does not really mean “Mr. Goat” since, like most Russian names, it’s a genitive, so it implies a connection to the goat but the goat itself. It doesn’t make people laugh – unlike “Kozel,” which sounds really bad – ask a Fiztekh graduate.

  14. Re: Kozlov/Kozel. It is just a matter of familiarity. Russian prefers “genitive” for surnames because they come from or are modeled on patronymics. But Ukrainian, for example, retained bare nicknames as surnames (Russian for the last name is “familia”, but Ukrainian is “prizvyshche” = nickname). That’s like trying to make a distinction between Mr. Goat and Mr. Goatson.

  15. It’s a matter of familiarity, but since Russian surnames are indeed similar to patronymics, they suggest not so much identification as relatedness. Also, some of the names above – Kozlov, Tarakanov, Durakov – were borne by noble families (not exclusively), who seemed to be proud of them. The poet Ivan Kozlov produced an influential translation of Charles Wolfe’s funeral poem. Princess Tarakanova was a rare beauty, according to legend.

  16. Well, I’m not sure it’s that much better to be related to a cockroach than to be one…

  17. Princess Tarakanova was a rare beauty, according to legend

    She was supposed to be Razumovskaya, after her father per her legend, and apparently never called herself “Tarakanova”. Wikipedia claims that this name was a later invention by a (non-Russian-speaking) historian Jean-Henri Castéra

  18. I read that “Animal surnames” like Volkov or Kozlov, while generally widespread in Russia, were particularly common in the Upper-Middle Volga Basin, especially around Yaroslavl, where they might have been totemic in nature and ultimately predating Slavization of the Finnic substrate, but I can’t find a reference to it now.

    It’s also suggested that many stories of the “early Soviet name-coining” are at least partly based on pure invention. These stories list many too-good-too-true (but apparently never attested in real documents) names like the infamous Dazdraperma mentioned numerous times in Languagehat archives (for example in this very similar post). Kind of like someone first mentioned a crazy name as joke, someone else repeated it, eventually the context got lost and it’s cited around as a true-blue fact.

  19. Well, I’m not sure it’s that much better to be related to a cockroach than to be one…

    Sometimes there is more than a bit of folk etymology in it, and no real “cockroach”. Like Tarakanov might have been from corrupted “тархан”, a rank of nobleman or official across the Turkic and Persian world, which in Russia designated a Turkic warrior whose service to the Czar freed one from taxation.

    Some non-Russian names are amazing look-alikes begging for folk etymology. For example, Курячая totally sounds like a Chicken-woman, but as I recall there was a guy with this exact name, apparently of Western Georgian origin where the suffix -aya is common without any relation to the similar Russian suffix.

  20. SFReader says

    Kozlov was a traditional Russian name for a city in Crimea which the Tatars called Kezlev (Turkish Gözleve), meaning ‘beautiful house’.

    After annexation of Crimea to Russia in 1783, the town of Kozlov was officially given better sounding name – Eupatoria, after Hellenistic king Mithridates Eupator of Pontus who ruled Crimea back in 1st century BC.

  21. On the other hand, there is another town of Kozlov, subsequently Michurinsk, near Tambov – albeit only founded in the middle of the 17th century – that had a goat in its coat of arms.

    Now the surname of Kozlovski, like Ivan K. the famous opera tenor, clearly means “from [whichever] Kozlov”; I wouldn’t be so sure that that of Kozlov is in all cases derived from a city rather than the animal. Then again, what mattered in the early Soviet name change story was clearly the perception of the name, not its actual etymology.

  22. I would guess that most of the people lining up to upgrade their last names in the 1920s were simple minds driven by folk etymologies and fashion. These days, historically invested names like Tarakanov have some symbolic value, as opposed, say, to the peasant-sounding Zhukov (“of a beetle”). As Dmitry Pruss has said, Tarakanov is not really derived from “cockroach”; more importantly, it is a name of enviable vintage by Russian standards, going back to Ivan Grozny’s time, about as good as William the Conqueror’s age in Anglo-American genealogy.

    On a side note, Oleinikov and Zabolotsky wrote some first-rate poetry featuring beetles (“The strawberry plants are rustling over a dead beetle” or “The School for Beetles”) and one of Oleinikov’s best and scariest poems is about the martyrdom of a cockroach (turns out I wrote about it eleven years ago). The latter is related to Captain Lebyadkin’s unfinished cockroach poem.

  23. David Marjanović says

    had a goat in its coat of arms

    Berlin has a bear in its coat of arms and several more bears elsewhere; all unetymological.

  24. And Cicero was named after a chickpea. There’s not much difference in using a Latin N-stem or a Slavic -ov/a derivation, is there?

  25. In the comments to Oleinikov’s poem, at least one more surname is victim to folk etymology, Rochlin (from NE Yiddish Rochele <= Rachel, but interpreted as slang “Loser / Absent-minded” )

  26. I, needless to say, do not come from a family named for a cow.

  27. So do any of the apparently derogatory names actually have a derogatory etymology?

    Some have argued for a tradition of derogatory names among early first millenium Jews, such as Caiaphas ( < קוף qof ‘monkey’) or Kalba Savua (כלבא שבוע ‘sated dog’, R. Akiva’s father-in-law. That name has a more benign exegetic interpretation.)

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Just re “Dikarev,” the surname “Savage” is a well-established member of the standard Anglo-American stock, with numerous respectable bearers (long list here: Interestingly enough, some have adopted it as a pen or stage name presumably precisely because of its overtones (e.g. the punk-rock historian Jon Savage, born Sage, and the political talk-radio opinionmonger Michael Savage, born Weiner). But most on the list were born to the name and I’m not aware of a case (which isn’t to say there isn’t one) where someone born with the name switched away from it in order to avoid its semantic baggage.

  29. @ Dmitry Pruss: “Some non-Russian names are amazing look-alikes begging for folk etymology.”

    Zapoyev is worth mentioning. “Zapoy” means a long drinking bout, lasting for days or even weeks. The name was originally Dzopoyev or Dzobayev, of Ossetian origin. I only found this out because Zapoyev is the official surname of the Russian poet Timur Kibirov, who is an ethnic Ossetian.


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