I just stumbled upon a truly remarkable etymology. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Pushkin’s Капитанская дочка [Kapitanskaya dochka, “The Captain’s Daughter”], one of those all-time classics I should have read several decades ago, and I’ve reached the brigand song “Не шуми, мати зеленая дубровушка” in Chapter VIII (and if anyone can point me to an audio file of this or a similar choral song so I can get an idea of what it sounds like, I’ll be deeply grateful). When the song’s protagonist proudly answers back to the tsar that his comrades are the dark night and his knife, horse, and bow, the tsar begins his response Исполать тебе, детинушка крестьянский сын! ‘Hail to thee, young fellow, son of the peasantry!’ I was curious about the word Исполать [ispolát’] ‘hail!’; I’d never seen a more Slavic-looking word, but the derivation wasn’t immediately obvious. So I went to my trusty Vasmer, and discovered it was a 16th-century borrowing from Greek εις πολλά έτη [is pola eti] ‘[may you live] for many years,’ which in rapid speech would become /ispoláti/! I’ll bet that provides fertile ground for folk etymology.

(Oh, in case you were wondering, the tsar in the song promises the brave young brigand a fine home… in the form of a gallows.)


  1. If I have my liturgics correct, when an Orthodox bishop precesses into church to begin a service, the choir chants “Eis pola eti despota”—many years to the bishop (cognate with “despot” in English)

  2. Miram: Thanks very much! Wow, that 3:27 clip only covered the first three lines — performing the whole song would take almost half an hour.

  3. sredni vashtar says

    The story about how the song got in the book is also quite interesting.
    Pushkin’s manuscript explicitly refers to a book of Russian songs compiled by Chulkov [] and edited by Novikov [] in 1780. However, it is believed that Vladimir Dal (author of the best-known dictionary of spoken Russian and almost a family member to LH) sang it to Pushkin, bringing it to the poet’s attention and therefore to glory.
    Even more interestingly, Dal states that the song (“both the words and the voice”) was written personally by the famous bandit Ivan “Cain” Osipov (quite expressively nicknamed after the Biblical first murderer). This would of course explain the familiar conversation with the tsar.
    Vanka (diminutive to Ivan) began his crime career around 1732, at the age of 14, by robbing one of the monarch’s palaces of his golden ware. He rapidly rose through the ranks, turned double agent and soon became so influential with both officials and criminals that he got a another nick – “the Moscow boss”. Finally putting him on trial required direct intervention of the Crown; Vanka was tortured and sent to Siberia for life.

  4. What a great story — I’m certainly glad I mentioned the song! (I’ll have to ask Uncle Volodya to sing it for me…)

  5. I am very fond of “The Captain’s Daughter” – not least because there are so precious little truly good adventure stories in Russian litterature.

  6. Owlmirror says

    Speaking of Greek-to-Russian borrowings, I was vaguely surprised to learn that the Greek word for bed (κρεβάτι) had a cognate in Russian (кровать). Not sure how that one happened…

  7. No mystery, I’m afraid; the Russians simply borrowed the Greek word.

  8. Well, in a way, кровать is not so usual, because most borrowings from Greek have some Orthodox significance. Ever seen a bed in a church? 😉
    Although there are probably scores of Biblical passages featuring the word, I think this may be one of the rarer cases when the borrowed word describes a borrowed object (кровать vs. полати, коник).

  9. matthaeus says

    Don’t forget Latin /grabatus/! Lewis&Short [Ludovicus et Brevis] claims it’s Macedonian.

  10. Кровать seems to appear only twice in the Synodal translation, in the Gospels, and I strongly doubt it is found in the Slavonic Bible. According to Vasmer, the word comes from Middle Greek κραββάτι(ο)ν yet not via Church Slavonic. Russian has other words for “bed” such as ложе, постель, одр. Кровать sounds too modern and specific — it has to have legs, for one.

  11. David Marjanović says

    That’s interesting. Serbocroatian: bed = krevet.

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