Thanks to the kindness (and research ability) of commenter uwe in this thread, I am reading Nekrasov’s anthology Fiziologiya Peterburga [The physiology of Petersburg]; I skimmed the introduction, but enjoyed Belinsky’s “Peterburg i Moskva,” on the differences between the two capitals, and the piece on the Petersburg dvornik (janitor/yardman) written by Vladimir Dahl under the pseudonym V. I. Lugansky (Dahl was born in the town of Lugansky Zavod). Now I’m reading Grigorovich‘s chapter on шарманщики (organ-grinders, players of the sharmanka — see here for loving descriptions, images, and an Okudzhava song), and the second section starts off with an excursus on the word sharmanka, whose etymology was apparently unknown at the time (it’s actually from the German tune “Scharmante Katherine,” which was often played on such an instrument). Dahl writes: “Еслибъ я принадлежалъ къ числу почтенныхъ мужей, называющихъ себя корнесловами…” [If I were one of those worthy men who call themselves korneslovs…].

I was immediately smitten with the word korneslov, which Dahl tells us (in the dictionary that made him famous two decades later) can mean either an etymologist or a work of etymology — in the latter sense, корнесловие [korneslovie] is also used. It’s made up of корень [koren’] ‘root’ and слово [slovo] ‘word,’ and it has the same rough-hewn beauty as книгочей [knigochéi] ‘book-lover, bookish person,’ which I wrote about here. I looked it up in the Национальный корпус русского языка and found a handful of examples, including Dovlatov‘s “Оно погружено в корнесловие, насыщено метафорами, изобилует всяческой каламбуристикой, аллитерациями, цеховыми речениями, диалектизмами” (It [the work of such writers as Khlebnikov, Zamyatin, and Remizov] is immersed in korneslovie, saturated with metaphors, it abounds in all sorts of puns, alliterations, guild [or ‘factory-shop’] locutions, and dialect forms) and Herzen’s “Книгопродавец Трюбнер требовал от него лексикон русского корнесловия и грамматику… Но в качестве русского он брался за все: и за корнесловие, и за переводы, и за уроки…” [The bookseller Trübner asked him (Engelson) for a lexicon of Russian korneslovie and grammar… But as a Russian he undertook everything: korneslovie, translations, lessons…).

My favorite of the citations, though, is from Mandelstam’s 1922 essay “О природе слова” [On the Nature of the Word]; I’ll quote the whole passage (with the translation from The Complete Critical Prose, by Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link):

Когда прозвучала живая и образная речь «Слова о полку Игореве» — насквозь светская, мирская и русская в каждом повороте, — началась русская литература. А пока Велимир Хлебников, современный русский писатель, погружает нас в самую гущу русского корнесловия, в этимологическую ночь, любезную уму и сердцу умного читателя, жива та же самая русская литература, литература «Слова о полку Игореве». Русский язык так же точно, как и русская народность, сложился из бесконечных примесей, скрещиваний, прививок и чужеродных влияний. Но в одном он останется верен самому себе, пока и для нас прозвучит наша кухонная латынь и на могучем теле языка взойдут бледные молодые побеги нашей жизни, подобно древнефранцузской песенке о св. Евлалии.

When the lively and image-laden speech of The Tale of Igor’s Campaign (Slovo o polka Igoreve) resounded, each turn of phrase temporal, secular, and Russian through and through, Russian literature began. And when Velimir Khlebnikov, the contemporary Russian writer, plunges us into the very thicket of Russian word roots [korneslovie], into an etymological night, dear to the mind and heart of the intelligent reader, that very same Russian literature, the literature of The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, comes alive once again. The Russian language, just like the Russian national spirit, is formed through ceaseless hybridization, cross-breeding, grafting, and external influences. Yet it will always remain true to itself in one thing, until our kitchen Latin resounds for us and until pale young shoots of our life begin to sprout on the mighty body of our language, like the Old French song about Saint Eulalia.

Reading Mandelstam always makes me want to read more Mandelstam.

Update. I’m now reading the next piece in the anthology, “Петроградская сторона” (“The Petersburg Side,” a description of the part of St. Petersburg now known as the Petrogradsky District), by E. P. Grebyonka, and I just got to a bit where he’s discussing the Сытный рынок, the oldest market in the city, whose odd name is of disputed etymology — the adjective сытный means ‘filling’ (of a meal) — and he writes “Объ этомъ я спрашивалъ извѣстнаго корнеслова” [I asked a well-known korneslov about this]. It was evidently a current word at the time. I will add that Grebyonka is a fine writer who tells stories well; I can see why he was in demand by readers (he appeared in all the journals and newspapers of the day), and I’m sorry he, like so many of the people I’m reading, has been so utterly forgotten.


  1. Michael L. says

    I’m not sure what happened to the comment I posted earlier, but it was about Admiral A. S. Shishkov. He wrote several works devoted to korneslovie filled with ridiculous etymologies (e.g., глубоко is obviously composed of the parts глубь and око; his word говорьба, derived from говорить, allows him to claim links with the word for “word” in English, German, Danish, Swedish, as well as Romance languages (“verbo” being so similar to “-ворьба”)). Of course, he was not the last to do this kind of thing. I only bring him up now because reading the word “korneslovie” reminded me of his most extreme work, Slavianorusskii korneslov.

  2. Thanks, that’s very interesting!

  3. And I just ran across this sarcastic example: “демон + страть = демонсрация.”

  4. What does страть mean?

  5. Nothing; it’s just a perverse way of deriving демонстрация ‘demonstration’ from демон ‘demon’ and срать ‘to shit.’

  6. Michael L. says

    Hate to bring up Shishkov again, but I can’t resist sharing this bit by Viazemskii:

    Шишков недаром корнеслов;
    Теорию в себе он с практикою вяжет:
    Писатель, вкусу шиш он кажет,
    А логике он строит ков.

    1810-е годы

    Among the many snippy epigrams aimed at Shishkov and the archaists, this one is the only one I know of that names the Korneslov directly. Perhaps it was Shishkov who made the word “korneslov” (in)famous.

  7. Again, very interesting indeed (not to mention hilarious)! And your supposition about his having popularized (if that’s the mot juste) the word is quite plausible.

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