Latvian as Code and Oddly Named Parisians.

I’ve finished Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Napoleonic Wars; Lieven not only covers the whole period from the 1812 invasion (and its origins) to the Allied entry into Paris in 1814, he is apparently the first English-language historian to do so using the rich Russian sources. As he says, Russians tend (understandably) to focus on the 1812 campaign, with its dramatic defense of the fatherland (that’s where War and Peace ends, for example), and the history of 1813-14 tends to be written from the German point of view (which is why it’s often called the War of Liberation), but you can only get a useful perspective by viewing the campaign as a whole. In the process he does much to rescue the reputation of Tsar Alexander, and he is constantly drawing the reader’s attention to the vital role of supplies for soldiers and horses (and the dogged heroism of the people who got supplies from Russia to France in good condition and in time to make the final push to Paris possible). I’ll issue the ritual complaint about insufficient maps, but hell, in this age of the internet you can find all the detailed battle maps you want. It’s a superb history.

But this is not a history blog, and I’m just going to pass along a couple of tidbits of LH interest. The first is this, concerning the period in March 1814 when the Allies, approaching Paris, had to deal with the news that Napoleon had wheeled around and was attacking their lines of communication:

Now urgent orders went out to him from Barclay to take emergency measures to preserve Russian bases, supplies and treasuries. Oertel did well on this occasion and reported his arrangements to Barclay, a fellow Balt, in Latvian, a language which the commander-in-chief understood. If the orders were intercepted, it would be a very unusual Frenchman who could decipher them.

When the Allies entered Paris, Alexander stayed at Talleyrand’s residence, the hôtel de Saint-Florentin, on the street named for it, the rue Saint-Florentin. Naturally I looked it up in my font of information on Paris locales, Jacques Hillairet‘s magnificent two-volume Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris (my most treasured souvenir of my visit to the City of Light), and what I found was a series of inhabitants with some very un-French names. It was first occupied by Louis Phélypeaux de Saint-Florentin, whose name is merely weird, but who was apparently disliked enough to earn this sardonic epitaph:

Ci-gist, malgré son rang, un homme assez commun,
Ayant porté trois noms, il n’en laissa aucun.
[Here lies, despite his rank, a common enough man:
Having borne three names, he left behind not one.]

But after him come le duc de Fitz-James and la princesse de Salm-Salm, duchesse de l’Infantado, and after Talleyrand came the duchesse de Dino, the princesse de Liéven (née Dorothée-Christophorowna de Benckendorf, and presumably a distant relative of the author, like the various General Lievens he mentions), and James de Rothschild. What a motley collection!


  1. 1814 was the first time when streets of Paris were filled with Kalmuck, Bashkir and Cossacks regiments.

    The first two were armed with bows and arrows and are said to make a very strong impression on the French.

    And there is never ending legend about bistro being a borrowing from Russian bystro “quick” which made into French during 1814 and 1815-1819 Russian occupations.

    Apparently Russian soldiers were very rude and hurried and demanded the fastest food possible.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Louis Phélypeaux de Saint-Florentin

    This name is typical of a “secondary” noble who acquired his nobility by purchasing a landed estate, here in a village or even hamlet named “Saint-Florentin”. Phélypeaux looks like a fanciful (and even ridiculous) respelling of the more bourgeois-looking Philip(p)ot or Philip(p)eau.

    le bistro

    My understanding is that the “bistros” of the time were basically shacks, built outside the city walls, which did not serve food but drink. Drinks are still the basic items provided by current bistros, although many also serve some kind of fast food. “Le bistro du coin”, the street corner bistro, is where workers typically stop on their way to or from work for a quick glass of wine or something stronger while chatting with his friends and neighbours. Restaurants calling themselves “bistros” is false modesty.

  3. Ayant porté trois noms, il n’en laisse aucun.

    The verb in the second part must be laissa, a passé simple form, not the present laisse. In addition to the suitability of a past tense in the context, laissa has two syllables and the number of syllables in the line is the prototypical 12, as in the first line. With the present laisse the second line has only 11 syllables and the rhythm is off.

  4. Kalmucks in Paris, eh… In Roald Dahl’s short story Skin (1952), an old man named Drioli reminisces about befriending the young Chaïm Soutine (the real-life painter) on the streets of Paris in the 1910s, and keeps referring him as “my little Kalmuck”. I don’t know why; Soutine looked quite Jewish. But anyway, were Kalmucks so well-known in the Paris in the 20th century that Dahl would have a character be familiar with them?

    (Needless to say, the story ends badly.)

  5. I think I have seen or heard “Kalmouk” used as a slightly pejorative term for a kind of generic barbarian such as a non-European native of the former Russian empire (not that a Parisian would be very familiar with such a person). “Mon petit Kalmouk” probably alludes to Soutine being Russian and therefore not-quite-European, together with the “barbarous” features of his paintings, but with “mon petit” expressing affection and protectiveness towards him as a young exile and therefore forgiveness for the “barbarian” in him.

  6. Сём хамартай пранцуз,
    Сёргюнь ябаджи чапчия.
    Маштаг боро мини депкед чамшине
    Мана нойон Джюджи московаган темцед мёрилня.

    Тасарха гюдюлтей боро мини.
    Тактан аманду кюрня-ла.
    Табун тюмюн пранцусиги,
    Тактагин аманду чапчия.

    Монхуг бологсан пранцусни
    Москогин балгасу иденя-ла.
    Мана нойон хяярхин манан яштугай гиксеньбё.
    Богдоду кюрия гекюна бокшорго мету нисини.

    Kalmyk war song about French campaign, circa 1812.

    The first line refers to “little-nosed French” who will be chopped by Kalmyk sabres.

    The fourth line boasts that Kalmyk regiment will liberate Moscow under command of their colonel noyon Juji (reference to leutenant-colonel Serebjap Tumenev, chief of the Second Astrakhan Kalmyk regiment.)

    Apparently the song was written in fall of 1812, when Napoleon’s army temporarily occupied Moscow.

  7. ” Oertel… reported his arrangements to Barclay, a fellow Balt, in Latvian, a language which the commander-in-chief understood.”

    Barclay was a native German speaker despite his Scots name and ancestry. Latvian was the language of serfs and servants while German was the language of the upper and middle classes in Riga in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s believable that Barclay knew some Latvian.

    But Oertel was born, reared and started a military career in East Prussia and later moved to St. Petersburg. I wonder where he might have picked up Latvian?

  8. Chateaubriand on Tsar Alexander in Paris:

    “On lui proposait de changer le nom du pont d’Austerlitz : ‘Non, dit-il, il suffit que j’ai passé sur ce pont avec mon armée.’ “

  9. Found full translation of this Kalmyk song.

    It goes like this

    The long-nosed French
    Are easy to cut down
    My grey horse is riding fast.
    Our lord Juuja leads us to Moscow.
    My fast riding grey horse
    Reaches to the edge;
    Five tumens of the French are there–
    We will cut them all.
    The crazy Frenchmen
    Ruined the city of Moscow!
    So what our lord
    ordered us to do?
    Like birds must we fly
    And fight for the emperor.

    Tumen is traditional Mongol military unit of 10 thousand, roughly corresponds to division in European armies.

  10. Another interesting episode involving Kalmyks occured in February of 1814 near the town of Meaux in France where Kalmyk regiment routed Mameluke Imperial Guard.

    It probably was first battle between Mongols and Mamelukes in six centuries since Battle of Ain Jalut.

  11. David Marjanović says

    But Oertel was born, reared and started a military career in East Prussia and later moved to St. Petersburg. I wonder where he might have picked up Latvian?

    Lithuanian is spoken in parts of former East Prussia even today.

  12. Heh, I was looking for the word for ‘bird’ in that Kalmyk and found бокшорго. This must be the same as Mongolian боширго, which is now used for skylarks but also appears to be used (or have been used) for sparrows.

  13. The verb in the second part must be laissa

    Of course you’re right, and I’ve corrected it. I mistyped it and then failed to notice the error when I read the post over; my brains are still poached from the muggy heat.

    Non, dit-il, il suffit que j’ai passé sur ce pont avec mon armée

    What a wonderful anecdote — it was worth making the post just to learn that!

    Lithuanian is spoken in parts of former East Prussia even today.

    But Lithuanian is not Latvian, which is spoken considerably farther north. It would be interesting to see the original source for the story, but Google Books won’t provide a preview of Rudolf Friederich’s Die Befreiungskriege 1813-1815. Band III: Der Feldzug 1814 (Mittler & Sohn, 1913), which I believe (if I’m reading the footnote correctly) is the referenced source.

  14. Should have been богширго. And I have a Mongolian-English dictionary that lists it as ‘sparrow’.

  15. An exhaustive list of all Mongolian/Buryat names for sparrows, skylarks and all related birds from Passeridae family can be found here

  16. The subject of mutual intelligibility is always a difficult one, but written Latvian and Lithuanian have much more resemblance than the spoken languages, once you get past conventional changes. I’ve added to my Essentialist Explanations queue this: “Latvian is essentially Lithuanian spoken in Estonian and spelled as it is pronounced.”

  17. la princesse de Salm-Salm?

    Really? That’s beyond Disney.

  18. That was my reaction as well, but it’s a thing.

  19. marie-lucie says

    Amazing! I had never of Salm and its history.

  20. marie-lucie says

    JC: “Latvian is essentially Lithuanian spoken in Estonian and spelled as it is pronounced.”

    Years ago I took a linguistics course in which we studied Latvian (for its structure, not with the goal of speaking it). I got the impression that the language derived from Lithuanian acquired by Estonians at some point in history and therefore simplified in phonology (and spelling) and morphology. I don’t know if this corresponds to its actual history.

  21. Latvian would be simplified because it was formalized into a written language much later than Lithuanian, with the push to derive a national language out of dialectal and heavily Germanized forms starting in the 2nd half of the XIX c., and the alphabet and spelling rules codified in 1908. They put really strong emphasis into phonetic spelling and grammatic uniformity. Lithuanian on the other hand is rich in archaic influences. Latgalian language, more or less mutually comprehensible with today’s Latvian and spoken in the nation’s Catholic East, has been codified considerably earlier by the Jesuits, but their work was largely ignored by the Protestant Latvian National Revivalists of the XIX c., who chose to build modern Latvian on the basis of Western doalects.

    The Finnic substrate of the Latvian would have to be (recently extinct or nearly extinct) Livonian rather than related Estonian. For example both Livonian and Latvian (but not Estonian) have “silent ‘h’ “.

    Salm-Salm in Vosges surprised me too. In the common sources, I couldn’t see anything about Holy Roman inholdings so deep inside modern France. I thought that Napoleonic France was after Italian and Swiss lands, never realizing that some domains affiliated with Austria were “right at home” in Vosges!

  22. keine aithne says

    Alexei –

    Oertel, Latvians: perhaps ?

  23. Re: Livonian

    Dominic Lieven and his extensive family are descended from Kaupo, chief of the Livonians in late 12th century who was first to join the German invaders.

  24. keine aithne: many thanks! It turns out the Kursenieki lived not only on the Curonian Spit but also on the east shore of the lagoon. There’s a neat little map in the German Wiki entry on the Kursenieki, “Kurisches Sprachgebiet 1649.” The green spot northeast of Königsberg seems to be the area around Labiau (Polessk), where Oertel was born.

  25. keine aithne, I have just noticed that you linked to the same map, only in English. It’s very, very helpful. I apologize for the duplicate link.

    It’s not surprising that Anatol is related to the great Russian spy/agent, the extraordinary Dorothea Lieven – it’s not a common last name. It’s odd that her name should be spelled Liéven but “Dorothée-Christophorowna” is particularly touching. She was known as Дарья Христофоровна in Russian and Katarina Alexandra Dorothea in German. Both her brothers were military officers, typically for Baltic Germans, and both fought through the Napoleonic wars and rose to high ranks. But Александр Христофорович Бенкендорф ended up along the arch-villains of Russian cultural history for his role in Pushkin’s life. To the Russian ear, the name Benkendorff is linked to the political police rather than the charming Russian expat who befriended Charles Grey, Metternich, and Guizot.

  26. Stefan Holm says

    JC and ML

    Latvian has initial syllable stress (with very few exceptions). This is due to Fenno-Ugric influence according to Swedish Wikipedia. German ditto specifies this influence as ‘Livonian’. That may explain why the language sounds like Lithuanian spoken in Estonian. (The somewhat controversial Finnish linguist Kalevi Wiik claims that even the initial Germanic stress origins from Fenno-Ugric influence).

    It could be added that Latvian also is one of very few European languages with tonal stress. The others are I know of are Norwegian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian and perhaps Limburgish.

  27. Dmitry, Stefan, thank you for the information on Latvian.


    I had to look up the name on Wikipedia. It does not look like this tiny territory, which changed borders and internal divisions several times in the course of history, was of much importance to Austria! The reigning family abandoned the place during the Revolution (they could hardly have defended it on their own against the French troops) and was later compensated by the HR empire with lands further east. During the territory’s independence from France the inhabitants must have crossed the border (such as it was) all the time for work and commerce. But they were not “deep into France”: Lorraine itself was not part of France until 1735 (I did not realize it was so recent – in school we learned about treaties that transferred cities and provinces back and forth between countries, but after a while you forget which treaty in which year did what).

  28. Lorraine/Lothringen has been a political football since Charlemagne/Karl der Große died and left his three sons only two nations. Lothair/Lothar/Lothaire, as the eldest son, was supposed to get the nominal imperium and the border strip, but it didn’t last.

    Avignon as a border city.

  29. I got my first insights into convoluted identities and history of the Alsace / Lorraine only by following the genetic tracks of one of complicated cancer mutations, in a huge clan with the roots in a village just 25 kms from Salm-Salm, who were the early settlers of the Texan Alsatian colony of Old D’Hanis. In the documents they were quite interchangeably French, German, or regional.

  30. John Emerson says

    Does the book mention the Kalmyks entering Paris? Between the early 18th c. and 1814The Kalmyks and the Torguts from the lower Volga region had connections from Moscow to Istanbul, Teheran or wherever the Persian capital was, Lhasa, and Beijing, and finally Paris.

    The French wrongly regarded them as utter savages, but they were literate Buddhists, albeit as murderous as any normal cavalry troop.

  31. John Emerson says


  32. John Emerson says

    Charlemagne’s brother Carloman also fared poorly, dying unexpectedly. Einhard was puzzled by Carloman’s widow’s flight to Venice.

  33. Does the book mention the Kalmyks entering Paris?

    Yes, it discusses the Kalmyks, Bashkir, and other minority-ethnicity troops; unfortunately, I can’t provide details, since you can’t actually Look Inside the Book: “This view is of the Kindle book. A preview of the print book (Paperback edition) is currently not available.” Which means you can only search the introductory section. This is one problem with Kindle books.

  34. Bashkir troops (28 regiments) comprised the largest contingent of Oriental irregular cavalry in the Russian army.

    It is said that because of their bows and arrows, the French nicknamed them “les Amours” or “les Cupidons du Nord”

  35. David Marjanović says

    Lithuanian resembles the Slavic languages more than Latvian does in having allophonic palatalization all over the place, in having once had nasal vowels (still spelled with distinct letters), and in having turned short a into o (compare Latvijas respublika to Lietuvos respublika) which didn’t exist before – Latvian even borrowed Otto as Atis.

    (The somewhat controversial Finnish linguist Kalevi Wiik claims that even the initial Germanic stress origins from Fenno-Ugric influence).

    Could be. Could also have come from the opposite direction (Celtic). *shrug*

    It could be added that Latvian also is one of very few European languages with tonal stress. The others are I know of are Norwegian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian and perhaps Limburgish.

    Yep, Limburgish and at least some other Ripuarian dialects (Wikipedia mentions the fact, but provides no more information beyond that); a few Danish dialects (the others have turned one of the tones into a glottal feature); Slovene; and I think that’s it.

    If I remember correctly, the “broken tone” of Latvian goes straight back to the “laryngeal” consonants of Proto-Indo-European.

  36. David Marjanović says

    the others have turned one of the tones into a glottal feature

    and they only had two to begin with. Standard Slovene has three, the standard BCSMs have four (…because they count vowel length as part of the pitch-accent system, which makes great historical sense).

  37. John Emerson

    Re: Kalmyks

    2nd Astrakhan Kalmyk regiment entering Paris displayed their old Dzungarian banner decorated with Tibetan mantras. It was very, very old banner used by Dzungar troops for several centuries in their Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese campaigns before it was brought to Russia by Degjid noyon, grandfather of colonel Serepjap Tumenev, back in 1759.

  38. Another legacy of 1813-1814 campaigns in Asiatic Russia can be found in strikingly European names of several villages in the Nagaibak district of Chelyabinsk region (Urals).

    Parizh (Russian: Пари́ж, for “Paris”) is a village (selo) in Nagaybaksky District of Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia, located on the south border of the district. Population: 2,390 (1997 est.).
    It was established as a Nağaybäk Cossack settlement in 1842 and soon after was given its name to honor the Battle of Paris. Several other villages named for Russian victories in Napoleonic Wars are located nearby: Fershampenuaz (the administrative center of the district), Leyptsig, Berlin, and others.
    In 2005, an Eiffel Tower 1:5 replica was constructed in Parizh to serve as a cellular network station.

    Nağaybäk[1] (pronounced [nʌɣɑɪbæk]; plural Nağaybäklär; Russian: Нагайбаки) are an ethnoconfessional group in Russia. They are Christian descendents of Volga Tatars (distinct from Keräşens, another Christian Tatar group), and former cossacks of the Orenburg Host.

    Nağaybäk cavalry participated in the Napoleonic Wars and in the subsequent occupation of Paris. In 1842 the Nağaybäk cossacks relocated from their former host in Nagaybak Fort eastward, to the former Orenburg Governorate. Here, they founded a chain of villages named after the battles of Napoleonic Wars, including present-day Parizh, named after the Battle of Paris, Fershampenuaz (after the Battle of Fère-Champenoise), Kassel (after engagements near Kassel in Hesse), Trebiy (after the Battle of Trebbia) etc.[2] Fershampenuaz remains the center of Nagaybaksky District to date.

  39. In Battle of Trebbia (not to be confused with similarly named battle of the Second Punic War) in northern Italy, French army of general MacDonald was crushed by Russian-Austrian troops led by field marshal Suvorov. This was part of War of Second Coalition in 1799.

  40. @John Cowan: Actually, the Carolingian empire was divided three ways among Charlemagne’s grandsons, children of Louis the Pious.

  41. “Louis the Pious”

    In an almost completely unrelated digression, I love the unofficial titles given to ancient rulers. Why can’t we renew this practice. A few proposals: Barack the Reticent, George the Decider, Bill the Schmoozer, . . . .

  42. I love the unofficial titles given to ancient rulers. Why can’t we renew this practice. A few proposals: Barack the Reticent, George the Decider, Bill the Schmoozer, . . . .

    Yes, it’s pretty much died out. There was a fair bit in the 19th century though: a few PMs had nicknames just based on their names (Palmerston/”Pam”, Disraeli/”Dizzy”) but you also had Pitt the Younger, the Iron Duke, the Grand Old Man and the Welsh Wizard.

  43. J. W. Brewer says

    Some U.S. Presidents of my own boyhood had sobriquets like that (“Landslide Lyndon” & “Tricky Dicky,” for example), but they were generally deemed suitable only for informal registers and have thus not become standard among academic historians writing Serious Books.

  44. There is also headlinese, some of which gets into more longaeval print eventually: JFK, LBJ, Bam.

  45. Stefan Holm says

    In the old days the additional namnes were more straightforward, Here’s a selection of medieval Swedish ones:

    Emund Kolbränna, 1022-1050 – ‘Coalburner’, he had the habit of burning peoples houses down.
    Emund Slemme, 1050-1060 – ’Parlous’ (slem can mean bad, evil, ugly or anything negative)
    Blot-Sven, mid 1080:s – ’Sacrifice Sven’, he reintroduced the cult of the Æsir.
    Ragnvald Knapphövde, 1120 – ’Button-round’ alluding to the shape of his head. He was killed by the West Geats the same year after arriving to their land without bringing ‘hostages’, as their law stated.
    Erik Läspe och Halte, 1222-1229 + 1234-1250 – Erik Lisp and Limp.
    Kung Byxlös, 1389-1412 – ‘King Trouserless’, (or ‘Lacktrousers’ copying John Lackland. Queen Margareta is today by many Scandinavians considered the best one we’ve ever had. (Why do I suddenly hesitate, thinking of a more recent trouserless Margret?)

  46. The last Russian tsar was nicknamed Nicholas the Bloody and in early Soviet period this was almost an official title (with historians using it in their books).

    Now he is known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer.

  47. @John Cowan: I’ve never seen “Bam,” and it should be no surprise that it’s not common. Presidential initialisms exist principally for presidents whose last names were too long to fit in a one-column newspaper hed. “Ike” served for Eisenhower instead of his initials. However, the current president has a short enough name that a three-letter abbreviation is superfluous.

  48. I see “BAM” often on the front pages of tabloids.

  49. I’ve seen “BHO”, but only in online discussions, I think. There’s also “HRC”, but that can sometimes cause confusion, since the Human Rights Campaign is sometimes relevant to the same conversations Hillary Rodham Clinton is.

  50. Also, weirdly, “PBO” for “President Barack Obama”. I haven’t noticed any other initialisms following that pattern.

  51. In Russia, in informal speech, president Putin is often refered to as VVP (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin).

    VVP is also a Russian abbreviation for Gross Domestic Product

  52. “Also, weirdly, “PBO” for “President Barack Obama”.

    I have never seen this or any other intialism for this president. I wonder if the Arabic middle name might have deterred his friends and allies. Of course, just BO would not have positive connotations.

  53. BTW JC – your links at seem to be hanging?

  54. See his comment here — the site’s down.

  55. I have seen certain corners of the Internet where “PBO” is used. I figured out quickly that it meant Obama; it took me longer to realize what it stood for.

  56. @J.W. Brewer “Landslide Lyndon”? Was that commonly used at one point? I’ve never heard that, but I was too young to remember his reign. I do remember “Tricky Dick” being very common in ’71-’73.

  57. And ‘Slick Willy” for Bill Clinton. But, I don’t think any of these became commonly used.

  58. David Marjanović says

    “Tricky Dick” is common enough in some of the innertubes even today that I’ve seen it used, without any explanation, several times.

  59. David Marjanović says

    …like… the people who used it didn’t bother explaining it, but expected their readers to understand it.

  60. “Landslide Lyndon”? Was that commonly used at one point?

    I was going to say “no,” but then I reflected that the nickname dates to 1948, three years before I was born, so it may have had currency before I was old enough to be paying attention. But by the time I was aware of such things, he was called “Lyndon” or “LBJ.”

    “Tricky Dick,” on the other hand, was genuinely widespread in the ’60s and ’70s, and I’m glad to hear it’s still in use.

  61. Tricky Dick(y), rather than “Richard the Devious” :

    In the early Middle Ages there were no family names, so kings were referred to by some personal attribute in order to differentiate them from others with the same names. As time went on, attributes of the lower orders such as location and trades (which tended to persist from father to son) became “family names”, while nobles were known by the name of the land they ruled, and kings who shared a name with others in the line of succession became identified by a number. The humorous nicknames of American presidents reflect citizens’ opinions of them but are not needed to identify them as persons.

  62. I thought emperor Louis the Pious had a family name.

    His family name was Carolingian, wasn’t it?

    And a century later, kings of France would have family name Capet.

  63. I thought emperor Louis the Pious had a family name.

    Not as far as I know; he was just “Louis, son of Charles.”

    His family name was Carolingian, wasn’t it?

    That’s not a family name, it’s a modern descriptor.

  64. Marie-Lucie, not so fast. There are two John Adamses and two George Bushes. Middle name is the most common remedy, of course. Though, come to think of it, I have never heard anyone trying to distinguish JA from JQA. Apparently, it is silently understood that not inserting Quincy is distinction enough. To top it off, technically the second president was JA Jr.

  65. marie-lucie says

    D.O.: When there could be the slightest ambiguity for readers, newspapers and the like always refer to George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush (who was already “Dubya” in his own family), not “George Bush the 1st” and “George Bush the 2nd” or “the [choose-your-adjective]”. I don’t think anyone beyond school age in North America would find “George W. Bush” ambiguous about whether the son or the father was meant.


    This term refers to the dynasty comprising the descendants of Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus, a latinization of “Karl der Groβe” (Karl the Great). The word includes the suffix -ing- found in other German tribal names derived from the name of an ancestor. Hugues “Capet” (a nickname) was related to the Carolingians but not through the paternal line, and he founded his own dynasty. There were several dynasties among French royals after that, all from noble houses more or less related to the Capetians, the best-known of which are the Bourbons (“Bourbon” being the name of their former estate, not their “family name”). The Revolutionaries used “Capet” for the royal family in order to disrespect them (noble titles having been abolished), but that name had only been used by the distant ancestor, not passed on to his descendants.

  66. Yes, I essentially agree (and I think that’s what I’ve written), although Bush 43rd and Bush 41st are also used, maybe more informally. Bush the father and Bush the son are more rare, but still can be found.

  67. And about Bourbons and such. Royal dynastic names did become family names in countries that abolished monarchy. Bourbons, Romanovs, Habsburgs, and even Bonapartes.

  68. D.O., I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered those versions with ordinals, but I’ve run across Bush 41 and Bush 43, as well as Bush the elder and Bush the younger (or even Bush the lesser).

  69. marie-lucie says

    D.O. Most of those names became “family” rather than just “clan” names, but that is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Bonapartes are a different case, since they were not a royal family of long standing. They did not have to go back to remote ancestors to “recover” a family name, they only briefly became a family reigning over several countries.

    The Bourbons don’t have much to show for themselves in France (as far as politics are concerned), but some of them have been the Spanish royal family (as “los Borbones”) since a grandson of Louis XIV (and of his wife, a Spanish princess) became king of Spain.

  70. marie-lucie says

    According to Wikipedia, the Spanish Borbones include several kings still known by their nicknames.

    About the Bushes and other American presidents, yes there are some times extra words or numbers used after their names, in imitation of now antiquated customs, but such additions do not normally last.

  71. Molly Ivins (pbuh) called George W. Bush “Shrub”, and implied that the term was common in Texas.

  72. Romanovs became a family name shortly before they became tsars.

    The naming conventions for boyars in 16th century Russia were a bit complicated. A family name back then was actually a sort of extended patronimic – derived from grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s name.

    So, first Romanov tsar – Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov was son of boyar Fedor Nikitich Romanov (later patriarch Filaret).
    But his father had a different family name and was called Nikita Romanovich Zaharyin-Yuriev.
    And his father was called Roman Yurievich Zaharyin-Koshkin.
    And his father was Yuri Zaharievich Koshkin-Zaharyin.
    And his father was Zahariy Ivanovich Koshkin, son of Ivan Fedorovich Koshkin, son of Fedor Andreevich Koshka, son of Andrei Kobyla.

    There is a system in this madness.

  73. I’ve got a book in German on the subject of royal and noble nicknames, War Karl der Kahle wirklich kahl? (“Was Charles the Bald Really Bald?”) by Reinhard Lebe. Lebe also laments the death of this tradition in modern politics.

    The book contains such figures as:
    Margarete Maultasch, Countess of Tyrol (one possible translation is Margaret Satchelmouth, although she lived 600 years before Louis Armstrong and I have no idea whether her trumpet skills were comparable )
    Eberhard der Greiner, Count of Württemberg (although Wikipedia says “Eberhard the Jarrer”, my dictionary implies that “Greiner” now means “Whimperer”, which I like better)
    Albrecht der Unartige or Entartete, Margrave of Meissen (Albert the Degenerate)
    Friedrich der Gebissene, Albrecht’s son (Frederick the Bitten)
    Heinrich Jasomirgott, Duke of Austria (allegedly from his favourite oath “Yes, so help me God”)

  74. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    Ученый. […] Основатель династии – Георг I, прозванный за свои подвиги Великим. Да, прозванный.
    Король. Очень хорошо.
    Ученый. Ему унаследовал сын Георг II, прозванный за свои подвиги Обыкновенным. Да, Обыкновенным.
    Король. Я очень спешу. Вы просто перечисляете предков. Я пойму, за что именно они получали свои прозвища. А иначе я вас зарежу.
    Ученый. Слушаю. Далее идут: Вильгельм I Веселый, Генрих I Короткий, Георг III Распущенный, Георг IV Хорошенький, Генрих II Черт побери.
    Король. За что его так прозвали?
    Ученый. За его подвиги, ваше величество. Далее идет Филипп I Ненормальный, Георг V Потешный, Георг VI Отрицательный, Георг VII Босой, Георг VIII Малокровный, Георг IX Грубый, Георг Х Тонконогий, Георг XI Храбрый, Георг XII Антипатичный, Георг XIII Наглый, Георг XIV Интересный и наконец ныне царствующий отец принцессы Георг XV, прозванный за свои подвиги Бородатым. Да, прозванный.

    Евгений Шварц. «Голый король», 1934

    Scholar […] The dynasty was founded by George I, nicknamed the Great for his feats. Yes, nicknamed.
    King Very good.
    Scholar His was followed by his son, George II, nicknamed the Ordinary for his feats. Yes, the Ordinary.
    King I’m in a great hurry. Would you just list the ancestors. I’ll be able to understand how they got their nicknames. Otherwise I’ll stab you.
    Scholar Very well, Sire. There follow: William I the Merry, Henry I the Short, George III the Licentious, George IV the Cute, Henry II Dammit.
    King What was he nicknamed for?
    Scholar For his feats, your Majesty. There follow then Philip I the Deranged, George V the Funny, George VI the Negative, George VII the Barefooted, George VIII the Anemic, George IX the Rude, George X the Thin-Legged, George XI the Brave, George XIII the Antipathetic, George XIII the Insolent, George XIV the Interesting, and finally, the presently reigning monarch, the Princess’s father George XV nicknamed the Bearded for his feats. Yes, nicknamed.

    The Naked King by Evgeny Schwartz, 1934

    As for Margarete Maultash, one of her portraits (which clearly shows where the nickname came from) is believed to have given Tenniel the idea of his Duchess for the Alice in Wonderland illustrations.

  75. Probably the strangest royal nickname belongs to king Ladislaus the Posthumous (Czech: Ladislav Pohrobek, Hungarian: Utószülött László, Slovenian and Croatian: Ladislav Posmrtni), because he was born four months after death of his father.

  76. Probably the strangest royal nickname belongs to king Ladislaus the Posthumous

    No, I’m pretty sure that’s trumped by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V Copronymus, ‘the shit-named.’ By comparison, Michael III Methysus ‘the Drunkard’ is small beer.

    Ooh, but wait, all bets are off: I just discovered Wikipedia’s List of monarchs by nickname, which looks like it’s full of great stuff!

    Also, Evgeny Schwartz is a great playwright who doesn’t get nearly enough love — The Dragon is even better than The Naked King.

  77. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    I’d say Schwartz is still fairly well known and loved though. Sadly, his political satire, along with, say, Saltykov-Schedrin’s, never becomes obsolete for too long.

  78. I’d say Schwartz is still fairly well known and loved though.

    I presume you mean among Russians, and I’m glad to hear it, but I was thinking primarily of English-speakers, who are unlikely ever to have heard of him. His plays are, as you say, timeless, and they’re cruelly funny in a way that I think would appeal to people today.

  79. JC: Molly Ivins (pbuh) called George W. Bush “Shrub”, and implied that the term was common in Texas.

    I used to read her column, but I think I remember encountering “Shrub” elsewhere in the American press. Maybe she caused the nickname to spread nationally?

  80. Postumus was a fairly common Roman praenomen (they all were, actually, given the extremely limited set available).

    Wikipedia says of Copronymus: “Using this obscene name, [his enemies] spread the rumour that as an infant he had defecated in his baptismal font, or the imperial purple cloth with which he was swaddled.” Peeing on the officiant is a well-known incident of infant baptism, but pooping in the baptismal font is new to me, though I suppose more common among the Orthodox, who baptize infants by triple immersion. The Irish name of James II and VII, Séamus a’ Cháca ‘James the Shit’, on the other hand, was earned by his behavior as an adult and richly deserved: my father, born in Philadelphia in 1904, still remembered folklore about Shamus a Hocka, though I can’t now sort out what he told me from what I learned later.

    Overall, I think the Scandinavians have the best epithets (anglicized): Bjorn Ironside, Edmund Coal-Burner, Eric Bloodaxe, Eric Ploughpenny, Eric Priest-Hater, Eric the Kind-Hearted, Gustav Tennis-King, Haakon the Broad-Shouldered, Harald North-Hammer, Harold Bluetooth, Harold Fairhair, Harold Greyfell, Harold Stern-Counsel, Harold the Gentle, Harold the Servant, Harold War-Tooth, Inge Crouchback, Magnus Bare-leg, Magnus the Barn-Lock, Magnus the Law-Mender, Olaf Hunger, Olaf Tax-King, Olaf the Brash, Olaf the Peaceful, Olaf the Quiet, Ragnar Hairy-Breeks, Sven Forkbeard, to say nothing of Margaret Daisy, the present Queen of Denmark, and Gustav II Vasa, the Lion of the North. Ivar the Boneless, though not a king, also had an impressive nickname, whether because of his (alleged) impotence or his (alleged) ability to transform himself into a serpent.

  81. marie-lucie says

    So the nickname of Richard Cœur de Lion, a direct descendant of Guillaume le Conquérant, himself the son of Robert le Magnifique, was perhaps a continuation of Norman (= Scandinavian) custom.

  82. I have always wondered about “Ironside.” While its meaning is pretty transparent, it sounds quite esoteric to me. Yet versions of it were used as epithets for more than one Germanic king. It is an ordinary (but still sufficiently tough-sounding to be used for two TV cop shows) surname today, and “Old Ironsides” is also the nickname of the U. S. S. Constitution. All this suggests that the name may have been a pretty standard nickname for a tough warrior at some point in time.

  83. There was an Egyptian king called Ptolemy Philometor (mother’s lover).

    Nothing wrong with loving your mother, of course, but given the fact that he was married to his sister, one wonders…

    Several other kings in this dynasty were called Ptolemy Philadelphus (sister’s lover) and they all were married to their sisters,

  84. married to their sisters

    The Greeks who took over the throne of Egypt had to conform to the country’s prevailing customs in order to be accepted by the population. The longstanding custom of marriage with sisters kept the royal lineage unmixed with lower ranks, although over several generations there could be serious consequences from the concentration of potentially harmful genes. But since kings in those days usually had many concubines, a new king’s “sister” wife might have been only his half-sister, thus introducing some genetic diversity.

  85. David Marjanović says

    Aww, the Pffft! translation of Krum’s nickname has changed. He’s the Fearsome now. He used to be Krum the Horrible.

    The word includes the suffix -ing- found in other German tribal names derived from the name of an ancestor.

    And thus, with German thoroughness: Merowinger, Karolinger, Kapetinger.

    War Karl der Kahle wirklich kahl?

    Note the non-rhotic pun: kahl /kaːl/, Karl /ˈkaːl̩/ – a minimal pair of non-syllabic /l/ versus syllabic /l̩/.

    Albrecht der Unartige or Entartete, Margrave of Meissen (Albert the Degenerate)

    That was probably intended, but today unartig is literary for “not a good child”.

    Heinrich Jasomirgott, Duke of Austria (allegedly from his favourite oath “Yes, so help me God”)

    From what else? Ja, so mir Gott helfe!

    Harald North-Hammer


    Harold Bluetooth

    Allegedly meaning that his teeth were large.

  86. On Schwartz – I wouldn’t say that he’s popular in Germany, but at least “The Dragon” is sufficiently well known that the theatre group at my grammar school staged it as one of their annual plays in the late 70s.

  87. per incuriam says

    Séamus a’ Cháca ‘James the Shit’
    That should be Séamus an Chaca. Cáca means cake, the word for shit is cac. Here it’s in the genitive so James of the Shit i.e. James the Coward.

    “On lui proposait de changer le nom du pont d’Austerlitz : ‘Non, dit-il, il suffit que j’ai passé sur ce pont avec mon armée.’ “

    His grand-nephew, though – Alexander III – a son pont.

  88. And there is never ending legend about bistro being a borrowing from Russian bystro “quick

    That turns out to be not only improbable (too much time between the Russian invasion and the first apperance of the French word) but outright impossible: the Russian word is accented on the first syllable, which means that the final vowel was not [o] but [ə], which would have gone into French as bistre.

  89. There was already a French word le bistre, a word I had encountered in descriptions of some works of art. I thought it referred to a brownish sort of colour, but since it is a mixture of soot and water (says the TLFI), sometimes used for the background colour in some types of watercolour, it is probably black. I was more familiar with its derivative bistré sometimes encountered in the description of a skin colour, such as that of dark circles under the eyes (according to a TLFI example).

  90. David Marjanović says

    I wrote 3 years ago:

    Lithuanian resembles the Slavic languages more than Latvian does […] in having turned short a into o

    The opposite! It’s the long one that has become o, to the point that the Polish surname Tomaszewicz has been etymologically nativized as Tamoševičius.

  91. The opposite! It’s the long one that has become o, to the point that the Polish surname Tomaszewicz has been etymologically nativized as Tamoševičius.

    This works both ways: Lith. Algirdas, Jogaila –> Pol. Olgierd, Jagiełło. These names were Polonised in the 14/15th c., which means that even at such a late date the Balts and the Slavs were able to mentally “undo” some of the changes that had taken place since Proto-Balto-Slavic and to work out regular correspondences such as Baltic a, o, ai = Slavic o, a, ě.

  92. I always wonder how much etymological nativization is a “folk” process and how much it is a “learned” one, and how a historical linguist can distinguish the two cases.

  93. I don’t think anyone in the 14th century thought of Polish and Lithuanian as languages closely related in the genetic sense. There were no historical linguists in these parts. Still, the comparative basis for establishing regular correspondences was there. Bilingual speakers must have drawn conclusions from the existence of cognates or even cognate word-families like Pol.. róg : Lith. ragas ‘horn’, Pol. rogaty : Lith. raguotas ‘horned’, etc. — enough to enable proportional analogy.

  94. David Marjanović says

    For etymological nativization as a folk process, I’ll repeat my favorite example: /oˈkɛ/ ~ /kɛ/ “OK ~ ‘K” from a whole bunch of Austrian dialects, owing to the fact that the most common correspondence between /e/ and /ɛ/ between Bavarian-Austrian dialects and Standard German is crosswise.

  95. There were no historical linguists in these parts.

    Oh, sure. But were these names Tamoševičius, Olgierd, Jagiełło devised by the learned, or were they more like Moishe Elman being called Mischa after moving to Odessa? And if we can tell the answer, how can we tell it?

  96. “Landslide Lyndon” was a short-lived nickname after the 1948 Senate race which Johnson won (and according to Robert Caro stole) by a margin of 87 votes.

  97. David Marjanović says

    Surely the learned would have recognized some St. Thomas or other in Tomaszewicz?

  98. I have always wondered about “Ironside.” While its meaning is pretty transparent, it sounds quite esoteric to me.

    I think side must have been a common metonym for body; whether independently developed or calqued from Latin latus (e.g., et nunc adludit viridique exsultat in herba, / nunc latus in fulvis niveum deponit harenis), I don’t know.

  99. David Marjanović says

    Interestingly, that only scans if there’s no [h] in in herba.

  100. Not to mention harenis

  101. David Eddyshaw says

    According to Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina, there was controversy even among the educated as to whether there was supposed to be an h in (h)arena.

    (And of course the educated actually got it wrong in some words, like anser.)

    As far as I can make out, neither harena nor herba has a clear etymology. One online source mutters darkly about “Etruscan” for harena .

  102. David Eddyshaw says

    Although this

    says there’s an Oscan fasena, and supposes that that makes the h original. Not that I know much about it, but the etymology looks impossible to me: it should surely give Latin *farena, not harena.

  103. David Eddyshaw says

    I suppose this may all be beside the point if Latin poets simply felt at liberty to ignore initial h, no matter how authentic, as making position, as they did of course when it came to elision: monstrum horrendum informe ingens …

    Can’t find anything either to confirm or deny it in my Latin grammars.

  104. That would make sense. Edgar Sturtevant and Roland Kent have an article “Elision and Hiatus in Latin Prose and Verse” (Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 46 [1915]: 129-155) that might be helpful here, but I don’t have time to examine it now.

  105. On H making position:

    Allen’s Vox Latina (p 43) says:

    h is basically a weak articulation, involving no independent activity of the speech-organs in the mouth, and (as we know from Cockney, for example) is liable to disappear. But where it is retained in English, as in the standard southern pronunciation, it functions as a normal consonant; before it, for example, the articles take their preconsonantal rather than prevocalic form….. In Latin, however (as in Greek), h did not so function, as may be seen from the fact that it does not’ make position’, and regularly permits elision of a preceding vowel; note also that it does not prevent contraction in dehinc (Aen., i, 131). has:
    A syllable is long if
    • it contains a short vowel followed immediately by two consonants, even if one
    or both consonants are part of the following word; but note:

    o an h has no consonantal value (and ch, ph, rh and th are treated as
    single consonants)


    Editing to add:

    Iliad, 1, 29: et genus invisum et rapti Ganymedis honores
    as an example.

  106. Thanks, that would seem to settle it!

  107. David Marjanović says

    Yes, harenis too.

    it should surely give Latin *farena, not harena.

    Doesn’t Oscan have a megamerger of everything into f?

    “Elision and Hiatus in Latin Prose and Verse”

    I’m reading it now, and already love the “as every one knows” on the second page. 🙂

  108. David Eddyshaw says

    Doesn’t Oscan have a megamerger of everything into f?

    Apparently not; Buck (admittedly an old reference) has e.g. humuns “people”, húrz “garden”, féihúss “walls” (cognate to Greek τει̃χος)

    Sturtevant/Kent p147:
    “Probably Quintilian was the sort of person who would read English blank verse as if it were prose”


  109. January First-of-May says

    The name Phelypeaux inevitably reminds me of Isle Phelipeaux, supposedly an island in Lake Superior, whose position defined part of what would later become the US-Canadian border.

    Unfortunately, as it turned out, Phelipeaux was a phantom island – despite being depicted on the maps used by both sides of the respective treaty, it didn’t actually exist in reality.

    Said fact, of course, made determining the actual placement of that part of the border somewhat tricky.

    (I’m surprised, incidentally, that this story didn’t show up in this thread earlier.)

  110. I am too — thank goodness it finally did!

  111. Roswitha Schnäutz-Krabel says

    DM “and at least some other Ripuarian dialects (Wikipedia mentions the fact, but provides no more information beyond that)”

    In Phonologica 1980 (1981), try Ternes’ “Über Herkunft und Verbreitung der Überlänge in deutschen Dialekten”, pp. 379–386. I have not read it, but it looks promising, judging from my copy of Ternes (²1999) referencing this as he mentions how in languages with three vowel lengths, the long and überlang quantities usually also differ from each other in tonal movement, allowing those who dislike the concept of three distinct lengths to resort to an alternative interpretation, where you have only short and long and, within the latter, tone.

    “So ist z. B. im Moselfränkischen der ‘lange’ Vokal durch eine stark fallende Tonbewegung, der ‘überlange’ Vokal durch eine leicht fallend-steigende Tonbewegung charakterisiert.”

    Three Quantitätsstufen:
    /klat/ (short) “smooth”
    /klaˑt/ (long) “(he/she) dresses”
    /klaːt/ (überlang) “dress”

    The same triple, but two Quantitätsstufen and two accents:
    /klat/ (short)
    /¹klaːt/ (long falling)
    /²klaːt/ (long falling-rising)

    Hence, “auch Nordniedersächsisch, Rheinisch” – which he earlier specifies to include Ripuarian and Moselfränkisch, probably implying that this feature occurs in both –, “Estnisch sowie Schottisch-Gälisch”, having three Quantitätsstufen, may also be considered moderate tonal languages.

    In the section on vowel quantity, he gives another example of Hamburg Geest having a three length distinction in /vi(ˑ/ː)t/ “white” – “wide” – “willows”, but does not say whether a tonal interpretation would work for this dialect.

    In my lect, tonality is a marginal feature at best; I can only think of neutral vs. rising [nə] “indefinite feminine article” vs. “right? isn’t it?”, which occur in mutually exclusive positions.

    Off topic: Is there a manual or at least a list of markup available to format one’s LH comments?

  112. Is there a manual or at least a list of markup available to format one’s LH comments?

    Just basic HTML; you seem to be doing fine. Thanks for a great comment!

  113. David Marjanović says

    Fascinating! 🙂

    Only occurrence of tonality in my lect: [ʔḿʔm̀] “no”. But then it doesn’t even have phonemic vowel length.

    Basic HTML works, not including super- and subscript (for which we resort to the Unicode versions way down the character map). Probably incomplete list: a, b, i, blockquote, possibly code. HTML entities work, too, so &lt; will be displayed as <, while < will be interpreted as the beginning of an HTML tag.

  114. Lars (the original one) says

    Indeed. I have never understood why <sub> and <sup> were filtered out, nor <center> — I don’t see how they can be used nefariously. Maybe there’s a whitelist where they could be put in.

  115. Roswitha Schnäutz-Krabel says

    Hat, DM, Lars: Thank you.
    Hat: Thanks for allowing commenting without javascript and without Creepy G captchas.

  116. I try to keep it old-school!

  117. David Marjanović says

    What’s particularly interesting is that the two German occurrences of a three-way length distinction have come about in different ways. The Standard German cognates of the Moselle Franconian examples seem to be glatt, kleidet and Kleid: vowel shortness continues old shortness, overlength continues old length (in this case from a diphthong), and middle length continues length followed by a long consonant (from syncope) – it’s a kind of shortened length. The cognates of the examples from Hamburg are weiß, weit and Weiden: shortness is old within Low German at least, length continues old length, overlength comes from a lost second syllable – it’s a kind of lengthened length.

  118. Roswitha Schnäutz-Krabel says

    Sorry, I made a mistake, it should be “willow (tree)”, not “willows”.

    PSA: When WordPress asks you to slow down comments submission, retrying too often, too soon is not just fruitless but may convince WordPress that you are up to no good and your submissions must be discarded.
    (Details: When I tried to submit a comment here and, only about a second later, tried to submit another comment on another post here (to prevent any misunderstandings, I should mention that I had typed both comments before that), WordPress informed me that I was too fast and asked me to slow down. To find out what interval was deemed acceptable, I re-tried several times to submit, expecting that WordPress would reject again and again, and, as soon as the required interval had passed, accept. After a few iterations, it stopped rejecting and displayed the page, so I thought my submission had succeeded. But no, my comments are on neither of the two pages.)

  119. David Marjanović says

    Oh yeah, when it tells you you’re too fast, wait.. I forgot if it’s half a minute or a whole minute. If you don’t, WordPress will assume you can’t read because you’re a spambot.

  120. John Cowan says


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