I’ve just started Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, by José Alaniz, and I’m enjoying it greatly despite the sprinkling of typos and minor errors that seem to disfigure even the best-produced books these days (and this is a gorgeous piece of work, with a section of color reproductions that make the high price seem justified for once). Alaniz traces the origins of the Russian form back to icons and lubki (the plural of lubok), and here’s an interesting section on the history of the latter word (which I had just assumed was as ancient as the thing itself):

Since Snegirov [should be Snegiryov] launched the formal study of the lubok in the 1820s—to no small controversy among educated circles, who considered it beneath contempt—scholars have skirmished over several issues involved in the study of the subject. Avram Reitblat, reviewing the recent literature in 2001, notes that the very term “lubok” is problematic, since the historical record indicates that before Snegirov few people actually called the prints by that name. Instead, depending on the region and/or what they depicted, the prints went by poteshnie listy (“funny sheets”), Suzdalskie (from Suzdal), panki (“little panels”), bogatyry [should be bogatyri] (“knights”), konnitsa (referring to figures on horseback), friazhkie (“Western European”), prazdniky [should be prazdniki] (“holidays”), prostovik (“simple”), balagurnik (“joker,” “jester”), satira (“satire”), Moskovskie kartiny (“Moscow pictures”), or simply listy (“sheets”)—among a plethora of other names.

Snegirov himself called the prints “lubok” fully aware of the term’s ambiguity: did it refer to the bark (lub) of the linden tree, from which he claimed peasants formed the wood blocks; or did it point to Moscow’s Lubianka Street, where the sheets were printed and near which they were sold; or, indeed, to the wooden box in which the ofeni carried the prints for sale? Or did the word simply connote something “crude,” “badly made,” and “ramshackle,” as it did in other contexts? Evidently, Boris Sokolov surmises, Snegirov simply picked one of the local names for the prints; already by the 1840s this had grown into a general term, handed down to the present day.

I love that kind of philological background (though I don’t love the refusal to put Russian words in italics, which makes it just that little bit harder to read, since at first glance you don’t know whether, say, “ofeni” is some obscure English word, a typo, or a Russian word—in fact, it’s the latter, the plural of ofenya ‘peddler, huckster’).

Addendum. I know it’s almost superfluous to say about any new book, however prestigious the publisher, but man, this could have used some copyediting. I’ll give them a pass on “V. S. Zemenkov” for the correct B. S. (his name was Boris), since that takes specialized knowledge, but on p. 20 it has “discreet” when “discrete” is meant, and on p. 39 “…shows the worker grown enormous, so that he now dwarves the Whites…” [emphasis added]. Come on, that’s just plain sloppy.


  1. Russian words should be in Cyrillic roman or Latin italics. Latin roman has the disadvantage you mention, and Cyrillic italics has the disadvantage that t looks like m in too many fonts.

  2. JC: Interesting that you chose to use a singular verb with “italics.” Google returns 1.03 million hits for “italics are” but only 180K for “italics is.” Of course you might have have chosen to write “Cyrillic italic” instead. My AP Stylebook is temporarily inaccessible . . .

  3. Before lubok has become the Russian vernacular culture phenomenon and a subject of contempt, the prints used to be imported from Germany, and widely used as educational and easy-reading materials for noble- and merchant-class children. Even XVII c. Czarevich Alexei Mikhailovich was taught to read with the help of “печатные потешные листы” (~ entertaining printed sheets). Domestic printing is well attested in XVIII c. under censorship of the local police department known, since 1782, as “Управа Благочиния”. In police-speak, the lubok prints were known as исторические и забавные листы (historical entertaining sheets). But it appears that the prints were known as листы at least since 1632, when the printer’s borough parish was established as Trinity Church in the Sheets, Храм Троицы в Листах (on Sretenka Street right between Pechatnikov (Printers’) Lane and the former Sukharevsky marketplace).

    Following Snegiryov, Dmitry Rovinsky collected and published numerous compendiums of engravings and folk prints since the 1840s. In 1881, Rovinsky published the grand summary of his work, in 9 huge tomes with 1780 prints and commentary, under the title “Русские Народные Картинки” (Russian Folk Drawings), indicating that even in the end of XIX c., the word lubok lacked universal acceptance.

    Indeed, N-gram shows that the noun “lubok” only gained acceptance since the 1910s, after a brief appearance in Snegiryov’s 1861 book “Лубочныя картинки русскаго народа”. Most XIX c. sources use the word “lubok” for other items crafted of bark. Instead, lubok used as an adjective rather than a noun ( лубочныя картинки/ лубочныя комедіи / лубочная сказка ) is quite a bit more common in XIX c. books, and predates Snegiryov’s work.

    So I conclude that our current use of word “lubok” where 100 or 200 years ago, “lubok print” or “lubok tale” would have been used instead, owes its existence to the XXth c. passion for brevity.

  4. you could mention my site!

  5. Nice site — consider it mentioned!

  6. Did Snow white dwarve Sleepy, Grumpy, et al.?

    I could get used to it.

  7. January First-of-May says

    Language Log wrote about “dwarves” as a verbal form back in 2011. Apparently even back then it came up every so often in newspaper articles.

  8. Trond Engen says

    Using “dwarves” as a verb form? I’ve probably done that..Discreetly.

  9. Discreetly

    One of the lesser-known dwarfs.

  10. Alaniz has an interesting piece on recent developments in Russian comix here.


  1. […] to Lubianka, the Moscow street where the prints were sold wholesale (see this 2014 Languagehat post quoting José Alaniz on Lubianka as a possible origin of lubok in this context). In the same poem a […]

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