I’ve been reading a wonderful book called Odessa Memories (thanks, Bill!) that has hundreds of reproductions of old photographs, postcards, advertisements, and the like, accompanied by a brief memoir by Bel Kaufman (who spent her childhood there) and historical essays by Patricia Herlihy (author of a history of the city) and Oleg Gubar and Alexander Rozenboim (two current residents), as well as a splendid reproduction of the 1914 Baedeker map on the endpapers. I love city histories like this, and I’m having a great time looking things up and reading related stories (Babel, of course, but also Kuprin’s “Гамбринус”); as usual, I’m also enjoying finding minor errors and typos (the best of the latter being a picture caption on page 71 that reads “Cantor Minkovsky and boys’ choir in the Broadway Synagogue, early 1910s”—“Broadway” being an error for Brodsky, the synagogue having been built by Jews from Brody).

One such minor error is on page 86, in the sentence “Unlike Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other northern cities, Odessa had Greek and Turkish coffeehouses, German bakeries, and Italian casinos, and people played nardy (dice) on the street.” Now, nardy is not “dice” but backgammon, as you will quickly discover by doing an image search on нарды. And the reason I’m writing about it here is that online searching is the only way you’d find out what it means, because it’s not in a single dictionary as far as I can see.

How can that be? Even the largest dictionaries I have, Makurov and Dahl, omit it, as does Vasmer. And yet it appears to be the standard word for ‘backgammon’; all my English-Russian dictionaries give триктрак (trictrac) as the sole Russian equivalent, but нарды beats триктрак in a Google competition by almost ten to one, and it is the heading for the Russian Wikipedia article. It must be an old word, because it’s borrowed from Persian nard ‘backgammon.’ Does anybody have any idea what’s going on here?

Update. Anatoly picks up the question, and his readers so far can’t answer it either (though some of them claim it somehow isn’t really a Russian word, which is ridiculous—Dima Rubinstein writes “Всю жизнь только так и называли, и никак иначе” [All my life I’ve called it that, and nothing else]).


  1. Good question. I don’t know why it’s not in the older dictionaries (and those older dictionaries don’t get updated, for lack of funds). It’s in R>E dictionaries.
    I have never played backgamon, but played nardy once or twice years ago. People who know both say that the rules — or something — differ, but I can’t say.

  2. By the way, the correct spelling of backgamon is considered “questionable content” and banned from your site. Am I missing something? Is that slang for something far more interesting?

  3. Persian “nard” to Russian through the Caucasus?

  4. I don’t know why this would happen, but нарды is the only term for backgam-mon I’ve ever heard.

  5. Oh, I didn’t see that last graf.

  6. Is нарды morphologically plural, colliding with нард ‘[spike]nard’?

  7. Right, once again I’ve made life more difficult for everyone with my impulsive blacklisting. I’ve removed “backgammon” from the list and we can now talk about the subject of the post. Oy.

  8. Is нарды morphologically plural, colliding with нард ‘[spike]nard’?
    It is indeed morphologically plural, but I’m not sure it has many opportunities to collide with the word for spikenard.

  9. It’s nardi in Georgian too, so if the word came up through the Caucasus that could account for the pluralization of the Russian word.

  10. Here’s some interesting stuff from my beloved Wiktionary:
    languages which use something like “nardy”
    * Armenian: նարդի (nardi)
    * Georgian: ნარდი ka(ka) (nardi)
    * Latin: nerdiludium la(la) m.
    * Persian: نرد (nard)
    * Urdu: نرد (nard)
    Slavic languages and languags using words related to the slavic words
    * Bosnian: tavla bs(bs) f., triktrak bs(bs) m.
    * Bulgarian: табла bg(bg) (tabla) f.
    * Czech: vrhcáby cs(cs) m. pl.
    * Greek: τάβλι el(el) (tavli) n.
    * Macedonian: табла mk(mk) (tábla) f.
    * Polish: tryktrak pl(pl) m. and f.
    * Serbian:
    Cyrillic: тавла sr(sr) f., триктрак sr(sr) m.
    Roman: tavla f., triktrak m.
    * Turkish: tavla tr(tr) n.
    * Russian: нарды ru(ru) (nárdy) f. pl., триктрак ru(ru) (trictrac)

  11. It is indeed morphologically plural
    As, I suppose, is tables, which Wikipedia distinguishes from backgammon and links to нарды. Its page mentions that possibly the earliest reference to the game is נרדשיר nardshir in the Talmud, though it fails to mention Rashi’s theory that this was chess. It and גוריתא guriyata are occupations of an idle wife in Ketubot 61b (Socino translation; the daf should be here, but the image seems to be broken, hopefully temporarily). That also seems to be some kind of gambling game, though some take it literally as lap dogs. This page is better known for the next part, which lists how often different classes of husband have to satisfy their wives.

  12. “Backgammon” in Arabic:
    لعبة الطاولة أو النرد
    from The Oxford English Arabic Dictionary of Current Usage (Yes, that’s “al-nard” at the end.)

  13. Wehr:
    نرد nard backgammon, tricktrack
    نردين nardīn nard, spikenard

  14. Nardy is obviously borrowed from Persian through Azerbaijani (Azerbaijan used to be a part of Persia, you know) while trictrac looks like a Dutch word—although Brockhaus & Efron say trictrac is “старинная французская игра, восточного происхождения (из Персии)… В средние века называлась у французских авторов jeu des tables, у немцев Bretspiel” = “old French game of East origin (from Persia)… In the Middle Ages, French writers called it jeu des tables, German writers — Bretspiel” (Brett is table, board in German).
    There are two variants of nardy: short nardy (with rules close to backgammon, as I can understand) and long nardy (which I used to play; rules are simpler).

  15. الطاولة “tawla” is Arabic for table

  16. Odd. I wondered if нарды was still stuck in dictionaries of foreign words, but I can’t find it there, either. I don’t have an explanation, except that there were always odd bits missing from Soviet dictionaries, and there has been very little true updating of dictionaries in the last 20 years.
    BTW in the Towers of Trebizond Macaulay describes men playing tric-trac in the cafes. I’d never heard of tric-trac before. My dacha landlords (in their 80s) had never heard of триктрак and maintain that their friends from the Caucasus(especially Georgia,where the game is a national past time-obsession) always called the game нарды.

  17. there were always odd bits missing from Soviet dictionaries
    But it’s missing from pre-Soviet dictionaries as well—see my mention of Dahl in the post, and it’s not in my 1908 Makaroff either.

  18. there has been very little true updating of dictionaries in the last 20 years
    I cannot agree. At least I found нарды in every Russian explanatory dictionary I’ve got: Большой толковый словарь (1998), Толково-энциклопедический словарь (2006), Большой энциклопедический словарь (1998), Большой современный толковый словарь русского языка (2006), Большой иллюстрированный словарь иностранных слов (2003).

  19. Another oddity: it looks like нарды is treated as foreign in the 1956 БСЭ, s.v. триктрак. But I can’t find an entry for either one in the edition online. (Or should I say editions? I can’t tell whether the sites are all the same in the actual data.)

  20. @LH — it may not have been used in Dal’s time. (Don’t know.)
    @Kabir — but most of those aren’t standard Russian language dictionaries, like Ozhegov or Yefremov or Ushakov.

  21. Большой толковый словарь by Kuznetsov et al. indeed contains ‘нарды’. I haven’t done a thorough comparison/review of this dictionary, but whenever I looked, I was always pleased by its definitions, and often surprised by the unprecedented (for the prudish field of Russian lexicography) breadth of its coverage.

  22. I’ll have to get a copy—thanks for the recommendation!

  23. It may well be that триктрак was the word used — and the game played — in Dal’s time, and nardy began to be used an played later in the USSR/Russia. (BTW, tric-trac used all the time in Towers of Trebizond [1956].)

  24. most of those aren’t standard Russian language dictionaries, like Ozhegov or Yefremov or Ushakov.
    I’m afraid you’re not quite right. Ozhegov (now Ozhegov & Shedova) is a dictionary for schoolchildren (does THAT mean it’s standard?). Yefremova (you must’ve mistyped) is the author of above-mentioned Большой современный толковый словарь русского языка (2006). As far as I know, both of them aren’t Academic = they don’t have official classification given by Russian Academy of Sciences. Ushakov (1935—1940) used to be Academic before Evgenyeva (Малый академический словарь, 1981—1984). It’s Evgenyeva dictionary that is now authoritative. Still all the dictionary which have linked in my message above are officially Academic, and БТС by Kuznetsov is published under the aegis of the Institute of Linguistic Research under the Russian Academy of Sciences. (You can find more information about Russian explanatory dictionaries on official portal Русский язык.) Anyway, it was about “little updating”. As you can see, updating is not little at all. And it’ll be more: Three years ago at the Moscow International Book Fair I happened to converse with a representative of Academic publishing house, and he said they had been publishing a new Большой академический словарь—4 or 5 volumes a year, altogether probably 25—27 volumes.
    I don’t have Evgenyeva dictionary, but our office does, so I’ve had an opportunity to look up. And this dictionary does NOT contain нарды. So we can say none of the Soviet dictionary has the word while all the modern Russia’s dictionaries have. I suppose the reason is that нарды was considered too colloquial. I’d say триктрак is an elder standard (I’m not sure about the English term, старшая норма in Russian), and нарды is a younger standard (младшая норма).

  25. he said they had been publishing a new Большой академический словарь—4 or 5 volumes a year, altogether probably 25—27 volumes.
    This is exciting news—will it contain a thorough selection of citations, like the OED?

  26. Kabir, the dictionaries I have on disc and in paper and the online dictionaries accessible via Yandex don’t have nardy. I’m glad a few are getting them. (I wouldn’t call the Ozhegov “for schoolchildren.”)
    The Big Academic Dictionary was stopped years and years ago, and thank heavens it’s finally getting going again. But since the early 90s, most of the big dictionaries have been reprinted — in glossy fancy covers — without being truly updated. The situation with R>E, E>R paper dictionaires is worse. In 2004 Yermolovich FINALLY updated the old Smirtnitsky R>E dictionary,which had only been slightly updated in the 1970s. It was filled with words for horses and carts and other delights of the 19th century.
    But this is a silly discussion, and besides the point.

  27. finds nardy in the Bolshoi Encyclopedicheskiy Slovar’, although the results are rather more cluttered now that they seem to be searching Wikipedia as well. =(

  28. will it contain a thorough selection of citations
    I think so. I could not imagine an explanatory dictionary without citations. And I hope it’ll be thourough.
    But since the early 90s…
    Yes, absolutely. Years 1988—1998 were a disaster for lexicography in Russia: I couldn’t remember anything but R>E dictionary on printing and publishing (Russo Publishers) and Shvedova’s editions of Ozhegov. But since 1998 it is getting better. I believe БТС by Kuznetsov et al. (1998) is the best explanatory dictionary, Мой несистематический словарь by Palazhchenko (2002, 2005) is the best E>R dictionary, Новый большой русско-английский словарь by Yermolovich and Krasavina (2004) is the best R>E dictionary. All of them are recent and not just reprints, far from it. So things are not that bad. 🙂

  29. Thomas Hyde, Historia Nerdiludii (1694), p. 3:

    Hic Ludus linguâ Japonicâ dicitur Sugurócu, Indicâ Sanſcreticâ Dûta, Malaicâ جوج Gjûgy, Georgianâ ſeu Ibericâ ნარდი Nardi, quod à veteribus Perſis mutuò acceptum eſt.

  30. mollymooly says

    Does the new edition of “Historia Nerdiludii” cover World of Warcraft?

  31. mollymooly says

    First “bondmaid” and now “nardy”. Is there a comprehensive list somewhere of notable omissions from various dictionaries*? Dr Johnson famously omitted “sausage”.
    (*and if so does it have any notable omissions?)

  32. Kabir, thanks very much for your informative comments!
    Does the new edition of “Historia Nerdiludii” cover World of Warcraft?
    OK, that made me laugh out loud.

  33. You’re welcome.

  34. John Cowan says

    See also nardy flat! in Mack Reynolds novels: nardy is an all-purpose insulting adjective, and flat means ‘someone who dislikes or is unfit for space travel’, what Larry Niven later called a flatlander.

  35. Шеш беш или длинные нарды!

    Длинные нарды
    Это очень своеобразная разновидность игры в нарды. Она требует от обоих партнеров наличия навыков стратегического мышления, а также умения вести борьбу, используя заранее просчитанные комбинации.

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