I’m reading Herzen’s 1847 «Кто виноват?» [Who Is to Blame?], one of the first of the “problem novels” of mid-nineteenth-century Russian literature, and I probably will drop it after this chapter because, as Herzen himself admitted, he wasn’t much good at writing fiction, and it’s something of a slog. But I’ve gotten a couple of good vocabulary items from it, and one of them is равендук [ravendúk], a kind of thick canvas used for sails (and for the curtains in the general’s house in the novel). It struck me as an odd word; imagine my surprise when it turned out there was an English equivalent, which was originally ravenduck and is now (to the extent anyone talks about it) raven’s duck. Here are the OED listings (both s.v. raven):

raven-duck n. [ < raven n.1 + duck n.3 Compare German Rabentuch (early 19th cent. or earlier).] now hist. = raven’s duck n. at Compounds 3b.
1753 J. Hanway Hist. Acct. Brit. Trade Caspian Sea I. xiv. 92 Sail-cloth, sheetings, ravenducks and drillings.
1827 O. W. Roberts Narr. Voy. Central Amer. 36 In exchange we gave them ravenduck, osnaburg, [etc.].
1905 A. S. Cunningham Rambles in Scoonie & Wemyss 227 The Board of Trustees offered prizes for the best and second best raven-duck, harn-shirting, huckaback, diaper, and plain linen.
1985 A. Kahan Plow, Hammer, & Knout iv. 210/1 Packaging cloth, drills, crash, diaper, Flemish, and ravenduck were the standard items [for export from Russia].

raven’s duck n. [ <the genitive of raven n.1 + duck n.3 Compare slightly earlier raven-duck n. at Compounds 3a] now hist. a kind of canvas fabric.
1756 G. G. Beekman Let. 19 Apr. in Beekman Mercantile Papers (1956) I. 279 All the Blankets, Peices of Ravens Duck, ossen brigs and Dowless are bought up for the use of the forces.
1868 G. G. Channing Early Recoll. Newport, R.I. 200 A miller called one day at the store to purchase a piece of ravensduck, with which to make or to repair sails for his windmill.
1931 Sun (Baltimore) 12 Jan. 6/6 Hemp sails, known as raven’s duck, were used, the cotton duck being unknown at that time.
2002 J. Winch Gentleman of Colour iv. 92 In July 1834 there was another bill for new sails, more repairs, another tarpaulin, and more Russian Duck and Raven’s Duck for the stores.

The relevant noun duck, n.3 in the OED, is ” A strong untwilled linen (or later, cotton) fabric, lighter and finer than canvas; used for small sails and men’s (esp. sailors’) outer clothing,” “apparently < 17th cent. Dutch doeck ‘linnen or linnen cloath’ (Hexham 1678); = German tuch, Icelandic dúkr, Swedish duk“; it’s not clear to me what ravens have to do with it.


  1. The “raven” part sounds likely to be from Dutch reven, to reef [a sail].

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    Ian’s guess is probably better than my first guess which was that it might have something to do with ravel. Duck does tend to be kind of ravelly, but I couldn’t really go anywhere with it.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Quite likely. Or maybe a LG or Dutch form of Rawe? Ravenduck was used to cover rifts in sails.

  4. SFReader says

    Neuestes Illustrirtes Handels- und Waaren-Lexicon oder Encyclopädie der gesammten Handelswissenschaften für Kaufleute und Fabrikanten: Herausgegeben von einem Verein praktischer Kaufleute, Volume 2, Ernst Schäfer, 1857

    says that Rabenstuch is a type of sail-cloth made in town of Ravensberg in Westphalia.

  5. SFReader says

    Swedish source says it’s a type of cloth made in Russia, but also mentions that it is also made in Germany as well – in county of Ravensberg.

    (†) i uttr. ravensberger ravensduk, ravenduk tillvärkad i det forna grevskapet Ravensberg i Westfalen. SYNNERBERG (1815).

  6. I confess my suggestion of Dutch reven isn’t looking so good. There’s no record of revendoek in the online WNT. In any case Dutch compound word formation prefers n + n over v + n where the first element is a noun which has produced a verb, meaning that *reefdoek would be more likely – but that’s not recorded in the WNT either.

    I suppose that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that 17th-century English sailors adopted a non-standard, “incorrect” Dutch form. But the Ravensberg derivation looks more plausible.

  7. Barely relevant, I admit, but just yesterday I was thinking of the fact that the word raven is cognate with Lat. corvus (raven, crow) but the word crow isn’t.

  8. Could there be a connection with ‘ramm’, or ‘ram’, from the overlapping meaning suggested by this post on the origins of the surname ‘Ingram’?

  9. Henk Metselaar says

    There is an entry for ravendoek in the WNT and it’s sorted under raaf/rave (raven), unfortunately without indication of the link between bird and sail. I found reference to a Dutch book on ‘Hollandse scheepvaartstermen in het Russisch’. I haven’t seen that but I doubt that there is an explanation on how Dutch got the word in the first place.
    The verb reven is derived from reef which goes back to the older form rif . I guess that makes a vowel shift to a unlikely.

  10. David Marjanović says

    This being Germanic, we can always invoke doublets from whatever umlaut or ablaut phenomena. German has (no doubt from Dutch or something else northern) die Segel reffen “to reef the sails”, but outside the context of ships there’s raffen, “pull + gather”, which can be applied to everything from skirts to, metaphorically, money (Raffgier “comically exaggerated greed for money”).

    But yeah, Ravensberg looks a lot more plausible. Why would a kind of canvas be named after reefing?

  11. Ravensbrück is a German village (“part of Fürstenberg/Havel” – Wikipedia), now forgotten except as the site of Nazi concentration camp for women. I imagine the last syllable = Brücke, ‘bridge’, but what does the ‘Raven’ part mean? Is it the name of some stream or creek too small to be listed in the Rivers of Germany article on Wikipedia?

    Could Ravenduck be another Germanic place name, a place known for a particular style of textile? The Wikipedia article mentions that the SS established textile factores near the Ravensbrück camp, but that’s probably a red herring.

  12. The sources SFReader mentions talk about the county of Ravensberg in Westphalia , not Ravensbrück. It’s named after castle Ravensberg, which would be plain “raven mountain” (/v/ for /b/ is to be expected in Westphalia, where Low German dialects are spoken; in High German it would be “Raben(s)berg”).

    I didn’t find an etymology for Ravensbrück, but it could of course be the obvious “raven bridge”.

  13. Is it the name of some stream or creek too small to be listed in the Rivers of Germany article on Wikipedia?

    The Hegensteinbach appears to flow through Ravensbrück.


  1. […] doesn’t like Gertsen’s fiction but at least found the word равендук ‘ravenduck.’ He does like Vel’tman and, if […]

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