I finished Fearful Majesty (see this post) on the flight back from California yesterday, and I was thinking of writing about Livonia—the prize for which Ivan fought, and lost, a 25-year war, leaving his country a wreck—but you know what? Livonia isn’t a particularly interesting word; it’s just ‘the land of the Livonians‘ (a Finnic people now largely absorbed into the Latvian population), and the word is of obscure origin. (I might say, though, that the OED’s present first citation of Livonian, from 1652, will surely be antedated, since there was much discussion of Baltic trade routes in Elizabeth’s time. And did you know that Elizabeth the Great and Ivan the Terrible exchanged a number of quite revealing letters? Ivan offered her refuge in case she was overthrown, which in the 1560s must have looked like a serious possibility, considering that, as Bobrick puts it, “in a mere five years two monarchs had gone to the scaffold, England had officially changed its religion twice, had been horribly torn by civil war, and had crowned four heads of state.”)

No, I think I’ll write instead about the name of an island off the Livonian (now Estonian) coast. It’s now called Saaremaa, but the traditional German (and international) name was Oesel (Ösel). The two names would seem to have nothing to do with each other, but Oesel is from Old Norse Ey-sýsla ‘island district’ and Saaremaa is Estonian saar ‘island’ + maa ‘land,’ so they mean exactly the same thing. (The island to the north is Hiiumaa ‘land of giants’ in Estonian and Dagö ‘day island’ in Swedish, the latter supposedly because it’s a day’s sail from Stockholm.)


  1. Elizabeth the Great? Who calls her that? Here in England she’s referred to as Elizabeth I or Elizabth Tudor. Or sometimes, with well marked irony, as The Virgin Queen or Gloriana. I’ve never heard her called Elizabeth the Great.

  2. Hiiumaa is really too small to have borne several giants; word for word, the name actually stands for ‘land of a giant’. The giant living there, called Leiger, is also said to have been the nephew of another giant, Töll, living on the island of Saaremaa. And yes, there a rivalry between both the giants and their home islands.

  3. Well, googling the phrase “Elizabeth the Great” gets 16,000 hits, so obviously someone calls her that. But I confess I used it as a convenient counterpart to “Ivan the Terrible.”

  4. Tanel: Thanks, it’s always good to get the details about these things!

  5. For a moment there I thought you refer to Elizaveta Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great, despite 200 yrs between her and Groznyj’s reigns: she sometimes is called Elizaveta Velikaya, too. (I always suspected the name referred more to her not inconsiderable physical dimensions).
    On the subject of Saaremaa: I regret not taking a sea trip over there from Pyarnu when I had a chance, many moons ago – the description of the island here sounds amusing. [fun linguistic/political quibbles: compare “S. was…under rule of Sweden” and “liberated from Soviet dictatorship”)

  6. Livonia is a major street in Detroit, I asume the diverse immigrant population included some Finns. I also knew an elderly black woman in Utah with the name Livonia – which I really cannnot guess the reason for.
    As a kid, I conflated the Livonia with Linoleum.
    See? Not such a boring word.

  7. There was a social club of some kind at Yale in the dim past whose memory is preserved in the name of a cozy reading room in the library, Livonia and Brothers In Unity (or L&B). I don’t know why; does anyone here know more about it?

  8. Sorry, but that’s the Linonia & Brothers Reading Room. I have fond memories of it. (As does this guy, who says “at Yale I slept better in the Sterling Library’s Linonia & Brothers Reading Room than I have anywhere since.”)

  9. There is also a city in Michigan named Livonia. Liivi, on the other hand means ‘vest’ in Finnish, and in estonian apparently liiv means sand or gravel. Considering that the Livonians seem to have a particular attachment to their sandy shore, I’d wonder if there’s a connection to the Livonian name for it.
    On the other hand, here’s an article in English (surprise) from the Finno-Ugrian Society. It seems the writer, Grünthal, has your similar viewpoint:

    The Livonians have had many ways of refering to themselves: (Livonian) kalàmi’eD, raandalist, kuràlist and liibi, liivõ-keel’ ‘Livonian language’, liivõ(z), liibõ(z), (seldom) liivnika ‘Livonian’, and this use of the latter (first mentioned in the Chronicle of Nestor’) has also been used by the Latvians. The etymology of this ethnonym is obscure. It is clear even though that even the first literary records connect it to the old Livonian territories of present-day Latvia.

  10. The only other word that’s clear to me in the names listed for Livonians are raandalist, which would probably have something to do with rand ‘shore’, coming from some germanic/scandinavian *strand. I wonder if the kalàmi’eD has something to do with fish, as a result of kala- ‘fish’. Then of course my views are mainly speculation; haven’t studied the Livonians in depth in any way. I do wonder about the liiv- however. Likely that it’s not Finnic.

  11. Tatyana: The way it’s taught in school, Estonian history is a constant struggle between Good and Evil (isn’t all history?). Naturally, the Estonians have always been the good guys, but they’ve hardly played any part in much of Estonian history, meaning that others have had to play this role from time to time. The Swedish are commonly considered to have been Good — as opposed to the Evil Germans (see: German occupation) and Russians.
    Of all the foreign powers to have ruled over Estonia, the Swedish rule is commonly considered to have been the least oppressive (must have been because there wasn’t that many people left to oppress after the Livonian War) and quite liberal. The century and a half of Swedish rule is quite often called the “good old Swedish times”. Kids are taught of the good old Swedish times in history classes. Unlike Germans, Russians, or Danes, the Swedish are never called ‘invaders’. It’s never the Swedish ‘occupation’ — it’s always the Swedish ‘rule’.

  12. Tanel, “the good old Swedish times” immediately reminded me of [very local] L’vov’s joke (before 1990). I’ll translate, since even if I’ll write it in Ukranian, intonation will be lost even on Eastern-Ukranians and Russians. (although Michael Farris might like it better).
    Exam on “Scientific Communism” in L’vov University.
    Prof: Vasylju, please describe, in your own words, a communist’ society. How do you picture life when communism wins?
    Student: Everybody happy, beautiful May afternoon, I’m seating in my orchard under the cherry blossoms, eat salo and drink gorilka, like it was under Poles…(Як за Польщі…)

  13. lane greene says

    The pickup truck I drove for a summer in college broke down on me in Livonia, Louisiana.
    There, Dudley “Dut” Jarreau, our mechanic, was also running for a public office I’ve never heard of elsewhere called “police juror”. I asked Dut what it meant, as he fixed my truck. With a grin, he said “Another 850 bucks a month!” Still not sure what a police juror is, or how a town in south Louisiana got called Livonia.

  14. lane greene says

    Update: a bit of googling reveals that Dut won his seat, and that nobody outside Louisiana uses the term “police juror”. Hat, want to take a crack at that? I still can’t figure out what it is.

  15. Apparently police juries levy and distribute the funds for the administration of parish affairs. Here‘s a handy “History of the Police Jury Form of Government.” (I hadn’t realized Louisiana actually had counties for a few years before they went over to the parish system, for reasons that aren’t clear to me — the history says the counties “proved to be too large for satisfactory administration, and, in 1807, the State was divided into 19 parishes,” but why not simply create smaller counties?)
    As for the town name, the Livonia in Michigan was named after the one in New York, which was named for the Baltic province (presumably the home of one or more of the founders; this site says “26% of Livonia residents report German ancestry,” and the ruling class in Baltic Livonia was German). I can’t find any information on the history of the Louisiana town name.

  16. I read a few articles on the subject of Livonia this morning and was quite astonished to discover that the origin of the word is quite obscure indeed. I had thought that it derived from their self-designation, as the word is used in Heinrici Chronicon Livoniae and Henrik, the author of the Chronicles, most likely got most of his information from the Livonians themselves. There doesn’t seem to be, however, any evidence supporting this theory. Quite to the contrary: both the Livonian ‘livlist’ and Estonian ‘liivlased’ are of quite recent origin, while the Livonian ‘randalist’ (“coast dwellers”) and ‘kalamied’ (“fishermen”) are much older. The Estonian form appears to derive from the German ‘Livland’ and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of an earlier word for Livonian. The German word, in turn, is probably of Scandinavian origin.

  17. Small correction from someone born and raised in Detroit. Livonia is a Detroit suburb, not a street. (I came upon your site while Googling the origins of Elizabeth I’s nickname,’Gloriana.’

  18. So what did you find out about “Gloriana”?

  19. Hi, does anybody know where I can find this book (“Fearful majesty”) in electronic format? I have a hard copy, but would like to be able to download/or view online?

  20. On the subject of Elizabeth’s epithets: the Virgin Queen was also called Dido. It is interesting how Elizabethans selectively quoted Vergil in order to make the comparison a flattering one. I imagine courtiers must have skipped over the aftermath of the cave scene, where, in Dryden’s translation,
    The queen, whom sense of honor could not move,
    No longer made a secret of her love,
    But call’d it marriage, by that specious name
    To veil the crime and sanctify the shame.

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