I will have to look for a copy of Chto neponyatno u klassikov, ili Entsiklopediya russkogo byta XIX veka [What you don’t understand in the classics, or Encyclopedia of daily life in the 19th century] (Moscow, 1998), a few excerpts of which are online here, dealing with the ways people addressed one another. As anyone at all familiar with prerevolutionary Russian society knows, inferiors called superiors by resounding titles while superiors used the equivalent of “my good man,” or simply a name, to them. The most interesting of the excerpts concerns the suffix -s, a contracted form of sudar’ ‘sir,’ omnipresent in prerevolutionary literature as an indication of politeness or servility, depending on the situation. It was known as слово-ер-с [slovo-er-s], from the old name of the letter s (slovo, literally ‘word’) and er (pronounced “yer”), the name of the hard sign formerly used after all words ending in a consonant. In The Brothers Karamazov the disgraced Staff Captain Snegirev says to call him Captain Slovoyersov, since in the second half of his life he has had to begin humbly using the -s ending. And there’s a wonderful quote from Pushkin’s Pikovaya dama [Queen of spades] (the beginning of Chapter 6):

—Kak vy smeli mne skazat’ atande?
—Vashe prevoskhoditel’stvo, ya skazal atande-s!
“How dare you say ‘Wait’ to me?”
“Your Excellency, i said ‘Wait, sir’!”]

(Via Avva.)

Addendum. I finally found slovo-erik in Dahl, hiding two-thirds of the way down column 256 of Volume 4 (of the third edition, 1903-1909, edited and corrected by Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, the only one worth getting from a linguistic point of view); the definition reads: “-s, added to words v znak osoboi vezhlivosti prezhnikh vremen [‘as a mark of special politeness of former times,’ an odd phrasing that leaves it unclear whether it is the politeness or the suffix that is obsolete].” This implies that even before the revolution the slovo-er-s or slovo-erik was considered a relic.

Update. When I wrote this entry, I had no idea why the final -s of slovo-er-s was there, but I suppose I figured it was too picky a detail to get into. Now, thanks to a commenter on this post, I know: in the old system of reading Russian by syllables, using the old names of the Cyrillic letters, a final hard sign was read with the preceding consonant following it, so that, e.g., великъ [velikъ] would be read “веди езь, ве; люди иже, ли, вели; како еркъ, великъ” [vedi + ez’ = ve; lyudi + izhe = li > veli; kako + yerkъ > velikъ], where yerkъ is yer (hard sign) plus the preceding k (called kako). In exactly the same way, the suffix -съ (in the old spelling) was read “слово-ер-съ.” Mystery solved!


  1. Reading Chukovsky’s diaries (still am; I believe in pace relative to the text), I recall an example of how offended one of the Turgenev’s private correspondents was by his manner of addressing equals as “My dear”. (Chukovsky was talking to that person while collecting materials/eye wittnesses for his book on Nekrasov)
    “What am I to him, “polovoi v traktire” (waiter at the inn)?!

  2. Maybe this is the place to ask a question that has been on my mind. My grandparents were Russian (and Yiddish-speaking) Jewish immigrants who left what they called the Old Country during the time of the pogroms of 1905 for New York City, with millions of others. None of our relatives have first names that are Russian. All have names that are typically Jewish, be they Biblical names like Isaac or Yiddish names like Fageleh, Gitel, etc. When did Russian-speaking Jews begin to get Russian names? By the way, these relatives came from large cities and not villages in Russia or Ukraine. Any ideas?

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  4. I’m undecided whether to delete the above comment as excessively long spam or keep it for amusement value. Opinions?
    And does anybody know the answer to Toby’s question?

  5. I’d like to thank Ransom for solving the -s problem, and renew my call for an answer to Toby’s question: When did Russian Jews begin to get Russian names?

  6. I would guess mostly starting in the 1930s when Jews were under pressure to assimilate.

  7. Makes sense to me.

  8. A historian working in the archive of the Jewish population of Lodz in the decades around the turn of the century writes:
    “Jews living in the Pale began taking Russian names in the early 19th century, if not earlier, especially in large cities, although more religious Jews kept Hebrew names…so I don’t think the time period matters as much as individual religious practice.
    “There is definitely dual usage. In the records, some people are mentioned by their Polish/Russian names in official documents, but in memoirs are referred to by their Yiddish names. So, in Poland, Jews might have 3 names: Yiddish, Russian, and Polish. I think it really depends on the level of observance of the particular family.”

  9. It just occurred to me to look up «слово-ерик» in the Национальный корпус русского языка, and found just five citations, four of them from Turgenev, who clearly was fond of the word:

    И. С. Тургенев. Гамлет Щигровского уезда (1849)
    С другой стороны, я уже давно замечал, что почти все мои соседи, молодые и старые, запуганные сначала моей учёностию, заграничной поездкой и прочими удобствами моего воспитания, не только успели совершенно ко мне привыкнуть, но даже начали обращаться со мной не то грубовато, не то с кондачка, не дослушивали моих рассуждений и, говоря со мной, уже «слово-ерика» более не употребляли.

    А. И. Куприн. На переломе (Кадеты) (1900)
    Кроме постоянных: «э»… слово-ериков и «как бы сказать», у него была несчастная привычка говорить рифмами и в одних и тех же случаях употреблять одни и те же выражения.

    И. C. Тургенев. Новь (1877)
    «Отыщите мне носок! » А я говорю: отыщите мне «слово-ерик-с»! «Слово-ерик-с» пропало ― и вместе с ним всякое уважение и чинопочитание!

    «Слово-ерик-с» пропало ― и вместе с ним всякое уважение и чинопочитание!

    И. C. Тургенев. Пунин и Бабурин (1874)
    ― Хорошо-с, хорошо-с, спасибо-с, ― заметил он с убогой ужимочкой и вставляя слово-ерики, чего он прежде никогда не делал, ― только, знаете-с, Парамону Семенычу не говорите-с ничего-с… а то он рассердится!

  10. George Gibbard says

    I have not read Turgenev. Do you have a sense of what his own, rather than his characters’, attitude towards -s would have been?

  11. Гамлет Щигровского уезда

    Of course, I’ve read it and thought “aha!” that’s where “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk district” comes from. So I read the story, but no, there is nothing Leskov could have taken out of it (except maybe the idea of the title). To tell the truth, I have no idea what Hamlet has to do with it. Probably, some misguided 19th century theory of the play.
    By the way, somewhere in the middle of the story there is a mentioning of дрей мадера (dry Madeira). Which reminded me now of Nozdrev’s мартадура Клико, which, as someone suggested in the comments to the relevant post, was confusion of Vieve Clicquot and Madeira. Of course, such a name is irresistible to puns. Example.

  12. I have not read Turgenev. Do you have a sense of what his own, rather than his characters’, attitude towards -s would have been?

    He was a Westernizer, so I presume it would have been laced with a fair amount of irony. I imagine he would have used it if the social situation required it, but thought to himself “This is stupid.”

  13. I’m reading Markevich’s 1873 Марина изъ Алаго-Рога (Marina from Aly Rog) and just came across this occurrence, missed by the Национальный корпус русского языка: “Говорилъ онъ бойко, складно, необыкновенно самоувѣренно, и словоерикомъ заканчивалъ чуть не каждую изъ своихъ фразъ, что придавало имъ какую-то особенную, желанную имъ, повидимому, ядовитость.” [He spoke in a smooth and lively manner, unusually self-assured, and ended almost every sentence with the slovo-erik, which imparted to them a kind of particular, and obviously intentional, malice.]

  14. I’m reading Prishvin’s Кащеева цепь (1924), and I found this delightful exchange:

    Nute-s?” [Untranslatable, but something like “Well?” — but with the polite slovo-er suffix, the topic of this post.]

    That meant: “Well, go on with that good thing you were talking about.”

    “Auntie, dear, don’t use that awful merchant nute of ours, it’s taken from horses, they say nu to horses and nute to people. I can’t stand hearing it! And the slovo-er to boot.”

    “Thank you, Dunechka, you’re right, it’s bad, I have to stop doing it. I won’t any more.” [See this post for Russian “I won’t.”]

    And, again remembering that bright time of the emancipation of the serfs, all radiant with joy, she said to her guests:


    The original:

    – Нуте-с?

    Это значит: «Ну, продолжайте то, хорошее, о чем говорили».

    – Тетенька, милая, не говорите этого нашего ужасного купеческого «нуте», ведь это с лошадей взяли, лошадям «ну», людям «нуте». Слышать этого не могу! Да еще слово-ер.

    – Спасибо, Дунечка, правда, нехорошо, надо отвыкать. Не буду, не буду.

    И, вспомнив опять это светлое время эпохи освобождения крестьян, вся сияя от радости, гостям говорит:

    – Нуте-с?

  15. This -te wonderfully attaches itself to anything that wroks as imperative.

    particles: nate vam! (arguably with vam to you it is not imperative, rather ” ‘nate’ vam!). Or consider:

    davaj pojdyom v kino? “ we-will-go in cinema” (1p imp for you and I)
    davajte pojdyom v kino? “let-IMP-PL ….” (1p imp for and I)

    pojdyom v kino? “we-will-go in cinema?) (works as 1p imperative)
    pojdyomte v kino? (same but emphasizes that I am addressing a group)

    poshli v kino “went in cinema” (still means the same! both pojdyom and poshli are used in “let’s go”)
    poshlite v kino “went-IMP.PL …” (common for children, for some reason only children)

  16. January First-of-May says

    This -te wonderfully attaches itself to anything that wroks as imperative.

    I’m reminded of a question I failed on an old Russky Medvezhonok contest (Russian Bear Cub, contest for kids with questions about the Russian language).
    I don’t recall the exact wording offhand but it basically came down to “Which of these words has a plural? на, не, ни, но, ну.”

    Of course AFAICT the correct answer is that none of them do (because they’re not any of the parts of speech that get plurals), but the solver is supposed to choose one. I remembered the phrase Никаких но! and answered correspondingly; in fact the intended answer was на, whose “plural” is нате.
    I’m guessing the compiler of that question hadn’t read that Prishvin story…

  17. Ня.

    (and ны: не лепо ли ны бяшетъ братiе…)

  18. January First-of-May says

    I’ve also encountered ню, but AFAIK the other two possible options (*нэ and *нё) are not (yet?) actual Russian words.

  19. Speaking of plurals не-не, ни-ни, но-но and ну-ну can be reduplicated.

    На-на occurs in the name of first Russian boys group.

  20. ню and ню-ню is quite common “funny” way to say ну, and only now I realized that it is also nude art – from French, a very common word in Russian.

    For a while .nu (Nauru) was a very popular domain name among self-employed Russian prostitutes – and a source of income for Nauru:) Until their parliament banned it.*

    And now I see that the Greek letter (and also nu metal) is also ню and of curse I know it very well, but it did not even occur to me:( Sigh.

    *there is something about this occupation that provokes unexpected international collaboration: for me profiles of Saudi prostitutes were the first sign that VK is becoming popular abroad….

  21. January First-of-May says

    And now I see that the Greek letter (and also nu metal) is also ню and of curse I know it very well, but it did not even occur to me:( Sigh.

    It didn’t occur to me either! I was thinking of the nude art.

  22. Was nu metal named partially as a pun on mu metal? Or is that too obscure?

  23. David Marjanović says

    What are these metals even?

    pojdyomte […] poshlite

    That’s impressive!

    I can think of two Germanic interjections that have become number-marked imperative-only verbs, but I’m not aware of cases where the base words are already verb forms.

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    How do you parse geh’ma? Does anyone say ganga’ma?

  25. I can think of two Germanic interjections that have become number-marked imperative-only verbs
    Which ones?
    @Paddy: gehma “let’s go” is part of the paradigm of gehen, so not imperative-only.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Which ones?

    Now that I have time to spell them out… 🙂

    First, there’s a German question tag that gets spelled gell or gelle. It means “right?” and can go on either end of a sentence. In my dialect it’s [g̊ɒ̟ɪ̯]*, except that when you talk to more than one person, you often add the 2pl ending -[t͡s].

    Second, Gothic had a very odd way of saying “come here”: hiri. That must be a very recent compound, because i followed by r would otherwise have become ai [ɛ]. Indeed, somewhere in this paper** there’s an argument that it’s composed of *hi, the cognate of Latin -ce, and *ri, the cognate of Latin re-. But it looks like an imperative of a verb *hirj-, so that’s what it became: the dual imperative hirjats and the plural imperative hirjaþ are in the Bible, too.

    * as if spelled *gal(l), oddly; I suspect gelle ended in i 1000 years ago

    ** I’m on a bus in rural Moravia, so the paper isn’t loading and I can’t check. The paper is about several other things, too; it’s rather too far from a Least Publishable Unit.

    How do you parse geh’ma?

    That’s just gehen wir; not only “let’s go”, but also as a question or whenever unstressed wir happens to follow gehen (e.g. Dann gehen wir… “After that, we’ll go…”).

    Does anyone say ganga’ma?

    Sort of*, but why would that matter here?

    * [g̊ɛŋːɐmɐ] is an option in my dialect, but [g̊ɛmːɐ] is much more common there.

  27. PlasticPaddy says

    I was just curious about whether the reduced pronoun was reinterpreted as a verbal ending, so geh (2s) geh(e)t (2 pl fam) gehma (1 pl).
    Re your imperatives I thought you might include things like her damit! or heraus mit der Sprache!, where it is difficult to postulate a missing verb (komm?).

  28. нате


  29. Oh, you wrote Germanic
    I didn’t know about Gothic hiri, and gelle isn’t part of my dialect; gelle territory begins a bit to the south from where I live.
    @Paddy: well, if it were a fully fledged verbal ending instead of a fused clitic pronoun, it should be possible to combine it with an overt subject pronoun. I don’t know whether there are dialects where something like “wir gehma / gehma wir” is possible.
    I thought you might include things like her damit! or heraus mit der Sprache!, where it is difficult to postulate a missing verb (komm?).
    Those are demands / commands, but not every demand / command is an imperative; I would limit that designation to forms that are part of a verbal paradigm.

  30. айдате? I thought first it is a (not known to me before) form of адайте.

  31. David Marjanović says

    I was just curious about whether the reduced pronoun was reinterpreted as a verbal ending, so geh (2s) geh(e)t (2 pl fam) gehma (1 pl).

    Yes – in Low Bavarian it’s a genuine verb ending that works as Hans predicted. Not elsewhere.

    her damit! or heraus mit der Sprache!

    These are not inflected for number.

  32. @D.O. people aroud me do not use айда now.

    But when I was in the 1st grade it was retained (if it is retention and because children came from many different regions) and common in children language. To quote my friend (17 y.o.), parodizing children spech): ребза, айда в тубзик лампочки кокать – так зыко! I once quoted it, and it is a rather plausible phrase.

    айда means let’s [go, run, …], and given that children add -te to пошли (another let’s go), it looks logical…

  33. “it was retained” or not?
    I could read this айда in books for children, and associate it with actual modern children because of my friend’s joke (and because I met it as a child) … Anyway, apparently it was in use in juha’s childhood.

  34. Он фармазон; он пьет одно
    Стаканом красное вино;
    Он дамам к ручке не подходит;
    Все да да нет; не скажет да-с
    Иль нет-с». Таков был общий глас.

    The aforementioned freind also liked to sing the line “Он фармазон; он пьет одно Стаканом красное вино” from EO the opera when he was 17.
    So possibly there is also da-s is the opera? I am a bit lazy to check.

    English has yes’m.

  35. David Marjanović says


    Ah yes, occurs in Servant of the People. It’s even formal.

    In my dialect it’s [g̊ɒ̟ɪ̯]*, except that when you talk to more than one person, you often add the 2pl ending -[t͡s].

    There’s even a formal version; it gets the 3pl verb ending -[n] followed by the 3pl clitic -[s].


    Page 18–23, right after (!!!) the conclusions. Also, I keep forgetting that the plural is not **hirjaþ but hirjiþ.

  36. More or less. The analytical davaj[te] pojdyom is longer, it is all I can say about it.

    And less idiomatic with this verb, unless when a new topic is introduced by a (“A davaj ….?” “Davaj!/A davaj!”

    “Let’s” is inherently humane and personal, but this effect is partly cancelled by -te.

  37. poshlite also means
    1. send (IPF IMP pl)
    2. say obscenities (PF IMP pl)

  38. jack morava says

    off-topic but see Avram Davidson’s `The Slovo Stove’ :

    … doesn’t understand the proverbial Slovo joke (“‘Was the water hot yet?'” “‘Hot? Hot? It didn’t even get warm!'”) told by Huzzuks…

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