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politeness of former times,’ an odd phrasing that leaves it unclear whether it is the politeness or the suffix that is obsolete].”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.]

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