Having finished Veltman’s Кощей бессмертный [Koshchei the Immortal], about which I’ll be posting shortly, I’m rereading Pushkin’s great story Пиковая дама (“The Queen of Spades“). Every time I read it I find things I’d overlooked before, and this time it’s a strange international word of the day that’s been utterly forgotten. It occurs twice within a few paragraphs at the end of the first section. Tomsky is describing to his fascinated fellow gamblers how his grandmother, as a young beauty in Paris sixty years before (thus presumably around 1770), had managed to win the huge sum she needed to pay back her gambling debts; the Count of St. Germain shared a secret from his fund of occult knowledge, and she went off to Versailles to gamble: “Она выбрала три карты, поставила их одну за другою: все три выиграли ей соника, и бабушка отыгралась совершенно.” [She chose three cards and played them one after the other: all three won sonika, and my grandmother won back everything she had lost.] Later she took pity on a young wastrel named Chaplitsky and shared the secret with him: “Чаплицкий поставил на первую карту пятьдесят тысяч и выиграл соника; загнул пароли, пароли-пе, — отыгрался и остался еще в выигрыше…” [Chaplitsky staked fifty thousand rubles on the first card and won sonika; he doubled the stake, doubled it again, — he won back what he had lost and more…] The notes to my edition explained that sonika meant ‘at once,’ but of course I wanted to know more about the word. It turns out it is, or was, an English word as well; the OED has it under sonica, with just two citations, one given (incorrectly, in my view) as a noun (“In the game of basset, a card having an immediate effect on the game”: 1716 Pope Basset-table 51 The Knave won Sonica, which I had chose) and one as an adverb (“Promptly, at once”: 1748 Ld. Chesterfield Let. 3 May [modernized text] III. 1143 My prophecy, as you observe, was fulfilled sonica). Etymology: “French, of obscure origin.”

So I turned to my French dictionaries, coming up empty (not even the Académie Française had it) except for Littré:

(so-ni-ka) adv.
1 Terme de jeu de la bassette. Se dit d’une carte qui vient en gain ou en perte le plus tôt qu’elle puisse venir.
2 Fig. À point nommé, justement, précisément. “En étrennes, sonica, Votre bonté coutumière Me fait présent de moka Pour toute l’année entière”, [Chanson de Piron à Mme Geoffrin, dans GRIMM, Corresp. t. I, p. 382] “L’avis que cette résolution sera mise à exécution sonica, si l’on ne reçoit bien vite une réponse satisfaisante à la lettre….” [Rousseau, 2e dial.] “L’aventure de Merlin m’abat l’esprit, au point que je n’ai ni la force de vous répondre sonica sur les projets pour rattraper mon argent, ni celle de rien composer”, [Galiani, Corresp. 7 juill. 1770]
ÉTYMOLOGIE Origine inconnue.

In Russian, aside from the Pushkin story, it occurs only three times, according to the Corpus of the Russian Language: in Zhikharev (1806-1809), Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (1835-1836), and Saltykov-Shchedrin (1857-1865). [But there are many more citations in Исторический словарь галлицизмов русского языка.] It came from who knows where, was used for a few decades in chic card-playing circles across the Continent, and then vanished again. Thank goodness for unabridged dictionaries!

Update (Apr. 2023). The OED revised the entry in June 2017, and it now reads as follows:

Etymology: < French sonica (noun) (in the game of basset) a card which has an immediate effect on the game (1681 as sonicat; rare), (adverb) promptly, at once (1706, although earlier currency is perhaps implied by the earlier use as noun), of unknown origin.
Not fully naturalized in English.

In quot. 1983 after Russian sonika (1834 in the passage translated; < French).

A. n.

In the game of basset: a card which has an immediate effect on the game. Obsolete. rare.
1688 tr. J. de Préchac Disorders of Bassett 95 So thinking to have found out a sure Card..he sets all he has left upon it, which is fass’d, or looses the Sonica [Fr. il est facé ou perd sonica].

B. adv.

Promptly; at once. Now rare.
Used esp. in the context of a card game (chiefly basset).

1688 T. D’Urfey Fool’s Preferment Epil. 86 A Lady too, in Tears has left off Play..for losing Sonica.
1716 Lady M. W. Montagu Basset-table in Court Poems 5 The Knave won Sonica, which I had chose.
1748 Ld. Chesterfield Let. 3 May (1932) (modernized text) III. 1143 My prophecy, as you observe, was fulfilled sonica.
1763 Ld. Chesterfield Let. 14 June in Lett. to Son (1774) II. 460 You arrived sonica at the Hague, for our Embassador’s entertainment.
1983 P. Debreczeny tr. A. S. Pushkin Queen of Spades i, in Compl. Prose Fiction i. 213 She chose three cards and bet on them in sequence: all three won sonica.

I am delighted to see that the Basset-table quote is now properly classified under adv. (does someone at the OED read LH?), and bemused to see that it is now attributed to Lady Montagu rather than Pope. But the word is still “of unknown origin.”


  1. “Koshchei the Deathless” is the traditional translation, or at least it’s what James Branch Cabell used.

  2. Is it clear whether it originally meant the card, and was extended as an adverb, or really meant that the effect was immediate?
    Nabokov has several pages in his Eugene Onegin commentary volume trying to explain стос / банк, which naturally he claims all other translators didn’t understand.
    Unsurprisingly, it also occurs in Lermontov’s Штосс.

  3. Since basset originated in Venice, I wonder if sonica was originally a colloquial Venetian word–see the entry for the word in this glossary, for example. Perhaps it originally referred to the hubbub or collective groan that rose from the table after the appearance of the sonica? Unfortunately, I do not have fortitude or knowledge of the game sufficient to pursue this line of investigation.

  4. O goodness, I did not even suspect it was an adverb. I thought соник was a noun so “all three won her a sonik” meant she won a sum of money in each of the three rounds. Many thanks for this.

  5. What Alexei said, it felt like a Genitive of an unknown noun. Today the noun sounds like the name of a certain Hedgehog, and it makes me think that there just might be a relation. “Happening with the speed of sound” 😉 ?

  6. The word is alive in Swedish, in fact, in the opaque expression ‘helt sonika’ which means something like ‘in an unexpected but simple way’.
    Swedish dictionaries at hand agree on its origin as a term (of unknown origin, through French and German) for a card that wins at bassett or farao at the moment it is played. The game of basset described in Wikipedia doesn’t seem to feature such cards, however.

  7. On page 395 of this edition of Goldoni’s La bancarotta, the term la sonica occurs alongside the card name la fazza (which I presume is the card in basset called fasse in French and English).

  8. Ah, I’ve found it in the Исторический словарь галлицизмов русского языка [Historical dictionary of Russian gallicisms]:

    ОНИК, С ОНИКА, СОНИКА нескл. sonica adj. устар. 1. Сразу, с первой вскрыши карты. Выиграть соника или с оника. Осердясь еще более на свое несчастие, поставил он меня на карту в половинной цене и проиграл с оника. 1769. Новиков Сатир. письма. // Н. 1983 72. А в третьем из гостей тут некто банк метал, В четвертом весь его я с оника сорвал. 1790. Страхов Сатир. вестник. // Друг честн. людей 301.
    2. устар., перен. Сразу же, немедленно. И тут же, что называется с оника, дал ему сто рублей серебром. Вельтман Саломея. Не успел купец попечаловаться, что он не имеет человека для перепечатывания в Сибири “Колокола”, как ему сейчас же с оника был предложен для этого человек, способный и готовый положить свою голову и душу за демократическую Россию. 1871. Лесков Загадочный человек. // 8 14.
    СОНИКА нареч. sonica. 1. устар. В азартных карточных играх – с первой ставки, с первого раза (выиграть или проиграть). БАС-1.[ Хватайко :] Нет, дама не везет, Так атанде, авось мне вывезет валет. Тьфу пропасть! Соника, и это вон из кона. 1796. Капнист Ябеда. – Пассек, пользуйся, ставь на тройку три тысячи, она тебе выиграет соника .. что и случилось. Пыляев Старое житье. || Карта, поставленная в сем случае. Даль.
    2. Сразу, тотчас. БАС-1. Рушковский sonica согласился на мою просьбу. 1821. А. Я. Булгаков Письма. // РА 1901 1 308. – Получили ? – с-онику спросил он, с многозначительным и торжествующим видом. Крест. Вне закона. // 7 652. Ему в сониках же ответили в .. статье журнала. Н. Макаров Путеш. – Норм. c Я, как, вероятно, и многие другие, не подозревал существования французского выражения sonica и был наклонен производить это слово от “оника”, нуля; к сожалению, origine inconnue словаря Литре останавливает нас менее чем на полдороге. А. Кирпичников “Ходячие и меткие слова” Михельсона. // БИШ. – Лекс. Ян. 1806: соника; САН 1847: со/ника; БАС-1: со/ника.

    That Kirpichnikov quote explains the number of citations spelling it “с оника” [‘from onik‘]: “I, doubtless like many others, had no idea there was a French word sonica and was inclined to derive the word from оник [onik] ‘zero’; unfortunately, Littré’s ‘origine inconnue’ leaves us with a long way to go.” The many citations also show that the Corpus of the Russian Language isn’t nearly as comprehensive as I had thought.

  9. marie-lucie says

    Eighteenth century literary works, in French or English, make many references to gambling. There are many gambling terms that I would recognize if I read them (even without understanding them), but sonica is new to me. The form, ending in “a”, precludes a French origin. Italian, perhaps Venetian as suggested above, is much more likely.

  10. There are other French definitions here (including ones from the Académie dictionaries going back to 1762), but still no hints as to the origin.
    If the Venetian theory is correct, perhaps it originated as a phrase? According to this Venetian dictionary, so, with different accents, can mean the same as Italian “suo”, “io sono”, “io so”, and “su”.

  11. Thanks for that great Dictionnaires d’autrefois link; I’ve added it to the sidebar.

  12. Stephen Bruce: Your first guess is all the more plausible if we remember that Venetian “so”, unlike Italian “suo”, does not inflect for gender, so that SONICA might indeed be “so nica”. A noun “nica” I would assume to be feminine, but I have found no such noun in any source on Venetian.

  13. Probably a coincidence, but NIKA (nee-kah) is the Dorian dialect version of Greek NIKE (nee-kay) = ‘victory’. At least it was in ancient Greek – I don’t know anything about Greek of the era in question, or how hospitable Italian gaming language would have been to Greek bits.

  14. You may have it there: “Nika!” of course is also the imperative “Win/Conquer!” in Koine, as in the famous Nika riots of Constantinople, which started out as chariot hooliganism and ended up burning down much of the City. Venice of course was under Byzantine rule for centuries, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if it picked up some Greek borrowings.

  15. Venice of course was under Byzantine rule for centuries
    Was it? There wasn’t really a Venice until the late sixth century, and in 726 they murdered the Exarch and started electing their own leaders. They may have nominally been part of the Empire, but I don’t know if they were actually controlled by Constantinople for any extended period of time. Not that that affects your point, of course.

  16. Étienne says

    Michael Hendry, John Cowan: if SO in SONICA is a possessive we would expect a noun to follow, not a verb. Now, the Byzantinian noun was probably realized /niki/: -/i/ being the most common feminine ending, I could all too easily see a Greek-Romance bilingual morphologically adapting /niki/ into /nika/. SONICA = His victory/His win. Hmm. It seems to fit the meaning more or less. But this etymology is just an educated guess.

  17. David Marjanović says

    they murdered the Exarch

    …And then he was an ex-exarch.
    Pining for the fjords, having had enough of the lagoon.

  18. Straining for the straits.

  19. The Venetian Republic lasted through the Eighteenth Century until eliminated by Napoleon in 1797, and I believe still possessed pieces of its old empire in Greece. There were Greeks living in Venice.

  20. While making my supper, I realized I may have gone out on a limb with my last statement. It would suffice that the term were created by a Venetian who had lived in Greece.

  21. Another victim. I’ve just looked at my copy of Пиковая дама from college and I have ‘cash’ pencilled in above соника.

  22. The word has not entirely disappeared from modern Russian. Except it’s often spelled with two n-s – сонник, perhaps influenced by сонник – ‘dream-teller’, a book (or site) explaining the meaning of one’s dreams. Akunin has the game explained and played in The Winter Queen (Азазель in Russian) and a few other authors and gaming sites describe it. I can’t find my English copy of Akunin’s novel to check how it was translated.

  23. Derek Davis says

    Fascinating discussion. Sonica is well understood. But its etymology has remained obscure.

    Much of the Basset terminology (carried forward to successor games) is Venetian, as Patrick says. Some of it was rather loosely taken up elsewhere. His Truffaldino “know it all” quote from Goldoni’s “Bankruptcy” is particularly informative – el piu (became paix), el paroli (paroli), el sette al levar (“raise 7” garbled into sept-et-le-va “7+stake”), la segonda (?), la fazza (fasse, Russian lob, the first card of the first “pull” or prokidka winning for the bank), la sonica (second card winning for the punter), el ponto in marea (ebb-tide = ?).

    Patrick has probably solved etymology for you. His attached Boerio Dictionary of Venetian Dialect links sonica and solfa, both in the dialect sense he points to: uproar, hubbub. A Venetian solfare, it says, is an impetuous or hot-tempered fellow. Sonica then emerges, quite literally and naturally, as the “sensation” of first opportunity win.

  24. Lars Mathiesen says

    I tried to guess at the meaning of the dictionary entry linked by Patrick in his first comment, which goes on at length about the rhetoric excellence of a 16th century lawyer Francesco Sonica — I think it also says that people would start a noise when he entered the chambers of the Council of 40, and thence such noises are called sonica, but my strategy of guessing based on Latin broke down around that point.

    This may well be a word origin myth like so many others, but it wasn’t even mentioned or dismissed in the thread above. If that family name has anything to do with the later senses of the word, the etymology is wide open.

  25. The word has not entirely disappeared from modern Russian. Except it’s often spelled with two n-s – сонник, perhaps influenced by сонник – ‘dream-teller’, a book (or site) explaining the meaning of one’s dreams.

    I’m not sure what Sashura was talking about here, but I can find no evidence of сонник in any such gambling-related meaning.

  26. See the Update for the OED revision of this interesting word.

  27. Yes, my suggestion that there may be a link to sonnik (dream explainer), from son – сон – dream/rêve seems far-fetched. What if it is simply an extension of Fr. sonique? ie. very quick?

  28. January First-of-May says

    and was inclined to derive the word from оник [onik] ‘zero’

    I was surprised at this because I was entirely unaware of any Russian word оник meaning “zero”, but it took me only a little thought to figure out how it made sense: it’s он-ик “little on“, where on (он) is the traditional name of the Cyrillic letter О.

    (I still don’t know if there was really such a word, but now it would not entirely surprise me if there was.)
    [EDIT: there was, though apparently “zero” is an extension of the more common sense “circle”; it’s listed on Russian Wiktionary, with many citations.]

  29. Indeed a similar word нолик is quite common today (but mostly with chidlren).

    Oh. So we can reconstruct a name *херики-оники?

    P.S. just googled it, and yes!!!

  30. now attributed to Lady Montagu rather than Pope

    It’s a bibliographic tangle: “The Basset-table” first appeared, along with a couple of other poems, in a pamphlet with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink title page (“Publish’d faithfully, as they were found in a Pocket-Book taken up in Westminster-Hall, the Last Day of the Lord Winton’s Tryal”) and preface hinting that that the author was either “a Lady of Quality”, or “Mr. Gay”, or “the Judicious Translator of Homer”. Lady Montagu was friends with Pope (at the time; they later fell out), and they passed around each other’s poems and sometimes made changes. In a later manuscript she claimed authorship of the poems, and they were included in collections of her work, but also in some posthumous collections of Pope’s work. The modern academic view, according to an article on Pope, Lady Mary, and the Court Poems (1953), is that “The Basset-table” is hers, one of the others is John Gay’s, and the third is hers. (Anyone have better knowledge on this?)

    This would explain why the old OED’s 18 quotations from this poem were randomly attributed to either Pope or Montagu, depending presumably on which collection somebody read it in. In OED3 almost all of them have been re-assigned to Montagu, except for a couple attributed to A. Pope in 1706. That’s a mistake: the pamphlet said MDCCVI on its title page, but that’s definitely a typo, since Lord Winton’s trial was in 1716, and there are announcements of publication in March 1716. (The OED now has some of the quotations dated 1715, I guess because some of the collected editions say the poems were “written in the year 1715”, but I thought their policy was to go by publication date, except in special cases like posthumous publication, so they should all be 1716. At least, they should all be the same.)

  31. ktschwarz says

    In some reprints, e.g. this 1765 poetry collection, the line is printed “The knave won son ecart that I had chose” [sic, no accent on ecart]; this is reproduced at Poetry Foundation and Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive, without any annotation. I’m guessing that’s a mistake by editors/printers who weren’t in those chic card-playing circles and didn’t recognize “sonica”.

  32. Makes sense. And I’m shocked about the dating issues; if the OED is fallible, who is there left to trust?

  33. The English Short Title Catalogue, that’s who. Sometimes the OED does have ESTC identification number and full details in the citation details pop-up box, but not anywhere near as much as it could.

    (Trivia: there is another work titled The basset-table by a female author that *was* printed in 1706, a comedy by Susanna Centlivre. Two OED entries cite both: tally, v.3 and sept et le va, n. As far as I’ve noticed there isn’t any actual confusion between them.)

    My impression is that the OED is meticulous about citing the precise source for pre-modern manuscripts, but not as much for the age of print. To their great credit, they have run projects to replace quotations from 19th-century reprints with the original Early Modern editions, particularly for big-time authors like Spenser, as John Simpson writes:

    The consistent feature of this sort of activity is that Victorian editorial intervention is reversed (as v returns to u, original commas are reintroduced, excrescent hyphens are removed). Many of these changes were made to render the text more approachable to an educated Victorian readership, but are out of place in an analytic study of 16th-century text.

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