Sulfur, zhupel.

A Facebook post by Lev Oborin links to this fascinating Polka article about the histories of a dozen words and their referents in Russian life and literature: автомобиль [automobile], бананы [bananas], велосипед [bicycle], граммофон [record player], джинсы [(blue) jeans], кеды [sneakers], компьютер [computer], метро [subway/underground/metro], телевизор [television], телефон [telephone], унитаз [toilet (bowl)], and фотография [photograph] (the nativizing form светопись ‘light-write’ never caught on). I learned about all sorts of things, from the Soviet-era differentiation between «кеды» (cheap, worn for grubby activities) and «кроссовки» (higher-quality sneakers suitable for wearing in the street), a Moldavian dessert wine with the brand name Трифешты [Trifeşti] seen as a classy thing to drink by Soviet youth, and the origin of the word унитаз (not in Vasmer!) — a blend of the company name Unitas and the Russian word таз [taz] ‘basin’ (probably from the same Arabic source as French tasse, Italian tazza, etc.).

Those of you who read Russian should head on over and enjoy it; for those who don’t, I’ll provide an etymological appendix. One of the quotes for ‘automobile,’ by a Petersburg reporter in 1907, was «Скоро слово «автомобиль» станет для обывателей чем-то вроде «жупела» и, чего доброго, няньки станут пугать им маленьких детей»: “Soon the word ‘automobile’ will seem to the ordinary person something like zhupel [‘bugaboo, bugbear’], and — who knows? — nursemaids may start frightening little children with them.” Now, the original meaning of zhupel was ‘sulfur,’ and OCS жоупелъ (alternate form зюпелъ) was apparently borrowed from OHG swebal or sweval (modern German Schwefel), from Proto-Germanic *sweblaz, for which Wiktionary says “Etymology: Unknown. Cf. Proto-Indo European *swelplos (whence probably Latin sulfur), from the root *swel– (‘to burn, smoulder’).” And for Latin sulfur it says “From Hellenization of sulpur, of uncertain origin, but probably from Proto-Indo-European *swelplos, from the root *swel- (‘to burn, smoulder’). Compare Sanskrit शुल्बारि (śulbāri, ‘sulfur’). Also compare Old Armenian ծծումբ (ccumb, ‘sulfur’).” For English sulfur, AHD just says “Middle English, from Anglo-Norman sulfre, from Latin sulfur”; they don’t try to take it back to PIE.


  1. Of course a story about the grammophone wouldn’t be complete without Doga’s eponymous waltz (which is probably plagiarized from an earlier Greek wedding waltz from the Beekeeper, but whatever).

    With the keds vs crosstrainers the epochs are kind of hopelessly conflated. Early on, the indestructible Chinese keds were all the rage, while later, Adidas imports were it (сегодня парень в адидас, а завтра родину продаст) while domestic shoes were awful regardless of type.

  2. (Your link didn’t go anywhere, so I substituted one to a performance of the waltz — let me know if you’d prefer a different one.)

  3. The PIE etymology looks highly suspicious, based on the attested forms. Not a single one of them can be derived from **swelplo- without irregular developments; the Sanscrit word has a /b/, which is a good indicator for a word probably not being of IE origin. The Slavic is also not what one would expect as the result of loaning OHG sweb/val. It looks very much like a wanderwort, and linking it with PIE *swel- is not convincing – at most, the root may have influenced the form of the word in some of the languages by folk etymology.

  4. David Marjanović says

    the nativizing form светопись ‘light-write’ never caught on

    Lichtbild has caught on, but exclusively in bureaucracy! Its most common use by far is Lichtbildausweis “photo ID”.

    irregular developments

    Only a very simple one is required to get to the Germanic form: dissimilation of *-lpl- to *-pl-.

    the Sanscrit word has a /b/

    Also, it has a /ɕ/, and the only PIE origin for that is */kʲ/, never */s/ (except by assimilation to a palatal consonant that isn’t there in this word).

    The Slavic is also not what one would expect as the result of loaning OHG sweb/val.

    It’s close, though, if we allow for [wɛ] to be borrowed as [oː] or later [u]: /f/ was not available, High German /b/ is voiceless and therefore routinely borrowed as Slavic /p/ as well, and OHG/MHG /s/ was retracted, therefore consistently borrowed as Slavic /ʃ/ or /ʒ/. The real obstacle is that there’s no evidence that word-initial /s/ followed by a consonant was ever voiced anywhere east of almost the Dutch border, so I can’t explain the /ʒ/.

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    The use of z or zh for German s either alone or before a consonant in early Slavic borrowings may be possible. The equation
    Pge. *husan > Psl *xūzu is accepted (although the PGe Form may have been *huzan) and the equation
    Goth. usgaisjan > Psl. užasъ is rejected for semantic but not phonological reasonsу/ужас

  6. If we had one or two irregularities among lots of regular forms, that would be fine. But here we must assume irregular developments in all languages where the word is attested. To me that really looks like an attempt to force an IE etymology on a non-IE word.
    As for the Slavic loan from OHG, what sticks in my craw is the alleged development /we/ to /ju/. If the OHG form would have had /y:/, I could accept it, but /we/ was a totally cromulent cluster in Proto-Slavic.

  7. Slovene has žveplo which is clearly a loan though.
    In older and dialectal Slovene there are also žlachta < Geschlecht (ohg. slahta), žlak < Schlag, zhlem < Schleim, žmah < Geschmack (mhg. smak), žnabelj < Schnabel, žnora < Schnur, žvegla < Schwegel (ohg. swegala) and more.
    Before vowel žamet (Samt), žaga (Säge), žegen (Segen), žida (Seide), žold (Sold) etc.
    So it seems inital /s/ was realized as voiced before sonorants as well as vowels in older south-east Bavarian at least.

  8. You find similar correspondences for German “s” in Polish as well, e.g. żagiel “sail”, German Segel. That part of the correspondence for the supposedly loaned word for sulphur is not problematic.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    What bothers me a bit is that in looking at Germanic swe vs Slavic you seem to have multiple similar PIE roots. For example English sweet < *sweh2dus but Russian sladkii < *sh2eldu "salty". The cognate to sladkii is therefore salty (if this is not due to Latin borrowing). The thing is that the PIE roots look superficially like one is a deformation of the other and the Russian is semantically closer to the "wrong" one.

  10. > Soviet-era differentiation

    Well, they are still two different things

    кеды are basically Converses (flat rubber sole, made from cotton), кроссовки = something like Nike Air Max or Adidas Originals

  11. @23Skidoo: So “hightops” versus “trainers”?

  12. @Paddy: the development of the meaning “sweet” for some derivatives of PIE *sal “salt” is already Balto-Slavic, see Lith. saldùs “sweet”. Lituanian also has d-less forms meaning “sweet”, e.g. ~įsalas “sweet” (noun), salýkla(s) “malt”, so the similarity with PIE *sweH2du- seems to be purely accidental.

  13. кеды

    Initially, the brand name “Peds” was chosen for the company from the Latin word for feet, but the name was already trademarked. Keds was founded in 1916 and was later acquired by Stride Rite Corporation.

  14. gramophone
    How is it that gramophone in English lost the second m while Russian kept it?

    keds and jeans
    I think keds appeared well before crossovki (trainers). When I came to Moscow around 1963 I soon demanded keds instead of leather Clark’s, I thought they were so cool. At the time, crossovki only meant sports shoes for cross-country running, usually with spikes (also shipovki from ship – spike). The current wider meaning appeared later, probably in 1970s.
    Remember the recent popularity in the West of the yodling Soviet-Russian singer Eduard Khil (Эдуард Хиль)? One of his early hits was The Song of Keds: I’d like to walk all over Earth in my keds…
    Also in 60s, the word jeans competed for a while with ‘tekhasy’ – Texas trousers, a Soviet-made imitation.

  15. When I came to Moscow around 1963 I soon demanded keds instead of leather Clark’s, I thought they were so cool.
    One of my high-school age poems opens with a line about keds 🙂
    We couldn’t ever afford anything leather in those days. All I ever wore on my feet were keds in warm weather, and “trade-union tourism” turboty when it was cold (they were made of cheap canvas made a bit water-resistant by soaking in a glue-paint concoction, and started at 10.40 rubles a pair). I did have a pair of sturdy leather mountain boots, with even-then-obsolete Tricouni spikes ( ) but I didn’t buy it, shhhh 🙂

    There was a classic couplet about those too:
    Эгей, парнишка, выше голову!
    Сожми покрепче ледоруб
    Ты ведь полюбишь эти горы
    И триконей железный стук.
    (with a dramatic strumming of a guitar and dramatic pauses between the words in the closing line, it almost sounded like a Halloween horror thing)

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