Tsvuak, chuvak.

Steven Lubman wrote me as follows:

A funny posting by a Lithuanian poet and translator Marius Burokas made me fall into a rabbit hole of Yiddish etymology. One of the commentators asked if “Tsvuak” and “чувак” were related (they’re not) and I was surprised by the Romani origin of “чувак” which is apparently related to “chav”!

Most of the comments are in Lithuanian, but I enjoyed this macaronic verse:

Татэ, татэ, wos i dos?
– О! Dos is’ паравоз.
– Wos i dos паравоз?
– О! Dos is aine mashyne, mitte pružyne, mitte пар, puff, puff, puff und пошол.

[Papa, papa, what is that?
Oh! That’s a steam engine.
What’s a steam engine?
Oh! That’s a machine with a spring, with steam, puff, puff, puff and it goes.]

At any rate, the first thing I did was go to Vasmer, where I was surprised not to find чувак ‘fellow, guy, dude’ listed; then I went to the Национальный корпус русского языка (Corpus of the Russian Language), where I learned that both чувак and its feminine equivalent чувиха are first attested in Kornei Chukovsky’s 1962 Живой как жизнь [Alive as Life; I wrote about it back in 2004], so no wonder it’s not in Vasmer. (Chukovsky says “Студент Д. Андреев в энергичной статье, напечатанной в многотиражной газете Института стали, громко осудил арготизмы студентов: ценная девушка, железно, законно, башли, хилок, чувак, чувиха и т. д.” [The student D. Andreev in a forceful article printed in the factory newspaper of the Steel Institute loudly condemned student slang: tsennaya devushka, zhelezno, zakonno, bashli, khilok, chuvak, chuvikha, etc.] — I’m not translating the terms because I’m not familiar with student slang of c. 1960). In his comment, Lubman says:

Tsvuak is not ‘chuvak’, it’s ‘hypocrite’ from Hebrew tsviyut, in Yiddish pronounced as tsviyes. Wiktionary suggests Romani origin of chuvak, similar to English “chav”

That Wiktionary article says “Possibly of Romani origin. Compare English chav“; I’d like to see more documentation, but it’s not implausible. One oddity is that my Oxford Russian-English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1992) includes чувиха but not чувак!


  1. We were told that the word chuvak is inappropriate because in the south it stood for a castrated ram, (it always struck me as an implausible etymology!) and I’m sure you can google it as many have tried before, without any luck. By the 2000s the word has become totally mainstream though, as evidenced by 7up ads translating cool dude as клёвый чувак. Железно is of course absolutely and башли money.

    I saw references to чувиха being the original argot form from the 1900s and the male form emerging only by the 1920s, and it sounded quite plausible…

  2. references to чувиха being the original argot form from the 1900s and the male form emerging only by the 1920s
    From Barannikov’s book on Romani elements in Russian criminal slang, which was partly based on a dubious-origin and mangled Potapov handbook on criminal slang ( Потапов С.М. 1927 – Словарь жаргона преступников (блатная музыка). М., 1927.). Barannikov, an Indologist and a director of the Institute of the Orient Studies, was an expert on Romani linguistics but far from being fluent. He clearly recognized the limitation of this source, but it was nevertheless hard to draw a line between trustworthy argot words vs. “noise”. In his 2007 review ( http://www.philology.ru/linguistics2/shapoval-07c.htm ), Shapoval goes through numerous examples of Barannikov’s lists and etymologies. The biggest issue with the listed words and expressions is that most of them weren’t really a part of Russian slang, having been restricted to those criminals who were bilingual Russian and Romani speakers.

    Among the words listed by Potapov 1927 is also “Чувиха – проститутка”. In this case, the place of the word in Russian slang isn’t in question, but Shapoval argues that its derivation from Romani chavo is highly questionable, and mentions an alternative hypothesis deriving chuvak from Bulgarian човек “man”.

  3. Thanks! The Bulgarian hypothesis does seem more plausible.

  4. One oddity is that my Oxford Russian-English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1992) includes чувиха but not чувак

    For what it’s worth, the Oxford Russian Dictionary app on my phone includes the word…so, progress?

    I remember going to see Где моя тачка, чувак? in a movie theater when I was living in Russia. Hard to believe that was decades ago now.

  5. Tsvuak, if that is indeed its origin, would be not indirectly from tsviyes, but directly from the adjective צָבוּעַ tsavua ‘hypocritical’, literally ‘painted’, plus the Slavic suffix -ak. However, it gives me pause. Are there any other examples of such a hybrid? I can’t think of any.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    Bashli is also Hebrew but not a hybrid. I imagine there are hybrids of the form (Hebrew/Yiddish)+nik.

  7. Bashli? What’s that?

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    Cook! (imperative)

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Old testament “cooking places”

  10. Anikin’s etymological dictionary thinks that bashli is of Turkic origin, presumably a corruption of bağışli “given as a present” (?), and notes that a form of the same root is attested in Ukrainian Cossack speech in the meaning of “a present (given to VIP)”. But maybe directly from baş “head, leader”. Possibly expanding to “bribe” and then to any ill-gotten money? Another old derived dialectal meaning in SW Russia means horse-trading, an all people’s metaphor for dirty dealing. Which probably makes Hebrew similarity a mere coincidence?

  11. What does it mean in Russian? “cook! (f. sg.)” or something having to do with dirty dealing?

    I doubt very much that an inflected verb form would have borrowed from Hebrew into Russian.

  12. Dmitry Pruss said above that it means “money”, so the proposed Turkish words are a better fit.

  13. Maybe it’s related to

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks for correction. The site I saw derivation from the Hebrew said it was secondary cook>fat>money. But I am not providing link, as Android says it is not safe. To me it did not sound impossible, like US “dough”.

  15. I just recalled a Russian colloquial expression which might explain it:

    “bash na bash, menyat’ bash na bash”, from Turkish baş “head”.

    Means bartering something in exchange for something (literally, using both languages it meant something like “head for head”).

    This well might developed into a verb “bashlyat'” – “provide something of value for a service”.

    In Soviet Union, many supposedly free state services were impossible to obtain without bribing those who were supposed to provide them.

  16. an alternative hypothesis deriving chuvak from Bulgarian човек “man”.

    Incidentally, though човек is now part of the standard language, it was originally a non-standard form used in vernacular western Bulgarian; in the 19th century, the standard form was человек.

  17. I’ll be damned.

  18. Чувак and човек are phonetically even more similar than they initially appear, since /o/ in Bulgarian is often realized as [u] (such that човек can be pronounced [t͡ʃu’vɛk]). My impression is that this allophone only occurs in unstressed syllables (as in това [tu’va] and всичко [fs’it͡ʃku], but not хората [‘horɐtɐ]), but I don’t know if it was present in Bulgarian at the time Russians started using the word чувак.

  19. Russian has a similarly sounding word чувяк (chuv’ak vs. chuvak). It’s a kind of shoe and is brought to Russia (both the thing itself and the word) from Caucuses. I don’t think that it is a probable source for чувак, but it might have blocked the Bulgarian route. Obviously, derogatory nicknames for people after shoes is nothing new in Russian.

    Another alternative to ponder is чудак/чудик (weirdo, crank). And the first of these even exhibits ch/m substitution, but we are not going that route.

  20. Susan Schnur says

    Fascinating discussion. Thank you .

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