It suddenly occurred to me I had no idea where the surname Turgenev was from; I figured there was probably some dialect word turgen’, but I wanted to know, so I turned to my standby, Unbegaun’s book on Russian family names. I was directed to, of all things, the section on names of Mongolian origin! There are three varieties of such names: those of Kalmyk origin (e.g., Badminov, ultimately from Sanskrit padma ‘lotus’), those of Buryat origin (e.g., Gomboev, ultimately from Tibetan མགོན་པོ། mgon-po, gönpo ‘gentleman; protector’), and those from Mongolian proper (e.g., Batyrev from баатар ᠪᠠᠭᠠᠲᠤᠷ ‘hero’), and among these last is Turgenev, from Mongolian түргэн ᠲᠦᠷᠭᠡᠨ ‘quick.’ As the kids say these days: Mind. Blown.


  1. Bathrobe says

    That is amazing! So I knew the Mongolian word түргэн long before I came across it again some years ago. But what is the route? Presumably one of Turgenev’s ancestors was pretty quick (wrestling? archery?) and gained the nickname Turgen. And how did that name get from Mongolia proper to Russia?

  2. The name is also relatively common in Turkic areas as a hydronym “fast creek”.

  3. SFReader says

    Genealogical legend says that Turgenevs are descended from Tatar chief Arslan Turgen (Lion Quick?) who was baptised as Ivan Turgenev after entering Muscovite service in 15th century.

    Tatar language is full of Mongolian borrowings and this appears one of them.

  4. SFReader says

    Another famous literary surname of Mongol origin – Chaadayev.

    Comes from Mongol name Chagaday (Whitey). It was also name of second son of Genghis Khan who ruled over vast area in Central Asia.

    There is even a medieval Turkic language called Jagatai Turki.

  5. SFReader says

    Another famous Russian surname of Mongol origin is Elchin/Eltsin/Yeltsin, from Mongol ‘elchin’- “envoy”.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Tatar language is full of Mongolian borrowings and this appears one of them.

    If it appears in Turkic hydronyms, maybe this one went in the other direction; the whole Mongolic family is full of Turkic borrowings, too.

  7. SFReader says

    “türgen” definitely has native Mongolian etymology (from base word “tür” – temporary).

  8. One of Turgenev’s family estates is a small village Turgenevo, now in the Tula region. Not sure if it gor the name from its landlords or landlords got it from the village. I’ve looked up Turgenevo and it appears that there is a dozen or so villages of the same name, including one in Kaliningrad/East Prussia and two in Crimea, both renamed in 1940s from their original Crimean-Tartar names. The irony!

  9. SFReader says

    Reminds me of Finnish authorities who renamed Sestra River (despite Russian sounding name, it’s actually from original Finnish Siestarjoki) into Rajajoki (raja is a borrowing from Russian ‘krai’)

  10. I love stories like that. Down with linguistic nationalism!

  11. Sestra would be presumably be harder for Finns to say, whatever its etymology.

  12. Apparently, the noble Báthory family of Hungary has a legend that their name derives from an ancestor who killed a dragon (according to Wikipedia, at least). The Hungarian word for “brave” is bator – is that related to the Mongolian mentioned above? (баатар ᠪᠠᠭᠠᠲᠤᠷ ‘hero’)


  13. Hungarian and Mongolian don’t have a reconstructable common ancestor, but borrowing is possible; so is coincidence, of course.

  14. John,

    Hungarian borrowed all along its route form Siberia. I saw an article in Comrie’s survey of languages that traced two separate periods of borrowing from Turkish or something similar, distinguished by intervening sound changes.

    “As the kids say these days: Mind. Blown.”

    Only if your think of Russia as a European culture. My moment of shock and recognition was when I figured out the etymology of Rachmaninov’s name.

  15. J. W. Brewer says

    Alas, these days even the Nostraticists don’t seem to view Uralic-Altaic as meaningful subgrouping of their macrofamily. It’s not like the 1920’s when disaffected Hungarian royalists who’d been denied a monarch of their own by the victorious Allies developed a devotion to their supposed linguistic cousins the Japanese imperial family.

  16. The Hungarian word for “brave” is bator – is that related to the Mongolian mentioned above?

    According to my dictionary, it’s from OTurk. baγatur (the source of Russian богатырь); I’m not sure what the relation between that and the Mongolian word is.

  17. Only if your think of Russia as a European culture.

    I’m well aware that Russian surnames come from all over; I am, after all, an owner and frequent user of the Unbegaun book. Are you telling me you took one look at “Turgenev” and said “Ah yes, certainly of Mongolian origin”? Or that you weren’t the least bit surprised to learn that fact? Because I’m guessing most Russians have no idea of its origin.

  18. Hungarian royalists who’d been denied a monarch of their own

    The legitimists, of course, wanted an Austrian monarch, who would have used the throne as a mere stepping-stone to trying to restore the Empire. But consider the history of the kingship: the last authentically Hungarian monarch of the House of Árpád (who led the Magyars onto the Pannonian plain) died in 1301. Since then there had been Angevins, Luxembourgs, Croats, Romanians, and Austrians. Where could an actual Hungarian royal line be found? Nowhere, not even as a memory.

  19. no, it’s so Russian, we never think it could be anything else.

  20. Ivanov is Hebrew and Petrov is Greek, what’s the deal. It’s true though that the Tatar roots of the famous Russians are glossed over in the grade school curriculum (Lermontov’s distant European ancestry is mentioned often, in contrast). It must be still in the grips of the old Westernizer vs. Slavophile debate? (Eurasianism is a more recent appearance)

  21. Vasmer calls that theory unconvincing.

  22. Bathrobe says

    OTurk. baγatur

    Well, baatar is written ᠪᠠᠭᠠᠲᠣᠷ i.e. baγatur. I expect it’s a Mongolian borrowing from Turkic.

  23. SFReader says

    baatar/bagatur is probably a borrowing from Indo-European languages, but Sanskrit looks unlikely.

    I think it originates with those early Indo-European nomadic peoples who inhabited Mongolia before Huns.

    They are thought to be Iranian, but other theories say it was some kind of separate branch of Indo-European which didn’t survive.

  24. Вчерашний раб, татарин, зять Малюты,
    Зять палача и сам в душе палач

    By 19th century that was all so distant a history that no one cared. And if anything, Lithuanian origins of famous (in a positive sense) Russians are probably mentioned even less than Tataric.

  25. “Ivanov is Hebrew and Petrov is Greek…” and Sidorov (the third in the proverbial triad of common Russian names: Ivanov, Petrov, Sidorov) is Egyptian (and Greek). “Sidor” is Isidore, a gift from goddess Isis.

    On a side note, Sidorov is not as common these days as the other two.

  26. SFReader says

    Unbegaun’s list of top 25 Russian surnames

    Иванов – Hebrew
    Васильев – Greek
    Петров – Greek
    Смирнов – Russian
    Михайлов – Hebrew
    Фёдоров – Greek
    Соколов – Russian
    Яковлев – Hebrew
    Попов – Greek (probably via some Germanic language)
    Андреев – Greek
    Алексеев – Greek
    Александров – Greek
    Лебедев – Russian
    Григорьев – Greek
    Степанов – Greek
    Семёнов – Hebrew
    Павлов – Latin
    Богданов – Russian, but likely a calque from Greek Theodotos
    Николаев – Greek
    Дмитриев – Greek
    Егоров – Greek
    Волков – Russian
    Кузнецов – Russian
    Никитин – Greek
    Соловьёв – Russian

    Russian(Slavic) surnames barely make up a third!

  27. Every single non-Slavic name on that list derives from Orthodoxy and by the time surnames were adopted would have been a completely naturalised Russian word. The names in no wise imply that the holders have any Greek, Hebrew or other non-Russian ancestry. Whilst wholely Slavic-derived surnames may make up barely a third of the list, I would argue Russian surnames make up 100%.

  28. SFReader says

    -completely naturalised Russian word

    Let’s interview average Russian on the street and ask him what does Ivan mean? Or any of the non-Russian names here.

    The answer is quite predictable ;-)))

  29. Of course the names above are Russian in the sense that they are formed either from Russian words (note the prominence of bird and animal names) or from Russian versions of common Christian names. I believe that, as far as surnames are concerned, Karamzin’s dictum, “Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar,” applies most of all to old noble families. A Turkic or Mongol root, I would claim, is a marker of nobility.

    Among men of letters, Karamzin, Chaadayev, Turgenev, Tyutchev (of Turkic origin, per Unbegaun himself), Aksakov all had ancestors traceable to early Muscovy and sometimes earlier. This is understandable as warlords, princelings and professional warriors from the Golden Horde’s successor hordes entered the service of the Moscow grand prince, later tsar, in large numbers in the 15th and 16th century.

    Bulgakov apparently belonged to a priestly branch of one of several Bulgakov clans, all relatively old, too.

  30. Right, but names like Chaadayev and Aksakov are pretty clearly of non-Russian origin. That’s not at all the case with Turgenev, which is why I was so surprised.

  31. SFReader says

    Scratching Russians further, we found another interesting case:

    In 1389, a certain Tatar warlord called Aslan-Chelebi-murza defected from Golden Horde to Muscovy with his retinue of 30 warriors. He was baptised as Prokopiy and was given lands. His son, Lev Prokopievich had a nickname Rtische (Big Mouth) and his descendants became Russian boyars Rtischevs.

    In 1506, one of them, certain Danila Ivanovich Rtischev (Rtischevich) entered Lithuanian service and was granted lands in the Grand Duchy, including village of Dostojewo near Brest in western Belarus. His descendants were naturally called Dostojewski or, in English spelling, Dostoyevsky.

  32. I only found out about Turgenev a year or two ago, by chance. I’ve also come across these articles by the prominent Soviet Turkologist Nikolay Baskakov, both from 1969. It’s a treasure trove, even though some of Baskakov’s claims are unbelievable. Take his treatment of Suvorov: he does not like Swedish svår or Persian sevār but goes with the metathetic variation суровый (“severe”), allegedly from Turkic sur, “grey.” Vasmer derives суровый from сырой, “raw” or “moist.” Referring to суровая нить (“rough sewing thread”), both make sense: it is greyish (unbleached) and raw.

    But Mikhail Gasparov reports Vinogradov (the Slavicist) and Sokolovsky (the Grecian) discussing Suvorov ca. 1960: they agree the stress should be on the first or third syllable (!) and derive the name from сýвор, a petty thief (similar to сукровица, супесь).

  33. SFReader says

    Suvor was a common north Russian nickname and meant stern and silent man. There were plenty of Suvorovs and Suvorins (most of them just common peasants) in 19th century.

    Turkic version is unlikely and Swedish even more so.

  34. SFReader says

    – Baskakov

    Now, this surname is straight from Golden Horde era!

    Baskak is a Turkic literal translation of Mongol term daruga (from verb daraqu – to press, now boss, chief, back in 13th century – title of tax official in the Mongol empire).

    I fear ancestors of our prominent Turkologist were oppressing Russian people by levying taxes and tribute.

  35. I have no proof, but it’s at least plausible that the Russian/Ukrainian baked goodies / filled dumplings called pierogi carry a name borrowed from Turkish bourek (also börek and burek).

  36. That’s one of the suggested etymologies; Vasmer finds it implausible (plumping for a derivation from pir ‘feast’ instead) because there are no cognates in South Slavic, but that doesn’t seem like a reason to reject it to me.

  37. So the meaning of the phrase is “Investigate a Russian deeply, and you find a Tatar ancestor”? I always understood it to mean “Inflict a minor injury on a Russian, and he turns into an angry steppe warrior who will burn down your city.”

  38. Not Sokolovsky but Sobolevsky, mea culpa. Sergei I. Sobolevsky, who knew ancient Greek “better than anyone in Russia and perhaps not just in Russia” according to Mikhail Gasparov.

    “Grattez le Russe” has been ascribed to a dozen people, including de Maistre. Apparently it was supposed to say Russians are barbarians beneath a veneer of European manners, but whether the suggested scratching refers to provocation or just to scrubbing away the varnish, I have no idea. In modern Russia (and Ukraine) though, this adage is often taken to mean “all Russians have Tatar ancestors/relatives.”

  39. That’s one of the suggested etymologies; Vasmer finds it implausible (plumping for a derivation from pir ‘feast’ instead) because there are no cognates in South Slavic, but that doesn’t seem like a reason to reject it to me.

    Curiouser and curiouser: Asked to translate pierogi into Macedonian, Bulgarian or Serbian, GT returns кнедли. For Slovak, Croatian and Bosnian it returns knedle. Those terms have to be from German, and ultimately related to English knead. Slovenian’s the odd guy out with smoki.

    Note that GT falls down badly when asked to translate pierogi into Basque, Norwegian, Dutch, Armenian and Hmong: all it can muster is dumplings.

  40. @John Cowan. That adage in Russian is Поскреби русского — найдёшь татарина. The first word (French grattez, English scratch) cannot mean a minor injury. Otherwise Alexei K. is right on the money.

  41. David Marjanović says

    all it can muster is dumplings

    …and indeed that’s what German Knödel means (closely enough anyway).

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