Un coup de dés.

Making my way slowly (but happily!) through Goldstein (see this post), I came across the phrase бросать зары ‘to throw zary’ and was (as often while reading this maddening book) at a loss. Eventually I discovered that зар is borrowed from Turkish zar ‘die, dice’ (Dmitry Pruss says in the comments “зары is a regular Russian word for dice when the 2 dice are used for playing нарды [backgammon]”). Then I checked the etymology of the Turkish word and found it’s from Arabic زهر [zahr] (of the same meaning) — at least according to Wiktionary (see the OED passage below) — and check out the Descendants section at that page! Besides Turkish, it’s been borrowed into Maltese, Persian (and thence into Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian), Greek, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and from French hasard we get English hazard, for which the OED (entry updated January 2018) has this copious etymology section:

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman asard, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French hasard, hasart, Middle French hazart (French hasard) gambling game played with dice (c1150), highest throw of dice in this game (1200), misfortune (early 13th cent.), risk, danger of an adverse outcome (14th cent.), chance, fortune (16th cent.), probably (with development of excrescent d) ultimately < colloquial Arabic al-zahr (pronounced az-zahr) < al the + zahr die (although this is not attested in the classical stage of the language), of unknown origin (see note).

It is usually assumed that Arabic al-zahr was borrowed into French via Spanish azar gambling game played with dice (mid 13th cent.), misfortune (late 13th cent.), risk (1583), although the relative dates of first attestation argue against this.

Parallels in other European languages.

The Arabic word was also borrowed into other European languages, in many cases via French. Compare:

(i) Old Occitan azar gambling game played with dice (13th cent.), Portuguese azar chance, luck, (specifically) misfortune (15th cent.), Italian azzardo chance, risk (1653; end of the 15th cent. as †zarro), (with metanalysis of the feminine definite article) zara (13th cent.);

(ii) Middle Dutch hasaert chance, throw for luck (Dutch hazaard also ‘risk’), Middle Low German hasert, hasart highest throw of the dice at a gambling game, and (with folk-etymological alteration after personal names in -hart) Middle High German haschart, hashart, hasehart gambling game played with dice, chance, luck (German Hasard, also in sense ‘risk, danger’, was reborrowed < French in the 17th cent.);

(iii) post-classical Latin azardum, azarum (13th cent.), hasardum (13th or 14th cent. in British sources; < French).

Further etymology of the Arabic word for ‘die’.

The further etymology of Arabic zahr ‘die’ is unknown. It has been suggested that it shows an extended use of zahr ‘flower’, with reference to a stylized picture of a flower supposedly found on one of the faces of a die, but evidence to support this is lacking. Compare Turkish zar die (Ottoman Turkish zār (17th cent.); in modern Turkish also ‘fate, luck’) and Persian zār die, although the nature of the relationship between the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian words is unclear.

A well-traveled word, wherever it got its start! (The post title is from Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.)


  1. Dmitry Pruss says

    зары is a regular Russian word for dice when the 2 dice are used for playing нарды (tables-game / backgammon)

  2. Oh! Strange, I got very few hits for it, so I assumed it barely existed. Thanks, I’ll change the post.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Turkish zar ‘die, dice’


    Zar, J. H. (1984) Biostatistical Analysis, 2nd ed. Prentice Hall.

  4. Dmitry Pruss says

    PS: I see that there is another search weirdness issue in the now-linked post about nardy. I must add that I never heard of триктрак, only of nardy. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it was described as a “dice game” since dice are a very important part of it?
    It is possible that the words were treated as non-Russian or dialectal in Russian by the dictionary compilers, but I would argue that it is a mistaken approach. While nardy is mostly played in the South, Russia’s North doesn’t have another name for it. If you know what game it is at all, then you call it nardy.

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    And apropos dialectic words in Azerbaijani Russian, did we ever discuss демьянки?

  6. No, what is it?

  7. Google tells me it’s “eggplant.”

  8. Dmitry Pruss says

    A Russian sounding word of unclear etymology which means eggplant in local Russian. Vasmer may have explained by the Feast of St Damian which doesn’t make a lot of sense

  9. Vasmer may have explained by the Feast of St Damian which doesn’t make a lot of sense

    Anikin in his more recent treatment offers the same etymology, by which the name is said to make reference to the ripening of eggplant around on 18 August, the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Wouldn’t this be the correct time in some parts of Russia at least? (And according to the Julian calendar.) Anikin has more on the phonology:

    От ИС святого Демьяна, вероятно, в связи с днем Космы и Дамиана (18 августа по ст. ст.), потому что баклажан созревает в это время (Преобр.: 1: 178; Фасм. 1: 498). ИС Демья́н, ст.-рус. Дамия́н, укр. Дем’я́н и др. < ц.-слав., ср. ст.- слав. Дамиꙗнъ < греч. Δαμιανός (ЕСУМ 2: 32).

    Vasmer and Anikin have a cross-reference to A. G. Preobrazhensky, but there isn’t any more ethnographic detail there.

    It would be a bit like English filbert ‘hazelnut (Corylus avellana)’, said to be ripe from St. Philibert’s Day, 22 August (Old Style).

  10. Steve Plant says

    @ X,
    It seems the meaning of filbert is changing;


  11. Dmitry Pruss says

    With the forest nuts being a shared resource, a prohibition on collecting them before a set date would at least make some sense. But for a garden vegetable, I don’t think it is even possible. I suspect that it is a folk etymology for a borrowed word, but which one?

  12. If Russian was English:

    “St Cosmas and Dt. Damian,
    My aubergines are coming in.”

  13. I suspect that it is a folk etymology for a borrowed word, but which one?

    This must be correct. There is Azeri badımcan (from Persian) and Persian بادمجان bādemjān, colloquial variant of بادنجان‎ bādenjān. This protean word is found in many variant colloquial variants in Persian… bāḏenjā, bādengān, bādeljān, bādlejān (the last type the source of Turkish patlıcan and thence Russian баклажан types), etc. (There is also an m-form listed here (middle of p. 286) for Farîzandî, a Northwestern Iranian language spoken in Isfahan province.) Georgian has ბადრიჯანი badriǯani, and Kumyk and Avar бадиржан, and there is an extensive list of the Armenian variants here, so the Azeri and colloquial Persian forms come closest among the more widely-spoken languages.

  14. P.S. I liked this Russian Wikipedia article on the vicissitudes of the name Демьян.

  15. badımcan

    Yes, I can see the same hypothesis proposed by some locals who think that the transformation of бадымджан probably happened in the dialect of local Russian-speaking Molokans, who liked making the foreign words of the land of their exile sound more like words at home…
    E.g. https://kirulya.livejournal.com/2281671.html

  16. Dmitry Pruss says

    And by the time Preobrazhensky dictionary was published, the Molokans lived in Shemakha and Baku Governorates for 4 or 5 generations already. Their original town, Alty-Agach, was established in 1834, and most of the rest of settlements later in the 1830s and 1840s. In the 1850s they established the Molokan Borough of Baku itself. Many Baku Molokans were coopers, making barrels for transporting oil. Their numerous oak board-soaking pits were blamed for outbreaks of malaria, and in 1872 the Molokan Borough had to be relocated to the outskirts of the city to mitigate the health dangers. Anyway my point is that the Molokans have been a vital part of the local crazy quilt of languages and traditional occupations for generations before Baku grew into a cosmopolitan oil capital of the turn of XX century.

  17. который, я думаю, стараниями молокан-староверов, живших в Азербайджане, переименовался в демьянку.

    the Molokans have been a vital part of the local crazy quilt of languages and traditional occupations for generations before Baku grew into a cosmopolitan oil capital

    Thanks for all this! It’s very nice.

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