Russian Loanwords in English

Recently, a few friends-writers from social networks asked me to share about the traces of Russian culture in the English language. I think this information might also be interesting to other people, not only linguists and writers.


Since very old times, the people, who inhabited vast territories of the present-day Russia, were known to have strong connections with other parts of the world. I am talking mainly about the ancient Kiev State and Great Novgorod. The exchange happened on different levels – in politics, trade, technology of the time, culture, and, of course, on the level of language. One of the first Russian words which came into the English language was ‘tapor-x’, which united a Russian and a Norwegian words; the word was found in handwritten manuscripts of 1031. Another English word, to talk, has the same root base with the Russian noun толк [tolk] (verb: толковать).

The words with common roots have been found in both, English and Russian languages since medieval times: sable (соболь), the old English meodu (м`д) and the more recent mead, meaning honey; the old English meolk (молоко), or milk; the old English ploz (плуг), meaning plough.


The pre-revolutionary Russia brought the following words into the English speaking world: мужик (muzhik), изба (izba), шуба (shuba), квас (kvass), морс (morse), щи (shchi), борщ (borshch), мед (mead), калач (calach), кисель (kissel), водка (vodka), наливка (nalivka), блины (bliny), телега (telega), печь (peach), махорка (makhorka), молитва (molitva), обедня (obednia), хоровод (khorovod), указ (ukase), опричнина (opritchnina), староста (starosta), боярин (boyar), царь (tsar), артель (artel), дача (dacha), самовар (samovar), тройка (troika), дрожки (droshky), погром (pogrom), степь (steppe), тундра (tundra), тайга (taiga), суслик (suslik), борзая (borzoi).

The 70-year period of the Soviet Union state gave birth to a whole bunch of new words, which acquired completely new meanings in the given environment: apparatchik (аппаратчик, an office worker), gulag (гулаг) Soviet-time prison/camp in Siberia. The decay of the Soviet Union enriched the English language with such words as: glasnost (гласность) and perestroika (перестройка).

The words sputnik (спутника) and cosmonaut (космонавт) also came into English through Russian.

Russian tourists and immigrants have contributed the words, associated with the Russian cuisine: blini (блины), borshch (борщ), koulibiaca (кулебяка), kasha (каша), smetana (сметана), kvass (квас), pirogi (пироги), shashlik /shishkobab/ (шашлык), vodka (водка), zakuska (закуска).

Russian suffix -ник (-nik) has become quite popular in English recently, you can find it in words kapustnik (The Daily Express), flopnik (Daily Herald), pufnik (Daily Mail), stayputnik (News Chronicle) (Эпштейн М. 2003).

Today, no English speaker is surprised to hear Russian words рубль (rouble) and копейка (kopek), (interestingly, the word rouble came into English through French), балалайка (balalaika) – Russian musical instrument; казачок (kazachok) – Ukrainian and Russian popular dance; борзая (borzoi) – a Russian dog kind; белуга (a fish) and белуха (a whale) have the same name in English: beluga; the Engish babushka – is a woman wearing a cloth over her head, tied under her chin; and of coure, Russian степь (steppe), тайгa (taiga) and тундрa (tundra), and many others.


The rest of this article may be interesting to experts in Russian culture or to writers, whose work is devoted to the Russian culture:

1. The names, related to the state organs of power and ranks of the seate service people: czar (tzar ) ‘царь ’, voivodeвоеовда ’, knesкнязь ’, bojarбоярин ’, moujikмужик ’, cossackказак ’, opritchinaопритчина ’, strelscyстрелец ’, starostaстароста, ukaseуказ, kremlinкремль ’, sotniaсотня ’, Raskolnikраскольник ’.

2. Different measurements: verstверста, arshinаршин, poodпуд, sageneсажень ’, roubleрубль, copeckкопейка, chervonetsчервонец ’.

3. Names of items of clothes, foods or household items: shubaшуба ’,kvassквас, morseморс ’,koumissкумыс ’, shchiщи, borshchборщ ’,meadмед, calashкалач ’, shashlikшашлык ’, kisselкисель ’, vodkaводка, starkaстарка, nalivkaналивка, nastoikaнастойка, blinyблины, oladyiоладьи, okroshkaокрошка ’, troikaтройка, izbaизба, telegaтелега, peach‘печь, balalaikaбалалайка ’, bayanбаян ’, samovar самовар ’, tarantassтарантас ’, droshkiдрожки ’, kibitkaкибитка ’, makhorkaмахорка ’.

4. Natural characteristics and animals: steppeстепь, tundraтундра ’, taiga ‘тайга’, poliniaполыня ’, suslikсуслик ’,borzoiборзая ’.

5. Religious words: molitvaмолитва ’, obednjaобедня’ and a few names associated with unique Rusian culture: kokoshnikкокошник ’, khorovodхоровод ’, samovarсамовар’,obrokоброк ’,zolotnikзолотник ’, otrezokотрезок, vedroведро, matrioshkaматрешка ’.

There are many more words, of course, but those listed here are the most “recognizeable” by the English speakers.


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