Thursday, February 4, 2010

Russian Surnames

This is a picture of Michael Chertoff, the former US secretary of Homeland Security. I posted it here because "chertoff" means "the devil's" in Russian. According to his Wikipedia article, Mr. Chertoff comes from a similar background to mine, so his last name really is Russian. The match between its meaning and his appearance should by no means be discarded as coincidental - most surnames originated as nicknames and facial features are to a large extent hereditary.
Some famous Russian last names and their meaning:

Tolstoy - fat man. 

Putin - the road's, the path's. I'm guessing that one of the Russian PM's ancestors lived next to a highway. By the way, most Russian surnames are in the genitive case, which means that you usually have to use an apostrophe followed by an s to translate them into English. 

Medvedev - bear's. The Russian word for bear (medved) literally means "honey eater". If you like words, you'll recognize the med- (honey) part in the related English word mead. The ancient population of northern Europe was so scared of bears that it thought that naming them directly was bad luck. People invented roundabout ways of talking about these beasts without mentioning them. "Honey eater" was one of those, "the brown one", from which the English word bear descends, is another. The original Indo-European word for bear looked something like *rkto. I once saw a discussion on sci.lang about the form it would take in modern English if it wasn't replaced by "bear" centuries ago. The consensus was that it would now be spelled "urrow". 

Gorbachov - humpback's. 

Pushkin - cannon's. 

Chekhov - Czech's. Perhaps one of his forefathers was a Czech or a serf on the estate of a Czech landlord. 

Brezhnev - this name comes from the Russian word for a river bank. From what I understand, he was born close to a village called Brezhnevka, "the river bank village". 

Kurnikova - chicken breeder's, as in "chicken breeder's daughter. 

I don't know why, but animal-themed surnames are more common in Russian than in any other major European language. Russia's relatively late entry into the industrial age does nothing to explain this because most Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen, etc. got their surnames centuries before the Industrial Revolution.  Some of the animals in question seem pretty weird for surnames. One of my best friends in childhood was named Komarov (mosquito's). Muhin (fly's), Muraviov (ant's) and Korovin (cow's) are all quite common as well. 
The surname of Georgiy Zhukov, the winning general in several of human history's biggest battles, means "bug's". 

"Bunny's" (Zaitsev) is also a common Russian last name - here's a picture of a rabbit-like gay Russian fashion designer who bears it.


  1. What about Solzhenitsyn?

    What are some Russian surnames which are shared with Russian Jews?

  2. Solzhenitsyn means "liar's". I'm not kidding. Honest to goodness truth.

    Most Russian Jewish surnames are Yiddish, but some are Polish and some are Russian. Well, plus there are names like Cohen and Levin, which are etymologically Jewish. Traditionally Jews did not use surnames. Czar Alexander I ordered all his subjects who didn't have surnames to get them a little more than 200 years ago. I suspect that at the time Jews saw this as a meaningless formality because some of the names seem random. The weirdest one I've seen is Stuhlberg (mountain of chairs in Yiddish and German).

    The ones that are Russian (probably less than a quarter) are just ordinary Russian surnames.

  3. What about Petrova?
    and Goloperov?

  4. Petrova is the feminine version of a surname that simply means "Peter's". The male version is Petrov, which is what Mrs. Petrova's husband or Ms. Petrova's father would call himself.

    Goloperov means "naked feather's". I've never seen that surname before by the way, though Google informs me that it's real.

  5. Can you recommend a book written in English which provides the meaning of Russian surnames?

  6. If you search Amazon for "Russian surnames", you'll get a few results. I haven't looked at any of those books myself though, so I can't say anything about their quality.

    I have "The Oxford Dictionary of Surnames" at home, and it's excellent. It covers surnames from all the major European languages.