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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From 'Bystro' to 'Bistro' And Back Home Again

Although I am by no means a trained linguist, I have always been strangely fascinated by the ways various words are borrowed back and forth between different languages.

Consider, for example, the Russian words bystro (quickly) and bistro (bistro). Impatient Russian soldiers in Paris after the Napoleonic wars hounded French waiters with cries of bystro, bystro (faster, faster) so much that clever French restaurateurs began calling their establishments "bistros" to emphasize quick service.

The word "bistro," in turn, was borrowed into many other languages, including English and Russian, giving us, among other things, the name of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's favorite restaurant, Russkoye bistro.

And what about direct exchanges between English and Russian? Of course, recent years have seen English pick up such Russian words as sputnik and glasnost', but these clearly remain foreign words describing uniquely Russian phenomena. The only Russian word that I can think of that can be considered completely anglicized is, naturally enough, vodka.

We should, however, also mention the word "robot." "Robot" did not come to English from Russian, but from the Czech equivalent of the Russian verb rabotat' (to work). Now, though, the idea of a humanoid machine is captured in Russian by the russified English word robot.

Russian, of course, has been borrowing words for centuries. Some of the most common and seemingly natural Russian words actually have their origins in other languages. Izba (a peasant hut) and khleb (bread) were borrowed from Old German. The name of that favorite Russian vegetable svyokla (beet) comes from Greek, and the words bogatyr' (hero) and loshad' (horse) come from Turkish languages.

I began thinking about these ideas during a vacation in Paris last spring when I found myself standing next to one of the above-mentioned bistros. Noticing that sign made me start thinking of the Russian language (despite my efforts to forget all about Moscow life) and then my attention was drawn to another sign featuring the French word chapeau, or "hat."

I was struck by the similarity between chapeau and the quintessentially Russian shapka (hat). Later, a little research confirmed my suspicions and gave me a great example of the strange things that happen when words emigrate and then return.

Shapka was borrowed into Russian a few hundred years ago from the French chape, which evolved into the modern French chapeau. Ironically, the original meaning of shapka was "a European-style hat" and only with time did the fur shapka become practically a symbol of Russia.

In the meantime, the Russian word shapka was borrowed back into French as chapka, meaning "a fur hat in the Russian style." Welcome home, chape!