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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Don't Be Embarrassed By 'Onomastic' Study




Onomastika is not what you might think it is. It is, rather, "onomastics" or the study of proper names, and it is one of the most interesting areas of linguistics. Lately, I have been studying up on the origins of Russian familii, or surnames, and I have been surprised myself at how interesting a topic it is.


In a nutshell, the practice of having formal last names didn't really get off the ground in Russia until the time of Peter the Great. He ordered all members of the nobility to chose familii and to pass them on to their children. Many literal-minded members of the nobility even developed the practice of passing on versions of their familii to their illegitimate children. Thus, the illegitimate child of the noble Golitsyn family might get a name like Litsyn.


The lower classes were slower to catch on and peasants were not required to have last names until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. At that time, huge masses of the population were more or less randomly given proper names, often taken from the names of the landowners who had previously owned them. The cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, for instance, was not related to the noble Gagarin family, but was descended from one of their serfs.


Millions of others took their new last names from their old first names. Thus, we end up with millions of Ivanovs, Sergeyevs, and Petrovs. Ivanov is the most common last name in Russia. Many other last names were taken from diminutives of Ivan, such as Vanya and Ivasha, yielding fairly common names, such as Vanyushin and Ivashkevich.


Another approach was to take a last name based on your profession. Kuznetsov (from the word kuznets, blacksmith) is the second most common Russian last name. Popov (from pop, or priest) and Plotnikov (from plotnik, or carpenter) are also extremely common.


Still others turned to the natural world for inspiration. Rozanov comes from roza (rose); Medvedev comes from medved' (bear); Volkov comes from volk (wolf).


In pre-Revolutionary times, the Orthodox Church formed a social caste and developed its own tradition of family names. Upon ordination, new priests would be given family names, often based on the name of the church where their fathers served (since the priesthood was largely a hereditary caste). This practice gives us common names such as Voznesensky (from vozneseniye, or "Ascension"), Arkhangel'sky (from arkhangel, or archangel) and Troitsky (from troitsa, or trinity).


Of course, in reality, the process of forming Russian surnames was much more complicated and interesting than this quick overview can convey. But the point is that we should not be ashamed of our interest in onomastika, even if the word makes our friends giggle.