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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Their Place in History

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?????? ???????: time machine

If someone offered me a trip in a time machine, I'd hop in and pop back to Moscow circa 1649, where I'd stroll among the traders' booths on Red Square and then try to wangle my way into a ?????.

Just in case you were curious -- and even if you weren't -- the terem was the wooden top floor of a Russian medieval house where women were secluded. It is often thought to be a corruption of the word -- and concept -- of "harem." This gives etymologists the vapors. The word is probably from the Greek (teremnon, "living quarters") and the custom of secluding women seems to have come to Rus from Byzantium. Since the quarters were made of wood, none have survived to our day -- which is why I need the time machine.

Luckily, Moscow place names are almost as good. Once you begin to pay attention to street and church names -- and consult a few dictionaries -- you discover they convey a wealth of information about who lived where and the landscape beneath today's asphalt.

Take, for example, the most famous church in Russia, which is called '??? ??????? ?????????? (St. Basil's Cathedral) -- right? Not quite. The proper name of the church is ????? ??????? ??????????, ??? ?? ??? (The Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God that is on the Moat). Since there were many Churches of the Intercession in Moscow, the descriptive phrase "that was on the moat" was added to identify it. Where was the moat? (This is worth three points on your next Moscow pop quiz.) From 1508 to 1815, it separated the Kremlin from Red Square.

Another place with a lot of "????????? ?????" (descriptive, literally "talking street names") is ???????. ????? is an iron stand that holds a pot or cauldron over a fire, and the area was originally settled by the artisans who made them. The neighborhood, separated from the city by the two rivers (Moscow and Yauza) -- and also upwind from the city's wooden structures -- was a safe place for craftsmen who worked with fire. Hence the streets and embankment near Taganka called ?????????????? -- from the ?????????? (cauldron-makers) who had shops there. Or the streets called ????????? -- from the ??????? (potters) who fired their ceramics in kilns.

My favorite place for history-through-street-names is ?????????????, the land "beyond the river." We know it was low-lying: The island right over the river is called ???????? (Bog). In fact, the high-class area nearest the river is called ?????? (Balchug), which has a decidedly low-rent meaning: It is a Tatar word that meant "mud" and came to mean "market" (presumably because markets were mucky). If you want yet more proof that this area was a swamp-hole, it's in the name of the church nearby: '??? ?????????????? ??????? ??????????? ? ?????? (the Church of the Martyr George the Victorious in Endova). ?????? was a low-rimmed drinking vessel, so historians hypothesize that the church was set in a kind of crater.

It's easy to see who lived in this area and what they did. The various ????????????? ????? (Gardener's streets) were once home to the tsar's gardens. On ??????? lived the representatives of ??????? ???? (the Golden Horde) -- conveniently on the road south to their headquarters. Many of these folks stayed, hence all the ????????? ????? (Tatar streets). Since there were Tatars, there needed to be ??????? (translators), who also have a number of streets named after them (like ????????????). The streets named ??????????? tell us that ??????, who made ???? (vats), worked here. The various ????????? ????? (Smithy streets) don't need much explaining, nor do the many incarnations of ???????? ????? (Coin streets), where the state mints were located.

Today there are plans to develop Bog Island and rename it ??????? (Gold). Maybe the city plans to open goldsmith shops there?

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.