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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taking the Tractor to Church

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??????????: until the 14th century -- Christian; now -- peasant, farmer

Sometimes people send me questions, which in turn send me to my bookshelves, and then to my computer. Two "little" questions that I recently received sent me ripping through texts, dictionaries and online resources for two days -- and even now I'm not sure I've got all the answers. I have a feeling that there are about 10 books and 100 doctoral dissertations that I should have consulted.

So thank you very much for your questions, and please stop sending them.

The first question is: Are the words ?????????? (since the 14th century: peasant, farmer) and ?????????? (Christian) related, and if so, how did the meanings diverge? The answer seems to be that they are related, that in fact ?????????? first meant a Christian, with the spelling confused through the word ????? (cross). So how did a Christian mutate to become a peasant working the land? One scholar thinks that people in feudal Russia were identified with their titles, like ???? (boyar, nobleman), and that in addresses to the population and official documents, at the bottom of the list were entries like ? ?????? ????????? (and miscellaneous Christians). Since these miscellaneous Christians were the poor, untitled folk in villages, over time they became synonymous with "peasants."

The other question has to do with the mystery of ??????? (Slavs), ????? (praise, glory), ??????????? (Orthodoxy, literally "right praise," i.e., the proper way to worship God) and slave. ??????, ??????? -- ???????? (So are Slavs glorious?) Well, of course they are, but not etymologically.

The best guess seems to be that ??????? is derived from a Novgorod tribe called something like the ???????. Some etymologists want to believe that the name of that tribe is related to the word ????? (word), and meant something like "people who speak." This contrasts nicely with the old meaning of ????? (mute people), used to describe all those tribes to the West who couldn't speak "like us." Other etymologists roll their eyes at this.

So, is the English word slave derived from the word Slav? Sources like the Oxford English Dictionary insist that it is, since Slavs were taken as slaves in great numbers in the Middle Ages. Everyone cites the derivation from the Latin sclavus, and one Russian etymologist cites the spelling (or tribe) ???????? to support this theory.

But, operating from the position that it's good to have an opinion even if you don't know anything, I say: This is a crock. From the sixth to the 10th centuries, when all this slave-trading was booming, it's hard to believe that the poor souls from the East identified themselves as Slavs. They would have described themselves in terms of their tribes, which had names like ??????, ?????????, ???????, ?????, ???????, ??????, ???????, ????????, and ??????. I can't imagine that the slave traders in togas took the trouble to chat up a shipment of human chattel, figure out that there were some ??????? in the mix, and then said: Hmm, let's use that word to describe all these slaves that we've had for millennia.

But hey, what do I know?

Today in Russia if conversation veers to religion, people are most likely to say: ? ????????. This tends to get translated as I'm a believer, which drives me nuts, since no one has said that in English since the Monkees (and they weren't singing about the church). I vote for: I'm a Christian (Jew, Muslim, etc.), or in some contexts: I believe in God. Someone might also say ?? ???????????, which has the sense of being an observant Christian. Or: ??? ?????????????? (more often pronounced ??????????????), which in common parlance means someone who is church-going and strictly observant (literally "into the church").

And as far as all that Slav-slave mentality stuff goes, I say: ???? ???????! (What a load of crap!)

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