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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Having a Sense of Just What's in a Name

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'?? (pronounced FEE-O); abbreviation for surname, first name, patronymic

What's in a name? In Russian -- a heck of a lot. Everyone has a lot of them, and they change all the time. This name thing is what defeats English-speaking readers of the Great Russian Novels, despite translators' meticulous lists of characters with all the possible versions of their names. And this name thing is what often defeats us foreign Russian speakers, who, despite our best efforts, muddy patronymics, mangle their declensions, and muck up our attempts at endearing nicknames.

Our bewilderment is somewhat bewildering. Why should we be confused by a plethora of names when we come from cultures that have names like Wilbur Henry Morgan Johnson Phillips Junior, who is known to family and friends as Buffy?

A brief historical digression: As far as written texts reveal, Russians have used some variety of ???????? (patronymic) for over a thousand years. They were first usually written ?????? ??? ??????? (Nikola son [of] Lazar), and then ?????? ??????? ??? (Nikola, Lazar's son). Sometimes the patronymic was a matronymic: ???? ????????? (Oleg, son of Nastasya), or sometimes the grandfather's or other ancestor's name was used alone or in succession. Surnames (???????) appeared much later, and until the 19th century -- and in some instances, until into the 20th -- the forms of names and how they were combined were not standardized.

Today names are blessedly standardized, if devilishly varied. If you want to find out someone's name, you simply ask: ??? ??? ?????? (literally, what are you called?) If you want to be polite, you should ask ??? ???? ??? ? ???????? (What is your name and patronymic?) Russians often elide the syllables, so that ????????? ????????????? comes out ??? ?????. As a sign of affection or respect -- sometimes jocular -- they might address someone by patronymic alone: ?????. Alas, we foreigners can almost never get this right in sound, tone, or setting. Best to spit out ???????????? syllable by syllable, even if you have to practice ahead of time.

Sometimes you will be asked ??? ? ??? ??????????? (What should I call you?) Polite Russians find it too formal to call you ???????? ???? (Mr. Smith), but they can't switch to a palsy first name without your permission. You can say: ????? ?? ????? (You can just use my first name.)

The whole package of ???-????????-??????? is called ?????? ??? (full name), and on forms it is abbreviated '??, with your surname coming first. If you are out of school, in most cases you should address someone by name and patronymic, unless told otherwise. The under-20 set is almost always addressed by first name alone, and the sub-teen set is almost always addressed by a diminutive (?????????????? ?????).

So when you are introduced to six-year-old '????, you should call him '???. If Fedya does something nice, like bring you a half-melted chocolate bar, for example, you can use an endearing form of his name (???????????? ?????) like '???????. But if the little rat puts the melted chocolate in your pocket, you can call him '????? or '?????.

In general, short nicknames that end in -?? or -?? are rather pejorative and express displeasure. This is, on the one hand, extremely efficient. You don't have to waste words and rant: ????? ?? ??????????? ???????! (What a bad little boy you are!). You can just choose the right nickname and he'll get the message.

On the other hand, depending on the context, '????? might also be used as an endearment. My rule is: If there are zillions of syllables, it's endearing (??????????, ????????, ?????, ???????). If it's short and ends in -?? -- listen to what everyone else calls the person and pay attention to tone of voice.

You don't want to be aiming for romance and end up castigating the object of your desires.

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