Posted October 4, 2007
With buoyant Soviet ballyhoo and much galactic vaunting, Sputnik was launched on 4 October, 1957. It was the first artificial satellite. ‘Them there pesky Russkies’ had beaten the Americans to space, and paranoia held hourly parades through Washington for years afterward — until the Yankees beat the Russkies to the moon.
Here’s a brief note on the etymology of the Russian word sputnik, a note you will not find in the OED or anywhere else. There is even a common word in English related to the word sputnik.
Let’s begin with a bit of Russian word building.
a Russian word for road, course, path or way. Although it is news to the Oxford English Dictionary, poot is cognate with our English word path. They both probably stem from an Proto-Indo-European verbal root *pend ‘to go, to travel.’ Other modern etymologists suggest that English path may descend from the same PIE root as our word foot.
To that Slavic word for path, we will add the most common Russian agent-noun suffix, -nik. It’s like adding –er in English or –ator in Latin, as in the words traveler or gladiator. A traveler is one who travels; a gladiator is one who uses a Roman short sword called a gladius; a pootnik is one who uses a poot, that is, one who travels a path.
путник pootnik ‘wayfarer, traveler’
If we want to make a word that suggests the idea of people doing an activity together, we have many verbal ploys in Western languages. One of these is to add something to the word that means ‘together.’ A common way to do this in Latin is to put the preposition cum in front of the word. Cum means ‘with’ or ‘together with’ in Latin and in many, many words derived from Latin in European languages and English, words like incontinent, comfort, coitus, con brio, connaître, conquistador, convince and concierge.
Panis is the Latin word for bread. Someone who eats bread with you is thus your companion. He or she may even accompany you on the road. The prime meaning of accompany is ‘to go along with a companion.’ Russians can do the same thing. The Russian morpheme meaning ‘with’ is s or so (in the Cyrillic alphabet of modern Russian: c or co).
Adding that s as a prefix to pootnik, we get:
Спутник spootnik, sputnik ‘fellow traveller’
A special meaning of the word developed in Soviet astronomical nomenclature where a heavenly body associated with a larger celestial object like a planet could be a fellow traveler or — a satellite.
Another apparent newsflash to the Oxford English Dictionary is that the word sputnik is NOT a modern coinage. The word first appears, in the form supotiniku in an ancestor language of modern Russian, a language called in English: Old Church Slavonic. There it is used to translate a Greek word from the New Testament that means ‘companion on a journey.’
Later in Russian history, but before space exporation in the 1950s, the Russian word sputnik meaning “fellow traveller” came to be a term by which one member of the Communist Party referred to another member. The translation of this sense of sputnik entered English too, and in the United States during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the phrase fellow traveller became the label for any American citizen suspected of Communist sympathies. A “fellow traveler” was a pariah during the anticommunist witchhunts fomented by the Cold War and by the satanic schemings of the hysterically sick American senator from Wisconsin, the vile Joseph McCarthy and his diseased henchmen like Roy Cohn and Richard Nixon, legal vultures who perched at inquisitorial desks during HUAC meetings.
Slimes like Cohn and Nixon were naturally less in evidence later during the Army-McCarthy hearings which brought McCarthy’s evil reign of fear to an end, as the hate-perfused prairie shit-sack leaked and oozed and shrank into leprous ignominy live on television, so that all of America was forced to share their shame in having given birth to such a bullying monster. Not too long after his public disgrace, it is said McCarthy died of a broken heart. Sometimes there is divine justice. In truth, McCarthy fell dead with a splatt! on his linoleum floor because of sadness, sadness that he had no more young American lives to maim and destroy. I personally hope McCarthy is screaming in hell as burly Commie inquisitors ream his anus hourly with fiery pitchforks.
The word Sputnik introduced the Russian agent-noun suffic -nik into English and it blasted to instant popularity. There were even neat satirical takes on the word. Awhile after Sputnik, a satellite with a little dog, Laika, zoomed over the USSR. American reporters dubbed it Muttnik. A month later the US Navy's satellite launch failed miserably and it was labeled Kaputtnik!
One of the good, succinct definitions is in Merriam-Webster:
“ the alphabet based principally on the Greek uncials that was originally used for writing Old Church Slavonic and that in its modern form with minor variations among the different languages is the alphabet used for Russian and many other Slavic languages and for some non-Slavic languages of the Soviet Union.”
Brothers Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, monks from Thessaloniki, are usually credited with the alphabet's development. The brothers Cyril and Methodius were half-Bulgarians, half Greeks, who were born in Greece at the beginning of ninth century. It is now generally believed that they did not in fact create the Cyrllic alphabet, but did innovative work on an earlier alphabet which they called glagolitsa (from Bulgarian glagol – 'verb'). The Glagolitic letters represented better than any Roman alphabet unique Slavic words and pronunciations. The aim of their alphabet was to enable then new Slavic Christians and Slavonic peoples to understand the Christian Bible, until then largely available only in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
Russian is, of course, an Indo-European language and there are thousands upon thousands of Russian words that have distant relatives in English. Keep it in mind as you scan the skies and perhaps study a few Russian words.
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.)
Jenni French of San Fancisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word esssays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my new book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
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