Skip to content

Words new to me: болярин

August 1, 2019

I’m cheating a few years on the early end of the century this time. These are lines 61-64 of Derzhavin’s poem “The Grandee” (Вельможа, 1794):

Я князь — коль мой сияет дух;
Владелец — коль страстьми владею;
Болярин — коль за всех болею,
Царю, закону, церкви друг.

The gist of this part of the poem is that what matters is acting nobly rather than having the trappings of nobility. Lines 61-62 are something like “I am a prince if my spirit shines; a ruler, if I rule my passions.” Line 64 is “a friend to the tsar, the law, the church,” in apposition to the poet’s “I.” But I thought line 63 must be a typo, since it looked like “a rooter, if I root for everyone”—weird and anachronistic. And boliarin was awfully close to boiarin ‘boyar, nobleman whose nobility does not depend on his family’s service to the tsar,’ possibly corrupted by the phonetically similar boleiu.

But no—it turns out boliarin is a real word that means the same thing as boiarin and is in fact closer to the Old Church Slavic form болѩринъ. So the last two lines are “…a gentleman, if I feel compassion for everyone, a friend to the tsar, the law, the church.” What really struck me about the etymology, though, is something that’s obvious in hindsight: barin, the word serfs would use for their master, comes straight from boiarin, which by the nineteenth century was used in its original form and sense mainly to talk about pre-Petrine history.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: