Thank Your Babushka For These 8 Russian Loanwords In English


What comes to mind when we say Russia? For students of history, it might be Peter the Great. For literature lovers, it might be Dostoevsky. Political scientists might cite the Cold War. But, for word nerds, it’s the many words English owes to Russian. So, get in the know … with intelligensia.

The intelligentsia are “intellectuals considered as a group or class, especially as a cultural, social, or political elite.” Today, some might use this term of people rubbing elbows at cocktail parties in Manhattan where the guest list includes writers for The New Yorker, former ambassadors, and major donors to the MoMA.

English borrowed intelligentsia from the Russian intelligéntsia (from the same Latin root that gives us intelligence) in the late 1800s.

The Russian intelligéntsia were an influential group during a period of a great change in the country, leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, when workers overthrew Tsar Nicolas II and soon after established the communist Soviet Union.


Speaking of tsars, tsar may be more familiar to you as czar. Both are renderings of the Russian tsar, “emperor,” which ultimately goes back to the Latin Caesar, after the famed Roman leader.

Historically, a czar referred to “an emperor of Russia.” It also named “any emperor of king.”

Starting in the 1930s in the US, czar more specifically came to refer to “an expert appointed to oversee a policy in a particular area, e.g., drug czar.”


To keep warm in the Siberian tundra, don a parka, or a “fur coat, shirtlike and hooded, for wear in the arctic and other regions of extreme cold.”

Borrowed in English as early as the 1600s, parka comes via Russian párka from the language of the Nenets, a Uralic, reindeer-herding people in the far north of European Russia and surrounding areas.

Today, many use parka more generally to refer to “any heavy, hooded jacket for winter weather.”


As a break from the gripping cold or escape from the city, Russians may enjoy a weekend or summer stay at their dacha, a “Russian country house or villa.”

The term literally means “allotment of land” in Russian, as they were historically given by czars to the upper classes.

Today, some Russians have dachas in the suburbs; they are “small plots of land where they grow vegetables and other produce.”


A different abode that can be found on Russian land is the yurt. A yurt is “a tentlike dwelling of the Mongol and Turkic peoples of central Asia.”

Traditionally, it consists of a cylindrical wall of poles in a lattice arrangement with a conical roof or poles, both covered by felt or skins.

By the late 1700s, English borrowed yurt from the Russian yurta, which it in turn borrowed from a Turkic root meaning “home, dwelling.”

Now, people rent out modern yurts on Airbnb for unique getaways all around the world.


Get ready for your mind to be blown: There were some woolly mammoths still in existence when the Great Pyramid of Giza was being built.

The word mammoth (recorded in English in the 17th century) from a Russian word (now mámont) first referred to “remains of the magnificent elephant kin in Siberia.”

And, here’s another mind-blower: Thomas Jefferson (yes, that Thomas Jefferson) is currently credited with the first use of mammoth for “gigantic.” He was referring to a large wheel of cheese given to him.


Well, we can’t talk about Russian loanwords in English without talking about vodka, now can we?

While there are debates about the origins of vodka (“an unaged, colorless, distilled spirit”), there’s no doubt the word is rooted in the Russian vod(á), meaning “water.” In fact, the English word water is related to it.

There’s also no doubt that Russians boast the highest vodka consumption in the world. Za zdoróv’je! Cheers!


In Russian, you can address a grandmother or elderly woman more generally as babushka.

This word just feels like you’re getting a big, warm hug and a pinch on the cheeks, doesn’t it? In Russian, it combines bába (“older woman”) with –ushka, a diminutive suffix.

English borrowed babushka in the early 1800s, but about a century later, the word was also referring to a “a woman’s scarf, often triangular, used as a hood with two of the ends tied under the chin”—as older woman are associated with wearing in Russia.

Click to read more
Word of the Day

Can you guess the definition?


[ al-ee-oop ]

Can you guess the definition?

Word of the day

[ al-ee-oop ]

Redefine your inbox with!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.