Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Russian Names: Oviches and Ovnas

Kit Plunkett wrote today about a problem many non-Russian readers of Russian novels run into.

Kit wrote: “Hello! I am currently reading “Dr. Zhivago” and I am struck with the ending ‘vich’ at the end of proper names. My question is: What does it mean? Is it as simple as a common ending of a name, a ‘traditional’ form of saying “of” (as in the Irish ‘O’, ‘Mc’, ‘Mac’ meanig “Of”) or a term of endearment by gender? I’ve researched different sites on the Web and can’t seem to find any answer. Thanks in advance for insight you may have.

Kit, you are on the right track. These names are always middle names or “patronymics”. Russians are given only their first name. Their second name is the first name of their father plus the suffix -ovich (sometimes -evich) if they are males and -ovna (sometimes -evna) if they are female. Boris Ivanovich is Boris, the son of Ivan, and Marisa Borisovna is Marisa, the daughter of Boris.

Now, since their last name is the last name of their fathers, they are only given their first name. However, Russians who are members of the Russian Orthodox Church don’t even choose their first name. The Church publishes a calendar on which each day is associated with two or more saints (minimally one male and one female). If you are a true believer (and orthodox means “true belief”), your first name will be that of a saint associated with the day you were born.

Up until World War II, Russian Christians celebrated their “Name Day” rather than birthday, since they day of the birth gave them their name. Some Russians still refer to their birthday as their “name day”.

The suffixes -ovich and -ovna are combinations of -ov “of” (as you surmised) plus a suffix indicating something little, hence Ivan Borisovich would have meant centuries ago, Ivan the little one of Boris”. Today, no one has any sense of the historical meaning of these suffixes. In fact, the -ov- is seldom even pronounced. Ivan Borisovich is pronounced Ivan Borisich.

7 Responses to “Russian Names: Oviches and Ovnas”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    I’d just like to point out that “mac” is actually the Gaelic word for “son”. Surnames in mac- are followed by the genitive form of the name, so “MacNiall” is “son of Niall”.

  2. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    I’ve often wondered what patronymics Russian prostitutes give their children since at times they might now know who the father of the child is.


  3. rbeard Says:

    Hmmm. Where would we find that sort of information?

  4. Stargzer Says:

    That reminds me of an old Cold-War-era one-liner:

    “Did you hear the one about the three Russians: Papavitch, Mammavitch, and Sonofavitch?”

    Thinking about it just now I realize it can be refined a bit:

    “Did you hear the one about Goldilocks and the Three Russian Bears: Papavitch, Mammavitch, and Sonofavitch?”

    Let’s see now, that would make a sonofavitch a grandson?

    Yeah, I know; I should probably be working for the Ministry of Propaganda.

    (“That silly old goose was a right propaganda.”)

  5. Kevin Says:

    Luciano (#2) — Maybe “Ochestvovich” (Fatherson?) Just joking, I’m not a Russian speaker. But “Barabbas” (criminal released instead of Jesus according to the Gospels) means “son of a father” (bar-abba) in Aramaic and probably was a derogatory name for someone who was illegitimate.

  6. rbeard Says:

    The three bears joke was pretty good. But it is pretty easy to make jokes from the sound of Russian names in English (Putin is a joke itself in English). The name of one of the great linguists of my era is Jackendoff. But we don’t go there on this website. The media are having a field day noticing that Bernie Madoff made off with 60 or so billion dollars. Didn’t anyone wonder about the guy’s name for 25 years? You don’t get clues like that very often.

  7. Vita Oxenrider Says:

    Thanks, that wasreally interesting. I was born in Moscow in 1975 but my parents fled the country and came here to England. To be honest, I didnt really care much about my russian heritage until my mum died recently, now I’ve been trying to find out as much as I possibly can. Seemed like food culture was as good a place as any to start from! You dont generally hear much about russian cuisine do you? Anyway, I found a a good russian recipe site here that other readers might be interested in too.

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