Zoological Bynames in Medieval Russia

By Paul Wickenden of Thanet

A popular medieval and SCA naming practice is the use of zoological bynames, that is, using the name of an animal as a surname or descriptive element. While the popularity of the practice in the SCA is probably attributable to fantasy novels, the frequency of the practice in medieval Russia had several explanations.

First of all, animal names were sometimes given to children as given names. As such, the children's offspring would bear a patronymic based on the father's given name that would be completely indistinguishable from the zoological byname. Put in more simpler terms, did the Ivan Orlov mean "John, son of Orel" or "John the Eagle?" Without a pedigree, it is impossible to know and (thankfully) completely unimportant to us as reenactors. Both possibilities were reasonable.

Another explanation is that a person might name themselves after an animal that they worked closely with. Iurii Golubev ("George the Pigeon") might be a breeder of pigeons. However, there were also plenty of occupational bynames that described animal husbandry, so this is less likely. A more probable reason to bear a zoological byname is because of one's desire to invoke the animal in question (Ivan Orlov might see the eagle as a strong animal and wish to claim such strengths for himself).

In this article, I have assembled a list of zoological bynames. The list was started off of the surnames listed by Boris Unbegaun in his Russian Surnames and amended to as I found names that Unbegaun had not included. My highest priority was to find dated references to the actual bynames in period. To do this, I simply used the third edition of my Dictionary of Period Russian Names. When that proved to be impossible, I tried to find the bird's name in use as a given name (after all, if it was used as a given name, it could turned into a patronymic as well). If neither of these options worked, I turned to dictionaries of period Russian. Beginning with Sreznevskii's Slovar' drevnerusskogo iazyka (the modest Russian equivalent of the OED), I searched for period references to the bird's name. While this would not prove that the bird's name was used as an anthroponym, the SCA currently does not require proof of this for registering names. Where Sreznevskii failed me, I pulled out the 23 volume (and growing) Russian Academy of Sciences's Slovar' russkogo iazyka. While this monstrousity only goes up to "skoryi" so far (and it tends to focus on 17th century sources), it is pretty safe to say that it is the dictionary to end all dictionaries.

Table of Contents

Birds -- Mammals -- Insects -- Fish -- Other Animals and Monsters -- Conclusions


Unbegaun (186) explains that the most common zoological bynames in Russian are based on the names of birds. Of the most 100 most common surnames, nine of them are based on the names of birds. And while he is speaking of modern naming practices, it is readily apparent that bird names were common in period as well.

Here are the bird names that can be positively identified as being used in period as bynames (with the page from Wickenden that they came from):

And then there are the bird names that could only be documented as given names found in Wickenden. I have listed them here with the probable byname that would result from the given name and the documentation for the given name:

Finally, there are the bird names that I could only find in dictionaries. Here, the difficulties are enormous. For example, Sreznevskii [Sre] provided virtually no direct help at all. I could not find kuropatka (partridge), but was able to find kuroptina (partridge meat) dated to the 16th century. Obviously, if partridge meat is period, so is the bird, but in what spelling? The word kuropatka turns out to be post-period (see below) so the modern byname from that word (Kuropatkin) probably is as well. A similar problem occurred with the modern word, lastochka (swallow) from which the surname Lastochkin is derived. It also turns out to be post-period. Two period variations of the word (lastovitsa and lastun), however, exist. These could be theoretically used to create bynames. The Academy of Sciences opus [SRIa] was somewhat (but only slightly) more helpful. The rather meagre results are the following bynames that could be constructed from period words:

Non-Period Bird Names. Far more interesting (for a herald or an onomast, but probably not to someone trying to document a name) were the large number of fairly common birds whose names turned out to be post-period (or, at least, whose names could be documented only to post-period). While some of these bird names have period alternatives (e.g., cuckoo, swallow, partridge, etc.) mentioned above, their most common modern forms turn out not to be period, and thus so do the bynames constructed from them. A partial list of surnames found in Unbegaun that cannot be dated to period:

A Note On Pigeon Breeds. Unbegaun (190) adds that his list was only the beginning of bird names. There were a series of names specifically for pigeon breeders that described salient features of the pigeons that they bred ("white-wing," "red-feather," etc.). Many of these names are period as the following list of such surnames (taken from Wickenden) shows:

And again, there are several given names found in Wickenden that could be used to create bynames, including:

It is theoretically possible to mix and match colors and body parts, of course, creating dozens of additional byname possibilities. Of course, it is likely that the these bynames described other animals' (and even human) traits. Names like "white-beard" (Beloborod), for example, probably do not describe birds!


Mammals provide the second largest family of zoological bynames found in Russia. They too were quite common in period. Here are bynames from Unbegaun (189) that are also found and dated as period in Wickenden:

Again, there are a number of additional patronymics that can be constructed from period given names found in Wickenden:

As for animal names found in period dictionaries, the results are thin and revealing at the same time:

Non-Period Mammal Names. The list of names from Unbegaun's list that turn out to be out of period is quite small and limited to only two that could be found. The first is a variant spelling of lonshchak {Lonshakov (from lonshak, 1682) [SRIa VIII:282]} and the second is the hunting hound {Vyzhletsev (from vyzhlets, 17th century) [SRIa III: 204]} which probably was a late import. However, many more names from Unbegaun's list could simply not be dated at all.


In terms of relative frequency, names based on insects come fairly down the line. Obviously, the relative merits of being named after a bug are less than the more romantic birds and mammals. However, quite a few of the names on Unbegaun's list (191) can be found in Wickenden as period bynames:

And there are two bynames which can be constructed from given names found in Wickenden: Ant {Murashov (from Murash, 1603) [224]} and Drone {Trutnev (from Truten', 1498) [373]*}. The dictionaries were unable to document any additional names as period.

Non-Period Insect Names. Two of the names in Unbegaun's list turn out to be out of period: Gadfly {Pautov (from paut, 16th-17th centuries) [SRIa XIV: 174]} and Locust {Saranchin (from sarancha)}. While latter are indeed Biblical, the first mention of locusts in the Russian language in the spelling that spawned the modern surname (Saranchin) is dated to 1650 [SRIa XXIII: 64].


Fish are, according to Unbegaun (190) among the rarest sources for zoological names. While they do not appear in any great frequency, they do appear in some variety, as this list of bynames from Wickenden will attest:

There are three more bynames that can be documented through given names found in Wickenden: Carp {Sazanov (from Sazan, 1624) [308]}; Eel {Ugrev (from Ugor', 1570-85) [379]}; and Sturgeon {Sevriugin (from Sevriuga, 1623 [314]}.

Names of four types of fish found in Unbegaun's list (but not documented above) could be found in the dictionaries:

Non-Period Fish Names. Only one name on Unbegaun's list could be found and dated OOP: Burbot {Nalimov (from nalim, 1678) [SRIa X: 135]}.

Other Animals and Monsters

Unbegaun (191) ends his list with a series of surnames based on reptiles, mollusks, and other fauna. And while he does not include a special section for them, I will include a brief mention of monsters and fictional animals here as well. To begin, we have the names of three animals from Unbegaun's list that can be found in Wickenden as bynames: Crayfish {Rakov (1594-7) [292]}; Snake {Zmeev (1566) [424]}; and Snake, runner {Polozov (1592-3) [274]}.

The following additional three names can be documented through given names found in Wickenden: Sponge {Gubkin (from Gubka, 1594) [109]*}; Tortoise {Cherepakhin (from Cherepakha, 1612) [51]}; and Worm {Cherviakov (from Cherviak, 1585) [53]*}.

Finally, the dictionaries were able to help us document Lizard {Iashcheritsyn (from iashcheritsa, 16th century) [Sre III: 1676]}.

Monsters and Fictional Animals. There is little or no indication that Russians named themselves after monsters or fictional animals in period. No names based upon such motifs appear in Wickenden (as given names or bynames). Few of the monsters that are common in SCA onomastics even appear to be period (grifon, troll', etc.). The following three monster names can be dated to period in dictionaries: Demon {(demon, 11th century) [Sre I: 793]}; Dragon {(drakon, end of 16th century) [Sre I: 720]}; and Unicorn (edinorozh'ts, 16th century) [Sre I: 814]}. But there is nothing to indicate that they could be used as bynames.


What can be observed about period Russian zoological bynames in general? They appear fairly commonly in lists of period names. While not nearly as common as patronymics and patronymic-based surnames, they are frequent enough. Again, there are many reasons for their appearance and thus they cannot be described exclusively as descriptive, occupational, or some other sort of byname. Finally, they tend to be rather pedestrian -- people were named after common animals. More exotic animal names (tiger, leopard, elephant, etc.) were much less likely to be used.

Some additional notes:

1) Because of the rather unique category of names that the ones listed here fall into, I have identified them as "bynames." As noted, some of them may be patronymics, which others could be true surnames. As surnames, however, are rare in period, it seems unlikely that a majority of the names listed here are surnames. Determining which are and which are not, however, is not a terribly productive enterprise. Therefore, labeling them all as "bynames" (unless otherwise pre-determined) seemed the wisest approach.

2) Throughout this article, I have only provided masculine versions of the bynames. For the most part, these are all "Type I" bynames, so they can be feminized by adding "-a" on the end. For those unfamiliar with Russian byname construction, I would refer you to the more thorough discussion in Wickenden.

3) The reader will note a number of names with asterixes (*) next to them. These are guilty confessions. They are names which have been misidentified within Wickenden for one reason or another. In some cases, they have been placed in the wrong location, while in others their definitions have been incorrectly given. In general, in cases of dispute between the third edition (2000) of Wickenden and this article, this article is more accurate and up-to-date. (sigh!)


Akademiia nauk SSSR/Rossisskaia akademiia nauk. Slovar' russkogo iazyka [SRIa]. Moscow: Nauka, 1975-1999+. Twenty-three+ volumes.

Sreznevskii, I. I. Slovar' drevnerusskogo iazyka, Reprintnoe izdanie [Sre]. Moscow: Kniga, 1989/1893. Three volumes.

Unbegaun, B. O. Russian Surnames. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Wickenden of Thanet, Paul. Dictionary of Period Russian Names, Third Edition. Normal IL: Free Trumpet Press West, 2000/1996/1994.

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