Sunday, 26 July 2015

Belarus Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time to cast my net a little wider. This time Belarus and a look at some of its largest settlements and most interesting names and starting with the capital city of Minsk.

Minsk is first recorded in an 11th century text written in Old East Slavic as Mensk. Later we find Miensk and Minsk, all of which are derived from the river name of Men. Despite a number of theories, the origin of the river name remains unknown.

Dzyarzhynsk had formerly been called Koidanova, Kojdanau, and Koidanov, until renamed in June 1932 in honour of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a famous Bolshevik and chief of the Soviet secret police, he being born near the city.

Zaslawye was founded in AD 985 by Valdimir the Great. He left his wife Rogneda and son Izyaslav of Polotsk here while on his travels, his son giving the place its name.

Krupki is one of those names where the grammar is not clear. Hence the origin is known although the meaning could either be interpreted as '(where) grain is ground' or more likely 'the grain mill'.

Vitebsk has developed around the harbour on the Vitba River. Clearly the river has given the city its name although the origin of the river name is unknown.

Orsha is another city in Belarus once named after its river. However here we not only know the city's earlier name of Rsha but also know the Rsha River is derived from a Baltic root word rus meaning 'flowing slowly'. The modern form simply a variation on the original.

Navapolatsk is close to the city of Polatsk and means 'new Polatsk'. The town was established as recently as 1958, by those from the following city.

Polotsk is another which takes its name from the local river. The Polota River is an Old East Slavic name, meaning 'falling into' this describes its confluence with the Dvina River.

Lepel's origins are confused for it is unclear as to even which language the name comes from. Perhaps this is lepene and thus 'the lake between the groves of lime trees'; or maybe this is from the Belarusian for 'where advanced pottery is made' or even the boast that it is 'the best place to live'. Three very different meanings from three well-nigh identical words showing how difficult defining a place name can be.

Dubrovna is an ancient name, one coming from the Proto-Slavic term for a 'forest of oak trees' - this is recognised by the inclusion of the leaves and fruit of this tree in the coat of arms.

Dokshytsy is first recorded in the early fifteenth century and is named for the many tributaries or doxyczahe in this area.

Grodno derives its name from the Old East Slavic gorodit meaning 'to fence in' or 'to enclose'.

Ashmyany once stood on land held by Lithuania, with its name coming from the river. Hence the Oshmianka River gave the town its name, although then it was the Asmena River from akumo meaning 'stone'. Note the modern version is the plural.

Navahrudak was founded around the 11th century, the name possibly having the same origins as Novogorodok or 'the new little town' as it is listed in the middle of the 13th century.

Slonim is mentioned as such in 1252, with alternative versions as Uslonim and Vslonim. It is thought to come from the Slavic zaslona meaning 'a screen', this pointing to it being a southern outpost of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Occasionally there are suggestions of this coming from slon, although nobody really thinks the place names comes from the Polish word for 'elephant'.

Lida is another place name taken from its local river. Here the Lidzeya literally means 'to fuse' or 'to cast' but in this context is a pointer to a forest clearing.

Babruysk shares an origin with the Babruyka River in likely coming from Belarusian babyor meaning 'beaver'. Pollution and hunting has meant neither the city nor the river have seen a beaver in its natural habitat for more than 150 years.

Vawkavysk is traditionally held to originate from the local dialect where wolkow isk means 'searching for wolves' or wolkow wisk meaning 'the howling of wolves' with the river named before the town. This traditional relies on the name being an ancient one and given to the territory before the river or the settlement. Hence toponymists give a much later origin, one based on a single manuscript dating from somewhere around 1600. It tells of this being an area of great forest through which weaved the Nietupa River, giving travellers the problem of having to weave along narrow paths to either cross or avoid it. The forest also contained a cabin, this the home of Voloko and Visek, two robbers preying on every traveller passing through the forest. When one Prince Vladislav Zabeyko heard of these attacks he set out to find and kill these men. While the bodies of the men hung from a nearby tree to be fed on by the local birds, the first buildings of the new settlement were built on the site of the robbers' cabin. When all trace of the two bodies had vanished a large stone was placed there to warn others of the vengeance meted out to anyone who dared to use the forest for criminal purposes. This stone later incorporated in the building of the temple.

To find such a story as that behind the apparent origins of Vawkavysk promoted by toponymists is almost shocking. Indeed we would expect this to be the traditional tale. Note this narrative is from a single document, is from a much later date than most place names, and the absolute proof comes from the river. While the Nietupa River provided an apparent barrier to travellers in the sixteenth century, there is no major river here today, nor any water course which might prove difficult to cross.

Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.

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