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In pre-prevoluationary times in Russian gymnasiums there was a 12-level grade system. In Soviet Union, as well as in Russian Federation, schools stand with 5-level grade system, but there is an actively discussed proposal to switch to 10-level system.

There is a special term for a pupil who gets only fives - отличник. Lisa Simpson is a referenсе example of отличник:) While thinking of how we should call a pupil who gets only tens ("десятник" may be?), I've realised that I can not recall whether there was a special term for those assiduous children who got only twelves.

So, the question is: Is there a separate word relevant for tsarist period gymnasium student, similar to modern "отличник"?

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    отличник is a student who gets the best grades. It does not matter what grade system is used (as long as there are better and worse grades, of course).
    – Giedrius
    Mar 20 '16 at 0:38
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Work in progress.

Many noted that the word отличник has nothing to do with the grade system, and it was indeed used before the Revolution. While corporal data from both National Corpus and Google shows the usage take off around 1930, one does not have to dig deep to find pre-revolutionary examples of this word. Толковый словарь живаго великарускаго языка (Dahl’s Explanatory Dictionary, 2nd ed., Volume II, 1881, p. 761) has this entry:

definition of “отличник”

It would be interesting to see if first edition (1863—1866) had this definition, and what other words could have been used. If I am to find more, I shall add to this post, time permitting.

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  • thank you for this answer! As we can see from this definition word "отличник" had somewhat broader meaning.
    – shabunc
    Feb 3 '13 at 16:36
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There are four verbal grade levels:

  • Неудовлетворительно (неуд) - Unsatisfactory,
  • Удовлетворительно (уд) - Satisfactory,
  • Хорошо (хор) - Good,
  • Отлично (отл) - Excellent.

These days they correspond to numbers two through five, inclusive, but regardless of the grade scale, "отлично" applies to the highest grade. As a consequence, the word "отличник" describes someone who gets the highest grades.

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  • please note that the question is about how it've been in pre-1917 Russia, not these days )
    – shabunc
    Dec 27 '12 at 2:43
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    @shabunc I am reasonably certain that it was that way before the revolution: for example, Vladimir Lenin is routinely described as "отличник", even though he has certainly graduated from his gymnasium well before the revolution. Dec 27 '12 at 2:50
  • while I admit this is quite possible, I nevertheless have some doubts. Lenin indeed called отличник, but this is a part of Soviet propaganda. And Soviet propaganda could use some modern vocabulary. Can you quote anything from tsarist period?
    – shabunc
    Dec 27 '12 at 6:46
  • @shabunc This is from autobiographic novel "Серебряный Герб" by Korney Chukovsky, describing the times when he attended a gymnasium in Odessa: "в три-четыре месяца [Маруся] превращала в отличников самых отсталых школяров." I do not know when exactly the novel has been written, but it is set in the mid-nineties of the 1800s. Dec 27 '12 at 14:31
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    @dasblinkenlight: the first mention in the corpus is from 1923.
    – Quassnoi
    Dec 27 '12 at 19:06
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Word "отличник" is not linked with any decimal mark and means only "the best result".

So, person who always gets 10 from 10 is отличник too.

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    please, provide some examples of usage of this term in tsarist Russia, since the question is exactly about that period.
    – shabunc
    Dec 27 '12 at 2:44
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In his book Лев Кассиль describes introduction of verbal marks in such way:

В учительской повесили новый портрет: волосы ершиком, отвороченные уголки стоячего воротничка, как крылышки херувима... Александр Федорович Керенский.

На специальном молебне учителя присягали Временному правительству. Общую молитву всех классов отменили. По утрам, перед уроками, стали читать прямо в классе коротенькую молитву. Затем либеральный новый директор решился на смелый шаг: он отменил отметки.

Отныне учителя не ставили в наши дневники и тетради единиц и пятерок. Вместо единицы писалось "плохо", вместо двойки - "неудовлетворительно". Тройку заменяло "удовлетворительно". "Хорошо" означало прежнюю четверку, а "отлично" стоило пятерки. Потом, чтобы не утратить прежних "плюсов" и "минусов", стали писать "очень хорошо", "не вполне удовлетворительно", "почти отлично" и так далее. А латинист Тараканиус, очень недовольный реформой, поставил однажды Биндюгу за письменную уже нечто необъяснимое: "совсем плохо с двумя минусами". Так и за четверть вывел.

So, accrding to Kassil, such marks were introduced in his gymnasium in 1917 and before that time they had "numeric" marks.

Though it does not answer on what was the word for "отличник", but nevertheless tells about "хорошист" - looks like such term could not be produced from verbal marks before 1917.

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Is there a separate word relevant for tsarist period gymnasium student, similar to modern "отличник"?

My answer is No. There wasn't a single grading system in Tsarist Russia such as 1-5 in Soviet times. There were many different academic grading approaches, as it is described here:

В начале второй половины XIXвека в России в разных типах средних учебных заведениях параллельно сосуществовали пятибалльная и 12-балльная системы оценок. Кроме того, в начальной школе, учительских учебных заведениях, некоторых новаторских средних школах баллов вообще не было (например, в гимназиях Гавловского, Спешневой, Оболенской, позднее – Стюининой в Петербурге, некоторых других) [12]. В разных учебных заведениях и в разных странах использовали двухбалльную (зачтено, не зачтено), 60- балльную, 100-балльную системы. В некоторых случаях вместо цифровых баллов использовали сжатые ("отлично", "хорошо", "удовлетворительно", "неудовлетворительно", "абсолютно неудовлетворительно" или "плохо") или развернутые словесные характеристики. Во французской школе практиковалось установление определенного рейтинга среди учеников: первый ученик класса или по какому-то предмету; второй, третий.… В ряде заграничных католических женских школах для привлечения учениц использовали разные ленты, жетоны. А в десятках российских школах существовали красные и черные доски уважения и унижения фамилий лучших и худших учеников. Таким образом, во времена, когда в Петербургском педагогическом товариществе происходила дискуссия о школьной оценке, однозначных взглядов на нее ни мировая педагогическая теория, ни школьная практика не произвели.

Apparently, grading was and still is a subject of discussion, and many different approaches were tried during the past 200 years.

Also see Education and the State in Tsarist Russia By Patrick L. Alston here, which states that the Ministry of Education installed "ballovaya systema" with grades 1 through 5 throighout the empire, and that in conversation the teachers would call students: a "two", a "three" or a "five".

So, it doesn't seem to be true to say that Russian had 1-12 grading system, and that there was a word for pupils getting 12. If anything there was a familiar 1-5 "ball" system, or a variety of different systems, and there was unlikely a common name of the best students.

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This word's origin is "отличие". That means "different from others" (the word itself, not the origin, has positive meaning referring the student).
It has nothing to do with the grade system.
However, there is another word "пятерочник". This one describes a student that gets "fives".
For the 5-grade system there are other words for students who usually get:

  • 2: двоечник
  • 3: троечник
  • 4: четверочник (less commonly used), more common form: "хорошист" (as suggested by @КуЪ)
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  • though "отличник" has, no doubt, other meanings, it nevertheless have this very meaning as well - it is exactly about "пятёрочник" ))) If one get only twos, no one will call him отличник) So, you are wrong )
    – shabunc
    Dec 26 '12 at 9:25
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    In Ukrainian schools there is also a 12-level grade system now. They call a pupil "отличник" if most or all of the pupil's grades are no less then 10. But that's definitely a contemporary system
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 26 '12 at 9:50
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    @shabunc : by the way here there is a meaning not about the studies at all Отличник производства. Отличник боевой и политической подготовки. : dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/mas/40273/…
    – lvil
    Dec 26 '12 at 10:05
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    On a sidenote, universities still use word-based grades: "неудовлетворительно", "удовлетворительно", "хорошо", "отлично". I'm not sure of the origin, but this may actually be a point-zero for "отличник".
    – Lyth
    Dec 26 '12 at 10:52
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    Say 'hello!' to "хорошист" and forget about "четвёрочник".
    – КуЪ
    Dec 26 '12 at 11:04

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