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The official name of the letter X in the old Russian alphabet was хѣръ, which is how modern Russians call a dick.

The names of most other letters of the old Russian alphabet are understandable: азъ (I), буки (letter), вѣди (know), глаголь (speak), добро (good), etc.

What is the origin of the letter name хѣръ?


UPDATE: To ensure that everyone understand my question right, I want to emphasize that my question is about why the letter itself was called хѣръ, not about why it is nowadays an obscene word. I know that another obscene word starts with X and that people started using the letter name to refer to that word, so the letter name itself became an obscene word, too. The name for the letter was obviously chosen well before this name became an obscene word.


UPDATE 2: I am aware of the херувим hypothesis and strongly dislike it, for the old names of Russian letters are generally complete and are not abbreviations: живѣ́те, глаголь, мыслѣ́те. It is hard to imagine that the authors of the letter names abbreviated херувим, because this word has the same number of syllables as живѣ́те and мыслѣ́те, which were not abbreviated. Moreover, the very idea of the old names of Russian letters was to provide a complete word that starts with a given letter. Abbreviating a word to something unrecognizable is just contrary to the spirit of the old names of Russian letters. I thus strongly suspect that хѣръ had its own meaning understanable to at least a part of the Russians of that epoch. Some mysterious forgotten meaning. And my primary motivation to ask the question was to find that meaning.

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    It's the shortest question of this author! ))))) – Elena Jun 26 at 20:21
  • Please, do not improve it with more text. It's hard to break through longreads. It's a cultural peculiaity, but the Russian say "краткость - сестра таланта", and the Russian language, being rich and expressive, is precise and laconic. Just as the Russian people. Thanks for understanding. – Elena Jun 27 at 7:21
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    @Elena : If Russians value succinct writings, why do they enjoy "War and Peace"? :) – Mitsuko Jun 27 at 13:30
  • we cannot enjoy it daily. And it took the author 6 years to write it. Please, do not produce "War and peace"-s on daily basis at a Q&A resource. – Elena Jun 27 at 13:57
  • @Elena not anymore :) – Alexander Jun 27 at 17:19
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Actually nobody knows for sure. What we definitely know - it has nothing to do with obscene хер. Well, only in that sense that obscene "хер" might be a derivative from the letter as an euphemism of "хуй". It also sound similar to other derivative - хрен.

Even more - there's a totally non-obscene verb похерить which means to obliterate, to cancel out, figuratively - to lose something.

Here's a quote from wikipedia:

В старо- и церковнославянской азбуках носит название «хѣръ», смысл которого не ясен: считать его, как это часто делается, связанным со словом «херувим» затруднительно (последнее не содержало ятя, хотя в качестве фонетической адаптации мягких заднеязычных ять мог иногда появляться в заимствованиях, например, известны написания вроде Гѣръманъ)

One alternative definition we can find in Max Vasmer's famous dictionary:

Кроме того, допускают происхождение из греч. χαῖρε "привет тебе"

Keep in mind, however, that this dictionary is as much famous as in some aspects quite obsolete.

As a side note: while the majority of Cyrillic letters indeed have names that are basically valid Slavic words - even рцы - which is not that obvious for modern Russian speaker - still, there are some letters named not after any word - like цы for instance.

  • Thanks a lot. I was aware of the херувим hypothesis and strongly dislike it, for the old names of Russian letters are generally complete and are not abbreviations: живѣ́те, глаголь, мыслѣ́те. It is hard to imagine that the authors of the alphabet abbreviated херувим, because this word has the same number of syllables as живѣ́те and мыслѣ́те, which were not abbreviated. I am almost sure that хѣръ had ist own meaning in Old Russian. Some mysterious forgotten meaning. I asked my question because I want to find what that meaning was :) – Mitsuko Jun 26 at 20:49
  • @Mitsuko I've added yet another alternative version however I have to disappoint you - it's very unlikely it have anything to do with any Slavic root - it's not supported by any evidence. – shabunc Jun 26 at 20:52
  • My impression is that the very idea of such letter names was to provide a complete word that starts with a given letter. Abbreviating a word to something unrecognizable is just contrary to the spirit of the old names of Russian letters. – Mitsuko Jun 26 at 20:55
  • @Mitsuko i'm believe херувим is a Christian backronym, so to speak, for the letter's name, a name of no other letter comes from religious vocabulary, and its name might have had a meaning already in Old Slavonic where the letters names probably originate – Баян Купи-ка Jun 26 at 20:56
  • Concerning the letter цы, I found this: В церковно- и старославянской азбуках именуется «цы» (ц.-с.) или «ци» (с.-с.), смысл которых не совсем понятен. Его относят: к форме имен. пад. мн. ч. мужского рода «ции» — от «кыи» — относительного и вопросительного местоимения (который, какой); к древнерусскому союзу «ци» («или», «верно ли, что», «разве»), соответствующему украинскому современному «чи»; имеются и иные версии. So it may have been a Slavic word, too. – Mitsuko Jun 26 at 21:14
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The matter is that the letter Х is the first letter of the Russian obscene word, so the word was shortened in speech to just this letter called by its alphabetic name. So, хѣръ in this meaning was initially an abbreviation, then it became an euphemism, and only afterwards it came to being a synonym.

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    Thanks for the quick answer. My question is actually about why the letter itself was called хѣръ, not about why it is nowadays an obscene word. Maybe I was not clear enough in formulating my question. I will try to edit it to make it more clear. – Mitsuko Jun 26 at 20:20
  • Mitsuko, your question was clear. But I haven't found any information why the letter was called this word and what it denoted. I can only supppose that there was no proper word for this letter, and its sound [x] was completed with the name of ъ stressing the hardness of the sound [x]. Ъ was called ѣръ. – Elena Jun 26 at 20:22
  • Oh, this is a very interesting hypothesis and makes perfect sense! – Mitsuko Jun 26 at 21:35
  • Mitsuko, a clearer question is a paraphrased one, not enlarged. But your initial question was clear enough and not overburdened with extra words. It's ok if some people give not the answer you expected. They just share what they have. Just don't give them a "plus", or don't accept the answer as the best one, and that's all. A perfect clear question has not more than 5 lines. All the rest are a novel. Not a Q&A story. – Elena Jun 27 at 7:33
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If you look close how this letter was written in the Glagolitic script and what it resembles, you may have some theories about why it became such a euphemism.

But that is only my opinion. I haven't found any scientific proof. Take it as a weak hypothesis.

  • honestly, that's folk etymology, the word "хер" as less obscene counterpart of "хуй" didn't existed for centuries after Glagolitic was a thing of the past in Russia. – shabunc Jun 28 at 22:21

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