I read the following in a poem published in 1769:

Два въ бабки мальчика играли:

За бабки заорали:

Къ войнѣ за бабки собрались,

И подрались.

These lines initially made no sense to me, but then I learned that the word "бабки," whose primary meaning is "grannies," is also a slang for money, so the poem started making sense to me: it became apparent to me that two boys were playing some game for money and ended up shouting and fighting.

But I got very much confused by the preposition choice in the first line: the preposition is в, not на, so the line reads as "two boys were playing money," as if money were the game name.

Being curious as to why Russians refer to money as бабки, I did research, but found only rather folk etymology articles like this one, in which three different hypotheses are put forward.

Interestingly, the third hypothesis, which is called unpopular by the author, is related to the extinct game that was called бабки and was played for money. The article says that in that game, hoof bones were used and called бабки. I instantly saw possible relevance to the above poem.

But I am still very much confused about all this and overwhelmed by my chaotic thoughts. I am very unsure about the meaning of "за бабки заорали" and "къ войнѣ за бабки собрались." I want to know everything: meaning of the above poem excerpt, etymology of бабки as money, etymology of бабки as hoof bones, and, after all, what all this has to do with grannies. I humbly hope that Russians can explain me everything in a proper systematic way in which Russians like to explain things.

I do not know how to formulate my question in a concise way, but let me try.

My question is this: From the etymological standpoint, why do Russians use the slang "бабки" (grannies) to refer to money and hoof bones, and what do "бабки" mean in the above poem excerpt?

I am especially interested to see serious evidence rather than folk etymology arguments.

  • 10
    I am quite sure that 1769's poem talks about the game of "babki" rather than money.
    – Alexander
    Aug 16, 2019 at 6:46
  • First of all, I agree with Alexander: the word definitely just refers to the game. Second, just to increase confusion, the word "орать" used to mean "to plough" instead of "to yell", though it's hard to see whether it applies here. Aug 19, 2019 at 3:30
  • In the game of бабки, the prize for the winner was not the money which didn't actually take part in the game, but the бабки themselves, those hoof bones, which did have their monetary value and could be bought and sold, like the marbles in the American children's game. So the boys were shouting at each other and fought, that's had a "war", which word was surely used in its figurative sense.
    – Yellow Sky
    Aug 19, 2019 at 16:24

3 Answers 3


Here's a source: https://histrf.ru/biblioteka/b/pochiemu-dienghi-stali-nazyvat-babkami - claiming it comes from an informal name for the first 100-rouble banknote picturing Catherine the Great who was the grandmother of two Russian tsars (Alexander I and Nicholas I). That banknote was informally called (along with earlier given names like Катенька and Катеринка) царская бабка (tsarist granny), later simplified to бабка (old lady) considering the age of the pictured Catherine. Later on that name started being used for any banknote and then for any money which is plural in Russian (бабки).

  • I'm not surprised. I expected an "old lady" on some old banknote as explanation. Identifying a piece, banknote or money in general with a certain person is quite common, e.g., luca (Chile), selma (Sweden), Pavarotti (Australia, somewhat different), Winston (UK), Benjamin (US) (see). The last step isn't very far either. Whether it's true, is another question. Aug 16, 2019 at 18:32
  • The timing is interesting. Catherine became empress in 1762, created the bank in 1768 (source en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ), and printed the first assignation roubles in 1769 - the same year as Sumarokov poem, but the paper money did not have picture yet. (Source: ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ) could the poem be mocking her paper money anyway? Aug 17, 2019 at 11:20
  • The source just puts a hypothesis forward in a very authorative way, not providing any evidence. I do not see how this article is different from numerous folk etymology articles I found on the Internet. The hypothesis mentioned in your answer is explicitly mentioned in the article referenced to in my post. To me, it is just a hypothesis unless I see compelling evidence.
    – Mitsuko
    Aug 19, 2019 at 10:33
  • Here's a more detailed investigation attempt with the same conclusion: hauptpostamt.blogspot.com/2008/11/blog-post_07.html
    – Alex_ander
    Aug 19, 2019 at 12:39


Встречаются следующие варианты этимологии слова "бабки":

  1. Это слово связано со старинной игрой в бабки, в которой одной костью выбивают из круга другие кости, расставленные определенным образом;
  2. Это слово пришло из французского языка, "battre monnaie" буквально "чеканить монету";
  3. Это слово пришло из идиш, а в идиш слово "бабки" попало из польского. Польское слово "bobki" означает "козье г...о". У польских и немецких евреев была поговорка – "это не стоит козьего г…а (bobki)". Так они говорили про никудышных людишек. Так они говорили про некачественные вещи. Так они начали говорить про бумажные деньги, которые постоянно съедала инфляция. С течением времени из целой поговорки просто вычленилось одно слово и евреи просто начали называть бумажные деньги – "бабками".

Но мне больше нравится следующий вариант, что слово "бабки" связано с изображением женщин на старых царских бумажных деньгах Российской империи, в частности - 5, 10 и 25 рублях 1895 года выпуска. На них, в центре основное изображение: женская фигура, символизирующая Россию, в богатой княжеской одежде и шапке Мономаха. Вот из-за этого и назвали бумажные деньги "бабками"!




There two words "баба":

1) Оne - with stress on first syllable, russian one . Ment totem for ansestors, then bacame designation of oldest woman in family, then just low-classed married woman, than all the female-realted meanings it has now.

2) Other - with stress on second syllable, imported form east, meant "father", head, large stone totem (it means that this is just different way of development of same word). Exactly this meaning is used in "ромовая баба" (has nothing to do with women or alcohole, means smth. like "sweetened head"), for example.

By time second word in Russian totaly merged with fist one. Especialy in diminutive ("бабка") форм. It means "бабки" can mean both - old women and (totaly unreleted to women ) some small head-alike (or scull alike) things. Exactly last meaning is used in name of game ("играть в бабки") in this poem: bone chips were resambling sculls.

As for connection with money - it is a hard question, since this world came from very closed (almoust cultlike) society "thives" of XIX century. This society used a lot of words in noncommon sence for conspiracy. May be ot had somthing with heads, printed on coins, may be it has something to do with Catherine the Great, may be both. It is hard to tell.

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