Etymology of Black in Russian

The term “black people” [черные люди] had widespread recorded usage in Russian between 12th and 17th centuries.

Initially, it meant “people of the lowest classes who weren’t exempt from any taxes.” There are different explanations for why they were called “black.” One explanation was that they cultivated land and the most fertile lands in Russian are referred to as “black earth” [чернозем]. Other version is that their faces were black with soot.

By the 18th century, the term was shortened to “blacks” [чернь] and was used to refer to the lowest social classes. Catherine the Great, for instance, kept ranting against the folks who thought it made sense to teach “blacks” to read and write.

Traces of this usage remain in Russian today. The term for somebody who does unqualified manual labor is “a black worker” [чернорабочий].

The distinction between “black bone” (people who do manual labor) and “white bone” (those who don’t) also still exists.

By the 1960s, a racialized usage of “blacks” was in use to refer to the slightly more swarthy inhabitants of the Transcaucasus region. All of the racial stereotypes about the “oversexed, lazy, dishonest, thuggish blacks” were attributed to them. Unlike the original usage that had no racial content, this is already a recognizably racialized one.

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6 thoughts on “Etymology of Black in Russian”

  1. In Polish work done “na czarno” means unofficial, off the books and paid in cash (I think that’s ‘na levo’ in Russian?) I had always associated that with ‘black market’ but now I’m no so sure.

    In everyday Polish the word czarny/czarna is often used to describe someone with dark hair and doesn’t necessarily refer to darker skin (as such are few and far between).
    The usual word for a black person is Murzyn which bothers some (mostly non-Polish) people.

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    1. There is an expression “black cash” in Russian, meaning cash that isn’t declared on tax returns.

      I looked up this etymology in response to somebody who started arguing that the negative connotations of the word “black” in different languages are due to racism. In reality, this usage predates anything racial even in such relatively young languages as Russian, as I’ve demonstrated. Racist usages get attached to this etymology a lot later.

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        1. It’s from the Latin word for Moor (Maurus) borrowed through German, although the rz is etymologically related to r, it’s a single sound (pronouned like ж in Russian).
          There’s also czarnoskóry (but that’s an adjective and awkward to use)

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  2. In Scottish Gaelic nicknames are common (often due to a limited number of family names used in rural communities) and someone with dark eyes and dark hair might be called dubh , despite typically Scottish pale skin. I’m not aware of this relating to any job or social standing, but I’m not a native speaker and a lot of the language and culture has been lost in the past.

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