Mud season in Russia: Putin, Rasputin

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A couple of years ago around this time I wrote about the "Schlump season" (3/21/15) at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  Now, as Dartmouth is becoming enmired in the early spring mud, Pamela Kyle Crossley, who teaches there, told me that she thought of the Russian word for this season:  rasputitsa.  And that made me think of the Russian word for "way; path; pathway; route; track; road":  путь, which I suppose is cognate with "path".  Another form of the word is путин, which reminds me of "Putin" ("road" — I think [see below]) and "Rasputin" ("broken / obliterated road").

Since I am not a Slavicist, I stand to be corrected and / or supplemented on all of the above points.

A Russian student, Nikita Kuzmin, has already added the following:

The word "распутица" consists of two parts – "рас" and "путь (ица)". "Рас" as a prefix means "dissolve" or jiěkāi 解開; it is also comparable to English prefix "un-"/ "dis-". It is used in many other Russian words with comparable meanings – "развязать" – untie, "раствориться" – dissolve, etc. "путь" is a Russian word for "way"/ dào 道. "Распутица" literally means "a dissolved way", and its present meaning is "muddy roads". I feel that the reason why this word exists in famine gender (-ица) is because it describes a kind of a situation – "season of bad/muddy roads" – usually in March/April.

"Путин" is a difficult case. Indeed "Пут(ь)" means "way", but I am skeptical to think that "Путин" itself means "the way". Moreover, as far as I know, the organizers of election propaganda activities have never used his surname to say that "Putin is our WAY". I have never heard any explanations of this surname. I have checked some Russian websites concerning this problem, but I have not found any more or less convincing linguistic explanations. It is said to mean "someone, who leads / shows the way". However such observations look more like speculations.

Probably, it would be interesting to you that in Moscow there is a Nativity Church at Putinki.

The Russian version of the article explains that the origin of the word "Putinki" was give to the church because it situated near a "Путевой посольский двор" – a guesthouse for foreign embassies on the way (to Kremlin). It seems very likely that the surname also has some connections with the "the way".

"Распутин" is a surname, which probably originates from the word "распутица".

Arina Mikhalevskaya further observes:

1) Yes, "rasputitsa" (распутица) means season of bad roads! I have not heard the word being used nowadays, I guess because there are fewer dirt roads around.

2) "Putin" literally means "of road" or "related to road." It is a derivative of "put' " (путь), which means "road"/"way." At the same time, it's not an inflected form of this same noun. In the Russian language, the word "Putin" only exists as a surname, it's not used in any other context and thus it does not really mean anything. To express the meaning  of "related to road," we would just use an inflected form of the noun "road"/ путь ( puti/путИ) which is different from "Putin."

Also, there is an opinion that this particular surname derived from the personal name Putyai/Путяй which is purpotedly how a child who was born while his parents were travelling (were on the road) could have been named.

3) In a similar way, Rasputin (Распутин) could mean "related to rasputitsa," because the suffix -in/-ин signifies relation. Also, it might have derived from Rasputa (Распута) — a nickname for an immoral or sick person (which could have also functioned as a charm against evil spirits to discourage them from taking a child away or harming it). However, it is also said that Rasputa (Распута) could as well mean "the season of bad roads" — same as "rasputitsa".

The other main word for "road" in Russian that I know is "doroga Дорога".  I've always suspected that it may have something to do with Sinitic "dào[lù] 道[路]" ("road; way"), but further discussion of this topic will have to wait for a separate post sometime in the future.


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 9:29 am

    Now I'm wondering how the surname "Putin" could have originated. Someone who lived near a road, built or repaired roads, often traveled on the roads? Is the answer known?

  2. Bozo said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 10:10 am

    I like the version about someone born while traveling / on the road.

    Three versions of the surname Putin are given on the website below (in Russian): 1. As deriving from an older name Putyata (Путята) ( 2. A descendant of someone born while traveling. In this case the baby born would be called Putyay (Путяй), and his children could be called Putin. I guess Putin could be viewed as genitive/possessive of Putyay in this case: Putin=[someone born] of Putyay / Putyay's [offspring]. 3. Other derivatives of put' (Путь), maybe someone walking the right way/a smart man? A hunter setting bird/animal traps/snares along their paths?

  3. Jason M said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 10:23 am

    I am an amateur etymologist in every sense of the word, but I would think, based on various online sources that "doroga" is traceable back through Proto-Slavonic "*dorga" to a Proto- IndoEuropean reconstructed word "*dhregh" meaning "to run" or "to drag". One Wikitionary entry suggests potentially because the word may have originally been for a wheel, as in a potter's wheel or the wheel of a cart.

    Thus, "доро́га" is ultimately a cognate for English "drag", and indeed "the main drag" in a town is the road where most of the businesses are.

    I have not been able to disambiguate why the Indo-European "dhregh" has two meanings or if they are related. The "to run" sense, as above, may be related to how a potter's wheel (or a wheel runs along a road?): eg, (that link may be broken but search for "dhregh" in Wiktionary). gives both "to run" and "to drag/pull" without a wheel sense or other explanation.

    A bit more digging reveals that the Greek τρέχω (to run) is derived from "dhregh" in the "to run" sense of course. I wondered if our "trek" was a cognate, though its derivation goes via Afrikaans to a Proto-Germanic construct "trakjaną" which ( means "push/draw/scratch" and is supposed to derive from PIE *dereg, though this word isn't in the Paleolexicon PIE dictionary. "Drag/draw" in English trace back to a supposedly different Proto-Germanic word: "draganą" meaning to drag/pull.

    In short, it's hard not to think доро́га, trek, drag all trace back to the same PIE word meaning drag or run. Note, "a run" in English can also mean a route or path (ski run, smuggling run).

  4. Johanna Laakso said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 11:12 am

    Actually, путь is not necessarily cognate with "path" (whose p- is problematic; the original IE p- would yield f- in Germanic). In fact, etymological dictionaries derive путь together with its IE cognates denoting roads, paths, bridges, fords etc. (such as Latin pons ‘bridge’) from an IE root *pent- ‘tread, go’, from which the Germanic verb "find" is also derived.

    The Russian путь was also borrowed into Karelian, where it appears sometimes in the concrete meaning of ‘road’ but more frequently and more typically in the abstract meaning of ‘road conditions’, even ‘opportunity’ or ‘the (correct, proper) way of doing something’. This abstract meaning is also present in derivatives such as put'itoin ("wayless") ‘miserable, paltry’ or put'illah ("on his/her/their way") ‘properly, correctly’. And there is a genitive case form used as a genitivus qualitatis in the meaning ‘proper, correct, real’, incidentally homonymous with the famous Russian derivative: put'in. "Put'in mužikku" is a proper, real, reliable man.

    As for распутица, the term (or a reflex of a dialectal variant) is very well known in Finnish, too: rospuutto (folk-etymologically associated to the verb "puuttu-" ‘lack’), sub-standard (the standard term is "kelirikko", with an ancient Baltic loanword…) but widely used. (Interestingly, there are some Russian loanwords which have spread in Finnish quite aggressively; note that most speakers of Finnish never have had a direct contact with the Russian language.) Please note that this bad road season doesn't mean just "muddy roads" nor does it only concern dirt roads: the freezing and thawing of the ground can cause really spectacular bumps, pits etc. also on well-maintained, paved roads.

  5. martin schwartz said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

    @Victor Mair
    The Germanic 'path' word was derived from Iranian by HW Bailey
    and Sir Alan Ross in Transactions of the Phililogical Society 1961
    (I was convinced when I read it long ago)
    but this thesis was disputed by Th. Bynon in TPS 1961 (non legi)
    Martin Schwartz

  6. Dimitri Fruchtenstein said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

    Putin's name is more likely derived from the verb путать (to tangle, to confuse).

  7. Andy said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 5:45 pm

    There's also распутье 'crossroads', where the roads are merely diverging rather than becoming impassable or whatever. I've always associated Rasputin, rightly or wrongly, with распутный 'dissolute, immoral', literally 'having strayed from the path', I suppose.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 7:06 pm

    Thanks, Bozo and Dimitri Fruchtenstein.

  9. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 12:37 am

    Arina Mikhalevskaya derives Putin from put’ with the possessive suffix -in-. But -in- goes with feminine nouns (sestrin ‘sister’s’). With a masculine noun like put’ you expect the -ov- suffix (otcov ‘father’s), which you do get, e.g., in putevoj ‘traveling’ (-ov- is spelled -ev- after a soft consonant).

  10. Pamela said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 7:42 am

    as i said in my original note, i think "putin" just means, as a name, "road" or "path," or "way" in the same as english "way" just meaning road or path. the same as "street" (also a name) in english: the ancestors lived at the road. rasputin's ancestors lived at the broken or submerged road. i agree with those who have suggested that "putin" should be interpreted in the most prosaic (or let's say pedestrian) sense.

    i still don't know how many cultures have a word for "mud season." there must be quite a few! polish (what is lawina błotna)? german (what is Erdrutsch)? mongolian (what is шаварлаг?)

  11. languagehat said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 9:36 am

    Another form of the word is путин

    No, the only word путин (and a very obscure one it is) is defined by Dahl as "a rheumatic pain in the loins (lumbago?) [ломотная боль в пояснице (lumbago?)]." If there were a surname based on it, it would be Putinov. There is a derived word путина [putina] 'road, path; journey,' but if there were a surname based on that it would be Putinin. The rules of Russian name-formation are not that complicated; you can't just say "Well, this looks sort of like that so it must be the source."

    Putin's name is more likely derived from the verb путать (to tangle, to confuse).

    Derived how exactly? See above. I'm surprised nobody's claiming it's derived from путы 'hobble; fetters' (now plurale tantum; there used to be a neuter singular путо).

    It's unfortunate that Unbegaun didn't include Putin in his magisterial Russian Surnames (translated as Русские фамилии), but wild guesses don't make up for the lack of scholarly analysis.

  12. Andy said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    @Pamela: Don't know the Mongolian word, but the Polish and German ones mean 'mudslide' and 'landslide' respectively, not 'mud season'.

  13. Jichang Lulu said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 6:40 am

    Mongolian шаварлаг šavarlag ᠰᠢᠪᠠᠷᠯᠢᠭ sibarlig is an adjective meaning 'muddy', from шавар šavar ᠰᠢᠪᠠᠷ sibar 'mud'.

  14. BZ said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

    Normally Russian surnames ending with "-in" tend to mean "a descendant of the person named 'whatever comes before -in'". It's had for me to imagine a Russian named "Put'", so either this is an exception or the original predecessor's name was clipped in some way.

  15. languagehat said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

    Normally Russian surnames ending with "-in" tend to mean "a descendant of the person named 'whatever comes before -in'".

    That's not a particularly useful generalization. Bukharin is not "a descendant of Bukhara," and Voloshin is not "a descendant of Volosha."

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

    From Dotno Pount:

    I’m pretty sure that in Mongolian, Šavarlag describes the type of soil, as in its clay or sod rich quality, not the state of being muddy. For muddy roads, we’d just say “šawar ihtei” or “with a lot of mud.”

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