Ukrainians try to insult Russians in general by using the words “Moskal”, thinking that Russians would take offence with it. Far from being offensive, the word has several historical roots or versions of its origin. What Russians may find offensive is the tone the word is spoken with, much like someone make insult out of, say, the word “Londoner” by simply adding a tonal change to their voice.
Below is a translation of a short article that looks into what “Moskal” really meant…
08 July 2021
Can a swear word have many meanings? Very often, yes, depending on the context. But today we are offering you you not to study profanity in all its diversity with us, but to get acquainted with the origin of one controversial and very ambiguous word — “Moskal”. We will find out what mushrooms, soldiers, merchants who have lost their shame and insects have to do with it.
This word was often used – and is still used – by the other Slavic peoples to refer to Russians, with a negative semantic connotation. One could call someone “Moskal” to offend, or to express their disdainful and contemptuous attitude. We suggest not to be offended, but to study other meanings of this word.
Vladimir Dahl wrote in his famous dictionary back in the time that soldiers were called “Moskals”. And again with a negative connotation. Why? Oftentimes the military, due to the lack or absence of barracks and food, stopped for a stay with local residents. Such an additional “load” in the form of young men with an excellent appetite, eating up all the supplies, and even wanting to flirt with the owner’s wife or daughters, was of no joy to anyone. And considering that the soldiers and officers who needed to be fed and cared for came from the capital, they were nicknamed “moskals”.
An important person
Important officials who arrived from the capital to the provincial cities and conveyed the tsar’s will to the local population were also called by the “unkind” word. To call such a gentleman a “Moskal” was in the order of things, these words were synonymous. After all, it was the Golden-Domed City that was the centre of power, the brain of the state, and all the instructions of the tsar were distributed from there. So none of the prominent gentlemen would be offended by the word “Moskal”, except that he would straiten up even more with the realization of his own importance.
It turns out that there is a Malorossian verb “moskalit'”, which means “to deceive, to cheat in trade”. The residents of Moscow have absolutely nothing to do with the bulk of it, but the merchants of the past centuries are fully “guilty” of the appearance of such a word. The capital’s businessmen sometimes really lost their conscience and the slightest idea of honour when they went to other cities for fairs and cheated, deceived less sophisticated provincial buyers. Dodging and cunning in search of the coveted profit, they “earned” the nickname “Moskals”.
In fact, the meanings of the word “Moskal” are so numerous that one is entitled to be to be surprised. Judge for yourself. For example, the inhabitants of the Urals called the mushroom boletus, while in Polish dialects it was the orange birch bolete (podosinovik) that were called for “Moskals”. Perhaps the name came from the reddish cap of these mushrooms, resembling a soldier’s hat of the very same “Moskals”.
And in the north of Russia, the bee-like flies that fly in swarms were called for “Moskals”. Apparently, here one can see a parallel between the high population density of the capital and the swarm of insects, with the observer not being accustomed to such a fuss. (Translator note: there can also be an etymological trace from the word “fly” – “muha”, through “little fly” – “mushka”, to the “swarming fly” – “moshka”, with the “sh” sound transforming into “s” – “moska”, leading finally to “moskal”)
And yet, the word we are considering today — whoever is called by it: a citizen from any of our regions or a resident of the capital — mroe often than not sounds somehow slippery and unpleasant. But this is completely on the conscience of the speaker, and whether to be offended by it or not is everyone’s own business.
Instead of a post-script…
Moskalev and Moskalkov are perfectly normal Russian surnames. A few examples:
Tatiana Moskalkova, Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights (the English Wikipedia is really short, but makes sure to write that she’s spoken against Pussy Riot, so I linked to the Russian Wiki)
Sergei Moskalkov, opera singer and the former soloist of the Bolshoi Theatre. His political statement that I liked the most is an appeal to close Yeltsin-center in Yekaterinburg as it is a “viper’s nest of liberalism”
Vladimir Moskalev, a writer on historical topics.
And many more…