The Russian sardines are coming!

Today’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro collabo goes (sort of) bilingual:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

The Cyrillic label hints at сардинкы (transliteration in Latin letters: sardinky/i) ‘little sardines’, with a hard sign Ъ added to allow an allusion to one of those odd symbols. Meanwhile, the title tsardines is a portmanteau, of tsar and sardines, referring to the five tsars of Russia packed like sardines into the tin.

(Yes, full appreciation of the cartoon requires assembling a fair amount of knowledge of several kinds, starting with sardines and their customary packaging.)

Russian vocabulary. In Cyrillic with transliterations:

сардина sardina ‘sardine, pilchard’  (pl. сардины sardiny/i), dim. сардинка sardinka (pl. сардинкы sardinky/i)

сардина is transparently a borrowing into Russian of the name for the silvery fish in a Romance language — It. and Sp. sardina, Port. sardinha, French sardine —  all possibly from the Latin name for the island of Sardinia.

On the fish. From Wikipedia:

(#2) Whole fresh sardines (on ice) (from the Citarella seafood site)

Sardines or pilchards are a nutrient-rich, small, oily fish widely consumed by humans and as forage fish by larger fish species, seabirds and marine mammals. Sardines are a source of omega-3 fatty acids. They are commonly served in cans, but fresh ones are often grilled, pickled, or smoked.

The category takes in a number of species — in particular, Sardina pilchardus, the European pilchard (found in the northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea) and Sardinops sagax (found throughout the Pacfic basin, in Australia, Japan, South Africa, Peru, Chile, and California).

Sardines are related to herrings, both in the family Clupeidae. The term sardine was first used in English during the early 15th century, and may come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, around which sardines were once abundant.

The terms sardine and pilchard are not precise, and what is meant depends on the region. The United Kingdom’s Sea Fish Industry Authority, for example, classifies sardines as young pilchards.

… Sardines are commercially fished for a variety of uses: bait, immediate consumption, canning, drying, salting, smoking, and reduction into fish meal or fish oil. The chief use of sardines is for human consumption, fish meal is used as animal feed, while sardine oil has many uses, including the manufacture of paint, varnish, and linoleum.

(#3) An assortment of prepared sardines in their conventional tins (from the Guide Michelin site on cooking sardines)

The little fish are a food staple in many regions — Portugal, Spain, Greece, Brittany, Cornwall, Italy, Peru, Norway, and Japan among them.

They flourish especially where there are upwellings of cold but nutrient-rich waters: New England and the Maritimes, the California coast, for instance. Hence the famous Cannery Row in Monterey CA (though the industry collapsed there in the 1950s).

So much for the sardines, now for the tsars. From NOAD:

noun tsar [/zar/ or /(t)sar/]  (also czar or tzar): 1 an emperor of Russia before 1917: Tsar Nicholas II … 2 (often czar) [usually with adjective or noun modifier] a person appointed by government to advise on and coordinate policy in a particular area: America’s new drug czar. ORIGIN from Russian tsar’, representing Latin Caesar.

Wayno and Dan are scrupulous about their cartoons: those are five specific tsars in #1. Identifying them is left as an exercise for the reader, though I will tell you than the one in the middle is Peter II (ruled 1715-30).

I was struck by NOAD‘s listing the noun under the spelling variant TSAR, having believed that CZAR was the most common spelling in modern AmE — and knowing the NOAD strives to list the currently most frequent spellings and meanings first in its entries. So I went to Google’s Ngram software, and discovered that my impression was incorrect, at least as far as spellings in the books in Google’s archives go:

(#4) The two spellings over the years in books

There are three places where the CZAR:TSAR ratio shifts notably: in roughly 1860-70, with a lot of TSAR during the period; after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the TSAR spelling overtakes CZAR, permanently; and in roughly 1940-45, during World War II.

Now the TSAR spelling has the now-standard transliteration TS of the Cyrillic consonant letter Ц (whose name in Russian is pronounced [tsɛ]); it is in a sense the “Russian” spelling. As for the CZ spelling, OED2 has this to say:

The spelling with cz- is against the usage of all Slavonic languages; the word was so spelt by Herberstein, Rerum Moscovit. Commentarii 1549, the chief early source of knowledge as to Russia in Western Europe, whence it passed into the Western Languages generally; in some of these it is now old-fashioned

As it is, apparently, in English.

But back to the ngram. During two periods of great public interest in and reporting on Russian matters, the “Russian” spelling TSAR spiked as against the “Western” spelling CZAR: in the wake of the Revolution and during World War II. I was initially puzzled by the 1860-70 spike, so suspiciously aligned with the American Civil War (and not with events in Russian history that would be especially notable in the Anglophone world).

So I was gratified to discover that, thanks to ostentatious displays of Russian fleets (on both coasts) in support of the Union during the Civil War, Russia was fabulously popular in the US at the time, at least in the North. My tentative hypothesis is that this explains the tic in the CZAR:TSAR ratio.

Footnote on sardine cartoons. There are a great many cartoons on the  theme of people being packed like sardines in a can (or on sardines contemplating such a fate), but they all seem to be subject to fees for use, so I’ll merely mention the genre here.


3 Responses to “The Russian sardines are coming!”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Huh. All this time I had assumed that the spelling “czar” was of Polish origin.

  2. [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

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