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What does здравствуйте & спасибо actually mean in Russian? Posted by on Feb 11, 2008 in language

The two of the most frequently used words in the Russian language, the two words without which it is simply impossible to get around in Russia, even when one isn’t trying to be the least polite, are actually more than just two words. I believe that anyone studying any language at all sooner or later will arrive at the point where it feels like your soul is screaming out loud for an etymologic dictionary (for those studying language but who have yet to arrive at this soul-screaming point – an etymologic dictionary explains the origin of words rather than their meaning). It does not take long when in possession of such a dictionary before one realizes that the most common greeting phrase in Russia, здравствуйте (or здравствуй, a variant which is a little less formal, yet still miles away from being as informal as the only-among-close-friends привет) actually is short for the original greeting of здрава желаю, meaning “I wish [you] health”. It can also be said that здравствуйте means “I wish you to be healthy”. Both of these meanings underline, in my opinion, the eternal Russian dread of disease. Therefore it cannot come as any surprise to anyone familiar with this culture that its people would have a greeting that means wishing everyone health all the time.


The original meaning of the second word is not much of a surprise either, and ever the more interesting for of it. The origin of the word спасибо makes a natural connection with the long tradition of Orthodoxy in Russia. During many centuries the phrase used to thanking people спаси вас/тебя Бог [God save you] shrunk into the short спасибо, which is now the word used by people on a daily basis from Kalingrad to Vladivostok. With time the phrase was turned into a substantive, and we are now allwoded to say things like спасибо большое [big thank you], when we really want to express our gratitude.

As for the third most used word in the Russian language, that hard-to-pronounce-yet-of-absolute-necessity пожалуйста [please; certainly! by all means!; you’re welcome!; don’t mention it], I’m as lost as the next foreigner living in Russia to what its origin might be. It could have come from the adverb пожалуй [perhaps, very likely, it may be] that in turn comes from the verb пожаловать, as used in добро пожаловать [welcome]. It is the perfect to the imperfect verb жаловать, which means “to grant, to bestow, to reward, to favor, to regard with favor”. That’s my guess, anyway. Anyone who might have a qualified guess of their own about what its etymology might be? Or maybe someone actually knows?

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  1. Arne Seim:

    I dont know who you are but you must be rather young or have very little knowledge of language
    and History;))
    Russia is a formell country with great politness which we have been loosing moore and moore .Russia is living in my grandmothers time.
    I am Norwegian and my grandmother lived from -89 till -59.
    How do you do.an english welcoming frase allmost forgotten;)We allways wished our friends a good healt,eaven if you ask people today there wish number 1 most people will ask for good healt;)insted of money.When you make a toastm,wish you good healt.
    Russian are thanks God moore polite and caring than we are;)They will sadly copie us and be moore egoistick and selfobserved like the major part of the poulation in the west;))))))))
    Thank you Russia for giving me the oppertunaty to see my grandmothers life and your politness to other people
    Arne Seim

  2. Dave Hauslein:

    Thank you. Your blog is always very interesting.

  3. fear:

    i personally think that пажалуйста originates from желать – пожелать, to wish in russian.. i could be wrong however..

  4. Aleckii:

    Wow! I’ve lived in Russia for 6 years, speak it with a degree of fluency and it never hit me until today how right you are. Thanks for pointing that out to me!

  5. Sarah:

    I believe “poka” is also a shortening of a religious phrase, but I don’t remember which one. Does your dictionary say?

    And what about “privet”?

  6. Alexander:

    As a Russian I may say that ethimologies for “спасибо” and “здравствуйте” are correct. In Russian army the fool form “здравия желаю” is still in use, when greeting someone of superior rank.

    As for “пожалуйста”, the Russians themselves are largerly unaware of its origin, and even phylologists have different versions. The number of meanings is a great obstacle. It is certainy derived from “жаловать” (to grant, to give). “-ста” is an archaic affirmative particle. I suppose the original meaning was “please”. So the “ethimological” translation could be “would you give me …”. I may be wrong, although.

    “Poka” has nothing to do with religion. It means “for a while”, or simply “while” (in the middle of the sentence). As a parting phrase it means “see you later”.

    “Privet” is derived from “приветствую” – “I greet you”.

  7. Janneke:

    In reply to Sarah: About the ‘privet’ and its derivation; couldn’t is also be the other way around seeing as in Russian a lot of words easily get their own verb?

  8. John Baker:

    Arne Seim,
    You are exactly on point when it comes to manners and formality in the West. As I am an American Baby-boomer, I deplore American and Western Culture becoming more and more relaxed, and even slouching in every respect, from style of dress to greetings. In America it has been for many years now, “What’s up?”, taken directly from the low status of the street dwellers. I think this also has some root in the increasing Socialistic Tenor in American culture, where, as in the Soviet Union, eveyone had the same status, (except Party members!), usually Mediocre.
    But as I study Russian culture and Russian language, I find that some of what had been described in Russian culture as “Backwardness” was actully a Virture, to consider others as better than oneself, as the Apostle Paul encourages us to do. This young Josephina from Sweden is but one and intersting part of my education.

  9. Robert Dupuy:

    I’ve been studying Russian for 7 years.

    I have not had the opportunity to go to Russia, so my experience is somewhat different. In order to practice producing conversational speech, I go to internet chat rooms.

    привет, is the norm and not used only for close friend. In fact speaking in the informal is commonplace, and only rarely is the formal used.

    Frankly I don’t see any particular need to criticize our culture and elevate theirs. As a Russian student I am appreciative of some of the differences. Russians I have met, true they are living here in the states already, but they do spend a lot more attention to appearance, and it does speak well for them, in my view, as opposed to dressing slovenly.

    However, I also know in chat rooms, many Russians are xenophobic, and tend to swear a grat deal as well, sometimes they come off as being rude, they almost remind me of people from Brooklynn.

    So, I’m surprised to see this viewpoint that Russians are more cultured. My grandmother-in-law, who recently came from Ukraine was shocked at how little swearing goes on in our home, she claims its epidemic in Ukraine.

  10. Chris:

    To the esteemed inidvidual who wrote, “I dont know who you are but you must be rather young or have very little knowledge of language
    and History…”:

    I strongly believe that this comment is inappropriate here. The author of this blog presented a plausible answer to the questions posed, as many others here have already noted. Furthermore, the author was not suggesting that Russia lacks formal correctness or polite convention; she was merely stating that здравствуйте, спасибо and пожалуйста are the most basic units of civil discourse.
    I urge you to read posts carefully before responding with such a polemic. With all due respect, your criticism is unfounded, since it has nothing to do with the author’s argument.

  11. pessoa:

    sorry, but but the health-thing is likely to be wrong.
    dozen of languages have the same word for “health” and “greet”.

  12. denis:

    the word “привет” is only used among friends and relatives but not strangers who you would see face to face. Chatrooms are acceptable because i could might as well curse and call some one names and unfortunately that would be ok in the U.S.

    Im fluent in russian although i was born in Ukraine =]

  13. Pavel:

    As far as I know (could be a bit off), the Russian “спасибо” (thank you) is a relatively new word. People used to say (still do, but increasingly rarely) “Благодарю”, which is clearly derived from “Благо” and “дарить”, meaning “the well/good” and “to gift/give”, respectively. It can be thought of as saying “I gift/give[whish?] you well”. Incidentally, the word “Благо” has nothing to do with “health” directly. It carries a rather sublime meaning to it that relates to the overall well-being of a person.

    In my opinion, this is a word that reveals a grander emotion of expressing your thanks to someone, compared to “спасибо”. Most Russians nowadays do not use it in conversations, however, they all know of the words’ existence and meaning. So, it won’t be actually awkward to say it today.

    I believe that the word was very popular (almost exclusively used to say thank you) before the dawn of the XXth century. What’s interesting and hard to find out, is what triggered it to be substituted with “спасибо”, which, at least in my opinion, is less appropriate when thanking someone.

  14. Valeria:

    Oh, what a discussion! As a native speaker of the Russian language I was very excited when reading comments. I’d say people here expressed their need for stereotypes… which is not good I believe because stereotypes don’t let you think independently.
    A lot of conclusions that don’t have actual worth as they are ungrounded.

  15. Alan:

    Chris, this comment is directed specifically at you. How dare you insult others comments with regards to their own postings. The original author did not put forward any argument but own opinions. And we are all greatfull hence the feedback and comments that followed BUT how dare you attack others becuase of some disagreement you may have with particular comments, stating that it be either due to their youth or due to their lack of knowledge of the language. I was born and educated in the country you refer to. And I am a professional working in Australia; migrated recently. If you wish to make comment do so without insult on an assumption that someone is less educated or younger then you are. No one has said anything wrong in thier comments other then expressing their own experiences or concerns. However you on the other hand appear to express an interest to reflect an self induced intellect to the readers without showing your credentials first. Most disappointing if you are a scholar.

  16. wellsaid:

    And if you are Bulgarian, you don’t need to learn Russian so much.

  17. Marcin:

    @Alan How dare you claim that Chris is insulting authors. He politely wrotw he’s opinion, with respect to other, I can’t see anything insulting.


  18. M. Ahmad:

    What does it means when a woman says that I am her ‘best friend’ and always in her heart.
    Since she is a Russian speaking woman, there might be some variation in terms of what does best friend means.
    Thank you.

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