Russian Language Blog

Russian Nicknames That Became Popular Abroad Posted by on May 8, 2014 in Culture

We have talked about names before, but what fascinates me is how certain Russian names have a life of their own abroad. While their origin may be Russian or Slavic, the usage of these names in English may be drastically different from Russian in terms of formality and gender.

1. Natasha

The Russian name Наташа is a pet/familiar form of the name Natalia (Наталья), meaning “born at Christmas.” It is commonly used to address a girl or woman informally but is never used as someone’s full name on their documents. It gained popularity in the English-speaking world thanks to the success of War and Peace in the 20th century.

2. Sasha

Sasha (Саша) is a familiar form of the name Alexander (Александр) or Alexandra (Александра), meaning “defender of man.” Yes, it can actually be a guy’s name in Russia. It is thought to have entered English as an independent name from French. Just like Natasha, Sasha is never given as a person’s full, official name. You may notice that many Russian nicknames share the -ша element.

3. Misha

Миша is the short form of Михаил (Michael), meaning “who is like God.” Just as its full form Михаил, it’s an exclusively man’s name in Russia, which is quite different from the English-speaking world. My guess is that the -sha ending must have sounded feminine to English speakers and reminded them of Alicia and Patricia?

4. Nadia

Nadia (Надя) is the short for Nadezhda (Надежда), the Russian for “hope.” This name is thought to have been introduced to France from the Russian ballet dancers in the early 20th century.

5. Tanya

Tanya (Таня) is the short form of Tatiana (Татьяна). As with the names above, it is not used in Russia as a standalone name. Tanya is supposed to owe its popularity to the Russian novel Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин), where this is the name of the female protagonist.

Do you know anyone with these or other names of Russian origin or that sound like Russian names? How do your Russian-speaking friends react to your name if you have a Russian-sounding name? I know I sure get enough people who think I speak Spanish solely because my name is Maria (luckily for them, I actually do).

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    The girls in my Russian class at the university whose names did NOT end in an “A” were very disappoint that our professor, Felix Alexandrovich, said their names could not have a diminutive Russian form. Of course my name, Moonyeen, also has no Russian form. However, my Russian friends started to call me “Moonichka” and one day I was so pleased when even Felix Alexandrovich honored me by calling me “Moonichka.”

  2. mgoussu:

    Nikita is always thought of as a girl’s name in France, because of a movie of Luc Besson.
    Nice article, thanks

    • Maria:

      @mgoussu Yes, I remember watching a show about Nikita the assassin when I was young.

  3. Steve:

    The first thing I thought of was Sasha Laxton. His parents named the child “Sasha” because it’s a gender-neutral form. They didn’t tell anybody (except a few friends) the sex of their child until Sasha was ready to go to school at the age of five. I don’t think they let Sasha know about the differences between boys and girls.

    Well, it turned out that Sasha was a boy. Link to news article:

    There aren’t too many English boys’ names that end with -a, while in Russian the -a ending is usually feminine but can also function as a diminutive.

    • Maria:

      @Steve Steve, as I was doing my research for this article, I was surprised to find out that Sasha was occasionally used as a boy’s name in the English-speaking world. Most people with this name are Russian/USSR-born, though, it seems.
      However, I can think of a couple biblical guys’ names that end in an -a. Ira is a funny one, because it’s a girl’s name in Russia, the short of Irina (Ира is pronounced Ee-rah in Russian). Then there are all sorts of Joshuas and a host of names ending in -ah, as well.

  4. Sally:

    Natasha also gained popularity (at least here in Australia) from “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” a Cold War era cartoon series on TV featuring two ‘spies,’ Natasha and Boris.

    You’re right about Sasha and Misha though – working on the analogy of the Romance (Latin-derived) languages, any name ending in ‘-a’ is automatically assumed to be female. So we have many female Sashas, Sachas and even a Sarsha or two, but few Aussie parents name their boys thusly.

    (There are Gaelic female names, Saoirse – pronounced SEER-sha – and Sorcha – often wrongly pronounced with the ‘ch’ of ‘church,’ and a Dutch female name, Saskia, that *may* have influenced Australians)

    Such is the power of patriarchal thought in the English-speaking world that, while a boy’s name may become a girl’s name (Beverley and Shirley – originally place-names and given to boys – are now entirely female, as are Hilary, originally a male saint’s name, and Vivian), a name that is typically female rarely becomes a boy’s name. Moreover once the name has been established as female, has, in the American phrase, acquired “girl cooties,” it is forever ‘tainted’– it is a brave parent who would call her son any of the above names, much less have “A Boy Called Sue.”

    These days in the English-speaking world, parents are free to name their children as they wish (with a few exceptions).

    Incidentally, many people in the Anglo-Celtic world get a shock when they find that in Japanese names that end in ‘-o’ are usually female while male names often end in ‘-a.’

    My favourite Russian name is Nadyezhda.

    • Maria:

      @Sally Thanks, Sally. Yes, I think I heard about Boris and Natasha the spies. Right, in Russian, as well, most words ending in -a are feminine with the notable exception of male nicknames and words like папа (dad) or дедушка (grandpa).

  5. Steve:

    Of Biblical names ending with -a in English, Joshua has been a popular boys’ name for generations. Ira is somewhat less common, but still pretty well known.

    Then there’s Elisha, who shows up in a memorable story about children making fun of his bald head. Somehow, Elisha has become a girls’ name In English. The most famous person with that name is the actress Elisha Cuthbert.

    There are two Iras mentioned in the Bible, but there’s no story told about either of them. This is from 2 Samuel 20:26:

    26 также и Ира Иаритянин был священником у Давида.

  6. Pascha:

    I’ve been told my name is the dimuntive of Pavel (Paul) for males and Pavelina (Paulina) for females, but I often only hear it used for males in Russian. I was named after both my great-grandfather from Russia and an old biblical version of Pesach (Passover). I know Eastern Orthodox also use Pascha for Easter when they transliterate from Greek, Polish, etc. And of course it’s also used as “general” or “ruler”, etc., in Arabic, Turkish, Persian…but typically translated into English without the “c” (Pasha). Middle-easterners think my name is weird (esp. for a woman), but Russians “get it”. 🙂

    • Maria:

      @Pascha Interesting, Pascha! I have certainly heard Pasha as a nickname for Pavel. Come to think of it, Pasha could be the nickname for the female name Praskovya (Прасковья), but that is an older name that is not currently in use.

  7. Anita:

    During 1970s and1980s in Serbia/former Yugoslavia Nataša was very popular name. I know at least 15 Natashas from elementary school. And than there are relatives. And public figures. Saša (Sasha) is mostly male name, and usually it is short of Aleksandar, very rare it is standalone name. On the other hand, the famous female doctor/writer from WWII was named Saša Božović.
    Miša and Nadja (Nadya) are also more often nicknames than full names. Nada (serbian for hope) was pretty common, now it’s obsolete.
    Olya (Оля) is common nickname for Olivera, not Olga. And Tatjana was also popular name, and Tanja is rarely full name.
    We also have a lot of Svetlanas, Olgas, Igors… But that is for another post.

    • Maria:

      @Anita Anita, thanks for your comment. I didn’t really know much about other Slavic languages. What I find interesting about Czech, for example, is how they will use -ka as an ending of an official woman’s name, like Lenka. In Russian, -ka is extremely familiar, bordering on condescending. So, the full Russian name is Elena, the nickname is Lena, and Lenka is an extremely familiar name.

  8. Mirna:

    In Croatia we also use russian nicknames, but as full names. For example, my sister’s name is Masha. Also there is Sasha (mostly guy’s name), Tanya, Natasha, Olya, Nada (Nadya) and these names are rarely or never connected with their full form. I can’t even imagine girl named Maria to be called Masha-for us, its completely different:)

    • Maria:

      @Mirna Mirna, thanks for sharing. This sounds similar to English. Certain Russian names have also broken off the “original” name, like Алёна, which is no longer only seen as a nickname for Елена.

  9. Richard Lowery:

    Had a Russian female friend (Svetlana) who married a Hispanic person in USA. Named their newborn son “Nikolai”. As I was leaving her hospital room, I commented “Welcome to the USA , Kolya”. Hispanic husband became upset —asking me what I had said. I explained that Kolya was short form of Nikolai. He admonished his wife for not telling him this, –reply sternly that his son would not be called ‘Kolya” Reason: It is too phonetically close to the Spanish Kola’ which translates to “tail” 🙂

    • Maria:

      @Richard Lowery Ha, I can imagine. I think people have a hard time adjusting to the fact than many Russian male names end in -a, too.

  10. Nessa:

    When I first met a good friend of mine, he kept accidentally calling me Inessa instead of Nessa, because he had friends at home with the name Inessa. It certainly makes a change from people calling me Vanessa by mistake!