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Six Words You May Be Saying Wrong In Russian Posted by on Apr 24, 2014 in language

Russian did not contribute nearly as many loanwords to English as French or Spanish did. However, a few of these words of Russian origin are floating around in English. Naturally, many of them changed their meaning or pronunciation comparing to Russian. Here are a few words you should pay attention to when speaking Russian to make sure you’re not simply saying them the way you’re used to in English.

1. Бабушка

First of all, this word has nothing to do with babushkas, or the headscarves tied below the chin, although the word for the headscarf is thought to have come from Russian. Бабушка (grandmother) is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, and the ш should sound harsher than the English “sh.”

2. Матрёшка

For some reason, a lot of English speakers want to say “mamushka.” I’m not sure of the origins of this word, but I am pretty sure it’s not a word in Russian. I haven’t been able to find it in dictionaries (other than the Addams Family reference), but a Google image search for “mamushka” returns images of Russian nested dolls. The nested doll is called матрёшка.

3. Спутник

I have heard the English word sputnik pronounced sputt-nick many times, although spoot-nick is still the first pronunciation listed in dictionaries. Whatever the English permitted variants may be, the Russian word is pronounced exclusively with an “у” sound.

4. Владимир

Probably under the influence of the English prononciation on the news, speakers try to stress the first syllable in the Russian name Владимир. In fact, the second syllable is stressed. Also, Vlad (Влад) is not a typical nickname for Vladimir; it’s usually Volodya (Володя) or Vova (Вова).

5. Борис

This name may have the stress on the first syllable if we’re talking about the mayor of London or re-enacting James Bond movies, but the Russian name Борис definitely has the stress on the last syllable.

6. На здоровье

A lot of people in the US seem to think “на здоровье” (pronounced nastroviya in American parliance) is the Russian for “cheers” when toasting. This usage seems to be common in Polish — but not in Russian! The lack of a concise phrase for toasting can be frustrating, however, actual Russian toasts are custom-made for the occasion and don’t have a boilerplate expression. На здоровье is a response to someone asking to do something (Можно мне кусок пирога? – На здоровье: Can I have a slice of pie? – Go right ahead) or a way of saying “You are welcome” in response to “Спасибо.”

I hope this helps resolve any doubts you might have had about these words. Can you think of any other?

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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. David Roberts:

    Bistro is a common one of course. Supposedly found its way into western European languages, as a word for a fast service cafe, when Russian soldiers were stationed in Paris after the Napleonic wars were over.

    • Maria:

      @David Roberts David, thanks for your comment. Well, бистро (bistro) with the stress on the last syllable is ok if you are referring to an upscale restaurant in Russian. As long as you’re not using it to mean быстро (quickly).

  2. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    Names seem to be the most abused when it comes to accent misplacement. How about
    Горбачёв и Хрущёв? Анастасия. (anastaSEEya.) Иван (eeVAHN)

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Moonyeen, thank you for your comment. I have no problem with people saying Khrushchev (Krooshev) or Anastasia (Anusstayzha) in English as long as they realize that the Russian pronunciation is different. After all, you wouldn’t say Vuhshinktawn in English just because that’s the Russian pronunciation of Washington.

  3. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    Maria, since you had mentioned some names in your list I’ll include a few more. How you do feel about radio announcers pronouncing names incorrectly? I don’t know why they can be said correctly. For example: Why should they say GreCHANinov when it is GrechaNEEnov? Why say BORodeen when it’s BoroDEEN? IppoLEEtov-IVANov? MOOsorgsky? I am writing this so that some musicians and radio announcers will know the correct pronunciations of these names.
    Why should we say their Russian names wrong when it is so easy to put the accent in the correct place?
    (Washington is not a Russian name.)

  4. Nicole:

    I have heard people stretching the phonetic English spelling “matryoshka” into four syllables: MAT-tree-OSH-ka.

    • Maria:

      @Nicole Nicole, I see how “yo” would be hard to pronounce as a ё. I bet a lot of Alyonas get their names pronounced as A-Lion-a based on the spelling.

  5. Ilya:

    Nearly all Russian names and surnames pronounced with wrong stresses, including mine. I gave up quite a few years ago.

  6. Stesha:

    My partner is Russian and I spend a lot of time with his family, who all speak Russian and only some English.

    In my experience, ‘ushka’ is placed at the end of words as a kind of sweetened version. For example my brother in law’s name is Ilya, and the family call him Ilyushka as if to say ‘honey.’ I am just posing guesses here, the boys I know do not call their mum that!

    I would also say – from my experience – that Vlad is a common nickname, as I know several men who call themselves Vlad amongst other Russian speakers and in their own country, and introduce themselves to me as Vladimir. Perhaps it is the influence of them living in England for a bit of time, but in my experience I feel it is just a different variant – a lot of people called Stephanie call themselves ‘Steph.’ Perhaps fewer ‘Stephie’ – but it’s still just as valid!

    There are also many times I have heard ‘nastroviya’ around the dinner table (not spoken so literally as a British or American person might try to read it ofc) although I would agree toasts are customised to the occasion…

    Perhaps these instances are ways my Russian family have been influenced by the time they have spent in England, or perhaps it varies from place to place in Russia a little (it’s not like it’s a small place!) hmm… very interesting, anyway!

    • Maria:

      @Stesha Stesha, thanks for your contribution. I find expatriate communities fascinating! It may well be possible that a Russian named Vladimir chooses to go by Vlad, just as a Maxim can choose to go by Max, but these are rarer and somewhat edgier choices, as opposed to the traditional Volodya and Maxim (yes, same as the full name). This being said, the short for Vladislav is, indeed, Vlad. There are famous Russians who went by Vlad, such as the journalist Vlad Listyev (full name Vladislav).

  7. Samantha Skillings:

    I wonder if “mamushka” and матрёшка are confused because of the way т is written rather than typed–it often looks like what English speakers see as an m!