Is This Any Way to Name a Train Station?

Philologos Probes Curious London-to-Lvov Linguistic Link

Does This Look Like Lvov?: The word for train station in Russian is ‘vokzal.’ Philologos investigates whether it is derived from this English beer garden.
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Does This Look Like Lvov?: The word for train station in Russian is ‘vokzal.’ Philologos investigates whether it is derived from this English beer garden.

By Philologos

Published October 30, 2011, issue of November 04, 2011.
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Forward reader Eldad Ganin has sent me an excerpt from an English-language publication in the Ukrainian city of Lviv (better known by its Polish, Yiddish and Russian name of Lvov), along with a query. The excerpt reads:

Why Central Trains Stations in Ukraine Are Called ‘Vokzal’

It is believed that the word vokzal originated from the name of the area of London, England, called Vauxhall. When a Russian delegation visited one of the first train stations in London in the 19th century, they mistook the name of the station for the generic name of a train station building. At that time, most of Ukraine was occupied by Russia, and the word became common also in the Ukrainian language.

And Mr. Ganin’s query goes: “Sounds pretty unlikely to me. Do you care to comment?”

It sounded unlikely to me, too, especially since I had always assumed that Russian and Ukrainian vokzal must be connected to German Wartesaal and/or Yiddish vartzal, a train station’s waiting room. Although railroads began to spread rapidly everywhere in Europe in the 1830s, they developed in Germany faster than in Russia, and it seemed to me reasonable to suppose that a German or Yiddish word for a waiting room became a word for a large train station. After all, what distinguishes a major station from a minor one if not a waiting room to sit in instead of a mere platform to stand on?

And yet when I looked into the Vauxhall connection, it turned out to be less far-fetched than I had imagined. Here, briefly stated, is the case for it.

The London neighborhood of Vauxhall gets its name from the 13th-century English knight Falkes de Breautė, who owned a rural house, then well outside the city, known as Faulke’s Hall. Faulke’s Hall, or Vauxhall, became a popular attraction in the 17th century, when it was turned into an alehouse with a large garden on the Thames that Londoners could easily boat to for outings. In time, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, as the property came to be known, added art galleries and an orchestra building in which concerts and musical performances were given. The gardens flourished for nearly 200 years until falling into desuetude in the mid-19th century. By then they had been encroached on by London, and a large railway station, with a prominent sign saying “Vauxhall,” had been built at their entrance.

Vauxhall station was considered a model of its kind and was visited twice in its early years by Russians: once by a delegation of planners in 1840, and once in 1845, by Czar Nicholas I and his entourage. Mistaking “Vauxhall” for the English word for a train station, the story goes, they brought it back with them to Russia as vokzal, which it has remained to this day.

This is, of course, hard to believe. An official Russian delegation to London, much less a czar, would have had interpreters who wouldn’t have made such a mistake. But there is another suggested Vauxhall-vokzal link that must be taken more seriously. It has to do with the fact that the first Russian railway line, built in 1837, ran from Saint Petersburg to the royal country estate of Tsarskoye Selo, where there was a garden with music and entertainment facilities called the vokzal — a word, obviously taken from Vauxhall, that had denoted a pleasure garden in Russian at least since Pushkin’s time. Vokzal, it is theorized, soon came to be applied to the Tsarskoye Selo railway station itself and eventually became a term for all large stations.

This, I must confess, seems quite reasonable. And yet where does it leave Wartesaal and vartzal? Can it be just a coincidence that these words signifying a station waiting room should be so similar to vokzal? Moreover, the similarity is even greater when one considers that the “r” of Wartesaal/vartzal was commonly a uvular one, articulated in the back of the throat, close to the point where the “k” of vokzal is produced. This was the “r” of the Prussian court at Berlin, as well as that of much of Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, including most of Ukraine. The Russian “r,” on the other hand, is trilled on the tongue, so that any Russian seeking to reproduce the sound of uvular Wartesaal/vartzal would be likely to say vogzal or vokzal. (Indeed, a uvular “r” in Russian was traditionally considered a distinctive mark of a Yiddish accent, and there is even a special Russian verb, kartavit’, which means to speak with such an “r.”)

It’s perfectly likely, therefore, that vokzal comes from German or Yiddish. Yet it’s also perfectly likely that it comes from Vauxhall! This is verily an embarrassment of riches. Often, in searching for the etymology of a puzzling word, it’s impossible to find even one plausible explanation for it, whereas in the case of vokzal we have two.

Mr. Ganin can, if he likes, take his pick. I myself will sit back and contemplate the beauty of both.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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