Today, the 26th of April in 1986, the world was shocked by the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. After the power plant exploded and the area of Pripyat was irradiated, the citizens of Chernobyl and the surrounding areas were evacuated, and up until this day the region remains sparsely populated by mutating plant life, animals, and the hipster tourists.
I have always found the name rather opaque; first because you tend to forget that names are also words with meaning and an origin, but probably because my knowledge of Slavic languages is rather lacking as well (there goes my rhetorical auctoritas!).
Although the name Chernobyl (Cyr. Чорно́биль) has almost become synonymous with Soviet mismanagement, and of course nuclear radiation, I found that the actual origin of the name Chernobyl is in fact way more innocent than the associations it evokes today: it refers to the weed/herb Artemisia vulgaris.
So to start with the Ukrainian: Chernobyl is a compound consisting of the parts чорнe ‘black’ and билля ‘blade of grass’. It goes back to the Proto-Slavic compound of *čьrnobyl(ъ). So, literally it would be translated as ‘black stalk’.
If we go back a bit further in time, the first part can be reconstructed as Proto-Slavic adjective *čь̀rnъ ‘black’, with for example Old Church Slavonic črъnъ ‘black’;
a bit further, and the Balto-Slavic adjective *kirsnos is reconstructed, which spawns Lithuanian *kir̃snas ‘black (of a horse)’;
and then finally, as far as we can or should go back, Indo-European *krs-no-, related to Sanskrit kṛṣṇá- ‘black’. This is by the way one of the names of the eighth avatar of the Hindu deity Viṣṇu. The black refers to the dark color of the avatar’s skin.
The latter part is maybe just as exciting. It goes back to the Proto-Slavic *bylьje ‘herb, plant’ (Old Church Slavonic bylije ‘idem’), but the noun is a derivative of the verb *bỳti ‘to be’, from Indo-European *bhHu- ‘to be’ with Indo-European cognates such as Greek φύομαι ‘to grow, become’, which gave us the word for ‘‘physics’’ or ‘‘physique’’. You may also know it from the (suppletive: the ‘paradigm’ consists of several different stems) Latin perfect of esse ‘to be’: fū-ī ‘I was’, or maybe, like, uh, I don’t know, to be.
Maybe it was just me, but I found it very satisfying to see that both parts of the compound could be reconstructed to Indo-European.
In Part II we’ll talk about the plant, stay tuned!