The origin of words has always been an interest of mine, and if there’s one word in particular about whose origin people have rarely agreed with me, it is вокзал, the Russian word for railway station.
While there is no disagreement that вокзал – [vɐgˈzɑl] – comes from Vauxhall in south London, there the agreement seems to end.
Time and again I’ve been told that it originates from Vauxhall railway station. But the fact is that Vauxhall has never been famous as a railway station in the same way as, say, Victoria or King’s Cross.
When I took the train from the railway station in St Petersburg (shown above) to Tsarskoe Selo, I was in fact travelling on the first ever stretch of railway in Russia, constructed to take the imperial family and their staff to their summer palace. At the time a pavilion was built alongside the railway line, a pavilion in the style of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a hugely popular attraction in south London for almost 200 years until it closed in the mid nineteenth century.
So the word вокзал comes from the pleasure gardens and not from some putative railway station.
To be fair, we all have our own childhood linguistic errors to which we may or may not wish to admit in later life. As a child I thought Tokyo and Kyoto were variant spellings of the same place. And, decades on, I can still remember my French teacher telling me that as a child he thought the word antipodes was pronounced /ˈæntɪˌpəʊdz/.
As a child I also thought that карандаш, the lovely Russian word for pencil, came from Caran d’Ache, the Swiss pencil manufacturer. It is of course the other way round. The Swiss company’s name is merely a Frenchification of the Russian word карандаш – [kɐrɐnˈdɑʂ] –, which in turn comes from Turkish, where it means black stone, or graphite.
(Photos taken in August 2012)