Home / General / Bolsheviki v. Bolshevik

Bolsheviki v. Bolshevik


On the twitters last night, I was wondering when the term “Bolsheviki” declined vis-a-vis “Bolshevik.” I assumed it was around 1930 or so. I still have no idea why the term fell out of us. But then a Twitter friend created this for me on the googles, which evidently can do some interesting things.

It does confirm that “Bolsheviki” is basically not used after about 1930. It also shows a rapid decline in talking about “Bolsheviks” in the late 30s. I assume this has to do with our building alliance with the USSR to fight Hitler, although the decline is well before 1941 and it seems before 1939.

Anyway, now I have to find out why “Bolsheviki” went out of fashion.

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  • The US officially recognized the USSR in 1933; perhaps that had something to do with it.

    “Bolsheviki” is less recognizable to English speakers as a plural than “Bolsheviks”; maybe that’s why its use declined. Does the red line indicate use of both the singular and (English) plural?

    • Not sure about whether it covers both singular and plural. Good question.

      • DavidT

        Bolsheviki is plural, period. My guess is that it was used a lot in the US in the early 1920’s becuse of press coverage of the Russian Civil War (“city X has fallen to the Bolsheviki”). Once the Soviet regime stabilized itself, the word probably became too exotic. Similarly, I would guess that the word Fascisti was used frequently in covering Mussolini’s rise to power, later to be replaced by the less-exotic sounding Fascists.

        With Bolshevik, of course, there is also the fact that the Bolsheviks themselves increasingly talked about their party as simply the Communist Party. After all, the word Bolshevik simply means “of the majority”–i.e., it refers to the fact that Lenin’s faction had (allegedly) a majority of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party on its side, as opposed to the Mensheviks (or Mensheviki), who were “of the minority.” As time passed, this became ancient history to the Communists and eventually the CPSU(B)– Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik)–dropped the parenthetical b.

        • DavidT

          Here’s Fred Waring from 1926: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZEf-NxtSkU

          (“in that Bolsheviki landovich”)

        • But, the parenthetical b lasted for a long time. A very quick and unscientific look at a document collection shows that they were still using it on documents as late as 1944. Although it appears to have ceased by 1948.

    • Bill

      More importantly, the ngram viewer is case-sensitive, so that chart above indicates the usage of “bolshevik” vs. “bolsheviki” rather than “Bolshevik” vs. “Bolsheviki”.

  • Robert Farley

    Only a Bolsheviki would write a post like this.

    • Putting together my list of who goes up against the wall comrade.

      • Vance Maverick

        In this light, your writing “the term fell out of us” looks less like a typo.

      • PROTIP: It’s almost always faster & easier to make a list of who isn’t going up against the wall.

    • rea

      He is large, he contains multitudes.

  • Hogan

    It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’.

    –George Orwell, 1940

  • rea

    I gather that “Bolsheviki” is the plural of “Bolshevik” in Russian, for what that’s worth. So “Bolshevki” (1) duplicates “Bolsheviks,” (2) can’t be used to describe the party, or individuals, only multiple members, and (3) doesn’t work well as an adjective.

  • UserGoogol

    Well, looking at that chart, it looks like “Bolshleviki” was never the most popular pronunciation. So it might have just been standardization. People flip flopped between which pluralization to use in the early days, but in the end, “Bolshleviks” won out.

    • UserGoogol

      Hmm, going straight to the Ngram viewer makes me realize (1) I totally mispelled both those words and (2) Bolsheviki was actually slightly more popular in the earliest years of the Russian revolution.

      Well to address the second point, another possibility is that as those damned commies became more familiar, people became more comfortable treating it as an English word and using English rules of grammar to pluralize it. But my original point wasn’t that far from being wrong, since Bolsheviki and Bolsheviks were both reasonably popular spellings at the time.

      • Heron

        I’m more inclined to linguistic explanations like these. English speakers barely tolerate “fungi” and “octopi” and that’s probably because they’re rather rare words. Consonant endings and “s” pluralizations are something we’re far more comfortable with.

        • This was my first thought. It’s gotta be a linguistic thing, where the standard English plural won out.

        • NonyNony

          English speakers barely tolerate “fungi” and “octopi”

          Interestingly enough, since octopus is of Greek derivation and not Latin derivation, the English speakers who reject “octopi” are no more or less correct than the ones who use it. Octopuses is a fine plural form for the word as it is and no more or less correct than octopi. You could always use “octopodes” if you want to be pedantic about the “proper pluralization” and are a prescriptivist about such things.

          And people continue to correct me about cactuses. Nobody likes it when I talk about cactuses – they all want it to be “cacti”. Even spell-checkers hate the perfectly cromulent pluralization cactuses and want me to use cacti despite the fact that cactus is, again, Greek and not Latin. (Although I don’t know enough to know whether “cactopodes” would be a “properly pedantic” pluralization in this case…)

          • JRoth


            • NonyNony

              I’d prefer kaktoi myself, but I think that’s probably right.

              I’d really like it to be kaktopodes though. Because “-podes” at the end of words is awesome.

              • Heron

                From now on I’m using kaktoi. I really dig those Grecian hard ks and “-oi” endings for some reason.

          • Mike F.

            Nony, dude I want to party with you. You sound like a fucking riot.

  • Anonymous

    The twenties are just a long tail to nowhere. The real drop seems like it coincides with the end of the red scare. (Or … the end of the Russian Civil War.)

  • SN

    Usage of the term peaked during the Red Scare of the 1920s in the wake of the Palmer raid and when the CP (largest far left org at the time) was engaged in its nutty Third Period ultraleftism.


    The decline in Bolshevik 34-39 was during the popular front where the far left and liberals were working together. The CIO is a good example of cooperation across the broad left.


    The rise from 39 to early 40s indicates the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. As the Soviet accomodated the Nazis. And since it rained in Moscow every CPer in America had to open his or her umbrella, never mind the real gains made via the popular front.


    The decline again in the mid 40s matches the alliance of the US and USSR against the Axis powers. and the rise of late 40s shows the beginning of the Cold War.

    Simple correlations aren’t always meaningless.

    • JRoth

      Don’t forget the Moscow Show Trials – surely that’s a huge source of ongoing writing about Bolshevikis (as opposed to 1-week stories like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – it was important, of course, but what does a newspaper say about it 10 days later? “Nazis and Bolsheviks still not aggressive towards one another”)

      • rea


        You can use “Bolsheviki” as the plural, or you can use “Bolsheviks,” but if you say, “Bolshevikis,” clearly you are an enemey of the people.

  • greylocks

    As an occasional student of linguistics, my first thought was that Bolsheviki simply doesn’t sound right to English-speaking ears and doesn’t look right to English-reading eyes.

    In the end, our internal programming about what is “English” inevitably wins out. And these rules, like it or not, also cover how we think newly imported or non-English words should sound.

    Some years ago, there was a debate on an English-language mailing list for dog breeders about the Welsh plural of “corgi”. When I replied that the Welsh plural is “corgwn” (pronounced KOR-goon), there were some rude idiots on the list who complained that it didn’t sound right, that it was ugly, the accent should be on the last syllable, etc etc. One insisted the Welsh plural was “corgwyn”. My response was that “corgwyn” was typical of how English speakers think Welsh should work, but not how it actually does.

    With Bolsheviki, I strongly suspect — actually, I’m 99.999% sure — you’re seeing the same phenomenon.

    • njorl

      Another interesting angle would be to track the number of Russian immigrants. It could be that after immigration declined, there weren’t enough native Russian speakers to keep “Bolsheviki” going.

      • greylocks

        Examples of borrowed words keeping their original form even in the presence of a large immigrant population are pretty rare, unless the original form sounded English enough to be accepted as is. Not saying it never happens, just that it would be rare.

        I suspect the use of “Bolsheviki” in ways that Google could search for was limited to a highly literate class that felt it had to use the “proper” form until the usage started to come across as an affectation.

        • DocAmazing

          Way back when, I used to get into online tangles with a wingnut who fulminated about terrorism committed by “fedayees”.

          • redrob64

            Strangely my Irish grandparents had a housekeeper who used to indicate that she had run out of patience with us kids by throwing us out of the kitchen with “I’m fed a ye, and I’ll be rid a ye!”

  • Likewise, some try to pluralize penis as penii. It’s Latin, right enough, but that’s the wrong declension.

  • sparks

    Okay, how does the contraction “Bolshie” relate in use to the others?

    • It’s a shortening of “Bolshevik,” plural “Bolshies.”

  • teraz kurwa my

    On a related note, I’ve occasionally wondered why the Russian ‘Sovietskii Soyuz’ was turned into ‘Soviet Union.’ Why translate half of it rather than all or none of it, and why that half?

    • greylocks

      In English, the full formal name is “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”, oft-abbreviated to USSR (as in the famous Beatles song).

      Soviet Union is typical linguistic shorthand, common in many languages. See also America for United States of America, Britain for Great Britain, etc.

      No one in France calls it Republique Francaise, either. It’s just France.

      • teraz kurwa my

        Soviet Union is typical linguistic shorthand, common in many languages. See also America for United States of America, Britain for Great Britain, etc.

        No one in France calls it Republique Francaise, either. It’s just France.

        But nobody in France calls America ‘Les States Unies or Les United Etats’ The question was why not ‘Council Union’ or ‘Council Soyuz’ rather than ‘Soviet Union’. Sure, it sounds awkward, but so does the original, or at least it did back when it was coined.

        • njorl

          Soviet is a cool word to say. Plus, you need at least one word in a country name that doesn’t mean anything else to Americans. We’d have to call it “The Union of Councils of Socialist Republics of Russia ” or something like that. By using “soviet” we get to leave out “Russia”.

    • Originally the word “soviet” meant any political deliberative council, but it came to be associated with the revolutionary committees that formed in 1917. Eventually they became a pyramid of top-down representative bodies taking direction from the CPSU, with “sovietskii” becoming the adjectival form. There wasn’t a good direct translation into English, as opposed to Soyuz- Union, so Soviet was retained.

      • JRoth

        Yeah, I think that “soviet” came to take on a pretty specific meaning – it’s not as if the Council on Foreign Relations could have petitioned for admission – and so the local word became treated as a proper noun. This is actually pretty common, where a perfectly translatable word stays untranslated in order to render context – most commonly in food (Weißwurst vs. white sausage), but in lots of other contexts, both current (Taliban) and classical (many Latin & Greek phrases, like sine qua non, are too rich for literal translation, but bona fide isn’t).

        Hell, how many Christians know (not have been told, but really know) that Christ isn’t a name or even really a title (or perhaps, it’s a title like Alexander the Great, not like King Charles)?

  • wengler

    It makes sense that both terms fell off after the end of World War II, because Bolshevik rarely referred to anyone outside of the Russian context. With the post-war wave of Communist revolution, it no longer made sense to use it.

  • Anonymous

    Bolshevik Party was renamed to Communist Party in 1918 (according to my quick search). This term went out of fashion in Russia as well.

  • njorl

    On the drive home last night, I started imagining “Bolshevik Bolsheviki” being sung to the tune of the Papageno Papagena duet from “The Magic Flute”

  • English

    I like Bolo for short. It’s a nice quick insult and no one will know what you just implicated.

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