Babooshka – What Is It About?

Yesterday a friend of mine asked me a very interesting question. He heard a very popular song “Babooshka” by the British singer Kate Bush, taken from her album “Never for Ever” that was released in 1980 and was a hit at this time. My friend heard that babooshka is a Russian word, but he could…

Yesterday a friend of mine asked me a very interesting question. He heard a very popular song “Babooshka” by the British singer Kate Bush, taken from her album “Never for Ever” that was released in 1980 and was a hit at this time.

My friend heard that babooshka is a Russian word, but he could not find out what it means. I decided to make a small investigation on this. And I was very surprised with what I found.

Firstly, let's start with the Webster dictionary. According to it the first meaning of the word “babushka” is a woman's headscarf folded into a triangle and tied under the chin; worn by Russian peasant women. These headscarves are still very popular and widely worn by elderly women in Russia and in the CIS nowdays. But the word in Russian, which is used to denote this part of clothes, is headscarf (“platok” in Russian), but not babushka as in English.

The second meaning of the word babushka which is registered in English is granny, grandmother. According to the Webster dictionary grandmother is the mother of one's father or mother. The same meaning goes in Russian. But if to look deeper into the cultural aspect of the word, quite a lot of differences can be found. Grandmothers are different by their nationalities. Who is granny in Russia? She is special in every Russian hearts. She is the one who retires when her first grand-child is born to start a new full-time job to care for the little ones. If you want to find out people from CIS about their babushka, you'll see a tear in their eyes, smile and a long story about the best teftelki (meat balls) ever!

While studying the etymology of the word “babushka” in the Internet, I have also found a few more meanings in English which are not registered in the dictionaries but widely used today. The first is matreshka. This is a set of wooden figures which fit one inside the other. Traditionally there are at least five nested figures. They have got cylindrical form, the outer layer is a woman dressed in a sarafan and babushka. The outer appearance of matreshka – the same headscarves, the same image of an older woman who cares for her beloved ones, the image that makes you warm and feel comfortable – introduced a new meaning of the word “babushka” in English – “matreshka” . In Russian such kind of development is not traced.

Another meaning which is also not registered with the dictionaries is a Christmas tale about babushka and the three kings. It has been proved by the researchers that this tale has nothing to do with Russian folklore. It was found out that in the later 19th century American writer Edith Matilda Tomas mistook the Italian legend of La Befana about the old lady who did not join the three wise men on their journey to see Baby Jesus so now she wanders around the world giving gifts to kids and hoping to find the Christ child. The Russian children have never heard of Babushka in this meaning. Russian kids do not have Babushka to bring them gifts, it's Father Christmas – Father Frost, who does it.
But what about the song “Babaoshka”? Once in an interview Kate Bush explained that this song was about a wife that tests her husband to see if he would fool around on her, and he falls in love with her pseudonym.

She wanted to test her husband
She knew exactly what to do
A pseudonym to fool him

So “babooshka” is used here as a pseudonym. Kate Bush claimed that while writing this song, the word “babooshka” came to her mind subconsciously and at that moment she barely knew the meaning of the word, just supposing that this is the name of a Princess from a Russian tale.

Summing it up, I would say that this is a very rare language phenomenon in English when the Russian word which has got only one registered meaning in the Russian dictionary, has been developed in English and has gotten at least 4 meanings that only exist in the English speaking countries. Can we expect some more developments? Let's see in the future!