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etymology

One of the characteristic SFnal musical instruments is the theremin, an electronic instrument that's controlled by waving one's hands at two antennae, one for pitch and one for loudness, and that produces weird spacey gliding tones. Many people know that it was invented in Russia and named for its inventor. But "Theremin" isn't exactly a plausible Russian name; Russian doesn't have a "th" sound ("Theodore" becomes "Fyodor," for example). And in fact the Russian spelling of the inventor's name is transliterated as "Lev Sergeyevich Termen." So how did we get from "Termen" to "Theremin"?

My hypothesis was that "Theremin" was the French transliteration; French was the prestige language in Russia for a long time, resulting in things like the communist anarchist Bakunin having his name spelled "Bakounine." According to Wikipedia, though, it actually went the other way: The family were Huguenots who had moved to Russia, and "Theremin" was the original spelling. It would have actually been pronounced something like termã, but Russian doesn't have nasalized vowels, so it was approximated as "termen." In any case, where the inventor's name became known internationally, English speakers pronounced it as if it were English, giving us "thair-uh-minn." And that's what the instrument is called in the Anglosphere.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
shirebound
Dec. 27th, 2016 08:54 pm (UTC)
Very interesting!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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