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Babooshka – what is it about?

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

My friend heard that babooshka is a Russian word, but couldn’t figure out what it means. I decided to do a little research on this. And he was very surprised by what I found.

First, let’s start with the Webster dictionary. According to him, 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 are widely used by older women in Russia and the CIS today. But the word in Russian, which is used to denote this part of clothing, is headscarf (“platok” in Russian), but not babushka as in English.

The second meaning of the word babushka that is recorded in English is abuelita, grandmother. According to Webster’s dictionary, grandmother is the mother of the father or the mother. The same meaning goes in Russian. But if we delve into the cultural aspect of the word, quite a few differences can be found. Grandmas are different because of their nationalities. Who is the grandmother in Russia? She is special in every Russian heart. She is the one who retires when her first grandchild is born to start a new full-time job taking care of the little ones. If you want to meet the people of CIS about her babushka, you will see a tear in her eyes, a smile and a long story about the best teftelki (meatballs) ever.

While studying the etymology of the word “babushka” on the Internet, I also found some more English meanings that are not recorded in dictionaries but are widely used today. The first is matreshka. It is a set of wooden figures that fit inside each other. Traditionally there are at least five nested figures. They are cylindrical in shape, the outer layer is a woman dressed in a sarafan and babushka. The outward appearance of matreshka – the same headscarves, the same image of an older woman who cares about her loved ones, the image that makes you feel warm and comfortable – introduced a new meaning to the word “babushka” in English-“matreshka”. In Russian, such a type of development is not traced.

Another meaning that is also not recorded in dictionaries is a Christmas story about babushka and the three kings. Research has shown that this story has nothing to do with Russian folklore. It was learned that at the end of the 19th century the American writer Edith Matilda Tomas confused the Italian legend of La Befana with the old woman who did not join the three wise men on their journey to see the Child Jesus, so now she wanders the world giving gifts to children and hoping to find the baby Jesus. Russian children have never heard of Babushka in this sense. Russian children do not have Babushka to bring them gifts, it is Santa Claus, Father Frost, who does.
But what about the song “Babooshka”? Once in an interview, Kate Bush explained that this song was about a wife who tests her husband to see if she plays dumb with him, and he falls for her pseudonym.

She wanted to test her husband.
she knew exactly what to do
A pseudonym to trick you

So “babooshka” is used here as a nickname. Kate Bush recounted that while writing this song, the word “babooshka” came to mind in her subconscious and at the time she barely knew the meaning of the word, assuming that it was the name of a princess from a Russian tale.

Summing up, I would say that this is a very rare linguistic phenomenon in English when the Russian word that has only one meaning recorded in the Russian dictionary, has been developed in English and has at least 4 meanings that only exist in the English-speaking countries. Can we expect more developments? Let’s see in the future!

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