Nicknames in teaching Russian as a foreign language

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The question of expanding the range of linguistic units involved as a linguo-didactic material is raised in the article. The purpose of the work is to substantiate the need to use such a category of proper names as nicknames in the framework of the Russian as a foreign language course. Illustrative material mainly includes well-known, culturally significant nicknames of historical and political figures, as well as modern informal names. The relevance of the research is ensured by the fact that the selection of anthroponyms as educational materials in teaching Russian as a foreign language is not typical for the current linguistic, linguo-cultural and socio-cultural situation. In particular, there is a contradiction between the negative attitude to nicknames established in the society and their real status in the Russian anthroponymic system. Due to the underestimation of the role of nicknames in the society, this type of anthroponyms is not represented in the didactic materials on Russian as a foreign language. However, it is advisable to introduce nicknames in teaching, since they have been a fact of the Russian linguistic and cultural space throughout its existence and meet all the basic approaches of modern Russian pedagogy: competence-based, meta-subject and axiological. The descriptive-analytical method was the leading research method in the article. Nicknames are considered as a category of anthroponyms. The author shows that nicknames are a fact of linguistic and social communication, a linguistic, socio-cultural and individual psychological phenomenon. Nicknames are multifunctional: they perform nominative, identifying, differentiating, individualizing, marking, emotive, axiological, and other functions. The teacher of Russian as a foreign language taking into account the relevance, cognitive significance and communicative value of nicknames; it is necessary to distinguish them from similar categories - pseudonyms and Internet nicknames. The adequacy of the selection will be facilitated by relying on the author’s classification of nicknames. Nicknames provide rich material for mastering various linguistic topics properly and establishing meta-subject connections. This approach will make it possible to overcome the “separation from reality” to some extent, and to improve the quality of teaching Russian to foreigners, develop their competencies, improve their linguistic personality, and introduce them to Russian culture.

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In recent years, there has been an increasing tendency to think that the available methodological developments in teaching Russian as a foreign language (RFL) need to be adjusted to the present-day linguistic situation and the advances in linguistics and linguodidactics. One of the vulnerable sections is onomastics – the science associated with the study of proper names. Even “...the term onomastic vocabulary is not introduced into the curriculum, no idea of the main types of onomastic units is given, no acquaintance with the history of Russian anthroponymy and its Christianization is assumed, no dictionaries of this type are characterized,” and the authors have not developed special exercises for foreigners using different kinds of onyms (Sergeeva, 2009: 147). The linguocultural component of proper names is also ignored. They often only accompany the grammatical or communicative phenomena being studied, although onomastics are quite valuable in various aspects of RFL teaching (Golovina, 2020).

Proper names “act as markers of time, social processes, cultural and personal identity,” “the name represents that piece of the mosaic of the national picture of the world, without which it would be not only incomplete, but also impossible” (Boiko, 2013: 17, 20). Onym is formed, functions and disappears in the context of a particular culture. However, the fundamental theories of cultural linguistics, cognitive linguistics, and ethnolinguistics are mainly developed on the basis of the appellative lexicon. There are separate works on the material of astronyms (Rut, 2008) and toponyms (Berezovich, 2010; 2021), but there are no fundamental works of this kind in Russia concerning anthroponymy and other branches of onomastics. We only know of a foreign work that summarizes the achievements of linguists in the field of onomastics (Hough, Izdebska, 2016), where small chapters are devoted to individual classes of proper names, including chapter 16 “Bynames and nicknames,” prepared by Eva Brylla (Brylla, 2016: 237–250). Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the successes of domestic linguistics are not adequately reflected in RFL teaching. Only in individual articles do linguists and RFL teachers state that “the ‘anthroponymic picture of the world’ presented in textbooks does not always coincide with the real one” (Martynenko, 2020: 191), in particular the linguodidactic potential of nicknames is not taken into account (Golovina, 2012; Bobrova, 2021).

As a result, on the one hand, it has long been recognized that proper names are a multifaceted phenomenon, and their value is not limited to its nominative function. On the other hand, in linguodidactics there is a lag from the general achievements in linguistics and a break from the real linguistic situation. This situation is partially overcome by linguists and specialists in linguodidactics in individual publications, usually of a small format, in the practice of RFL teachers, but they do not solve all the issues.

Teachers need to respond to the current challenges in science and linguodidactics, and this is primarily a competency-based approach. It is not enough for Russian and foreign students to master only a certain set of lexical and grammar tools. It is necessary to develop students’ linguocultural competence as “a system of knowledge about culture embodied in a particular national language” (Vorobyev, 2008: 56), linguocultural competence as “background knowledge of a typical... representative... of a linguocultural community,” “the ability to use background knowledge to achieve mutual understanding in situations of mediated and direct intercultural communication, knowledge of lexical units with a national-cultural component of meaning and the ability to apply them adequately in situations of intercultural communication” – everything that finally provides “communicative competence in acts of intercultural communication, primarily through adequate perception of the interlocutor’s speech and understanding of original texts” (Shaklein, 2012: 53, 57).

Proper nouns serve as a fertile material for forming a full-fledged linguistic personality. In the process of teaching RFL the following tasks become urgent:

  • forming students’ adequate ideas about Russian onomastic space, its anthroponymic fragment;
  • acquainting students of different level of training with anthroponyms used in formal and informal situations;
  • developing students’ skills in using linguistic means, including anthroponyms, which contribute to the effective communication in different cultural environments and communication situations.

The aim of the work is to justify the necessity of using nicknames as part of the course of RFL.

To achieve this, the following tasks have been fulfilled:

1) to argue the expediency of introducing students to informal names of people (nicknames);
2) to reveal the main typological features of nicknames;
3) to outline the main principles of choosing nicknames in the process of teaching the Russian language;
4) to demonstrate linguodidactic potential of nicknames.

Methods and materials

The main method of research is the descriptive-analytical method. Some typological features of modern Russian nicknames are described and their classification is given.

The material used is mainly well-known, culturally significant nicknames of historical and political personalities, as well as data from the “Big Dictionary of Russian Nicknames1.”


The main results of the study are as follows:

  • the topical problems of introducing nicknames in teaching RFL are pointed out;
  • the specifics of nicknames are substantiated;
  • the range of sources for acquainting students with Russian nicknames was indicated;
  • the main principles for selecting nicknames for Russian language classes were determined;
  • some ways of introducing nicknames into teaching RFL are proposed.


Nicknames as informal anthroponyms. In RFL classes, foreign-language learners are only exposed to anthroponyms of the officially accepted three-part formula: “first name – patronymic – last name.” In the process of learning, students inevitably encounter them in academic texts, learn the peculiarities of Russian anthroponymy on an intuitive level, and receive minimal commentary from teachers. But the fact that nicknames have always been actively used in the Russian-speaking environment is actually ignored. In exceptional cases, students have the opportunity to get acquainted with Russian nicknames when mastering historical topics, if they have established themselves as part of the official naming (cf. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great), but even then the concept of “nickname” is not introduced. In our opinion, this distorts the real socio-cultural situation and prevents students from having adequate idea about the Russian language as a system and as a means of communication.

This is probably due to a disdainful, even contemptuous attitude towards nicknames in Russian society, the belief that the use of nicknames indicates an extremely low culture of communicators, mostly marginal people. However, informal onyms are used in all social groups: in the family in relation to the loved ones (ZayaLittle Hare, Medvezhonok – Little Bear, Pupsik – Little Doll, etc.), among friends, classmates, colleagues (nicknames based on surnames or characteristic nicknames), in relation to superiors – teachers, supervisors, etc. (more often negative nominations for aggressive, excessively demanding or unintelligent people), when referring to famous personalities, etc. Obviously, we should recognize nicknames as a reality of the Russian communicative space. And there are reasons for this.

Indeed, it is true, to a certain extent, that nicknames are a phenomenon of the folk carnival-mocking tradition, which provides “a temporary escape from the normal (official) system of life” (Bakhtin 1990: 12). At the same time, nicknames are probably the most ancient and originally the only types of naming. It is well known, though not commonly realized, that nicknames have always been used by all social strata, including the upper class and the aristocracy. But now such anthroponyms occupy not a central, but a peripheral position in the system of nominating people (on the history of Russian nicknames, see, for example: Polyakova, 2005; Selishchev, 2003; Chichagov, 2018). Historically, they are indeed marginal, but only in the legal, not in the domestic sphere of communication. Over the course of nicknames existence, the principles of their formation, functions, and sphere of usage have changed, but nicknames have never gone out of speech.

Nicknames are a fact of linguistic and social communication, extremely labile and “living,” and these features are paradoxically combined with the instability and mobility of such names. At the same time, in each social group nicknames can have specific forms, functions, vocabulary selection, etc. It is equally valid to consider them as one of forms of children’s subculture, one of genres of laughter culture, children’s folklore (see works by V.V. Abramenkova, F.S. Kapitsa, T.M. Kolyadich, M.N. Melnikov, N.A. Rodina, E.N. Suvorkina), as facts of regional linguistic and sociocultural life (see, for example, the works by N.I. Volkova2), as a phenomenon of folk speech (see a series of articles and separate publications by E.F. Danilina, G.Ya. Simina, Yu.B. Vorontsova, N.G. Gordeeva, I.Yu. Kartashova, N.P. Klyueva, etc.), as a general cultural phenomenon (Volkova, 2007), etc. Undoubtedly significant are works where nicknames are described lexicographically3.

The most likely explanation for the exceptional “vitality” and high prevalence of nicknames, in spite of their artificial tabooing, is their polyfunctionality. Similar to the official anthroponyms, nicknames serve as a means of naming, distinguishing or identifying subjects, i.e., they perform nominative, differentiating and identifying functions. But they also transmit the attitude to the named people, distinguish “their own” and “others,” reflect the value attitudes of nominators (emotive, marking, axiological functions). In addition, they perform conspiratorial, socializing, cultural, entertaining, playful, etc. functions.

In other words, nicknames are a linguistic, sociocultural, and individual-psychological phenomenon. The most significant for linguistics is that nicknames can mark the most diverse manifestations of a person, society, historical era, etc.: beingness, individual, gender-age, gender, cultural, ethnic, social identity of a person; historical, social, cultural identity, cultural-historical experience of a nation (people) (Boiko, 2013; Tsepkova, 2021). Only a nickname, in particular, can individualize a person in naming, since the official three-component anthroponymic formula does not always give this opportunity due to the “limitedness of the national onomasticon” (in the terminology of L.B. Boiko; due to the relatively limited register of “active” names), the phenomenon of fashion for names (this leads to the increased frequency of some patronymics in different periods) and regional repetition of names.

All this makes informal names of people a full-fledged anthroponymic unit, no less complex and significant than names, patronymics and surnames – part of the anthroponymic code of culture. Consequently, using nicknames as linguodidactic materials in teaching RFL can form and develop a variety of competencies of students, a full-fledged linguistic personality.

Nicknames as linguistic and linguocultural material in teaching RFL. Naturally, nicknames should be used as didactic materials in a “dosed” way. For this reason, the question of selecting such specific linguistic units is actual. Solving this problem, according to Yu.B. Martynenko about anthroponymy in general, it is advisable to take into account “the principle of relevance and the principle of communicativeness,” “the cognitive significance and communicative value of the material” (Martynenko, 2020: 191, 192).

The relevance of the selected units to the real needs of students depends on the different features of specific anthroponyms. Let us present a classification (see also: Bobrova, 2020: 21–27) that reflects the main kinds of nicknames, pointing out that no exhaustive classification has been developed to date.

  1. By temporal featureswe distinguish historical and synchronous onyms. It is known that many historical figures, mainly rulers and commanders (cf. Vladimir the Red Sun, Yaroslav the Wise, Alexander the Liberator, Dmitry Donskoy, etc.), those who have become symbols of the era (cf. the Soviet Father of Peoples about Stalin), got nicknames. Obviously, such names are functionally different from modern nominations. In particular, these established names reflect the historical evaluation of the results of the individuals’ activity, while the nicknames of modern rulers or individual anthroponyms of ordinary Russian people are extremely unstable. In addition, synchronous names usually express evaluation more vividly, often in an excessively negative way (cf., for example, nicknames of politicians in the Big Dictionary of Russian Nicknames4). Historical nicknames are more preferable for teaching foreign students, and the teacher should select modern anthroponyms very carefully.
  2. According to social activity we distinguish between well-known and popular in narrow circles onyms. The nicknames of famous people are widespread: historical figures, modern politicians, actors, journalists, etc. (cf. VVP – an abbreviated nickname of the President of Russia Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin), nicknames of characters of books, movies, etc. (cf. the name Client, which the criminals use in relation to the main character; Kozlodoev instead of Kozodoev in the mouth of his partner in the film The Diamond Arm, Docent, Khmyr, Kosoy, Nikola Petersky in the film Gentlemen of Fortune, Judushka Golovlev in the book by M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, numerous examples in the stories of V.M. Shukshin, V. Krapivin and others). Everyday nicknames usually do not go beyond a very narrow group of relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors. In teaching RFL we prefer, of course, well-known names that foreign students see when reading Russian media, watching Russian movies, reading Russian books, etc. At the same time, even anthroponyms of the second group, considered comprehensively, can be useful, for example, as a source of information about contemporary Russian vocabulary (Bobrova, 2018).
  3. According to the sphere of usage we distinguish between onyms that are commonly used and those with limited usage. As linguistic materials, nicknames that are regularly used in speech are more attractive. However, the limited nicknames (limited to the professional or social sphere, the territory of functioning), may also have cognitive and/or communicative value. A rich source of the latter are the “Dictionary of Collective Nicknames” by Yu.B. Vorontsova5 and articles (Berestova, 2015; Osipova, 2017; Makarova, Popova, 2020), where nicknames appear as a source of linguistic, linguocultural, ethnocultural information about economics, food preferences, some phenotypic features of Russian people, features of the landscape, fauna, etc.
  4. According to the activity of usage we distinguish between active and passive onyms. It is more expedient to acquaint students with active nicknames rather than to obsolete names or neologisms, the absence of which in live speech demonstrates the irrelevance of the information they contain. For example, Vladimir I. Ulyanov’s underground nickname Lenin is well-known, but few people know his other nicknames (Starik, Lukich, etc.), which have little cultural value.
  5. According to their extension we distinguish between group (collective-territorial, social-group, family) and individual onyms. Cognitive and communicative linguistic potential is characteristic for nicknames of both groups, cf.: dynastic name Rurikovich and nominations of dynasty individual representatives Vladimir the Holy, Vladimir Monomakh, Vsevolod the Big Nest, Vasily the Dark, etc.
  6. According to stylistic features we distinguish between neutral and stylistically colored onyms. Contrary to popular opinion, nicknames may be not only negative. Stylistic affiliation is dynamic, depending on the changing ideological connotations. So, at present, Nicholas II is commonly referred to as Passion-bearer, the nickname Bloody, which circulated during his reign, is actually forgotten.

It is necessary to distinguish nicknames from the related types of anthroponyms, such as pseudonyms and nicks in social networks. Nicks are “informal optional secondary names serving to characterize people and other purposes on the basis of social, territorial, temporal, emotional and evaluative, eventual and other factors.6 Unlike nicks, pseudonyms are fictional anthroponyms used by a person in public activities for conspiratorial purposes; nicks are fictional anthroponyms used by a person in social networks for conspiratorial and other purposes (Klimova, 2020).

No less significant is the question of the possibilities and ways of introducing nicknames into linguistic practice. Since we are limited by the length of this article, we will outline only a few points.

The possibilities for including nicknames in the teacher’s work are wide. One methodological solution is to compile thematic dictionaries (for example, the names of rulers and political figures of the pre-Soviet/Soviet/post-Soviet period, of Russian generals, writers, artists, etc., also on multinational material) or country dictionaries that include nicknames. Nicknames provide rich material for learning the Russian language system. Thus, the means and methods of word formation and morphology of the Russian language can be illustrated by nicknames Peacekeeper (cf. Miracle Worker, Poem Worker), the Long Hands (as an example of a word with a complex base), the Quietest (as an example of an adjective form in the superlative), etc. There are obvious possibilities for using such anthroponyms in studying vocabulary: for mastering obsolete words and meanings (the nickname “the Red Sun” is built in line with the folkloric epithet red (red maiden, red spring, etc.), with the urbanonym the Red Square, etc.), when studying paradigmatic connections, including synonyms (Vasily the Dark – blind), antonyms (Ivan the Terrible – Alexei the Quietest), polysemantic words (cf. Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, where great is “very significant, important, outstanding;” Veliky Novgorod (literally ‘Great Novgorod’), Perm Velikaya (literally ‘Great Perm’), where great is ‘new,’ and also Veliky Dvor (literally ‘Great Court’), Velikoye Selo (literally ‘Great Village’) where great is ‘the estate of a large feudal lord (prince, boyarina), where he or his manager lived’ (Chaikina et al., 2004: 15), etc. Such data allow to establish meta-disciplinary connections with history, geography, folklore, etc.

It is advisable, in our opinion, to rely on V.O. Maksimov’s model of surnames as linguistic and linguocultural units, containing “six thematic components: etymological, sociocultural, ethnographic, geographical, statistical, structural and word-formation and phonetic” (Maksimov, 2015: 84). Applying this model to nicknames, we conclude that it is possible to use them as a source of information about the origin of a word or as a source that discloses information from meta-disciplinary areas (cf. Ivan Kalita, Yury the Long Hands), its connection with the historical-cultural and historical-social conditions of the anthroponym’s origin (cf. Alexander Nevsky, Alexander Peacemaker, Iron Felix), with ethnocultural features (Ilya Muromets, Nightingale the Robber), with the linguistic features (see examples above). Statistical data (for example, the frequency of nicknames) show the relevance of these “retranslators” of culture, which can be regarded as linguoculturemes (cf. about this: Mikova, 2015).

It is important, that nicknames are not specific only for Russian culture. This gives the RFL teacher an opportunity to use parallels in the speech practices of different peoples. Rulers, politicians, and artists of other nations are also characterized by such nicknames; just think of the Carolingian, Windsor, and Habsburg dynasties, the rulers and politicians The Great Lame, William the Conqueror, The Maid of Orleans, the Sun King, Lord Marlborough, and The Iron Lady. We also know the names of the great people of antiquity: Horace Flaccus (“the lop-eared one”), Ovidius Nazon (“the nosey one”), Julius Caesar Caligula (“the sandal”). Some, like Cicero (“pea”), are known only by nickname. Nicknames provide rich comparative material, showing what is common and what is different in the language and culture of different peoples (see, for example, the study of the anthroponymicon of Spaniards (Rylov et al., 2010), inhabitants of the island of Bali (Geertz, 1993: 369–371), “separated by one language” English and Americans (Walmsley, 2003; Tsepkova, 2012), Japanese students (Barešová, 2020), residents of Western Polesie (Shulska, Matvijchuk, 2018), etc.).

RFL teachers has a unique opportunity to actualize the historical and cultural component of onyms and broaden the outlook of their students: to introduce additionally not only anthroponyms mentioned in textbooks (nicknames of kings), but also those used in modern press; to comment onomastic units typical of informal communication, which students can know only outside the classroom, although this phenomenon is so “alive” and widespread that we come them across in any book, any film. It is important to accentuate the axiological character of nicknames: situationality, conventionality, and social restrictions on their use.


Thus, the anthroponyms used in RFL textbooks are not quite relevant to the contemporary linguistic, linguistic, and sociocultural situation. Due to the current situation in the educational process, obstacles arise for forming and developing the necessary (linguistic, sociocultural, communicative, axiological, culturological/linguoculturological) competences of foreign students, for forming their ideas about the real specifics of interaction in the Russian-speaking environment. In order to overcome the shortcomings of the existing system of teaching foreigners, teachers of RFL have to adjust the available materials and use additional sources.

In particular, there is a contradiction between the negative attitudes in society toward nicknames and their real position in the Russian anthroponymic system. The discrepancies detected are the result of underestimating the significance of proper names in Russian society. Due to the downplaying of the role of nicknames, this type of anthroponyms is not presented in didactic materials on RFL. However, it is feasible, desirable, and to some extent necessary to introduce nicknames into linguodidactics, since they have been a fact of Russian linguocultural space throughout its existence and correspond to all the main approaches of modern Russian pedagogy: competence-based, meta-disciplinary, and axiological. This will to some extent overcome the “detachment from reality” and improve the quality of teaching foreigners the Russian language.

The questions posed in this article provide the prospects for further research on developing specific principles, techniques, and didactic approaches to introducing nicknames into teaching Russian as a foreign language.


1 Walter, H., & Mokienko, V.M. (2007). Big dictionary of Russian nicknames. Мoscow: OLMA Media Group, Neva Publ.

2 See: Volkova, N.I. (2007). Modern anthroponymy in the linguo-sociocultural space of the Komi Republic: textbook. Syktyvkar. (In Russ.); Volkova, N.I. (2003). Etymological dictionary of modern nicknames of the Komi Republic. Syktyvkar: Karel. gos. ped. in-t Publ. (In Russ.)

3 Andreev, V.K. (2009). Lexicon of youth subcultures. Experimental dictionary. Pskov: Logos Publ. (In Russ.); Bobrova, M.V. (2020). Materials for the dictionary of modern nicknames of the Perm territory residents. Saint Petersburg: RHGA Publ. (In Russ.); Walter, H., & Mokienko V.M. (2007). Big dictionary of Russian nicknames. Мoscow: OLMA Media Group, Neva Publ. (In Russ.); Walter, H., Mokienko, V.M., & Nikitina, T.G. (2005). Dictionary of Russian school and student slang. Мoscow: Astrel Publ. (In Russ.); Volkova, N.I. (2003). Etymological dictionary of modern Russian nicknames of the Komi Republic. Syktyvkar: Karelian State Pedagogical Institute. (In Russ.); Kyurshunova, I.A. (2010). Dictionary of non-calendar personal names, nicknames and family nicknames of North-Western Russia in 15–17 centuries. Saint Petersburg: Dmitry Bulanin Publ. (In Russ.); Nevrova, T.I. (2007). Regional dictionary of personal and family nicknames of Verkhovsky district of the Orel region (T.V. Bakhvalova, Ed.). Orel: OGU Publ., Kartush Publ. (In Russ.); Nikitina, T.G. (2003). Youth slang. Explanatory dictionary. Мoscow: Astrel Publ. (In Russ.); Nikitina, T.G., & Rogaleva, E.I. (2006). Football slang dictionary. Мoscow: Astrel Publ. (In Russ.); Sternin, I.A. (Ed.). (1992). Dictionary of youth slang. Words, expressions, nicknames of rock-stars, teachers. Voronezh: Logos Publ. (In Russ.); Shchuplov, A. (1999). Kto est' Khu: Mini-encyclopedia of political nicknames. Мoscow: Politburo Publ. (In Russ.); etc.

4 Walter, H., & Mokienko, V.M. (2007). Big dictionary of Russian nicknames. Мoscow: OLMA Media Group, Neva Publ. (In Russ.)

5 Vorontsova, Yu.B. (2011). Dictionary of collective nicknames. Мoscow: AST-PRESS-BOOK. (In Russ.)

6 Bobrova, M.V. (2020). Materials for the dictionary of modern nicknames of the Perm territory residents (p. 14). Saint Petersburg: Russian Academy of Arts and Industry. (In Russ.) For details see: ibid (p. 11–17).


About the authors

Maria V. Bobrova

Institute for Linguistic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-9858-0573

PhD in Philology, Assistant Professor, senior researcher, Department of Dialect Lexicography and Linguogeography of the Russian Language

9 Tuchkov Pereulok, Saint Petersburg, 199053, Russia


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