Siberia: What's in a Name?

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I've become increasingly fascinated with Siberia lately, that most evocative and extreme of geographies. It's so embedded in our language that it's become a by-word for other things: a terrible seat in a restaurant might be referred to by waiters as "Siberia." "Siberia" can be a social condition, too, when someone is ostracized. But where did the word itself come from? As Ian Frazier, author of the wonderful (and very long) book Travels in Siberia notes, "Officially, there is no such place as Siberia." It appears on atlases as a region but is unconnected to any specific placename; it's more a state of mind. The word itself in Russian -- Sibir -- seems to connote, with its sibilant ess and a rolled-r brr at the end, a shiver.

The word's origin, like the land itself in summer, is muddy. Etymologists say that it derives from two Turkic words, si, meaning "water," and birr, meaning "wild, unpopulated land." With its giant, long rivers that stretch from north to south, and frequently back up and spill their banks -- which tends to happen when the southern part of a river is running water and the northern half is frozen solid -- it's certainly a watery and unpopulated place, a giant marsh. Geographers point to a sixteenth-century fortress town known as Ibis-Sibir, the name of which may eventually, reapplied to successively larger areas, have come to mean the entire region. In Russian, sebe beri, is translated by writer Valentin Rasputin to mean "take what you can, take it all," which dovetails nicely with his own tales about the plunder of Siberia's abundant natural resources (gas, water, minerals of all kinds). But in the end, Siberia -- both the word and the place -- remain nicely mysterious, and I rather prefer it that way, as a giant blank spot in our collective imagination.

May 18, 2011 - 3:41am
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