A little boy asked me recently why his parents called me Sasha.

Well, it is an interesting story, and it is more about the Russian language than me.

The Russian language has a remarkable capacity for transforming words and giving them new shadows of meaning and emotional colour. For example, almost any noun and almost any adjective have a host of diminutive forms. For example, the word малый, “small’’, has at least four forms:

маловатый, малый, маленький, малюсенький,

each marking the next degree of smallness. The same is happening with personal names: the Russian language allows its users to form a huge variety of dimunitive, personal of familiar forms of names.

Let us start with Александр, Alexander. The name is of Greek origin, and made of two Greek roots: “аlex-”, which means “defence” in Greek, and “andros”, which means “man”; the meaning of the name is “defender of people”. In many languages, the two roots are split out, making new names, like in English, for example, Alex and Sandy (the latter is more common in Scotland, I believe). In my local Chinese takeaway, I am known as Alex, but next door, in a Turkish takeaway, I am known as “Iskender”, which is a Turkish form of “Alexander”. The Turks remember the great warrior of the past, Alexander of Macedonia, and the word “Iskender” is occasionally used by Turks to mean something like “great, majestic, royal”. “Iskender kebab” is the name on the menu for a very big kebab, which, I have to admit, looks more and more like a fair description of me.

So, the first root of Александр generates, in some dialects of Russian, names Олесь, Олеся, Олеша. The second root happened to be even more flexible: first of all, it transformed

Александр – Алексаша – Саша,

thus yielding the most common familiar form of my name, Sasha. The name Sasha is used in informal conversations between people of the same age, or between close relatives; a child can call his uncle “uncle Sasha”, but it would be deemed inappropriate if a child call his uncle just “Sasha”. There are two more basic dimunitive / familiar forms of Александр: Саня and Шура.

All three forms of Александр have a full range of derivatives:

Саша – Сашка, Сашенька, Сашутка, Сашок.

Саня – Санька, Санечка, Санёк.

Шура – Шурка, Шурочка, Шурик.

If you are not bewildered yet, I have to explain that Russians have two forms of addressing people: a polite, when the plural “you” is used, вы, and a familiar, ты, which has no analogue in modern English, but had in the past, “thou” (as in the Bible: Thou Shalt Not Kill). Саша and Шура can be used with a polite form of address, but I cannot imagine anyone using Саня and “вы”. The use of Сашка, Санька, Шурка with the polite form вы is out of question: these names are reserved for conversations between boys.

And there are also patronymics: the father’s name is used with the full first name in the full polite form of address. I am Александр Васильевич, because my father was Василий (а Russian form of Basil). But I have to stop here; conventions for use of patronymics will fill a book. Perhaps, this book is already written by someone.