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Several days ago, I got curious about the last name of Nikolai Gogol. It just seemed not Slavic to me to be the last name of a Russian/Ukrainian author. I searched for his father on Wikipedia:

He was the landlord of the village of Vasilyevka (now Hoholeve, Poltava Oblast) and descendant of Ukrainian Cossack noble families of Gogol (Hohol) and Lizogub.

I tried to find a lengthy family tree, But I failed. because most websites regarding this are blocked in my country and I don't know why.

So I tried to find the etymology of it using Wiktionary:

From Russian Го́голь (Gógolʹ) and Ukrainian Го́голь (Hóholʹ). The surname is from Ukrainian го́голь (hóholʹ, “common goldeneye, Bucephala clangula”) < Proto-Slavic *gogolь.

Then I searched for common goldeneye and I found out it's a kind of duck.

The map from Wikipedia shows parts of Ukraine are in the habitat of the goldeneye.

picture

If we consider this noble family had this last name before becoming nobility, then why didn't they change it from a name of a kind of duck to something more prestigious after they became nobility? Do we have other noble last names that seem low-level?

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    It's possible that they already had the name before they became nobility. For example, if your father earns his way into the nobility, would you dishonor his name by changing it?
    – Steve Bird
    Jun 17, 2023 at 17:38
  • You're right. I edit my question
    – user40948
    Jun 17, 2023 at 17:53
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    What've you got against the majestic duck? One never knows what an animal might symbolize in a given culture! But anyway, taking a noun for a surmame doesn't imply identifying with the thing directly. Mr. Duck could be an excellent shot at ducks, or own a vast acreage of good duck territory. My Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandfather was nicknamed (not flatteringly in his case) "Haase Peter" because he trapped rabbits for food during the Great Depression. Anyway, not an answer since as we've seen this doesn't account for Gogol, but raising as scepticism about the premise. Jun 17, 2023 at 21:14
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    FWIW, to this native speaker of Russian the surname Gogol sounds ok. There are lots of stupid-or-ridiculous-sounding surnames names in Russian, this is not one of them - to a modern ear. Jun 18, 2023 at 9:07
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    You might like to look at the origin of names like Plantagenet (shoot of broom - a common scrub plant) and Windsor (winch by the riverside - for loading and unloading cargo on river boats) before deciding what is and isn't prestigious. Time and association makes many mundane things fancy. They weren't all Lionhearts and Bravehearts. Jun 19, 2023 at 0:32

1 Answer 1

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Actually, the answer is a bit confusing.

The name was apparently originally a 'normal' one before one of Nikolai's ancestors added the 'Gogol' bit.

A Reference Guide to Russian Literature tells us:

Nikolai Vasil'evich Gogol' was born in 1809 in the Ukrainian town of Sorochintsii into a family of minor land-owning gentry. His real surname was, in fact, Ianovskii, but in an attempt to claim more noble Cossack ancestry, the writer's grandfather had tacked on the name Gogol' (which means "golden eye duck"). Gogol' himself had a long and "beaky" nose, and it is as though the future comic writer was born under the sign of a joke. Bogus social status proclaimed through the bathos of a comic bird (Gogol' himself would later drop the Ianovskii element of his own name) noses, overweening pretensions, comic names, the motif of birds, the Ukraine - all these would figure prominently in his later writing.

Yet a biography of the writer gives some other details, and those details seem to be slightly contradictory:

When a private tutor in St Petersburg pupils addressed Gogol as 'Mr Yanovsky', he retorted: 'Why do you call me Mr Yanovsky? My surname is Gogol. Yanovsky is only an appendage stuck on by the Poles."

In a letter to his mother in February 1832 he wrote:

I beg you to address letters to me simply as Gogol, because I don't know what has happened to the ending of my name. Perhaps someone has picked it up on the highway and is carrying it about as his own property. However that may be, I am not known anywhere here by the name of Yanovsky, and the postmen always find it difficult to find me under this sign.

Besides reinforcing the claim to Cossack nobility, there were probably other reasons for discarding the Polish-sounding Yanovsky in the aftermath of the Polish uprising of 1831. Nevertheless, the writer was left with a single surname to which he had a dubious right and which, like many Ukrainian names, sounded comic to Russian ears, in as much as it had meaning - the name of a species of duck ('golden-eye"). In 'The Old World Landowners' the narrator speaks disparagingly of those Ukrainians of humble origin, who come to St Petersburg to make a career and even change their names (converting the typical Ukrainian ending in '-o' to the Russian -ov'). Nevertheless, there is an element of self-mockery in Gogol's attitude to his own name, which may be detected in his works.

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