The following information originally appeared as part of a larger article on Russkaya Semyorka, a Russian-language history and culture site. The information has been translated and adapted here by SRAS.
According to one legend, the name “Slavs” comes from the verb “славить” (slavit’; to praise, to give a blessing). This seems unquestionable, actually, as nearly every Russian greeting is actually a blessing.
Here are some examples of greetings and the meanings they’ve carried throughout history.
- Pre-Christian Greetings
In Russian folk tales and ballads, one often encounters the greeting “Гой еси, добрый молодец!” This is given especially to young people met. The word “гой” (goy) is of ancient root, present in many languages. In Russian, its meaning refers to both the act of living and the power of life. In the famous Explanatory Dictionary of the Living, Great Russian Language by Vladimir Dahl, the verbal form of this root word is presented as “to live; to thrive.” The word еси (esi) means “is/existing.” So, the phrase may be literally translated as “You are living now and continue to live!”
Some researchers claim that the contextual meaning of the phrase is to reflect belonging to the same community, to one tribe or family. In this meaning, it reads as: “You are one of us; we are of the same blood.”
It is interesting that the ancient root word “гой” has been preserved in Russian in the word “изгой” (outcast/castaway/exile). While гой reflects life and living, изгой is a person separated from life, deprived from it.
Another common ancient Russian greeting is “Мир вашему дому!” (Peace unto your house). This is an incredibly meaningful and respectful greetings in that it greets both the house, all who live there, and the family’s close and distant relatives. In both English and Russian, “house” once referred to an extended family.
In pre-Christian Russia, this greeting also likely addressed the house spirit and family god. In Russian folk tales and ballads, characters often greet meadows, rivers, forest, and clouds. Each was thought to have its own spirit attached to it which could either favor the travel or hinder or even harm him.
- Christian Greetings
With Christianity, Russia gained a multitude of greetings and the very first words heard from someone revealed their religious faith. Much of Christian ceremonies involve call (from the priest) and response (from the audience) and thus it is interesting that many greetings of this time had expected responses as well.
Russian Christians often used “Христос посреди нас!” (Christ is among us!). It is interesting that, like “Гой еси,” this greeting serves primarily to establish a single community between the greeter and greeted. Here, however, it is established by faith rather than by blood or life force. The Christian greeting was met with a response of “Есть и будет!” (“He is and will be!”)
Another common Christian greeting in Russia was “Радуйся!” – “Rejoice!” This word opens the Canticle of Mary, a religious hymn.
Another greeting from this time was reserved for someone who was met while that person was working. “Бог в помощь!” – “God be your help!” would be called out. “Во славу Божию!” (For the glory of God!) or “Слава Богу!” (Praise God!) would be the response. These words, not as a greeting, but as general well-wish are used by Russians still today. It is the equivalent of wishing someone “Godspeed.”
Most likely not all ancient salutations reached us. In spiritual literature, greetings would often be omitted; characters advance to the main point of conversation. Only one salutation is found presented in such literature from that time – in an apocrypha, The Lay of St. Agapius (http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/print7177.htm?), from the XIII century: “Добре ходити и добр вы путь буде” (Walk well and your path will be good).
- Modern Greetings; Ancient Roots
The origin of these common modern greetings is very interesting.
The word “Здравствуй” (zdravstvy), in our time, refers to “здравие” (zdravie; health). It is a wish that the greeted person will have health and a long life.
However, the root “здрав” (zdrav) and “здров” (zdrov) have much deeper roots. They are known in ancient Hindu, Greek, and Avestan languages. Originally, the word “здравствуйте” (zdravstvyite) consisted of two parts: “S-” and “-dorvo”, where former meant “good” and latter was related to the term “tree.” Why a tree? For ancient Slavs, a tree was a symbol of strength and well-being as well as the family. It was a wish of health and long life, but also referred with respect to the person’s strong, powerful family.
In fact, “здравствуйте” (zdravstvyite) could only be used between free people, equal to one another, but not as a way to greet serfs and bondsmen. Such people would greet their superiors with: “Бью челом” (I bow lowly).
The first recorded use of the word “здравствуйте” (zdravstvyite) was in a chronicle dated 1057 AD. The full greeting recorded was: “Здравствуйте же многие лета” (Be well for many years).
Decoding the word “Привет” (Pryviet) is easier. It also consists of two parts: “при“+”вет.” The former is a prefix signifying closeness, approximation to someone or something. The latter refers to a communication. It is also seen in words “совет” (advice), “ответ” (response, answer), “весть” (news, message). Thus, it can be read to read literally “close communication” or “warm greetings.” When saying “привет”, we express a closeness of relationship and pass on to others a message of well-meaning.