Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square, aflame, with the silhouetted Statue of Lybid, sister of the city’s legendary founder, Kyi, and Ukrainian flags in the foreground.


Thomas M. Prymak
University of Toronto

Philologists, who chase
A panting syllable through time and space,
Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark,
To Gaul, to Greece, and into Noah’s Ark.
William Cowper (1731-1800)

 For a short period in 2014, the name of the central square in Kyiv called “the Maidan” became known throughout the civilized world. That was because it was the place where the Ukrainian people gathered to overthrow the unpopular regime of Victor Yanukovych, who appeared to be attempting to set up a new dictatorship in Ukraine with renewed ties to Russia. This pro-Western, pro-EU, democratic movement, came to be called by Ukrainians the Revolution of Dignity, or “the Euromaidan.” The “Euro” part of this word was clear to all. But for Westerners the “maidan” part required some explanation by visiting journalists, who, however, generally ignored it, or at most, stated simply that it was a Ukrainian word for “town square.”

Little did the Western public know that this was only a very small part of the story, for although the word “maidan” was used in Kyiv and some other Eastern Ukrainian cities with the meaning of Town Square, it was less used in Western Ukraine, where the old Slavonic word ploshcha (square), and the loan from German via Polish rynok (market place), were more frequently employed. So where does the word “maidan” come from? And why does it remain well-known in the East, but unknown in the Western world, unfamiliar to other Slavic lands to the west, and even little-known in Western Ukraine?

The simple answer to this question is that “maidan” (sometimes spelled “maydan” or “majdan”) is a loanword into Ukrainian (and also to a lesser degree into Russian) from Turkish, or rather from the Turkic languages of Central Asia. In those tongues, a maidan was an open place where trade or military exercises took place. So, like very many other words of Turkic origin in Ukrainian, like kozak (Cossack), otaman (military leader of the Cossacks), kish, or more frequently, kosh (army), and such, it came into Ukrainian from the languages of the Turks and Tatars of early modern times.

Of course, the story does not end there, because even in the Turkic languages “maidan” is not a native term, but rather is a loan word. In fact, it came into the Turkic languages from Persian (an Indo-European language), where it had pretty much the same meaning. (The “maidan” [pronounced more like “meidan” in modern Persian] or “central square” of the magnificent old Iranian/Persian city of Isfahan is actually famous throughout the entire Islamic world!) This loan took place because the nomadic Turks and settled Iranians were in close contact with each other in central Asia from very early times. Seemingly from Persian, it also entered Arabic (probably shortly before, or after, the Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century), was given an Arabic twist by those early Arab conquerors, and then re-entered Persian in a slightly different form.

However, there seems to be no agreement among Middle East specialists as to the distant origins of this peculiar word. According to some of them, even the Persians did not invent this word; rather these scholars derive it from Aramaic, an old Semitic language once spoken widely throughout the Middle East and used as an administrative language in the ancient Persian Empire. Aramaic, of course, is famous as “the language of Jesus and the first apostles,” as certain Christian immigrants to North America from Iraq, Iran, and Syria, who today speak a more modern form of that language, are fond of pointing out to us.

Other Middle East specialists derive it directly from Arabic, which after the spread of Islam from Arabia in the early middle ages, slowly replaced Aramaic throughout most of the Semitic Middle East. Those specialists suggest that it might be derived from the Arabic verb madda, meaning to pull, or to stretch, or to be extended. Still others, favouring a Persian origin, such as the German philologists Paul Horn, or, more explicitly, Karl Lokotsch, derive it from an Old Persian word meaning “middle,” as in maidyana in Avestan, an old Iranian language preserved in one of the sacred books of the Zoroastrian religion of ancient central Asia and old Persia. This word is very similar to madhya in Sanskrit, a close relation of Old Persian, which survives up to today as a literary and liturgical language in Hindu India. Since Old Persian,

 Avestan, and Sanskrit are members of the great Indo-European family of languages, those three words (derived ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European médhyos “middle”) are all distantly related to the Classical Latin term for “middle,” which was medius in its masculine form, and is preserved in the familiar English word medium. So far as I can tell, the majority opinion among specialists in the field presently favours the Persian side in this not quite arcane etymological dispute.

Not only are individual words, such as “maidan,” but even the very idea of an alphabet, and the forms of many of its separate letters, are borrowed from what historians and archeologists call “the ancient Near East.” The table on the left shows the various forms that the letter “B” has taken in Europe, beginning with ancient Egyptian, and roughly following in the chronological order of their creation, through Sinaitic, Phoenician, ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek, Latin, Romance, Gothic, Cyrillic, Glagolitic, and modern Ukrainian. The Latin alphabet was generally adopted by those peoples who adhered to or were influenced by Roman Catholic culture, while Cyrillic was adopted by those Slavs who professed Eastern Orthodoxy. Glagolitic was specially designed for the Slavonic peoples in the seventh century, but quickly fell out of general use. The table is taken from I. V. Muromtsev’s popular encyclopedia of the Ukrainian language. 

But how has this very ancient Middle Eastern word “maidan” been used over the centuries in Ukrainian and the other Slavonic languages, and what is its place in Ukrainian life and literature?

The Ukrainian encyclopedist Yevhen Onatsky sums it up most succinctly by giving three different meanings to the word: (1) A town square, especially a square with a market place or a “bazaar” (another Persian word, this one loaned into most of the European languages in the eighteenth century through their first acquaintance with the oriental tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, sometimes called the Arabian Nights). (2) A workshop where tar or pitch or asphalt were produced. (3) An embankment in the form of a ring or circle created in ancient times, like the more famous burial mounds called kurhany or kurgans. These particular maidans are most common, says Onatsky, in Right-Bank Ukraine, in the territory stretching west from Kyiv. But our distinguished encyclopedist does not say how this oriental loan came to have all these different meanings, or, indeed, if it had more than one origin to account for more than one meaning.

Neither do Metropolitan Ilarion (Ohiienko) and Yury Mulyk-Lutsyk, who compiled in Ukrainian a great four-volume Etymological and Semantic Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language. They do add, however, that in the nineteenth century the Austrian-ruled western parts of Ukraine became somewhat acquainted with the word through reading Ukrainian authors living in Russian-ruled Ukraine, such as Hanna Barvinok, Ivan Rudenko, and Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, all of whom used one or another form of the word in their various works. In fact, Nechui seemed to like it quite a bit, for he used it quite often. Moreover, the great multi-volume Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language edited by I. K. Bilodid and published in Soviet Ukraine in the 1970s informs us that the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), used the word with reference to a town square in the Holy Land: U Vifleyemi na maidani ziishovsia liud. (In Bethlehem, people gathered together on the maidan); and Bilodid and his colleagues then add that the Soviet Ukrainian poet, Pavlo Tychyna used it a century later in the same way: Na maidani kolo tserkvy revoliutsiia ide. (A revolution is taking place on the maidan near the church.)

Metropolitan Ilarion’s dictionary also tells us that in the nineteenth century the word similarly occurred in Ukrainian folklore collections compiled in Russian-ruled Ukraine that were read in Western Ukraine under the Austrians. For example, the folklorist and student of historical songs, Amvrosy Metlynsky, cited a famous saying which I am inclined to believe might be about the laggards who used to hang around the town squares: “Maidanchyky-okaianchyky, da hirka vasha dolia. Ne vmiyeste khliba-soly yisty da iz chuzhoho polia.”

In my not-so literal translation, this reads: “You cursed maidan fellows have a very bitter fate! You’ll never eat bread and salt from your next-door neighbour’s plate!” Of course, this saying might be interpreted, so I am told, in an entirely different though equally poetic way: “O, you accursed pitch makers, what a bitter fate you wield! You do not even know how to eat food from a stranger’s unfamiliar field.” Two quite different and unrelated interpretations, but with the same negative inclination.

Title Page of Ukrainska Mova: Entsyklopedia [The Ukrainian Language: An Encyclopedia] ed. I. V. Muromtsev (Kyiv: Vyd. ‘Maister klas,’ 2011). 400 pp. Geared towards beginning students and general readers, the popular style of this encyclopedia is reflected in its cover design, which features a cross-stitched pattern typical of Ukrainian folk embroidery. (Such an embroidered pattern has long been a symbol of Ukrainian national culture.) The encyclopedia includes brief articles about Iranianisms, Turkisms, and Arabisms in the modern Ukrainian language, of which the word “maidan” is one.

Although largely unknown to Westerners and missing from most English, French, and German dictionaries, the word “maidan” does occur with that town square meaning in other languages in eastern Europe in both the Balkans and in the Caucasus. For example, Karl Lokotsch tells us that the Bulgarians have “magden,” the Serbians “meiden,” the Armenians “maitan,” and the Georgians “moedani.” Unlike Western Europeans, over the centuries all of those peoples have had close contact with the Turks, and in the case of the Armenians and Georgians, also with the Persians.

Little used in standard literary Polish, historical instances of the term can, however, be found in some Polish documents and historical books. The Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, in his Trilogy, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his Notes from the House of the Dead, both probably took it from such sources in their various writings, or, in the case of Dostoevsky, from the colloquialisms current among various Turkic minorities in the Russian Empire.

The oldest Polish usages indicate a military connection. So a 1624 example says a maidan is a “place or field in a military camp,” and many similar examples occur. Samuel Linde’s great Polish dictionary, which was published at the start of the nineteenth century, even cites a Latin example with the spelling majdan, referring to the field where the king’s soldiers divided their booty. And Wacław Przemysław Turek’s more recent dictionary of Arabisms in Polish says that in the street language of late nineteenth-century Warsaw a “majdaniarz” was a newspaper boy on a bicycle who delivered newspapers to various places.

Finally, the word also occurs in a slightly different form, but with an enormously different meaning, that second one outlined by Onatsky above. That form is maidanyk, seemingly a diminutive version of maidan, which may have originally meant “a small pitch factory.” The Western World is somewhat familiar with this form because it occurs as a place name for a town in Poland, a suburb of Łódź actually, where during the Second World War, the Nazis placed one of their infamous concentration camps, a camp in which a great many people died. The Poles spell it Majdanek, and the Germans spelled it Majdaneck.

Andrzej Bańkowski, the author of a multi-volume Etymological Dictionary of the Polish Language adds one further meaning of the word in Polish. He informs us that a majdan can also mean “the middle part of an arched bow grasped with the palm of the hand.” This image sometimes appeared on the coats-of-arms of old Polish noble families, and consequently majdan appeared in this sense in several nineteenth century Polish literary works. These included three by the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz, one of them being the poem Farys, about a Polish nobleman from Ukraine who traveled across Arabia and brought Arabic thoroughbred horses back to Europe after they had been nearly wiped out during the Napoleonic Wars.

A Łuk, or archer’s bow ostensibly showing a maydan,: “the middle part of an arched bow” on an east European coat-of-arms, but without the hand grasping it. This type of crest was carried by about 135 different noble families in various countries that were once part of the great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These included the Łukasiewicz, the Halecki, the Bohusz, the Hulkevych, the Bozhychko, and many other families. Such a crest, together with noble status, was given to the Ukrainian Cossack officer Kornel Perevalsky by the Polish King Stephen Batory for bravery and services rendered at the Siege of Pskov in 1581. Source: Polish and Ukrainian language versions of Wikipedia.

Bańkowski adds, however, that this usage of the word was a pure literary fiction that was based upon a misreading by Samuel Linde of an old heraldry book by W. Potocki. That book said that the hand held the bow “in the maydanem” instead of printing “in the medyanum.” This simple misprint, which was supposed to mean grasped “in the middle part” (medianum in Latin) was read by A. Czartoryski, then Linde, and then others, as “with the maydan.” And the result was the creation of a new Polish word for such a part of an arched bow, resembling a very old word that had its origins in the Middle East and almost certainly entered Polish (and probably also Russian) from Ukrainian.

Title page of the second volume of Samuel Bogomil Linde’s multi-volume Dictionary of the Polish Language, which was a landmark of Slavonic lexicography, the first really scholarly dictionary produced in any Slavic tongue, for which he gathered materials in the various scattered lands that had once made up the great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth . These included eastern Galicia, Podolia, and several other provinces in what is today Ukraine. But even the scrupulous scholar, Linde, made mistakes, as the entry for majdan demonstrated.

Majdan in this old sense in the Polish language is now very rare, only used occasionally by some Poles to refer ironically to the camera equipment held in peculiar way by film men, photographers, and such. But contemporary Polish has still another meaning for the word. Today, it is sometimes used for a large amount or great pile of baggage. For example, one might say: “I don’t know how to handle things z tym majdanem [with all this baggage].” This usage may have been derived from reference to a large and unwieldy suitcase that was difficult to carry.


Finally, in Russian, maidan can have yet another meaning. In some places in Russia maidan is used colloquially for the name of a house where people play cards for money, or sometimes, as a name for the card game itself. In general, however, the word is not common in Russian and in its original meaning of “town square” is used primarily in the south of the country, near the Ukrainian border. The normal Russian word for a square or a town square is ploshchad, which is the equivalent of the Ukrainian ploshcha.


On a different level, in Ukrainian (and sometimes Polish too) the word maidan was also sometimes adopted into a surname, and even today occasionally survives among the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of early Ukrainian immigrants to North America. One of the best examples of such an ancestor was Yakiv Maidanyk (or Jacob Maydanyk, to use his own spelling), the once famous pioneer-era cartoonist in western Canada, whose character “Vuyko Shteef” was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. This name too may have been derived from that second, alternate, and much less desirable meaning of the word, for Constantine Andrusyshen’s Ukrainian-English Dictionary informs us that a “maidanyk” was, simply, “a worker in a pitch factory.”


That family name, in fact, occurs in many different forms with many different endings. Yulian Redko in his great dictionary of Ukrainian family names lists not only the surname Maidan, but also Maidanevych, Maidansky, and Maidaniuk; and Stephen Holutiak-Hallick in his



dictionary of Ukrainian family names in the United States, where there are about a million Americans of Ukrainian or partly Ukrainian ancestry, lists a Maydak and Madych but no family with the explicit name Maydan. One might add that maidan, in this second “place where there was a pitch factory” meaning, is probably derived from its older meaning as a open place or field or square, since those pitch maker shops were usually located in a open space in a heavily forested area, where there was plenty of fuel for making the pitch. As place names, the word occurs quite often in both Ukraine and Poland; and on the contemporary map of the latter country about 150 examples may be found.

So from ancient Aramaic or Persian, through Arabic and Turkish, to Cossack Ukraine, through Polish heraldry and war-time Poland with early Ukrainian immigrants to the Canadian Prairies, and then again, over to the Euromaidan in Kiev, this interesting but not so familiar word, with more than a single meaning, and possibly origin, which has been used in so very many ways and brings forth such varied images, feelings, and even emotions, has come a very long way indeed.


THOMAS M. PRYMAK, PhD, is a historian and research associate with the Chair of Ukrainian Studies, Departments of History and Political Science, University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and published widely in the field. His most recent book is Gathering a Heritage: Ukrainian Slavonic and Ethnic Canada and the USA (University of Toronto Press, 2015).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *