Prominent Russians: Sergey Ozhegov
Sergey Ozhegov was an outstanding Russian linguist, professor and author of the “Russian Language Dictionary.” The dictionary is still today the handbook of Russian journalists, writers, interpreters and others whose profession demands perfect language skills.
Sergey Ozhegov was born on 23 September 1900 in the village of Kamennoe, in the Tver Region. He was the eldest of three brothers. On the eve of World War I the Ozhegov family moved to Saint Petersburg. Sergei graduated from gymnasium in 1918 and immediately entered university. Choosing a future profession was not easy for the young man; he was interested in philology, but at the same time enjoyed sports and was a very good football player. In the end, Ozhegov chose Russian language and literature over a sportsman’s career.
His university education was interrupted, as he was called out to the front. He participated in military actions in the northwest of Russia and in Ukraine and returned home unharmed. In 1922 Sergei recommenced his studies at
the university. His professors described him as very inquisitive and “hungry for knowledge.”
Sergey Ozhegov started his scientific research early. He was still a student when he began to work on the “Russian Language Explanatory Dictionary” - in an early stage it was called “The Project of the Revolutionary Epoch Dictionary.” Ozhegov’s mentor was Dmitry Ushakov, an outstanding Russian scientist and linguist. Ushakov greatly influenced Ozhegov’s life and scientific career.
Ozhegov did not take an active part in the political life of the country. For some time he supported the Socialist Revolutionary Party, then composedly welcomed the new Bolshevik administration. He was more interested in science than anything else, including the political and ideological changes in Russia. Still, several times he was criticized for ideological reasons. For example, Ozhegov intended to create a dictionary that would explain words and expressions from the plays of Aleksandr Ostrovsky, a famous Russian playwright. The dictionary was almost ready when the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided it was not appropriate. The reason was never explained, but the dictionary was not published. It was issued only many years later.
After graduating from university in 1926, Ozhegov entered a post-graduate course. He attended lectures by outstanding linguists of the time and studied Slavic phonetics, dialects and vocabulary. Sergey Ozhegov spent much time on his dictionary; professors found the work useful and interesting, and some of them even were involved in the research. At the same time Ozhegov taught students and his pedagogical talent made him well known among young Russian scientists.
In 1936 Ozhegov moved to Moscow. The first volume of his dictionary was already published. In Moscow Ozhegov taught Russian language in the best institutes of the city. He finished working on the “Explanatory Dictionary” one year before World War II started in Russia. In 1940 the fourth volume was finally published. The scientist was full of new projects and ideas when war broke out. Ozhegov wanted to go to the front as a volunteer, but he was not allowed to do so. The Soviet government decided he was too valuable to Russian science to put his life at risk. However, he refused to be evacuated, opting to stay in Moscow and continue researching and teaching.
During the war Ozhegov’s close friend and teacher, Dmitry Ushakov, died in Tashkent. Another of his co-authors also passed away, leaving Ozhegov to work alone on the “Russian Language Dictionary,” the fundamental work of his life. During wartime, life in Moscow was very difficult but Ozhegov tried to ignore it and kept working. He wrote in a letter: “I don’t have any cigarettes left. In my flat there is no electricity, no central heating, no hot and cold running water. The sewage system is also out of order.” But Ozhegov obsession with his helped him to overcome all the hardships. Besides working on the dictionary he also elaborated a new course for his students and prepared a series of lectures dedicated to paleography, the special philological discipline of the history of script. Ozhegov also founded a linguistic scientific association, researched war language and even personally guarded the building he lived in – later it would become the Russian Language Institute. Sergey Ozhegov tried his best to be helpful - if not in the war, then on the home front.
Ozhegov’s family life was not a happy one. Before the war he lost one of his brothers to tuberculosis. During the war another brother, his wife and son died in besieged Leningrad. “I’m alone in the whole world,” Ozhegov wrote bitterly in a letter to a close friend. Science was the only thing that helped him overcome a deep depression. Later Ozhegov was informed that his brother’s daughter, 3-year-old Natasha, managed to survive. Ozhegov found the girl and adopted her.
In 1945 World War II was over. The first edition of the dictionary by Sergey Ozhegov was published in 1949. In contained 50,000 words, offered current and widespread vocabulary, demonstrated the collocability of words and provided examples of typical phraseological units. The dictionary immediately attracted the attention of scientists, critics and ordinary people. Sergey Ozhegov received letters with requests to explain various words and expressions and he found time to accord all of the requests. It is hard to believe that Ozhegov virtually created the dictionary alone. Officially he had co-authors at the beginning, but later they didn’t participate in the compilation of the dictionary. Still, Ozhegov was tactful enough to mention their names in the list of authors in the first edition.
Many English-Russian vocabularies are based on the “Russian Language Dictionary.” The dictionary is well known in many countries of the world. For example, in 1992 in China the “New Russian-Chinese Dictionary” based on Ozhegov’s work was published. It was created by a Chinese scientist of Russian origin who translated Ozhegov’s dictionary from Russian into Chinese word for word.
In Russia the classical dictionary was republished many times. New issues appeared regularly with updated vocabulary. During Ozhegov’s life eight issues were published. Ozhegov wanted to make sure that his dictionary was always relevant. Since the scientist’s death his followers have been responsible for updating the dictionary. Modern editions contain about 80,000 words.
In the 50s and 60s Sergey Ozhegov worked tirelessly. He founded the Standard of Speech Center, whose goal was to give language advice to actors and people working in television. Ozhegov was an editor of a number of linguistic magazines. The first issue of the most important magazine for him, Russian Speech, was published three years after his death, in 1967.
Surprisingly, Sergey Ozhegov never received the official status of academic nor was he awarded with any prestigious awards; none his achievements in philology were recognized by any prizes. Taking into consideration the value of Ozhegov’s research, it is hard to explain why. But neither recognition nor material assets were important for Ozhegov. The outstanding scientist lived most of his life in an uncomfortable communal flat. Only two years before his death was he given a separate three-room apartment. Apparently the representatives of local power found it shameful that Ozhegov had to host international scientists in a poor and small room.
Sergey Ozhegov died in 1964. He was planning to start work on new projects, when a tragic medical error interrupted his life. During an operation in a hospital Ozhegov was transfused with infected blood.
Sergey Ozhegov is buried at the wall of the Novodevichy Necropolis. Ozhegov’s son, Sergey, is a well-known architect.
Written by Alyona Kipreyeva for RT