Russian mountains

Yesterday evening I discovered that the French term for roller coaster is les montagnes russes or Russian mountains. This got me wondering what roller coasters have to do with Russian mountains, and I’ve found that from the 17th Century the Russian were constructing “Russian Mountains” – series of hills and slides of ice reinforced with wooden supports designed for sleighs. They were especially popular during the 18th century in St. Petersburg, and the idea spread to other parts of Europe. A version using wheeled wooden carts on tracks was built in Paris in 1804 and named Les Montagnes Russes.

During the early 19th century a number of mining and railway companies in the USA started offering the public rides on steeply-inclined sections of track at quiet times. These were known as scenic gravity railroads. In 1884 LaMarcus Adna Thompson opened a Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway at Coney Island in 1884, and patented many aspects of the roller coaster, including a patent for a Gravity Switch-back Railway in 1885.

The origins of the name roller coaster are uncertain. One theory is that it comes from the rollers fitted to the slides or ramps on early American roller coasters along which sleds coasted. Another theory is that the name comes from a ride located in a roller skating rink in Haverhill, Massachusetts which consisted of a sled that moved along the rollers that made up the track. The inventors of this ride, Stephen E. Jackman and Byron B. Floyd, claim the first use of the term “roller coaster”.

Russian Mountain is term for roller coaster in Spanish (montaña rusa), Portuguese (montanha russa) and Catalan (muntanya russa), and Russians call them американские горки (amerikanskie gorki) or American Mountains.


This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, Language, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Words and phrases.

21 Responses to Russian mountains

  1. John A says:

    You know, I always called them “Montañas Rusas”, but I never really asked myself why.

    Very interesting read.

  2. Jan says:

    Salut Simon!
    Thanks for passing on the link. Très intéressant! I just perused other words you have highlighted and it seems to me that The French Conversation Evening – Every Thursday between 7 and 9pm at The Boat Yard in Bangor (N.Wales) – feeds you with lots of ideas! I’ll have to be a bit careful what I discuss in future!! Also thought I’d mention the venue just in case fellow language fanatics are in, or visiting, the area!!
    Merci Jan

  3. Jim Morrison says:

    Muntanya Russa in Catalan

  4. Arakun says:

    In Swedish it’s known as “berg- och dalbana” (‘mountain and valley track’).

  5. Yenlit says:

    Roller coaster is ‘ffigar-êt’ in Welsh a transliteration of English ‘figure eight’ but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly well known as I had to look it up myself and would normally stick with the English term. ‘Big dipper’ and roller coaster are the same thing aren’t they?

  6. Gary says:

    German is Bergundtalbahn, mountain and valley railway like Swedish, But a Ferris wheel is Russisches Rad—Russian Wheel.

  7. TJ says:

    Seems the European version of the game is always about the geographic appearance (natural!). But here, we call the roller coaster, Qit^ár al-Mout (local name here) meaning “train of death” !

  8. Luise says:

    The German term ‘Bergundtalbahn’ is rather archaic. Only few people use it nowadays. You’d rather hear “Achterbahn” which means something like ‘figure eight railway’

  9. Yenlit says:

    The Scandinavians must’ve seen their first big wheel (Ferris wheel) in Paris. They call it a ‘pariserhjul’ (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian) and ‘Parísarhjól’ (Icelandic).

  10. Drabkikker says:

    @ Yenlit, Luise:
    In Dutch the name is also based on the figure eight: achtbaan ‘eight track’.

  11. Also in italian they’re called “montagne russe

  12. Interesting. In Mandarin it’s 过山车 (guòshānchē), literally, “going-over-mountains-vehicle”.

  13. Mariane says:

    It doesn’t explain why in Russian it is American Russian.

  14. michael farris says:

    In Polish roller coaster is kolejka górska (mountain train/rail) and Ferris wheel is diabelski młyn (devil’s mill).

  15. Yenlit says:

    Surprisingly although the Esperanto dictionary lists roller coaster as ‘ondanta fervojo/fervojeto’ (undulating railway) – ‘rusaj montoj’ (Russian mountains) has also been adopted which I thought would’ve been a bit too idiomatic for Esperanto?

  16. Daniel says:

    In Hebrew we call it “רכבת הרים” /rakevet harim/ (mountain train).

    Probably affected by either German, French or Russian.

  17. Kevin says:

    Aren’t американские горки just “American hills”, though, rather than mountains?

    TJ: a roller coaster is a “train of death” in Croatian too: vlak smrti. Unlikely to attract the faint-hearted!

  18. Simon says:

    Kevin – you’re right, горки means hills or slopes.

  19. Jayan says:

    In danish they’re called “rutsjebaner.” “bane” means path or track, and maybe “rutsje” refers to russia?

  20. Macsen says:

    Welsh also has ‘trên sgrech’ – screaming train

    … or is that the ghost ride? Never sure.

  21. Yenlit says:

    Macsen – ‘trên sgrech’ that’s a ghost train but I’ve also seen (not heard) ‘trên colli cylla’ for a big dipper/roller coaster – ‘stomach losing train’?

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