Nice one, Cyril

Several Slavonic languages—Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian—are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. That alphabet is also used for several other languages, for example in central Asia. The name Cyrillic honours the memory of St Cyril.

Who was Cyril?

St Cyril was born in Thessalonica (nowadays in Greece) in 826 CE, being given the name Constantine. Although inhabitants of Thessalonica spoke a Slavonic language, it is not known whether that was Constantine’s native language. It is also not known whether he was ethnically Slavic or, for example, Greek.  

Constantine and Methodius go to Moravia

In 862, the Byzantine empire sent Constantine and his brother Methodius on a religious mission to Greater Moravia, at the request of Prince Rastislav of Moravia, who wanted missionaries who could teach his people in their native language, a form of Slavonic. Cyril soon created an alphabet for the language that later became known as Old Church Slavonic. The brothers translated the Gospels and other holy texts into that language.

In 867, Constantine and Methodius went to Rome for discussions with the Pope. While there, Constantine become a monk, taking Cyril as his monastic name, but died later that year. After Methodius’s death in 885, the brothers’ followers were expelled from Moravia, and many of them settled ultimately in Bulgaria.   

Glagolitic and Cyrillic

The alphabet Cyril created is known as Glagolitic. The brothers’ disciples in Bulgaria went on to develop Glagolitic in the 890s into another alphabet: Cyrillic.

For a while, Cyrillic and Glagolitic competed for supremacy in territories where people spoke Slavonic languages. But ultimately the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets become dominant throughout those territories, though still with some residual use of Glagolitic in Croatia for church purposes into the 20th century. (Croatian is written in the Latin alphabet, although its near relative Serbian is written in Cyrillic.) Apparently, there is now a movement to revive Glagolitic in Croatia as a symbol of Croatian cultural identity and for use in creating distinctive souvenirs to tourists.  

For more on Glagolitic, please see

Nice one, Cyril!

I can’t hear the name Cyril without remembering a chant popular with football supporters in the 1970s. Here are the words:

Nice one Cyril, nice one son.
Nice one Cyril, let’s have another one.

The Cyril in question was Cyril Knowles, a full back who played for Tottenham Hotspur.  Supporters of other clubs soon picked it up and adapted it using other names (preferably names fitting the rhythm). The phrase Nice One, Cyril, soon became a catch phrase, but has probably now fallen into disuse.


Alphabets and Transliteration, Paul Clubberley, in The Slavonic Languages, edited by Bernard Comrie and Greville G Corbett (1993)

Fundamentals of the Structure and History of Russian: A Usage-based approach, David K Hart and Grant H Lundberg (2013)

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