So I’ve decided fandom will forever be confused about Natasha’s name. Not, uh, coincidentally, comics writers have been confused about it for even longer.
The tricky bit is this: Natalia and Natasha are both forms of the Russian name Наталья. The Natalia/Natasha equivalency doesn’t exist in English, leading to all kinds of tail-chasing confusion re: which is real and which is fake. Natasha is a diminutive form of Natalia the same way Bill is for William. “Natalia” is not more authentic or more Russian, it’s just a bit more formal. And “Natasha Romanoff” is not an alias the way “Nadine Roman” or “Nancy Rushman” are.
The Romanoff/Romanova issue is just a question of transliteration. The Russian surname is Рома́нов, which is written as Romanoff or Romanov depending on your history book. Traditionally, Russian ladies take feminine endings to match their grammatical gender— Ivan Belov becomes Yelena Belova, Aleksandr Belinsky becomes Aleksandra Belinskaya. But the feminine endings often get dropped in English translation, e.g. Nastia Liukin, not Nastia Liukina. It’s a matter of preference.
If that’s too confusing, don’t worry, until about 1998 the comics had no idea what they were doing either.
Natasha’s name has been Natasha since her very first appearance, where she and her partner Boris Turgenev were the butt of the obvious joke. Her last name wasn’t revealed until the early 1970s. Yeah, she went through a whole solo series without getting a last name. Weird, but it took dozens of issues for Hawkeye to get a first name.
Romanoff: a name no one knows or knew. At the time, Natasha was being written as an aristocratic jet-setter, a glamorous countess. Since Romanov is the most famous Russian surname, and superhero stuff isn’t codenamed subtlety, I figure Gerry Conway just went with what he knew.
And so Natasha Romanoff was her name through the 1970s. Instead of “Miss” or the Danvers-ian “Ms.”, Natasha used “Madame”, contributing to that Old World mystique and invoking feelings of a boudoir.
By 1983 someone on staff realized that Romanova might be more technically correct. (Might being operative, here, the best way of translating the feminine endings is still debated.) Anyway, her Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe page listed her as Natasha “Romanoff” Romanova.
The next big change would occur when someone, and I’m thinking it was Chris Claremont, realized she was missing a patronym. A full Russian name has three parts: the given (first) name, the patronym, and the family (last) name. For example, Grand Duchess Anastasia, the one who had that Bluth film, would be formally called Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova, or Anastasia “Daughter of Nicholas” Romanoff. Her brother, the Tsarevich Alexei, was Alexei Nikolaevich Romanov, or Alexei “Son of Nicholas” Romanoff. Basically: everyone in Russia has a middle name, and it is their father’s.
I think it was Claremont who realized Nat’s was lacking because he is a phonetic accent wizard and an expert on Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin da tovarisch. Also, because the first time I could find a patronym for Natasha was in a 1992 issue of X-men that he wrote.
The weird thing about Alianovna is that it would mean her father’s name was Alia or Alian or something else not really common. Maybe that’s why Kurt Busiek, continuity repair man, pretended it was something else in his Heroes Return Iron Man run.
Ivanovna, or daughter of Ivan, is a much more common patronym and also meshes with her backstory. But it didn’t stick. Everyone and the guidebook uses Alianovna. What did stick was Natalia. Yeah, this is the first comic I could find that uses Natalia, and you can tell by context that Busiek’s using it to emphasize formality. When talking to Tony, she calls herself Natasha, when declaring her total identity before an epic beatdown, she takes the “my name is Inigo Montoya” route.
From the late nineties forward Natalia started popping up with some frequency, usually in formal or impersonal contexts. Yelena speaks of “Natalia Romanova” as the Red Room’s greatest legend, Natasha demands that the he-was-evil-all-along Ivan Petrovich address her without the diminutive.
There are exceptions. I figure some writers check wikipedia, see her name listed as “Natalia” and decide they’ve done their homework. Daniel Way has Logan refer to Natalia, his surrogate daughter, completely bizarre for the quasi-familial relationship and for the nickname-happy Wolverine. Brubaker had Bucky refer to her as Natalia, at first— an odd distancing from a previously intimate relationship. Since they’ve gotten back together, though, he uses Natasha, or Nat, or ‘Tasha, or in any case, he’s dropped the formality.