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Lesson Transcript

Russian Teachers Answer Your Questions - Lesson #8 - What Are Some Common Russian Idioms?


Michael: What are some common Russian idioms?
Saodat: And how are they used?
Michael: At RussianPod101.com, we hear these questions often. Imagine this scenario:
Karen Lee and Dina Denisenko are having a conversation. Karen Lee hears an idiom she's not familiar with. She asks Dina Denisenko,
"What does "to lead someone by the nose" mean?"
Что означает "водить за нос?" (Chto oznachayet "vodit' za nos?")
Karen Li: Что означает "водить за нос?" (Chto oznachayet "vodit' za nos?")
Dina Denisenko: Это означает "обманывать кого-то долгое время." (Eto oznachayet "obmanyvat' kogo-to dolgoye vremya.")
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Karen Li: Что означает "водить за нос?" (Chto oznachayet "vodit' za nos"?)
Michael: "What does "to lead someone by the nose" mean?"
Dina Denisenko: Это означает "обманывать кого-то долгое время." (Eto oznachayet "obmanyvat' kogo-to dolgoye vremya.")
Michael: "It means ‘to deceive someone for a long time.'"

Lesson focus

Michael: The topic for this lesson is "Russian idioms" or
Saodat: идиома (idioma)
Michael: An idiom is an expression with a meaning that's very different from the individual words that compose it. The English expression, "Break a leg," for instance, is an idiom that means "Good luck!" We use idioms if we want to convey what would be a long message using as few words as possible.
[Recall 1]
Michael: Let's take a closer look at the dialogue to make things easier to understand.
Do you remember how Karen says, "What does "to lead someone by the nose" mean?"
(pause 4 seconds)
Saodat: Что означает "водить за нос?" (Chto oznachayet "vodit' za nos"?)
Michael: If you're going to translate the sentence literally, you would probably get "leading by the nose." That doesn't make sense at all, right? It would only make sense if you understood that the phrase is an idiomatic expression. As Dina had said, it means
Saodat: обманывать кого-то долгое время (obmanyvat' kogo-to dolgoye vremya)
Michael: or "to deceive someone for a long time."
To picture the idiom, imagine an animal with a pierced nose, and someone leading it on the line. That's basically where the idiom comes from. Some people say that the origin of this idiom comes from Russian circuses, where circus people tamed wild bears and forced them to perform by piercing their noses and leading them by a line attached to the piercing.
This imagery has little to do with deceiving, but the concept of manipulating or controlling is what is directly communicated.
Michael: In this lesson, you've learned that idioms are expressions with a figurative meaning used to help the speaker better get their message across.
Expansion/Contrast (Optional)
Michael: Idioms are important to any language because they help you communicate more effectively. We've compiled a short list of the most common Russian Idioms to help you brush up your vocabulary. Let's start with
Saodat: Когда рак на горе свистнет (Kogda rak na gore svistnet)
Michael: This translates to "When the lobster whistles on the mountaintop." The idea that a lobster could whistle, or even whistle on top of a mountain, may seem ridiculous... But that's the point because this idiom means "It's never going to happen." It's similar to the expression, "When pigs fly," which conveys the same message. Let's move on with the next idiom, which is
Saodat: Без царя в голове (Bez tsarya v golove)
Michael: which literally means "without a tsar in head," and is an ironic way to describe a careless or crazy person.
In this idiom, the mind is compared to the Russian tsar, the ruler of the state. His absence means that there is nobody who could rule over the country, so missing the tsar in your head means having no boundaries, acting careless, and doing things without thinking too much. Just imagine that there is nobody to control your actions in your head.
This idiom is strongly connected to the proverb
Saodat: У каждого свой царь в голове (U kazhdogo svoy tsar' v golove)
Michael: meaning "Everyone has their own tsar in the head" where the mind is compared to the Russian ruler. Let's look at the next idiom, which is
Saodat: что посеешь, то и пожнешь (Chto poseyesh', to i pozhnyosh')
Michael: This one means, "As you sow, so will you reap." They mean exactly the same thing, so you can choose whichever is easier for you to articulate. Next, we have the expression,
Saodat: Вот где собака зарыта (Vot gde sobaka zaryta)
Michael: In English, "That's where the dog is buried." It may sound morbid, but when you discover what it means, you will realize that it's not distasteful at all. What it truly means is that you've finally uncovered the truth about a problem. If Archimedes was Russian, he would have used this instead of the famous, "Eureka!" Next, we have the idiom
Saodat: Делать из мухи слона (Delat' iz mukhi slona)
Michae: This one is a bit fantastic as it literally means "To make an elephant out of a fly." You're probably trying to picture it in your head right now. What it really means is "Make a small thing seem big" or "To exaggerate the problem." Our next idiom is
Saodat: Заткнуть (кого-то) за пояс (Zatknut' (kogo-to) za poyas)
Michael: The literal translation of this Russian idiom is "To put (someone) under one's belt." It's an idiom that's present in many languages and actually means, "To outshine someone." Next on our list is
Saodat: Показать где раки зимуют (Pokazat' gse raki zimuyut)
Michael: This idiom is translated as "show someone where lobsters hibernate." If you're familiar with lobsters, you know that they are very difficult to catch, and the idiom is usually used in this manner: "I'll show you where lobsters hibernate." Now, you don't want someone directing this idiom at you because what it really means is they want to teach you a lesson for something you've done wrong. It is said that Russian landlords in the past would punish misbehaving peasants by sending them to the freezing waters to catch some lobsters. That's probably where this idiom came from. Now, for our next idiom, we have
Saodat: Дать зуб (Dat' zub)
Michael: In English, this reads as "to give a tooth." People in Russia would use this to swear that they are telling the truth and that they are ready to sacrifice their tooth to prove it. I'm not lying about this information. I'm ready to give my tooth as proof. Now, here's another one:
Saodat: смотреть правде в глаза (smotret' pravde v glaza)
Michael: This idiom translates as "to look the truth in the eyes," and means to face the truth, to stop lying to yourself. It's usually used to make someone clear that they are avoiding accepting the unpleasant truth. Here's an idiom to follow it up:
Saodat: Ни рыба ни мясо (Ni ryba ni myaso).
Michael: This translates to "Neither fish, nor meat," and it's English equivalent is "Neither fish, nor fowl." It describes a person who does not represent anything, or can't be categorized easily. The roots of this idiom are going back to the time of the Protestant reformation. When Catholics are fasting, they avoid eating meat for the time being, and replace it with fish. The rising Protestants however, as a statement of their protest against the Catholic church, were eating meat, even during the fasting time. People who weren't participating in either of these were referred to as "neither fish, nor meat."
Cultural Insight
Michael: The most widely professed faith in Russia is the Eastern Orthodox Church. Russia has a long Christian and Jewish tradition, and you can find many references to the Bible in the Russian language such as idioms that originated from this sacred text. Let's have a look at some of the idioms referring to the Bible. The first is
Saodat: содом и гоморра (sodom i gomorra),
Michael: meaning "Sodom and Gomorrah." This idiom goes back to the biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed for their sins. In modern Russian, the idiom is used to describe a place full of chaos, debauchery, or lechery.
Another biblical idiom is
Saodat: 30 сребреников (tridtsat' srebrenikov)
Michael: meaning "30 silver pieces." This idiom refers to the story of how Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. It usually refers to something people would betray someone for. To give you an example, imagine your friend cancelled an appointment with you just because someone offered him a free pizza. In this case, the pizza would be referred to as
Saodat: 30 сребреников (tridtsat' srebrenikov)
Michael: Our last biblical idiom is
Saodat: Ирод (Irod)
Michael: meaning "Herod." Russians would call a really cruel person by the name of this biblical King of Judea. You may wonder why, and, well, the story is indeed cruel and macabre. According to the Bible, Herod feared a prophecy about a new Jewish king, so he decided to murder all boys of the age of 2 and under in the whole kingdom of Judea.


Michael: Do you have any more questions? We're here to answer them!
Saodat: Пока! (Poka!)
Michael: See you soon!