The Russian language is a rich tapestry of idiomatic expressions, some of which can be quite amusing and peculiar when translated into English. These idioms offer a glimpse into the unique, colorful culture of Russia. In this article, we’re going to embark on a journey through the world of funny and quirky Russian idioms, exploring their literal meanings and the humor they bring to everyday conversations.
Ни рыба, ни мясо
Literal translation: Neither fish nor meat.
The expression is used to describe someone who lacks distinctive or remarkable qualities. It characterizes an individual as mediocre, unremarkable, and incapable of significant achievements or actions. It’s a way of describing someone who doesn’t stand out in any way; they simply ‘float along’ without making a significant impact or possessing notable characteristics.
Synonym: ни то, ни сё
Как селёдка (сельди) в бочке
Literal translation: Like a herring in a barrel.
Imagine yourself on public transportation (bus, subway) or at a busy concert where there are tons of people around you and it’s impossible to get through. You literally feel what it’s like to be a herring in a barrel.
Literal translation: To chew snot (colloquial).
Imagine someone attempting to chew snot – it’s a comical way to describe someone who is procrastinating and hesitating. It means that a person is not taking action or is delaying tasks without a good reason.
Хватит жевать сопли! Пора действовать! – Stop chewing snot! It’s time for action!
Synonyms: тянуть время; медлить
Literal translation: Move the rolls (colloquial, rude).
If you’re told to “move the rolls,” you’re essentially being urged to hurry up or move faster. The choice of “rolls” in this idiom adds a touch of whimsy.
Шевели булками! – Go faster!
Не мычит, не телится
Literal translation: Doesn’t moo, doesn’t calf.
This idiom humorously compares someone’s lack of action or speech to the quietness of cows. It’s a playful way to describe someone who isn’t very talkative or proactive.
Не пришей кобыле хвост
Literal translation: Don’t sew an extra tail to a mare (colloquial, rude).
This idiom is used when we talk about something unnecessary, inappropriate to a situation, much like sewing an extra tail to a mare. It highlights the idea that certain things are superfluous.
Ты видела, какие серьги она надела с новым платьем? Не пришей кобыле хвост. – Did you see the earrings she wore with her new dress? They don’t go with it at all.
Synonyms: не в тему; ни к селу, ни к городу
На фига козе баян?
Literal translation: Why would a goat need an accordion? (colloquial, rude)
Another funny idiom that can often be heard when talking about something useless or, much like giving an accordion to a goat – a creature that has no use for it. This time it is used as a rhetorical question (What’s the point?).
Please note that “на фига” is a slang expression that is considered quite rude, so it is better to use this expression only in the circle of close people.
Literal translation: To click one’s beak.
Describing someone as “clicking their beak” humorously points to their inattentiveness, much like a bird mindlessly clicking its beak. In such situations, a person may miss out on something very favorable to him or her ( = прощёлкать что-либо).
Literal translation: To slam the mitten (colloquial, rude).
The expression “захлопни варежку” is a rude way to tell someone to stop talking. Colloquially, the word “mitten” refers to a person’s mouth. There is also another common expression “разинуть варежку” that means “to open one’s mouth.”
Бред сивой кобылы
Literal translation: The ravings of a gray mare.
This idiom is used to describe nonsensical or absurd talk, often without any basis in reality. It humorously suggests that it’s as irrational as listening to the ramblings of a gray mare.
От осинки не родятся апельсинки
Literal translation: Oranges won’t grow from a birch.
This idiom suggests that offspring will share similarities with their parents. It’s like saying you can’t expect oranges to grow from a birch tree.
Чуть Кондратий не хватил
Literal translation: Kondraty nearly got me.
This idiom playfully exaggerates the level of fear, suggesting that someone was almost scared to death by a situation or event.
The expression originates from Kondratiy Bulavin, the leader of the 1707-1709 Bulavin uprising by Don Cossacks against the oppression of Emperor Peter the Great. The revolt began over salt extraction restrictions and demands to return runaway serfs, which conflicted with Cossack traditions. When Bulavin and his Cossacks bravely defeated a notorious government detachment led by Colonel Yuri Dolgorukov, the phrase “Kondratiy grabbed” emerged, signifying impending doom or death.
Показать, где раки зимуют
Literal translation: To show where the crayfish hibernate.
This idiom hints at teaching someone a lesson, often in a slightly threatening manner. I rarely see such an expression in modern Russian.
Я покажу ему, где раки зимуют! – I’ll teach him a lesson!
Literal translation: It’s violet to me (colloquial).
This idiom conveys complete indifference to a situation. The speaker is expressing that they don’t care at all, which adds a touch of color to the conversation.
The explanation for why this particular color is associated with indifference in Russian is quite interesting and has a scientific basis.
In an acidic environment, litmus paper turns red, while in an alkaline environment, it turns blue. Litmus itself is violet, so it remains violet in a neutral environment. Hence, the common colloquial expression “Мне фиолетово,” which translates to “I don’t care.”
Synonym: мне по барабану
Literal translation: Sharashka’s office.
“Sharashka” is a colloquial term for a makeshift or unreliable organization.
Дело пахнет керосином
Literal translation: The matter smells of kerosene.
This idiom suggests that there’s something suspicious or underhanded about a situation. It’s the same as the English idiom “there’s something fishy”.
Literal translation: “Filkin’s diploma” humorously implies that a document is meaningless or fake.
For example, it can be said about the diploma of a bad specialist, who does not know how to do anything, because he did not study, but simply bought a diploma.
Брать быка за рога
Literal translation: To grab a bull by the horns.
This means to tackle a difficult task head-on, without fear, just as one would physically grab a bull by its horns.
Literal translation: Kvas Patriotism
“Квасной патриотизм” is the praise of everything of one’s own (state, national), reverence for all forms of life and culture of one’s country, and the open criticism of everything foreign.
This expression is very old, and it has an author – Prince Pyotr Andreyevich Vyazemsky, who used it in an article in 1827.
And kvass is a traditional Russian beverage. Try to find the connection yourself.
Сколько волка не корми, он всё в лес смотрит
Literal translation: No matter how much you feed the wolf, he still looks at the forest.
This proverb conveys the idea that someone’s natural instincts or inclinations are hard to change. No matter how well someone is treated, they will still yearn for their natural habitat.
Как два пальца об асфальт
Literal translation: Like two fingers on the asphalt.
The original version doesn’t sound very pleasant – “like pissing two fingers”, so it was replaced with a similar-sounding and more censorious expression.
This idiom is used to describe something that’s easy and straightforward.
Под стол пешком ходить
Literal translation: To walk under the table.
Means to be very small. That’s what you usually say about children.
Ты ещё под стол пешком ходил, когда я заработал свой первый миллион. – You were still walking under the table (were a child) when I made my first million.
Метр с кепкой
Literal translation: A meter with a cap.
This idiom is used to describe someone who is of short stature, emphasizing their height.
Глаза на лоб полезли
Literal translation: Eyes climbed onto the forehead.
This phrase is used to describe extreme shock, to the point where it seems like their eyes are about to pop out of their head. It conveys an exaggerated sense of amazement.
Russian idioms are not only linguistically fascinating but also offer a delightful window into the Russian culture and sense of humor. They add a layer of depth to the language and provide a unique perspective on life’s various situations, from laziness to overconfidence and everything in between. The idioms may be funny and quirky, but they hold an essential place in Russian communication, making conversations lively, colorful, and memorable. So, the next time you encounter one of these idioms, you’ll not only understand its literal meaning but also appreciate the humor and cultural significance behind it.