I’m having a great time getting into the exciting bits of my new novel. Bear-riders have appeared, my main character is in the middle of a huge dilemma, two other characters have lost their families, and another is getting himself stuck in some very dark, bad business (it may or may not involve giants. Or dragons. Or both!)
My second novel, I’m be honest, is a tad dark. So even as I’m writing it, feel the need to lighten it up a bit. In my first novel, unexpected bits of comedy came from secondary characters. I’m trying to do the same in this one. There’s one character, a kind of royal bodyguard named Bhuk, who’s modeled on a guy I worked with in the kitchens of a monastery in north Russia (true story).
Bhuk can hardly say a single sentence without having some kind of folksy expression in it. It’s a very Russian thing. So I thought it might be interesting to find and translate some of the more colorful Russian expressions and find out what they actually mean. Here we go:
- Иван родства не помнящий—Ivan who doesn’t remember his family
Literally, it means someone who doesn’t like to follow traditions or rules. An innovator (not in a good way). The historical meaning is this. During Tsarist times, police had to deal with runaway prisoners, serfs who were trying to escape hard masters, soldiers who couldn’t finish boot camp, various sectarians, and other wanderers with no official papers. These people often hid their real names and places of residence. If asked about their names, they all call themselves “Ivan,” and claimed they didn’t remember their families.
- Толочь воду в ступе—To beat water in a mortar
It means “to beat the air,” to waste time doing something useless. The hidden meaning has to do with the supposedly miraculous properties of water. From pagan times, Russians were in awe of water. People used to whisper blessings on water and wait for miracles. But what if someone already mumbled something over the water? Especially if that someone swore when he dropped a jug of it? Water remembers everything!
So the old pagan druids found a way to “erase” the negative information from water. They used to beat water in a vessel for a long time. After a few days of torturing the water, the water was ready to be whispered over and used for magical rites. The druids would use the supposedly magic water for barter. But eventually, people realized that the water didn’t do anything special. So after a long time, it became an expression meaning “to waste your time.”
- Шут гороховый—A pea-green jester
It’s a derogatory expression: “stupid idiot,” or “moron.” The image of the jester of Medieval Europe is well known—wearing motley, a hat with donkey ears, holding a rattle in his hand (the rattle was often a bull bladder filled with dried peas). He would always begin his performances by rattling the peas. In Russia, jesters liked to decorate themselves with dried stalks of pea plants. During the folk celebrations before Lent, an effigy of a pea-green jester was carried around on the streets.
- Тянуть канитель—To spin gold thread
Literally, it means to do humdrum work. To work a long time at a monotonous task. So why do you need to spin gold thread? Metal threads, whether of silver or gold, were used in decorations of clothing and rugs. To make it “sewable,” you had to make it extremely thin by beating it and pulling it through smaller and smaller holes. The process was laborious and very, very boring.
- Делить шкуру неубитого медведя—To divide the pelt of a living bear
An English equivalent might be “to count your chickens before they hatch.” The older version of this phrase is “to sell the pelt of a living bear.” The meaning is pretty clear—you shouldn’t build plans before you know they’re going to come through. The source of the bear image is actually from a French fable called “The Bear and Two Companions” by Jean de La Fontaine. The story concerns two fur traders who make a bargain for the pelt of a bear they haven’t killed yet. Hilarity ensues. Here’s the full fable online.
- Съесть Собаку—To eat a dog
The phrase now means to go through bitter experience, and come out the wiser. But originally, the phrase was ironic. Here’s the full version: “He ate the dog, but choked on the tail.” The expression was used to laugh at someone who had finished a very difficult job, but tripped up at the end over some trifle.
- Кричать во всю Ивановскую—To scream over all Ivanovskoe
Literally: “to scream bloody murder.” Inside the Moscow Kremlin, the square that has the famous bell tower of Ivan the Great is called “Ivanovskoe”. In old times, sextons would announce all public laws, documents, and other official business concerning Moscow and all other cities. These sextons had very loud voices, apparently.
- Выносить сор из избы—To carry the garbage out of the hut
Literally: “to air dirty laundry”. This one also goes back to pagan rites. The thing is, garbage was never carried out of the hut. It was burned in the stove. Why? People believed that a magician could find out a family’s secrets by smelling their garbage. If he really wanted to harm them, he could even bury the garbage in a cemetery (not good!)
- Делу время и потехе час—There’s a time for work, and a time for play
This one might seem obvious, but there’s an interesting historical episode here. In 17th century Russia, the most popular way for a noble to spend his free time was hunting with falcons. Even Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich loved it—he hunted almost every day, except for winter. He even published a set of rules for proper falconry.
In this rulebook, the hunt was praised as an occupation that was very good at banishing sorrow and misfortunes. However, ultimately the Tsar decided that people had started enjoying it too much, and government business was suffering. So at the end of his rulebook, he added a warning: “Do not forget the business of government: there is a time for work, and a time for play.”
- Куда Макар телят не гоняет—Where even Makar won’t take his cows
Literally: very, very far away. Here’s one version of this saying’s provenance. Peter the Great was traveling through Riazan’. He liked to talk to the common people incognito. It so happened that on a certain day, every peasant he met just happened to be named “Makar”. The Tsar was surprised by this, then was reputed to say, “From this day forth, you shall all be called Makar!” From that time, the name “Makar” was used as a catchphrase for “peasant man.”
- Танцевать от печки—To dance from the stove
Strangely enough, this expression means “to act always in the same way, never changing based on newly acquired knowledge.” Funny story. A certain man named Sergei Terebenev returned to Russia after a long absence. When he returned, full of nostalgia, he recalled his childhood memories of taking dance classes.
So he’s standing at the stove, his feet in “position three.” His parents and servants are standing around watching him. The teacher gives the command: “One, two, three.” Sergei does the first step, but loses his beat, and his feet get tangled up.
His father says, “O, what a mess! Well, get back to the stove, start dancing again!”
- Зарубить на носу—To hack at the nose
This one sounds more violent than it actually is. It means to remember something forever. The image that comes to mind is a poor schoolboy that’s standing in front of an angry teacher who threatens him with a finger again and again. The poor boy imagines it’s an axe hacking away at his nose. But that’s not it at all. Actually, a “nose” is a small wooden board notched by illiterate peasants as a way of remembering important tasks.
- Семь пятниц на неделе—Seven Fridays a week
This describes a person who constantly changes his mind. Someone you can’t trust. In old times, Friday was market day. Everyone shopped on a Friday. Friday was the day that the goods arrived, and payment was arranged for the followed market day (Friday). Whoever did not come through with the payment was branded with this expression: “For that guy, it’s seven Fridays a week!”
But there’s a different explanation too. Workers were usually allowed to leave early on a Friday, so a lazy bum was also given this expression. For him, every day was a day off, so to speak.
- Вилами на воде написано—Written on water with a pitchfork
Literally: “a very doubtful event.” There are actually two explanations for this expression. “Vila” (the Russian word for pitchfork) is also another name for Russian mermaids, dangerous spirits who were said to drown young men (they also show up in chapter 3 of my new novel). If you saw them writing on the water, you could be sure that what they wrote would come true.
The second meaning refers to pitchforks as ritual objects used by druids. The three points of the fork were said to symbolize the essence of the god Triglav (literally, three-headed one). Druids would use them to “draw” runes on water as part of their magic rites. Of course, when nothing happened, people started to give the action its opposite meaning.
- Отрезанный ломоть—A cut-off piece of bread
This refers to someone who has become independent—a daughter given to a husband who lives very far away, or a son whose started his own family and never comes to visit his parents.
Interestingly, in old times bread was never cut, because it symbolized life. You should only ever break pieces off. So the expression “cut-off piece of bread” is a real historical oxymoron.
Stay tuned next week for more linguistic madness from the Russians! The original Russian article can be found here.
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