Idioms are the crème de la crème for the beauty of the language and the bitter part of learning it. A first-class way to memorize an expression is to explore the story behind it. This way, one connects the dots between the seemingly nonsensical word combinations and learns more about the history and culture of the country that shapes the language in many ways.
Russian idioms can be a tough cookie. Some of the stories behind them are quite dramatic, but the metaphors themselves will make you laugh. Here are the 10 funniest Russian idioms.
Before we begin, to memorize the expressions better and have some along the way, try to guess their meaning before reading through the explanations:
It's not a secret that learning and speaking French was a massive trend in Russia in the 17th-19th century. As usually happens in the process of learning the language, there were some words borrowed and some hilarious mistakes made.
1. Не в своей тарелке / not in your own plate
[ne f svoei tar'elk'e]
If you feel uneasy or are not in the mood, someone in Russia will say, "It seems like you are not on your own plate." This idiom was born out of a silly translation mistake.
French word assiette can be translated as a plate. However, as a part of an expression etre dans son assiette or to be in an unenviable position, it changes its meaning. One unlucky Russian translator of the 19th century didn't take this into account and translated "Pal, you are in an unenviable plate" instead of "position."
2. Вешать лапшу на уши / to hang noodles on the ears
[veshat' lapshy na ushi]
It is very unpleasant when someone hangs noodles on your ears both literally and metaphorically. Either way, they disrespect you, since metaphorically, when someone is hanging noodles on your ears means they are lying or trying to trick you. But what do noodles have to do with lies?
The story of this expression again dates back to the times when the language of France was trendy in the Russian empire. The pickpockets of the time liked to call themselves la poche (a pocket in French). The pronunciation of the word reminds a lot of the Russian name for noodles - lapsha. From here, lapsha symbolized trickery of sorts. Naturally, if someone makes you listen to lies, they are hanging lapsha on your ears.
Russian is filled with idioms related to the different body parts. And in this list nose is taking center stage:
3. Зарубить на носу / to make a notch on one's nose
[zarubit' na nosu]
Making a notch on your nose will definitely be an unpleasant but memorable experience. However, please don't take it so literally.
In Medieval Russia, people were actually making notches on the nose to remember things. But that wasn't the nose you are thinking about. The nose was also a name for a small wooden tablet illiterate people were carrying around and making notches on them to make a note about something important.
4. Клевать носом / to peck with one's nose
Everyone probably experienced falling asleep seated at least once in life. Now, remember, what usually happens at that moment? Your head starts to slowly lower as the sleep overpowers and abruptly lifts up as you begin to wake up, this is a repetitive movement.
This movement reminds a lot of the movement birds make with their beak (or nose) when they peck at the grain.
5. Водить за нос / to lead someone by the nose
[vodit' za nos]
When someone is hanging noodles on your ears, they are also leading the person by the nose. The latter idiom is yet another way to say that an individual is making promises without an intention to act on them or tries to deceive.
This expression has its roots in the old tradition of Sunday markets in Russia. One of the most popular entertainments during the fairs was a gypsy performance with bears. The handler was leading the bear by a nose ring, and miserable animals were performing different tricks in exchange for treats. Mostly they were teased by the edible gifts but never received them.
The origin of the idiom is not a funny one. But if you actually imagine being led by the nose by someone, the corners of your mouth will no doubt lift.
6. Дать зуб / to give a tooth
Are you ready to give up a tooth for the truth? Don't worry, no dentist is involved! This is just one of the crazy idioms from the Russian language. It states that a person swears their words to be true so much so that they are ready to sacrifice a tooth as proof.
Don't see much value in a tooth, especially if you only have milk teeth? That was, however, not the case for the Russians back in the day. Dentists were expensive and rare, but even more costly and scarce were the golden crowns that had an actual market value. People would actually put a bet on these crowns.
7. Руки не доходят посмотреть / the hands cannot walk to watch
[ruki n'e dokhod'at posmotret']
This idiom is unanimously considered the funniest and the hardest to comprehend by many Russian learners. Why do hands walk, and what does it have to do with the eyes?!
When one's hands cannot walk to do something, this person does not have time to do it. This idiom was influenced by medieval Russian fashion. All the festive clothes at that time had extremely long sleeves, up to 3 meters for the higher class, while the uniform was characterized by rolled-up sleeves. Makes sense, since when the sleeves are long, it is hard for one's hands to reach something or metaphorically "to walk" --- makes "hands cannot walk."
The idiom becomes especially ridiculous when talking about watching something. If a person does not have time to watch a favorite TV series, his/her hands cannot walk to do it.
The animal kingdom also made its way into the list of the funniest Russian idioms:
8. Делать из мухи слона / to make an elephant out of a fly
[d'elat' iz mukhi slona]
We are all magicians in a way, we all can turn flies into elephants. Have you tried it? Last time you were catastrophizing or made a big deal out of nothing, you transformed a fly into an elephant!This idiom came to Russia from ancient Greece, where it was first used around 125 AD. The origin is unclear, but evidence suggests a fly (Mukha) competed with a mosquito (Komar) for the right to be a part of the expression. It would make sense, a mosquito is even smaller in size. But the time and eloquence decided the fate of the idiom: "Mukha" sounded better in the expression.
9. Показать, где раки зимуют / to show someone where the crayfish spend winter
[pokazat' gd'e raki zirnuyut]
If one wants to scold or intimidate another person, they say, "I'll show you where the crayfish spend winter." But what's so scary about this place?
There is nothing scary there for the animal. But the servants of Russian nobility were intimidated by the crayfishes’ hibernation place in the past. Crayfish was one of the most exquisite meals and available year-round. To get the delicacy from the bottom of a lake, peasants spent hours with their hands in freezing water. The task was indeed considered a punishment.
10. Заморить червячка / to under feed the little worm
Be sure, no worms were harmed in the creation of this idiom! To underfeed the little worm means that you have a quick bite or a snack, typically, before you can have an actual full meal. While nowadays this expression sounds funny, it came out of fear that some uneducated medieval Russian workers had.
Back in the day, the knowledge of biology was very scarce, and people understood what hunger is. Still, they could not fully grasp its biological background. Meanwhile, the food was minimal, and even the healthy appetite was, in a way, an inconvenience. So some believed that when they are starving, it must be some worms or, perhaps, parasites in the gut that caused the hunger, that hunger did not come from the person. And for the craving to disappear, they need to feed the little worm.
BONUS: Э, а я!? / Hey, and me!?
[e, a ya]
This expression is something we cannot really even call an idiom. But it is impossible to leave it out of the list: in what other languages can you make a complete sentence out of three consonants?
э is an interjection and means hey
а is single letter conjunction as in and
я means me
These make, Hey, and me!? or Э, а я!?
How did you do with guessing the meanings of the idioms? Which one did you find the most hilarious? Share with us in the comments - this will improve memorization even further!