The intricacies of language (or, Russian idioms)

Here's a picture of my two favorite Russians. The bigger one is more likely to use strange Russian idioms.

Here’s a picture of my two favorite Russians. The bigger one is more likely to use strange Russian idioms.

I wrote this a few days ago, so don’t think I’ve been typing away thinking today. Instead, imagine me comatose and whiney, and in bed with a fever, deliriously cursing this weird weather that’s happening in Moscow (and in VA, too!).

I have a business English class that just started a new, advanced-level book. For those of you who don’t know, business English classes are actually a level more difficult than general English; for example, an intermediate level business student would be at the level of an upper-intermediate general English student. Suffice to say, these students of mine are really high-level.

I actually really enjoy teaching low-level classes, but there’s something to be said about having a class where you can basically speak freely to the students (and they can return the favor). What’s especially fun is teaching them new phrases or idioms. Since their English is so good, they know most standard English and they’re ready to start learning the nuances.

Now, after three years of teaching, I’m used to “teacher speak” and I don’t have to think too much about speaking simply as it just naturally happens. But sometimes with this advanced class, it’s fun to slip in some strange expressions and watch them frantically flick through their notes to see if this weirdness has been explained before. (We do a lot of idioms — their personal favorite, or the one they can usually remember,  is “it’s raining cats and dogs.”)

This got me thinking about all the fun Russian idioms that I hear quite often and was utterly confused by the first few hundred times I heard them. So here’s a brief list. Learn them and then you’ll have a new party trick!


Близок локоток, да не укусишь (Blizok  lokotok, da ne ukusish’)
Lit. The elbow is close, but you can’t bite it.
It’s not as easy as it looks.

Лить как из ведра (Lit’ kak iz vedra)
Lit. To pour as if from a bucket
To rain cats and dogs.

Век живи — век учись (Vek zhivi — vek uchis’)
Lit. Live a century — study a century

Лучшие ножки во Франции, если побрить и выпрямить (Luchiye nozhki vo Frantsii, yesli pobrit’ i vypryamit’)
Lit. The best legs in France, if you shave and straighten them
An unattractive woman.

Любовь зла – полюбишь и козла (Lyubov’ zla — polyubish’ i kozla)
Lit. Love is cruel — you’ll fall in love with a goat.
Love is blind, I guess?

Every language has its own set of outrageous idioms and phrases. I’m not sure which I enjoy more — learning new, confusing phrases or confusing non-native English speakers when I use them in English…


  1. Век живи – век учись …
    Иногда говорят “Век живи – век учись, а дураком помрешь” (Я думаю, что Вы переведете это лучше меня :) )
    Small cartoon that can’t be trusted “conventional wisdom”

  2. “a fool can never be cured” — ни разу не слышала, но (к сожалению) это правильно))

    спасибо за мультфильм!

    1. >>“a fool can never be cured”
      О-о-о!! Тут масса вариантов!
      “Дурака учить – что мертвого лечить”
      “Пьяный проспится – дурак никогда”
      “Дурная голова ногам покоя не даёт.”
      “Дурное дело – не хитрое.”

      Вообще, на Руси дураков любят.
      Еще Петр Великий говорил “Подчиненный, перед лицом начальствующим, должен иметь вид лихой и слегка придурковатый, дабы разумением своим не смущать начальство.”

  3. There are so many of those idioms!
    There are even the particular class of jokes that make fun of idioms.
    For example, normal idiom: “Что посеешь, то и пожнёшь”. (You reap what you saw).
    Joke idiom: “Что посмеешь, то и пожмёшь” (You squeeze what you dare to) :)

    1. Haha, it was in some Russian phrasebook — I can’t attest to how much it’s used, but I like it. And it was one of the… more polite phrases I could use as an example :)

  4. In my time in Erdenet, I have learned exactly one Russian idiom – which I would have had occasion to use, had I been in any state to remember it at the time: этому столику больиле не наливнть. The Russian friend translated it as “this table no more pour” and explained it as “no more vodka, or I’ll pass out on the table.”
    Except these friends don’t like vodka, so it was “homebrew,” the Russian word for which I (unsurprisingly) can’t recall.

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