Russian Sayings and Idioms That Confuse Americans

Editor's note: Kristin Savage is interested in writing and planning to publish her own book in the nearest future. Also, she has been a reviewer at Pick Writers. for a few years and is known for her thorough approach to accurately assess newcomer translation services. You can find her on Facebook.

Learning a language is so much more than mastering the grammar or having a rich vocabulary. Every language is tied to a specific culture which adds so much to the nature of the language. This is why, when learning a foreign language, you need to know a little something about the culture of the people speaking it. The same goes for Russian.

One of the hardest things for language learners to learn and understand are sayings and idioms. There are so many Russian sayings that confuse Americans trying to learn the language. This is because sayings are culture-bound, and without proper context, we can't seem to understand their meaning. Let’s try and break down some of the Russian confusing sayings, and see what they actually mean.

1. “That’s where the dog’s buried.”

Idiom

Let’s start with a phrase you can commonly hear the Russians use. “Вот где собака зарыта” sounds quite strange to a foreigner since the literal translation makes no sense. But, the saying makes perfect sense for Russians. You use it to say you’ve finally found the answer to a question, a riddle, or a problem that’s been bugging you. You could translate it like this: - So that’s the solution/answer!”

2. “An uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar.”

Saying

When you hear a Russian saying “Незваный гость хуже татарина“, you might be pretty confused. To understand this saying, you need to know a thing or two about Russians and Tatars. The Russians and the Tatars were at war for a long period of time, fighting for supremacy over certain territories. So, the saying is above states that no one likes an uninvited guest, even though sometimes we might pretend we’re glad when someone comes unannounced. You can interpret it like this: - "A person who just comes to your house without calling first is worse than bloodshed."

3. “Work’s not a wolf—it won’t run to the woods.”

Saying

This saying is about procrastinating. If you have some work to do, you’ll have to do it eventually. The work won’t disappear and someone else won’t do it for you. So, it’s better to stop delaying and get right to work. We can translate the saying “Работа не волк—в лес не убежит”, according to a Benjamin Franklin quote: - “Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.”

4. “After the rain on Thursday.”

Idiom

The Russian saying “После дождичка в четверг" can be quite confusing since there is no logic in it when translating it literarily. "Literal translations of sayings hardly ever make sense. You need to learn the hidden meaning to start using the saying properly" says Elisa Abbott a translator at Pick Writers who’s trying to learn Russian. So, this saying actually means: - “It’s never going to happen.”

5. “Love is evil. It will make you fall in love with a goat.”

Saying

Another strange saying which might get you a bit confused is “Любовь зла. Полюбишь и козла.” This is a saying about love and how it can make us completely blind. When we fall in love, we can't think rationally. We can fall in love with the wrong person. It means: - “Love is blind.”

6. “Don’t blame a mirror for your ugly face.”

Saying

It sounds a bit cruel, and we might agree that it is. This saying is used to tell someone they shouldn’t blame others for their mistakes or shortcomings. So, “Нечего нa зеркало пенять, коль рожа крива” could be translated to an English saying: - “A bad workman blames his tools.”

7. “The horse did not roll.”

Idiom

When you ask a Russian person something like: Is everything ready for the party? you might get the answer “Конь не валялся”. The literal translation to “The horse did not roll” would mean nothing to you. But, the actual meaning of this saying is: - “I didn’t even start although I should’ve finished by now”.

8. “Don’t make an elephant out of a fly.”

Saying

The Russian saying “Не делай из мухи слона” is used in a situation when someone has an exaggerated reaction regarding any situation or event. You use it to tell someone to stop overreacting or stop the drama. It's similar to our saying: - “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”

9. “An old friend is better than two new friends.”

Saying

In Russia, friendship is an important thing. You need to cherish your true friends and make sure you nourish the quality relationships. The saying “Старый друг лучше новых двух” is like a warning that you shouldn’t neglect your old friends for just any new person that you meet. The translation is: - “Cherish and respect your old friendships.”

10. “Hold your tail as a weapon.”

Idiom

Another saying which is quite confusing and strange for Americans is “Держи хвост пистолетом”. There's no explanation of how this phrase became a saying. But, there is an explanation for its meaning. It means: - “Never give up.” We could say this to an American trying to learn Russian.

11. “When you rush, you make people laugh.”

Saying

This saying is used to tell someone to slow down, or else they might make a stupid mistake. “Поспешишь - людей насмешишь.” has the same meaning as: - “Only fools rush in.” It’s used as a warning.

12. “Measure seven times, cut once.”

Saying

Finally, this common saying is used to remind someone to be cautious and not hasty. You can say “Семь раз отмерь, один раз отрежь” to someone who’s not thinking before making a move. The English equivalent would be: - “Look before you leap.”

Takeaway

Understanding the culture of a people is one of the crucial parts of learning a second language. Sayings can teach you a lot about the people, and help you blend with the natives better. The Russian sayings above may have been confusing before, but now you know exactly what they mean. Keep learning Russian and find a new saying every day


Russian Proverbs and Sayings.

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