Russian idioms

Russian idioms

How to enrich your speech

Published on Monday, 05 March 2018 and posted in Russian - Beginner
article russian idioms

Speech is a way of communication between people. To make this communication brighter, to express one’s thoughts clearly and tropically, speakers use idioms (фразеологизмы) – phrases or fixed expressions that have a figurative meaning. Sometimes it even turns out to be literal.

Russian idioms incorporated not only native cultural heritage itself, but an experience of other cultures, that influenced Russian language, literature and lifestyle as well. We have selected top-ten most useful for you. By using them, you will certainly make your speech more impressive, and learn a little bit more about Russian way of thinking!


1. Авгиевы конюшни

The Augean Stables.

Hercules, who diverted a river through them, cleaned the stables of Augeas, a legendary king of Elis, which had been left filthy for many years. Used to describe an extremely dirty place. 


2. Аршин проглотил

Literally – looks like has swallowed an arshine.

As stiff as a poker. Turkish word аршин, used for a description of length in one elbow before, has become Russian. Before the revolution in 1917 Russian merchants and artisans used “arshines” – long metal and wooden rulers 71 cm long. Imagine, how shall a person, who swallowed this ruler, look like, and you’ll understand, why people say so about stiff-necked and haughty personalities.


3. Вернемся к нашим баранам

Let’s get back to the meat.

Taken from a humorous translation of the French idiom "revenons à nos moutons" (literally, "let us return to our sheep", which has the same meaning), which itself came from the medieval play “La Farce de Maître Pathelin”. The constable, frustrated with the drunkard's rambling explanation, bade him return to his muttons.


4. Водить за нос

To lead down the garden path.

The Gypsies used to show bears with rings in their noses during various fairs, making them a false promise of scraps of food this way.


5. Волосы дыбом

Something makes one’s hair curl.

“Стоять дыбом” means to stand bolt upright, at attention, on the tip of toes. If one’s hair stands like a mountain, he’s very scared.


6. Игра не стоит свеч

Literally – the game is not worth the candle.

Cake is not worth the candle. An activity or enterprise, that do not warrant the time, money or effort required. This expression, which began as a translation of a term used by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in 1580, alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. If the winnings were not sufficient, they did not warrant the expense. Used figuratively, it was a proverb within a century.


7. Отложить в долгий ящик

To put off to the Greek calends.

This expression could have originated in times of the Grand Duchy of Moscow three hundred years ago, when Tsar Aleksey, the father of Peter I, ordered to install in front of his palace a long box, where everyone could drop his complaint. However, it was rather uneasy to wait for the consideration of complaint, and month and years passed. People renamed this box to “lingering”, “long lasting” – in Russian, it’s долгий.


8. Попасть в переплет

To be in a fine pickle. To be in a hot water.

Переплет is a dialect word for a fish trap, made out of branches. Unpleasant, isn’t it?


9. Ударить в грязь лицом

To disgrace yourself.  

It was shameful to fall down, one’s face in the soil, during the fist-fighting tournament. As for centuries fist fighting was so popular and was such a part of Russian folk life, it occurred frequently in Russian literature and art. A famous phrase in Russian, "Do not hit a man when he's down", has roots in that sport.


 10. Яблоко раздора

A wedge to divide. The apple of discord.

Comes from the Greek mythology. It was a golden apple inscribed "For the fairest". There were goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, to whom Paris awarded it. This began a chain of events that led to the Trojan War.


         Maybe, idioms and proverbs are also the way of communication with the ancestors – so do they share their wisdom and experience, tell their stories. One can notice that by learning Russian idioms and proverbs he or she can learn a lot about Russian history and culture. Moreover, see, how does this heritage speak to us through the time and space. We hope this article was helpful for you and wish you successful studies!

Wishing you all the best and see you soon at LAE School Kiev!