Many people believe Russian to be one of the toughest languages to learn. Yet, whether it has to do with the many remakes of Anna Karenina or with the ubiquitous presence of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the popular imagination, millions of people around the world are keen to learn this language.
Russian is notoriously difficult for native English speakers to learn, but it’s also equally rewarding. Case in point: these Russian idioms you’re about to learn. The Russian language is rife with bizarre, colorful phrases that don’t translate very well to English — even if they do translate to concepts that defy literal explanation.
Funny Russian Phrases
1. Yes no, probably
- Original: Да нет, наверное
- Transliteration: Da net, navernoye
This is an incomprehensible phrase for any foreigner and this is not surprising. Imagine you hear “Yes, no, probably” in English; how would you react? This phrase means “rather no.”
At the beginning of any sentence, the word, “Да,” is used only for emotional underlining of the author’s mood. If you ask some Russian a question, and he answers “Да нет, наверное”, it means “I’m not sure, but rather no than yes”.
- Note: This is very similar to how Australians (Straya!) and New Zealanders (Ey!) say “Yeah, no” or “yeah, nahhh.”
2. Hands do not reach to look
- Original: Руки не доходят посмотреть
- Transliteration: Ruki ne dohodyat posmotret
This phrase also should not be taken literally. “Руки не доходят” literally means “Hands do not reach,” it REALLY means you do not have time to do something. After these 3 words, you can say any verb which will designate the action that you can’t do. In our case “Руки не доходят посмотреть” means that author doesn’t have time to take a look at something.
- For example, I’ve got a project to do but I have no time to take a look at this and finish it, I can say “Руки не доходят посмотреть at this project.”
3. To peel a turnip to some pepper (horseradish)
- Original: Начистить репу какому-то перцу/хрену
- Transliteration: Nachistit’ repu kakomu-to pertsu/hrenu
What does this mean!? First, “Начистить репу” literally means to “To peel a turnip” but the meaning here is “to beat someone” or “punch someone in the face.” In Russian “репа” means turnip but in informal use, it can also mean “face.” The second part, “какому-то перцу/хрену,” literally means “some vegetables pepper or horseradish.” But the true meaning here is this: “Перец” and “хрен” can mean “guys” in informal speech. Young people very often call their friends in this way.
So, if someone in Russia is going to “Начистить репу какому-то перцу/хрену” it means that this person is going to punch someone in the face. Be careful!
4. Hang noodles on the ears
- Original: Вешать лапшу на уши
- Transliteration: Veshat’ lapshu na ushi
“Вешать лапшу на уши” we can’t translate as “Hang noodles on the ears.” Nobody hangs noodles on their ears, of course. There is only one meaning of this phrase – “Lie”. So of someone if “Вешает лапшу на уши” it means he’s lying like a rug.
5. To pull a cat’s tail
- Original: Тянуть кота за хвост
- Transliteration: tyanut’ kota za hvost
This phrase means to procrastinate. It’s also one of my favorite funny Russian phrases because who doesn’t like to procrastinate!?
6. Like herring in the barrel
- Original: Как селедка в бочке
- Transliteration: Kak seledka v bochke
If you are in a crowded place in Russia, or a very crowded train, you can say you feel “Как селедка в бочке” – “like herring in the barrel”. This phrase is funny, but at least it has some logic.
- The English version of this is “like sardines in a can.”
7. Mangle the firewood
- Original: Наломать дров
- Transliteration: Nalomat’ drov
“Наломать дров” – means mess up or screw up. So, if your Russian friend “наломал дров” it means he had a bit too much to drink and did something regrettable!
8. Kill the worm
- Original: Заморить червячка
- Transliteration: Zamorit’ chervyachka
If you want to have a snack, it’s similar to “заморить червячка” in Russia. Basically, this phrase means to satisfy hunger and eat something.
9. Clap ears
- Original: Хлопать ушами
- Transliteration: Hlopat’ ushami
«Хлопать ушами» means to be distracted and inattentive. If someone “хлопает ушами”, he is not paying attention to you.
10. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
- Original: Дарёному коню в зубы не смотрят
- Transliteration: Daryonomu konyu v zubi ne smotriat
This phrase translates to a familiar saying, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Horses’ teeth tell a lot about their age and checking its teeth is especially important before buying a horse. The idiom implies: Don’t find fault in the gift, take whatever it is and be grateful (because you’re getting a gift, not buying a horse).
11. Take off your eyes
- Original: Разуй глаза!
- Transliteration: Razyi glaza!
Russians use body features especially eyes to describe several situations. Literally, this saying means to take off your eyes. However, in Russian it is used to tell someone to pay attention or bringing to notice of something behind the scene.
- People use this phrase as the equivalent of, “Don’t you see what’s going around? Use your eyes!”
12. A horse did not roll around
- Original: Конь не валялся
- Transliteration: Kon’ ne valyalsya
“A horse did not roll around,” the said phrase means that the things that should have been done are not even started yet.
The Russian peasants had a habit of giving some time for the horses to lie down before starting work. In due time, the horses would stretch their muscles. Hence, the delay in starting work gave rise to this expression.
13. The nail of the program
- Original: Гвоздь программы
- Transliteration: Gvozd’ programmi
This phrase has a funny translation: “The nail of the program.” Russians use this expression to describe something or someone that was the highlight of the show. Reminiscent of how in English, youngsters would say – so-and-so nailed it!
People believe that the expression stems from the 1889 World Fair in Paris. The schedule of this fair coincided with the opening ceremony of the great Eiffel Tower (to many, Eiffel Tower looked like a nail at that time). The phrase was probably coined by the media, created a sensation, and gave birth to this crisp expression.
14. After a rain on Thursday
- Original: После дождичка в четверг
- Transliteration: Posle dozhdichka v chetverg
This is another saying which means “Never.” But it literally translates to “After a rain on Thursday.”
“Когда рак на горе свистнет” has also the same meaning and is translated as “When a crayfish whistles on the mountain.” The meaning of both phrases is based on broken logic–the crayfish cannot whistle, and there might be no rain on Thursday at all. Therefore, both expressions are used to describe events that are most likely never going to come to pass. Pretty colorful, right?
15. There is no place for an apple to fall down
- Original: Яблоку негде упасть
- Transliteration: Yabloku negde upast’
The actual meaning of the phrase is that there is no space or the place is full.
16. Not in one tooth with a foot
- Original: Ни в зуб ногой
- Transliteration: Ni v zub nogoi
The phrase translates to “Not in one tooth with a foot.” As the imagery would suggest, it describes a sense of being gauche, of not knowing anything about a particular matter.
17. Something with something
- Original: Что-то с чем-то
- Transliteration: Shto-to s chem-to
This is an indicative phrase for something remarkable. Russians use this phrase to express that something is outstanding or superlative.
18. To make an elephant out of a fly
- Original: Делать из мухи слона
- Transliteration: Delat’ iz muhi slona
Meaning: This is essentially the Russian version of “make a mountain out of a molehill.”
19. There’s no truth in your feet
- Original: В ногах правды нет
- Transliteration: V nogah pravdy net
Direct translation: There’s no truth in standing on your feet. This is something people often say as a gesture of hospitality. Basically, you’re encouraging someone to sit down and make themselves at home.
20. Under a dog’s tail
- Original: Псу под хвост
- Transliteration: Psu pod hvost
This last phrase in our funny Russian phrases means “something was in vain.” In other words, whatever was done went to waste, had no effect or was pointless. It’s like whatever comes form “under a dogs tail.”
Nice! Now you know some funny Russian phrases. These are used in daily life and are NOT dry, textbook phrases. So, if you use them, you’ll definitely impress native speakers.
Russia is known for its long dreary winters and the gloomy views of some of its most popular novelists. What we skip seeing in the cliché is the humor and wit buried in Russian everyday expressions. Idioms are always important for learning any language because they give us a rather precious glimpse into how a tradition of sayings passed down makes for an outlook in life. And in the “outlook” reflected in some of these funny Russian phrases, you find a good dose of humor and humility.